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Topical Questions

Volume 473: debated on Thursday 13 March 2008

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.