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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Low Energy Technology

The Government fund the Carbon Trust to work with business to increase energy efficiency and administer the enhanced capital allowance scheme for energy-saving technologies. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform stimulates innovation through a photonics knowledge transfer network, providing support and guidance for manufacturers, especially small and medium-sized businesses. Both those schemes are relevant to low-energy lighting.

LED lights are super-efficient and emit virtually no heat, so they can help to reduce carbon footprints and fire risk, yet they are not included on the energy technology list to which the hon. Lady has referred. Would she be kind enough to agree to meet me and my constituent, Mr. David Linger from Kettering, who is an expert on the issue, to discuss the matter further?

I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman about the value of LEDs, and I can tell him that a new energy technology criteria list will be published, probably in a couple of months’ time. Some white LEDs will be on that list. Products that meet the criteria will be eligible to be put on the energy technology product list, which in turn makes them eligible for enhanced capital allowances. ECAs are administered by the Carbon Trust. That is really important, and I suggest that he ask his constituent to get in touch with the Carbon Trust as soon as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituent.

The attraction of LEDs is, of course, that 70 per cent. of the energy is converted to light, but unfortunately only 20 per cent. of the light normally escapes the bulb. What assessment has the Minister made of the potential of nanoimprint lithography to improve that ratio and make bulbs more effective, and what are the Government doing to support that new, growing industry, which has great potential to save the energy that is spent on light, which is a major consumer of energy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. He is a well-known expert in the field, and he asks us many questions on the subject. As I have said, LEDs are potentially extremely valuable for their energy efficiency. We have a nanotechnology working group—

It is very small. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that LED technology is part of our considerations, and will continue to be so, because we think that it has great potential.


3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the environmental impact of the proposed new coal power station at Kingsnorth. (210302)

I regularly discuss energy policy with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but the decision on Kingsnorth will be for him to make, and I cannot comment on what he might decide, for reasons that I know the hon. Gentleman will understand. The environmental impact assessment is an important part of the process.

But does not the Secretary of State think that that undermines any policy commitments to low-carbon technology?

I simply say that no decision has yet been made on the Kingsnorth application, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware. We need to develop carbon capture and storage technology across the world, which is why I am sure that he will welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is currently the only European Union country that has a competition on the go to demonstrate that technology on a commercial scale. With China building one new coal-fired power station a week, and with about 8 GW currently in construction in Germany, we need that technology to work, and I am sure that he will welcome the project.

My right hon. Friend will know that carbon capture technology is vital for our long-term future, but will he make sure that all of us in this country recognise that coal is our main indigenous energy source, and that without it, the lights will go out? We cannot ever have that happen.

Coal is currently responsible for a significant proportion of our electricity supply, and certainly a very large proportion of lights around the world are kept burning because of coal. That makes the point that if we are to make progress in reducing global emissions, we have to make progress on significantly decarbonising electricity production from coal. That is why the technology that we are talking about is needed.

Surely this goes to the heart of joined-up Government thinking on climate change. Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s fellow Secretary of State resisted amendments to the recent Energy Bill to mandate carbon capture and storage for new coal-fired power stations, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether DEFRA was consulted before that line was taken on the Energy Bill by his fellow Secretary of State? If the right hon. Gentleman was consulted, what did he tell the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform?

Nobody has yet been able to make carbon capture and storage technology work on a commercial scale. What is the sensible way to proceed? It is to demonstrate that it is possible to do that on a commercial scale. As the Prime Minister said in his speech in November, once that is shown to work, countries will have a decision to make about whether they wish to mandate carbon capture and storage technology, but we have to show it working on a commercial scale. I hope the hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, will welcome the fact that the UK is leading on trying to get one of those projects up and running.

My right hon. Friend knows, further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), that we have a sea of coal underneath England. We need to exploit it and we need to get back to a better place than where the Tories left us when they closed down all the coalfields. Clean technology is available that can get the coal out of the ground and raise up communities again.

I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes about the depth of feeling in those communities about what happened. The fundamental truth is that the remaining fossil fuels that we have on this earth, whatever form they take, will need to be carefully used in a way that does not add to the problem of global warming. We all understand that that is the case, and finding ways of doing that is the solution to making progress.

Does the Secretary of State accept that his answer will cause great concern to many residents in north Kent and in adjoining parts of south-east London, including mine, where there has been a consensus about the need for low-carbon technology and carbon capture in any new power station developments? It seems troubling to them that the Secretary of State has adopted a course that could open the door to development at Kingsnorth without a commitment to that carbon capture, in their backyard.

No decision has been taken on Kingsnorth yet, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware. That decision is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The point that I have been making to the hon. Gentleman and to the House is that we need to develop carbon capture and storage technology and to show it operating on a commercial scale. That is why we are going ahead with the project.

The Secretary of State mentioned the global context and China, but what message does it send to the world if we on the one hand go around lecturing it about the need to reduce carbon emissions, and on the other teeter on the brink of ushering in the first new unabated coal-fired power station for a generation? Does that not sound like hypocrisy? Is it not fossil politics?

I simply say—and I hope the House will bear with me when I say it again—that no decision has been taken yet in relation to Kingsnorth.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, who intervenes from a sedentary position, first, E.ON itself has asked that no decision be taken while consultation takes place on carbon capture readiness. That will happen in the summer. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, E.ON has put the Kingsnorth application into the competition as well. Those, I should have thought, were two things that he would welcome.


I met representatives of Greenpeace on 7 January to discuss climate change, energy and the Marine Bill, and on 28 February and 2 June together with colleagues to discuss international climate change. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), also met Greenpeace representatives on 12 May to discuss the forthcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

In any of those meetings since May, did Greenpeace raise with Ministers the fact that Sizewell B’s nuclear reactor was closed down—“unplanned” was the word used by the official spokesperson for the industry—and that when the spokesperson was asked why and what the circumstances were, no statement was forthcoming? Is it not time that Greenpeace and the House were told what the circumstances relating to the closedown of the Sizewell B reactor in May—unplanned?

To the best of my recollection, that issue was not raised in the meetings to which I referred. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform will take note of the point made by my hon. Friend.

In the meetings that the right hon. Gentleman had with the director of Greenpeace, did he hear the director of Greenpeace say, with regard to vehicle excise duty, that that

“is the kind of measure that gives green taxes a bad name because it does not change behaviour”?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Treasury projections for the income from VED increasing exponentially over the years demonstrates that it is nothing to do with changing people’s behaviour, and that it is in fact to do with raising more taxes? If it was to do with changing behaviour, presumably the income from it would decline over the years to some kind of vanishing point. Is there not a fundamental disagreement between his Department and the Treasury on the subject?

The director of Greenpeace has not raised that issue with me in the meetings I have had with him, but the purpose of the changes put into the Budget was to make us all more aware of the CO2 emissions of our vehicles—both newly purchased and existing ones. Is it unreasonable in the world in which we live that that factor should be taken into account?

Does not Greenpeace support the idea that we have to rethink the way in which we use our cars and that taxation must play a part? I have argued for a counter-cyclical rebalancing of the fiscal state expenditure ratio to put more through taxes in the pockets of lower and middle-income earners, but on cars we have to wean ourselves gently off these Tory gas guzzlers and stop warming up the environment just because it suits the car lobby represented on the Conservative Benches.

The high price of petrol and diesel, because of the high price of oil, is bringing us face to face with the resource crunch. I think that every Member of the House acknowledges that. We wish to have the mobility that having a car gives us, but what will really be incentivised is more research and investment into non-polluting forms of car use, particularly electric car technology—and the sooner that comes, the better.

The Conservatives strongly agree with Greenpeace that an ambitious roll-out of microgeneration should be a key part of the UK’s climate change strategy, but to make that happen, we must have a comprehensive system of feed-in tariffs. On 20 February, before the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Secretary of State himself, like many on the Labour Back Benches, strongly supported the role of feed-in tariffs, so why did he roll over and allow DBERR to squash feed-in tariff amendment to the Energy Bill?

I do think that we should look into feed-in tariffs, which is why I welcomed the statement made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy earlier this year and why I welcome the fact that this matter will figure in the renewable energy strategy consultation that is shortly to be published. The evidence from other countries shows clearly that we should be looking at ways of encouraging microgeneration. The renewables obligation works very well for big renewables, but we need to find a way of getting more to happen at the domestic and community level. I look forward to that consultation, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman does, too.

When the Secretary of State meets Greenpeace on the next occasion, will he put on the agenda the question of peak oil? Is that not really the elephant in the room? If it is true, as BP says this week, that given the growing demand from China, India and other newly industrialising countries, there may be only four decades of oil left in the world and we are about to reach the peak, is it not necessary that everybody understands that? We need to generate a much deeper public debate about the finite nature of oil reserves.

In the light of the questions asked this morning, the director of Greenpeace is going to have a very long list of issues to be raised when we next meet. I agree completely with my hon. Friend that we are coming face to face with the consequences of rising demand and finite resources. As we plan for the future, it will be very difficult for lots of people as they try to cope with the consequences. That reinforces the case for taking action to prepare for a low-carbon economy; it is not an argument for putting it off.

Pig Sector

Estimates of pig farm incomes were published in January. The sector’s profits have been particularly hit by feed price increases. The average commercial pig farm is expected to show a loss of income of around £4,100 for the period between March 2007 and February 2008. Pigmeat prices have risen steadily in 2008. If that continues, we expect to see a partial recovery in profitability over the next 12 months, although global harvests and feed prices remain a key factor.

The pig industry is entering a crisis that goes well beyond cyclical variations. Even with the improvements in prices, the pig farmer is losing an average of £12 for every pig, with losses for pig farmers this year likely to total £170 million and more than 50 per cent. of the national breeding herd lost. Given that, is there not something extraordinary about the fact that supermarket prices are going up, and the primary producers are not benefiting? Yet again, is there not something seriously wrong with the supply chain which the Government would do well to look into?

We do recognise the difficulties faced by the pig industry, and DEFRA works closely with the British Pig Executive. Indeed, my noble Friend Lord Rooker attended a meeting this week. The pig industry has mounted a campaign, and I attended its conference in Norwich last week. I had a clear message for the supermarket suppliers, which attended the conference: they must take care of the primary producer. When Asda produces a pack of sausages for 16p, that does not help the primary producer. We must support the pig industry’s campaign. I am sure that all hon. Members will do so, because it produces a fine product and its animal welfare is good. We recognise that feed prices are an issue not just for British pig farmers, but for European pig farmers across the board, who also attended the conference. We are working closely with the industry and we hope to see prices increase. The hon. Gentleman makes his point about the primary producers well.

I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said. I attended the British Pig Executive emergency meeting in the House earlier this week to discuss this very matter. I realise that my hon. Friend is working hard on the issue, but may I encourage him to ensure that public procurement includes British pork and pigmeat products? I know that contracts have to be tendered, but if he could include animal welfare standards in the specifications, that would not only receive wide public support, but ensure that British pig farmers across the country reaped the benefit of the fine standards on their farms.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Of course we cannot restrict where people purchase their food from in public procurement, but we can put high welfare standards into the contracts. Many European countries will have high welfare standards, but I am sure that the British pig industry is confident that its standards will be as high as any other, if not higher.

Farmers were very pleased to see Lord Rooker at the meeting earlier this week. We all thank him for taking the trouble to attend, and we know that he takes the industry seriously. The Minister mentioned that it was not possible to restrict purchases, but it is possible to improve labelling. Since there is already a requirement for the country of origin to be labelled for fresh fruit, vegetables and beef, does he agree that there is no legal impediment to having the same for pork and pork products, and that that would bring a significant extra benefit for British farmers?

The hon. Gentleman is right. We are seeing improvements in labelling. Supermarkets and independent stores are increasingly using the strength of local purchase. One can often see pictures of the farmer and the farm that the produce came from. That helps the consumer to make informed choices. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that new food information proposals have come forward from the European Community that, in the case of meat, would require the countries of birth, rearing and slaughter where these are not the same. I hope that those proposals will go some way towards addressing his concerns. The Food Standards Agency is consulting on the matter. I am sure that he and other hon. Members who are concerned about the pig industry, as well as the industry itself, will make a contribution to that consultation.

We have to support the pig industry, which has run an excellent campaign called “Stand By Your Ham”—perhaps hon. Members have seen the video, which is based on the Dolly Parton song and features leading members of the industry, including the fine gentleman Stewart Houston, chairman of the British Pig Executive. We do not want him to give up his day job and start singing—his singing is perhaps not up to Dolly Parton’s standards—but we do want him to continue leading the pig industry, which we need to support. We hope that we see better times this year and in years to come.

With the contraction of the British pig herd, more and more pork products are imported into this country, yet 70 per cent. of those imports are not up to the animal welfare standards that we expect in this country. If the Minister could do something meaningful for the pig industry in this country, it would be to ensure that pork is produced throughout Europe to the same high standards as in the UK.

We have led in Europe on welfare standards, and the industry will highlight that in encouraging people to purchase its products. At the conference that I attended in Norwich, we were joined not only by the supermarkets but by animal welfare organisations saluting the good work of the British pig industry, as well as by pig producers from other European countries. We want to ensure that there is a level playing field and that other countries catch up with our lead.

Food Supply

7. What assessment he has made of the implications for the security of the UK’s food supply of recent changes in world food prices. (210307)

The UK’s food security depends on a strong UK agricultural sector, diversity of supply and good trading links, particularly with our EU partners. We are currently more self-sufficient in food than we were 50 years ago, but we do need to respond to changing circumstances. I therefore intend to publish in the near future a consultation paper on ensuring Britain’s food security.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. The 2006 DEFRA study of food security relied essentially on the fact that the UK is a rich and open economy, and talked about reliance on world markets. The world is changing, however, and food prices have gone up, with the poorest people in the world and in Britain suffering most. Some of the world’s producers are beginning to consider restricting exports of food stocks. In that changed environment, is it not vital that we consider what technology can do domestically, and the possibility of self-sufficiency or at least increasing local supply to guarantee security, particularly for the poorest people in our country?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. As circumstances change, we must be prepared to respond in the right way. Ultimately, it would be difficult to close ourselves off entirely from the rest of the world, because it is not just a question of the supply of food but of inputs such as fertiliser and oil to plough the fields and do lots of other things. The House will welcome the fact that our self-sufficiency rose slightly last year from 59 to 61 per cent. for all foodstuffs, and from 72 to 74 per cent. for food that we can grow. We need to take into account all my hon. Friend’s points.

Will the right hon. Gentleman be mindful of the need for food security in the medium and long term when he enters further discussions on common agricultural policy reform? Until such time as farmers in the UK can trade on the world market at reasonable prices, it would be very foolish to cut away the financial assistance that they currently receive.

We want the farming sector to be strong and profitable and to produce for the market. We should welcome the recent rise in prices for a number of products, albeit that some sectors have had difficulties because of the increased cost of grain. We are seeing the market respond to increased prices with increased production. That might mean that the recent big spike in world prices will decrease in the years ahead, but not come down to the previous level. We need to ensure that the common agricultural policy supports that process. Europe is 90 per cent. self-sufficient in food, and we import no more than 30 per cent. of our food imports from any one European country. Therefore, we have a diversity of supply, which puts Europe in a strong position to support itself.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but does he see an important role for local food chains now, and particularly for the idea that people should produce food at home as well as purchase it? Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government about the importance of the garden, which has been underestimated, and in particular about reassessing the role of allotments, because many people would grow their own produce but have not had the opportunity to do so?

I agree completely. The year of food and farming is in part about doing precisely that, not least encouraging some of the younger generation to understand that food grows not in supermarkets but in fields, allotments and elsewhere. I think that there is a growing interest in where food comes from—the point raised in the earlier question—which can be seen in the growth of farmers’ markets and the efforts that some supermarkets are making to link the products that they sell with the farmers who have produced them. We should welcome that.

The Secretary of State gave a relatively reassuring response to the lead question, but does he not agree that the lesson to be learned is that we still should produce more of the food that we need here in the United Kingdom? In that regard, will he ensure that the Government do not penalise the farming industry through increased taxation, not least increased vehicle excise duty, because vehicles such as 4x4s are essential for farmers to transport livestock? Will he further encourage the superstores not to increase their profitability but to ensure that they treat the farming community in this country more fairly?

On the first point on farmers’ resources and the fuel that they use in their vehicles, of course they benefit from red diesel, which currently provides a significant amount of support. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about vehicles. On supermarkets, farmers want a fair price for the product that they produce. That is why I think that the whole House will welcome the fact that we have seen an increase in prices relating to milk, beef and sheep in the past few months, which is one reason why many in the farming industry are looking at the future with greater optimism than for some time.

With a growing world population, growing world per capita consumption of food, the adverse effects of climate change and the pressure from biofuels, are the UK Government going to rethink their position on genetically modified crops?

The Government’s position remains that we should follow the science, and that is what we have done throughout. One particular issue that I raised at the recent meeting of the Environment Council is the speed at which the European Union gives approval for new varieties of GM products to come into the EU. That is highly relevant when it comes to animal feed. A considerable amount of GM soya comes into the country and is fed to animals already. One concern is that prices are higher than they might otherwise be because of the slow approval process in the EU. We should go with the science and the advice on safety, but it is important that, acting in the light of those two things, we provide support to farmers who want to purchase those products to feed to their animals.

If the Government are finally taking food security seriously, I am genuinely looking forward to the paper that the Secretary of State says he is going to publish.

Recently Lord Rooker admitted that Ministers took their eyes off the ball as far as the imposition of the integrated pollution prevention and control charges was concerned, on pigs and poultry in particular. What assurances can the Secretary of State give us that his eyes are firmly on the ball as far as two imminent issues are concerned: the proposed gold-plating by his Department of the nitrates directive and the proposed regulation of plant protection products, currently in Europe, which by his own officials’ estimate could reduce yields of domestic food production in this country by up to 30 per cent.? Will he tell us quite clearly not only that his eyes are on the ball, but that he will stop those things happening?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my eyes are very much on the ball. In relation to the second of those two issues, I raised that very point at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council. The problem at the moment is that not enough of the other member states of the European Union seem to have woken up to the implications of what is being proposed. The United Kingdom is in exactly the right place in arguing the case that we have put and to which he refers.

On the first issue, we have had a consultation and will be responding in due course. We are very mindful of the implications of the nitrates directive for farmers, but I am also very mindful of the report just published by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which says what I think we all know—that the rest of Europe has done it and we need to get on with it.

Fuel-poor Households (Hemsworth)

8. What steps his Department is taking to promote energy-efficient measures among fuel-poor households in Hemsworth constituency. (210308)

The Government have implemented nationally a number of measures to promote energy efficiency, such as the Warm Front scheme and the carbon emissions reduction target, which is an obligation on energy companies. Both schemes offer a range of insulation and energy-efficiency heating measures to vulnerable households who may be at risk of fuel poverty, and the community energy efficiency fund supplements those schemes in an area-based approach.

I am grateful for that response and for the Government’s work taking fuel poverty seriously. In the Minister’s constituency, like mine, many people are struggling to pay their fuel bills at the moment, so whatever the Government can do will help. Does she agree that the private sector could be encouraged to do more? Fuel bills charged by energy companies recently increased by 15 per cent., yet Centrica, for example, subsequently reported a 500 per cent. increase in profits, which caused much anger. Could private sector companies do more to help those who are fuel-poor partly as a result of the price increases?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are extremely concerned about high energy prices. As the Prime Minister has said, we are constantly examining ways in which it may be possible to assist.

The carbon emissions reduction target requires energy companies to deliver improvements in domestic energy efficiency. More than half of that investment, which is equivalent to about £1.5 billion, will be directed at priority groups—those on low incomes, the disabled and the elderly—covering everyone over 70 years of age. We must remember that all domestic consumers pay in the long term for the carbon emissions reduction target, so there is a limit on what the Government can do in further imposing on the energy companies. However, I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I hope that the companies act, because some voluntary contribution to meeting the considerable need at this time to assist the most vulnerable with high fuel prices would of course be extremely welcome.

I welcome the Government’s efforts to deal with fuel poverty today, in Hemsworth and elsewhere, but what are the Government doing to tackle fuel poverty in the future by creating renewable sources of energy in social and affordable housing, which would address some of our climate change problems and provide a complete answer to fuel poverty among poorer households?

The renewable energy strategy consultation will be released very soon. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government are paying a huge amount of attention to renewables. We are implementing more offshore wind energy than any other European country, and we are also examining many other ways in which more renewable energy can be produced. All that would benefit low-income households, because we are talking about national supply. The Government will continue with their programmes to help those who are most vulnerable and we are exercised about the fact that we need to ensure that poor people can afford to keep their homes warm and keep themselves healthy.

What is my hon. Friend’s view on the adequacy of the budgets for the schemes that she has mentioned, and for the decent homes initiative, in order to bring about the increase in energy efficiency that is commonly seen in Scandinavia, for example? Does she share my concern about the adequacy of the grant maxima under Warm Front? That inadequacy is leading to many poor people having to make top-up contributions to obtain energy-efficient installations.

Hon. Members have made many representations to my ministerial colleagues on the adequacy of Warm Front and the capital limit, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the Minister for the Environment has assured me that he is examining the limits, because we are aware of the issue. Taken together, Warm Front and CERT will deliver much more money for energy efficiency for the domestic consumer than in the previous three years, and we are already considering a strategy for beyond 2011.

The Minister mentioned Warm Front and CERT, but in constituencies such as Hemsworth, there is a household-by-household approach, with individuals applying and each company trying to find customers in different streets in the area. She mentioned area-based approaches. Should they not be the dominant approach? Is it not far more efficient to take a whole estate or neighbourhood and sort out its energy efficiency, rather than having one van going to one house, and another van going to another?

As I said, there are area-based schemes, and the Government have been piloting such schemes with local authorities. I visited a scheme only this week where the process is on an area basis, not household by household. We are learning from this experience; the schemes will go on for another three years, and are now self-sustaining. We will be able to apply those lessons elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman has a point, but at the moment there is sufficient scope for people to apply and to get the energy efficiency products and services that they need through the two schemes that we have in place.

Climbing (Coastal Areas)

9. What discussions he has had with the British Mountaineering Council on access to coastal areas for climbers. (210310)

We have held a number of discussions with the British Mountaineering Council on access to coastal areas for climbers. We issued a draft Marine Bill in April which includes provisions to improve public access to the English coast.

The Minister will be aware that Britain is one of the world centres for sea cliff climbing, with England alone having more sea cliff climbing than the entirety of the east and west coasts of the United States. Does the Minister agree that the way in which the British Mountaineering Council has managed wildlife restrictions over the past 40 years, in co-operation with conservation bodies, has worked well and is working well?

I am aware of the code of practice of the British Mountaineering Council, which ensures that its members are aware of nature conservation. It is important that we preserve sensitive and fragile biodiversity systems which are commonplace around our coast. The British Mountaineering Council is ambitious about increasing the opportunities to climb, and there will be more when the draft Marine Bill comes into being. We want to strike a balance between people’s access to climb cliffs and the preservation of important and sensitive nature conservation areas.

Under his brief of access to coastal areas the Minister is responsible for the “Discovering Lost Ways” project. As he knows, a number of pilot schemes are under way, which are getting seriously bogged down in bureaucracy and red tape. Can he explain to the House what has gone wrong and how he will sort it out?

There was not a great deal of discovery of those ways, to put it bluntly, so we have stopped that project. We will bring together all the relevant stakeholders to see where we go from here. The concern has been that the lost ways will be scrapped under the 25-year rule. We will not do that until we consider them properly; they are important bridleways and routes of access through our countryside. We will bring together the relevant stakeholders, and work with our agents, Natural England, to find a way forward to discover the right way.

Climate Change Bill

10. What recent representations he has received on the provisions of the Climate Change Bill; and if he will make a statement. (210311)

This year, we have received approximately 50,000 representations from members of the public, stakeholders and others on the Climate Change Bill. Most representations are campaign based, offering support for the Bill and encouraging the Government to strengthen it.

I am grateful for that reply. The Government grabbed the headlines by stating that they would cut CO2 emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. That is an interesting date, because there will probably have been a general election by then, and the Secretary of State will not be in post to be accountable on those figures. Therefore, could I ask him to give the House an update before 2010 on the progress on meeting those targets? Does he agree that it is not just a matter of having long-term objectives? To keep the Government accountable, it is appropriate to have interim targets as well.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—despite the somewhat unkind premise of his question—that it is important to measure progress, but the 2010 target was always very ambitious. On the basis of current trends, it seems likely that we will achieve about a 16 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. As he will know, however, the United Kingdom will be one of the few countries to meet the Kyoto commitment; indeed, we will probably almost double it.

As for interim targets, the hon. Gentleman will have heard what my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment had to say when he introduced the Climate Change Bill on Monday. I greatly regret that I could not be present on that occasion. We will set out an indicative range so that we can measure our progress year by year, bearing in mind that five-year budgets are sensible.

It has been well flagged up that the Climate Change Bill will include a clause relating to the banning or restricting of plastic bags. Before the Government embark on that route, if indeed they are planning to do so, will my right hon. Friend listen to representations from the packaging and film manufacturers? Having banned plastic bags, we do not want to turn to far more damaging materials, including imported materials such as jute and hemp.

Of course we will always listen to representations. We propose to take a power requiring those who issue single-use bags to charge for them. Let me be frank: environmental impact is an issue, but 13 billion of these things are distributed every year, and they are a symbol of a throwaway society. Public attitudes are changing. One big supermarket, Marks and Spencer, has recently reintroduced charges. We should not forget that 20 or 25 years ago most supermarkets charged for plastic bags. This is an important symbolic step. We hope that the industry will be able to demonstrate progress itself, but we will have that power, and if we do not see that progress we will use it.

Topical Questions

The Department’s responsibility is enabling us all to live within our environmental means. I am pleased to report that as of yesterday, under the single payments scheme, the Rural Payments Agency had paid £1.396 billion to farmers. That equates to 96.27 per cent. of the estimated total fund, and means that the agency has met all its payment targets for the 2007 scheme. I congratulate the agency’s staff on their efforts. I can reassure the House that they will continue to work hard to ensure that all outstanding payments are made as quickly as possible.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. Given that the most important issue facing him as Secretary of State, us as Members of Parliament and society as a whole is climate change, and given that the United Kingdom is leading the way with the Climate Change Bill, what recent discussions has he had with his counterparts around the globe to ensure that other countries are doing their bit as well?

I have recently visited the United States of America, attended the G8 Environment Ministers meeting in Kobe, Japan, been to South Korea, and had discussions with the Indian Science Minister, Mr. Sibal, who leads on climate change. I can summarise those discussions very simply by saying that there is a growing recognition of the need to act. How we construct a deal between now and Copenhagen so that enough contributions can be put on the table to enable us to make progress, in return for finance to help the developing and emerging economies pay for low-carbon development, is the central question that we face in our negotiations, and we all have a part to play in that regard.

T2. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will not mind my expressing my disappointment to the Secretary of State that no Minister or official from his Department attended the world food summit in Rome to make a DEFRA contribution to the agenda. Some three and a half months ago, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced its report on managing bovine TB. The Secretary of State wrote to me asking whether he could have a little more time than the usual two months in which to reply to the report, so that a comprehensive policy could be developed and subsequently published. Has that work been completed, and will the Secretary of State assure me that it will be published shortly? Will he also make certain that the Select Committee has sight of his reply first, and that the contents are not leaked into the public domain? (210326)

I am very happy to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I have taken the Select Committee report—and, indeed, this problem—very seriously, and we will publish our response shortly. On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, as I am sure he is aware, the Government were represented at that conference by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

T4. Many of my constituents are worried by stories they are being told that their families could face huge bills for rubbish collection. What plans do the Government have for allowing local councils to charge for waste collection? (210328)

I am not at all surprised that my hon. Friend’s constituents have been worried about the possibility of huge charges. There have been scare stories in the tabloid press—fuelled, I am sorry to say, by a spokesperson from the Conservative party—that there could be charges as high as £1,000 a year. There is absolutely no truth in those stories. The Government plan to allow up to five local authorities to pilot incentive schemes next year. They would allow local councils to establish rebates for those who recycle most and to impose charges on those who recycle least. From the continental experience, we know that the right level for an incentive to influence behaviour would be about £50 a year. Any money—

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is not akin to a tax; it is technically a tax, but actually any money—[Interruption.] No, he should listen carefully. It does not behave like a tax. Any money that the local authority collects is returned to the residents. There is no revenue for the local authority. There is no revenue for the council in these schemes. They are revenue-neutral. Local authorities—primarily Conservative ones—have sought these schemes, and in polls the public say that they would be fair.

T3. In what year did the Government begin consulting on their proposed national noise strategy and, so as to get a topical answer, when will the national noise strategy be published? (210327)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He and I were founder members of the all-party group on noise reduction, and I am sure he will wish to join me in paying tribute to Val Weedon, who recently stepped down from her post at the UK Noise Association, where she did a lot of good work.

Since I was appointed to my post, I and my officials have been looking into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises. He will be aware that we published the noise maps, on which the Department did a huge amount of work. That was one of the largest IT projects ever undertaken, and it was successfully achieved. I was the Minister responsible, and it worked; it all went very well. We must concentrate on the noise strategy, and I hope that I will be able to bring it forward within the year.

May I return the House’s attention to something that not only looks like a tax, but acts like a tax? Can the Secretary of State confirm that under the Chancellor’s planned changes to vehicle excise duty the increase on a small car such as a Nissan Micra will be larger than on a Hummer? Does he think that that is green or socially just? We all know that the changes in vehicle excise duty will raise more than £1 billion to fill the black hole left by the Government’s incompetent handling of the economy, but will he remind us of the Treasury’s forecast of the cut in vehicle emissions resulting from the changes?

As ever, the hon. Gentleman presents only part of the story. He fails to point out that since the fuel duty escalator was abolished in 1999, revenue from transport taxes has fallen by 13 per cent. in real terms. I hope he agrees.

The Minister is obviously incapable of telling the House what estimate the Treasury has made of the carbon reduction benefit of this new tax. I can tell him that it is less than 0.5 per cent. of all emissions from road transport. When he next meets the Chancellor, will he remind him that the most environmentally unfriendly thing that can be done is to dress up stealth taxes as green taxes and hope to get away with it, because the people of Britain are not stupid? We want to see changes in the public’s attitude and behaviour, so will he tell the Chancellor that the only way in which attitudes change when the Government dress up stealth taxes as green taxes is that people dislike the Government even more than they do already?

What this exchange shows is that the hon. Gentleman knew the answer to his own question, and that exposes the fact that his motive in asking the question was to score political points, not to elicit information from us. I shall ask him a question in response: whatever happened to his policy that the polluter pays?

T5. Will the Minister reassure those of us who live on the Thames estuary about the integrity of the flood barriers and the capacity of those communities to withstand a possible surge from the North sea? There is growing concern that there does not seem to be an initiative to have a new Thames barrier to the east of London. (210329)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. In the studies of the Thames barrier, and flood and tidal protection for the Thames basin, we are actively working on that 70 to 100-year plan to ensure that the defences are in place. That includes consideration of a second barrier.

T6. I do not doubt the Secretary of State’s green credentials, but is he concerned that the closure of so many driving test centres across the country and the centralisation of such facilities into a few centres will create millions of additional and unnecessary car journeys, thus increasing CO2 emissions? Was it not unfortunate that the Government did not get a derogation from the European Union on this matter, as other countries did? (210330)

The hon. Gentleman asks a very reasonable question. Of course, a reconfiguration of centres and depots can create extra journeys, but what one finds on other occasions—our Department studies these traffic patterns, along with the Department for Transport—is that over time they even out. For example, the M4 bus corridor, which was opposed at the time by Conservative Members, has proved to be a success. However, we will have to examine the point that he has made.

T9. Since the big flood in York eight years ago, the Government have improved the flood defences for Rawcliffe, and Aquabarrier Systems Ltd has designed a flood barrier for Clementhorpe, which it has given to the city. When will the Environment Agency start work on improving the flood defences for Leeman road? When the water rose, 1,000 people and 700 soldiers toiled through the night to build a sandbag wall that was 1 km long. It protected 1,000 homes from flooding, but a permanent flood defence is now long overdue. (210334)

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest and his advocacy on behalf of his constituents. As he knows, the Environment Agency uses a risk-based approach to developing flood-risk projects, and, as a result, other work in his constituency has gone ahead before work in the Leeman road area. Many hon. Members will be familiar with that area, which is next to York station. A study of the flood risk in that specific area is being carried out, and the Environment Agency aims to report back in July. That will identify the options for flood-risk reduction, and the agency has set aside an allocation of £314,000 in its budget to progress any work identified.

T7. The EU’s proposals for recording individual sheep movements are completely impractical on hill farms. Recording each individual sheep movement is not necessary for disease control or food safety purposes, and recording batch movement would provide equally good results. Will the Government assure the House that they will do all they can to get the EU proposals amended so that they will be practical to implement on hill farms, which might have hundreds of sheep—perhaps even more than 1,000? (210332)

We know that sheep hill farmers are an important part of their communities. They help to ensure that we have the wonderful grazed landscapes that we all enjoy, but we need to ensure that the regulations do not have a disproportionate effect on our country, given that we have more sheep than most of the other European countries put together. We are working hard on that issue and when we are able to make an announcement, we will obviously do so.

Further to the remarks by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) about the new vehicle excise duty proposals, is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents appreciate the potentially positive impact that the proposals could have on the environment? However, is he also aware that many of my constituents are anxious about the retrospective nature of the proposals, in that a family might have bought a large but cheap second-hand car and will find that it will cost them a great deal of money?

My hon. Friend’s point is well understood. Some of my constituents—and I am sure that it is the same for hers—have been worried that the word “retrospective” implies that they will have to back-pay. I know that she understands that point, but I just wish to clarify it. It is not unusual for taxes to be retrospective in the sense that she describes, but the Chancellor is well aware of the point that she makes.

The Secretary of State referred to the excellent report published earlier this week from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the nitrates directive. Does he recognise that the directive will place a significant financial burden on livestock and dairy farmers, and does he agree with the Committee and the Environment Agency that English farmers need similar financial assistance for the construction of slurry stores as is provided to farmers in Wales and Scotland?

To tell the truth about the nitrates directive, if we were starting afresh it probably would not look as it does now, but it was agreed a long time ago and I am not going to take responsibility for it —I was not around at the time. Having said that, we have consulted on what we need to do, because we must make progress. I am very conscious of the pressures that it will place on farmers, and that is why we will respond in due course to the Committee’s report. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has been looking carefully at the issue so that we can try to minimise the impact while at the same time ensuring that we honour the requirements that Europe has placed on us. I have been keen to push anaerobic digestion, because that might be a way to provide some assistance.