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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Climate Change (Flooding)

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that measures are put in place to deal with the likely effects of climate change, with particular reference to flooding. (171730)

The Department has always encouraged operating authorities to take account of climate change in their planning of flood management measures. Our guidance was last updated in October 2006. It recommends a precautionary approach, but it is of course kept under review and will be further updated as the science develops.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I want to remind the House of the terrible damage suffered by my constituents in the June floods. I contend that the scale of the flooding would have been significantly reduced if the upland catchment area adjacent to my constituency had been in a sufficient condition to hold the water as nature intended. Will he commit the Department to extending programmes designed to restore upland blanket bogs so that they can fulfil their proper role as an important part of our natural flood defence system?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know very well the part of the world to which she refers. I can go further than she asks. Together with the Environment Agency, as part of our “Making space for water” policy, we are researching the impact of moorland gripping—the name given to the draining of moorland peat bogs by digging ditches alongside them, as part of the wider land management agenda and consideration of its effect on flood risk. Early indications show that it can help, but not always. It is not quite as straightforward as that.

The Minister will understand that resources are to be a key element in the delivery of the Government’s flood prevention policies. Taking into account Sir John Bourn’s critical appraisal of the Department’s financial management structure and the £270 million of internal savings that it will have to make, as well as the fact that its administrative budget is £50 million overspent and that there is a £300 million disallowance fine hanging over it, what guarantees can the Minister give the House that the money that is designed to increase expenditure on flood protection will be delivered over the next three years?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and recognise the work that he does for the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can give him those reassurances. Of course, we have to balance our books, as he would want us to. That is the proper thing to do. I can assure him that despite the need to balance our books we can deliver the increases in flood defence expenditure, both capital and revenue. Importantly—this is something else for which he has called—we will do so with a long-term framework, as that is critical to the protection of the public.

In Germany, in four of the main Länder that are prone to flooding, local authorities have the powers to insist that planning applications will not even be looked at unless they contain flood protection provision. The Netherlands, a country with the highest level of flood protection anywhere, is now talking about surrendering 1 million acres of land back to the sea and having buildings that must be flood compatible. In each case, developers are made liable for the flood damage to which their buildings are prone. Is the Minister seeking to deliver any similar powers to local authorities in the forthcoming Planning Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and recognise and commend the work that he is doing. We have talked about that work and I look forward very much to its production. The answer to the question is that we have planning policy statement 25, which gives powers to the Environment Agency to look at plans. We are monitoring the local authorities’ performance in that area to see whether it is sufficient. Clearly, there is a lot more to do and we will bear in mind his point about the lessons from Germany and the Netherlands.

The Minister also knows my constituency, having made a few sneaked visits to it. He knows that it contains many small villages with brooks and rivers. Some of them have drainage systems that are antiquated to say the least and some have suffered flooding in the past. Will he ensure that all the agencies, especially local authorities, which are responsible for cleaning up brooks and smaller rivers in rural areas, always allocate sufficient funds to proper cleaning so that unnecessary flooding does not happen when there is heavy rain?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do, indeed, know his beautiful constituency—I know Byrne and Sons well.

There are different operating authorities, depending on the circumstances. For example, they could be water companies, drainage boards, local authorities or the Environment Agency. As part of the Pitt review, we have asked Sir Michael to make recommendations on how we can better co-ordinate matters to ensure that the policies are carried out and that drains are maintained for flood protection and the benefit of biodiversity, which is, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, among the most beautiful in the United Kingdom.

Yesterday, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Lyon to examine the approach taken there to sustainable urban drainage. It was a useful visit—it is good to see the Chairman in his place this morning. We were impressed most by the comprehensiveness of the approach to tackling flooding, and the research money invested in finding preventive measures. Can we learn something from Lyon? What are the Government doing to ensure that we take the best from international examples?

I look forward to reading the lessons from the Select Committee. My hon. Friend’s account shows the value of Select Committees’ work. Indeed, his point was made yesterday at the meeting of the all-party group on water, especially by representatives of UK Water Industry Research. Of course, we can learn lessons; that is part of the review. I remind the House that the Government were consulted on such matters before the floods, in case anyone suggests that there has been a knee-jerk reaction—that would be completely unfair and uncharacteristic.

My constituency experience shows that, when flood protection systems are rightly put in place to protect our towns and cities, farmers consequently find that their land floods more frequently. Do the Government have any plans to introduce procedures whereby farmers are compensated for that to cover the obvious economic impact?

We are, of course, familiar with that issue. The use of meadows and fields, low lying and upland, in a co-ordinated flood management programme is part of our strategy, and it raises difficult questions about economic impact. Our policy is to use such land as part of a co-ordinated plan. Such usage is normally, although not always—I know of some instances to the contrary in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—part of an agreed plan, where the land floods in any event.

Is not one of the most significant issues to arise from this summer’s flooding the inability of urban sewers to deal with flash flooding? What steps are being considered to deal with that problem, bearing in mind that the financial costs will be significant over a long period?

My hon. Friend, as ever, raises the most important point. There are two answers to the question. First, I am sure that the House agrees that we must not lose sight of the cause of the problem, which, in the long run, is climate change. That is why the Bali road map is so important for our country. Secondly, if the question was simply maintenance of drains, it would be straightforward; the task would be expensive and difficult, but straightforward. However, the capacity of drainage is also a problem. That is why the Government’s approach is to ensure, first, increased funding and, secondly, a long-term framework to effect a generational improvement in infrastructure.

Given that millions of people are at risk from surface water drainage, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) pointed out, what progress has the Department made on its previously announced policy, in response to “Making space for water”, to put the Environment Agency in an overarching strategic role over all flood risks?

Considering the £3 billion of losses that we now know occurred during the summer as a result of the flooding, are Ministers confident that the increase in the budget that has been announced fulfils requirements? For example, are the costs of the repairs to flood defences being met from the new budget or will there be a separate allowance? Is it the case that flood defence projects—

The hon. Gentleman raises some important points. We took the decision to delay the publication of our water strategy document until after Sir Michael had reported. That was a dilemma, I confess, but we thought it the right thing to do, so that we could take the lessons on board.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the estimated cost of the floods is £3 billion—I think that that is the domestic impact, not including the business impact. Again, that shows the need for climate change mitigation. As Sir Nicholas Stern reported, it is more expensive not to act than to act. Whether the level we chose is the right level, I do not know—my crystal ball is cloudy on that point. We do not know what the level of floods will be. However, I am aware that the £800 million that we allocated is even more than the figure of £750 million that Association of British Insurers suggested before the summer floods. However, all Governments would always want to spend more, because such decisions are difficult.

The whole House will sympathise with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on the damage suffered in her constituency and with people up and down the country. The Minister has said that funding will be increased, but is he saying that it will be increased everywhere except Yorkshire and the Humber? In his reply to me of 20 November, he admitted that there had been a cut in construction industry contracts of more than £8 billion over a four-year period. When he decides to visit the internal drainage board area, will he take the opportunity to go to the Bentley Ings, which takes the water from Sheffield and was instrumental in this summer’s massive floods at Toll Bar? Those river defences are cracking. They have had emergency repairs, but they need full repairs. Does he accept that the issue is to do with physical infrastructure as well as water retention, and will he ensure that there is a commitment to Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as other parts of the country?

I read the Yorkshire Post regularly—Saddleworth being in Yorkshire—and I saw the hon. Lady’s report. The serious answer to her question, however, is that she missed two crucial points in the parliamentary answer that she cited, which I signed off in the full knowledge that it would result in a press release to the Yorkshire Post. First, the amounts given refer to contracted expenditure, not direct expenditure by the Environment Agency. Secondly, she missed out the fact that the figure was a lot higher the year before and that over the years it has increased significantly. Expenditure did indeed contract in the years that she mentioned, but that is in the nature of engineering schemes of that sort. They cannot be turned on and off, and the budget has been increased.

Fish Discards

Discarding is a waste of a valuable natural resource, which has a detrimental impact upon the sustainability of fish stocks, and has significant social and economic consequences for the long-term viability of the fishing industry. We are working with the UK industry and with the Commission and other member states to tackle this effectively, reflecting the circumstances of individual fisheries.

Although this will not endear me to the fishing industry, may I ask whether the Minister recognises that there is widespread concern among consumers in my constituency about the conservation of fish stocks? The latest revelation about fish discards has hardly helped the matter. Can he explain why the 2002 EU community action plan to end discarding by 2006 failed and why we did not start that initiative when we held the presidency in 2005?

There will always be discarding. The nature of our fisheries is mixed. Indeed, there are about 36 varieties of fish in the south-west, and fishermen discard those for which there is no market. We are working with the industry on this, and looking at trials of new nets that would allow certain species to escape. We have also introduced a number of measures, including, for example, the consideration of real-time closures, and we are working with the industry to ensure that it identifies juvenile stocks so that they can mature before they are caught. We are working with the Commission and looking at action plans. We want to reduce discarding. Consumers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and throughout the country want to see reductions in discards. Importantly, however, discards in the North sea are an unintended consequence of an increase in stocks. We must also not forget the conservation element involved. Our decisions are taken on the basis of science.

I was heartened by the Minister’s original answer that he takes discards seriously. He will be aware that European fish stocks are worryingly low. It is an obscenity that, of all the fish that are caught, 17 lb are thrown back for every 1 lb that is brought back into port. While I welcome some of the measures that he has just mentioned, will he assure the House that, if they prove effective, our European counterparts in France, Spain and Portugal will have to abide by them as well?

The hon. Lady has mentioned a number of member states that have overfished. The Commission has come down very hard on them and fined them. We welcome that, particularly in relation to the overfishing of blue fin tuna. The Commission takes discards seriously; the Commissioner has gone on record on this, and we are supporting him in this process. However, there will always be discards, because of the mixed nature of our fisheries. There are some fish for which there simply is not a market, and others will be below the minimum landing size. It is unacceptable, however, to discard high-value stocks such as cod—hon. Members will have seen pictures of such discarding on television—and we need to work harder to ensure that that does not happen. That involves a partnership between ourselves and the industry, and working with other member states.

It is obvious that the present level of fish discards represents bad economics, but it is also very bad in an environmental sense, in that it is bad for the ecosystem of the sea. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that many types of fish are not usable at the moment. That does not mean, however, that they can never be usable. Should not we make a real effort to educate our consumers to use the types of fish that, historically, have been rejected? That would make a major difference to the practice of discarding.

My hon. Friend is quite right, and we are now seeing a change in what the consumer is buying. We are grateful to the celebrity chefs who have promoted fish such as red gurnard, for example. It is caught in the south-west and was once discarded but is now fetching a high price. Indeed, an official told me this morning that he had had red gurnard on the Eurostar when he went to Brussels, so it is not just being served in specialist areas; it is also reaching the mainstream. People can now eat red gurnard as they pass through the glorious Kent countryside in my constituency.

The Minister has said that there will always be discarding, but why should that be the case? Instead of being compelled to dump fish, should not fishermen be compelled to land everything that they catch? Should it not be an offence to discard undersized or out-of-quota fish? Such a land-all policy would give scientists a much better picture of what fish were being caught, and where. That would enable them to devise more accurate conservation and recovery plans. Is not that the way ahead?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to get a better picture of the total discards, and we have been working on that programme since 2002. It is important that we bring in measures to reduce the level of discards. All the European countries in the common fisheries policy have to discard fish, perhaps because they do not have quotas or because there is no market for some of the fish. What does one do with such fish? Either they are disposed of at sea, or an inshore infrastructure has to be put in place to dispose of them. This is a difficult issue, and we take it very seriously. As I have said, the Commissioner also takes it seriously. We need to improve, and that involves working with the industry and bringing fishermen and scientists together, as we have done under the fisheries science partnership over the past five years. I hope that we will see a continued reduction. It is important to remember that the discards are an unintended consequence of quotas. We are not taking as many fish out of the sea as we once did. In 1987, 187,000 tonnes of cod were taken out of the sea; this year, the amount was less than 20,000.

May I assure the Minister and, indeed, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) that the outrage at the phenomenon of discards is nowhere felt more greatly than in the fishing industry and fishing communities themselves, because discards are a consequence of setting quotas that do not accurately reflect the mix of fish to be found in the sea? May I suggest that if the Minister and his ministerial colleagues want to see a real reduction in discards in the coming 12 months, the best thing he can do is win an increase in the cod quota for our white fish fleet and, more importantly, ensure that sufficient days at sea are available to that fleet to catch the quota that he gets?

I am grateful for that question. I have been to Peterhead and met fishermen there, so the hon. Gentleman’s point is understood. As to the cod increase, on the basis of the scientific evidence from both our scientists and those of the Commission, we have negotiated with Norway in the EU-Norway negotiations an 11 per cent. increase in cod total allowable catch. That is allowable within the cod recovery programme, and we hope for a reduction in the amount of discards of that valuable species. There is often a direct correlation between increasing the TAC and reducing days at sea, so we have agreed a UK position on bringing into play a more sophisticated approach, including real-time closures—a voluntary agreement operating in the Scottish industry—and looking at the development of new nets, which will be trialled in the North sea later next year.

Is the Minister aware that the Fishermen’s Association Ltd has indicated that its members are throwing back into the sea six to seven-year-old cod, which were in existence before the cod recovery plan? Not only does that pollute the marine environment, but it is the most appalling waste. Does not that reinforce the special report of the European Court of Auditors, which said that the common fisheries policy was a complete failure?

I have just said that we are going to have an increase—a modest increase of 11 per cent., based on the science—in the amount of cod that we can catch, because the cod stocks have recovered. We are all familiar with stories from Newfoundland about fishermen going out to sea but finding that there were no fish left. We must have in place a regime, based on the scientific evidence, ensuring that we have fish today and fish tomorrow, both for us to consume and for the industry. We are working hard with the Commission and in partnership with the industry to ensure that stocks are conserved and available for tomorrow. We are in the common fisheries policy and we are members of the European Union, and in order to improve the common fisheries policy, we have to be part of the discussions and part of the argument, as this country always is, whether on the common fisheries policy or the common agricultural policy.

The Minister has led the House to believe that he is against discarding. He has used words such as “waste”, “detrimental” and others. In DEFRA’s 20-year plan, taking us to 2027, for marine fisheries—and, indeed, in the consultation response document—it is made perfectly clear that DEFRA has no intention to stop discarding. Despite his warm words, it looks like it is going to be a policy under this Government—the watchword for incompetence—for the next 20 years. When is the Minister going to stop discarding and stop leading people to believe that it can be stopped? When he uses words such as “immoral” and “heartbreaking” in The Daily Telegraph, is he talking about his Department or himself?

As I told the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), we will always have discards because we have a mixed fishery. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that? Also, there is no market for some fish, so what do the fishermen do with it? They discard it. What I said was that having to throw away valuable stocks such as cod was immoral, and that we needed to find better answers.

It is not the case that we are against all discarding. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, if a fish is below the minimum landing size it must be discarded. In mixed fisheries they all swim together, so there will always be discards. In the case of valuable stocks such as cod we must find new ways of reducing the number of discards, such as real-time closures and better gear. That is what I said in The Daily Telegraph, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Food Producers

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues and the competition authorities on the role of food producers in the grocery supply chain. (171734)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Competition Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the groceries market. My colleague Lord Rooker wrote to the Commission when it opened the inquiry, listing some questions that he thought should be considered, and his letter has been published on the Competition Commission website. However, in line with the general policy of Government, neither I nor other DEFRA Ministers have had discussions about the inquiry with Cabinet members, or indeed with the competition authorities.

According to the provisional findings of the Competition Commission, published at the end of October, grocery retailers are transferring

“excessive risk and costs to suppliers”.

Moreover, there is already a concentration in the grocery sector whereby four major retailers control 80 per cent. of the market. That concentration is likely to increase, and the trend among supermarkets to move from effective use to unacceptable abuse of their power is therefore likely to increase as well. Does the Minister not accept that this is a matter for her Department, which should get a grip on it, that she should start discussing it with her colleagues in the Cabinet, and that the Department should prepare plans to ensure that suppliers are properly protected in the grocery supply chain?

I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I know that he has taken a keen interest in these matters, not least in his constituency. However, I am sorry to say that it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage, when the Competition Commission has published only its preliminary findings and when there is an opportunity for those who participated in the inquiry to comment on their initial findings. I understand that the commission will report early in the new year, and when it has done so Ministers will give an appropriate response if recommendations are made to the Government.

I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that part of the major problem we face is the power of the big four squeezing down farm gate prices and putting farmers out of business. That kind of competition needs to be examined closely, as should the power of supermarkets that hold land and prevent other companies from using sites because they will not sell them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I can tell him that the Competition Commission has concluded that some retailer landholdings and practices such as restrictive covenants may indeed hinder competition.

The commission says that a variety of means could be applied, and we will consider them at the appropriate time. It suggests that grocery retailers might divest themselves of their landholdings; that they could be prohibited from using restrictive covenants that reduce the likelihood of land being used by a competitor; that changes could be made to the planning system that would provide more opportunities for developments on the edge of town centres while maintaining constraints on out-of-town developments; and that it might be possible to introduce a competition test allowing the local position of grocery retailers to be considered in the making of planning decisions. Those are all important initial findings, and as I said, we will take them into account if and when recommendations are made to the Government.

Sea Defences

Tendring district council has developed proposals for investment in coastal defences. Those are being considered by the Environment Agency.

It is likely that unless action is taken the sea wall at Holland-on-Sea will soon be lost. If that happens, it will put the roadway and housing at risk. In view of that, will the Minister make a commitment now to begin phase one of the work that we had been promised back in 2003?

I have had a look at this specific case in response to the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence on behalf of his constituents. A grant of £400,000 was given in 2004 for the collapsed sea wall at Holland-on-Sea. The council itself spends some £550,000 per year recurrently on defences. It is not the case that an application was granted and then withdrawn; it is the case that the application that was subsequently submitted did not pass the new rules that had by then been put in place. However, as I have said, the Environment Agency is now looking at the future requirements in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Sustainable Farming

8. What steps the Government have taken to encourage the farming industry to adopt sustainable farming practices. (171737)

The Government want farming to thrive while reducing its environmental footprint. We are supporting that in a number of ways, including through cross-compliance linked to common agricultural policy payments and the rural development programme for England 2007-13, which will invest £3.9 billion in farming and rural areas. I am pleased to announce that this programme has now been approved by the European Union and we will proceed to full implementation as soon as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he be more specific? What is he doing to make organic food both more available and cheaper for the consumer?

The organic industry is growing extremely fast. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have our own action plan that aims to encourage the industry to ensure that by 2010 the share of the organic market coming from home-grown produce is equivalent to the share of the overall market, which is about 70 per cent. We are trying to encourage locally produced food and better information for consumers. Sales through vegetable boxes, farmers’ markets and mail order increased by 9 per cent. last year, and it is estimated that there are 550 farmers’ markets with a turnover of £220 million. It is clear, therefore, that consumers have an increasing appetite for organic produce.

But does the Secretary of State agree that one way to help British farmers—and Shropshire farmers in particular—is to have more transparently clear labelling not of where farm products were packaged, but of where they were sourced?

I agree. I am keen to pursue the fundamental principle that when we as consumers choose to purchase products, we have decent information about their origin. I am very happy to look at any proposals on that score.

May I ask the Secretary of State to look at the sustainability of livestock markets? Frome market—one of the biggest in the south of England—is within yards of the Wiltshire border. Wiltshire is in the bluetongue surveillance zone; Somerset is not. That means that animals can graze almost up to the border of the market and a new market could be opened in the next field, and yet animals from the east of the market cannot be sold in Frome market. Midges do not understand county boundaries; does the Secretary of State?

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s case, but the point about the control of bluetongue is that there has to be a line somewhere, and it is easier to follow county boundaries than to draw a circular line that cuts across them, because it is then harder for people to understand whether they are in or out of the zone. On the fundamental issue of bluetongue—we have previously discussed this in the House—in the end a balance must be struck on where to draw those lines. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have consulted closely with representatives of the industry, and the stakeholder group is of the view that currently we should have the boundaries where they are, rather than extend them to bring the whole of England into the bluetongue zone. Obviously, winter is arriving, and there will be less midge activity. We are working on—[Interruption.] Well, I understand that, but the lines have to be drawn somewhere. However, as I have previously said, if the industry were to come to me and say with one voice, “Actually, we think now is the time to change the boundaries” I would look at that request very seriously indeed.

On food labelling, the Secretary of State could not do better than to examine the four Bills that the Government have blocked on that subject.

How can the farming industry be truly sustainable if it is to be treated differently from its competitors? For example, we rightly have strict geographical and movement controls, which ban the export of meat from parts of this country, whereas although the European Union’s Food and Veterinary Office has found serious problems with the traceability and compliance system in Brazil, we continue to import Brazilian beef. Is that fair and sustainable?

The EU has strict rules in relation to Brazil. Brazil is a big country, and foot and mouth is a problem in some parts of it, but not in others.

That is indeed the case here, but things are gradually returning to normal. I accept that the livestock industry has had an awful summer, and we have debated that at some length. The question is not whether Brazil should be looked at as one entity; the question is whether we have appropriate arrangements in place to ensure that imports come from areas where foot and mouth is not a problem.

Climate Change (China)

China will soon become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s own national assessment report highlights the potential impact of climate change on its security, growth and development. A stronger national programme is being developed with targets to reduce energy intensity and to increase the use of renewables. The UK continues to work with China on initiatives for a global low-carbon economy and an effective international framework to tackle climate change.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. China is opening two coal-fired power stations a week, and it has coal reserves of 1 trillion tonnes. When President Sarkozy signed an agreement to open nuclear power stations with China, he said that because of their partnership it was more important to avoid confrontation over intellectual property rights than to make progress on this issue. Is it not time for Britain to share its knowledge about clean-coal technology with China and develop a partnership arrangement so we can tackle CO2 emissions?

That is exactly what we are doing through the near-zero emissions coal project, which is a joint EU-China project to develop and then to deploy carbon capture and storage. The UK will put in £3.5 million-worth of funding in the first phase, and we are working with other EU member states. China’s annual coal production is set to double to a staggering 5 billion tonnes a year by 2030. We must develop carbon capture and storage if the world is to have any prospect of obtaining the reductions in carbon emissions that are required. That is why there will be a demonstration project in the UK on post-combustion technology and why we are playing an important role in promoting this scheme with China.

China is seeking to move 400 million people from the country into cities over the next 30 years, and in that process it will build approximately half the new buildings in the world. Chinese homes are about three times less energy efficient than European ones. What are the British Government doing to facilitate the transfer of British expertise and technology to help the Chinese make those buildings as energy efficient as possible?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. China is already an economic powerhouse and it will be the source of huge amounts of development over the next few years. The best thing that is happening is the growing awareness in China, on the part of the Government and the people, particularly the younger generation, that this process will create problems and challenges for China itself. China is coming to terms with the impact of pollution as a result of its industrialisation, and it is having to take action, including imposing tight controls on vehicle emissions.

My view is that intellectual property is not the problem when it comes to technology transfer; the problem is whether countries can afford the technology. China has undoubtedly been very successful in attracting investment from all around the world. As China’s understanding of climate change and what needs to be done develops—it will shortly publish its national climate change plan—we will continue to work with it to encourage it to take the necessary steps in China while trying to win its support for a new international deal.

Thames Estuary

10. What assessment he has made of the risk of flooding in the Thames estuary following the recent alert; and if he will make a statement. (171739)

London and the Thames estuary are protected to an extremely high standard. Current indications are that existing defences provide a better standard of protection than previously thought and are unlikely to require any major changes until after 2030.

I thank the Minister for his reassurance on that point. Will he talk with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and those dealing with the Thames Gateway to see whether an additional east London crossing, which might include rail and road, could also incorporate engineering works that would help to control flooding and tidal flows in the Thames estuary? That would give assurances not only to existing residents, but to people who wish to regenerate both sides of the estuary.

I have already done so, and on my hon. Friend’s urging will certainly do so again. The long-term plans for flood protection for the Thames estuary and London are extremely important, which is why we pay particular attention to them, and co-ordinating those with the Thames Gateway policies—as the Prime Minister announced in his speech on 29 November to the Thames Gateway conference—is of course a central part of the strategy. That is why we are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at regeneration and integrating the schemes. It is a point that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) often misses.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help to enable all of us to live within our environmental means. I take this opportunity to draw the House’s attention to today’s written ministerial statement, announcing that there will be a badge for members of the Women’s Land Army in recognition of their contribution during the second world war. I also wish to congratulate the new Australian Government on their ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and the announcement about the Women’s Land Army is good news indeed. They deserve that badge.

If a canal bursts its banks, there can be tens of millions of pounds worth of collateral damage as a consequence. The Secretary of State will know that past DEFRA cuts have meant that British Waterways has a huge backlog of canal maintenance. Can he tell us now whether British Waterways will continue to suffer the retail prices index minus 5 per cent. cuts, and when will it be in a position to say that its finances are finally secured?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the badge for the Women’s Land Army, and I look forward to helping to distribute some of those badges next year when the final arrangements are in place and the surviving members of the WLA have come forward.

I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the maintenance of the canal network. As he will know, we have provided £452 million in grant since 2000 for waterways in England and Wales. Final allocations for the first years of the comprehensive spending review period have not yet been decided, but that will happen early in the new year, when we have considered all the representations that have been made, including the ones that he has made to me.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend outline Britain’s priorities in the climate change discussions in Bali and his hopes for the outcome of those discussions? (171756)

Our priorities are, above all, to gain agreement from all the nations of the world that we should embark on a process of negotiation for a new 2012 agreement to replace the Kyoto protocol, which is simply inadequate given the scale of the task. That has to be based on a recognition of the scale of the problem, and therefore the target that we are trying to achieve; binding commitments to reduce emissions from the rich countries; a contribution from the emerging developing countries, including those such as China and India, which are now significant emitters; a carbon market; flow of funds to developing countries; and action on technology, adaptation, deforestation, aviation and shipping. That is the list. There is a big responsibility on everybody who turns up in Bali, because the world will not understand if we leave without an agreement to start the negotiations that every single one of us knows that we need if we are to have any chance of dealing with this challenge.

T3. The Government’s desire for a major shift to the farming industry of the responsibility for the cost of animal health seems to be driven by DEFRA’s acute financial crisis. Does the Minister agree that a year in which we have had foot and mouth, avian influenza and bluetongue is not exactly the best time to consult on those matters? How will he devise a system that will be fair to farmers and their families across England, Wales and Scotland? (171757)

I understand my hon. Friend’s view, but it could be argued that there is never a right time to do it. One of the recommendations of Iain Anderson after the 2001 outbreak was that we should do precisely this and have a discussion with the industry. This is not the start of a process; it will be the resumption of the process, after a very difficult summer for the livestock industry—I grant my hon. Friend that point. I have said to the House before that my experience of dealing with these outbreaks has confirmed to me that this is the direction in which we should go. It builds on the relationship that we have developed with representatives of the farming industry in taking decisions about how to deal with bluetongue, foot and mouth, and avian influenza. I am seriously committed to sharing that responsibility with the farming industry. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to discuss how the costs should be equally shared.

May I endorse what the Secretary of State said about the importance of the Bali conference? I join him in hoping that it is successful. Does he think that the UK’s credibility in those international talks is enhanced by the fact that, back home, his Department is busily cutting the budgets of organisations engaged in tackling climate change, dealing with recycling, looking after nature conservation and protecting the environment?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, DEFRA’s budget is going to rise from £3.5 billion this year to £3.96 billion in 2010-11, which is a real-terms increase of 1.4 per cent. a year. That is the first point. Secondly, where is that money going? One example is increased expenditure on flood defence. We were asked earlier by the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for an assurance that that money would come through and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment gave that assurance.

We are investing more in low-carbon technologies, including through the environmental transformation fund, both at home and abroad—in response to earlier questions. In the end, action on climate change is not just about the amount of money that is spent by Government. It is about getting the right framework. In particular, it is about shifting the huge amounts of private sector investment in a low-carbon direction. That is why the Climate Change Bill is the most important contribution. There is also the climate change levy, which the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and his party have opposed; the energy efficiency commitment; the carbon reduction commitment, which will be part of the Climate Change Bill; and the carbon market and the EU emissions trading scheme, which is the best hope that we have when it comes to resulting in change in the direction that we all want—a significant reduction in carbon emissions.

I wonder whether, prior to the Bali conference, the Secretary of State has had a chance to read the United Nations official report, which concluded on the Climate Change Bill:

“If the rest of the developed world followed the pathway envisaged in the UK’s Climate Change Bill, dangerous climate change would be inevitable”.

Earlier this week, the Secretary of State said that he would welcome an Opposition who came forward with ideas about how we could do things differently. I have an idea for him. Will he join me in welcoming proposals being put forward by the Conservatives today to revolutionise the way we invest in and promote renewable energy in this country?

I genuinely look forward to reading the proposals that the Conservative party has published. In the energy White Paper that was published in the summer there was a whole section on decentralised energy. This very morning, we are laying regulations to change the energy efficiency commitment, which I referred to a moment ago, so that microgeneration will be an eligible measure to support the new carbon emission reduction target. We recently announced a consultation to make it easier for householders to put microgeneration in without the need for planning permission. Microgeneration is eligible under the renewables obligation, and we are proposing changes in that regard. However, we will need to do more. I reiterate what I said earlier this week: we will look at what is required.

On the UN human development report—in answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question—I suspect that that chapter was written before the Prime Minister made his speech a couple of weeks ago, in which he said that the science is changing, the evidence is changing and we will put to the climate change committee the question, “Do our targets need to be up to 80 per cent. in view of that change?” Even the UN human development report would recognise that, when it comes to leadership and action, the UK is indeed leading the world.

T4. Will the Minister ensure that, from Christmas on, only turkeys will be stuffed, and not farmers? Does he agree that we need to recognise the importance of British farming by supporting home-grown products, with clear labelling and a greater use of the red tractor scheme? What help and support can he give in that regard? (171759)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Earlier this week, I attended the British Poultry Council awards ceremony in this House, at which the difficulties that the industry has faced this year were recognised. I was advised that sales were holding up and that British consumers were continuing to buy British poultry for its quality. Consumers recognise and want the Union jack label, and they are supporting the industry.

Information recently placed in the Library shows that Whitehall Departments and the services that they run are still not taking full advantage of British food in the public procurement process. British lamb prices are at their lowest for many years, so it is interesting that the Prison Service does not buy any at all. British food offers the very best quality and prices, so will the Minister ensure that all Departments are urged to take advantage of that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I agree that we can do more to encourage procurement from British sources in the public sector. For obvious reasons, it is not always easy for military forces abroad to access domestic markets, and that must be taken into account when the total sums being spent are considered. However, Whitehall and local authorities have the opportunity to buy British, and we are encouraging them to do so. In that way, we will secure sustainable food sources that are not just British but also as local as possible.

T5. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that shipping accounts for 5 per cent. of the world’s carbon emissions, a figure that is likely to rise by 75 per cent. over the next 20 years to a level that is twice that of aviation. Does he agree that the Bali conference must take that into consideration, and that it should be included in the agreement that will replace Kyoto? (171761)

I agree, and I mentioned shipping in the list of objectives that I gave in answer to an earlier question. We have not made as much progress towards achieving international agreement about how we should deal with shipping, bunker fuels and so on as we have with aviation. Indeed, the EU Environment Council later this month will discuss aviation’s inclusion in the EU emissions trading scheme, which I hope that we can achieve as quickly as possible.

T6. Will the Minister for the Environment confirm that a number of the flood defence projects that the Department has not yet approved have higher rates of financial and social return than many projects in other Departments that have secured approval? Surely the Treasury should provide the necessary funding so that the schemes can go ahead and provide the comfort and protection that many thousands of families deserve and expect. (171764)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comprehensive spending review announcement, which contained significant year-on-year increases in capital expenditure for both coastal and river and surface flooding. The necessary resources have been allocated for flood defences, and we can all argue different priorities when it comes to socio-economic benefits. However, I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents want to know whether they are safe from flooding. We believe that our plans mean that they have the best chance possible, given the science that we have available.

If he has not already done so, will the Minister study the impact of cheap Brazilian beef imports on the UK red meat market? He will be aware that Great Britain is the main market for red meat beef from Northern Ireland, where animal health is at a high level and where traceability and development are both good. Will he meet the Livestock Marketing Commission for Northern Ireland to discuss the 10-year plan that has been drawn up in consultation with his Department?

I am more than happy to arrange the meeting that my hon. Friend requests. We have been importing Brazilian meat for decades. We consume more meat than we produce. We have in place a range of safeguards for testing meats from not just Brazil but across the world. There have been inspections in Brazil. It is a regionalised country, and not every area has tuberculosis. The results of the most recent inspection have now come before the European Commission, which is considering them, and we will have discussions on them. We want to ensure that any meat or products that come into this country from anywhere in the world are as safe as possible and of the highest standard. If they are not, clearly we need to take action. That applies not only to Brazil, which is an important trading country for us. There have been about £700 million-worth of exports to Brazil this year, but we will make sure that there are safeguards in place as regards Brazil and all other countries.

Will the Secretary of State instruct the Environment Agency to conduct an inquiry into the safety of the lagoons at the Glebe mine in Stoney Middleton? In January this year, one of the lagoons burst its banks and flooded the whole village; a Minister visited the area afterwards. There are reports that another, larger lagoon is already leaking. Given all the difficulties and dangers regarding the pollution of the rivers and the flooding of the village, will the Secretary of State ensure that the Environment Agency holds an inquiry as soon as possible?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing the problem to my attention. I will look into it straight away, and I will come back to him on it.