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Topical Questions

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

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.