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Topical Questions

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

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.

T6. In November I welcomed the announcement of spending on the Prescott lock in my constituency, but rumours abound that the Olympic legacy of usage, leisure and working of the Bow back waters is currently under threat. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss this issue, which is important to my constituents? (247652)

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.

T3. Does the Minister concur with the recent finding of the Advertising Standards Authority that biofuels should not be described as sustainable? (247649)

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.

T4. Will the Secretary of State agree to hold an urgent meeting with United Kingdom paper manufacturers to listen to their suggestions for reviving the international waste paper recycling market, the state of which is threatening many local authority schemes that are very important to our sustainability profile? (247650)

I am very happy to offer the meeting that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. I acknowledge the concerns that exist in the paper recycling industry, and I am more than happy to keep the door open for him and any constituents whom he may wish to bring.

T5. Today’s report on deer, and the fact that we now have a second reservoir of bovine TB, emphasise the importance of further action. Can the Minister explain why, by the end of October last year, 4,500 tests remained to be carried out? What steps is she taking to remedy the situation, in light of the continuing and growing concerns over this cattle disease? (247651)

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.

T7. Light-emitting diode—or LED—lighting technology is super-efficient: it generates just 5 per cent. of the wattage of a normal bulb, generates very little heat and has no mercury. Will the Secretary of State discuss with the Carbon Trust whether it can promote that technology, rather than the intermediate energy-efficient technology it is currently promoting? (247653)

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.

T8. The Secretary of State will acknowledge that even in its current configuration Heathrow exceeds the pollution limits in the aforementioned EU air quality directive. Has he applied yet for the derogation that he says he will be seeking from that directive? If so, in terms of the road map he would have to outline for reaching eventual compliance with the directive, can he tell us how 220,000 additional flights each year would help in achieving that? (247654)

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.