Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our manifesto commitment was for a Bill in this Parliament, and I am confident that we will deliver that. Our White Paper, the precursor to the Bill, was published in March.
I am grateful to the Minister, but could he possibly expand a little on the reasons for the delay? Several environmental groups are campaigning for the Bill, and the Minister must be more forthcoming as to what the problem is. Does he think it important that the devolved Administrations should introduce a piece of legislation to run in parallel with his proposed Bill?
There is not a problem. Governments are elected for five years, and we are just two years into this Parliament. I fully appreciate that many organisations, individuals and Members of this House would like a Bill as soon as possible, but I want to ensure that we get a good Bill instead of moving unnecessarily fast. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the importance of the engagement of the devolved Administrations. I hope that the new Administrations in Scotland and Wales will engage positively in furthering the legislation and that it will not get bogged down in unnecessary discussions about the devolutionary settlement.
Langstone harbour in my constituency has a thriving commercial wharf that imports about 500,000 tonnes of recycled aggregate. There is a sewage treatment plant at the top of the harbour and a storm water outfall at its mouth. The harbour is an important breeding ground for gulls and terns, and has a thriving marine leisure industry. Does my hon. Friend accept that we will need a strong regulatory body in the Bill in order to manage those conflicting interests?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The situation that she describes in her constituency is a good example of why we badly need to modernise our marine legislation. She correctly outlines the diverse interests and pressures on the marine environment and why it is so important that we develop the marine Bill in a comprehensive way to deliver all the economic and environmental benefits to places such as Portsmouth, for which she fights so strongly.
Will the Government use the marine Bill as an opportunity to review the operation of the Crown Estate Commissioners as owners of the seabed? May I suggest to the Minister that there is a contradiction between a sustainable management regime for marine resources and the owner and operator of the seabed being a landlord whose statutory duty is to maximise the financial return to the Treasury?
We all want sustainable development of our marine environment. We want a Bill that does not damage economic prospects, particularly in areas such as renewable energy, but that at the same time preserves the environment. I see no conflict whatever as regards the role of the Crown Estate Commissioners; in fact, we have worked closely with them on the development of the marine White Paper, and I am sure that we will continue to do so as the legislation comes before the House.
Do not we need fully to protect our inland waters? The Marine Conservation Society points out that full protection from damaging, and potentially damaging, activities is in place in the UK only around Lundy island—an area of about 3 sq km, or 0.002 per cent. of the area that needs protection. Will the Minister liaise closely with the society to promote and extend the very limited area of protection that we have at the moment?
Yes; the society gave a warm welcome to the White Paper when it was published. The Bill will make it easier to develop a network of marine protected areas around our coasts such as that which my hon. Friend describes. That does not mean that we are being inactive in the meantime, but the new legislative tools that the Bill will provide will help us to give the protection that he seeks.
Given the continuing decline in species and habitats in UK waters and the hugely complicated and ineffectual measures that are in place to protect them, may I confirm for the Minister that we strongly support the introduction of a marine Bill? Indeed, we have done so for several years. The consultation on the marine White Paper ends on 8 June. Surely that allows enough time for a marine Bill to be introduced in the next Queen’s Speech. I know that we need to get it right, but no one could accuse the Government of acting with undue haste.
Equally the hon. Gentleman will understand that no Government ever give a commitment about what will be in the Queen’s Speech before any measure is actually in the Queen’s Speech, so he would not expect me to do that. He is wrong to paint a picture of catastrophic decline in all our marine environment. Some of it is doing especially well. Of course, some fish stocks are over-exploited and we take steps to tackle that wherever can. However, the seas around many parts of our coastline are in better shape than at any time since before the industrial revolution. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.
I am pleased to tell the House that, after several years of talks, agreement was reached at an EU Council meeting last Monday week on new rules to improve the welfare of meat chickens. The United Kingdom played a crucial role in securing that agreement and in preventing a minority of countries, led by France, from watering it down.
They will be, but they already exceed the requirements because, by their nature, free-range chickens do not live in the sort of stocking densities that the regulation is designed to secure. The regulation is about protecting chickens that are not free range to ensure that the stocking densities are good and other welfare considerations are met. My hon. Friend will also be pleased to know that the UK has the highest proportion of free-range and organic chicken production of any EU member state. I am sure that he and the House welcome that.
May I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) about free-range chickens? On chickens that cannot roam around farms but remain in very large sheds with artificial light, I understand that the European Commission was recently going to make a statement about requiring UK farms to increase the pulse of stun guns, given that many of those chickens are not fully stunned and therefore suffer.
I am afraid that I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman about stun guns. We constantly review the welfare of not only chickens but all animals at slaughter. We have made considerable progress in recent years, but I shall have to write to the hon. Gentleman, if he does not mind, to clarify the detail of the required voltage of the stun guns.
The Minister will understand that the welfare of broiler chickens and animals in general is affected by good investment in appropriate agricultural buildings. What representations did the Department make about the removal of the agricultural buildings allowance, especially the short phasing-out period of four years? It will clearly affect farming’s ability to invest in good-quality buildings for high standards of animal welfare.
The right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, will know that we already have high standards of broiler welfare in this country. Our poultry industry was keen for there to be a level playing field throughout the European Union—that is one of the reasons for its support of the agreement. It will not affect our industry and the quality of its buildings. However, I understand that the right hon. Gentleman refers to an independent report by Lyons. It is not part of my responsibility, but I shall look into the matter and write to him.
Our compliance with the EU emissions trading scheme has been excellent and is worth some 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2005 to2007. Phase 2 is set to deliver an additional 29 million tonnes of carbon reduction every year. The scheme is a key part of our strategy for tackling CO2 emissions to meet our long-term goal of at least a 60 per cent. reduction on 1990 levels by 2050. We are also working with other countries that want to develop similar approaches.
I certainly will. This morning, I had meetings with the premiers of two Australian states—South Australia and Victoria. They are pushing hard for the development of Australian schemes that are based on the cap and trade system that we have used in Europe. It was interesting to hear from them that they want an Australian scheme, or a state-by-state scheme in Australia, to follow the European model. They want not necessarily to join the EU scheme but to create the possibility of enabling the schemes to be linked. That is a positive development. In the United States, as well as Australia and elsewhere, an urgent debate is taking place about how those countries develop their own schemes and expand the range of industries that are involved. I know that my hon. Friend is interested in that.
My constituents tell me that they are a little cynical about the trading schemes. They are anxious that people might be able to use them in order to make a few bob or get rich quick. What assurances can the Secretary of State give my constituents on this matter and can he assure me that people who abuse the system will be dealt with severely?
My hon. Friend raises two important points. The first guarantee is by making sure that there is a proper carbon price. She will know that at the moment the carbon price for phase 1 of the emissions trading scheme is €1 or below, which is not the sort of price that we need. However, it is very significant that for the period 2008 to 2012 carbon is trading at €19.5 to €20 a tonne—a much steadier and more significant price.
Secondly, my hon. Friend refers to the importance of offsetting schemes genuinely reducing the amount of carbon dioxide. She will agree that Government standards are important in that area, although the Government obviously do not run all the schemes. When we in DEFRA produced a standard earlier this year, on which we are currently consulting, we found that 56 of the 60 available schemes did not currently meet the standards that we wanted. Only four did; all the details are on the DEFRA website. We certainly want to move to a situation in which anyone offsetting their emissions knows with confidence that it will lead to genuine emissions reduction around the world.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that any carbon trading scheme will and should benefit indirectly those who efficiently manufacture methods and systems that enable us to deliver renewable energy very cheaply? May I therefore thank through him the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment for yesterday meeting me and representatives of Converteam, a renewables manufacturer in my constituency? Will the Secretary of State undertake to do all he can with the Government to ensure that those who are able to produce renewables technologies efficiently are encouraged by the standards that the Government set and by any other support that can be given?
I am always delighted to congratulate my ministerial team on the excellence of their meetings and their performance. I also like to congratulate British companies that are developing in new markets. It is striking that environmental industries are now one of the fastest growing sectors in the UK economy, with 500,000 people currently working in environmental industries as compared with just 175,000 five years ago. I will not pre-empt next week’s discussions on energy, which I am sure will be heated—not too heated, I hope—and robust. However, the point about incentives for new technologies is being discussed in the context of the renewables obligation, and I very much hope that we can ensure that this country is at the forefront of renewables technology.
Given that the range of estimates for the social and environmental cost of carbon is anything from a minimum in the Stern review of €25 up to €70 or so, and even though we have seen a welcome tightening of the price, as the Secretary of State says, at €18 in the second phase, the reality is that as we came into the Chamber this morning the current price for the current phase was 31 cents per tonne, which sends out a pretty appalling signal. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Council needs to try to tighten the price in the current phase as well as deal with the next phase? Is, indeed, the tightness of the next phase adequate, and what measures is he urging on his colleagues in the Council to improve the scheme?
The tightness of the next phase will be clear only when all allocations have been agreed with all countries. As the hon. Gentleman will know, that has not yet been done, so it would be ridiculous for me to reach a conclusion now. What I can say is that the European Commission’s determination to ensure that, for every country, the allocation is, first, below the current level of emissions and, secondly, in line with the Kyoto commitments is exactly the sort of tough negotiation and decision making that we wanted from the Commission and that has been urged on it on a cross-party basis over the past few years. I think that it is a good example. The Commission, which oversaw the first phase of the scheme where there were genuine problems, deserves credit for delivering what is now the world’s most effective carbon market—the second phase of the EU emissions trading scheme. Given that it covers half of all emissions in this country, the fact that we have a tighter scheme with the price going only in one direction should be applauded.
Will the Secretary of State continue to resist the attempts of some European countries to oppose the tighter national allocation plans on carbon levels in phase 2? Will he also examine the potential for a sector-by-sector scheme to recognise the different basic carbon potential for different sectors of industry, so that one does not suffer in relation to another?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The short answer to the first part of his question is yes. We need to keep urging the European Commission to take a tough line with any country that is trying to have slack allocations. He will be aware that this Government have decided that any sector exposed to international competition should be protected from any burdens that are imposed. However, his point about sectoral agreements is important, particularly in the light of the international negotiations that will reach a peak in June at the G8 plus 5 meeting and in December at the United Nations meeting in Indonesia. One of the items that the Government have put on the agenda is to consider, if developing countries are not yet ready to take on binding emissions reduction targets, sectoral schemes that can take a global role in ensuring that all sectors are playing their appropriate part in emissions reduction.
In the light of the United States’ failure to sanction a federal emissions trading scheme, and of Angela Merkel’s frank admission yesterday that pre-negotiations with the United States on the G8 summit are going very badly, with the United States not even accepting the 2°C target for global warming, has the Minister asked the Prime Minister to use his farewell love-in with George W. Bush to pressure him to accept the 2°C target? Will he also back the German Government in insisting on that target?
The Prime Minister does not need my instructions, because he has his own determination to work with the United States and seek to persuade its Administration that a central role by America in the global drive to reduce emissions is essential, and that America has not only a lot to contribute but a lot to gain from being part of the emissions reduction drive. We have two or three weeks before the G8 plus 5 summit. The fact that American states and cities are moving as fast as they are, and that American business is now demanding a federal response, makes it right to say that it is a matter of when, not if, the United States becomes part of the global deal, and the sooner the better.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the scheme must be credible and tied to the Kyoto targets. What consideration has been given in Europe to using auctions for the allowances in the next phase, and to having a back-stop price related to the cost of carbon abatement?
My hon. Friend speaks with some expertise on these matters. Significant consideration has been given to auctioning, although it is for each national Government to decide the level of auctioning that will take place. In this country, it will be 7 per cent. There is a widespread view that the use of auctioning is an important part of the future of the scheme, and it is significant that the European Commission should now be encouraging nation states to take that forward. Phase 3 of the scheme will be under discussion soon and, given the united UK position across business, non-governmental organisations and Government on the EU ETS manifesto, I believe that we shall see further discussion of the issue that my hon. Friend has raised.
Legislation requiring an increasing proportion of packaging to be recycled and outlawing excessive packaging is helping to reduce packaging. The supermarkets have agreed voluntary measures to reduce packaging. We will announce further measures shortly when we publish our new waste strategy.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I have received correspondence from a constituent, Chris James, who has recently come back from a family holiday in America, where he compared shopping in Wal-mart in America with shopping in his local supermarket in Swansea. He was particularly struck by the fact that in America there was so little packaging and that all the fresh produce was displayed with a minimum of packaging. When he got back home, he noticed a significant difference in the amount that he had to dispose of or recycle. Will the Minister speak to the supermarkets with a view to reaching an agreement on some kind of standardisation for packaging? We need to encourage them to take these steps.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: the experience of her constituent in the United States mirrors that of many people who travel to other countries and find that produce is not so heavily packaged as they are used to here. We are in constant touch with the supermarkets on this issue, and we have seen a new will on their part to address the problem. One or two of them have not only signed up to the agreement to which I referred, but are going further in reducing and minimising packaging. We shall pay close attention to that issue when we publish our new waste strategy shortly.
The Minister will know, however, that supermarkets are not exactly forthcoming in dealing with regulations: we need only think of the way that they are hammering the dairy industry and the farming industry generally. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) raises an important point, because we do suffer from far too much packaging. I commend to the House the initiative of Waitrose in not handing out plastic bags for the next week or two. That is a good start, because our streets are littered with totally unnecessary plastic bags.
Personally, I would rather that Waitrose never handed out a disposable bag again, and I think that all other retailers should adopt the same policy. Those in this country that have adopted the policy have seen a dramatic fall in the issue of one-way disposable bags—not just plastic but other bags. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the fact that, a couple of months ago, we got the supermarkets to sign up to an agreement to reduce the environmental impact of all disposable bags by 25 per cent. over the next two years. Consumers also have a role, and he and other Members may like to reflect on their behaviour as consumers in relation to packaging and bags, to complain to retailers and to make it clear that packaging is sometimes excessive.
The issue is reducing not just the amount of packaging but the materials used in that packaging. Many councils will not recycle much plastic packaging. Is there pressure on supermarkets to think about using the type of packaging that can be easily recycled in preference to that which cannot?
Yes, there is. A slight misconception exists, because the vast majority of plastics used by supermarkets are recyclable, but the recycling of plastics around the country, from local authority to local authority, is patchy. Some local authorities that got the recycling bug later have concentrated on other materials that help them improve their figures more quickly. We are mindful of the issue, and we will consider it closely when we publish our new waste strategy.
As well as wanting the physical volume of packaging reduced, consumers want to know the carbon footprint of packaged products that they buy. So far, however, that approach seems totally beyond the ambition of the Government. Part of the problem, as the Green Alliance has noted, is that no single body is driving progress in this area. Will the Minister therefore consider constructively the submission of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment to the Conservative quality of life policy review—[Interruption.] It would be helpful if the Minister calmed down a little and listened to the question; it is Question Time, after all. Can that submission calling for an independent packaging watchdog be considered constructively, so that real progress can be made in this area?
I always want to consider interesting and constructive ideas. It may have passed the hon. Gentleman’s notice, although not that of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made such an announcement at the Oxford farming conference earlier this year. The difficulty in relation to the carbon footprint of different foodstuffs is that we simply do not have the evidence base yet to introduce a credible system that would be adopted by all the retailers. Retailers are also interested in the issue, and we are working with all of them to try to agree a standard measurement, so that we avoid the problem, which was mentioned earlier, of having a plethora of carbon offsetting schemes but no real standard in which consumers can have confidence. We have wanted to introduce such a scheme for a long time, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has now jumped on the bandwagon.
Standards are one thing—and I welcome what the Secretary of State said in his Oxford speech—but we still need an independent regulator with real teeth. We have the Waste and Resources Action Programme, for example, but that is working with the industry, not policing it. Currently, responsibility is split between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Who will be responsible for enforcement and making sure that progress happens?
The hon. Gentleman is calling for more red tape. We are confident that, just as we have used independent advice to come up with a standard for carbon offsetting, it would be perfectly possible to use independent advice, based on independent research, to come up with a good carbon footprint scheme for foodstuffs. However, we do not need a new independent regulatory body to police it. That is a ludicrous idea. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman have a word with his right hon. Friend the Member for—
No, not the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I have forgotten the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I am not allowed to use his name in the Chamber. Anyway, I think he would be very concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that we need yet another regulatory body to regulate something that—[Hon. Members: “Wokingham!] Yes, I meant the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He would be very concerned about the idea of establishing yet another regulatory body to regulate something that we are perfectly capable of regulating ourselves.
May I declare an interest, as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the packaging manufacturing industry? I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the requirements and needs for some of the packaging that we use. I agree with my hon. Friends that fresh produce should not need packaging—except, of course, when consumers want to shop weekly at a supermarket, and want the produce that they buy to last for more than two or three days. Therefore, there is a requirement for certain types of packaging for the purposes of hygiene and labelling, and to keep produce fresh. Will my hon. Friend use his good offices and try to find time for a full-scale debate in the House, in Government time, so that some of these issues can be discussed and we can avoid some of the recent campaigns in, for instance, the Daily Mail—
You have made very well the point that I was about to make, Mr. Speaker. We have spent a considerable amount of time on the subject of packaging, and quite right too.
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House, and some in the media, that some packaging is good for the environment. Food does not go to waste that would otherwise go to waste, which in itself would be wasteful. However, other Members are right to say that there needs to be a balance. Enough of us come across enough examples of produce that is over-packaged to make it important for retailers and legislators to address the issue.
Climate Change (Air Travel)
The best way available in which to tackle the climate-change impact of aviation is to bring it within the EU emissions trading scheme. However, we continue to explore and discuss the use of other economic instruments, within Government, with stakeholders and with other countries.
Let me say first that I am very sad that the Secretary of State decided not to stand for the leadership of his party. [Interruption.] I think there are other members of the Labour party who think the same, but let me turn to more substantive issues. Does the Minister agree that emissions from aviation are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, rising potentially from 5 per cent. today to a possible 25 per cent. by 2030? What changes does he think should be introduced to make aviation play its part in helping to tackle rising carbon dioxide emissions?
I agree that aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, but it is not just a question of carbon dioxide emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the non-carbon dioxide impact of aviation is two to four times as great as the carbon dioxide impact. That is why the Government have been leading the way in bringing aviation into the EU emissions trading scheme, and why we strongly back the proposals that have emerged from the European Commission, which by 2020 could save 183 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.
I think that it will be the Labour movement that, in time, will be sad that the Secretary of State did not stand for the leadership of the Labour party.
In February this year the Government increased air passenger duty, but it has been described by one of the Government’s own members as
“a blunt instrument…not…designed for environmental ends.”
Can the Minister tell us when the Government will tackle the issue properly?
I accept that air passenger duty may not be the most effective policy instrument when it comes to influencing environmental behaviour, but it is one of the best we have. It is certainly far better than the Tory proposal to impose VAT on domestic flights. The simple fact is that the rise in APD announced in the last pre-Budget report will produce more carbon savings in a month than the Conservative proposals will in a year.
The growth in air travel has had a very good impact on the economy of such places as Greater Manchester, which has a rapidly expanding international airport, but has also had a massive impact on carbon emissions. The Minister briefly mentioned the UK’s efforts to have air transport included in the EU emissions trading scheme. Could he update the House as to where the Government are on this?
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of aviation to the UK economy and he gives a good example of the growth and success of Manchester airport. As a Government, we must have a sustainable policy on aviation. We should not be against aviation any more than we are against the cement industry, aggregates, construction, telecommunications or chemicals. Clearly it is important for aviation, like other sectors of the economy, to take responsibility for reducing its carbon emissions, which is why putting aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme is the best way forward. We have been responding to the European Commission’s proposals on aviation and we hope to see significant progress later this year, in accordance with the timetable laid out by the Commission.
Irrespective of whether the Government choose—I hope they will—to use other policy instruments in advance of the EU emissions trading scheme, which is still some years off, and given that the UK already submits information on emissions from international bunker fuels under the Kyoto provisions, should not emissions from both aviation and shipping be included in the Climate Change Bill from the beginning?
Domestic aviation is included in the UK’s greenhouse gas inventory. International aviation and shipping are not, because there is no international agreement on definitions. There is scope to amend the Climate Change Bill to allow the introduction of aviation and shipping, but we need international agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from aviation and shipping. In the meantime, putting aviation into the EU ETS—the UK would support the inclusion of shipping—has to be the next best step. If we can achieve agreement through the International Civil Aviation Organisation to get global action on aviation, that would be much the best for everyone.
There is broad agreement that green taxes do help to change behaviour and I very much welcome the Government’s announcement of their intention that we enter the emissions trading scheme. However, there is also deep suspicion that green taxes are being used to raise the overall level of taxation, rather than simply to combat climate change or to change behaviour. Will the Minister confirm that if Britain does enter the emissions trading scheme, air passenger duty and many other green taxes affecting aviation will be reduced to offset those new taxes?
It is incredible that Opposition Members oppose the climate change levy, which will have more of an impact in a week in terms of reducing carbon emissions than the current Conservative proposal to put VAT on domestic aviation would do in a year, while also opposing the increase in air passenger duty, which will save 2.75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2010-11—more in one month than putting VAT on domestic flights, as the original question suggests, will do in a year. This is a nonsense of a Conservative policy—
May I add my condolences to the Secretary of State on his decision not to stand in the Labour leadership race—although there is another hour to go before the period for nominations ends? His campaign to be Prime Minister might be dead, but his ideas on climate change live on in the form of his mini-manifesto, a detailed letter written to the Chancellor in which he calls for increasing passenger awareness of the impact of flights, raising air passenger duty and making flights subject to VAT, which the Minister has just condemned. If we all agree that aviation must play its role in combating climate change and if the Secretary of State believes that that is the way forward, when will we get the opportunity to debate those ideas in this House?
We shall have plenty of opportunities to discuss climate change in the future, particularly in relation to the Climate Change Bill. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box and congratulate him on his debut performance; it is just a shame that his task is to defend the Opposition’s shabby policy on aviation—
Single Farm Payments
As I confirmed in my written ministerial statement on Tuesday of this week, at 11 May a total of £1.229 billion, representing about 80 per cent. of the estimated total fund of the 2006 single payment scheme, had been paid in either full or partial payments to about 92 per cent. of claimants—some 100,599 farmers. Eligibility penalties—the subject of Question 7—have been applied to about 10 per cent. of 2006 single payment scheme claims. Further detailed analysis of payments made under the SPS is not yet available.
Obviously, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way that he has got on with dealing with this problem. He inherited a chaotic mess—there are no two ways about that—and at least he has ensured that the farmers are starting to get the money. However, 8 per cent. are still waiting for payments. Will he consider helping them by means of compensation if that continues over a longer period? Will he also come up to Chorley and meet the farmers there who think he is doing a very good job?
An invitation to meet some farmers who think that I am doing a particularly good job is an invitation not to be refused. I am sure that there are a large and growing number of them, in Chorley and elsewhere.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last year, for those payments delayed beyond 30 June interest payments were available. We are not yet at the stage where we have to consider that again, but I can assure him that we are trying to get as many payments out as soon as possible; I reaffirmed our commitment to make payments as fast as possible in my statement on Tuesday. Obviously, we take our responsibilities very seriously towards those who have not received payments.
I commend the Secretary of State for the work that he is doing. However, he amusingly stated in his written statement that the Rural Payments Agency
“chief executive is taking a number of other steps to further streamline processing of claims.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 29WS.]
Does he find it acceptable that 22,000 claims from 2005 have still not been sorted out? Is part of the problem that two agencies are involved—the Environment Agency for the compliance aspect and the RPA for the payments aspect? Please will he ensure that whoever the next Prime Minister is, they make this matter the responsibility of a Minister in this place rather than the other place, so that we can scrutinise that Minister on the Floor of the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind words about the work that I have tried to do. I hope she will agree that Lord Rooker has done exemplary work in this area. I am very happy to speak in this House on the successes and failures of the RPA, and it is right that the hon. Lady should question me on these issues.
In respect of the specific point that the hon. Lady raised, from what she said an inference could be drawn by people following this debate that 22,000 people had received no money at all for 2005. That is not the case. I want to make it clear that there remain 22,000 people who have appealed against the level of claim that they have been given—in other words, their claims are being reviewed. There are 24 who received no money in 2005, mainly because of cases of probate, which have always arisen. In respect of the 22,000, of course we want to get the reviews completed as quickly as possible. I was able to report on Tuesday that the number had decreased from 25,000 to 22,000.
The hon. Lady is right to be anxious and passionate on behalf of her constituents to get the money paid. I assure her that I am equally anxious and passionate to do that. I want to do so in a way that is consistent with our 2006 payments, and also with the rules that we have urged on the European Commission for a long time for careful and appropriate payments under the common agricultural policy. We want to stick to those rules so that we can urge them on others.
Will my right hon. Friend, with the help of Lord Rooker, look again at eligibility with regard to commoners associations and grazing on commons? At the instigation of the scheme it was possible for commoners associations to be the vehicle through which payments were made. For some reason that has now stopped, which is causing consternation. I know that other hon. Members are also affected. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and report back to me?
Many English hill farmers are still uncertain about their entitlements under the single payments scheme relating to common land. That applies right back to 2005, bringing uncertainty into 2006 and 2007. That is unacceptable because the hill farming allowance also depends on a properly validated SPS claim. Given that hill farmers are particularly dependent on the subsidy and have marginal financial stability, will the Secretary of State ensure that resources are put in place so that this outstanding issue is dealt with and hill farming can have more confidence in future?
The hon. Gentleman, who follows this matter carefully, will know from previous statements that we have tried to make special provision for the payment of hill farm allowances and related allowances. He said that some groups are living on the margin and I understand what he was saying about the pressures that they face. We have tried to give them certainty about some of the transitional measures that are in place and we will continue to do that. I certainly take heed of his warnings about the need to ensure that this vulnerable group is properly protected.
My constituency has a number of hill farms and marginal pieces of land. Will the Secretary of State respond to the question put by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), because interest payments are different from compensation? The right hon. Gentleman will know that farmers are under huge pressure financially and in dire financial difficulty. Where payments are long delayed, will he ensure that there are alternative methods of giving some form of financial help, not just by paying interest—although little has been paid out—but by compensation?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we discussed compensation when I made my statement last June on interest payments. No Government have ever paid compensation and that remains our position. Our priority is to get the payments made. I hope he will not mind if I pick him up for referring to the “dire” state of the agricultural industry. Although just across the Pennines, I am sure that he is as avid a reader as I am of the Yorkshire Post and will have seen this week’s report of the important information that UK agricultural industry total borrowing had fallen by £253 million in the quarter to March—
No, I am sorry but the Bank of England report shows that to claim that the whole of the UK agricultural industry is in a “dire” state is not backed up by the facts. Particular parts, notably livestock and especially dairy, are having a hard time. However, I gently say to the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he will agree—that it is not right to paint a picture of UK agriculture across the piece as being in a “dire” state. Many parts are prospering and winning in world markets.
If the Secretary of State is to visit Chorley, perhaps he could leave a little time in his diary to come next door into the Ribble Valley, where he may hear a different story. One of my farmers wrote to me:
“how can any business plan for the future, or even a month ahead, without knowing when monies owed to their businesses is going to be paid? Farming is hard enough, with livestock prices the same, or even less than they were twenty years ago.”
That is the point. If people who work for the Rural Payments Agency were told that they were only going to get part payment of their salaries and that they would not know when they were to receive it, would that focus their attention on ensuring that the moneys that farmers are owed are paid on time?
The hon. Gentleman could actually be quoting from what I said when I first came to this job last year about the imperative of giving farmers confidence about how much money they will get and when. I completely agree that they are absolutely right to say that basic business planning depends on basic competence on the part of DEFRA and all its agencies. I am in complete agreement with him about that. This year, as promised, farmers received 70 per cent. of total funds paid out by the middle of March, compared to 15 per cent. last year, but they are right to continue to want 100 per cent. as fast as possible and the hon. Gentleman will not be able to outbid me in the rhetoric he applies to the importance of getting that done. As for future campaign visits to Ribble Valley, I look forward to taking on many of the marginal Conservative seats in a future election.
May I—unusually—commend Lord Rooker for his excellent and welcome policy of holding meetings for Members of Parliament? I am a farmer, an interest which I declare, and receive the single farm payment, so two weeks ago I telephoned the Rural Payments Agency in Newcastle where a charming young lady told me, “I’m afraid there’s a huge backlog of pre-populated forms for the single farm payment yet to go out, so I’ll send you an empty one.” I eventually received my form but it was only half filled in, so I am afraid that the Secretary of State must acknowledge that the RPA system remains poor. I know the process is not easy, but the system remains poor so I hope he will tell the House that he will examine it very carefully.
I shall certainly draw to Lord Rooker’s attention the hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks. My noble Friend’s surgery meetings for Members of this place and of the House of Lords are an excellent innovation. I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are real issues to be tackled, in respect of not just the pre-population of the forms but the other data, which are constantly being updated and some of which I referred to in my written statement on Tuesday. We will not be satisfied until we have a system that accurately delivers stable, reliable, competent payments to farmers at the right time of year. That is what we are trying to deliver.
Even though I come from south of Watford, I, too, am an avid reader of the Yorkshire Post. The Secretary of State may have overlooked the front page headline in yesterday’s edition: “British farmers £90 million worse off in subsidy fiasco”.
When the Secretary of State took over his role about a year ago, he brought to it a refreshing candour—he started going round apologising for the rural payments fiasco—but we have recently learned that the Government’s performance during the year that he has been in charge has actually got worse. If he goes on like that, he will be Foreign Secretary by July. Does he remember telling the Royal Show last year that he would find it difficult to look farmers in the eye until the single payment scheme was properly sorted out? When does he expect to look farmers in the eye? To put it another way, when does he expect to be able to start using the gents toilets at farmers’ events rather than the ladies—for fear of meeting angry farmers in the gents—and, finally, does not the fact that he does so show how little he understands the nature of farmers’ wives?
I know that a special unit has been set up at Tory central office to track my activities—clearly it is being taken to rather ridiculous lengths—but since the hon. Gentleman asks, and although this may be shocking to the House, at the National Farmers Union I actually used the gents toilets. As it happens, at the gents toilet I met a farmer from Wales who subsequently entered into correspondence with me—[Laughter.]
Was he a Tory peer?
He was not, but for the sake of completeness, I should point out that he was concerned that he did not have long enough in the gents toilets to put his points to me.
I am afraid that I would urge the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to stick to matters of fact and policy for the future, although his question has helped to enliven the proceedings. The population at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions can only increase on the back of what he said.
I wish I could remember rather more accurately what the hon. Gentleman actually asked. He alleged that the situation now is worse than it was a year ago. I utterly refute that. Given that 70 per cent. or so of payments were paid by mid-March compared with 15 per cent. last year, I do not understand how he can describe that as a step backwards.
We have a range of policies and practical measures to help individuals adopt lower carbon lifestyles. We will soon be launching a web-based CO2 calculator, which will allow people and households to find out their CO2 footprint.
I very much welcome the Minister’s response. It is important that we as individuals are encouraged to monitor our carbon footprint and to reduce it by doing things such as recycling, but it is also important that we know the impact and the effectiveness of different recycling methods. Will the Minister support the campaign for real recycling in its calls for an audit of the different recycling schemes in use across the country?
We are constantly trying to improve the quality of recycling in the United Kingdom. The current recycling effort is roughly equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the road. We have made significant progress over the past 10 years, but we need to do more. The waste strategy, when it is published shortly, will take significant further steps forward.
Does the Minister agree that the key to individuals’ action on these issues is individuals’ understanding of them, and that the concepts of carbon footprints and carbon emissions are quite difficult for many people to comprehend? Does he agree that the fact that the terms carbon dioxide, carbon, and greenhouse gas emissions are used interchangeably by his Department and others does not add to people’s understanding of the issues? Does he agree that there is a need for consistency in the use of terminology and in the use of measurement?
My hon. Friend has a point when he says that the Government talk sometimes about carbon, sometimes about CO2 and sometimes about greenhouse gases. It would be helpful if we could have more consistency and talk about carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the research work that we have done tends to suggest that people understand the concept of CO2 and a carbon footprint. That is why we have launched the “Act on CO2” campaign. The work that we did before we launched it confirmed that that has a resonance with people, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we need to take steps to make it easier for people to measure their CO2 footprint. That is what the new web-based calculator that we are launching soon will do.
In January, I visited New Delhi and Mumbai and met the Minister of Environment and Forests. We discussed how to strengthen our bilateral co-operation on climate change and issues relating to future climate change agreements. I am pleased to say that that Minister also attended the G8 plus 5 Potsdam conference on biodiversity and climate change in March, where I had a further opportunity to discuss these issues with him.
I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that international agreements are the only way forward when it comes to our goal of tackling climate change? Does he also agree that the UK has a responsibility to ensure that the developing nations do not go down the same faulty road that we did when our economies were developing? Does he accept that the opportunities offered by climate change technology allow a great possibility of a boom in the UK economy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point—a point that I have discussed with him before—about the potential for new industry and new employment in the environmental sector. Perhaps it is not well known that India is one of the top promoters of renewable energy—especially wind energy. I hope that we can take forward our work on technology transfer to developing countries. I know that that is one of the top five issues that the Prime Minister has put on the table for the G8 plus 5 summit in Germany, which the Indian Prime Minister will attend.
Support is provided in many ways, both for the fabric of rural community buildings, including village halls, and for those who are responsible for running them. Over the past five years, through a variety of DEFRA programmes, including the rural social and community programme, the aggregates levy fund and the rural enterprise scheme, DEFRA has invested more than £10 million to support a wide range of rural community assets.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, not least because I have an unusually high number of village halls and community centres in my largely rural constituency. They are used by a variety of voluntary and community groups, who are often nowadays the lifeblood of their communities. Will my hon. Friend give a commitment to the House that he will work with the Cabinet Office to ensure that those groups can continue their valuable work, thereby ensuring that they make full use of the investment that has been made in our community centres and village halls?
I am very glad to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that we intend to continue to do precisely that. The rural social and community programme provides funding for a diverse range of local projects in the manner that she suggested. Of course, in the light of recent announcements, we may need to look afresh at how best we can maintain other community facilities such as former grammar school buildings, for which the Conservative party no longer seems to have a use.