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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 463: debated on Thursday 19 July 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Food Production

DEFRA launched a regional food strategy in December 2002. Since then we have helped to encourage a flourishing quality regional and local food sector and given £20 million of support.

I thank the Under-Secretary for her reply and welcome her to her post. Britain should be growing more of its own food and importing less. Does she agree that it is not acceptable for supermarkets to describe as “local” food that may have been grown hundreds of miles away and transported through central processing and packaging points?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his kind words. I am disappointed that he has not raised the Colchester native oyster application, as he has done so often and on which I understand DEFRA is waiting for more information before sending to the EU.

Of course it is essential that labelling is accurate and that consumers are well informed about the produce that they purchase. However, there needs to be a life cycle analysis to determine which food is more or less environmentally friendly in its growing, production, packaging and dispatch. Food that comes from a distance does not always have more environmental impact than food grown locally with very high inputs. It is a complicated science. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point and we need to make sure that consumers are aware and can make appropriate choices.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her post; it is well deserved and I am sure that we look forward to working with each other for many years.

Community agriculture is beginning to grow in various parts of the country, Stroud being a wonderful example. It involves people taking food production into their own hands, which it is necessary to support. One way in which that can be done is by making sure that community agriculture links in with the county farm estates, of which I have been a supporter for many years. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that and ensure that we get local food for local people that is grown by local people.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and pay tribute to his interest in the environment, particularly local food and its quality. Food from Britain is a programme that has the support of DEFRA in which we are endeavouring to give assistance to farmers to improve their production, quality, labelling and marketing. This is very important to us and the Department will continue to give appropriate support to the food industry, including farmers.

From her time on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Under-Secretary will recall the importance of the rural development programme. Is she aware that her Department is spending some £260 million on consultants but only £300 million of its own money to top up the rural development programme? In her new role, will she look at reducing expenditure on consultants and spending more on the rural development programme for the benefit of local food producers?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks and for his reference to my record. Consultants are an easy target for suggesting that they are not worth their money. I would judge each case on its own merits, and would want to know what the consultants were engaged to do and whether they helped the people they were advising to achieve their objectives. That is the way in which these judgments have to be made, but I am very happy to look at his specific points.

May I formally welcome the Under-Secretary to what I think is her first paid Front-Bench position? I recall that she was one of the unpaid Ministers earlier in the Government’s lifetime. I congratulate her on her appointment.

The hon. Lady rightly mentioned food labelling in answer to the first question. Has she had time to realise just what a shambles we have in our food labelling legislation? It is very confusing. Why do we have a system where some food is required to be labelled with its country of origin but not others: beef, but not pork or lamb; chicken from Brazil, but not from Belgium; honey, but not jam; olive oil, but not sunflower oil? We have complete confusion about our labelling legislation. If she really wants to promote local food—I believe from her record that she does—will she get a grip of our labelling rules and change them as soon as possible?

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I agree that we need more transparency and clarity. The purpose of labelling is to put the consumer in the driving seat so that they can make appropriate choices and, where appropriate, put pressure on producers and suppliers. Like him, I am keen for there to be improvements; I take the matter he raises seriously, and I and my colleagues will do all we can to enhance the regime.

Does the Minister agree that increasing oil prices will push up the cost of buying produce from abroad? The Totnes pound, with which she might be familiar, offers a 5 per cent. discount on locally produced goods, and 70 local producers are offering it. Does not that initiative provide a good way of proceeding? There will be a stick and a local carrot; the stick will be rising oil prices and the local carrot will be an inducement to people to buy local goods. Is the Minister familiar with the Transition Town Totnes project?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not yet being familiar with that project, but I intend to become familiar with it very soon. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it was grown and the circumstances of the people who produce it. It is good for both business and consumers if more local produce is made available, if it is appropriately described, and if, as is the case where there are markets, people can meet the producers. If the product is right, it is good for our health, too.

Sea Defences (East Coast)

2. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of sea defences on the east coast; and if he will make a statement. (150586)

The level of protection provided by sea defences along the east coast of England varies, depending on the level of risk and the type of land use which would be affected by any flooding. However, the indicative standard of protection for urban areas against sea flooding, as set out in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance, is typically to protect against a once in 200 years-type event. It is for the Environment Agency and other operating authorities to assess the risk and fully consider improvements to defences.

Is the Minister aware that the Environment Agency map shows some 2,600 properties around Maldon alone to be at risk from flooding, not to mention the Secretary of State’s ancestral home? Does the Minister agree that the risk he describes is increasing, owing to rising sea levels, greater storm pressure and a subsiding land mass? Does he accept that much more money needs to be spent on sea defences and that if money is spent now the sums needed are likely to be far less than the catastrophic losses that would be incurred if a flood were to occur?

It is of course recognised that there is a growing risk and threat, which is why the Government have provided extra resources for defences—I know that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we have done so. One cannot provide against all eventualities, but extra resources have been provided for his region and the area he represents.

I welcome the Minister’s comments and the fact that the Government have substantially increased the amount of money invested in coastal and flood defences. However, will the Minister consider providing compensation for home owners and businesses who might lose their properties as they are in areas where there will be a managed retreat because it is no longer affordable to defend the coastline?

It is no coincidence that such questions have been raised by Members of both main parties representing constituencies in the eastern region. The Government are fully aware of the risks and the future decisions that will have to be taken. My hon. Friend’s request will certainly be considered, but he would not expect me to give any pledges today.

Will the new ministerial team urgently look at the need to strengthen or replace the Thames barrier at some point in the next decade, as current predictions are that its design-life probably will not extend beyond 2020 at the latest? Given the pressures from flooding risks and the Government’s worries about global warming, is there not an urgent need to manage the consequences of such developments, and could we not link a new barrier to reclaiming land from the estuary so that we create valuable land for building?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the defences, and that is being considered. All those issues are a question of balance. Judgments have to be made on the types of defences and where they should be. We should not confuse—I know that he is not doing so—the need to protect against floods and the various causes of floods and coastal erosion, which has already been mentioned as it affects the eastern region.

After the events in Sheffield, Doncaster and Hull, the last of which was well protected against coastal flooding but not against surface water flooding, do the Government still agree with their response to the autumn 2004 “Making Space for Water” consultation, which said that

“to facilitate an holistic approach that is risk-driven, the Government will work towards giving the Environment Agency an overarching strategic overview across all flooding and coastal erosion risks”?

That was meant to happen by the end of 2006, according to the timeline at the back of the Government’s response. Will Ministers now tell the devastated householders of Hull, Sheffield and Doncaster when the Government will deliver on their promised flooding overview?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the strategy set out in “Making Space for Water”. I have to point out to the House that the floods, especially in the east Yorkshire and Hull area, were exceptional and would not have been prevented by an implementation of the policy that he raises. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that that is the Government’s policy. Decisions and announcements in that area will be made by the Environment Agency, which is today publishing its consultation document on the specific aspects of the issue, and by the Government later in the year.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Will he join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in commiserating with the people of Filey, who suffered overnight from unprecedented rainfall, which led to major evacuations? The effect of the rainfall was compounded by recent development and inadequate drainage, but the clear message is that more has to be spent on flood defences. Is the Minister aware that the chairman of the Yorkshire and Humber region flood defence committee has written to him, calling his attention to the fact that flood spending in the region will fall next year from £15.2 million to only £11.7 million? That is not the right message to send to people who have lost their homes and possessions in those unprecedented floods.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I know that she has great expertise on these issues, not least because of her constituency experience in Vale of York. I am, of course, aware of the events in Filey, which were similar in cause to those at Boscastle a few years ago. Anyone who knows Filey will be shocked to learn of the floods there.

On the resources that have been made available, we have to caution against taking too specific a view, because we have to consider the trend which in flood defence spending has been one of significant increases over the years. The time scales for all capital projects, and especially flood defence spending, mean that the wrong impression can be given by taking a figure out of context. However, I will of course reply to the chairman in full detail.

Renewable Energy

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Minister for Energy on the development of renewable energy. (150587)

Support for renewable energy is an essential part of the Government’s climate change programme and energy policy. I will continue to work closely with my ministerial colleagues to increase the share of UK electricity generated from renewables.

In Germany, 12 per cent. of energy is produced from renewable sources. Will my hon. Friend look closely at the success of the renewable energy Act in Germany and its proposals for revenue support, and will he discuss with the Energy Minister whether a similar system could be adopted in the UK, so that we can use the big house-building programme to advance renewable energy in this country?

The answers to the questions are yes and yes. My hon. Friend has a strong record of campaigning on this matter, and his constituency shows the economic as well as environmental benefits that renewables can bring. On 9 March, the Council of Europe agreed a binding target of having 20 per cent. of the EU’s overall energy consumption coming from renewables by 2020. We are working towards that, but a step change is coming, not least because of the new homes being built and the campaigning work being done by my hon. Friend and others.

Does the Minister agree that wind turbines are such a good idea that we should have hundreds, not to say thousands, of them offshore? That would allow us to take advantage of the higher wind velocity of some of the world’s stormiest seas, achieve greater economies of scale and implement our leading-edge offshore technology. On top of that, we would not have to look at them, which would be preferable to spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money on subsidising the despoiling of south Norfolk’s gentle landscape with industrial wind turbines, each of which is taller than Norwich cathedral.

I acknowledge the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but it would be wrong of me to give blanket approval for all such schemes, given the arguments from the shipping industry and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. On the whole, however, he makes a convincing case: our nation is blessed with offshore wind resources, and it would be wrong not to take advantage of them. Indeed, the Government’s energy and environment policy is pushing in the direction that he outlines.

May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to what may be one of the most important positions in the Government? Has he had a chance to read the “Draft Options Paper on Renewable Targets” that has been circulated to Ministers? It deals with the 20 per cent. renewables target for the EU agreed at the spring Council, and speaks rather approvingly of what it describes as “scenario 1”. However, by 2020 that would result in the UK delivering only 9 per cent. of renewable energy across all sectors, at a cost of £4 billion. That is less than half of the 20 per cent. by 2020 that the 2006 White Paper suggested was the Government’s aspiration, and less than half of the EU target for that date. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Energy Minister at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and put some backbone into what used to be known as the Department of Trade and Industry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He said that mine was one of the most important jobs, but another word for it would be “challenging”. I represent Oldham, where rainfall is significant, so I am clearly in a lose-lose situation in that regard, but I will look at the points that my hon. Friend makes. The “Draft Options Paper On Renewable Targets” is an important document: the two Departments responsible for energy and the environment work very closely together on Government policy, and it is important that we speak with one voice.

Given the impact on food prices of the diversion of production to ethanol, and the damage to the environment that the expansion of crops for ethanol can have in the developing world, will the Government consider drawing up a balance sheet of the pluses and minuses of biofuels? That will enable us to know clearly whether they will save the planet or damage it and cause undue suffering to its poorest inhabitants.

As ever, the right hon. Gentleman speaks with common sense. What he suggests seems very sensible, so I think we should do it. All such decisions are a question of balancing the pros and cons, so the idea of balance sheet will be given consideration. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) made a similar point about food: such matters are not always as straightforward as they appear. We will do as the right hon. Gentleman suggests.

I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. On the question of encouraging microgeneration in renewables, does he agree that it does not make sense that those who can export electricity to the grid are paid less per unit than they spend when they buy electricity? That needs to be looked at. Also, the importance of energy and the environment has been mentioned already, so does he agree that there is a real logic in having those two crucial sectors covered by one Ministry?

The machinery of government is a matter for the Prime Minister, and I am not going there. Having said that, I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend says. The whole House acknowledges the depth of his experience, so his suggestions—particularly when they are made with the force of logic that he has just displayed—will be looked at. Clearly, microgeneration has a huge part to play and, in the next five to 10 years, we as a country will see a revolution in how we approach it. Getting the market right is an essential prerequisite for that revolution.

Following on from the previous question, my constituency is well placed for microgeneration in both hydroelectric and wind power. One of the problems that potential microgenerators face is that the local electricity transmission company, Scottish Power, is less than enthusiastic about assisting them. There is one particular scheme on which I would like the Minister’s advice at some point, if I cannot get the company to see reason. All the money has been spent, the scheme has been put together, but the company has turned round and said, “The grid here won’t take that amount of power.” That is absolutely nonsensical. It cuts across everything the Government are trying to do and goes against common sense. If I cannot get the company to see reason, will the Minister look at the problem if I send him the papers?

Yes, of course I will be happy to help if I can. We have a huge, £750 million programme involving the energy supply companies to encourage the diversification that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, so I will certainly look at the matter.

The Government have proposed building a barrage across the River Severn to harness the second largest tidal range in the world. In welcoming my hon. Friend to his post and recognising the importance of tackling climate change and finding alternative sources of energy, may I also ask him to bear in mind the fact that the Severn is one of the most important sites in the UK for its mudflats, sandbanks and reefs and that environmental protection is also a major issue for the Government?

My hon. Friend puts her finger on exactly the sorts of dilemmas and paradoxes that have been raised in previous questions. For the record, the Government are not proposing the barrier at the moment; we are looking at the matter and expect a report shortly. It is a question of balance. The protection of the environment at the expense of damaging the environment is one of the most difficult choices that we face in politics, which is why we must give the decision proper consideration.

May I warmly welcome the new team to their positions? We can all agree that the UK has huge untapped potential for renewable energy, but, sadly, as some Members have already commented, the renewables obligation, for all the billions that it has taken from consumers in recent years, has failed to deliver large-scale investment in a host of new technologies, such as wave and tidal power. At the other end of the spectrum, the low-carbon buildings programme to support micro-renewables is a complete shambles. However, the new energy efficiency commitment—EEC—that will replace the low-carbon buildings programme is set to be even more problematic. Can the Minister name a single innovative renewable technology that will be better supported under EEC3?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind words in welcoming the new team. We reciprocate and welcome his new team. It is uncharitable of him to describe the scheme in the way that he has. There are many examples of improvements in the area of the low-carbon buildings programme—I have a document giving examples that runs to three pages. I do not propose to read them out, Mr. Speaker, because you would not let me, but I am more than happy to put the document on the website for hon. Members who are interested in reading in it.

Climate Change (Food Security)

In 2006, DEFRA published a study on food security that concluded that the UK, as a rich and open economy, has a very robust and diverse food supply. However, the study also recognised the need to manage the various risks, including climate change, that are associated with modern food chains, as well as the food security challenges facing developing countries.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench. Corn prices have started to rise because land is being used for biofuels, although that might be a welcome development. However, climate change could lead not only to an increase in food prices, but to a reduction in the world’s food stocks. In that context, is she satisfied that the models on which DEFRA is working are robust enough to allow us to cope with whatever climate change produces globally?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Nothing is absolutely certain when it comes to climate change, although we believe that our models are robust enough. Global self-sufficiency should not be taken for granted. We will continue to monitor trends, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s analysis of trends on global food production and demand. Climate change is certainly making patterns of world food production more volatile. In those circumstances, international trade can help us to pool risks and enhance food security.

I remind my hon. Friend that the UK sources food from 34 countries, with no more than 13 per cent. of imports coming from any one of them, so our risk is carefully balanced. He would be right in thinking that the risks are at their most acute in developing countries. I am delighted that DEFRA is working in both India and China to try to increase the capacity to mitigate and adapt to the impact of climate change on agriculture.

It is estimated that 600,000 people in the world today are either underfed or undernourished. By 2050, there will be another 3 billion people—a 50 per cent. increase in the world’s population. Given that the stocks of wheat and other food commodities are low, certainly compared with those in recent years, will the new Minister undertake to examine DEFRA’s approach to food security and to ensure that UK farmers play their full part in feeding not only this nation, but the world? A hungry nation is not a happy nation.

Indeed. We have to make a distinction between this country’s food security and global food security. Given what I said in answer to the previous question, I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are pretty confident about the position here because of the diversity of sources from which we draw our food supplies and our very effective international trade. Europe as a whole is 90 per cent. self-sufficient in food. However, he is right to point out the plight of people in developing countries. The Government’s record, through the Department for International Development, is second to none in giving support to developing countries, especially on agriculture, water and other ways in which we can help them to secure their future food supplies. He will know that the provision of food and the periods of hunger in developing countries are not always directly linked to food production—poverty is an enormous factor. It is for other Ministers to discuss the complexities of the situation, but we must play our part, as I believe DEFRA is doing.

It is a pleasure to see that my hon. Friend, an environmental campaigner, is now an Environment Minister. Does she agree that, whether we are considering food security or the G8 and World Bank meeting today and tomorrow in Paris on deforestation, there is a feeling that although climate change is very important, the response is fragmented? There is no cohesive and focused response globally, internationally, or even in this country. Will she work with her colleagues in her new job to ensure that we have an overarching and focused response to climate change?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. Through the Climate Change Bill, which the Government expect to introduce in the autumn, we will attempt to take a comprehensive approach for the first time, at least in this country. It will concentrate primarily on mitigation, but of course we will also consider adaptation. This country has played a leading role in the international community, but my hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that many people have still not grasped the absolute urgency of the issue and the fact that it is global, that we are all in this together, that the blame game does not work, and that we have to work internationally. We must put our own house in order; otherwise, we cannot possibly expect to get the international agreements that we seek.

Does the Minister accept that it is an ill-conceived policy to subsidise the production of biofuels, as that forces up the price of agricultural land and so forces up the cost of food at home? That requires us to import more food from overseas. Is it not a ludicrous policy, and is it not based on a failure to understand that climate change is essentially a natural phenomenon?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman completely ruined his case with his final remark. He must know that the vast majority of the world scientific community is now united in believing that the effects of climate change are primarily man-made. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has said repeatedly, it is a question of balance: we need biofuels until we can, for example, move to a new generation of vehicles that allow us to bypass the use of fossil fuels. There is a need for biofuels, and we will have to act in a sustainable way. Under the renewable transport fuel obligation, we will require obligated companies to report publicly on the life-cycle carbon savings and wider sustainability impacts of their biofuels, taking into account biodiversity and previous land use. In this country, we will ensure that we take account of all the effects of biofuels. Of course, many biofuels, such as those derived from forestry, are not alternatives to food crops. The issue is complex and it is a matter of balance, but we do need both biofuels and food crops.

I sincerely welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. We look forward to her future ministerial pronouncements on issues such as genetically modified food and nuclear power, on which she has a track record of robust opinion. I detect that her heart was not entirely in the line on food security that she read out at the beginning of her answer to the question. In 2003, her Department issued a statement that said:

“National food security is neither necessary nor is it desirable”.

In 2005, the joint DEFRA-Treasury document “A Vision for the CAP” stated:

“domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security”,

implying that if we run out of British-produced food, we can simply import it from abroad. A couple of months ago, the former Secretary of State reiterated that position, but in the light of the fact that around the world deserts are growing, droughts are increasing, food crops are being replaced by fuel crops, and the global population is rising sharply, does she not think it is time to have another look at whether Departments should be so casual about our ability to feed ourselves?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks; they were a bit mixed, but I can handle that. He spoke about food security, but food security is about ensuring that consumers have access to a stable and adequate supply of food. The issue of where that food comes from is not necessarily the key to food security. I accept entirely what he says about risks; as I said in previous answers, we are conscious of risks, and we must always be conscious of them. We are evaluating risks, and we remain in touch with the Food and Agriculture Organisation, but the point on UK food production is that self-sufficiency is best seen as a broad indicator of UK agricultural competitiveness, which he knows is actually extremely good. In criticising the Department, the hon. Gentleman is on the wrong foot. Food security is about ensuring that consumers have a supply. We are confident that that is the case, as I explained in my previous answers.


5. What recent discussions he has had with supermarkets on the prices of foodstuffs provided by suppliers. (150591)

Ministers have held a number of meetings with supermarkets, but not specifically on prices paid to suppliers. Supermarkets’ relations with their suppliers are currently being looked at by the Competition Commission as part of its inquiry into the grocery market.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s elevation from the Whips Office to the Front Bench. The next time he goes shopping in Tesco, will he reflect on the anecdotal evidence that a large number of suppliers are very concerned about the fact that the big supermarkets, Tesco included, are using their monopoly power to force down the prices of foodstuffs offered by suppliers? I know that an inquiry is under way, but will he see what he can do, as the Minister, to check on the evidence?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. We need to get to the heart of the matter. There is a widely held belief that large supermarkets have a stranglehold on suppliers. That has been said with respect to dairy farmers particularly. We should support the investigation by the Competition Commission and welcome the fact that it will focus on dairy farming. My noble Friend Lord Rooker has written to the Competition Commission—we have made a submission. We will not comment on the outcome at this stage, but when the investigation is complete, we will. We look forward to the evidence that the commission presents.

I welcome the new Minister to his position and I wish him well. I am delighted that he has mentioned dairy farming. It is a matter that I raised in the House only a few days ago. The dairy industry is in crisis. In my constituency, in the years that I have represented it, more than 50 per cent. of the dairy farms it once had are no longer in existence. One village which was all dairy, North Rode, now has no dairy farms. Will the Minister talk to the superstores and supermarkets—not just with their suppliers, but about the producers, and the prices that the producers get? We have a wonderful country for both dairying and the production of food. Let us use it to the advantage of this country and of people in other countries who are starving.

Order. I must appeal to hon. Members. They should put a supplementary question. When they speak for too long, it puts other Back Benchers at a disadvantage. That should go on the record.

I thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) for that question. When any business collapses, it is painful, but when a farm collapses it affects all of us, because farmers are the stewards of our countryside. We have seen a decrease in the dairy industry of about 6 per cent. over the past five years, but that is not specific to Britain. It has happened in Greece, Spain and Portugal. However, we are seeing price rises now at the farm gate. The dairy industry needs to move into other products, such as cheeses and organic yoghurts, as happens in Northern Ireland, where the industry relies more on the export market and prices are rising higher. We should eat British cheese—there are 750 varieties, more than in France—followed by British strawberries, preferably from the garden of England.

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the hype of so-called organic foods by the supermarkets, which is obviously resulting in higher profits for them, but not necessarily for the growers here in Britain or in faraway places such as Kenya?

I welcome the point that my hon. Friend makes. We want a fair deal for farmers in Britain and for farmers in developing countries as well, so that they can profit. It is vital that labelling, particularly of organic products, is accurate. Supermarkets should be clear that when they tell the consumer that their product is organic, it should indeed be organic.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that we live in a capitalist system? Does he recognise that some of these supermarkets produce the most efficient delivery systems for foodstuffs in the world? Does he recognise that to try to change that philosophy is probably a bit more than he and his Department are capable of? Does he recognise that free trade—

I always recognise my hon. Friend. I take on board his points, but I think it is important that we get the balance right in the relationship between the supplier and the supermarket, as both require certainty and flexibility in today’s world.

Equine Welfare

6. When he expects to introduce (a) licensing of livery yards and (b) regulations on tethering as provided for by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. (150593)

It is the Government’s intention to introduce secondary legislation on livery yards, and a code of practice will be introduced as soon as possible and in line with resources.

That was not a terribly illuminating response, I am afraid. May I point out to the Minister that as many riding establishments are licensed, it seems correct that livery yards should be licensed in the same way? Does he intend that those approved by the British Horse Society should still require a licence from the local authority? With regard to tethering, is it his intention that the travelling population should comply with the rules that he introduces? Would he be prepared to attend the all-party group on the horse, which I have the honour of chairing, to discuss these matters?

To answer the last question first—yes. Also, we are considering the code for tethering. I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s points about the travelling community. We do not want horses to endure tethering for long periods. As for introducing licensing, he knows that we had to make a decision during the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill, and we chose to deal with circuses and greyhounds. We are committed to introducing legislation for livery yards, but there are always competing demands on time.

When the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee took evidence on the draft Animal Welfare Bill, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told us that there were several thousand complaints a year about incorrect tethering, illegal grazing and subsequent straying, which has caused significant problems in counties such as mine. Will the Minister consider the RSPCA’s recommendation that the Government work much more closely with local authorities, particularly, as the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) said, in areas where there are significant encampments of the travelling community?


7. What steps he is taking to draw lessons from the recent severe flooding; and if he will make a statement. (150594)

We have set up a wide-ranging review to identify lessons to be learned from the recent flooding to help us to manage and respond to such events in future. We aim to publish initial findings by the end of the year and subsequently a formal Government report.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment and on the high-quality nature of his team?

Will my right hon. Friend report to the House any discussions that he has been having with representatives of British insurers regarding the recent flooding? I have in mind the difficulties that I experienced in my constituency in 2002, when one elderly lady was rendered homeless for 12 months because a big insurance company forced her to accept the lowest bid, which meant bringing in cowboys, and she had a very unhappy time.

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. I join her in welcoming the new ministerial team at DEFRA. I am greatly looking forward to working with my colleagues.

I have already spoken to the Association of British Insurers on the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and I know of the efforts that insurance companies are making to get round to visiting people and processing claims as quickly as possible, including changing some of the arrangements whereby they would usually require more than one quote. There will be big demands on the building and repairs industry to deal with the problems that people have experienced. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, who is leading the recovery group, is also talking to the ABI about these issues.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. Will he commit to ensuring that farmers such as Peter Vaughan in my constituency, who has lost 150 acres of potatoes, are guaranteed at least a large percentage of their single farm payment by Christmas? Many other members of the rural community have lost crops because of flooding, and constituents of mine in Tenbury Wells were flooded again this week. What can he do for Andrea Harrison and Mike Button of Phaze Computer Services who, despite the fact that they are not located in the rural community but in the more urban parts of my constituency, are very worried about their business?

I am acutely conscious of, and have discussed, the problems facing farmers in many constituencies, not least at last week’s Great Yorkshire show. Two issues were raised with me of which the hon. Gentleman will be aware: the cross-compliance arrangements, which normally prevent farmers from going on to waterlogged land, and the use of set-aside land for grazing and foraging. I went away to consider them, and within 24 hours we lifted the rules on cross-compliance and waterlogged land until the end of this month to enable farmers to get on to the land and do what they can to rescue their crops. By notifying the Rural Payments Agency, they are able to use set-aside land for grazing and foraging—unless the agency says there is a difficulty—in recognition of the fact that the land they would otherwise use is currently underwater.

We made those changes in direct response to representations made to me. We set the RPA a target for 2007—it having achieved the target of paying 96 per cent. of the money due by 30 June by reaching a figure of 98 per cent.—of paying 75 per cent. of the amount due by the end of March and 90 per cent. by the end of May. We shall look further at the position in the autumn.

I met the agency’s chief executive yesterday; I recognise that the service it has provided has not been acceptable, but things are improving. I am determined that we shall maintain that improvement and I am grateful to agency staff for their efforts.

Single Farm Payment Scheme

I reported to the House on 2 July that, as at 30 June, the Rural Payments Agency had paid out 98 per cent. of the estimated total funds, thus meeting its target for this year. The agency continues to work on the remaining single payment scheme claims, including cases where entitlements may need to be adjusted.

The Secretary of State has acknowledged the mind-boggling incompetence of the RPA in the past, and we look forward to dramatic improvements. Is he aware of increased problems for those who farm on both sides of the Welsh border, owing to a failure to think through the implications of devolved agriculture for cross-border farms? Why are English farmers further disadvantaged by the fact that modulation is much higher in England, and in Scotland too, amounting to almost 10 per cent. of entitlement?

On top of compulsory modulation under the common agricultural policy, we have decided to have a greater degree of voluntary modulation. I think that that is the right policy. I shall go away and consider the specific issue the hon. Lady raises about farmers farming on both sides of the border.

Every Member recognises that this has not been a happy episode for the RPA, but I hope that the hon. Lady will acknowledge the steps that have been taken to try to improve the service. We should encourage agency staff to continue that work, and my noble Friend Lord Rooker has been holding surgeries at which Members can talk to him about individual cases. Those are continuing. I say to all hon. Members whose farmer constituents are experiencing difficulties, that they can talk to us about individual cases, and we shall do our best to sort them out.