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Use of Waste

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

1. What his policy is on the use of waste as part of the landscaping of new developments; and if he will make a statement. (193649)

The Government encourage the reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery of waste wherever possible. As a way of encouraging recovery, suitable waste can be used in landscaping developments under exemptions from waste management licensing, administered by the Environment Agency.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but has she had an opportunity to examine the situation at the Risebridge golf course in my constituency, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste have been dumped under the guise of landfill, to the great benefit of the company running the golf course? Will she come to see the destruction that that is causing to the local environment, and take immediate action to prevent this scam from happening elsewhere in the country? Basildon is another example of where it is now happening. Will the Government take immediate action to resolve that devastation of the environment?

I have indeed taken the trouble to examine the case that the hon. Gentleman raises, as well as that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) in respect of the Basildon golf course. The Environment Agency has permitted the use of the material on the site, but having heard the hon. Gentleman’s case, I have drawn the issue further to the attention of the agency. It tells me that it visited on 28 February, and will visit again on 20 March. Because of the concerns that he and other Members have raised, a review of exemptions from permitting will take place. A consultation will be carried out this summer, and the revised exemptions could be introduced at the earliest in October next year. That will be done, and we are concerned. Where waste can be used in low-risk operations, that should be done for recovery. Where there are possible scams, however, permitting will be needed. That will be the subject of the consultation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that one of the biggest new developments in the history of our country is the Olympic site? A great opportunity exists to reuse waste for other purposes on that site. Will she talk to the Olympic Delivery Authority, because the word is out that sustainable contracts, using waste transferred by water and rail, are being excluded on the basis of cost, and it is just going for the cheapest option? Will she talk to her colleagues urgently?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know takes a great interest in the subject of waste. As I indicated, the Government’s policy is that we should make use of waste, but only in sustainable ways; that is the crux of the matter. We will introduce new regulations in respect of construction sites, and it is important that waste from construction sites be dealt with better than it has been in the past, when many problems occurred. I undertake to talk to my colleagues, and to try to ensure as much recovery and reuse of waste as possible. Waste can be a resource, provided that it is dealt with sustainably.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will answer this question together with question 7. UK greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 16.4 per cent. since 1990. We remain on course to nearly double our Kyoto protocol target over the 2008-12 period. The 2006 UK climate change programme and the 2007 energy White Paper set out the policies and measures for reducing emissions and support the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The Climate Change Bill, the first of its kind in any country, introduces legally binding carbon budgets to ensure that progress will continue.

Order. We ought to do things properly. Has the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) been informed of the grouping of the questions? If not, it would be unfair to him to deal with question 7 now, given that he may come into the Chamber later.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer, and the Chancellor’s reaffirmation yesterday that the Committee on Climate Change will consider increasing the target for greenhouse gas reduction from 60 per cent. to 80 per cent., but will my hon. Friend look again at the position of aircraft and shipping? Given that they now account for some 10 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions, they need to be covered by a proper scheme. I know that there is a proposal to include aircraft in the European Union emissions trading scheme, but shipping must be brought into a framework of strict controls if we are to ensure that it too plays its role in reducing carbon emissions.

Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Speaker.

I, too, welcomed the measures announced in yesterday’s Budget statement. As my hon. Friend knows, as a result of the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the European Environment Council, aviation is to be included in the emissions trading scheme. That is an important development. As for shipping, we are hopeful that the International Maritime Organisation will achieve its inclusion, but if not we shall have to act, as the United Kingdom Government.

I am sure that the Minister applauds the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday that he would impose higher taxes on gas-guzzling cars that are big polluters. But what consideration has his Department given to the fact that one of the categories involved covers people-carriers, which tend to be used by larger families? If such families were discouraged from owning people-carriers, they might well use two cars instead.

The hon. Lady has obviously been thinking about this overnight. She makes an important point, which is blindingly obvious. It is true that people wish to contribute to the reduction in emissions, and getting the bandings right in the way proposed by the Chancellor is an important part of that. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the goal of 100 g per km travelled for efficient engines, bearing in mind that the United Kingdom is among the largest manufacturers of engines in the world.

I am sure my hon. Friend accepts that reducing greenhouse gases requires a massive investment in renewable energy, but a recent European Union table shows that Britain is the third worst country in the EU for producing renewable energy. Germany has 360 times more installed solar capacity and 10 times more wind capacity, and it has achieved that by intervening in the energy markets rather than leaving things to market forces. When will my hon. Friend take investment in renewable energy seriously?

My hon. Friend’s statistics are accurate. That is why a huge amount of attention is being given to ensuring that the United Kingdom can make its contribution. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of major projects and policy changes are in place. I remind him that yesterday’s Budget statement confirmed the intention to examine the issue of feed-in tariffs for microgeneration.

It is not unreasonable to expect the economies of countries such as China and India to grow by about 3 per cent. over the next decade. Those countries are increasingly using coal-fired power stations: in China, a new one seems to come into play practically every week. It is also not unreasonable for developing countries to want to catch up with developed countries. In setting our targets, what account are we taking of that, and of the fact that such countries are likely to produce considerably more carbon emissions over the coming decades?

The hon. Gentleman has asked an important question, which will be discussed at the informal G8 meeting in Japan at the weekend. The United Kingdom Government lead the world in policy on carbon capture and clean coal energy, and also in putting our money where our mouth is.

The hon. Gentleman also asked how we can balance the growth in countries such as China and India—which is, of course, perfectly proper and welcome—with the transformation that will lead to a clean energy world. That is at the heart of the discussions and negotiations that are taking place as part of the Bali process, to which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the United Kingdom is contributing positively.

My hon. Friend will realise that one way to reduce greenhouse gases is to reduce the demand. While I welcome the Chancellor’s moves on, and the projects for, home insulation, is it not time that we seriously recognised the role that energy suppliers play before they couple up to a type of accommodation? The type of construction of accommodation is what causes loss of heat, not the occupant of that accommodation. Is it not time that we approached this matter from that position, rather than have the current system under which people have to be over 70 years of age, disabled or have a serious need before they get free home insulation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. He is right that in all these strategies energy efficiency is the biggest win, and is what saves the consumer money. Warm Front is not the only scheme available; the CERT—carbon emissions reduction target—scheme is a £1.5 billion strategy that places an obligation on the energy companies in respect of people across the country who are not dependent on benefits, so that addresses my hon. Friend’s point. I might add that we in DEFRA were punching the air with delight at the announcement in yesterday’s Budget on the zero-carbon commitment for non-domestic buildings, and particularly public sector buildings.

On Tuesday night at the Chemistry Club I listened to the Secretary of State speak with genuine passion about the enormity of the climate change threat and the need for urgent action. Yet yesterday we heard the Chancellor deliver the most unambitious and piecemeal of responses to the global warming crisis in his “bad news” Budget. It is becoming clearer by the day that the current DEFRA team is being completely sidelined by the new Prime Minister. Can the Minister think of any other reason why his party colleague, a former Home Secretary, told The Guardian last week that the Prime Minister’s efforts on climate change were “absolutely pathetic” and “embarrassing”?

I can think of many reasons why the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) might wish to say things like that, but none of them is related to the fact that this Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Think about it. None of them is related to the fact that this Prime Minister is leading, both domestically and internationally, the change to a low-carbon economy. The various measures announced in the Budget to build on that—one of which I have just mentioned, for zero-carbon non-domestic buildings—will bring about in this country the changes that the hon. Gentleman requests, and which were debated at the Chemistry Club this week.

I congratulate the Government on the policies on climate change in yesterday’s Budget, particularly those on taxation of the most polluting vehicles. The shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), was of course a distinguished member of the Environmental Audit Committee, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend has thought about whether we might need an environmental audit of the climate change policies of each Member of this House. It would be extremely interesting to audit Conservative Members’ preferences in domestic fuel consumption and their choice of vehicle, as we could then see whether they are consistent in their approach to climate change.

I have no tabbed reply for that question; it is a matter for the House. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State points out that the “Act on CO2 carbon footprint calculator is available online. All of us can play our part, and I believe that it is important for Members of this House to set an example to the country, because the public will judge us on what we do, not on what we say.

The Minister will be aware that a third of CO2 emissions come from power generation, and I hope that he shares my concern that a new generation of coal-fired power stations with unremitted carbon emissions would be catastrophic. Can he therefore confirm that DEFRA is banging some heads together in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and telling it not to give the go-ahead to new stations such as Kingsnorth unless and until they can be guaranteed to operate with carbon capture, not just the promise of that in some distant future?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks—DEFRA and DBERR work in tandem on these issues. The proposals for the new power station have yet to be decided; planning consent locally has been given. The importance of carbon capture and clean coal energy, domestically and internationally, cannot be overstated; it is about 50 per cent. of the issue. We wish to be in a position where our companies and our technology can help the world to provide for carbon capture of coal. Of course, it would be unwise of me to comment on the particular site, but we do want to move to more efficiency in coal energy. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we cease to produce coal-driven energy, but it is important that the new technologies can be put in place.

Coastal Areas (Public Access)

We have regular meetings with Natural England, and we have done since it reported in February 2007 on ways to improve access to the English coast. The Government propose to publish legislation to improve access to the English coast in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Why does the Minister not get two manifesto pledges for the price of one by including access to the coast in the draft marine Bill, which has been anticipated eagerly by the House for a long time? When is that Bill going to be published?

Setting aside the Minister’s comment about early spring—it seems to me that we are indeed already in early spring—does he not agree with me that using a rather blunt instrument such as legislation to achieve an end that we all want—greater access to the countryside and the coast—might be a rather clumsy way of doing it? The better way would be by negotiation with individual farmers, such as, leading by example, the owners of the Blackwater estate, in Essex, one mile of which is closed to the public at the moment, with signs up stating, “No access”, “Private gardens: go round”—a long way round. The estate is owned, of course, by none other than the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman talks about access to the coast and the countryside. Of course, we brought in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which was not necessarily welcomed at the time by the Opposition, but it certainly has been a great success. We will use legislation to ensure that people have far more access to our wonderful and beautiful coastline. We estimate that some 30 per cent. of the coastline does not have secure access. The hon. Gentleman talks about a voluntary arrangement. There is a wonderful path round the south-west that he will know, which brings in millions of pounds to the local economy and is enjoyed by thousands of people each year. However, it took 40 years of voluntary arrangements to bring that into position. We think that, using the legislation, we can ensure that things happen a bit more quickly.

There is of course still the unresolved issue of small boat access to inland waterways, which the Minister is rightly approaching on a voluntary, rather than statutory, basis. However, that too has been going on for some years. Can he give us a progress report?

We want to bring these measures forward, and as I said, we will publish the marine Bill and the coastal access Bill in tandem in early spring of this year. We will ensure that there is access to as much of our country as possible. We know that people enjoy walking in the countryside, and it is absolutely essential that they be able to roam where they want to—within, obviously, certain constraints. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the point that he raises.

Bottled Water

4. What assessment he has made of the environmental effects of the bottled water industry; and if he will make a statement. (193654)

Evidence suggests that drinking tap water uses around 300 times less energy than drinking bottled water. The Government have therefore decided to phase out the use of bottled water for meetings throughout the Government estate. Of course, it is not for Government to dictate what people should drink; that is a matter of choice for consumers.

I share my hon. Friend’s aspirations, but may I draw his attention to the recent “Panorama” programme on bottled water—[Hon. Members: “He was in it!”]—and, indeed, to his own comments in it, which I hope were directed more towards imported product than UK-produced product? However, they have had an unwanted impact on companies such as Highland Spring, in my constituency. Will he respond positively to my written request that he visit Highland Spring, and should not the real issue be the environmental footprint of the product, not the product itself?

I thank my hon. Friend for the representations he makes on behalf of his constituency. I can confirm that in addition to his correspondence, I have received a letter from the company concerned, and I shall do my best to respond positively to his request. The policy point he makes is, of course, correct—it is the carbon footprint that counts—and as we move towards the low-carbon world, we shall have to take such decisions on a range of products.

Does the Minister recall that at the time of water privatisation many parts of the green lobby jumped on the bandwagon of opposition on the grounds that drinking water was often unsafe to drink, and, as a result, many people bought foreign bottled water, which had to be brought over here at great expense and cost to the environment before the bottles were subsequently thrown away? Will he be careful about listening to the blandishments of the environmental lobby on this and many other issues, because they are often self-serving and short-term?

The right hon. Gentleman obviously speaks from experience, and I recall that period well. There are always unintended consequences of policy decisions. I can assure him that in making my comments I was not driven by a policy of pandering to any particular point of view. We made a policy decision for environmental reasons and for cost reasons, on behalf of the taxpayer; given his experience, I know that he would support that motive too.

Flooding

5. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. (193655)

6. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. (193656)

Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report contained 15 urgent recommendations for the Government, their agencies and others to take action. We accepted those recommendations and are implementing them. Sir Michael will report on progress in April and his final report will be published in the summer.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. The Government are planning to build 52,000 new homes in north Northamptonshire over the next few years, many of which will be on or close to floodplains. Is he a little concerned that the obsession with new housing is outweighing the Government’s duty to protect people from flooding?

With respect, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that there is an obsession with new housing: there is a need for new housing, and that is why the Government are acting. He raises an important question: given that about 10 per cent. of England is located in areas of flood risk, how do we guard against that risk as the new homes are built? That is why we tightened the guidance, not once but twice, most recently in the form of planning policy statement 25. As he will know, the Environment Agency, which is the expert on flooding, now has to be consulted on the matter. I can tell the House that the number of applications for building on floodplains agreed by local authorities contrary to the Environment Agency’s advice has fallen significantly in recent years, precisely because of the way in which we have tightened the guidance.

This is not just about the floodplain itself; it is also about the areas around it. Sir Michael’s report states:

“the greater intensity of rainfall and increasing urbanisation are leading to more flash floods caused by water running off the surface of the land.”

I still do not understand how the Secretary of State can reconcile those comments with his responsibilities for flooding and these centrally imposed house-building targets, particularly in areas such as my constituency. Such areas are very constrained geographically and are significantly affected by flooding, so the effects are not felt only on the floodplains.

I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I know that there was some flooding in her constituency in January, and I am advised that it resulted from a combination of surface water and river. I gave the answer to her point in answer to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). This is about the guidance. The first issue is whether we can adequately defend an area. The second point to make is that it depends on how that is done.

One of the very practical changes that we made when we published the water strategy recently was to withdraw the present ability of house owners to pave over front gardens with impermeable paving without planning permission. In future, if people want to concrete over their gardens in a way that does not allow the water to soak away, they will have to seek planning permission, but if they use permeable paving they can decide for themselves.

Surface water flooding is a real problem, as the events of last summer brought home to all of us, not least in Hull and elsewhere. We have to bring together all the bodies that have responsibility for surface water flooding, and we are consulting on giving the Environment Agency an overview. Local authorities also have an important part to play. We need to think about how we develop in future so that we can build the homes that are needed and deal with the problem to which the hon. Lady draws attention.

Sir Michael Pitt’s report described the diverse group of organisations with overlapping responsibilities for flooding activities, such as local authorities, water companies, drainage boards and so on, and recommended that the Environment Agency be given the lead responsibility for all water management activity. Does the Secretary of State accept that recommendation? Will it require legislation to put it into effect and, if so, how quickly can that be done?

We are indeed consulting on that precise point. Depending on what arrangements we subsequently seek to put in place, legislation might be required, but—as I said in answer to the earlier question—we will in the end need to ensure that all the bodies with responsibility work together more effectively. Some of the functions may be given to local authorities, for example, because those tasks can best be undertaken by them. However, that will be within an overall framework in which someone will have responsibility for bringing together all the things that need to be done so that we can deal with the problem.

In a press release dated 4 February, the Department announced that it had put aside £34.5 million that it said might be needed to implement Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. When the Select Committee probed the Minister for the Environment on whether the Department had done a back-of-the-envelope costing on the total cost of the 72 recommendations, he looked a little uncomfortable. A month has passed since we asked that question: has the Department now costed those 72 proposals? Will more than £34 million be available should it be needed to implement Sir Michael’s recommendations fully?

My hon. Friend has never looked uncomfortable, so I find that hard to believe. This is a question of prudent planning. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we do not yet know what Sir Michael’s final recommendations will be. It would not be sensible to allocate all the increased money that we are putting into dealing with flooding and not leave anything to one side to respond to what Sir Michael has to say. We have made a judgment and announced the sum. We will consider what he has to say, and decide how we can use it most effectively.

The Secretary of State still has some outstanding issues to deal with from the Pitt review, including who is responsible for drains, and what constitutes a drain. Can he clarify whether the £34.5 million is additional to the £800 million, and whether it will be spent on physical defences? How much of the money will be top-sliced by DEFRA before it reaches agencies such as the Environment Agency?

The sum of money is part of the increase that we are making available. We have put it on one side for the reasons that I set out in answering the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who chairs the Select Committee, and we will apply it when we have seen Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. Because we have put more money in through the comprehensive spending review, the Environment Agency has been allocated sums from that increased amount, which will allow it to get on with building more flood defences over the next three years.

The Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into flooding, as the Secretary of State is aware. We have taken evidence from people such as Sir Michael Pitt. In his interim report, he referred particularly to the effects of surface water flooding, which were seen at their worst in Sheffield and parts of south Yorkshire last year. Does the Secretary of State agree with the recommendation that local authorities ought to have direct responsibility for tackling that, perhaps under the overall supervision of the Environment Agency? I have considerable reservations about the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that the Environment Agency should be the overall supremo responsible, because I do not think that it will be able to tackle the problem in that way.

It is for precisely the reason set out by my hon. Friend that we are consulting on the best way to ensure that an overall look is taken at the question of surface water flooding and to work out what the exact allocation of responsibility ought to be. I have already made it clear in answer to an earlier question that I think that local authorities have an important role to play. In the end, we have to come up with a mechanism to ensure that there is co-ordination and an overview, so that there is one plan that everyone will work on implementing together.

Bluetongue

A number of EU member states have been affected by the current outbreak of bluetongue, but the UK was first to place an order for vaccine. Until the 22.5 million doses of vaccine begin to be delivered, probably in May, we will contain the disease as far as possible through movement controls. Those will be stricter when the vector-free period ends on 15 March.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), I recently met the east Northamptonshire branch of the National Farmers Union at Weekley near Kettering. Its members were extremely concerned about the threat posed by the disease. What are the Secretary of State’s forecasts for the size and spread of the carrier female midge population now that the weather is warming up? Will he guarantee to this House that there will be enough vaccines in place in time to contain the spread of the disease?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as will all right hon. and hon. Members whose constituents are affected by this terrible disease. It is for precisely that reason that I cannot, in all honesty, give him a forecast of the likely nature of the spread. All we need to do is to look at how bluetongue spread across northern Europe and arrived in the UK last summer. As of 7 March, the disease has been identified and confirmed on 101 premises. Vaccination is the only answer, because by definition we cannot do anything about the vector, and the fact is that we were the first northern European country to place the order for the vaccine and we have worked closely with stakeholders in the industry. I pay tribute to the contribution that they have made, and in particular to the NFU, which will lead a campaign to encourage farmers to take up the vaccine.

The vaccine will become available as soon as it can be produced and shown to be safe and efficacious, and then the supplies will arrive and the farmers can buy them and get on with the vaccination process. That is the way to do it. The fact that we have worked together in partnership thus far and will continue to do so in future is, I think, the best comfort that we can offer farmers about how seriously we are taking the problem, along with the practical steps that we have put in place to help them to beat it.

That is all very well, so far as it goes—I do not for a moment dispute the Secretary of State’s personal commitment—but I met farmers in Staffordshire last week and there is real concern about whether the vaccine will be on stream in sufficient quantities at the right time. The Secretary of State did not give the guarantee for which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) asked, so what can he do to give confidence to our farmers throughout the country who are faced with this dreadful disease?

The guarantee that I cannot give relates to the precise date at which supplies of the vaccine will become available, because that is down to the companies that are researching and manufacturing that vaccine. The House will be well aware of the way in which we have placed our order. I can offer the assurance that we will take all the necessary steps open to us to use our influence to ensure that the vaccine gets out as quickly as possible. That will depend on the science, the production capacity and the speed at which the supplier with which we placed the order can deliver. The ultimate demand, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, will depend on the take-up of the vaccine by farmers. The decision, rightly, will ultimately rest with them if they want to protect their animals.

The comprehensive spending review plans to cut £120 million a year from the animal health budget through cost-sharing for the control of bluetongue and other diseases, yet an answer yesterday from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), suggests the amount might be only a third of that. Given that disease control already costs the farming industry huge sums of money, can the Secretary of State explain how he has arrived at the figure to be obtained through cost-sharing? Does he agree that if farmers are to share the cost of disease control they should be confident that the Government will fulfil their obligations to keep disease out of our country and inside their own laboratories? Otherwise, as Professor Anderson showed on Tuesday, does it not simply look like farmers paying for DEFRA cock-ups?

In relation to bluetongue—the hon. Gentleman is not advancing that argument—we are working in partnership with the farming industry, including sharing responsibility for taking decisions about how we are to beat the disease. The farming industry said, “We want a voluntary approach to vaccination.” We said, “Okay, that’s what we’ll do if that’s what you want.” As for farmers paying for the vaccine, I think that is a fair sharing of the costs in the circumstances.

In relation to the Anderson report, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, that release should not have happened and I am determined that it shall not happen again. That is why we have taken steps since then, including changing the regulatory system applying to institutions such as Pirbright and getting on with investment to improve the facilities there, because as he acknowledges it is a world-class facility and we need its expert science to help us to beat the diseases that are in the country at present and those that may arrive in the future.

Given the nature of the bluetongue virus and its method of transmission, the problem will continue to face DEFRA and the livestock industry in years to come. The 22 million vaccine doses that the Government have ordered will not be sufficient for blanket vaccination in the time necessary. Will the Secretary of state take advice and make a risk assessment—an epidemiological assessment—to ensure that the vaccines are used in the places where they will best prevent the spread of the disease rather than on a first come, first served basis?

I certainly will. I have been taking advice on precisely that subject. The core group working on the issue is overseeing the strategy for getting the vaccination programme going. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it clearly makes sense to start the programme in the places where it should start first and then roll it out through the rest of the country, which is what we shall do.

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

9. What recent estimate he has made of the costs to farmers arising from the nitrate vulnerable zones regime in England. (193659)

If nitrate vulnerable zones were extended to cover 70 per cent. of England, the expected costs to industry could be up to £105 million per annum. However, actual costs could be lower depending on how the proposals are implemented.

Does the Minister accept that 5,000 dairy farms may need to improve their slurry storage to comply with the NVZ action plan that DEFRA has proposed? What consideration is he giving to making the proposals much fairer by being more sensitive to individual farm circumstances and helping farmers comply through giving them a more realistic timetable to meet the regulations, easing planning restrictions and perhaps even providing some limited financial assistance?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is lots and lots and lots. The proposals in the action plan are for consultation. We have received a large amount of correspondence from Members on both sides of the House and there has been a Select Committee inquiry. We are looking at the proposals to consider how we can both fulfil our obligation under the nitrates directive and ensure that we move forward positively, given the representations that have been made.

Weather conditions over the past week or so have shown how difficult it is to limit slurry spreading to a short period of the year. Can the Minister tell me whether he has got anywhere in his discussions with the European Union about a derogation for UK dairy farmers? That crucial question will ease the plight of many farmers in my constituency.

I would not want to give false hope—that would be irresponsible—but we are working very hard. On the second point that the hon. Gentleman makes, it is too early to say yet. On the first point, he is right: of course, changing weather patterns that are coming about perhaps as a result of climate change—this is a 1991 directive—may change the way in which we have to do things.

Carrier Bags

As announced in the Budget, the Government will introduce legislation under the Climate Change Bill to enable us to require certain retailers to charge for single-use carrier bags if sufficient progress is not made voluntarily.

I am sure that we all welcome the Chancellor’s announcement. Clearly, he had seen my question on the Order Paper and wanted to ensure that my hon. Friend had a positive answer to give. Given that this is a useful, although small, step along the road, would it be possible to announce the date of the death of the single-use carrier bag and perhaps run a competition to find the best ecological alternative?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interesting suggestions. We have had a voluntary agreement in place with 22 major retailers and six trade associations for the past year to bring about a 25 per cent. reduction in the environmental impact of plastic bags. We have found that only a 7.79 per cent. reduction has occurred in the total number of plastic bags. That is clearly not good enough. So that is why we intend to legislate if we do not make sufficient progress. We will not legislate until such time as we have given the opportunity for that agreement to run its course, but we are very determined to see the end of the single-use free bag at the point of shopping.

Does the Minister not understand that the Chancellor’s proposals would be much more welcome if the tax raised was ploughed back into environmental charities? Otherwise, it will just look like another stealth tax.

I need to tell the right hon. Gentleman that, of course, this is not a tax; this is a charge—[Interruption]that retailers would be obliged to make. It is very important that he understand that point; it is really important. However, the point that he has spotted is that, of course, that could lead to a serious increase in revenue for those who make the charges. We have had discussions with them. A very good example has been set already: Marks and Spencer, where the money raised is going to environmental causes. That will be what we insist upon.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help to enable us all to live within our environmental means. The measures announced in the Budget yesterday will contribute to doing just that. The changes to vehicle excise duty to encourage the purchase of lower emission vehicles, the decision to make all new non-domestic buildings zero-carbon from 2019, the increase in aviation taxation and the auctioning of 100 per cent. of allowances for large electricity producers all demonstrate the Government’s determination to act. By this time next year, the UK will become the first country in the world to start operating a national carbon budget.

Is the Secretary of State not aware that, by this time next year, there will be no pig farmers left in this country, because the pig sector is in crisis? It is wretched news for arable and rural Britain. It is very bad news for Norfolk, where many pig units are folding every day. They do not want subsidies; they want fairness in Europe. Is he aware that 70 per cent. of imported pigmeat is produced in conditions that would be illegal in this country? What can he do to ensure that consumers in this country are properly informed?

I take very much the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The pig sector is having a very difficult time because of the rise in feed prices. I support the campaign that the industry is running to encourage consumers—in the end, consumers are the solution to the problem—to be aware of the problems that face the pig industry in Britain, to choose to buy bacon and pork from Britain, and to have the information that enables them to exercise that choice. That is where the solution lies to the problems that his constituents face, and I am sure that the whole House would want to support them in their endeavours.

T4. The Minister will be aware of the success of feed-in tariffs in several European countries. Given that we need massive expansion of renewable energy, does he not think that it is a path that we should go down? (193643)

I thank my hon. Friend for that very topical question. I mentioned earlier that, as the Chancellor announced in the Budget, and as was confirmed by my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, we will be examining feed-in tariffs as part of the suite of policies available to us to increase significantly renewable energy in this country. That is what we want to do, and what we will have to do.

T3. On the day before the Queen opens the fifth terminal at Heathrow, are DEFRA Ministers having any discussions with Transport Ministers, the Chancellor and his colleagues, or any London mayoral candidate, about whether Heathrow needs a new runway? The proposal appears to be opposed by all parties, and by everybody in the areas affected, yet everything that we hear about green policy, green transport, and sustainable development seems not to have any effect when passed to other Departments that have the lead responsibility for the issue. (193642)

Of course we have discussions with colleagues all the time. The single most important step that has been taken to deal with the contribution that aviation makes to global warming was the decision of the European Union Environment Council in December to include aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme, for which the UK Government have pressed long and strong and hard. That means that, subject to what the European Parliament finally agrees—it is a co-decision matter—aviation emissions in Europe will be capped at the 2004 to 2006 level, so any subsequent growth, whatever the reason for it, will have to result in reduced emissions elsewhere, paid for by the aviation sector. As it is an international industry, the question is whether we apply a cap. That is what Europe is about to do. Any further growth will mean that emissions will have to be saved elsewhere. The world that we are entering will involve us—

Order. I have to say to the Secretary of State that I need a bit of speed in topical questions.

We know from the Anderson report on last year’s foot and mouth outbreak, which cost rural businesses and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds, that the outbreak was avoidable. The Secretary of State said today that it should never have happened. We still do not know who is to take responsibility for it, but what does the Secretary of State make of Dr. Iain Anderson’s observation that

“The response was not scaleable had there been multiple outbreaks”?

Could he put that into layman’s terms?

Dr. Anderson was saying that if there were a very large-scale outbreak, the huge amount of resources that we put into fighting the disease would have been more difficult to apply right across the country. The fact is that the disease did not break out all across the country. Why? It was because we acted swiftly and put a lot of resources in. In his report, Dr. Anderson recognises the real progress that was made compared with the 2001 outbreak.

I think what Dr. Anderson really meant is that the Government got away with a total disaster by the skin of their teeth. Will the Secretary of State please comment on another of Dr. Anderson’s remarks? He talked about the

“wrangling over departmental leadership that”

has

“bedevilled progress in this area”.

Has Dr. Anderson not hit on something rather important? Is not departmental wrangling the hallmark of the Department? There is wrangling over flood risk management, aviation expansion, nuclear power, waste policy, and energy policy. Does not the Secretary of State spend his life wrangling with other Departments? We support his wrangles. We like it when DEFRA is wrangling for the environment, and we wish we had joined-up government, but we would rather that he won one or two of his wrangles.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s care and concern for me in my job, but I do not accept that the handling of the foot and mouth outbreak was characterised by wrangling. Indeed, it was close co-operation between a lot of people, including the devolved Administrations and the farming industry, that meant that in the end the outbreak was contained in a small part of southern Britain. When Dr. Anderson summed up what he had found, he said that there was much to applaud, and that the positives outweighed the negatives by quite a margin. That is a judgment that I am happy to accept.

T6. The Committee on Climate Change had its first meeting this week. It has been asked to examine whether the Climate Change Bill should require an 80 per cent., rather than a 60 per cent., reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. I would not like the Bill to become law with the 60 per cent. figure in it, so how quickly will the committee’s recommendations be made? (193645)

The Committee on Climate Change will make its recommendation at the beginning of December. It will consider that issue and whether all greenhouse gases should be included in the target alongside CO2, and it will advise on the first five-year carbon budget. The Committee on Climate Change is an important, authoritative, independent body. We should let it do its work and give us its guidance, and the Government can take the decision.

T5. What discussions has DEFRA had with the newsprint industry on the environmental cost of the Sunday newspapers, many of which come wrapped in a single-use plastic bag, are heavy to transport, and sometimes have an environmental supplement? (193644)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the observations that he makes. All of us are conscious that the newsprint industry has increased the amount of reading matter that we are offered and the many layers of packaging around it. I have had discussions with the industry and my officials constantly have discussions with the industry. We are looking all the time for ways in which we can reduce the amount of packaging provided, lightweight the packaging and, where appropriate, make it subject to recycling or composting. The industry has dramatically increased the amount of material that is recycled and the recycled content of new products.

T8. We are bombarded daily by images of Buttercup feeding peacefully among the daisies, but in reality, zero-grazed cows permanently confined in the cow version of battery hen production represent 10 per cent. of the national dairy herd. What plans does the Minister have to tackle the welfare and health problems encountered by these stressed, overworked battery cattle, which have high levels of lameness, mastitis, infertility and acidosis? (193647)

We need to receive reports. We have one of the highest animal welfare levels anywhere in the world, and we are rightly proud of that, whether it is in intensive or organic farming. I know that there have been reports and that concerns have been expressed by some non-governmental organisations, but those reports have yet to reach the Department. If my hon. Friend has such reports and will let me have them, I will pass them on to our animal health agencies. A key aspect is stockmanship. There are rules and regulations on that, which were passed by the House by consensus. If my hon. Friend has information, he should pass it to us and we will examine it.

T7. The Minister will be aware of the continuing widespread public concern about whaling. I acknowledge the efforts that the Government have made in the International Whaling Commission, particularly in the context of Japanese attempts to resume full-scale commercial whaling, but given the whiff of compromise surrounding future meetings of the IWC, does the Minister believe that he will be able to maintain a coalition of support to continue to constrain and ultimately stop commercial whaling? (193646)

I am grateful for that question. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I asked the Japanese deputy ambassador to come and see me, and I told him exactly what the British public thought. I am sure I represented all Members in the House. We condemn Japanese so-called scientific whaling. Earlier this week I was in Denmark talking to colleagues there and trying to persuade them to stop supporting Japan. Their support is a surprise to us. The views of Denmark and Britain have so much in common, but on this issue they part company. One of the reasons may be that the Faroes and Greenland have aboriginal rights, which we accept, and they have their quota. We will continue to keep up the pressure to ensure that at the IWC we have a majority. That has been welcomed by charities such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which I met in Copenhagen earlier this week.

T9. More than 80 per cent. of the cost of Warm Front quotes in my constituency are labour costs. Often workers come in from large distances, requiring contributions from my constituents. Will the Minister consider piloting a scheme whereby some of the work is offered in smaller batches to local contractors? (193648)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his representations on behalf of his constituents on that important issue. I have taken up his points with the company, and we are willing to look at his suggestions. We have announced that we will look at the cap to see whether what he suggests is required and if so, whether it is at the right level. Ensuring that local suppliers are accessible for the scheme is an important objective.

We heard the Secretary of State say that he believes in cost-sharing. We also heard him say that he has ordered the bluetongue vaccine. Can he tell my constituents how much they should budget for this vaccine, per cow and per sheep?

Ultimately, it depends on the size of the bottle that farmers purchase. We are working on an assumption of between 60p to £1 a dose. Those are the figures that we published. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman with absolute certainty because it depends on when the vaccine becomes available, the quantities and so on, but that is roughly the sort of price on the basis of which farmers can plan in order to protect their animals.

Farmers in Northern Ireland, along with pig farmers in other parts of the United Kingdom, have been badly affected by the increase in world grain prices. One of the influencing factors has been the increase in demand for grain because of the demand for biofuels. The Government’s own chief scientist indicated that the Government’s target of biofuels forming 5 per cent. of fuel used by 2010 needs to be reconsidered. Given the effect on food prices, farming and, ironically, deforestation, have the Government any plans to look again at that ill-advised target?

I recently met representatives of the farming industry in Northern Ireland, and we discussed a wide range of topics. One thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I have done is set up a review to look at the precise issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. There is a growing awareness that if we go for the wrong biofuels, there will be all sorts of consequences. It could be even worse for the planet than the fuel we are trying to replace, and it will lead to the other consequences to which the hon. Gentleman refers. That is why we have set up the review. We will look at the results, and we are also pressing in Europe for good sustainability standards so that we can take the right decisions on biofuels in future.

Is there any prospect of the Minister meeting Lymington river users, who are deeply concerned about the decision to have only an appropriate assessment, rather than a full environmental assessment, of Wightlink’s plans for new ferries?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the appropriate assessment is what is required in this case. There is no requirement for an full environmental impact assessment because of the size and type of the project. The Department has had a request for officials to attend a meeting, which is being carefully considered. There has been a public consultation, and we have to be concerned about the fact that all of the public have been invited to respond. I understand that the meeting is of a small group. We have to bear in mind that consideration, and my officials will attend to that. I have been in discussion with the group recently as a result of the hon. Gentleman’s representations.