Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 21 June 2007

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Single Payment Scheme (Inspections)

1. If he will make a statement on the regulatory burden on farming businesses of inspections associated with the single payment scheme. (144182)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and before I answer, I have to say that the Secretary of State has asked me to thank you for your indulgence in allowing him to join our proceedings somewhat late this morning. As you are aware, he intends no discourtesy to the House but is delayed by his attendance at Cabinet, which, being the Prime Minister’s last, is scheduled to run a little longer today.

The single payment scheme requires two types of inspection: first, on whether the land is eligible; and secondly, on whether farmers comply with cross-compliance. Five per cent. of applicants are subject to a land eligibility inspection, and the four competent control authorities each inspect 1 per cent. of applicants under the cross-compliance requirements or standards for which they are responsible. The Rural Payments Agency is working to implement the Hunter review recommendations to reduce the burden of such inspections.

I thank the Minister for that answer and accept entirely the importance of compliance when disbursing public money. However, some inspections are duplicated. I give the example of a farm having a TB test, whereby all the cattle have to be brought in twice within four days, and then a month later being told that there must be a bovine inspection and all the numbers have to be taken again, although the processes could be done at a single time. Will the Minister impress on the Environment Agency, DEFRA officials and the State Veterinary Service the importance of co-ordinating programmes to eliminate duplication and so reduce the burden on farming businesses?

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. This is something that we have impressed on officials. The RPA is considering it and looking to co-ordinate inspections wherever possible. It is absolutely essential that we try to reduce the burden on farmers in the way that he suggests.

I acknowledge the Minister’s interest in reducing bureaucracy, but would he admit that for farmers such as myself—I declare my interest—the real problem with the scheme is that they are now faced with their third year of disfunction in terms of the delivery of payments, while at the same time any minor mistakes that they make in good faith in compliance with the scheme are disproportionately punished? [Interruption.]

An hon. Member: It’s Gordon Brown. [Laughter.]

Once hon. Gentlemen have recovered from the paroxysms of mirth that have overtaken them, I can say that I appreciate the point that has been made. I know that there is a perception that sometimes farmers are penalised for very minor infractions, but I think that it is a mistaken impression, and there are a number of statistics that would show that it is. In 2006, of the 5,500 inspections that were carried out under the SPS to determine eligibility of land, 1,370 minor breaches that fell below the penalty threshold were reported, and only 62 cases actually triggered penalties. I am aware that there is an impression out there that minor infractions are always punished, but a lot of them fall below the threshold. Comparatively speaking, the record of inspectors on getting it right is quite good.

Does the Minister accept that the number of inspections, with various agencies’ inspectors parading around farms, creates the danger of disease being carried from farm to farm? Surely there should be proper co-ordination. Farmers want to farm instead of having this endless bureaucracy and red tape.

I accept that we should minimise the number of inspections to which farms are subjected. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that the Hunter review, which reported in March this year, specifically recommended that Government should keep the number of inspections to a minimum and reduce the target time that each inspection takes. In 2005-06, the failure rate on inspection under the EU regulations was high, and an additional 800 inspections were therefore required, but in 2006-07 those additional inspections were not required. That is very positive because it shows that farmers are finding the way to compliance a lot easier than previously, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the number of inspections that are required under the rules.

The burden of regulations from DEFRA to business is £527.8 million a year, and 154 new regulations were introduced last year despite the Department’s claim that it was reducing the regulatory burden. There is now a perfect opportunity for the Government to lift that burden. At the moment, sheep farmers are required to put only one tag in a sheep’s ear. Are the Government going to continue the derogation allowing single tagging in sheep? It will save shepherds and farmers £15 million a year if they do not have to put a second, identical tag in a sheep’s ear.

The hon. Gentleman will know that discussions are being held with the European Union on that subject. He also knows that derogations are usually allowed by the EU for only a limited period. He mentioned the specific issue of sheep identification and tags. Let me shatter the myth about burdens. Of approximately 1,500 cross-compliance inspections carried out in 2006, only 71 breaches were reported, of which three attracted warning letters, 44 received a low 1 per cent. penalty, and 21 got a 3 per cent. penalty. Again, the burden is low.

Household Recycling

Our new waste strategy sets new and challenging targets to increase household recycling and composting, which has quadrupled since 1997. We expect further big improvements as part of the new strategy.

Given the wide variation between local authorities’ actions on household recycling, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that all local authorities are aware of best practice, implement it, are suitably encouraged to use it and empowered to do so?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the unacceptable differences in performance between local authorities. Some are already performing at the levels of our best European counterparts, whereas others hover just above single figures for recycling. We have a programme of engagement with the poorest performers and I plan to meet some of those in the weeks to come. Of course, they are all subject not only to our targets but to the landfill tax. If they do not increase their recycling and reduce their landfill, their council tax payers will pay a heavy price.

No, that is best left to local authorities as they know the circumstances of their area. It is not central Government’s job and I would have thought that Liberal Democrats agreed with that. We believe in devolution and allowing local authorities to determine the best way in which to collect their waste.

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend knows that Hackney council introduced compulsory recycling at the beginning of March. Recycling from street properties has increased by 3 per cent. since then. However, one of the challenges that remains for boroughs such as Hackney is how best to recycle plastics. Can he give some guidance about the Government’s progress in ensuring that that is cost-effective for councils throughout the country?

I congratulate my hon. Friend’s local authority on that improvement. Like several other local authorities in London, it has not always had a good recycling record and it is good to know that that is improving. We are recycling more and more plastics, not least because of the high oil price, which makes it more financially sensible for local authorities to recycle. The vast majority of plastics in the waste stream are now recyclable, but again, we believe that it is up to local authorities, working with organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme, to devise the best schemes for their area, whether that means collecting plastics separately or together with other recyclables. I would encourage as many local authorities as possible to collect plastics. Indeed, the waste strategy includes new incentives to encourage the growth of plastics recycling by local authorities.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Havering branch of Freecycle, which is one of 412 branches in London? Freecycle is a website that facilitates the exchange of unwanted items—rather like eBay except that no money changes hands. The Havering branch saves 50 tonnes of household refuse from going into landfill every week.

I do congratulate the hon. Lady’s local branch of Freecycle. Third sector organisations play an important role in waste management and that role will be much bigger under the new waste strategy. It includes new measures to encourage third sector organisations, which can provide an important social benefit in an area and also tend to have better contact at community level to encourage people into the recycling habit.

The Minister will be well aware that household waste has gone up by something like 15 per cent. over the last decade. Should he not be tackling that and trying to reduce the amount of waste rather than increasing the amount of landfill tax that the Treasury raises?

I am afraid that what the hon. Gentleman says is not strictly correct. In fact, we have managed to break the link between economic growth and waste growth. In 2004-05, I believe that we had the first ever fall in the overall amount of municipal waste created. In the two years since then, it has been 0.5 per cent. growth, which is really very small indeed and far smaller than it has been historically. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that if we are to be tough with the waste hierarchy, the most important thing to do is to minimise waste. He will have noticed, I am sure, particularly if he has studied the strategy, that for the very first time we now have a waste minimisation or waste reduction target of 45 per cent. by 2020. That is quite a challenging target, but I am confident that we will meet it.

According to an answer from the Department of Trade and Industry earlier this week, 28 per cent. of civil amenity sites will be unable to process all the forms of electronic waste when the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive comes into force a week this Saturday. Given that one of the UK’s largest recycling firms has said that there will not be sufficient capacity to cope with the impact of the WEEE directive—a view echoed by the Local Government Association—what assurances can the Minister provide that the fridge mountain fiasco is not about to convert into a DVD, PC and TV fiasco? What assessment has he made of the possibility of increased fly-tipping over the summer months?

The figures that the hon. Gentleman has just given show that 72 per cent. of municipal sites are in a position to deal with the WEEE directive. He will know that this is an extremely complex area and that we have been working very closely on it with the DTI. My DTI colleagues tell me that they are confident that the sort of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman fears may arise will not arise, and I am confident in their predictions.

Dairy Industry

The prospects for the dairy industry are good, thanks to the current positive world market situation. Although there are challenges to come in the short to medium term, the UK industry is well placed to tackle them.

I think that the Minister must be living in a different world. The situation facing the dairy industry in this country is critical. Dairying is vital to UK agriculture—mainly in the west of England, but particularly in my own constituency of Macclesfield in the county of Cheshire. Despite the increase in feed and energy prices and the effect of modulation on dairy farming, the farming industry of dairying is receiving less per litre now than it did some years ago. In the last two years, more than 6,000 dairy farms have gone out of business, so is it not time that the Government woke up and sought to help a vital part of British agriculture? I believe that the Government should be condemned for what has happened to dairying in the United Kingdom.

I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, who has always been a champion of his dairy farming constituents. He will know, I am sure, that the April farm-gate price for milk is the highest April price since April 2004. In fact, it reached the same level in 2004 and it has not been higher since before April 2001. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know that there has been a significant surge in demand in the world commodities market because of the export controls imposed by Brazil and India and also, of course, because of the Australian drought. All those factors have contributed to the situation. Let me quote Barry Nicholls, the chief executive of Milk Link, who said it is

“unprecedented over the last 30 years to have the luxury of deciding where to place our milk.”

My hon. Friend could do no better than to make a submission to the Competition Commission inquiry into supermarkets. The reality is that dairy farmers are paid so badly because this particular trade has had a history of strong conflict. The biggest problem has been the complete lack of honesty in respect of how supermarkets operate and how they organise their pricing. I hope that the Minister will make a submission to that inquiry and call for some transparency and fairness in this matter.

I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of the recent move by a number of supermarkets, through various measures such as Localchoice suppliers of milk, to do deals with farmers to get local product into the supermarkets. That is giving farmers prices of up to 23p a litre for their milk. That is not as high as the historic levels of 10 or 15 years ago, but it is certainly a good deal higher than it has been over the past few years. Indeed, the Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which is chaired by my noble Friend Lord Rooker, met yesterday and all the stakeholders involved expressed what they called “cautious optimism” about the improved global market position.

Does the Minister agree that the prospects for the dairy industry, particularly in the western half of the country, would be greatly enhanced if there were a long-term solution to the problem of bovine tuberculosis? To that extent, may I seek his assurance that his Department will not be rushed into reaching a conclusion on future strategy in the light of the recently published report by the Independent Scientific Group? Will he assure me that due time will be given for all parties to meet and discuss those and other findings, and for the Select Committee to continue its own inquiry into the subject?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with great authority in the House as Chair of the relevant Select Committee, and I would wish to give him all the assurances that he seeks. It is absolutely appropriate that the Government take time to look at what is, after all, an extensive piece of research going back over 10 years. We will certainly look at its findings and conclusions and give it weighty consideration. We also look forward to the report of the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on the matter, and we shall obviously take that into account in relation to the Government’s thinking and policy formulation.

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), has the Minister considered meeting representatives of the large supermarkets to determine exactly what their pricing structures are, and where he could intervene to persuade them to be fairer with milk producers? We are losing hundreds of milk producers each month and, at some point, there will be a shortage of supply. We could end up importing milk from France or elsewhere. That would be a ridiculous situation. I know that the Minister cannot enforce anything, but surely he can persuade the supermarkets to be a bit more honest, transparent and fair with producers.

Let me simply say to the hon. Gentleman that, of course, Ministers meet representatives of the supermarkets on a regular basis. I cannot give him an assurance that we will intervene in the price-setting mechanism as he requests, because we do not feel it is appropriate for the Government to intervene and set price controls in this area. I am sure he will also recognise that there has been an increasing dialogue between the supermarkets and representatives of the dairy industry, which has resulted in recent positive moves. I am sure he will accept that greater efficiency is still needed across the sector, and that the disparity in profitability within the sector is still far too high. The Government have invested some £130 million in this area to try to improve the productivity and efficiencies in the sector over the past few years.

Is the Minister aware that dairy farmers in general, and in South Staffordshire in particular, will be bewildered and distressed by the mind-boggling complacency of his answer? Will he think again about the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who asked not for intervention but for a commitment?

I am distressed that the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the highest regard, thinks that I am being complacent in my response to the House; that is certainly not the case. I recognise—as do this ministerial team, the Government and the whole House—that dairy farmers have been through a very difficult period, and that they are facing extremely strong challenges from all the new demands that will be placed on them in the years to come. None the less, those are things that we have quite properly sought to help with, in the way that I have just suggested to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I believe that that shows a commitment. The Government have tried to help the sector to become more efficient and to realise the benefits of value added and niche marketing.

We have a particular problem in the United Kingdom. Unlike our competitors, we consume 51 per cent. of our milk in liquid form. In France milk goes into cheese, yoghurt and other value-added products, which allows a better price to be obtained. However, there are signs that the world commodities market for skimmed milk and whole milk powder is improving. Indeed, there is now a shortage. I should have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome the fact that, for the first time, export support from the European Union has been set at zero.

If the dairy industry is finding the situation so good at the moment, can the Minister explain why in this country we pay more for a bottle of mineral water than for a pint of milk?

I would always recommend that the right hon. Gentleman should not buy mineral water, but should stick to tap water. It is very good, it is much cheaper, and it is a good deal less carbon-intensive.

Notwithstanding the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), Professor Bourne has said that the Government ruled out a widespread badger cull from the outset of the study by the Independent Scientific Group. Does that not prove that the consultation that took place more than a year ago was a complete waste of time? We know that the final report was on the Minister of State’s desk a month ago—

The Minister should read the ISG report, which clearly identifies the date on which the Minister of State received the final report. Ministers had a month in which to come up with conclusions, yet all that they have announced is further deliberation and delay. Moreover, it is four years since the Conservative party advocated the polymerase chain reaction test. It has taken four years—until next month—for research to begin on that.

Is not the record of the last 10 years one of constant delay and prevarication in dealing with TB, while taxpayers, farmers and cattle have had to suffer? When will the Department make some real decisions, and get a grip on this dreadful disease?

I find it difficult to respond to that, because it was not really a question. It was a rant, and uncharacteristically ill-judged on the part of the hon. Gentleman—in stark contrast to the contribution of the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack).

I am well aware, as is the whole House, of the cost of bovine TB to farmers and, indeed, the taxpayer. It is absolutely right that we should look at the ISG report. The hon. Gentleman made some remarks about the timing of the report. He will know that draft chapters are very different from a final report complete with recommendations and conclusions. That certainly did not arrive at the time that he suggested.

We will consider the report carefully, and will give it due importance in policy making. We will listen to the industry and take account of the Select Committee report, and we will make our policy decisions in due course.

Energy White Paper

We had a range of discussions at ministerial and official level across Government to agree the package of measures in the energy White Paper. Those measures will have a powerful impact on our carbon emissions goals.

The energy White Paper is enthusiastic about encouraging decentralised renewable energy generation. The main mechanism for that is the renewables obligation, which costs the average householder £7 a year on energy bills. At a cost of only £5 a year more, the German system—which is common in most of Europe—has been far more successful in stimulating investment in decentralised renewable energy generation. Although there is to be a reform of the renewables obligation—

Order. I must appeal to the House. This does not apply only to the hon. Lady, but the supplementary questions are very long. They should be short and sweet. I know that the hon. Lady can do that, but I think that the Minister can manage an answer to what she has already said.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in, and commitment to, feed-in tariffs. Our energy market is different from that of Germany, and our electricity is cheaper. There is no clear evidence that alternatives such as feed-in tariffs would produce a better performance. When we had a similar measure—the non-fossil fuel obligation—it did not really work for us; between 1990 and 1998 it delivered 770 MW, and the renewables obligation has done a lot better than that. Our proposals in the energy White Paper to band it will make it even more effective as a policy instrument in future.

My apologies, Mr. Speaker, for my phone going off like a rocket earlier; I meant no discourtesy to the House. I have a new piece of parliamentary kit that is more persistent than I expected; I thought that I had turned it off before I entered the Chamber.

The possibility of there being new nuclear build is anticipated in the energy White Paper, and that will have an impact on renewables. Has the Minister estimated by how much new nuclear might reduce the contribution of renewables in meeting our likely future electricity needs? I ask that in particular because the capital costs of building a nuclear power station are so great that the intention would be to run it constantly at full blast, in contrast to carbon capture and storage or coal, gas or oil stations whose outputs are variable.

The answer is that we need both if we are to achieve our climate change targets and move the UK economy on to a low-carbon basis. The Government believe that there is a case for nuclear new build and we are consulting on that, but we also have a strong policy framework to encourage significant growth in renewables. We want renewables to account for 15 per cent. of electricity by 2015. The simple answer is that we need both.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that 100 times more solar panels are fitted in Germany than in Britain, so is it not time to suggest to the Chancellor—who will soon be our new Prime Minister—that the cap on grants for solar panels should be removed so that we can invest massively in them, as Germany does, instead of some of the nuclear proposals?

One of the things that we are doing through the energy White Paper is doubling the size of the energy efficiency commitment, which is being renamed the carbon emissions reduction target—CERT. The doubling of the size of that scheme will provide opportunities for significantly more microgeneration in future. I am also aware that there are issues to do with making sure that suppliers stick to their commitments to make it easy for microgenerators to sell their electricity into the grid. All the major suppliers have stated their commitment to publishing transparent and easily accessible tariffs. Good progress is being made and we are continuing to work closely with suppliers on this important issue.

Did the Minister’s Department make representations on the Severn barrage proposal and its damaging impact on biodiversity and the environment? Is he aware that a meeting of the increasingly large and powerful body of objectors to this daft proposal will take place at Slimbridge in the next couple of weeks. Will he ensure that an official from the Government office for the south-west is present so that the serious objections of the environmental lobby can be properly put?

The Severn barrage proposal has been widely discussed for the best part of 20 years. The Sustainable Development Commission is considering it and is due to produce a report in September. I am aware of the potential environmental consequences of a Severn barrage, but I would also point out the potential benefits. A Severn barrage could provide up to 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity. It would be a renewable source, and given what we know about climate change and our targets in addressing it, it is only right that we seriously consider this option and look at the benefits and costs in that context.

The trouble with the energy White Paper is that it flags up many interesting ideas, but totally fails to set a coherent strategy for ambitious implementation. Take combined heat and power, which has huge potential. Did the DEFRA team point out that exemption from the climate change levy, which is trumpeted in the White Paper as the principal policy incentive for more CHP, lasts only until March 2013? Given that it takes up to five years to get a large project up and running, the exemption for new projects is almost worthless. Is it not the case that the Minister’s—

I met representatives from the Combined Heat and Power Association earlier this week and they told me how encouraged they have been by the fact that the Government have been listening to their concerns. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the climate change levy exemption and we will need to look at that. We need to send the right long-term signals and the Government believe that CHP will be an important element of the UK’s energy mix for the future.

Bromborough Dock (Landfill)

Until my hon. Friend tabled his question, we had had no representations about that site. My understanding is that its owners stopped disposing of waste on it last August and have been restoring it. They have also applied for final closure, the conditions of which are being discussed with the Environment Agency and the local authority.

Does my hon. Friend understand that the people who live around that site have suffered from the loss of view caused by the mountain growing in front of them, from plagues of flies, rats and other pests and from smells from an associated water treatment plant? Now that the site has stopped taking landfill, will he do his level best to ensure that it is greened, topped off and made environmentally friendly as soon as humanly possible, and that it is given appropriate priority under Newlands 2?

I certainly understand the impact because my hon. Friend has just drawn it to my attention. He is right, and he makes a wider point about the environmental impact of landfill, which is one of the reasons why we are trying to move away from landfill as a major source of waste disposal. I will be in contact with the Environment Agency and the company concerned, Biffa, as well as the local authority, to try to encourage them to move as quickly as possible to agree the closure process for the site, which has to be done in an environmentally sensible way. It must not be closed too quickly without the right conditions, because that can lead to problems further down the road, which my hon. Friend’s constituents would not want.

Greenhouse Gases

6. What assessment he has made of the likely effect of the UK’s membership of the EU emissions trading scheme on future emissions of greenhouse gases. (144189)

The EU emissions trading scheme is a key part of our emissions reductions strategy. The scheme’s next phase will provide business with greater certainty, and we expect the scheme to deliver additional savings of 29.3 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the European Commission does not relax the tough national allocation plans in phase 2 and does its utmost to develop other schemes in other parts of the world, so that the EU is not alone in that particular approach to carbon reduction?

The Commission has already taken a robust approach to the phase 2 national allocation plans—NAPs—of member states, and I have no doubt that it will continue to do so. It is vital that we ensure scarcity in the market, and that is what will happen in phase 2. My hon. Friend is also right to point out the importance of the potential for linking the EU emissions trading scheme to other trading schemes that are being discussed in other countries. Certainly, the review of the directive that is taking place—in which we are fully participating—will allow that possibility. I want to see the growth of a global carbon market in the future, because that will be good for the world in limiting CO2 emissions. Carbon trading offers significant potential for low-cost carbon abatement.

A major purpose of the emissions trading scheme is to create a carbon price to guide long-term investment decisions. Will the Minister say whether the Government endorse the conclusion of the Stern report that the appropriate price would be of the order of £75 per tonne of carbon?

As a Government, we do not seek to set a particular carbon price—in a market mechanism, it is the market’s role to establish that. The Government’s role is to ensure sufficient scarcity, and that the market functions properly. The benefit of a cap and trade scheme is that setting a cap gives a certainty that carbon dioxide emissions are being controlled. The EU emissions trading scheme is a significant policy instrument because it covers about half of all Europe’s CO2 emissions. We want to make sure that it works even more effectively in the future.

The EU emissions trading scheme should play a part in helping Europe meet its commitment to derive 20 per cent. of total energy from renewable sources by 2020. However, the UK derives only 2 per cent. of its energy from renewable sources, and that is less than half the EU average. Does the Minister seriously think that existing policies give us any chance of getting anywhere near 20 per cent. in 13 years’ time?

Certainly, the UK is starting from a low base when it comes to renewables, and no one is under any illusion—the 20 per cent. target agreed across Europe is extremely challenging for the UK and for all EU member states. We will have to look at the division of responsibilities that will determine the target to be set for the UK, but I emphasise that the measures on renewables in the energy White Paper envisage a significant growth in that sector over the next 10 years.

Climate Change

7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the climate change agreement between G8 countries reached at the recent summit. (144190)

Before I answer the question, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will permit me to thank you and the House for allowing me to be a few minutes late for today’s Question Time. I was detained by the extraordinary nature of the Cabinet meeting that took place earlier. I am sure that the House’s tolerance is related to the fact that it understands that it takes a very long time indeed to enumerate all the achievements of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, and still more time to cross the floods of tears now trailing down Downing street. However, I am grateful for the House’s tolerance over my lateness.

The G8 made unprecedented progress on climate change. It provided a vital signal to the United Nations framework convention process on the importance of early progress towards a global framework for emissions reductions beyond 2012—a process that I know has support right across the House.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. The G8 agreement was welcome not so much for its detail as for the fact that the USA was party to it. With Australia making similar noises, perhaps we can focus on the developing world, and in particular countries such as Brazil, India and China. What steps are being taken to bring those countries on board, and what assistance can the USA provide in its proposed role as a bridge between the developed and the developing worlds?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. An important step was taken when the US accepted the science and the need for large global cuts. We now need to move on to the detailed and urgent discussion about the nature of the emissions reduction commitments that countries such as the US and Australia—which my hon. Friend also mentioned—need to make. There are, I think, 12 Bills currently before the US Congress, but it is worth pointing out that even the most ambitious of them would mean only that, come 2020, US emissions would still be at 1990 levels. Major issues therefore remain for the biggest industrialised countries, but he is right that we are more likely to get stronger action from the US and Australia if we can get some action from China, India and other developing countries.

I was in Sweden last week for a meeting of 28 countries brought together by the Swedish Government. Countries such as South Africa and Brazil are playing a pivotal role in helping to forge the basis of an agreement under which developing countries would take action appropriate to their level of development, consistent with the 1992 agreement. That agreement talked of common but differentiated responsibilities, with the richest countries doing the most but with the developing countries also playing a clear role.

I welcome the Secretary of State from his Cabinet meeting—I hope that it went well for him.

The right hon. Gentleman is confident that the Americans have accepted the science behind climate change, but is he aware that not long after the G8 summit George Bush commented:

“I told Tony that we’re deadly earnest…the fundamental question is how best to send proper signals to create the technologies necessary to deal with this issue.”?

Nicolas Sarkozy said:

“We could have done better.”

The Chinese science and technology Minister said that the G8 summit was not specific enough—

Order. Question Time is not an opportunity for Front-Bench spokesmen to make a speech. I am sure that the Secretary of State can manage to answer.

I said last week that the G8 agreement deserved one and a half to two cheers, so the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) is right to suggest that we have further detailed work to do. But the signals the President of the United States was talking about were not the smoke signals referred to by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack); they were the signals that come from tight caps in developed countries to create a carbon price that drives technological innovation.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that everyone should be congratulated on the G8 agreement on climate change? I have just taken my Select Committee to China, so will he take it from me that many senior people in China are keen for partnership over climate change? They are concerned about their environment and they want to be engaged. They have huge research potential, so will he not undervalue—

Order. I remind hon. Members that I need to get through the Order Paper to help Members who have tabled questions.

I have only one thing to add to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but it is an important point: nothing is more calculated to annoy Chinese and Indian colleagues than saying that we think they should start to take action. They are insistent that they are already taking significant action on energy efficiency and renewable energy, so with that caveat I strongly support my hon. Friend’s remarks.

Dairy Industry

8. What assessment he has made of the effect on domestic dairy farming of the growth in demand for dairy products in China. (144191)

The global dairy market is currently very positive, with demand outstripping supply and prices for all commodities at very high levels. That is beginning to be reflected in UK farm-gate prices, which are at their highest levels since 2004, with further increases expected. The UK dairy industry is actively investigating how it can benefit from the expansion of the Chinese market.

As the diet of people in China becomes increasingly westernised, is there not a great opportunity for UK dairy farmers to take advantage of that huge market? What steps are the Government taking actively to encourage British dairy farmers to access that market?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As I am sure that he knows, last year the International Dairy Federation held the world dairy congress in Shanghai. Since then, Jim Begg, president of the IDF and director general of Dairy UK, has made a number of trips to China to promote the UK dairy industry. The hon. Gentleman may recall that I said earlier that our room for manoeuvre in the commodities market is slightly more limited than that of our European competitors because of the volume of liquid milk we consume domestically, which leaves much less for value-added products. None the less, there are real opportunities in China if we can get niche and branded products on to the Chinese market, which is clearly responding positively to such products. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the change in Chinese dietary traditions and practices are absolutely right—it is a great opportunity.

Light Pollution

Stronger powers were provided to local authorities to tackle light pollution under the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, which makes light pollution a statutory nuisance and enables individuals to take private action through the magistrates court.

Because of light pollution, half our population never see the stars of the galaxy in which we live. The Government love to talk about the environment, but why have we been waiting since December 2003 for the promised extension to planning guidance statement 23 to deal with the problem, and save energy at the same time? When will the Government publish that important document for consultation?

The right hon. Gentleman is right: there has been a delay, which I very much regret. I suspect that as it is a Department for Communities and Local Government issue it is tied up with the overall planning reform announced in the planning White Paper, but like him I hope that is brought forward as quickly as possible. That does not mean to say that the Government have been inactive. We have allocated £600 million to private finance initiative schemes to improve the quality of street lighting to reduce the amount of lighting that simply goes up into the sky and spoils the view, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says. Progress has also been made in domestic and sports facilities lighting. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just reminded me that there is a climate change crossover, as well. Excessive illumination contributes to climate change. If the right hon. Gentleman is in London tonight, he may like to join in the “London lights out” campaign. I am sure that the House will be aware of the campaign—between 9 pm and 10 pm we are all expected to turn our lights out.

Does the Minister agree that one way to deal with the problems of light pollution would be for the Government to support the measures in my ten-minute Bill on tranquillity, which I introduced earlier in the Session? If the Minister is not willing to endorse the Bill at the Dispatch Box this morning, perhaps he would be willing to accept the principle behind it—that it is vital to measure tranquillity objectively and to protect and preserve it in future.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I will certainly reflect on the appeal that he makes to me. I share his concern about the amount of noise and light pollution in society. The Government have taken measures through the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 and we will take further measures to address noise and light pollution. The quality of people’s lives is important and they expect politicians to address those concerns.

Battery Hens

Keeping laying hens in conventional battery cages will be banned throughout the European Union from January 2012. No new conventional cages have been brought into use since 2003 and existing cages have to have more space and a claw-shortening device.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. Animal welfare campaigners are enthusiastic about the ban that will be in place by 2013, but they are nervous about rumours that there might be a delay. Will he assure the House that Britain will resist any delay? Does he welcome the actions of Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer in phasing out even enriched cages?

We certainly welcome any measures taken by retailers and private individuals to encourage the consumption of food produced in a more welfare-friendly way. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks: the UK will remain robust in insisting that the European Union sticks to its current timetable for the ban on battery cages.

Coastal Erosion (Warden Bay)

13. Whether the coastal erosion plans for Warden bay include replanting shrubs and trees at the top of the cliffs. (144196)

The Forestry Commission visited Warden bay on 8 June to advise whether trees and woodland might be used to assist in managing coastal erosion. The commission has now written to the local authority and I will ask it to send a copy of its letter to my hon. Friend.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there was a 50-acre site of Dutch elm at the top of the cliff, which had to be taken down? That is one of the reasons why the cliff is a “C” shape. We are busy putting £865,000 of rubble at the bottom, but the top is also going. May I press him on who would fund putting trees and hedges back at the top?

I am certainly aware that there are cliff-top issues, particularly with regard to drainage. Planting shrubs can play a role in addressing that. I am not sure that that is necessarily the responsibility of the Environment Agency, which is funding the coastal erosion work. If my hon. Friend wants to have a discussion with me, I would be happy to see whether there are possibilities for future funding.

Carbon Dioxide Reduction

15. What guidance his Department is planning to give the public on the offsetting of carbon dioxide emissions. (144198)

In January, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched a consultation on establishing a code of best practice for carbon offsetting. The consultation closed on 13 April. We are considering the responses and we aim to have the code in place by the end of the year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. According to a recent UN report, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalents. That is more than cars, planes and other forms of transport combined. Given that the global production of meat is predicted to double by 2050 and milk production to grow almost as quickly, does he agree that urgent steps must be taken either to reduce the environmental impact per unit of production or to halt its growth? What advice would he give consumers who might be concerned about the environmental impact that the consumption of such products is having?

The livestock and dairy industries are an important part of the United Kingdom economy and will, I am sure, continue to remain so for a long time. I think it right that, like other sectors of the economy, the meat and livestock industry does what it can to address the issue of climate change and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It is taking action to do that, but more action is needed. My hon. Friend makes a number of valid points, but eating meat is a personal choice and the Government have no intention of moving the direction that she suggests.

Does the Minister agree that although carbon offsetting is not an unworthwhile activity, the Government could do a lot more to cut household emissions of carbon dioxide?

As a Government, we believe strongly that carbon offsetting is an option, but it is not the only answer to tackling climate change. The best thing to do is to avoid CO2 emissions in the first place, and the next best thing is to try to reduce CO2 emissions, but there are some emissions that it is impossible in our daily lives to avoid or to reduce. That is where offsetting is a viable option. When people are thinking of taking their summer holiday this year, I would encourage them to consider offsetting their CO2 emissions. It is a good thing to do.

Business Advice (Rural Areas)

16. What support is provided by his Department for the giving of business advice to farmers and other rural enterprises. (144199)

Support to both urban and rural businesses, including farmers, is provided by regional development agencies, as part of their mainstream business support services delivered through the Business Link network. Those activities are funded through the RDA single programme. Support through the rural development programme for England, to make agriculture and forestry more competitive, will also be delivered through RDAs.

Will my hon. Friend explain in a little more detail how his Department will make advice to farmers available through the regional development agency for farmers who wish to diversify? I have 400 farmers scattered around the beautiful parts of the Aire, Worth and Wharfe valleys.

I am well aware that my hon. Friend is a keen champion of her local farming community. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his speech to the royal show last year, spoke about farm diversification and the need to examine the barriers that farmers experience when trying to diversify their farm businesses. The report that has come back shows that 50 per cent. of farmers in England have some form of diversified activity, and for almost 60 per cent. of those farm businesses that income accounts for a quarter or more of the total farm income, so that is a key area. We will ensure through the rural development programme for England, administered by the RDAs, that axis 1 and axis 3 of the programme deliver about £600 million of benefit to rural communities, much of it to the effect that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Carbon Dioxide Reduction

17. What measures he plans to use to assess progress towards meeting the Government’s target for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. (144200)

DEFRA publishes annual statistics on UK carbon dioxide emissions, as well as verified emissions data and surrendered allowances under the EU emissions trading scheme. That information allows us to measure progress towards our emissions reduction targets.

The national audit has shown that the Government’s own buildings and refurbishment programmes have achieved only 9 per cent. of their target. Why is that?

It is clear that we. as a Government. need to do better in respect of the Government office estate. That is one of the reasons why in July last year we announced new sustainable operation targets for the Government estate, and why we have said that we want the Government Office estate to be carbon-neutral by 2012. To be honest, I think our performance to date has been a little disappointing. Although it has been good in places, it has been patchy, and the National Audit Office recognised that. We need to work harder at that, right across Government.

Would it not assist the Government in trying to reach their targets if the Government, Parliament, the Mayor of London and the Greater London authority were to switch off the lights in their buildings during the night?

There are a number of issues around that point, but, broadly, the answer is yes. In some cases, lights need to be on at night for cleaning purposes, but the Government have been considering how cleaning can be undertaken in daylight hours. We can do more on optimising systems to switch off lights when buildings are not being used, and a programme of work has been implemented across Government.