Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Marine Environmental Protection
The Government want a marine environment that is clean, safe, productive and biologically diverse. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill will play a significant part in achieving this, along with other steps that we are taking, including action on sustainable fisheries management and on achieving good environmental status for our seas under the marine strategy framework directive.
With reference to the progress of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which represents a sea change, is my right hon. Friend aware of the wonderful coastline in my constituency, starting with a five-star, award-winning seabird centre in North Berwick, which is educational and protective and does all the things that the Government want to do to look after the marine life in the River Forth?
I am very pleased to hear from my hon. Friend about the centre that she mentioned. The Bill has started its passage in the other place and we look forward to its coming here. There will be much to discuss and debate, but there is widespread support for the legislation. It is groundbreaking, it is important, and we need to get it on the statute book and get on with the work.
The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of marine sustainability. Does he acknowledge the concerns expressed by many environmental groups and local fishermen about the extent to which licences are being issued for industrial scallop dredging, and the damaging effect that that has both on the seabed and on future fish stocks, not least in my area, in Cardigan bay, which is protected as a special area of conservation? Does he regard the arrangements in the Bill as robust enough to meet the challenges brought to us in our constituencies?
I am indeed aware of those concerns. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the action that we have taken in relation to scallop dredging in the Fal and Helford special area of conservation, and of the decision taken last year in respect of Lyme bay, which was very significant. That illustrates the Government’s determination to take the right decisions to provide conservation where it is needed, and the Bill provides the framework to do that. In the end, all these things must be balanced, but one of the purposes of introducing the Bill is to allow for the designation of marine conservation zones. The two steps that we have already taken with regard to scallop dredging will give comfort to those who are concerned about the Government’s willingness, in the right circumstances, to act.
My right hon. Friend may remember that a few weeks ago he visited my constituency. During that visit, I had arranged a meeting with a number of leading Scottish environmental non-governmental organisations. They are very pleased with the way he listened to their concerns and has come up with a sensible division of responsibilities for nature conservation between the UK and Scottish Governments. What steps will the Department take to ensure that there continues to be effective co-ordination between the Scottish and UK Government responsibilities in this area?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that. I recollect saying to his environmental groups on that occasion that we would listen to what was said as a result of the consultation. They will have seen how we amended the draft Bill when it was published and introduced into Parliament. I am absolutely determined that we continue to build on the arrangements that we have put in place to ensure partnership between the different parts of the devolved system. One of the things that came across clearly in the consultation was the desire for one coherent framework. The discussions that we have had with the devolved Administrations have allowed us to put in place a structure which I think will work, and I am committed to it.
Further to the important point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), the Minister will know that the destruction caused by scallop dredging may last for 10, 12 or 14 years. It is nothing short of vandalism. Will he contrast the needs of those fishermen with the crofting that goes on both in Scotland and in north Wales on the Llyn peninsula, where farmers supplement their income by sustainable fishing methods? Will he ensure that their interests are catered for in the interests of good, sustainable fisheries for the future?
It is important that there should be local discussion and local input. In the end, it is about balancing all these things. However, as I said in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), we must have a framework that allows us to take such decisions; obviously, the Welsh Assembly Government would have responsibilities in this particular case. A balance has to be struck. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill and the support of the devolved Administrations provide the framework within which we can try to deal better with the problems, and that is why there is such widespread support for the Bill.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one thing that will not improve the marine environment is EU Commission regulation article 47, which relates to EU monitoring of recreational fisheries? It seeks to take away precious quota from our professional fishermen and heap a horrendous bureaucratic burden on the 1.5 million sea anglers, who contribute £1 billion to the economy. Will the Secretary of State join me and the newly formed Angling Trust and use every ounce of his strength to reject that ridiculous proposal?
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will meet representatives of the Angling Trust shortly to discuss the matter. In the end, it is important that we strike a balance, on that issue and others. We are determined to ensure that there are opportunities for sustainable fisheries and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s achievement in the fisheries negotiations just before Christmas. Such things are difficult to balance, but we achieved a reasonable outcome.
Animal Diseases/Contaminated Feed
The Government are funding scanning surveillance to detect the emergence of new or exotic diseases in cattle. The diagnosis and disease investigation service is subsidised and offered to farmers through their private vets, and the analysis of samples is delivered by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. There are also projects targeted at specific diseases. DEFRA collaborates with the Food Standards Agency, Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to manage contaminated animal feed incidents.
The Minister’s answer contains some reassurance, but she will be aware of the devastating effect of the feed contamination in Ireland just before Christmas on the whole of that country’s pork meat industry—large amounts of product had to be destroyed. What specific steps have been taken to minimise the risk of such an event in the United Kingdom, and does the Minister agree that what happened emphasises the importance of better product labelling to enable us to enhance traceability if such an incident were to occur here?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I am in active dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for public health. We need to learn the lessons from that recent incident to make sure that our procedures are as robust as we believe they are. However, the assurance scheme that protects British-produced pork—bacon, ham and other pig products—has really proved its worth in the past month. Consumers can be assured that when they purchase pork, bacon or ham that bears the British quality standard mark agreed with the British Pig Executive and which applies throughout the whole food chain, they are buying a product derived from animals that have been fed, reared and processed to the highest standards of animal welfare and food safety.
This is not just an issue about the protection of livestock in England; it applies right across the UK. Will the Minister assure the House that she regularly discusses issues such as animal disease and contaminated feed with her colleagues in the devolved Administrations?
Yes, indeed. As my hon. Friend would expect, I am very interested in working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations. The recent report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has made recommendations on the pork industry, referring to the Scottish taskforce for pig products. I want to learn from the Scottish experience, and I will be in touch with ministerial colleagues in the other authorities.
Given that the Government were essentially responsible for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2007, surely they have an even greater responsibility to farmers, consumers and farmers’ livestock to protect against other animal diseases, including bluetongue? There is a vaccine against bluetongue strain 8, but not against other strains of the disease. Serotype 1 of the disease was discovered in Blackpool less than two months ago and is present elsewhere in western Europe. Given the devastating impact of an outbreak of bluetongue, not only on animal welfare but on farm incomes, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that we are protected against other strains of the disease?
As the hon. Gentleman would expect, we are monitoring the situation very closely. Our veterinary and animal health authorities conduct very strict surveillance. I am not aware of any circulating bluetongue disease found in the UK in 2008. The vaccination uptake previously was high in the south and the east of England, and the Pirbright experts believe that this was effective in controlling the BTV8 outbreak. We are not complacent, however—we know that we must keep all this work under very close review. We are conducting post-import tests for all bluetongue stereotypes. Every type of bluetongue can be detected through routine testing. We are urging the industry to consider the risks and to check the health and vaccination status of animals when sourcing any animals from within the UK or, indeed, from abroad.
Animal feed is one very important part of the food chain, but the focus and function of animals and farms in passing on manure to allotment holders is another vital part of the food chain. I have been contacted by allotment holders in Wakefield who have had farmers selling them manure that is not pure but has been contaminated with chemicals. What has my right hon. Friend’s Department been doing to ensure the minimisation of that and to ensure that people who want to grow their own do not end up with distorted carrots and parsnips?
I am very interested in the case that my hon. Friend has brought to the House, and I would want to have the opportunity to look into it in detail. The Environment Agency will be closely at work on the detail of this matter, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also following it closely. We are aware that a particular product has been withdrawn. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend, or if she would care to write to me with the details of the representations that she has received, I will be happy to look into them.
The people at the forefront in combating disease in our animals are the institutes of animal health. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the scientists and other staff who work at the Institute for Animal Health at Compton in my constituency and give them some assurance that the future of the institute in that location will be confirmed?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, no decisions have yet been taken regarding the institute and the other organisations with which it works. I am more than happy to join Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to the work of those people in his constituency, who do extremely important work. I hope to visit their organisation in the near future to learn about their work.
Surface Water Drainage Charges
My hon. Friend will know that it is for Ofwat, as the independent economic regulator of the water industry, to approve water companies’ charging schemes. However, to give him some reassurance, I can say that we are very aware of the problem of affordability faced by some customers as a result of the switch to site area charging for surface water drainage, and we are actively looking at what can be done.
I am grateful for that answer. Throughout the north-west, sports and social clubs are receiving from United Utilities water rate bills that include a new surface area water drainage charge that is resulting in an increase of about 400 per cent. in the three-year transitional period. In discussing this matter with Ofwat, will my hon. Friend remind it of the guidance that was given following the passage of the Water Industry Act 1999? It said:
“It would be inappropriate to charge all customers as if they were businesses.”
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is worth reiterating the advice issued by the then Secretary of State in 2000, which said of that guidance:
“those making similar demands on services should be charged on the same basis… surface water drainage charges”
for non-household customers
“should be set in a way that is sensitive to the actual use of the service by different premises. Premises with large grounds, such as burial grounds, schools, hospitals”—
and playing fields—
“may have a large proportion of their land not draining to a public sewer. Companies should be prepared to set their charges…accordingly”.
It is worth reiterating that advice on the guidance. As I say, we are actively considering what may be done.
I fully support every word uttered by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Will the Minister go further than he so far has in dealing with this grotesquely unfair charge, which could put a number of social clubs, sporting clubs and—yes, I shall mention them—churches in grave financial difficulty? I hope he will indicate that he will approach Ofwat and ask it to review the whole basis of the charge. It is a licence for the water companies, particularly United Utilities, to print money, and we want to stop it. It is unfair. Will he give a firmer assurance about the action that the Government will take?
Once again, I thank all hon. Members who have raised this issue, which is vital for their constituents and for small organisations, churches, sports clubs and so on in their areas. I hope that I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman and others just how seriously we take this matter, and that we will examine what can be done. I cannot go further than that today, but we are actively considering it.
It is worth stating that Ofwat’s approach is that in principle, site area-based charging is overall the fairest means of charging for surface water drainage. However, the charge relates only to areas draining into a public sewer from impermeable surfaces such as the roofs of buildings or car parks. Grassy areas such as sports fields, burial grounds and so on will not be liable to charges. Ofwat is making that clear to companies, and I glad to restate it today.
At the risk of repeating what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, may I focus on the application of the new surface water charges to ancient cathedrals and churches with huge roof spaces? They will be adversely affected, and some are already struggling. I had better declare an interest: I am an honorary lay canon of Bradford cathedral.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am more than happy, on the basis of the comments that have been made today and other representations that have been made, to examine individual cases. It is worth my saying also that if a customer is of the view that he or she has been charged for permeable areas, in the first instance they should raise the matter with the water company, bearing in mind the guidance that is on record and has been reiterated today. Failing that, they should raise it with the Consumer Council for Water. I reassure Members that we are taking concerns seriously and actively considering what can be done.
The Minister will be aware that the Government rightly applaud the work of faith-based and other voluntary sector groups such as sports clubs, the guides and the scouts. The gross increase in charges that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) pointed out could not come to such volunteer-based organisations at a worse time than this time of economic hardship. Will the Minister intervene and ask what economic and financial impact assessment has been done and whether it was done during or before the economic crisis? May we please have a moratorium on the charges until such an assessment has been carried out?
I cannot offer the hon. Lady a moratorium on the charges, but I can assure her that as part of our examination of what is currently going on and our undertaking to review how the charges are rolled out, we will take into consideration the factors that she has mentioned, including the economic impact.
This is an opportune moment to say that Ofwat is encouraging churches and other customers to double-check their chargeable area, to ensure that those who are entitled to a lower bill by virtue of a small permeable area are receiving one. I have been made aware of instances where that has not happened, so I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter.
My officials meet with the Environment Agency on a regular basis to discuss air quality and progress in meeting emission limits.
What comfort can my right hon. Friend give my constituents in Eastham, who are faced with the possible construction of a Biossence gasification plant and an Agri Energy tallow plant, that if those projects go ahead they will continue to enjoy clean and safe air, and that any installations will be appropriately monitored?
I understand that Biossence Ltd held pre-application discussions with the Environment Agency last March. It expressed the intention to apply for a permit under the environmental permitting regulations. If it does, there must be statutory consultation, and in the end the Environment Agency decides on applications, either granting the permit with conditions or refusing it. In making any application, an operator needs to cover various matters, including satisfactory environmental management of the installation, adequate monitoring and compliance with EU directives and other requirements. I hope that that offers him and his constituents some reassurance.
How much harder will it be to achieve air quality objectives if the 222,000 extra flights a year which will result from the third runway at Heathrow go ahead? Will the Secretary of State outline the extent to which he wholeheartedly gives his passionate commitment and support to the third runway at Heathrow?
The hon. Gentleman must be a little more patient because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will make a statement later today. To answer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Government have always made it clear that our air quality and noise targets must be met before any expansion can go ahead.
In his discussions with the Environment Agency, will my right hon. Friend emphasise that the public need to know that all our decisions on air quality are based on good science? In the past, the Environment Agency has listened too much to Greenpeace and other campaigners about, for example, energy for waste. The air quality is perfectly good, EU regulations are fine and the debate requires science, not passion.
I am a great believer—I am sure all hon. Members are—in science, facts, information and effective monitoring so that we can make the right decisions. Science of course informs the limits that domestic and European legislation have put in place. We must recognise that there has been real progress in the past 30 years in improving air quality in the country. However, there is some way to go on some forms of pollution. It is a genuine problem because the pollution we still have reduces average life expectancy by about seven to eight months. That is why we must keep up the progress.
The Secretary of State has a reputation for being quietly effective, but he lives in west London so he understands the impact that a 46 per cent. increase in Heathrow capacity will have on the environment of my constituents and others across that area. On Heathrow expansion, has he been defending Londoners at the Cabinet table, or has his reputation for quietness extended to silence on this occasion?
I am not known for my silence, and I have made it clear that my responsibility as Environment Secretary is to ensure that the Government’s air quality and noise targets are met. When the hon. Gentleman has a chance to hear the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport later, he will find the answer to his question.
As I have already said in answer to the first question on the subject, the Government have made it clear that any decision on expansion must be subject to our meeting our targets for air quality and noise. That is essential. As I have said to other hon. Members, if my hon. Friend waits a little longer, he will learn from the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport how that will be given effect.
The Department has made something of a habit of wasting taxpayers’ money through paying expensive fines for failing to deliver its targets and for serial incompetence. The impending threat of further punishment from the EU for failing to meet air quality standards is only the latest example. The Olympic Delivery Authority in east London stands accused of doing little or nothing to fulfil its promises to cut air pollution from construction. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?
I know that those who are working on the construction of the Olympics are conscious of the need to try to ensure that it is done in the most environmentally friendly way. On the substance of the question, we are currently not meeting the targets for the two pollutants PM10 and nitrogen dioxide. However, we are not unique in that. If the hon. Gentleman considers the rest of the EU, he will find many other countries that do not meet the requirements. That is why provision was made in last year’s revision to the directive for member states to apply for more time to do so. As I have already said, it is likely that we will need to apply for more time to meet the requirements on PM10 and nitrogen dioxide.
The answer, then, is not a lot. Let me join those over in west London who have already done this and ask the Secretary of State exactly how a third runway at Heathrow will help to cut air pollution. Will he confirm that, as a result of the statement that we will hear later today, the Government’s decision will cause millions of people to face blight, pollution, deteriorating air quality and noise, will massively affect the natural environment and affect people’s well-being? He is the Environment Secretary and we want to hear his view. It is no good hiding behind the latest statement. He has, to his credit, been notably silent in his enthusiasm for expanding Heathrow, but clearly he has little clout. Has he perhaps considered as a last resort joining Airplot, the organisation that is safeguarding land at the airport? That might be his only way of getting a share of the action.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and in response I simply say that I have said throughout that my responsibility is to ensure that if there is to be any expansion—he, like other hon. and right hon. Members, will have to be a bit more patient—it will be subject to the Government’s being able to demonstrate that we will meet the air quality and noise targets that we have set. If he just waits a little longer, he will see how the Government intend to ensure that we fulfil those promises.
Fishermen (Assistance with Aid Applications)
In response to my right hon. Friend’s question, I am pleased to confirm that funding is indeed available, under both axis 1 and axis 3 of the European fisheries fund, for vessel owners to change to more selective gear. Applicants should first make contact with the fisheries department in their operational area for direct advice on application procedures.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I would also like to put on record my recognition of the robust leadership that he gave at the recent Fisheries Council, when some of the Commission’s more outrageous proposals, including the closure of the west coast fishing grounds, were challenged and changed. I only regret that his Scottish fisheries counterpart did not more generously recognise the role that he played. He has identified funding and he will be aware that the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is looking to unlock funding for intelligent gear and nets. I hope he will co-operate with the Scottish Government to maximise such funding, because any trials piloted in Scotland will have a benefit across the whole of the UK fishing fleet.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her warm words about what was a tough but good outcome from the fisheries negotiations. I am pleased that last year we launched the EFF, with £100 million for UK fisheries right across the UK to improve their sustainability. I will be working alongside others, including Scottish fisheries colleagues and the Scottish Executive, to ensure that there is good use of those funds to support the sustainable use of fisheries. To echo her comments, I am particularly pleased that as part of the negotiations we managed to save the livelihoods of people on the west coast of Scotland.
If ever there were an issue where good, effective working relations between the Minister and Richard Lochhead in Edinburgh were so important, this is surely it. May I urge the Minister to remain engaged with the fishing industry itself as the new technical measures are rolled out? He will be aware that serious concerns were expressed by those parts of the fleet that operated on the west of Scotland about the suitability of some of the early measures. Those concerns must not be forgotten now that the deal is done.
The hon. Gentleman makes absolutely the right points. I intend to continue close engagement, both with the Scottish Executive and with fishermen on the ground, because there is a level of local expertise and knowledge that has really helped us in the negotiations and which will have to help us, in what will be a challenging year, to deliver sustainable fisheries. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I will remain engaged at all levels, and I will, I hope, be visiting the west coast of Scotland in the near future.
I met the chairman and chief executive of Ofwat on 16 December to discuss the 2009 review of water price limits, covering the period 2010 to 2015.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, and I note the response about clubs that his Minister gave earlier. However, I would like to ask what the Government are doing to reduce the burden of water bills on domestic households by tackling other factors that affect the price of water, such as the non-payment of bills, which leads to those who do pay their bills subsidising those who do not.
That was one of the issues that I discussed in the meeting to which I referred. It is important that water companies are able to collect the payments that are due, recognising that in the current economic circumstances some people have genuine difficulty in paying their bills. I attach particular importance, as does Ofwat, in taking final decisions about the price review and its impact on bills between 2010 and 2015, to the question of affordability. Like many things in life, it is a question of balance, as it is also necessary to take further action on reducing leakage and improving some environmental problems, particularly those relating to the Thames area, United Utilities and some other parts of the country.
The Secretary of State has received a range of representations from various groups regarding surface water drainage charges. As I said in response to an earlier question, the Government are aware of the issue of affordability raised by the switch to site area charging, and we are actively considering what can be done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply—obviously, I heard the exchange on Question 3, asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Strong representations are being made and it would be good to hear whether they are reaching the Minister’s door. The problem has been around for 10 years—I read a debate from 1999 in which the current Home Secretary raised the issue of the potential fallout from changes in water charges. Is it not about time that we told Ofwat that its proposals are wrong, and that organisations should be properly protected from such excessive increases?
My hon. Friend is right that the issue has been around for some time. I reiterated earlier the advice that the former Secretary of State gave in 2000, which is important to note. I reassure my hon. Friend that we will not leave the issue lying. We are aware of the concerns, and the Secretary of State and I are actively considering what can be done.
The Department’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I inform the House that the Rural Payments Agency has now made full single payment scheme payments to 78 per cent. of farmers, which amounts to 67.4 per cent. of the estimated total fund. As the House will be aware, the RPA’s target is to make 75 per cent. of SPS 2008 payments by value by the end of this month, and 90 per cent. by the end of March.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Earlier, we rightly discussed the importance of protecting consumers by ensuring adequate food safety standards in the meat industry, but it is equally important to protect animal welfare. Does my right hon. Friend support the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in its “Rooting for pigs” campaign to ensure better animal welfare standards within the pig industry?
Yes. A set of labelling definitions, such as “free range” or “barn grown”, agreed between the RSPCA and the UK pig industry, would be extremely powerful and command much public support. I prefer a voluntary agreement to the imposition of more legislation, and I welcome the good progress made so far. We are close to agreement between all the parties, including the supermarkets, on a set of assurance scheme criteria. All of us who enjoy pork and bacon will welcome such a labelling scheme. It will allow us to exercise an informed choice and to support our farmers, particularly in delivering higher standards of welfare.
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be aware of bids by water companies outside Wales to supply customers inside Wales, particularly in a development in his constituency known as Valleywood. Will he meet me to discuss the important issues raised by that attempt?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, elements of water policy in Wales are devolved, but the regulatory regime remains with Westminster. On that basis, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter at the earliest opportunity.
I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, not least because she has been a tireless advocate of regeneration in relation to the Olympics and her own communities.
I visited Prescott lock recently. We were fortunate enough to be in a position to allocate £2 million to its development, and to ensure—this is relevant to an earlier question—that construction materials for the site were delivered on our canal network, in which the Government are investing.
As I have said, I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, because I think that we have a good news story to tell.
I know that the authority reached that decision recently, and I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman in further detail. Obviously the judgment on advertising is one for the authority to make. As for the Government’s policy, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the review conducted by Ed Gallagher last year, which examined precisely this question. What the Government have said throughout is that we need to be sure that biofuels are sustainable. We need to consider both the direct impact, in connection with which a comparison can be made with the petrol and diesel that they might replace, and the more complicated issue of the indirect effect. The British Government have been pressing strongly in Europe for sustainability standards that can give the public confidence that biofuels are indeed sustainable.
Does this week’s vote on pesticides in the European Parliament mean that the United Kingdom Government have lost the argument on control of existing pesticides, or will there still be the possibility of insisting on a full impact assessment before any change in established practices is forced on British farmers? Should we not make decisions about such changes on the basis of the best possible evidence?
I entirely agree, and I have been making the same point for a very long time. Indeed, I have asked the European Commission for a full impact assessment, but none has been forthcoming. As I have said publicly, this is not a very good basis on which to make decisions. If you are asked to sign up to something, it kind of helps if you know what it is that you are signing up to.
I must be frank with the House. I regret that there do not appear to be enough other member states that share the concern that we have expressed so forcefully. We will of course use the possibility that exists in the final shape of the proposals to seek derogations where they are necessary, but there is a fundamental principle here. A balance must be struck. We take the protection of public health extremely seriously, but we must also enable farmers to protect their crops so that we can grow the food that we need. We must make decisions on the basis of good evidence and sound science, and I am sorry that that has not been done on this occasion.
I acknowledge that bovine TB is our biggest endemic animal health issue. Working to eradicate this terrible disease is at the top of my agenda, given the devastating impact that it has.
We have a zero tolerance policy on overdue tests. We have pre-movement tests for cattle moving from high-risk herds, and extended use of the gamma interferon test. We are also actively pursuing the future use of vaccination. However, we need to consider further measures with the industry, and that is exactly the aim of the new bovine TB eradication group.
On air quality, although concern is currently understandably focused on Heathrow and London, will the Secretary of State look into air quality in Greater Manchester? Following the failure of the transport referendum, there is now a big vacuum in public transport policy in Greater Manchester and there are huge issues in relation to worsening air quality. Will the Secretary of State discuss this with his counterpart at the Department for Transport and with the Environment Agency?
Yes, I certainly will, because as my hon. Friend rightly points out, air quality limits are currently being exceeded in several parts of the country. The principal problem is road traffic, and we set out the steps we propose to take in the air quality strategy published last year. I have already pointed out to the House that we will very probably have to apply to the Commission for further time to meet the targets; if it is to grant us further time, we will have to set out to its satisfaction in those applications the further steps we intend to take to meet the targets. This is a responsibility of the Government, and I take it very seriously, but it is also a responsibility of those who can influence questions of traffic management in our big towns and cities across the country.
I am happy to take up that suggestion, and I will do so. That is an important technology, which is still in a state of evolution. In the fight against climate change and the effort to reduce carbon emissions, we need all the technological assistance we can get. I would not, however, have a go at what the hon. Gentleman describes as the intermediate technology, because low-energy light bulbs certainly do save consumers money—even taking account, in some cases, of the additional costs—because of the longer life of the bulbs and the reduced energy consumption involved, but technology needs to continue to evolve to help us in this task of reducing our emissions.
The Secretary of State is known for not being swayed by passion, and for being an open-minded man who is happy to rely on science and his advisers. The Environment Agency has said that the third Heathrow runway would exceed EU pollution limits because of unsafe nitrogen dioxide levels. How is it right—or how would it be right, to use the correct tense—for such advice to be discarded in a cavalier and cursory fashion?
I am certainly not in favour of discarding any advice in a cavalier fashion. I say once again to the House—I am sure my hon. Friend will listen very carefully to this—that the Government are determined that we will meet the air quality and noise targets that we have set. That would be a condition on any expansion of Heathrow. People will be able to make a judgment about whether they think that condition has been met when they hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport says shortly.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that, in relation to nitrogen dioxide and Heathrow, the principal problem is road traffic, not aircraft movements. Therefore, what happens on the M4 and other roads in that area has a significant impact. We have not yet applied for that derogation. We are likely to do so first in relation to PM10, because we should have achieved the targets by 2005—many other member states have not—and it is possible to allow for extra time until 2011. In relation to nitrogen dioxide, the date for achieving the target is 2010; we are not going to do so, for the reasons I have set out, and the derogation would extend that to 2015. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Government will have to set out to the satisfaction of the Commission that we have a credible plan for dealing with that. We will have to do so in relation to all the sites where there is a problem, including Heathrow, but as I hope he is aware, Heathrow does not present the biggest problem, because those limits are exceeded by a greater margin in other locations around the country.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
In November, the National Fraud Strategic Authority published an action plan to bring together public and private efforts to target mortgage fraud, and it intends to review the plan in a year. In support of that programme, about a tenth of the Serious Fraud Office’s current caseload is about mortgage fraud.
I thank the Solicitor-General for her reply. My constituents, like those in other areas, are having difficulty in obtaining mortgage finance for the purchase of homes in the current economic climate. Given the difficulties in obtaining funds, can she assure me that she will do everything she can, working with the legal profession, to ensure that the funds that are available are used for legitimate house purchases and not by profiteering fraudsters?
As ever, my hon. Friend has the interests of his constituents closely in mind. The SFO has recently produced best practice guidance both for lenders and for lawyers who deal with mortgages. The intention of that is, in part, to make it crystal clear when something odd is beginning to happen in a mortgage transaction so that a broader range of people than has been the case historically are able to spot it before things go too wrong. An important part of the whole fraud strategy is turning resources towards protection and prevention and, as the Director of Public Prosecutions said recently, as one would expect the prosecution and investigation authorities are taking on board what is happening in the economy and assessing its impact on crime patterns. I hope that gives my hon. Friend some of the reassurance that he seeks.
The SFO and the Financial Services Authority seem to have been asleep at the wheel in recent years in respect of mortgage fraud and near-fraud, which appears to have been carried out by some financial services companies themselves. Can the Solicitor-General tell me what steps she proposes to take, with her ministerial colleagues, to improve the rather poor performance of the SFO and FSA in recent years?
My hon. Friend’s point is unarguable really, although it was not all bad in the SFO and there were some very commendable results. He will know that a review of its functioning was carried out by Jessica de Grazia, which reported in 2008, and that a fresh director, Richard Alderman, was appointed around the same time. He has instituted quite a large number of the changes that Ms de Grazia proposed and some further ones; they are designed primarily to strengthen the leadership team, improve staff training and shorten the time that it takes to get cases to court. Quite a sizeable transformation programme is in process, and I shall send my hon. Friend more detail of that if he so wishes.
National Fraud Strategic Authority
The NFSA is developing its first national fraud strategy, which follows an extensive consultation with public and private sector bodies. The strategy is intended to bring together Government, enforcement and private sector activity to tackle and prevent fraud. The strategy will be published in the next few months.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer and commend her for coming in when she is obviously quite poorly—I hope that she will soon be on the mend. The formation of the NFSA is welcome, but will its role include fraud prevention? If the NFSA is to be at all strategic, its role surely must include fraud prevention.
My hon. Friend has got exactly to the point identified by the review: although agencies are in place to prosecute, to sentence and to seize assets, a focus must be on spotting fraud early so that the public can be protected from it before it starts, and it can be prevented and disrupted. It was with that aim in mind that the NFSA was set up to co-ordinate and fill in the gaps of our national effort against fraud. The NFSA is working closely with Lothian and Borders police in particular in leading the development of a comprehensive Scottish fraud strategy to match this one.
Serious Fraud Office
Once again, this is about the Serious Fraud Office and our efforts to combat fraud. Since publication of the de Grazia report, to which I have referred, the director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, has made many changes to the leadership team, improved staff training, and introduced measures to shorten the time taken to get SFO cases to court. He has reorganised the operational divisions and introduced a case management reform programme. The hon. Gentleman has probably read that a new general counsel, Vivian Robinson QC, with whom I am acquainted from my practice and who is an excellent choice, was recently appointed to sharpen up that end of the SFO’s work.
I am sure that my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be as confident as I am of what I am about to say. There have been early successes, bearing in mind that Mr. Alderman has been in post less than a year. In October, the SFO obtained its first ever civil recovery order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 in a case in which Balfour Beatty was required to return £2.25 million of resources that it had progressed with. There are currently six specific mortgage fraud cases on the SFO’s stocks, and much has been done to sharpen its procedures up front so that it spots and evaluates more quickly which cases it should pursue and which it should leave. I hope that its conviction rate will follow that of the American models that the de Grazia review used.
Will the Solicitor-General agree to meet me and the former director of Excel Engineering, which was involved in one of those cases and had the largest number of people prosecuted for fraud? The company, which was the main victim of that fraud, has not been properly compensated, although other complainants who were involved in the fraud have been.
May I suggest that the Government are too complacent in their approach? We have correctly identified that the de Grazia report showed a significantly poor SFO performance, relative to US prosecutors, in cost per case, staffing per case and conviction rates. One third of the SFO’s management then left the service, and on top of that, only two days ago, the Solicitor-General made a written statement requesting an extra £15 million, but giving no reason whatever. Is it not increasingly looking as though the SFO is an organisation in crisis? The Solicitor-General needs to explain urgently what is going on with the SFO’s management.
The hon. Gentleman could not be wronger—[Interruption.] Well, he tries hard, but he could not be wronger. It is not unexpected that when reports such as de Grazia’s are produced and a new head comes into the SFO with different ideas about how it should be run, there is movement in the senior management. Richard Alderman seems to me from his presentations to be confident that the new people in post are likely to improve matters enormously. There is absolutely nothing odd, strange or overly demanding about the funding that has recently been given to the SFO. The hon. Gentleman should not be led astray by a Liberal Democrat piece of nonsense that was fed to the press. The Daily Mail reported that a spokesman for the SFO had said:
“This additional funding is the anticipated and agreed amount for this financial year.”
May I explain, in case the hon. Gentleman does not know, that funding for the SFO is based on blockbuster cases, which need the replenishment of funds as they are inquired into? The procedure that has taken place just recently is a very normal one.
I am glad that the Solicitor-General has come to that topic. Last year, the SFO came to Parliament to ask for £17 million extra, and Parliament was told that nearly £7 million of that was purely to cover administrative costs. This year, the SFO is coming to Parliament to ask for £20 million, which is more than half of its base budget, but we are not being told how much of that will be spent on purely administrative costs. In fact, the format of the estimates has been changed so that it is now impossible to tell how much the SFO is spending on administrative costs. Will the Solicitor-General tell the House what the £20 million is being spent on? How much is being spent on administrative costs and how much on cases? Will she also explain why the format of the estimates was changed?
I know of no important change in the format of the estimates. There is no figure of £20 million of which I am aware—I think there has been a little bit of exaggeration. The SFO has an additional £18.81 million, made up of £15.45 million and £3.36 million. That money is largely for the normal accrual of blockbuster cases. In addition, of course, the transformation programme to which I have alluded also requires replenishment. They are perfectly normal bits of funding. A contingency payment has been made and formal parliamentary approval will come in the spring supplementary estimates. If the hon. Gentleman wants any more detail, I invite him to write to me rather than simply getting it wrong and assuming something sinister when there is nothing sinister at all.
Sexual Abuse Victims (Court Proceedings)
The Coroners and Justice Bill, which was introduced to the House yesterday, will allow into evidence as of right, as it were, records of first interviews with complainants of serious sexual offences. That will avoid their having to go through the whole story again from the start in court. It will also allow in evidence from the first time that they complain of an alleged offence. Historically, complaints have only been allowed in when they have been made quickly after the incident, but now the courts recognise that it often takes time before complainants can bring themselves to complain. We have also increased the number of sexual assault referral centres and the number of independent sexual violence advisers, who, in their different ways, befriend and support rape complainants.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that response and congratulate the Government on what they are doing in this field. In Cardiff, we have benefited from the recent opening of a sexual abuse referral centre based in the Cardiff royal infirmary and from an independent sexual violence adviser who helps victims in the courts. What more can be done to help those women, whose experiences are so traumatic, so that when they go to court they feel that they will have a fair hearing and will be able to get justice?
An important aspect of sustaining people who complain—the British crime survey shows that about a third of people who are sexually assaulted never tell anyone about it, except presumably the British crime survey interviewers many years later—is sustaining their confidence to go to court. We can do that with sexual assault referral centres such the one my hon. Friend mentioned, Safe Island in Cardiff, with better trained police who interview in a more appropriate way and with better trained prosecutors. One hopes that from making a complaint to getting to court a complainant will be sustained and supported so she will have the confidence to get through. It seems to us that that is probably the most important factor in ensuring that women—and men—who have suffered sexual assault get justice.
The Government are currently actively considering the Law Commission’s report on bribery, published in November 2008. We are committed to reforming that area of the law, and have announced that we will bring forward a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny this Session.
Of course, the UK has been committed, by treaty, to reform in that area for some time, but has not yet made those reforms. The Government were not interested in taking forward proposals for legislation in previous Sessions. Now that we have very clear proposals from the Law Commission, why on earth can we not go ahead with them with the greatest possible urgency?
Because although it is important that we act quickly, it is very important that we get it right. It is a complex issue and it merits pre-legislative scrutiny. Usually, the hon. Gentleman would welcome pre-legislative scrutiny as providing appropriate exposure of the law. There will be pre-legislative scrutiny in this case. I add that the OECD has recognised that our current law now meets the requirements of the convention, that we are in the top 10 per cent. of countries when it comes to ongoing investigations, that we are in the top third for convictions for bribery, and that we are one of the least corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International.