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Topical Questions

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 12 June 2008

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.