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Flooding (Pitt Report)

Volume 482: debated on Thursday 6 November 2008

7. What steps his Department is taking to implement the recommendations of the Pitt report on flooding. (233457)

We have already taken a number of steps in response to Sir Michael Pitt’s findings, which I reported to the House on 25 June. We will publish a detailed response shortly, together with a prioritised action plan.

My constituents continue to fear the implications of the Pitt report for the Severn plain in the context of deliberate flooding and the management of standing water. Villages such as Llandrinio, Crew Green, Meifod and Ardleen, along with many others, want to work in partnership on alternatives such as upstream flood mitigation and contained flood pools. Will the Secretary of State ask the authorities to ensure that residents and officials adopt a partnership approach, so that we can find solutions that work for everyone?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman—who I know has taken a close interest in this matter on behalf of his constituents—that the Environment Agency will develop the Severn catchment flood management plan in consultation with local communities, partner organisations and landowners. I know that there was some concern about the original wording of P6, but it has now been revised to make it clear that it is about taking action with others to store water or manage run-off in locations that provide overall flood risk reduction or environmental benefits, locally or elsewhere in the catchment area. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

I do not think it does provide reassurance. What concerns people is that embankments and other flood defences that have existed for a number of years will be allowed to crumble as a result of the programmes—currently up for consultation—relating to catchment flood management plans. Will the Secretary of State assure us that rural areas will not be allowed to be lost to vast tracts of water, resulting in the loss of productive farm land at a time of increasing concern about food security and the Government’s failure to spend as much in rural areas as they are spending in urban areas?

The hon. Lady will know that 95 per cent. of defences are in fair condition or better, which is very important. The Government are putting in considerable additional funding—an extra £200 million over the next few years—to enable the Environment Agency to look at the priorities and provide more protection for more communities in all parts of the country.

Topical Questions

The Department’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that I have appointed Dame Suzi Leather as chair of the new council of food policy advisers. I am greatly looking forward to working with her to tackle the important food security challenges we face, and we will announce other members of the council shortly.

The Environment Agency now has its own geomatics division, acting commercially by undertaking work it would otherwise have outsourced and competing against commercial players in the market. Is the Secretary of State happy that a Government agency is competing against companies in the private sector, or is this not another example of a Government agency sticking the boot into small and medium-sized businesses when they are suffering from a recession?

I do not share that characterisation of the EA’s work. As the previous question highlighted, it does a very good and important job in providing service to the public, including in improving flood defence.

T8. Genetically modified foods were supposed to be a major leap forward, but instead there are concerns that they pose a serious threat to biodiversity and our health. Furthermore, we were told they would help feed the world’s poor, but the United Nations tells us that we are already producing more than enough for all. What assessments are being made from recent trials of GM crops’ effects on the environment, and what are the consequences of these crops for the third world? (233477)

The Government have to be able to answer two questions in relation to GM crops: first, is the product safe to eat? The evidence is clearly that it is. The second is, what is the impact on biodiversity? In order to get the information my hon. Friend refers to, we have to have carefully conducted trials, and it is a matter for regret when trials that are approved are trashed within about a month and a bit—a recent example was a trial to demonstrate potatoes’ resistance to nematode—because how can we answer such questions if we do not have the information? However, it is for those developing GM crops to demonstrate whether they bring the benefits that some have claimed. The Government then need to answer the two questions and, ultimately, it will be for consumers to decide whether they want to buy, supermarkets whether they want to stock and farmers whether they want to grow.

T2. One of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations was that the Government should establish a Cabinet committee dedicated to tackling the risk of flooding, bringing flooding in line with other major risks such as pandemic flu and terrorism. I took a careful look at the list of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet committees published this week and was surprised to see that such a dedicated Cabinet committee on flooding was not on the list. Will the Secretary of State update the House on when that recommendation from Sir Michael will be put into force? (233471)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, we will respond in full to Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations in the not too distant future, and we will address that question along with others. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I continue to talk very regularly with all my ministerial colleagues who have a shared responsibility for dealing with this serious problem.

Following on from the response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), will my right hon. Friend look again at recycling? It is clear that the different recycling schemes that we have throughout this country are not working properly, because different local authorities are recycling different products. The problem is that the quality of the materials that are then presented to industry for recycling is simply not good enough—and in some cases is non-existent. My local authority, for example, has a kerbside collection of cardboard and paper, which it then composts and wastes, but in another part of the country that same cardboard and paper is worth £60 per tonne to the corrugated cardboard packaging manufacturers. Therefore, can we have some joined-up thinking on the different schemes that we have for recycling?

I shall look at the example that my hon. Friend gives with some interest, but figures out today from the Office for National Statistics demonstrate that householders in England are now re-using, recycling or composting almost 35 per cent. of their household waste, which is tremendous progress. I acknowledge that there are difficulties in some areas and that because the system is local authority-led there are differences in the way in which recycling is carried out locally. That is right and proper and as it should be, but it is obviously of interest to local authorities such as my hon. Friend’s that they get the maximum and best value they can from the waste they collect, particularly when householders have gone to the trouble of separating the waste to be recycled.

T4. Will the Secretary of State make a commitment today that the marine Bill we be introduced in the next Session of Parliament? (233473)

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are fully committed to this, and preparation of the marine Bill, on which there has been extensive and lengthy consultation, is well in hand. As he knows, it is well supported, as was shown by the lobbying that took place this week. We remain committed to introducing it at the earliest possible opportunity, and when we do so we hope that there will be genuine cross-party support for all aspects of it.

T5. What are Ministers doing to protect the interests of English farmers in the current discussions on the future of the EU pesticides directive? (233474)

I have been making very strong representations to Commissioner Vassiliou and to my fellow Agriculture and Environment Ministers, because the problem with the proposal is that we do not know what impact it will have. In particular, will we be able to continue to use triazoles, which safeguard against septoria, a disease that affects wheat? The pesticides safety directorate has performed a full impact assessment, which appears not to have been done elsewhere, which is why we have that information and knowledge. There is growing realisation that there is a bit of a problem with this proposal, which has not been fully thought through. The House can rest assured that I will continue to argue the case with the evidence that we have.

Given the high regard in which the Secretary of State is held throughout the House, will he assure us that, at the appropriate moment, he will give his Department’s assessment to Cabinet of whether the third runway at Heathrow will breach quality and pollution standards, so that Cabinet does not have to rely on the assessments of Departments with less environmental expertise?

As I have already said, it is DEFRA’s responsibility, and mine, to ensure that the air quality requirements—our obligations under the directive—are met. The Government made it very clear when the original consultation proposals were published that any decision to proceed would have to be subject to ensuring that the limits were met.

T6. The Secretary of State, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), referred to the impact on wheat of the EU pesticides directive, which the EU environment committee approved yesterday. He said—I was encouraged to hear him do so—that he will take steps to try to spread knowledge of the potential damage more widely in Europe. Will he please also encourage his Labour colleagues in the European Parliament to vote against the directive at the plenary session next month? (233475)

The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the vote in the European Parliament committee that has been scrutinising this legislation. I have been concerned, publicly, that the proposals that the European Parliament was trying to make in amending the directive would take us even further in the wrong direction. That is the problem, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to lobby all those who are part of the decision-making process—the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers—to try to get the best possible outcome. However, as he will be only too well aware, we require other member states to support us in that process.

T7. The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), recently told the DEFRA Select Committee that the Ministry of Defence is an exemplar when it comes to its policy on public food procurement. If so, why is not a single rasher of bacon served under the MOD food contract produced in Britain? (233476)

What the hon. Gentleman describes is not what I understood the position to be. I will check the information, and, if what he says is true, I will examine the situation. I have acknowledged that the Government have more to do to give a lead; as a consumer and a significant purchaser, we must ensure that Departments and the public sector use their powers to discriminate in favour of food that is raised to the same high standards of welfare and hygiene used by British farmers.