Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 471: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Low-Energy Light Bulbs

1. What assessment his Department has made of local authority arrangements for the disposal of low-energy light bulbs. (178855)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for approving facilities for the disposal of electrical equipment, including low-energy light bulbs. No assessment has been made.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In my council area, half the waste centres have no collection point for bulbs, retailers do not take them and the council advice is to stick them in the bin. Is that not the real picture nationwide? Can the Minister enlighten us further?

I can certainly enlighten the hon. Gentleman. That is not the picture with which I am familiar. I took the trouble to inquire about local facilities for his constituents. I understand that Merseyside waste disposal authority has 14 designated collection points, five of which have separate collections, and that Sefton has two collection points, of which one, at Sefton Meadows, is separate. I rang Sefton Meadows, and the staff there performed well; they were able to answer my question about how to dispose of a low-energy light bulb properly.

More information needs to be given to the public. That is the duty of local authorities, all of which have sites where such light bulbs can be taken, and of retailers, who have a responsibility when selling them to say where they can be disposed of. A few retailers will take them back.

A constituent has raised an issue with me about his four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who suffers from eczema. She suffers great discomfort under standard low-energy bulbs—he cites as examples those in Boots and Mothercare— but when she is under standard fluorescent lighting or near household low-energy bulbs, she does not suffer. Can my hon. Friend throw any light on that problem for my constituents?

That certainly must be a serious problem for a child with eczema. Since the phase-out of domestic high-energy light bulbs was announced and has become better known, we have received anecdotal evidence that some people with certain skin conditions may be affected by low-energy bulbs. Working with the Department of Health, we are looking seriously at the matter. I have agreed a meeting with Lupus UK, and if others wish to join us at that meeting, I would be pleased to see them. There is a difference between domestic lighting and some other forms of fluorescent lighting still used in shops and offices. Domestic lighting has improved so much that we anticipate that the problem will be overcome.

Is the Minister aware that if one accidentally breaks a low-energy light bulb, the dust inside is mercury? Inhaling mercury can be very dangerous. In the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned additional funds being made available to encourage people to make their homes energy-efficient. Will that budget extend to clear guidance and better packaging to ensure that such bulbs are not broken, and clear instructions about what to do if they are?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that issue has been mentioned a lot in the press, and we need to make it clear what the problem is. Low-energy bulbs contain about 5 mg of mercury now, compared with 100 mg when they first came out. The amount is constantly being reduced, and low-mercury bulbs are now available. If a bulb should be broken—although the chances of one breaking are extremely low, lower than for the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs—

If it were to be dropped it might not break, but if it did, the amount of mercury in a new bulb is perhaps enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. However, mercury is dangerous and care must therefore be taken. The simple thing to do is what any sensible person would do with a dangerous chemical: open the window, leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes and then sweep up the broken bulb, seal it in a bag and dispose of it in the way that I described. However, people should not be nervous of the bulbs; no mercury escapes when they are in use.

Chewing Gum

2. If he will seek discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on tax incentives for manufacturers of chewing gum to create a biodegradable product; and if he will make a statement. (178856)

As my hon. Friend knows, there are always discussions between Departments and the Treasury on a range of issues. Any announcement on taxation is in the gift of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Minister will know that disposal of chewing gum disfigures our city centres, gets on wheelchair users’ wheelchairs, in the hair of children and so on. On the basis that the polluter should pay, will my hon. Friend ask the manufacturers to come to the Department to have a serious discussion with him about how we can undo some of that pollution? If they do not come up with some answers—there are biodegradable alternatives—will he consider making representations to the Treasury?

My hon. Friend and I recently had an Adjournment debate about the matter in Westminster Hall. The manufacturers are investing in research and development to provide a biodegradable product that is also non-sticky. Clearly, it is essential for the manufacturers that it tastes good and that it sells. That is obviously a commercial issue for them. The Department, along with a number of partners, meets the industry, and at future meetings I will discuss with manufacturers the point made by my hon. Friend. On taxation, I refer him to my earlier reply.

Will the Minister admit that this farce has been running for at least a quarter century? Is it not time to recognise that the civilised world has lost the battle against chewing gum, and that where people can spit chewing gum out, they will? In addition to the good work of the chewing gum action group, would it not be better to concentrate on encouraging research into technology that can clean up the mess more quickly and more cheaply than is now possible?

There has been a series of schemes throughout the country whereby councils have tried to educate the local community. Oxford council saw the biggest reduction in the amount of litter from chewing gum. It is the case that we need to increase the clean-up capability, and councils are doing their level best, and it costs a fortune. Also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, a biodegradable non-sticky gum should be developed. He is right. The problem of chewing gum plagues every shopping precinct up and down the land. Councils are doing their best, but the key thing—if the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) does not mind my saying that—in the message to members of the public is, “Don’t spit it out. Put it in the flipping bin.”

May I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to take the route suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)? Chewing gum is a plague on all our communities, whether they be big or small, and a disproportionate cost is paid by society—not only by local authorities using council tax to clean up the mess, but by the people affected when it sticks to their clothing or is walked into their homes. I would not advocate going down the Singapore route by banning chewing gum completely, but every piece of chewing gum sold in this country should be biodegradable and non-sticky.

There are two manufacturers, with whom we are working closely. They are looking to develop a product that will be tasty and will sell. Let us hope that in future the type of chewing gum that now disfigures our pavements becomes a thing of the past. That requires a great deal of work. I know that the manufacturers are undertaking that and I am sure they have heard the voices from colleagues in the House today, which reflect wider public opinion.

Let us not let Wrigley’s wriggle out of this one. [Interruption.] Well, it is as bad as the joke from the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) about light bulbs. The industry probably makes hundreds of millions of pounds from chewing gum and it should be investing much of that in research and development to produce biodegradable chewing gum. While we are waiting for that to happen, will the Minister have a word with the Home Office about enforcement, so that far more of those who spit chewing gum out on to the streets—a disgusting habit—face fines?

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, it is illegal to drop gum. The Cleaner Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 gave councils the power to issue fixed penalty notices to people who do so, and councils are increasingly using that power.

Energy Efficiency

3. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on increasing energy efficiency in the poorest households. (178857)

Improving energy efficiency in the poorest households is very important in tackling fuel poverty. Our latest annual progress report sets out the action that we are taking across Government, including through the Warm Front programme and the energy efficiency commitment.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I know that he thinks climate change is as important as I do. In that respect, the Warm Front and Warm Deal schemes, both introduced by the Labour party, have provided financial support and help for efficiency improvements in well over 1 million households in this country.

However, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the calls from the Government-sponsored Fuel Poverty Advisory Group for an extra £500 million to improve the Warm Front scheme? Will he ensure that the knock-on effect will get to the people on the Warm Deal programme in Scotland, and will not go into the Scottish Executive budget to be hidden away, as happened in respect of disabled children?

Funding for the Warm Deal programme is a matter for the Scottish Executive. As for funding in England targeted at those on low incomes, if we take together the investment that we will make in Warm Front and what will come from the new carbon emissions reduction target—which is double the energy efficiency commitment, or EEC—we will, over the next three years, invest £2.3 billion in dealing with the problem raised by my hon. Friend. That is an increase of £680 million compared with the previous spending review period.

The Secretary of State may be aware of many Members’ concern that the prices quoted for schemes under the grants administered by the Energy Action Grants Agency, or EAGA, are far higher than those that a local contractor would deliver for the same scheme. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that issue and its impact on the overall budgets to deliver the objectives?

I am aware of those concerns. The scheme is audited and assessed to make sure that we get value for money. Having looked at some of the cases in a bit of detail, I think that we have to consider whether we are comparing like with like. Under the Warm Front programme, there is a follow-up service and so on, which may not apply in the case of local contractors bidding to do similar work. It is important that we compare like with like, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that we get every penny of value from the money we put in.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Warm Front programme is available only to pensioners and disabled people; many other people in poverty do not have access to Warm Front grants. The grants are available for central heating boilers only when they have failed; they are not available to replace old and inefficient boilers. Surely it is in the best interests of poorer people, the economy as a whole and tackling climate change that inefficient boilers in all the homes of those on the lowest incomes should be available for grant aid.

My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the need to improve the energy efficiency of home heating. In addition to the Warm Front scheme and the help that it provides, we are increasing, through the carbon emissions reduction target, the requirement on energy companies to encourage and support home owners to improve their energy efficiency.

The issue raises a fundamental point about what more we can do to ensure that energy efficiency and therefore carbon emissions from domestic households improve. Although from 2016 we will deal with new houses through the zero-carbon homes policy, we have an existing stock of about 25 million or 26 million homes for which a lot more could be done. The launch of the green homes service in April this year will provide a lot more advice for householders on the steps that they can take.

People are not worried only about the value for money of EAGA’s contracts: is the Secretary of State aware that the agency has been charging low-income households up to £800 to access the Government grants? Having paid that money last autumn, some low-income households have been told that they will not get their new heating until later this year, after the winter. Is the Secretary of State aware of that, and if so, what is he doing about it?

When the hon. Gentleman says that people are being charged to access the grant, is he referring to the fact that the grant is available up to a certain amount and that any work that is then required above and beyond that has to be contributed to by the household? If so, we have always known that that is the case, because the grant provides support up to a certain level. If he is talking about something else and has particular cases in mind, will he bring them to my attention so that I can look at them?

May I turn my right hon. Friend’s attention to electrical efficiency within the domestic scene and, again, to low-energy light bulbs, which the Government wish to introduce? Has he had any discussions with the Society of Light and Lighting about the power factor of low-energy light bulbs, which has to be at a level of 0.9 in order to make them effective? Any power factor in excess of that level—some bulbs on sale now have a factor of three times that—means that the bulb is burning power at three times the rating at which it is sold. For example, if it is 10 W, it will burn power at the rate of 30 to 40 W and is therefore not a low-energy light bulb at all. Will my right hon. Friend discuss those issues with the society?

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who just answered the question about low-energy light bulbs, is in contact with that organisation, and I have no doubt that she will pursue the point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Food Pricing

4. What consideration he has given to the regulation of farm to retail price spreads, with particular reference to supermarkets; and if he will make a statement. (178858)

The Government believe that prices are for the market to determine and do not get involved, provided that competition rules are respected. As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, the Competition Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the groceries market as a whole.

Figures show that while the average farm-gate price for a litre of milk is 18p, it costs 21p to produce it, and it is then sold for 60p in the supermarket. What is the Minister going to do to give a fair deal to farmers, who are being held to ransom by the big supermarkets?

I am grateful for that question. Gate prices have increased considerably. That is partly to do with changing markets, with China and India increasingly wanting dairy products. We had the interim report from the commission in October, and we expect a report in the first half of this year. Some of the issues that it will consider include tightening up the code, perhaps to include some of the other supermarkets. It is vital that we have transparency from farmer to producer to supermarket so that we can answer these questions, which people have been concerned about for a long time.

The wages and conditions of workers have an impact on the farm to retail prices in our supermarkets. Is my hon. Friend aware of Unite’s campaign to highlight the plight of migrant workers supplying food to major supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer? Does he agree that the terms and conditions of those migrant workers should not be exploited in order to produce cheap food for the supermarkets?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He has a proud track record in introducing the Bill that became the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. The authority is prosecuting where migrant and mobile workers are being exploited. We have the legislation and a series of safeguards, but if hon. Members are aware of any cases, they should bring them to the authority’s attention. I have met its representatives, who have prosecuted where they have found such cases and will continue to do so.

But does the Minister accept that the low prices in the livestock sector recently were not the fault of the supermarkets, which actually behaved very responsibly, but of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which provoked the foot and mouth crisis that caused such a problem? Interestingly, in comparison with Scotland, where farmers have been compensated for collateral damage, English farmers have been left to shoulder the entire responsibility for losses on their own.

We know that prices for livestock have fallen. That is partly to do with the considerable increase in the price of feed, and the prices have not worked their way through the system. We are aware of that, but the situation is not DEFRA’s fault, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Feed prices have gone up across the world; all member states are concerned about those increases, and they are impacting on livestock farmers.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is he surprised, as I am, at how few suppliers have chosen to give evidence to the Competition Commission inquiry? Does he have a theory as to why so few have given evidence, and how might he encourage them to give evidence to that important inquiry?

My noble Friend Lord Rooker has submitted evidence to the Competition Commission. He was concerned about the power of supermarkets to force prices down, about the viability of wholesale distribution and its effect on independent stores, and about the effectiveness of the code of practice. We have put forward those points for the Competition Commission to consider. It is at liberty to conduct the inquiry as it sees fit, and I am sure that it has heard my hon. Friend’s comments.

The Minister is entirely right to want to keep the Government out of this matter. I can think of no bog in which one would descend more rapidly than that of trying to get price controls between farmers and supermarkets. Will he beware of sweeping generalisations, such as statements about how much it costs a farmer to produce a litre of milk? Given the huge variety in the prices the farmers receive, depending on their circumstances, would he note that dedicated supply chains are being put together by supermarkets, which will integrate the chain much more effectively? Will the Government confine themselves to encouraging all sides of the supply industry to co-operate more closely so that it can deliver what the consumer wants at a price the producer can afford, and so that supermarkets can make a reasonable return?

There is a law in other countries to ban retailers from selling products at a price below the cost to them. That issue has been raised most recently in this House in relation to cheap alcohol, but it applies equally to direct farm produce such as milk. Will my hon. Friend at least consider such a change to the law on prices to prevent predatory pricing practices?

As I said in an earlier response, the Government do not intend to get involved in price control.

Consumers visiting their local shop or supermarket who wish to shop ethically, on environmental or animal welfare grounds, or simply because they want to back British farmers, will want to buy British. Is the Minister aware that it is currently entirely permissible for animal carcases to be imported into this country, processed and then packaged as British. Does he agree that that is an outrageous deception, and will he take steps to ensure that the only meat that can be packaged and presented in this country as British comes from British animals?

There is a European Union ruling that makes what the hon. Gentleman suggests impossible, but increasingly we see packaging that promotes local produce. The situation is changing, and people are looking to see where food is grown, where it is reared and, more specifically, which of the different counties of our country it comes from. When I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency last year, I went to the food hall, which was full of businesses from his community providing fantastic produce, which all came from Cumbria. On talking to those businesses, I heard that they were finding access to markets. The Competition Commission has not found any impediment preventing local producers from accessing markets. The message from this House to the consumer must be, “Be discerning. Buy local and buy British.”

I am sure that the Minister is aware that there is a double rip-off in that not only the farmers but the consumers—the families who buy the milk—are being ripped off by the supermarkets. What can we do to stop that double rip-off? Farm-gate prices are not fair and families pay too much.

In response to several hon. Members, I referred to the undesirability of the Government getting involved in price controls. We are not going to do that. However, the Competition Commission is thoroughly examining the matter and a range of issues to do with the relationship between farmers and supermarkets. We expect its report to be published in the early part of this year. If it makes recommendations to the Government, we will, of course, consider them and follow them up.


During 2007, all species of cetaceans in UK waters underwent an assessment of their favourable conservation status under article 17 of the habitats directive. We plan to publish the findings soon. The latest EU-funded studies of cetacean populations show that levels have remained steady in UK waters over the past decade.

Although I am grateful for that reply, the Under-Secretary will be aware of the growing concern about the health of cetacean populations, especially on the Cornish and south-west coast, and particularly that of the inshore bottle-nosed dolphin population, which the Cornwall Wildlife Trust recently estimated to have fallen to seven. What contribution is the Department making to understanding better the health and the cause of the decline of those stocks?

We spent around £1.6 million between 2000 and 2005 on research on cetaceans and especially on by-catch. We are expecting research from the sea mammal unit at St. Andrews university to provide information about the effectiveness of attaching pingers to fishing vessels. We expect the results of that research by April, and we will consider it and look to working in partnership with the fishing industry to ascertain whether pingers can be introduced effectively.

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about the issue, as do many hon. Members. We are investing, and we want to ensure that we keep by-catches and all fatalities of these beautiful creatures to an absolute minimum. I will ensure that he is updated as we receive the results of the research and move forward on dealing with the matter.

Dolphins are beautiful, intelligent and wonderful creatures. Why should they be threatened by DEFRA’s systemic incompetence? Bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth are threatened by oil spill and seismic testing. Pingers on gill nets either do not work or are not being used. Pair trawling drowns and smashes more dolphins than any other method of fishing and it is carried out only 6 nautical miles from our coast by French boats with historical rights. There is further rumour of a delay to the marine Bill.

DEFRA’s record on whales is even worse. It issued its much publicised recruiting document to 57 countries, 42 of which were already members of the International Whaling Commission. That is why the Department had to do it again this year. Surely that is incompetence. Is it not the case that everyone wants to save dolphins and whales except the Government?

We banned pair trawling in the western channel. We do not have the ability to ban French vessels—[Interruption.] In case the hon. Gentleman does not know, we are in the common fisheries policy, to which the Conservative Government signed up. We presented our argument in Europe and we took unilateral action to ban pair trawling—that constitutes taking an effective measure. We argued our case and we were unable to persuade others, but we are taking action ourselves.

The sea mammal research unit at St. Andrews has advised us that there is no danger to bottle-nosed dolphins in the Moray firth from ship-to-ship oil transfer. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that I should have been here. I say that we must accept the advice of one of the most revered institutions in this country. If we are given contrary advice, we will, of course, act on it.

I regret the partisan position that the hon. Gentleman takes on whaling. When I met the Japanese deputy ambassador, I said that all hon. Members were united in their condemnation of Japan on whaling. Yet the hon. Gentleman tries to take a partisan position. He is isolated. I told the deputy ambassador that Conservative and Liberal Members shared our concern. Our record is one of the best in the world.

It is not appalling. We are one of the only countries to summon ambassadors to listen to our concerns. The International Fund for Animal Welfare—IFAW—and many other non-governmental organisations have congratulated the Government on our action.

Food Security (Climate Change)

DEFRA’S 2006 assessment of food security highlighted climate change as one of the many factors that may affect the UK’s food supply. What matters to the safeguarding of our food supply is a strong farming industry, energy security, access to food from a variety of sources, a strong food chain and infrastructure, and having the capacity and contingency planning to deal with specific risks.

My right hon. Friend makes at least part of the point that, historically, the UK has often simply equated food security with market mechanisms. We know, however, that those market mechanisms are under pressure, partly because of the growth in demand from countries such as India and China and the growth in demand for biofuels. Climate change could, of course, destroy the whole supply chain. In that context, is my right hon. Friend confident that we have the forward planning to provide sufficient agricultural land and the necessary diverse and adaptable skills in the agricultural population to ensure that we can guarantee food security in the future?

My hon. Friend raises a really important point about the impact of the changing climate on the farming industry. First, on our capacity as a world to feed ourselves, the Food and Agriculture Organisation has said that world food production is still rising more quickly than the global population. There will, however, be between 9 billion and 9.5 billion of us on this planet by 2050, compared with 6.2 billion now.

Secondly, although the UK’s self-sufficiency has declined a bit in recent years, it is still higher than it was in the 1930s, before the second world war, and higher than it was after the second world war.

Thirdly, a change in climate might mean that some crops that are currently grown will be more difficult to grow, but it could also open up new possibilities. One of the practical steps that we are taking is to fund research at the Agriculture Development Advisory Service and at Warwick into the potential impact of more extreme weather events on the farming community. The truth is that this is an issue for all of us to think about. We need to try to anticipate what might be coming, so that the farming industry will be able to respond.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the UK livestock industry makes a huge contribution to not only the quality but the security of the food supply in this country? It is also true that cattle are a major generator of methane gas. Is it not important, however, to keep this matter in balance, and to say to anyone who criticises the farming industry that the value of the livestock industry far outweighs any contribution that it might make to climate change?

I am happy to say to the hon. Gentleman that I agree with him, with one proviso. The livestock industry does all the things that he has described, as well as contributing to our landscape, as has been said. We are strong supporters of the industry and we want it to thrive. Like all parts of the economy, however, it is going to have to make a contribution to the fight against climate change. I am glad to be able to say that emissions of methane have declined, largely as a result of reducing livestock numbers, but that will remain an issue because all parts of the economy, including farming, are going to have to make a contribution. That is why I welcome the work that the Farming Futures Project is doing, and the response of the National Farmers Union and others in acknowledging that climate change is an issue for farming, just as it is for the rest of us.


7. What representations he has received on the former chief scientist’s views on badger culling; and if he will make a statement. (178862)

I have received various representations on the former chief scientific adviser’s views on whether badger culling should form part of the bovine TB control strategy. Those have come in the form of questions from hon. Members and a lot of correspondence from concerned organisations and members of the public.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the findings of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which were developed over such a long period and at such considerable expense, should not be cast aside in favour of the views of an individual scientist, backed by hon. Members whose solution to animal welfare issues is “If in doubt, kill something”?

I say to my hon. Friend and the House that, as we know, this is an exceptionally difficult issue. If it were not exceptionally difficult, we would have found a way of resolving it already. Secondly, I met Sir John Bourn just before Christmas and I am in the process of having a series of meetings with all those who have an interest in this matter, as I told the House I would.

The advice in the ISG report is very clear. The conclusion was that the group did not think that culling could meaningfully contribute to the control of TB. We have all seen what the former chief scientific adviser had to say about that. For me, the issues on which I have to make a decision—and I will—are these: what does the science say; what is the practicality of any course of action; and, I have to say, what is the public acceptability of any course of action. The truth is that the person who holds my office must weigh those three issues in the balance in trying to help the industry and the livestock sector, which is finding it very difficult to deal with. I do not for one second deny the problems faced by the industry. It is a tough issue; I will reach a decision, but in doing that I am going to listen to all the views expressed.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Independent Scientific Group put great store by cattle testing and the use of the gamma interferon test. He will also be aware that there is considerable concern in farming circles that that test is now showing a much higher incidence of bovine TB in comparison with the skin test. What steps will he take to resolve that position, particularly taking into account the effect that a higher incidence of the disease could have on his Department’s budget?

We are using both those approaches. The right hon. Gentleman, who is expert in these matters, is correct in saying that the gamma interferon test produces more positive results. My view is that we should use all the scientific tools at our disposal to try to identify the nature of the problem. I think I am right in saying that there are a couple of potential court cases relating to use of the gamma interferon test, which will be a matter for the courts to resolve. Both tests demonstrate that there is a problem and we have to deal with it. The question is finding the solution that is going to work. A number of different proposals have been made and I look forward with great interest to what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman so ably chairs, has to say when it produces its report.

I am sure that the Minister recognises the sense of utter despair and anger in the south-west among farmers who over the past 10 years have seen delay after delay at the same time as the slaughter of tens of thousands of their animals. At that rate of progress, we are soon going to see more badgers in the south-west than farm animals. When are the Government going to take some positive decision?

As I said in answer to the earlier question, I am going to reach a decision, but as I told the House I am in the process of meeting all the organisations, which have very strong views on this subject. I absolutely recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about the difficulties that those farmers face, but, with respect, we have to find a solution that is in line with what the science tells us. We have had a 10-year study and we have seen what the report said and the view expressed in it—I do have regard to the science. We have to find a solution that is practical and we also have to weigh the factor of public acceptability in reaching the decision. People have very strong views on both sides of the argument. It is not easy, which is one of the reasons why it has taken so long to come to a decision, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do so.

The views of the former chief scientist are a matter of public record, but will my right hon. Friend share with the House the views of the current chief scientist?

I have the pleasure of meeting the new chief scientific adviser later on today; no doubt this issue will be one of a number that we will discuss.

The issue of the use of gamma interferon goes further than the Secretary of State suggests. The gamma interferon test has a sensitivity of about 97 per cent., yet we have found that in some herds up to 28 times the number of cattle are reacting to it as to the skin test. His officials are flatly refusing farmers the opportunity of re-testing and insisting on culling all those animals. That is the reason for the court hearings to which he referred.

Why will the Secretary of State not instruct his officials to allow a re-test, on the understanding that everybody accepts the outcome? All the evidence is that those results are statistically invalid. He should speak to experts: they are all saying that we could not get such a difference in sensitivity between the two tests. Something is wrong somewhere, and putting farmers to the expense of going to court—risking the Secretary of State’s money on extra compensatory costs, as well as defending the case—is helping nobody at all.

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I do not quite agree with the analysis that he has put forward. I repeat what I said a moment ago: we should use all the means that we have to try to achieve identification. I understand the strength of feeling in some cases about the impact of this, but if we have an additional test that gives us information about the incidence of bovine TB, it is pretty hard—looking at it from the other point of view—to say that we will not use it. Those tests have different sensitivities, but the question is whether it is right to use both. My view is that it is, but if the matter goes to the courts, they will decide whether the approach that we are taking is reasonable.

Flood Defences

We are improving protection from river and sea flooding and coastal erosion, and are on course to achieving protection for more than 180,000 households since 2003.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer. He will realise, or perhaps I can inform him, that at Fazeley the flooding bank was raised back to design level after flooding. At Elford, a new pump was put in to replace the defunct one after flooding. We await the Tame valley study, as part of the Greater Humber strategy, to see how many other weak points we have. Will he give us an assurance that there will be no redundancies or staff lay-offs and no reduction in the Environment Agency until that work is completed? Will he write to me with a date when we can expect the Tame valley study to be complete?

I will happily write to my hon. Friend about the River Tame study, because it will look at whether the design levels—for the Tamworth and the Fazeley defences—are still appropriate, and if not what possible solutions can be undertaken. On the resources available to the Environment Agency to work on flood defences, as he will know, the budget has doubled in the past 10 years from £300 million to £600 million a year, and it will increase further. That means that the agency will have more money to spend on more flood defence works.

Topical Questions

The Department’s responsibility is to help to enable us all to live within our environmental means. May I take this opportunity to report to the House the fact that Adair Turner has been appointed chair of the new Committee on Climate Change? As the House will know, the committee will play a vital role in helping us to move to a low-carbon economy, and I look forward to working with Lord Turner and the other members of the committee in helping to make that happen.

For Environment Agency purposes, my constituency of Tewkesbury falls within the midlands. I was rather disturbed to see that the Government’s flood defence grant in aid to the Environment Agency for the midlands is being reduced from £51.4 million last year to £45.5 million this year, and to £40 million next year. Can the Secretary of State give an explanation for that? The midlands is a large area, and he has been kind enough to visit Tewkesbury to see the devastation there, so can he guarantee that our flood defences will not suffer because of that budget change?

I know how much the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been affected. Although the flooding in Tewkesbury was mercifully not as bad as it was last summer, we were all waiting with bated breath to see what happened.

The main point about investment in flood defence and regional figures is that the figures may go up or down from year to year depending on the nature of the projects being funded. When a big capital investment project in a region in one year is finished and the money has been spent, the figure in the following year may not be as large. The trend line is clear, however. It is not possible to increase the budget, as we have, from £300 million to £600 million over a decade, and to be committed to increasing it to £800 million by 2010-11, without the trend line rising. There will be such ebbs and flows, but the overall trend is up, which means—as I said a moment ago—that we will be able to fund the additional flood defence works that we all want.

T2. The Trent, Dove and Derwent rivers all cross parts of my constituency, and every time the waters rise villages along their banks look on with anxiety. What are the prospects of further investment to meet some of their needs? I am thinking particularly of communities in villages such as Hatton—which has benefited from spending of some substance so far—and Scropton, Egginton, Willington and Ambaston. All those villages are threatened by flooding, and experienced it in 2000. (178846)

The catchment flood management plan for the Trent has identified a low-to-medium risk of flooding in the lower River Dove catchment area, which includes Hatton, Scropton and Egginton. In response to that, the planners will think about what flood risk management measures will be possible over the next three years. They will deliver a plan for the lower Dove area specifically, to establish first what is technically possible and secondly what is best in economic terms, while recognising that ultimately the Environment Agency must prioritise the increasing amounts of money that we are providing in order to deliver the maximum possible protection.

According to information published by the National Audit Office this week, the estimated cost to all of us, as taxpayers, of cleaning up Britain’s existing nuclear waste has risen by 18 per cent. over the past two years, to a staggering £73 billion. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the body responsible for decommissioning, which has had no chairman since the middle of last year and which last week lost a senior director, is fit for purpose? Does he not agree that whatever the low-carbon merits of nuclear—and goodness me, we need low-carbon technologies: the carbon figures announced by the Department today are depressing—going ahead with nuclear new build without having sorted out the toxic legacy of the past would be irresponsible?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the decommissioning authority. It has a very important task, and I have confidence in the work that it is doing. As for nuclear, the choice is very plain. A number of people’s views on nuclear have changed because of the threat of climate change. The one thing that is absolutely clear about it is that it is a low-carbon technology, producing—I speak from memory—7 g to 22 g of carbon per kWh. Gas produces about 380 g per kWh, and coal about 755 g. There really is no contest. Waste is an issue, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we must deal with the legacy of waste from our existing nuclear programme anyway. It will be added to if new nuclear power stations are built in line with the policy that the Government have set out.

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I was going to change the subject to Natural England, which was established less than 18 months ago to be

“a powerful new champion of nature”.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Department is seeking cuts of more than 15 per cent. in its core budget? That will create huge problems for partner organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife International and the Wildlife Trust. Those bodies have no idea what key projects they will still be able to work on after the end of March. How will this shambolic situation help the Government to fulfil their commitment to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2010? How confident is the Secretary of State that that promise will be kept?

This week I met the chair and chief executive of Natural England to review the organisation’s performance since its establishment. As I told them, I think they have done a pretty darn good job. There has, for example, been real progress in getting sites of special scientific interest into the right condition, which is one of the targets that we set. I applaud the work done by Natural England, which has proved itself to be a powerful advocate of the cause of biodiversity and the natural environment.

On funding, we will make announcements about the budget in due course. The budget is tight because, although there is growth, a lot of that will go on increased investment in flood defences, so difficult decisions will have to be taken. When I have taken them, I will announce them.

T3. Elsewhere in Parliament, the Department has an exhibition about the excellent work it is doing to promote public awareness of climate change. Why, however, are some of the Department’s programmes promoting awareness restricted to England, or England and Wales? I urge my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to ensure that they apply throughout the UK, where appropriate—and, obviously, in association with the relevant devolved Administrations. (178847)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for the advertisement for the “act on CO2 calculator”, which is available in Portcullis House until 5 o’clock today for Members to test their carbon footprints.

As for making such material available, on the internet it is accessible to everybody. Therefore, constituents in Scotland will have had the opportunity to access it, and all Members could publicise it. Also, there is press advertising, which is of course seen in the devolved Administration areas. We have spoken to our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. This material is extremely important, as more than 40 per cent. of our emissions are down to our individual actions, and we have suggested that it may be made available for public engagement in the devolved areas. If the devolved Administrations are willing to contribute to, and participate in, these schemes, we would be delighted to co-operate with them and make our expertise available.

In the light of the latest scientific evidence on the speed of climate change, what is Ministers’ latest assessment of the adequacy, or otherwise, of a 60 per cent. CO2 reduction target?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen the speech that the Prime Minister made in November. The target of at least 60 per cent. was set in the light of royal commission advice, but the Prime Minister has acknowledged, as we all do, that the science is evolving—we read the reports—and that is why he said that it is now felt that the reduction might need to be increased to 80 per cent. That is also why we will ask the Committee on Climate Change, as one of its first tasks under its new chair, to advise on what the 2050 figure should be. On a point that relates to several issues to do with the Climate Change Bill, having established this important, authoritative and influential body, we should let it do its job and give us the advice, so that the Government can then take the final decision on what to do.

T8. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might be interested to know that I spent last Saturday at an event in Cardiff on giving opportunities to the public to participate in discussion about the idea of a carbon trading allowance, and on seeing what contribution that that could make, as an alternative to measures such as taxation, to encourage individual responsibility in reducing people’s carbon footprint. Does the Department welcome that approach by the RSA—the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—and also by the Co-operative party, to encourage individuals to engage in the idea of creating carbon-neutral communities? (178853)

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. The RSA is a valuable body in this respect and it is involved in work on personal carbon trading allowances. The Department is keen to receive the results of the RSA’s work, and we are pioneering work to see whether there is cost-benefit in having personal carbon trading allowances and whether there would be public acceptability. This is all in its early stages, but in addition we are providing £8.5 million-worth of grants to local communities, and 83 community projects have been established, which are very much in line with what the RSA and the Co-operative party have advocated: that we should enable communities to take action to reduce emissions at community level.

T4. I hear what the Secretary of State says about increased resources to combat flooding. Given that flooding will be a more and more pressing issue in the years to come, what reassurance can he give my constituents in Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, who have been regularly blighted by flooding in recent years, that the resources allocated on a UK basis will be spent north of the border on such projects, so that Murrayfield is not flooded on Sunday when the French visit? (178848)

I wish the team every success in the match on Sunday. All Members of the House want to ensure that the increased investment in flood and flood defence is used as effectively as possible to provide the best protection possible. That puts a responsibility on those spending the money to use it as wisely and effectively as possible, so that protection is provided in recognition of the rising risk. The hon. Gentleman touches on a good example.

T5. What is the Department doing to counter light pollution? If one flies over southern England at night, one finds the place ablaze with unnecessary lighting, which is not only very wasteful but prevents people from seeing properly dark skies. I say that as chairman of the all-party group on astronomy. What are Ministers doing to counter the threat—and, indeed the reality—of light pollution, because, after all, the skies are the largest part of the environment, for which the Department is responsible? (178849)

I am grateful for that question, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. On the one hand our constituents write to us saying that more street lights are needed in a particular area because they are concerned about antisocial behaviour and so on, but on the other hand, as he points out, we want to see clear skies. Thus, this is about the getting the balance right. If we can reduce the amount of light pollution, that will be good not only for astronomers but in terms of climate change.

T6. My mother will be a beneficiary of the splendid idea to award medals for Land Army girls. Now that the forms have been issued, will the Minister or the Secretary of State share with the House how vigorously the information will be interpreted, given that these ladies are of mature years and their sight, hearing and memory are not exactly what they were 60 years ago? (178850)

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman’s mother will be one of the recipients of the badge. May I say that all of us, as Members of the House, have a part to play in ensuring that the information gets out? Here is a little advert: 08459 33 55 77 is the phone number people should call to get an application form—they can also get one from the website. I absolutely take the point that he raises, because I want to get the badge to all the surviving members of the women’s Land Army, who did so much for the country. They fought in the fields and in the forests to ensure that we were capable of winning the war. We owe them a big debt of gratitude, and the badge will be a sign of a grateful nation.

T7. Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps the Government will take to make a vaccine against bluetongue available for this year? (178852)

I can gladly tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have placed an order for 22.5 million such doses—indeed, we were the first of the northern European countries to place an order. We are working closely with the industry. I met the industry representatives last week to talk about preparations for the vaccination programme. Obviously, we are keen to get that going as soon as the vaccine is delivered by the company with which we have contracted, because, as he will know only too well, this is the way out of the problems that the industry is facing because of bluetongue’s arrival.