Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 479: debated on Thursday 17 July 2008

DEFRA’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that we are today publishing a discussion paper entitled, “Ensuring the UK’s Food Security in a Changing World”. The UK currently has a secure food supply, but with recent sharp increases in food and fuel prices, a growing world population and climate change, it is sensible that we think about the impact of those changes on food supply in the years ahead. I look forward to receiving views on the paper.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking a decision about badger culling, based on the science and the evidence. Given that we have a long and porous border between Wales and England, does he agree that any widespread culling of badgers in Wales would be bad for farmers in Wales and could be bad for farmers in England?

Those decisions in Wales are, of course, devolved matters, and we will keep in close contact with the Welsh Assembly Government as they take forward their proposals. I reached the view that badger culling could not make a contribution to the control of disease, in line with the advice given to me by the independent scientific group, for the reasons that I have set out very clearly to the House.

T2. The Fisheries Minister will be aware that earlier this week Commissioner Borg recognised the acute difficulties faced by the industry, and made available some €2 billion for a compensation fund. In light of that, will the Minister reopen dialogue with the industry in this country to see what use can be made of the money provided by Mr. Borg? Of course, if we do not take it up, it will be taken up by fishing industries in other countries in the EU. (219313)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. He is right to draw to the House’s attention the fact that the Fisheries Council met on 15 July, when we discussed bringing in new flexibilities and new regulations for the European fisheries fund. The flexibilities will allow for some decommissioning, not just of whole fleets but, as we discussed with the Commissioner, of fleet segments, either geographically or by sector. We will look closely at, and talk to the industry about, the changes that are being made, so that we can implement them to best effect. As I have said in previous debates, both to him and to the industry, I do not subscribe to subsidies for red diesel. I know that prices have gone up greatly, but for the fishing industry, no duty is applied. If I applied the full de minimis provisions, it would provide the UK fleet with one month’s relief at last year’s prices, and I do not think that that is a good approach, even in the short term.

T7. In the several months since I last raised the issue with the departmental team, what progress has been made on bringing forward incentives to introduce biodegradable chewing gum? Chewing gum blights our townscapes and spoils our children’s outings. Members on both sides of the House have been raising the issue for several months now. Will the Minister tell us when he will be able to introduce a measure to improve the incentives? [Interruption.] He may think that it is funny—or rather there may be colleagues in the House who think it is funny, but I assure him, and them, that it is not funny for people whose families are affected, or whose town is blighted by chewing gum. (219319)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the city that he represents, Nottingham, the council reckons that it spends more than £12,000 on clearing up the flipping stuff. I know that he, as the chair of One Nottingham, his local area agreement, would rather use that money for things of far more advantage—

The hon. Gentleman makes jokey remarks about the subject, but chewing gum costs councils a lot of money, and it is antisocial. We can say to people, “Put it in the bin.” We have a campaign that supports local councils in encouraging people to put their chewing gum in the bin. Where councils have taken up that campaign, they have seen a reduction in the problem. On manufacturing—

Let us return to food. Was it prudent of the Prime Minister to take time out to lecture us all about the amount of food that we throw away when it turns out that 15 Government Departments do not even know how much of the food that they buy with our taxpayers’ money they throw away every year? Is that not just another case of “Do as we say, not as we do”?

No, it is not. May I say that it is very nice to see the hon. Gentleman back at the Dispatch Box? I have missed him of late. We published information on the amount of perfectly usable food that gets thrown away. The information had been collected as a result of research that was undertaken; that is common sense. I think that a lot of people will be surprised, as I was, to learn of the amount of food that was being thrown away; the information makes us more aware. If we can save money and not contribute to climate change—the methane that flows from that food goes into landfill—it is very sensible to do so.

Changing the subject, I am sure that the whole House will agree that it was a great day for wildlife conservation when, in 1989, the international community banned the trade in ivory. I am sure that most of us would also agree that it was a regrettable day when, in 1997, Robert Mugabe led a successful challenge to that ban. Are the Government proud that on Tuesday, acting on behalf of the EU, an official from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs voted to allow China to import ivory? Surely the best way to deal with the continuing illegal trade in ivory is to choke off demand, not stoke it in that way.

The hon. Gentleman knows, because I have written to him at length, that the decision was taken on behalf of the EU. Ministers were involved in that decision, which was not taken by an official. The decision was originally taken in principle by the international community in 2002 to allow a number of African states that had legal stockpiles of ivory to undertake a one-off sale. The conditions on the buyers in those sales were laid down by an international body that protects wildlife. Japan met the conditions, and China applied to meet the conditions. After a year of inquiry, China was found to meet the criteria, which are about safeguarding the import of legal stocks, ensuring that stocks are only moved around legally and making sure that illegal ivory is not laundered. After the last one-off sale, which went to Japan, may I tell the hon. Gentleman—

Order. I must tell the Minister that her reply has taken more than a minute, and that I must consider Back Benchers.

T8. Is the Minister aware of the recent report on reward-only waste incentive schemes in the US? Are there any plans to introduce such incentives in this country? (219320)

Local authorities can already introduce reward-only schemes. We have piloted such schemes in this country, which qualify for the incentive pilots that will be on offer next year. I understand that the Opposition are promoting such schemes, but the problem is that the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), has instructed Tory councils not to co-operate with the Government. Furthermore, the US schemes depend on chips in bins, which the hon. Gentleman has described as “an invasion of privacy”. The Conservative party is in a pickle over its waste strategy.

T3. DEFRA’s new company reporting rules for carbon may be based on grid average electricity, even if companies have renewable energy onsite, which might undermine the green energy market and lead companies to declare imaginary carbon that they have not really emitted. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet industry representatives and hon. Members from both sides of the House in an attempt to resolve that obvious anomaly? (219314)

I welcome the Government’s decision to publish proposals on tackling food security. Many of our constituents, especially those on low incomes, face real problems with rising food prices. What contribution does the Secretary of State believe that British farmers can make to increasing our food security and reducing prices in the shops?

The most important contribution is to do what they are doing already, which is to produce food that people want to buy. If we are to deal with global price increases, we need a lot more agricultural production around the world, including in Africa. If Africa cannot increase production to feed a growing population, it will add to pressure on prices for the available stocks of food, which will affect UK consumers in the end. More production in the world is the single most important thing.

The Department knows that bluetongue strand 1 is spreading rapidly from south to north Spain, and is moving in our direction. I understand that the vaccines that we have in the UK are for a different strand of bluetongue. Will the Secretary of State tell us how useful those vaccines will be against that strand? If they are not effective, what is his strategy?

Like hon. Members, I am aware of the new strain that is coming up through Europe. It is a different type, and our vaccine deals with the bluetongue strain that we currently face; the vaccination is rolling out extremely successfully. We are carefully examining the implications of the change in the strain, when the strain might come to the UK, and what we need to do to respond. Vaccination has been shown to work, and I hope that it will deal with the new strain, if it comes. I shall be happy to respond further to the hon. Gentleman.

T4. Because of the discovery of bovine TB in calves exported to the Netherlands, all cattle exports to the European Union are now at risk. What steps will the Secretary of State take to address this problem, specifically to try to find a way of testing that works with calves? (219316)

The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We are urgently investigating the circumstances surrounding this case. We have been in contact with the Dutch authorities and with the Commission, and I will report further to the House.

T5. On 24 June, a rabbit with cryptosporidiosis hopped into the water treatment works at Pitsford, in my constituency, and contaminated the water supply for 250,000 people. Is the Secretary of State as impressed as I am by the response of Anglian Water, the local media and others, which could not have been any better? (219317)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. I am indeed impressed by how this has been dealt with. I also pay tribute to local Members of Parliament for the role that he and others have played. Giving good information and timely advice, and keeping people in touch with what is happening and when it is safe to start drinking the water again, is exactly how such incidents should be dealt with. I applaud all those involved for the efforts that they have made.

T9. Further to the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), has the Secretary of State considered whether instead of looking at the need to bear down on bovine TB as a nationwide problem, it might be better to form partnerships in the hot- spot areas between scientists, environmentalists and farmers, who know more about the problems within the locality, in order to find local solutions? (219321)

That is a very helpful suggestion. As I have said to the House, I want to establish a TB partnership group precisely so that all the means at our disposal that are effective—that is the heart of the debate—can be used. I am waiting for the industry to come and participate in the mechanism that I have proposed so that we can bring together all those who have an interest in this disease and all the effective means of dealing with it, and get on with it.