Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 465: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Foot and Mouth Disease

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s response to the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease; and if he will make a statement. (160570)

We put our contingency plan into operation as soon as there was confirmation of foot and mouth disease. Two and a half months on, it has been contained in a small part of the country. Nevertheless, we are committed to learning the lessons from this and all disease outbreaks, and we have therefore asked Dr. lain Anderson, who conducted an inquiry into the 2001 outbreak, to chair a review.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that rational and helpful reply. My constituency of Macclesfield is a predominantly livestock farming area. Livestock farmers have sustained huge losses. A little earlier this month, he announced a compensation package of £12.5 million. How widely do the Government anticipate that the package will be distributed? Will it adequately recompense livestock farmers throughout the United Kingdom for the huge losses that they have sustained?

I recognise the real difficulties that the livestock industry in particular is facing as a result of the outbreak, which could not have come at a worse time of year. The support that I announced to the House when we returned after the summer recess was for those who have been most adversely affected, who are, indeed, the hill farmers. As well as containing the disease with a view to eradicating it, we have tried throughout to get the market working again. In all parts of the country, except the remaining small risk area, all the restrictions that have been put in place domestically have now gone. The ones that remain are the result of the European Union rules, but we have already seen in the past two weeks a further easing of those restrictions to allow exports to resume. I am clear in my mind that the best thing that we can do is help the industry recover, but I know that it is going to be very tough and extremely difficult.

In last week’s debate on foot and mouth, I referred to the pig sector and the problems that the outbreak has caused for it. I asked for assistance for that sector, perhaps through storage aid or a sow disposal scheme. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), who responded to the debate, said that the team would be working closely with pig industry leaders to try to assist them. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress since?

I can tell my hon. Friend that that discussion with representatives of the pig industry and of all parts of the livestock industry has been a very strong feature of the way in which we have tried to handle the outbreak. A decision was taken on Monday at the Agriculture Council meeting to open a scheme for private storage in respect of pigs, following a request from Poland, which it made because of the difficulties that it is facing. I repeat what I said a moment ago. With the easing of restrictions and the lifting of all those put in place domestically, I hope that the industry will find that it now has the opportunity to recover, albeit that it will take time.

Following on from last week’s debate on compensation and so on, may I press the right hon. Gentleman on one question? If the Agriculture Minister in Wales were to apply to the Treasury for special funding in these special circumstances, would the Secretary of State lend his weight to the application and support it?

As I told the House when I made the statement, it is open to each of us—I have to manage the cost of the schemes that I have put in place and the assistance that I have given in relation to England—and to the devolved Administrations to have that conversation if they wish. However, it is not unreasonable in the circumstances, given that we do not yet know what the full cost of the outbreak will be, for each of us to bear the costs for the time being of the schemes that we think are appropriate for the parts of the country for which we have responsibility. That is what I have done for England, and the Welsh Agriculture Minister has done the same in Wales, as have the Scottish Executive in Scotland.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem impacted even on largely industrial constituencies such as mine? The company Devro, which exports sausage skins to many parts of the world—Europe, Africa and so on—and has locations in both Moodiesburn and Bellshill, clearly needed certificates of clearance. His Department was enormously helpful. Given the horrendous demands that must have been placed on it, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you on the company’s behalf.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s words. I take this opportunity to echo those thanks—to the Department officials, vets and animal health staff who have worked phenomenally hard in the past two and a half months to deal with the consequences. They have worked not only to contain the outbreak but to give every assistance to those caught up in it. The reopening of the meat product export market to the rest of Europe—exports to the rest of the world will take some time to resume—has probably been the most important step. Those exports are now gradually happening.

The hill farm allowance supplement is an average £850 for an individual farmer and the average hill farmer in my constituency has lost in the region of £10,000 to £20,000 in the past few weeks. Given that the Government are culpable for the outbreak, does the Secretary of State feel that the additional support that they have provided is sufficient?

I recognise that the support will not help to meet all the costs, but it is not this Government’s policy—it has never been any Government’s—to provide full compensation for economic loss.

Why did I take the decision to help hill farmers? I did that because, as was said a moment ago, hill farmers have faced the greatest difficulties as a result of what has happened. The £8.5 million will provide some additional assistance and, I hope, give hill farmers slightly more options, albeit in very difficult circumstances. We should recognise that the markets are operating again—that includes the resumption of exports to Europe—and that that has released the most important blockage that the hill farmers were facing.

The Secretary of State has just stressed the importance of learning from disease outbreaks. One of the lessons of the 2001 outbreak was that the decision to close the countryside to visitors led to enormous economic consequences. Does he understand that although farming is important, the value brought by people who visit rural communities and boost the rural economy is more significant?

They are both significant and both extremely important. My hon. Friend is absolutely right—we have sought to learn the lessons from 2001, which include the advice given by Dr. Iain Anderson. That is why he is entirely the right person to come back and say how we have all done on this occasion.

My hon. Friend is right to say that rural communities benefit enormously from such wider economic activity. We have handled the footpath closures in the protection zones correctly, but, like the industry more broadly, we have been clear about sending out the message that the countryside is open for business. It is important that people continue to enjoy the countryside and bring economic activity to it, to help those who would otherwise be affected in addition to the farmers, who have suffered so much.

I telephoned a leading farmer the day after the foot and mouth outbreak was announced, and was surprised to find that I was the one informing him about it. Given that, for years, automatic electronic telephone calls have been used to sell financial services, when will the Department make sure that they—not only text messages—are used to give farmers the earliest possible information about notifiable disease emergencies?

We have been using both text messages and automated telephone messages. Furthermore, we have been delivering information packs to affected farmers in the protection zones. However, we have to recognise that the media are one way in which we all get our news; I would be surprised if many farmers in the country had not been aware, first, of the outbreak, and secondly, of the imposition of movement controls. We all have a part to play, and I pay tribute to the efforts not only of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs staff but of the National Farmers Union and other organisations, including those representing different sectors. They played an important part in reinforcing the message to their members.

At one stage of the outbreak, the chief veterinary officer declared that the UK was free of foot and mouth. If that had not happened, many of the hill farming industry’s problems would not have occurred. Was that declaration made because the surveillance area was not great enough, and will the Government learn the lessons?

Of course we will reflect on the lessons. That is why we have been so quick to invite Dr. Anderson to establish the review. In my view, the decision taken on 8 September was absolutely right in the light of our knowledge at the time; it was a month and a bit since a case had been confirmed, and the decision was confirmed by the European Union, which looked at all the evidence.

Why was there the further case? As we now know from the epidemiological report, which we published at every stage, in the interests of openness, the animals on one of the premises—infected premises No. 5, as it is described—had had foot and mouth and the lesions were between three and four weeks old. That reinforces our point throughout that the first line of defence in overcoming the disease is farmers’ vigilance. That case went undetected for whatever reason, and was therefore unreported. Had it been reported, the situation would have been different. Our decision at the time was right in the light of the evidence that we had.

This outbreak has already, at the latest estimate, cost English farmers well over £100 million. Two weeks ago, as we heard, the Secretary of State announced a package of £12 million. On Monday this week, in a written answer, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), told me that no conclusions had yet been reached on cost sharing or the estimate of the element of those costs falling to farmers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the comprehensive spending review clearly states that an increased share of responsibility and cost-sharing will save DEFRA £121 million over three years, which is £40 million in extra costs to farmers each year—more than three times the package that he announced?

Yes, I am happy to confirm that that is the case. I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman—we need to change the system. There are already different approaches in relation to different parts of the livestock sector. The truth is that if one was designing a system from scratch today, it would not look like the system that we have; we all know that. The deal to be done is to give the livestock industry much greater say over how the controls on animal disease outbreaks affecting animals only—not zoonotic diseases because we, as the Government, have a public health interest—are applied and lifted. We have worked in partnership with the industry in dealing with this and in, in return for that, there should be recognition that the costs of dealing with preventing disease and coping with outbreaks should fall more upon the industry. I think that that is the right way to go. This is very difficult anyway—especially so in the circumstances that we have just been through—but dealing with these outbreaks over the past two and a half months has brought it home to me that we should have a different system, and that is what I want to try to get agreement on.

Flood Risk

I am in regular contact, as are ministerial colleagues and officials, with the insurance industry and the Association of British Insurers. We are working together to ensure the continued widespread availability of flood insurance cover through the association’s statement of principles.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that it is now estimated that more than £3 billion is to be paid out by the insurance industry. How can my constituents be sure of keeping their flood insurance cover when only just over 40 per cent. of flood defences are properly maintained by the Environment Agency and when the increase in flood defence spending by 2010-11 will return us only to the level that we were at in 2004, before this year’s devastating floods? Can he give reassurance to my constituents and confirm that those in rural areas will not be neglected in order to put all the emphasis on urban areas?

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this issue so I am very aware of the impact that the flooding had on his constituents in Burstwick and Hedon. I would say to his constituents that the increase in funding that I announced at the beginning of July and the way in which that is going to be phased in between now and 2010-11 is a direct response to the requests that many people have made of us, including the Association of British Insurers. In June, it asked us to get up to £750 million a year by 2010-11; in fact, we are going to be spending £800 million a year by 2010-11. That is why, when I announced that figure, the ABI said that this was the news that homeowners had wanted to hear. I recognise that there has been a second round of flooding since then. I am very keen that we continue to work in partnership with the ABI as we significantly increase spending on flood defence, building on the doubling of investment over the past decade so that we can keep that statement of principles in place and therefore protect the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Following this summer’s flooding, my survey of 4,000 households in my constituency tells me that people would support my right hon. Friend’s Department giving incentives to landowners to manage their land in ways that help to prevent floods—not just the normal daily work of keeping watercourses and gullies free from obstructions but proactively, for example, by creating new water meadows and other wetland. Will he change the conditions for the single payment and the schemes for stewardship of land in order to give that incentive to landowners?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting and important point. Of course, there is already land that naturally floods during the winter, but the problem for some of the farmers whom I met was that they did not expect it to flood in that way during the summer, so it came at a bad time of the year and affected their ability to get their crops out of the ground. Yes, the Environment Agency does need to consider all the ways in which we can accommodate astonishing flows of water of the kind that we saw in June and July.

It is debatable whether landowners have to be paid to do that because in the winter they provide such flood capacity naturally. However, one lesson that we have learned from all of this—Sir Michael Pitt will be drawing all of them together in his lessons-learned review—is that we have to look at the inter-relationship of the ways in which water can escape when we have the astonishing amount of rainfall that we experienced during the summer. If my hon. Friend has not already done so, he might like to pass on the result of his consultation to Sir Michael Pitt so that he can consider it in his review.

In my constituency, we have had two “one in 30 years” floods in nine years, and the last time 2,000 properties flooded. The owners of those properties are worried that they will not be able to get insurance in the future. I suggest two things that the Secretary of State could do to help. First, there are too many agencies with responsibilities for different parts of the problem. It would be helpful if he were to put the Environment Agency in some sort of overall co-ordinating role.

Secondly, if we are to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of the flood defences that we can afford and make sense of, we need a comprehensive survey of what could be done about each little bit of local flooding. I suggest that the Environment Agency should either do that, or commission someone to do it. Without it, we cannot make the decisions on whether particular flood defences are economically sensible.

Those are two good suggestions. We were already consulting on giving the Environment Agency such responsibility, particularly in relation to surface water flooding. The hon. Gentleman is right; a lot of disparate organisations have responsibility for different bits of the surface water drainage system. I want to take on board whatever Sir Michael Pitt has to say, but I am keen that we make progress on the matter, because it definitely reflects one of the lessons that we learned from the summer, particularly from what happened in Hull.

Secondly, the Environment Agency needs to look at the range of potential schemes, but even with the additional funding that we are putting in place, there has to be a system for deciding on prioritisation of where the money will be spent. The Environment Agency has already been reviewing the points system that it uses to weigh the different considerations in reaching a decision, which is a process that I support. We recognise that a decision will have to be taken to fund one thing rather than something else, but at least we have more money with which to take that decision than was the case in the past.

In addition to welcoming the sensible suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about managing river valleys so that their uplands are not intensively farmed or left in a situation where flood water can rush down them, will the Secretary of State consider earmarking some of the welcome investment in flood relief and flood defence schemes for the overhauling of antiquated surface water drainage systems? They are not up to the job, and caused as many problems as flooding from river valleys itself.

Now that I have announced the phasing of the increase in funding over the next three years, the Environment Agency will be in a position to plan. It will need to talk to local authorities about surface water drainage. The truth about such drainage is that we have a system that was built between 100 and 150 years ago, at a time when people did not expect to have to cope with the amounts of water that we have recently seen. The second problem is that we have concreted, covered with tarmac and paved over a lot of the surface land in our towns and cities, so when it rains to such an extent, there are fewer places for the water to go. It is not soaked up by the ground that is already saturated. Those are some of the lessons we have to learn. It will be a combination of improving capacity and ensuring that new drainage is built to a higher specification than was the case in the past, but we need to ask what more we can do in towns and cities to improve capacity to enable water to run off when we have rain of that sort.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s interest in the impact of flooding in Gloucestershire, and in my constituency in particular. There are two issues that I would like him to raise with the insurers. First, is it wise to keep building planned houses on areas that flooded in July, such as Leckhampton in my constituency? Will the homes built there be insurable at any economic premium? Secondly, will the insurers be able to expedite payments to small businesses affected by the flooding? Many of them are still waiting for compensation months later, with an obvious impact on their cash flow, their bank charges and the interest that they pay on their overdrafts.

On the second point, I am happy to pass on the hon. Gentleman’s point to the industry. However, from my conversations with many people who were affected, including those in his constituency, and with hon. Members, it appears that the insurance industry responded well by and large in terms of sending assessors. I understand the point about payment; quite a lot has already been paid out.

On the first point, the hon. Gentleman knows that we have considerably strengthened the guidance in planning policy statement 25. We have given the Environment Agency, which is the expert on where there is a risk of flooding, a statutory right to be consulted. Ministers, of course, have a right to call in proposals. In the light of the strengthened guidance, it is a continuing responsibility on local authorities to ask themselves whether, if they intend to build on a flood plain, they can adequately defend against a risk that is increasing because the climate is changing. Approximately 2 million homes in the country are built on a flood plain. The building that we are in now is on a flood plain, but it has a defence. Local authorities must weigh that up when making decisions so that we do not add to the problems.

May I record my personal thanks to the Association of British Insurers, the managing director of which visited the Vale of York when it was flooded for the second time in 2005? Does the Secretary of State see fit to give an undertaking that water companies in future will be consulted on all new developments on the flood plain so that they can ascertain whether they should go ahead rather than being deemed fit simply to connect water and sewerage to new developments?

In reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) about the involvement of too many bodies, the Secretary of State referred to predicting ways in which water will escape. Does he acknowledge that too many bodies are involved in mapping future flood risk? They include the Met Office, the Environment Agency, the ABI, individual insurance companies and district councils. Should not one body be made responsible for mapping possible future flood risk?

On the second point, there is a problem, especially in relation to surface water flooding. Although the Environment Agency maps for river flooding, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict where surface water flooding will occur because one has to know the volume of rain that will fall, exactly where it will fall and the gradient of the ground, and then assess the capacity of the drainage system. It is a problem, but I am sure that Sir Michael Pitt’s review will consider it.

Water companies’ interest is principally in the capacity to supply water to new developments. In the context of flood risk, the Environment Agency, to which we have given a statutory right to be consulted, is the body whose views we need to hear. However, all those matters should be considered because I am determined that we learn lessons so that we can do better in future.

Climate Change Bill

The Government’s response to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on the draft Climate Change Bill will be laid in Parliament shortly, ahead of its introduction in the forthcoming parliamentary Session.

As climate change is one of the most important issues of our age, it is essential to set up a climate change committee that is independent of the Government. If the Government appoint the chairman and members of the committee, what criteria will be used? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the committee will be independent?

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance because the committee on climate change will be an important body, which will comprise people with the right expertise and skills. As he knows from the draft Climate Change Bill, it will have to take a range of considerations into account in advising the Government on the budgets and undertaking their other duties. If he will bear with us a little longer, he will see what happens. A genuine consultation has taken place—that is why I was strongly in favour of publishing the Bill in draft. The purpose of a consultation is to listen and respond to the arguments. I intend to do exactly that.

Some people are asking the Government to embrace a target of an 80 per cent. cut in CO2 instead of the ambitious and laudable target of 60 per cent. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will resist the requests for 80 per cent., which could be perceived as posturing by today’s politicians, who will not be active in 2050, and concentrate more than hitherto on tackling the effects of climate change? Will he strengthen that aspect of the Bill to ensure that the Government put in place further measures quickly to adapt to the climate change that we are already experiencing, such as the flooding that we have discussed? We have the crazy example of Wessex Water in 2000 asking Ofwat to install bigger pipes but not being allowed to do so.

The truth is that we have to do both. It is not a competition between mitigation and adaptation, because we are going to have to learn to live with the change in our climate that has already taken place, while we work as hard as we can to ensure that we avoid catastrophic further change, so I very much take the point about adaptation.

As for the figure for the reduction in carbon emissions that we need in the UK, the draft Bill talks about at least 60 per cent. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced last month that we will ask the committee on climate change—the independent experts who will advise the Government—whether that target is strong enough in the light of the changing science. I am clear that that is absolutely the right thing to do, because as circumstances change and we have a greater understanding of what is happening, it is right to ask whether we need to change the policy and the approach that we take in response. That is a much better way of answering the question than plucking a figure out of the air.

How can the Secretary of State speak so freely about climate change when by any standard or test the Government are consistently failing their own targets?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not agree. First, if we take the commitment that we entered into in signing up to the Kyoto protocol—

Well, the UK signed up to it. Not only are we going to meet the commitments that we entered into but we are likely to meet nearly double those commitments. The UK is one of the few industrial countries in the world to do so. Can the hon. Gentleman name another country in the world that is about to put legislation before its Parliament that will put on the statute book a statutory commitment to reduce emissions in the way that we propose to do? Can he name another country in the world that has done more to argue the case for an international agreement as a successor to the Kyoto protocol? The answer is that he cannot do so. That is an indication of the seriousness with which the Government take the need to deal with climate change.

The committee on climate change is an important part of the draft Climate Change Bill. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gave evidence to the Joint Committee on the draft Climate Change Bill earlier this year, he indicated that the committee on climate change would be set up at an early date and that a shadow committee might even be set up in advance of the full legislation coming into force, so as to start work at an early stage. If the idea of setting up a shadow committee soon is not already in the Government’s response to the Joint Committee’s report, will the Secretary of State slip it into that response quickly and try to get the shadow committee set up soon?

Well, with a little patience my hon. Friend will see the answer, but of course we are determined to make that happen as quickly as possible.

I received a rather alarming answer to a question that I put to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in which I asked whether the Climate Change Bill would require a lower level of emissions in the period 2008 to 2012 than in the preceding five years and whether the level for every future budget period would be set lower than that. The answer was extremely non-committal and simply said that the committee on climate change would advise the Government on the pathway. Can the Secretary of State seriously imagine circumstances in which the carbon emissions budget for 2008 to 2012 would actually be higher than the carbon emissions for the previous five years? Can he not also give a firm commitment that the committee on climate change will be asked to advise him on reductions in carbon emissions?

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that commitment. Of course the committee on climate change will advise on reductions in carbon emissions, because how else would we have any prospect of reaching a reduction of at least 60 per cent. by 2050? If he had listened to what I said in response to the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), he would know that the committee on climate change will be independent. He is asking us to do the committee’s job for it, but I do not propose to do that. We are setting the framework. We are setting a clear target that we must achieve to reduce carbon emissions, but it is right and proper that the committee on climate change, in giving us advice on the first three five-year budgets, should be the body that advises us on what the pathways should be, and that is exactly what it will do.

On that very theme, my right hon. Friend will know that one of the key messages in the Stern review is that we must take strong early action to tackle climate change. As others have pointed out, because carbon dioxide lasts for about 100 or so years in the atmosphere, we must take early action to stop its accumulation, not just aim for a lower emission target in the future. Does my right hon. Friend agree and does he see the Bill as helping to address that through five-year carbon budgets?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend, which is why we are about to bring forward such a Bill and, indeed, to be the first country in the world to do so.

I am sure that the whole House will be intrigued to find out exactly what the Climate Change Bill contains when we finally get to see it. Recent reports that the Government are planning to abandon their commitment to the 2020 European target for renewable energy have again raised serious doubts over whether this Prime Minister takes climate change seriously at all. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity categorically to state that the Government will not renege on their support for the European renewable energy target or are we looking yet again at a broken promise and another dumped target?

I simply ask the hon. Gentleman whether he listened to the Prime Minister’s words in the House of Commons yesterday, where he expressed the Government’s commitment to the target that we signed up to in the summer. The hon. Gentleman has heard it directly from the Prime Minister himself.

Waste Wood

Our top priority is to encourage prevention or re-use of waste wood, wherever possible. However, recent research has concluded that there are significant energy and carbon benefits from recovering energy from waste wood, compared with sending it to landfill, where most of it currently goes. DEFRA is taking forward a programme of work to develop energy markets for waste wood by addressing the informational and practical barriers to expansion.

I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. I am sure that she will recall the statement in “Climate Change the UK Programme 2006”, suggesting that if waste wood that currently goes into landfill were diverted to use for fuel, that could account for more than 11 per cent. a year of the UK’s carbon reduction targets. In that light, will she expedite and seek to achieve agreement on Environment Agency proposals for protocols on waste wood as a fuel resource?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, but I am sorry to have to tell him that, because of the lack of agreement on suitable controls and standards, the Environment Agency and the industry have not been able to produce a protocol. However, it is not all bad news and we hope that the industry itself will make further progress on protocols. The Environment Agency issued new guidance on 3 October, confirming the deregulation of virgin timber. That means that producers will be able to recover and sell on virgin waste wood, such as off-cuts, shavings and sawdust and, of course, the production that comes from the management of forests. Those will be free from regulatory control. Clean and treated non-virgin timber will remain classified as waste and regulated as normal through exemptions and waste legislation.

The hon. Lady will understand that waste wood could be an important raw material source in the production of second-generation biofuels, whose importance becomes more apparent as we move towards the era of road transport fuels obligation and as we seek a solution to the food-fuel paradox. Not much seems to be happening in respect of developing second-generation biofuels in the UK, so will the Minister tell me what DEFRA is actually doing to take advantage of her own Government’s assistance in this sector to see second generation become reality?

DEFRA is dealing with the issue very actively. What is needed first is a collection of wood and other biodegradable materials such as food waste, all of which could be used for the production of renewable fuels, and that is being done in a number of ways. We have an infrastructure programme, research is taking place, and we have support from WRAP, the waste and resources action programme. There are a variety of ways in which we expect to be able to develop more infrastructure, because, following the collection of raw materials, the introduction of appropriate infrastructure is the key.

WRAP is working on developing markets. We are also renewing the renewables obligation, and considering the possibility of its operating under a banded system. Electricity generated from waste wood, for example, would be eligible for support under the obligation.

Will my hon. Friend and Portcullis House neighbour accept an invitation to visit my constituency? It lies at the heart of the 200sq m national forest, where industries associated with waste wood are being developed at quite a rapid rate. If she does visit my constituency, will my hon. Friend visit Orchard primary school in Castle Donington—where I switched on a wood-pellet boiler some time ago—and observe the ways in which we can encourage public sector bodies such as schools, hospitals and police stations to install heating systems using materials of this kind?

I should be very pleased to receive an invitation to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency, if my diary permits such a visit.

Such schemes are important, and we expect both the private and the public sector to be increasingly prepared to use wood as fuel. At present 7.5 million tonnes of waste wood arise each year, of which the vast majority—6 million tonnes—is disposed of as landfill. If it could be used in the production of energy, that would be enormously beneficial.

My hon. Friend mentioned the forest in his area. The Forestry Commission has come up with an excellent plan in its wood fuel strategy for England, which it hopes will produce an additional 2 million tonnes of wood a year by 2020. It will be good-quality wood, and it will be possible to burn it and recover fuel very efficiently. It could supply 250,000 homes with energy.

Milk

5. What his Department's policy is on the effects on the environment of the sale of fresh milk in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (160574)

DEFRA is working collaboratively with all parts of the dairy supply chain to reduce the environmental impacts of the production and consumption of fresh liquid milk.

The Minister will know of reports that civil servants proposed either to persuade or to coerce the British public to move away from fresh British milk towards UHT milk. Will he take this opportunity to inform us either that there was no truth in those stories, or that he has told the civil servants concerned to throw their proposals very firmly in the waste-paper bin?

I am grateful for the opportunity to answer my right hon. Friend’s question. There was a discussion document about the proposal, but it is not Government policy, never has been and never will be. Reports suggested that we would force people to drink UHT milk—which is considerably inferior to the fresh milk produced by British farmers—but I can tell my right hon. Friend that the story was and is a load of old bullocks.

What is the cost of the product road-mapping? Would the money not be better spent on supporting the dairy sector, which has already been hit by bluetongue, foot and mouth and bovine tuberculosis? If refrigeration truly is an environmental problem, is the hon. Gentleman really going to be the Minister to tell people to drink their lager warm?

Not lager, not milk. No, I am not going to tell consumers to do that. However, we do need to examine the environmental impact of farming. We have worked with representatives of farmers’ groups from across the industry, and we are very grateful for the hard work that they have put in. There has been a good collaboration between DEFRA and the industry, and we want that to continue. If we can identify costs—particularly energy costs—and savings, that will be good for not just the environment, but the farmer.

Climate Change

We have already seen progress this year with several key meetings, including the G8 leaders summit, which sent a clear signal on the need to advance international negotiations on a post-2012 framework, and the UN Secretary-General's high level event last month. We look forward to Bali, where the aim must be to reach agreement on starting negotiations on a new framework.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Bali, a major international conference, is just six weeks away. Can he give an undertaking that the attitude of Her Majesty's Government will be that countries such as the United States, which contributes 22 per cent. of the carbon dioxide in the world, will be forced to be part of the next agreement, to sign up to it and then to deliver, and that President Bush will not be allowed to stall discussions and agreements until after he has left office, thus setting back progress considerably globally as well as in north America itself?

I cannot force, and the United Kingdom Government cannot force, any other country to do anything, but when I was in New York for the high level event, I said that a post-2012 agreement that does not include emissions from the largest economy in the world is not going to do the job. We all know that. The fact that the US Administration now recognise that there is a thing called climate change and have begun to talk about it, is welcome. What is striking about the US is the extent to which policy is being led by the states. Look at what is happening in California and in the eastern states, which are developing their own emission trading scheme. Understanding is increasing, and that is moving the politics. I do not think anyone at the Bali conference will be in any doubt that we have to start those negotiations, because we do not have much time left to sort this out.

While it is welcome that the United States is starting to move in the right direction, what is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the commitment of other leading industrial nations, for example, China and India, to post-2012 Kyoto agreements?

We are seeing movement—look at the recent announcement that Australia made. However, my hon. Friend draws attention to the other thing on which we have to make progress. If we look at the G77, the group of developing countries, we cannot credibly argue that China, which will shortly be the largest emitter in the world, if it is not already, although not in per capita terms, should be regarded as in the same position as Mali or Burkina Faso. That would hinder efforts to make progress. So far, the agreements have talked about common but differentiated commitments, but in the course of negotiations wewill have to come to a view, as countries develop economically, about what commitments it is reasonable for them to take on to contribute to dealing with the problem.

Even if the rich developed countries disappeared from the world tomorrow and took the emissions that we are currently producing with us, because of the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere and the rising carbon emissions in the developing world, it would be left to deal with the problem anyway. That makes the point that all of us have to play our part.

Britain has huge natural resources and financial and human capital to build the world’s first low-carbon economy. Bali should be a key staging point on that mission, yet the global leadership we once exerted in those international forums is being undermined by the slow rate of genuine change and economic transformation at home. As the Secretary of State prepares for Bali, can he list any low carbon sectors or renewable technologies where the UK is now leading the world—not in their discovery or research, but in their commercialisation and market share?

I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman some examples. We have just given the go ahead to what will be the world's largest offshore wind farm, the London Array. When it is completed, it will generate—[Interruption.] Well, we are getting on with it. When it is completed, it will generate enough electricity—[Interruption.] Having asked me the question, will he do me the courtesy of listening to the answer? It will generate enough electricity to power one in four homes in Greater London. That is what I call world leadership. We are undertaking a feasibility study of the Severn barrage, which could generate 5 per cent. of our electricity. Renewable electricity is set to increase threefold between now and 2015, and Ernst and Young, which does a renewable energy attractiveness survey, now ranks the UK equal second in the world behind only the United States. I would call that leadership.

Severn Barrage

7. How the Government plan to ensure that the views of wildlife groups are taken into account when considering the possibility of a Severn barrage. (160576)

The Government intend to carry out the feasibility study announced on 25 September in an open and transparent way. The issue of how we can best engage with all the interested groups, including wildlife non-governmental organisations, will be considered in the development of the communications element of the study.

The Newport wetlands wildlife reserve, the compensatory habitat for Cardiff bay, is in my constituency. I support the drive to harness tidal energy in the Severn, but will my hon. Friend ensure that the feasibility study is truly independent and open and examines all the options and impacts? Will she ensure that wildlife groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Wildlife Trust are listened to and are part of a stakeholder group during the process?

The feasibility study is at an early stage and the project organisation and Government arrangements are being developed and are subject to ministerial approval. The work plans for the various issues are also at an early stage and we had our first cross-departmental working group meeting on 18 October. The detailed communications plan is being developed to ensure that appropriate stakeholder communication and engagement take place in an effective and appropriate way and at the right time. I am not in a position at the moment to guarantee the specific involvement of groups in any particular way, but I can assure my hon. Friend of the group’s openness, transparency and willingness to consult. I hope that she and organisations such as the RSPB and Friends of the Earth will acknowledge that the Government have a good track record in consulting NGOs.

Solicitor-General

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Conviction Rates (Nottingham)

20. What the conviction rate is for cases involving (a) rape and (b) domestic violence in Nottinghamshire; and if she will make a statement. (160589)

During the year ending March 2007, a conviction was recorded in Nottinghamshire on Crown Prosecution Service figures in respect of 60.7 per cent. of all defendants whose case got as far as the CPS for an offence of rape, and in 59.5 per cent. in the cases of domestic violence. Nottinghamshire’s outcome in cases of rape compared favourably with the national figure of 54.5 per cent, but in cases of domestic violence the conviction rate was short of the national figure of 65 per cent.

Those are improving figures; congratulations to all involved. However, it remains the case that many women who appear before court feel that they are the accused rather than the victim. In that context, will my hon. and learned Friend look at the case about which I have just written to her concerning a constituent in Edwinstowe who has had that very experience?

I certainly will and I have just received a letter from my hon. Friend about the case. He raises a problematic issue: the extent to which cross-examination should be allowed. Obviously, there must be a balance between the freedom for the defendant to test the case against him and his not being inappropriately oppressive and re-traumatising the victim. Judges and magistrates have a duty to control proceedings and to stop over-oppressive cross-examination. Our prosecutors now have a duty to do that as well. I will certainly look at the file about the case and I invite him to come and discuss it with me.

Inside Justice Week

Inside Justice week is being supported by all of the Departments that the Attorney-General and I run so we are all playing a busy part. It was the idea of the Attorney-General some four years ago and its aim is to open up the criminal justice system to the public through a themed week of events, media opportunities and public engagement.

How is my hon. and learned Friend planning to promote the workings of the justice system within schools for the benefit of children and young people during Inside Justice week?

The Crown Prosecution Service does a lot of fairly regular work with schools: mock trials; talks on restorative justice; and work on domestic violence awareness. The Attorney-General will be starting the week at Deptford Green school. On Friday, I shall be going, at the request of the head teacher, Mr. Hobbs, to talk to children at the terrific Bydales sustainable technology college, which is in Marske in my constituency. I shall probably talk about the Middlesbrough community court.

Inside Justice week offers a rare and perhaps even unique opportunity for young people to take a look inside the criminal justice system. Does the Solicitor-General agree that we should maximise the number of women participating in the numerous events taking place throughout the country to ensure that as many young women as possible are encouraged to consider a career in that system?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which I thoroughly agree. The idea is to help young people in particular to understand that the criminal justice system is a part of keeping their neighbourhood safe, that justice is very important and is not a separate and arcane preserve, and that they have access to it, both if they need it for justice purposes and if they want to pursue a career in it.

I was slightly disappointed that the Solicitor-General did not specifically mention opening up the Attorney-General’s own office as part of Inside Justice week, because a number of puzzles still exist about how the Department works. May I ask the Solicitor-General to clear up one particular puzzle? In February, the previous Attorney-General told the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs that he would take independent counsel’s advice on the cash-for-honours question and publish it. It turns out that neither of those things has been done. In the spirit of the openness of Inside Justice week, will she explain why?

That is a remote link to Inside Justice week, if I may say so. I would not necessarily recommend opening up the Attorney-General’s office in any physical sense, because people would probably find my neglected coffee cups there. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the issue that he raises, if there is anything to add to what he knows perfectly well.

I recognise that non-custodial sentences are often appropriate and, in certain circumstances, should be encouraged. My hon. and learned Friend was talking about justice a moment ago. What sort of justice is there when someone who was convicted of pushing and blinding a 96-year-old person did not receive a custodial sentence?

Order. I let it slip with the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth); we are not linking the question with specific cases, because that is not what it is about.

May I first say that I welcome Inside Justice week and hope that it is a success? It looks, from the material that has been put out, that considerable emphasis has been placed on the role of the Attorney-General’s office and the Crown Prosecution Service in supporting victims. May I also urge the Solicitor-General to draw attention in this week to the role of the CPS and the Attorney-General’s office in preventing pointless prosecution? I am sure that she will agree that although they may be few in number, prosecutions of individuals for matters that are likely to appear trivial, for instance difficulties that teachers may have disciplining children or, indeed, people carrying out citizen’s arrests, as in the Bridlington chip shop case, undermine confidence in the criminal justice system. If it could be seen that the CPS and the Attorney-General’s guidelines ensured that prosecutions in such investigations were stopped at an early stage, a great deal of public reassurance would be derived.

The hon. Gentleman makes a straightforward point—there must be balanced, good judgment, in accordance with the guidelines, about who to prosecute and who to forbear from prosecuting— and I agree with him. Part of our task in Inside Justice week is to make clear the basis on which such decisions are being made.

Sexual Assault Referral Centres

There are now 18 sexual assault referral centres, with 18 more in development. They are usually joint projects between the police, the health services and the voluntary sector. They provide important early support and counselling for victims so that they are better able to be sustained to go through with any criminal prosecution and to give their best evidence in court.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply, and I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that building conversion work for the Cardiff centre will start next week. Is she aware that, since January, the women’s safety unit in Cardiff has had 71 referrals of sexual assault, mainly rape? The unit has been able to offer help and support and to undertake the early evidence work, such as taking DNA samples. On the whole, the women involved do not want to go forward to prosecution, but that early work is done in case they change their minds. What more can the Government do to support that important work?

My hon. Friend’s city has a fine record of battling with issues of violence against women, and she has a fine record of championing these matters.

It is a great pleasure to hear that Cardiff’s sexual assault referral centre will come on-stream soon. We must spread the best practice across every area, and ensure that there is good quality practice in the SARCs. However, in due course—and probably early next month—we will publish our response to the previous Solicitor-General’s consultation document on what more we can do to improve the quality of justice for rape victims. We have made advances in domestic violence through training relevant agencies, and we consider that it may be desirable for juries to receive information about the psychological reactions of rape victims. We want to help dispel myths about rape, and we consider that that might be achieved through a neutral document or judge’s statement. We will publish our response formally in a month or so, and that ought to be a considerable step towards ensuring better justice for the sort of women supported by SARCs across the country.