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Topical Questions

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 1 May 2008

The responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. In December, the Government ordered 22.5 million doses of bluetongue vaccine from Intervet to ensure that farmers in England and Wales can protect their livestock. I am pleased to report to the House that the first vaccine was made available yesterday for use in protection zones in England, and 3 million doses of vaccine—1 million in 20-dose bottles and 2 million in 50-dose bottles—are being released for wholesale distribution. Farmers in the protection zone should contact their private vet to purchase vaccine. Batches will be delivered regularly until the end of August and the protection zones will be progressively expanded as the vaccine becomes available. I am confident that the whole industry will give its full support to the vaccination programme.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that explanation. Is he aware that among the ideas being put forward for managing Norfolk’s sea defences is a proposal for managed retreat? That will involve the flooding not of marshlands or wetland but of five villages and thousands of acres of arable land. What do the Government have against Norfolk, one of the most loyal communities in the country? Will he give me an undertaking today that those 5,000 year old settlements will not be submerged under a tidal wave of new Labour complacency?

I say to the hon. Gentleman, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said a moment ago, that I understand entirely the concern generated by the report, but as my hon. Friend made clear in his answer to a previous question, decisions about what we protect and how are taken not by Natural England, but by the Environment Agency, subject to the policy we set out. We are committed to do all that we can to protect communities, which is why we are putting more money in. We all have to recognise, however, that nature is very powerful, and how we manage the transition is a job for all of us to work on together.

I wonder whether my colleagues on the Front Bench are at all nostalgic for the days when we were best when we were boldest? In that regard, are they tempted by the terms of early-day motion 1331, which calls for canoeists in England and Wales to enjoy the same rights of access as they currently enjoy in Scotland, where they co-exist happily with anglers? Will the Secretary of State meet colleagues and me to discuss the issue?

I will be bald—[Laughter.] Slapheads unite.

We want to enable people to have access, but we believe that such arrangements are best agreed on a voluntary basis. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those matters.

I think that the Secretary of State agrees that there is no dispute between us about the science of climate change. Does he believe that the Climate Change Bill should retain its principal aim of ensuring that we do our bit in this country to help keep the average global temperature below the level beyond which, scientists say, we are in dangerous territory and exceeding a safety limit?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no dispute about what the science tells us and what we need to do. The Government have reflected carefully on the amendments that were passed in another place. However, there is some difficulty about the primary purpose clause because, however bold and powerful the legislation that we pass in this Parliament, we cannot legislate for the global temperature increase. We have to reflect on that because we must ensure that our legislation is credible.

That was a disappointing response. If the Bill does not have a primary purpose, it is fundamentally weakened. Does the Secretary of State accept, given that carbon emissions arise across the economy and his direct responsibilities are for only a minority of carbon emissions, that the Prime Minister should take the lead on tackling climate change, not the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? I assume that, at some point, we will have a Prime Minister who is capable of taking a lead on anything.

On the second issue, the danger of following that route is that people will argue that the Prime Minister should have all the responsibility in every bit of legislation. The Government’s commitment is in no doubt. I disagree with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s second question that the Bill’s primary purpose is not clear. It is crystal clear. It is to ensure that the United Kingdom reduces its emissions by at least 60 per cent. by 2050. The figure might be 80 per cent. because, as he knows, the climate change committee is being asked to advise on that point. However, whether we achieve the global limit on the increase in temperature is also down to what other countries do.

T2. My right hon. Friend knows that the Marine Bill reserves planning powers for between 12 and 200 miles offshore. However, some offshore wind farms will be either side of the 12-mile mark. Will he assure me that there will be a co-ordinated approach to wind farms and that we will not experience the problems that we had with planning in the case of nuclear, whereby Scotland goes one way and the rest of the country goes the other? (202778)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. We published the draft Marine Bill, which is the first of its type anywhere in the world. It is published on the existing settlement of 12 to 200 nautical miles within the UK. Licensing for energy stays with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, though the new marine management organisation will provide information, especially when we look to locate important marine conservation zones.

May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), for meeting me last week to discuss the problems on Longstone Edge? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that several hon. Members have written to me about the subject and keenly await the decisions that he and the Department for Communities and Local Government have to make in the next few months? Can he say anything further?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members who have raised that important issue, which is a source of concern to us all. As he knows, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the national park authority are seeking leave to appeal against the recent judgment. As he knows from our conversation, I am keen to find a permanent solution to the despoliation of one of the most beautiful parts of our countryside. The Under-Secretary, who has done a lot of work on the matter, and I commit to continue working with the right hon. Gentleman, other hon. Members, the national park authority and local people.

T4. As energy bills escalate, the number of families pulled into fuel poverty balloons. It is unfortunate that they are expected to pay a top-up charge for Warm Front insulation. What work is being done with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to identify and target those fuel poor families? Surely that is the only way forward. The Department for Work and Pensions should not be allowed to hide behind the portmanteau excuse of data protection. (202780)

I am very grateful indeed to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Last week we had an important meeting of around 50 organisations and agencies to address the position of those who, for reasons of fuel prices or fear of not being able to pay their bills, face difficult times. Our plans for this winter are being put in place now, so that we can address the issue. We have got the fuel poverty figures down substantially, which, with rising bills, is even more important—God forbid that we should have a severe winter, because then we would face real difficulties. It is right to raise those issues now, in the spring, in advance of the winter.

T3. Yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) raised with the Prime Minister the fact that the cost of a fishing licence for a disabled angler has increased by 37 per cent. in the past year. The Prime Minister undertook to find out the reasons for that. I wonder whether the Minister could furnish them to the House. (202779)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The licence for people with disabilities has increased by 33 per cent. Licences are a contribution towards ensuring that the fisheries are accessible, so that people can enjoy this wonderful sport. The Environment Agency has told me that a substantial amount of that money will go towards ensuring more access for people with disabilities. Someone without a disability has access to all the rivers and banks; someone with a disability does not. I have told the Environment Agency that it needs to use a substantial amount of that money to improve the opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy the wonderful sport of fishing, and I will hold it to that.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware of the importance of carbon capture and storage as one of the tools to deal with climate change. However, he will also be aware that Mr. Michael Jacobs, one of the Prime Minister’s advisers on the subject, recently advised a conference in London that Government support for a pilot project would be restricted to some tens of millions of pounds, against capital costs in excess of £1 billion. Not surprisingly, the industry has expressed concern at that. Will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that he will ensure that Government support for carbon capture and storage is pitched at the right level, to ensure, once and for all, that a project gets under way in the United Kingdom? (202781)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. Our policy is to encourage the development of carbon capture and storage. It is extremely important to have a demonstration project showing that the technology works not only for the United Kingdom, but for the whole world’s energy transformation. Our policy is to argue for the inclusion of CCS credits in the European trading scheme as an important policy tool. Indeed, I met the company concerned in the United Kingdom only last week.

T8. I congratulate the Government on leading calls for an EU-wide ban on the trade in seal products. However, there is some concern that the ban may apply only to hunts that cannot be proven to have been conducted humanely. Can the Minister confirm that the UK Government support a total and unconditional ban? (202785)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can confirm that we want a total ban on sealskin products from harp and hooded seals of any age. The Government’s position on seal hunting has been clear for a long time—we want that ban enforced. We operate within a single market in the European Union, which is why it is essential that we have a ban right across the EU. A decision is imminent. We will be writing to the Commission to reinforce our point further and to seek to persuade the other member states.

T6. Yet again I rise on behalf of the pigeon fanciers of Croydon. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] For some time, as a result of the avian flu outbreak, there has been a ban on international pigeon racing in which birds are liberated on the continent. That is causing serious problems in the pigeon racing industry. Given that the poultry industry was given financial compensation as a result of the avian flu outbreak, will the Secretary of State at least review the regulations and give that noble sport the recognition that it deserves? (202782)

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I share his appreciation of those who pursue the sport? I had the opportunity to meet representatives of the sector only last week. On the question of compensation, I have to be straight: there is no prospect of the Government paying compensation in those circumstances, and it has never been the practice of any Government to do so. However, I listened carefully to the concerns that were expressed about the impact of the restrictions that we have to put in place when there are avian flu outbreaks. I was able to reassure the representatives whom I met that we intend to undertake a new veterinary risk assessment in the light of our developing understanding of what the risks are. That risk assessment will consider whether the restrictions that we apply to pigeon racing can be changed in any way. I promised that I would report back to those representatives.

T7. The Secretary of State might be aware that, last month, a senior civil servant from his Department let the cat out of the bag by revealing that the Department intends to apply to the European Union for permission to delay compliance with its equality rules on nitrogen dioxide in relation to the capital city, London. We know that the Department for Transport wants to move the goalposts in a desperate effort to ensure that the third runway at Heathrow goes ahead, but why does his Department, which is responsible for protecting the environment, want to help it? (202783)

We do, indeed, need to look at how we phase in the new rules, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not to do with any decisions that might be taken in the future about airport capacity. If one looks at the recent figures for air quality, one will see the improvements that have been gained in this country over several years as a result of domestic and European legislation.

T9. The Secretary of State will be aware that there have been several outbreaks of bluetongue disease in my constituency in the past. I welcome the news that a vaccine is becoming available, but what consequences do the Government think that it will have? Do they think that it will control the spread of the disease? (202786)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The answer is that it depends on how quickly we can get on with the vaccination programme. That is why the vaccine becoming available earlier than expected has been so widely welcomed. The degree of uptake within the farming industry is a factor. It came to us and said, “We’d like a voluntary programme, but we will give it our utmost support.” The Joint Action against Bluetongue—JAB—campaign is the result of that, and we are backing it to the fullest extent possible. The message is simple: if people wish to protect their animals and the sector, they should vaccinate their animals. The vaccine supplies are now arriving, and that news has been welcomed by many people.

On fuel poverty, the Government have been able to persuade energy suppliers to pay an extra £175 million to tackle that issue, but would not it be a good idea to ask energy producers, whose vast profits I mentioned earlier, to contribute to Government programmes to tackle fuel poverty?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned for many years on the issue, for that suggestion. We believe that we have the right package in place through our energy efficiency measures, which contribute to reducing fuel bills, and direct programmes to address fuel poverty head-on. However, I will reconsider the issue in the light of his point.

May I say to whichever Minister is going to reply that in the county of Cheshire, which I am pleased to say has an abundance of great crested newts, the county council, as the education authority, has had to spend £60,000, at a time of grave financial difficulty, to move just four great crested newts? Is that a sensible way to spend taxpayers’ money? Will the Minister ensure that the EU habitats directive, under which the council is obliged to act in that way, is urgently reviewed?

May I express sympathy with the hon. Gentleman regarding the plight that he considers to have befallen his area? I have to tell him, however, that the habitat regulations make it an offence to capture, injure or kill great crested newts. It is vital that when we consider the preservation of species—

Hold on a moment. Tremendous species loss is occurring globally, and there has been great loss of great crested newts in this country. It is important that we all obey the law.

The habitats directive will not be reviewed in that context, but what has been reviewed—very importantly—is the proportionate approach taken by Natural England. DEFRA and Natural England have reviewed the matter and issued new guidance, which I will share with the hon. Gentleman. However, when he says that a particular sum of money equates to a certain number of great crested newts—it is just four—the truth is that although only those four will have been captured and moved, the moving and preservation of habitats and the way that such action is undertaken will benefit many more of the species than the particular four in question. It is not possible to equate the overall sum of money that is relevant and necessary to the number of newts that are actually moved.