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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 2 July 2009

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bottle Deposit Scheme

Mr. Speaker, first, may I congratulate you on your election and wish you well in the years to come?

The Government believe that resources could be more effectively used in improving current systems than in developing a parallel system for deposits on drinks packaging. For example, improved household collections and developing the “Recycle on the Go” infrastructure are likely to be more cost-effective in increasing recycling and tackling litter.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Many of us here can recall collecting bottles to gain extra pocket money, but the matter is very serious, given that the UK recycles only 35 per cent. of its plastic bottles. Other countries have much better records—Denmark, for example, has a recycling rate of 87 per cent., so the difference is staggering—and they have deposit schemes, so it cannot be impossible to operate such schemes alongside kerbside ones. I hope that he will concede that a deposit scheme could have an enormous impact on reducing litter and the damage to our countryside and to parts of our towns. I would like to ask him—

I would like to ask the Minister whether he could re-examine the matter, undertaking a full cost-benefit analysis and considering what happens in other countries.

First, I should point out to the hon. Lady that we have had great success in recycling packaging in the past 10 years. The figures that I have obtained show that our recycling increased from 28 to 61 per cent. between 1998 and 2008. That means that we have recycled three and a half times more aluminium, four times more plastic, three times more glass, six times more wood and half as much paper again.

I remember taking my Corona pop bottles to collect deposits when I was a child, but we must consider the evidence on deposit schemes. In December 2008, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report that examined the features of packaging deposit systems and the role that such systems might play in increasing recovery and recycling of single-use drinks containers—those made of plastic, aluminium, glass and so on—in the UK. The report, commissioned in consultation with stakeholders, reviewed deposit systems in four other EU member states. The report provided evidence for and against deposit schemes, but overall it supported the view that resources could be better used in other ways to encourage recycling and to tackle litter—

Order. May I say to the Minister that I am grateful to him for his generous remarks, but frankly we have made a very poor start today and we need to do a lot better?

Water Prices

I thank the Minister for that brief response. I hope that he will be aware of the rising and continuing anger of South West Water charge payers who, even after 15 years, are still paying substantially more for their water than people in any other part of the country; that is particularly true of people in Cornwall, which is one of the poorest regions in Europe. The Government simply cannot stand by and leave everything to Ofwat. What are they going to do to address that total unfairness, which has gone on for far too long?

I will tell hon. Members not only what the Government will do, but what we have done. We commissioned Anna Walker to undertake a review to examine those very issues, not only in the south-west, but across the UK. For those hon. Members who are not aware of this, I should say that the review reported its interim findings this Monday. The Government will seek to respond to that review in full when the full report is published, but we have indicated that we are aware of the particular issues in the south-west and we have to find a way to address them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will attend Anna Walker’s forthcoming roadshow in the south-west.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the word on the street is that Ofwat is weak and needs to be shaken up or changed, that the private equity owned water companies are getting away with blue murder and that consumers are getting a raw deal? When is he going to do something about Ofwat?

My goodness, I am having to deal with some challenges today, Mr. Speaker. I also hear the opinion that Ofwat is far too strong and rigorous sometimes. What I would say to reassure my hon. Friend is that this Government introduced clear, explicit social and environmental guidance and we expect that to guide what Ofwat does. It has to make its own decisions and it is an independent economic regulator, but we have to ensure that issues of social justice, affordability and so on are properly taken account of, too.

Only yesterday, I passed to Ofwat a letter from the treasurer of the 1st Droitwich Spa scout group expressing concern about a likely increase in its water charges from £50 to £1,000 because of run-off charges. That will force the group to choose between a much-needed new roof for the scout hut or an increase in subs for the 60 beavers, cubs and scouts, which they could ill afford. What comfort can I give the 1st Droitwich Spa scout group?

The hon. Gentleman can give it the comfort that this Minister has met both the regulator and United Utilities and will continue to put on the pressure. It is right that the dialogue between the independent economic regulator and the water companies is the way they define how they will take their regime forward. I am clear that there should not be disproportionate impacts on groups such as community hall groups, scout associations, churches and so on. The great thing is that United Utilities has applied a moratorium in order to examine that very issue in its area. I am looking forward to learning the outcome of that shortly, because I hope that it will guide the way for future decisions.

Does my hon. Friend accept that a social tariff especially for large low-income households is essential if they are not to be clobbered by huge increases under water metering, and that Ofwat is unlikely to approve such tariffs without clear and firm guidance from the Government? Will the Government issue such guidance as a matter of urgency?

My right hon. Friend will know that that is the very reason that we set up Anna Walker’s review—to consider issues of affordability, social tariffs and how water metering can play a role not only in water efficiency, but in driving down costs, especially for low-income households, and measures to tackle water poverty. We need to look in the round at Anna Walker’s interim report and to respond in full to her final report to deal with the very issue that my right hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Speaker, may I add my personal congratulations?

Why has the Minister not put in the draft Flood and Water Management Bill his response to the Cave and Walker reviews, and why is he not giving a clear sense of direction to the water industry and a clear sense that the Government are on top of those issues?

The hon. Lady refers to the Cave review, as opposed to the Walker review, which has been out to full consultation. We said that we would respond to it in full. There is nothing that precludes the Government or the regulator from acting on what is in the Cave review: we do not have to wait for another pricing review. We have to ensure that whatever we propose in the Bill next Session deals with the important issues, including those that were raised by Pitt in his review—we said that we would act on those. We also need to deal with issues of flooding and so on, and we will get on with that.

Single Payment Scheme

3. What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce the overall cost of the single payment scheme. (283378)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of the single payment scheme. (283379)

The Rural Payments Agency has made a year-on-year improvement in the timing of payments under the single payment scheme. For scheme year 2008, at 30 June it had paid out around £1.625 billion, representing more than 99.6 per cent. of the estimated total fund.

The agency has been working to reduce the administrative costs of the scheme, as well as to reduce the burden on farmers. A number of initiatives to improve the process of claiming payment have been introduced, including online applications and the issuing of claim forms that are part-completed. Those initiatives ensure that the overall process is easier and quicker.

Yes, but given our commitment to further reform of the common agricultural policy, is it not time to cut back the escalating cost of the single payment scheme, which is £1.6 billion in this country and £25 billion across Europe, and is expected to hit a staggering £35 billion in 2012? As well as the cost to taxpayers and consumers, is it not against the interests of young farmers if landowners are paid £100 an acre whatever they grow? Does not that just increase the threshold to get into the profession?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to reforming the system. The health check has in recent years made the system less bureaucratic and fairer. We are continuing to press in Europe for a move from pillar 1 to pillar 2, which would make it less bureaucratic and easier for young people to come into farming.

Single farm payments are supposed to allow farmers to cope with a market that is unfair, but each payment last year cost the taxpayer £742 to administer. Some 14,645 payments of less than £400 were made, including 636 of less than £50. Will the Minister consider introducing a minimum claim value of £250 to £300, which would reduce bureaucracy without damaging hard-working family farmers?

As a result of the CAP health check, we are in the process of introducing new de minimis options. DEFRA is consulting on the new minimum of between one and five hectares. The Rural Payments Agency’s performance has improved dramatically in recent years, since the great difficulties of a few years ago. For 2009, for example, the target of paying 75 per cent. of claims by value by the end of January was met on 20 January; the target of 90 per cent. by value by the end of March was met on 10 March; and 104,000 farmers have been paid, with only 400 residual claims to be sorted.

Some years ago, my hon. Friend—as I shall call him—the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and I were both Members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it was holding an inquiry into the disasters of the single farm payment. The process has improved considerably, but is the Minister aware of the problems with the rural land register, which is at the heart of the single farm payment? Some 120,000 farms in England have received their maps recently, but those maps are showing remarkable things, such as hedges and walls that were demolished or removed in the 1950s, neighbourhood land being attached to farmers’ holdings and so on. What confidence can we have that the single farm payment in 2010 will be based on accurate data?

I can reassure my hon. Friend and the farming community that the mapping procedures being conducted now will not affect this year’s payments. There are 28 days for farmers to respond to the maps that they have received. We have been in touch with the RPA already. I have a meeting with the RPA chief executive next week and the mapping arrangements are at the top of the agenda. I met National Farmers Union representatives at the royal Norfolk show yesterday, where they expressed their concerns about the matter—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) says from a sedentary position, I am wearing a Norfolk Young Farmers Club tie to demonstrate my appreciation of their generosity yesterday.

In conclusion, there is concern about the mapping. We are aware of it, we are dealing with it and we will ensure that it will not cause problems such as those that we have seen before with the RPA.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.

I am sorry, but the Minister’s answer is just not good enough. At the heart of the single payment scheme is the RPA. The RPA is sending out the wrong maps, again, to farmers and is giving them just 28 days to respond at the busiest time of the year. That shows that the RPA is still an incompetent organisation. At his meeting with the chief executive next week, will the Minister intervene to stop that process and remind the RPA that there is something called a harvest, which means that farmers are at their busiest at this time of the year and that they have to be given longer to respond to the mess?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that item will be at the top of the agenda next week. We are aware of the anxiety that it is causing. As I have said, it will not affect the payments for this year. A pilot exercise was conducted with 1,000 farms to try to ensure that the roll-out would be as efficient and accurate as possible. We need to update the maps because they are static maps and the situation is changing regularly. That process will allow us to put them online, which will make it easier for farmers in the future. We are hearing some concerns and some complaints, and the RPA is responding to the farmers who contact the agency. I will make sure that the matter is top of my agenda in the weeks ahead, because we need to ensure that we get it right.

The costs of running the single farm payment scheme are but one item in DEFRA’s budget. The Secretary of State has made it clear that, from 2011, his Department’s budget will be reduced. Will the Minister now outline what cuts in services to the customers of DEFRA the Secretary of State’s announcement entails?

Our Department, like all Government Departments, continuously reviews its budget and seeks to be as efficient as possible. There is no threat in the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We will continue to examine our budget and we shall ensure that the Department runs as efficiently as possible.

Rural Economy

While the economic downturn affects both urban and rural areas, analysis of data from Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that there is no significant difference between urban and rural areas and that, if anything, there is slightly more success in urban communities.

The Minister will be aware that one sector that has been hit hard by both rising costs and falling demand is the hill sheep farming sector. That is reflected in the fact that in the highlands, for example, more and more farmers are taking their stock off the hills. That has a knock-on effect on one of the industries that could buck the economic trend, tourism, because of the work that hill farmers do to maintain and support the countryside as a whole. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that there is greater support for the hill sheep farming sector over the coming years of recession, to maintain the benefits that it brings to the wider community and the wider economy?

The upland entry scheme that we are about to introduce has been widely welcomed, and I hope that, when he sees the details, the hon. Gentleman will find some comfort in that. However, we fully understand and recognise that it is a serious issue, and we continually redouble our efforts to make sure that such matters are addressed properly.

May I add my own congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker?

It appears that the recession is already taking its toll on DEFRA, which has had its budget cut by £200 million since the pre-Budget report. Will the Minister confirm to rural communities that DEFRA’s budget is frozen for the next three years—what the Prime Minister would call a “zero per cent. rise”—which means that it will be cut in real terms?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the figures have been published and he is obviously capable of accessing and reading that information for himself.

Why does the Minister not at least have the courage to repeat what the Secretary of State admitted on “Any Questions?” last week, when he said that the DEFRA budget was “going to be less”? Rural communities are being hit hard in the recession and they want the truth about what lies ahead. Rising unemployment and debt interest mean that the Government’s own plans show spending cuts of at least 7 per cent. in every Department. Why will the Minister not be straight with rural people and admit that DEFRA is already making cuts and that, because of the Government’s mismanagement of the economy, spending will have to be cut even more?

I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about this. Let us be clear: if the Conservatives were in the government now, they would be cutting the figures immediately. We are looking very carefully at efficiency, because it is very important that we deliver value for money. We must make sure that what we do is not just good quality, but cost-effective and bears in mind the council tax payer and taxpayers.

Dairy Farmers of Britain

6. What discussions he has had with representatives of Dairy Farmers of Britain since it was taken into receivership. (283381)

May I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) to the DEFRA ministerial team? As we have heard already this morning, they are making a great impact.

I and my ministerial colleagues have been working with the Dairy Farmers of Britain members council, the receiver, Dairy UK, farm unions, banks, and charity and benevolent organisations to continue to help all those affected.

Many Dairy Farmers of Britain producers in Lancashire and Cumbria are suffering because of the collapse of their dairy business and associated cash-flow problems. Will the Secretary of State consider extending meeting the requirements of the nitrates directive by perhaps one year? Will he also consider bringing forward some of the single farm payment due in the autumn for affected farmers to alleviate some of their cash-flow problems?

I am only too well aware of the difficulties that farmers have faced, but let me take the opportunity to give the House the very latest information. Of the 1,813 farmers with Dairy Farmers of Britain on 3 June, 1,759 have found other buyers for their milk, 45 have retired or are in the process of retiring and nine have not yet decided. Given where we were on 3 June, that is considerable progress.

To respond to the two points that the hon. Gentleman raised, in theory it would be possible to try and advance single farm payments, but that might have a knock-on effect on other farmers. On the RPA, I have said throughout that the one thing that I am not prepared to do is jeopardise the recovery that my hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to. Secondly, we cannot delay the requirements on nitrate vulnerable zones further, but I remind the House that the new requirements on slurry storage do not have to come in until 2012.

What a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mr. Speaker.

May I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to pass on my welcome to my two colleagues who have joined him on the Front Bench? Food and food production are far too important to be left entirely to the advocacy of Members with rural constituencies. They are of importance to everyone.

I noted my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace). Will he consider approaching the Office of Fair Trading and pressing it for its view on what is competitive in the dairy market? That would allow it to take a more pragmatic approach when mergers and changes happen in the co-operative sector.

First, may I say that it is very good to see my right hon. Friend in her new place? [Interruption.] At the last Question Time, I expressed my sorrow at her departure. To make it clear, I refer to the fact that she continues to take an interest in DEFRA matters. I thoroughly welcome that, and I thank her for her efforts in relation to Dairy Farmers of Britain.

On the role of the Office of Fair Trading, as my right hon. Friend will be well aware, a merger was proposed last year between two of the co-operatives, but it did not come off, not because of problems with the OFT, but because the two partners were not able to reach agreement. However, I will reflect on the point that she rightly makes.

When Parmalat went into administration in 2004, the Italian Government provided emergency compensation to the thousands of Italian dairy farmers who were affected and the European Union agreed to waive state aid rules. Why do the British Government not provide similar support now to the thousands of British dairy farmers affected by the collapse of DFOB?

The most important thing that we have done, as I have just informed the House, is work with all the partners to try to ensure that farmers can find other buyers for their milk. Considerable progress has been made, although one should acknowledge the position of workers in the creameries and dairies that have not been able to be bought by others. The dairy industry is facing longer-term problems because of the difficulties in the world market. Through the dairy supply chain forum, which we established in 2003, we are working with the sector to look ahead. There is over-supply at the moment, but the longer-term prospects are slightly brighter.

The most important issue for most farmers is, of course, the lack of the milk cheque. Will my right hon. Friend at least talk to PricewaterhouseCoopers about the fact that, although some people obviously knew how desperate the state of the company was, milk was supplied and has been purchased by various outlets? Is it not right that those outlets pay the farmers for the milk that they have received and that PWC ensures that that is done as a matter of urgency?

If others have contractual obligations, it is clearly very important that they are met, but we have made further progress in the past week or so because of Milk Link’s offer to purchase the rest of the milk—milk that had not been bought by other buyers—at a price of 18.45p a litre, as opposed to the 10p a litre that the receiver was offering.

The Milk Marketing Board was scrapped under the Conservative Government and its successor, Milk Marque, was broken up under this Government, all in the name of free and fair trade, yet dairy farmers are now receiving as little as 10p a litre for their milk in the aftermath of the break-up of Dairy Farmers of Britain. I wonder to what extent that constitutes a free and fair market. Will the Secretary of State undertake to do two things now? First, to prevent a disastrous loss of capacity in the dairy sector, will he underwrite the unpaid May milk cheque for Dairy Farmers of Britain? Secondly, will he intervene to prevent unfair trade by introducing a powerful food market regulator, to prevent buyers from exploiting farmers from all sectors in this unfair, unfree and unbalanced food market?

First, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer that he wants on the payment of the milk cheque. Secondly, as he will be well aware, the Competition Commission has been consulting on the idea of an ombudsman and seeking agreement with the supermarkets and others. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the commission may come back to ask the Government to form a view on that, and we will consider it very carefully at the time.

On the dairy industry more widely, I simply say that there has been a huge increase in productivity. Although if we look back over 20 years, we see that milk production has declined a bit from about 14 billion litres to 13 billion litres, the dairy industry in Britain is much more productive than it was.

The situation is very serious. I represent hundreds of farmers, who were receiving 10p a litre, which is totally unacceptable and not sustainable, when the company went into receivership. First, we need the Secretary of State to call for a full inquiry into what has happened in Dairy Farmers of Britain. Secondly, we need him to help to fund the shortfall. Why did the banks foreclose when the farmers were owed the most money and the banks could therefore receive the most from the receivership? We need a full inquiry, we need support to ensure that those farmers are compensated, and we need him to see what help he can give.

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, may I mention what will be apparent: questions are fast becoming threesomes and some trimming is required?

To be honest, I am not sure that an inquiry is required. Dairy Farmers of Britain had problems and in the end, despite the efforts of the members, it was not capable of being saved. I agree with my hon. Friend that receiving 10p a litre is impossible for farmers, and that is why Milk Link’s offer to all the remaining farmers to buy at an average of 18.45p a litre is to be welcomed.

Common Agricultural Policy

The common agricultural policy was one of the issues discussed at the last EU Agriculture Council that I attended, which was in Luxembourg on 22 and 24 June, during the Czech presidency. I look forward to continuing discussions under the Swedish presidency in the second half of the year.

In December 2005, Tony Blair surrendered the British rebate, which Mrs. Thatcher negotiated, on the false promise that the CAP budget would be slashed. Last year, the UK paid £3 billion to the EU; next year, it will pay £6.5 billion. How many teachers, police officers and nurses will have to be cut to pay for that?

The health check that I mentioned earlier provided much of what the UK wanted. Negotiations on the future are already under way informally, as was evidenced by the discussions that took place in Luxembourg last week. We are intent on making sure that we can reform the common agricultural policy to the benefit of Britain and British farmers, and to the benefit of Europe, and we continue with that policy.

Will my hon. Friend please assure the House that when he sees his European colleagues, he will get them to recognise that security of food supply requires a premium? That is not merely a handout for farmers; it is to allow farmers to work towards supplying us with our food. We should never slash and burn it, or run away from supporting our farmers in this country, as the Conservative party would.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are intent on making sure that the reforms to the CAP are in the direction of travel that he wants us to take. We had discussions last week that will clearly lead to intense negotiations in the months and couple of years ahead on the next round of the CAP and the next round of the European budget. There may be a new Agriculture Commissioner later this year, and the Lisbon treaty may have an impact on how the negotiations proceed in the years ahead. There is a lot going on in the background and we are intent on protecting British interests.

Very recently, the Secretary of State persuaded the rest of the EU to allow him to keep set-aside. It is widely rumoured that he will announce at the royal show next week that he will accept the voluntary approach. If he does, we will support him, as that would be the right decision. Does he agree that the success of the voluntary approach should not be measured simply by what area of land is taken out of production? The objective is to improve biodiversity. Will he reject the simplistic arguments made by some organisations in favour of setting targets on the area of land, and will he instead set targets on indicator species of birds, animals and invertebrates? That is the only way to really tell whether we are improving biodiversity.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the conclusions and will make an announcement shortly, as has been trailed. Clearly, the issues are complex, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined. He knows better than I that whatever decisions are made to improve biodiversity and the ability of species to prosper, it will take some years to be able to demonstrate that that has happened. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is taking all those complex matters into consideration and will make a statement shortly.

Economic Downturn

8. What steps his Department has taken to assist farmers and the agricultural industry during the economic downturn. (283383)

In difficult times, agriculture overall is doing well. Farming incomes increased by 36 per cent. in real terms last year and there was a record wheat harvest. The UK exported £12 billion-worth of food and drink in 2007. However, some sectors are facing difficulties and farmers have been able to benefit from the help that the Government are giving to all businesses.

What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that, in the economic downturn, agricultural workers receive proper training?

In April I convened a meeting of all those who have an interest in skills in the industry, and the industry has undertaken to come back to us with its plan. We are providing support through Fresh Start, funding for new businesses in rural areas, Train to Gain, apprenticeships, and of course the new land-based diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds, which will be available from this September.

These are difficult times and some farmers with land in my constituency have not received their single farm payment from four years ago because of the difficulty in ensuring that cross-border applications are properly instituted. Will the Secretary of State please respond to me if I supply details to him, so that we can obtain some relief for those farmers?

Exotic Animal Disease

9. What proportion of the costs of dealing with exotic animal disease outbreaks will be met by farmers under his Department’s cost-sharing proposals. (283384)

Proposals on how responsibilities and costs for animal health could be shared with livestock keepers in future have been the subject of a three-month consultation. Final decisions will be taken in the light of responses to the consultation.

DEFRA assumes that in a typical year, whatever that is, the costs of coping with such outbreaks might be £134 million, of which £65 million would fall on the Government and £69 million on the industry. The Secretary of State now proposes that the industry shares half the Government’s costs, effectively meaning that farmers will pay 70 per cent. of the overall bill. Are not DEFRA’s estimates of the overall cost of preventing such outbreaks too high, and is not the proposed burden sharing unfair?

The figures that we published in the consultation paper were illustrative, but the fundamental principle is about whether it is right to share responsibility for taking decisions about animal disease. My view, and that of the industry, is that it is. Indeed, the industry has long argued for it. Is it then unreasonable in the circumstances to share some costs of handling disease outbreaks, as we have done with blue tongue? It is not. Indeed, it was a recommendation of Iain Anderson after the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. It is important that we get on with the process. Indeed, Germany has had a disease levy for several years.

Dairy Industry

10. What his most recent assessment is of the future prospects of the dairy industry; and if he will make a statement. (283385)

The long-term prospects for the dairy sector are encouraging, and the UK is well placed to take advantage of the expected growth in global demand. The British dairy sector as a whole is fundamentally sound, and, through the dairy supply chain forum, we are providing a framework for constructive debate and information for the industry to make informed decisions about its future.

Is the Minister aware of the particular vulnerability of small dairy farms in remote locations, such as the North York Moors national park, as the big dairies cherry-pick the accessible farms with the big herds? What does he think would be a fair price for milk to secure the future of such businesses for generations to come?

Setting the milk price is a commercial matter to be resolved through private negotiations that should take place within the parameters set down by competition law. The market must determine prices. I fully recognise, however, the different challenges that remote farms face and which the hon. Gentleman raises. They can be exacerbated by the fact that such farms tend to be smaller, as he describes, and unable to provide the quality of milk to make collection commercially viable. In the case of DFOB farmers, we have ensured that the parties involved have got together to make haulage costs more viable. That is one way in which remote farms could look after their business interests more collectively.

Please will the Minister listen to small dairy farmers, in particular, who will tell him that the dairy industry is far from secure in the long run? Indeed, what thinking is his Department undertaking to determine the future strategically—in terms of Britain’s food supply and, in particular, its raw milk supply? The prospects are so bleak that farmers are convinced that there will be no milk production in this country within 10 or 12 years unless we do something about the matter.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and his less than optimistic description of the industry. I chaired the dairy supply chain forum 10 days ago at the Department, and the impression that I got from industry members, including farmers, National Farmers Union members, dairy supply chain representatives and retailers, was one of optimism and positivity, notwithstanding a reduction in production from 14 billion to 13 billion litres and a reduction in the number of dairy farmers over the past 12 months. The overall position for the industry, however, looked very encouraging.

Food Waste

11. What estimate his Department has made of the volume of wastage of edible food arising from date stamping and food labelling practices; and if he will make a statement. (283386)

The Waste and Resources Action Programme has estimated that 370,000 tonnes of food that is past its “best before” date but still probably safe to eat is thrown away by householders each year. The “best before” date is an indicator of quality rather than of food safety. I have no comparable statistics for the commercial sector.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and thank him for that reply. A number of my constituents have contacted me expressing real concern about the extraordinarily high level of edible waste that disappears into dustbins. They feel that we should be able to attack the problem in a number of ways. First, individuals should ensure that they do not waste as much food; secondly, supermarkets should cut back on their three-for-two offers, which encourage over-buying; and thirdly, the food industry should buy into the labelling. What additional help will the Government offer, and when does my hon. Friend expect the Food Standards Agency review on labelling to report?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. The key thing is that energy from waste is only one part of the picture; the Government’s priority is to consider waste prevention, reuse and recycling ahead of energy from waste. I do not have the specific answer to my hon. Friend’s question, but I will write to her with it.

Dairy Farmers of Britain

12. What recent discussions he has had with farming organisations on the taking into receivership of Dairy Farmers of Britain; and if he will make a statement. (283387)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, my ministerial colleagues and I have been working with a wide range of organisations to continue our efforts to help those affected.

In answer to a question from the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), the Secretary of State said that he saw no need for an inquiry into the failure of Dairy Farmers of Britain. However, last August the co-operative issued an annual report that by any standards contained a preposterously over-optimistic assessment of its future. Given that so many farmers have lost so much money already and stand to lose even more, will the Secretary of State confirm that when he or his ministerial colleagues are considering the failure of the co-operative, they will take into account the actions of the directors who authorised that annual report?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern on behalf of the farmer members. For some while, it has been no secret that Dairy Farmers of Britain was in difficulty; the House is well aware of that. Ultimately, of course, the directors are responsible to the members of the company. For reasons that the House will understand, we have been concentrating our efforts on trying to help those affected. The single most important step that we can take is to try to find alternative buyers for their milk.

Marine Conservation

13. If he will seek discussions with his US counterpart on UK-US co-operation on marine conservation worldwide. (283388)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met Dr. Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, when he visited the United States in May 2009. They discussed the UK marine strategy and the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems.

I welcome the Government’s close dialogue with the new US Administration on all things marine. However, does the Minister agree that, given the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, common fisheries policy reform and so on, we are increasingly becoming a leading reformer on marine fisheries issues globally?

It is an important agenda, and it is rising both in the public mood and among politicians. We need to consider how we bring marine and fisheries issues together within CFP reform, take a long-term view, base decisions on the science and better equip regional management. Furthermore, we are considering the Marine and Coastal Access Bill at the moment in Committee. The agenda is rising, and the Government are committed to playing a leading role in it, domestically and globally.

I am pleased to hear that the Minister takes the issue seriously; anyone who has read Charles Clover’s excellent book “The End of the Line”, or seen the film, will know that we have to hurry to make sure that we preserve our marine species. Monaco represents the Government’s next opportunity to fight to make sure that the bluefin tuna gets a convention on international trade in endangered species listing, and that the EU does not put together some cosy deal cooked up by southern states, thus splitting our strong and important sense that the species should be preserved.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I have seen Charles Clover’s film and I have read his book—in fact, I met him the day before yesterday. [Interruption.] I have the T-shirt. We are as committed as any European nation to dealing with the bluefin tuna issue. We are awaiting with interest a possible proposal from Monaco and the US, and we will respond accordingly at the appropriate time. Like many other European nations, we are concerned about bluefin tuna.

Recycling

14. What recent discussions he has had with local authorities on waste recycling targets; and if he will make a statement. (283389)

Local authorities have made great progress in increasing the rate of recycling. I am encouraged that 85 per cent. of them have chosen to include a waste target in their current local area agreements to ensure they continue to prioritise this important area. I have not had any recent discussions with local authorities about waste recycling targets. My officials regularly meet representatives of local authorities to discuss all aspects of waste management, including recycling targets.

Household recycling has certainly improved considerably, but will Ministers talk to local councils about the recycling of material in public places, particularly at transport sites—railway stations, tube stations and bus stations—where, for example, lots of newspapers, especially free newspapers, are all over the place on a regular basis? That is an issue that should be of concern both nationally and locally.

I certainly agree about free newspapers, which pose a particular challenge that we take seriously. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman feels that the Government have been doing positive things in this respect, but I completely accept that we need to do even more. Recycling on the go is something that we need to be thinking hard about in the years to come.

Commercial Waste

15. What recent representations he has received from the small business sector on arrangements for the disposal of commercial waste. (283390)

Officials from my Department have been in discussion with the small business sector and a wide range of other interested parties about the management of commercial and industrial waste. Later this month I hope to publish a statement of our policy objectives for these types of waste, which will include a list of actions to help achieve those objectives.

The local waste disposal site for commercial use in my constituency has been closed for refurbishment for nearly a year, which means that small businesses have to travel to larger sites in neighbouring towns where the charging regime is much more rigid. A sole trader who could previously have disposed of a small load for £5 now has to pay a minimum charge of £58 per half tonne. In the statement that the Minister is going to make later this month, will he consider the impact of rigid charging schemes, particularly the consequential increases in fly-tipping?

I completely accept that there are difficulties in this regard, and we need to think carefully about them. However, there are some good examples of local authorities raising their own initiatives to deal with circumstances that are not exactly the same as those that my hon. Friend’s constituents face, but are not dissimilar. I am certainly happy for his local authority people to liaise with my officers and officials in order to work out a solution to the challenge that he has brought up.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House of the appointment of Christopher Parry as chair-designate of the Marine Management Organisation, which is to be established under the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. His appointment will be for three years from the point at which the MMO is created.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. I was pleased to see the recent DEFRA consultation on amending the Animals Act 1971 to remove the threat of strict liability faced by responsible animal owners. That is one of the factors contributing to the crippling insurance costs now facing riding schools, disabled riding centres and livery yards. When will the Minister be in a position to give an update on the outcome of that consultation? Some of us have tried to fix this several times through private Members’ Bills and ten-minute rule procedures, and it really needs the Government to sort it out once and for all.

I share the view that the hon. Gentleman expresses. He rightly draws attention to the efforts that have been made in this House, unfortunately without success, to deal with this issue. We will publish responses to the consultation as soon as we can, because I recognise the concern that there is out there about the position that people find themselves in.

I welcome the Walker review on water metering and charging, which sets out for the first time the basis on which we can properly consider who should pay for the costs of environmental benefits such as the costly beach clean-up in the south-west. Will my right hon. Friend meet a group of colleagues from the south-west to discuss why this should be used to put right the very high prices that we have as a result of the botched Tory water privatisation?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members here today who have repeatedly led delegations to me to raise these issues. It is good to see that Anna Walker has been comprehensive in her response to those issues. The road tour in the south-west was particularly well attended by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, and I am sure that they will attend the next one. She is right that we have to address this issue, and I look forward to meeting her soon. I am sure that she will keep up the pressure on me, and on No. 10.

Order. I am keen to get through as many questions as possible, and I remind right hon. and hon. Members that topical questions in particular need to be very brief.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that at a time of national crisis, the European Union contribution should relate to reform of the common agricultural policy? Should we not take a lesson from the Prime Minister and increase our contribution to the EU by 0 per cent., and save £3.5 billion? (283402)

I think we covered the arrangements for the CAP and its reform earlier. We will do everything that we can to protect British interests and ensure that it is as efficient as possible.

T4. When was the last time that the Minister met the water regulator to discuss the high charges that people are having inflicted on them at the moment, given the state of the economy? (283406)

Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the economic regulator. In fact, we have met within the past few weeks. As my hon. Friend knows, the pricing review is going on. We have to ensure that the water companies deliver for the consumer and deliver environmental benefit, within our social and environmental guidance. We will continue to advocate that.

T3. A decade ago, there were several dozen dairy farmers in the borough of Kettering. Now, the local branch of the National Farmers Union tells me that there are just two left. The new slurry storage regulations may well be the last straw. When will the Department introduce measures that reduce the cost of dairy farming in this country? (283404)

The legislation on nitrate-vulnerable zones dates from the early 1990s, and those who took positions at the time bear responsibility for the consequences. We have to apply the legislation as it is in place. As I indicated earlier, there is a specified period for farmers to take on the requirements for additional slurry storage, and as the House will be aware, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has clarified there is access to a capital allowance for the construction of slurry stores.

T6. May we have a brief update on food labelling? I am increasingly receiving expressions of concern from my constituents about the dubious labelling of eggs and chicken. The packaging is designed to create the impression that the products are organic, free-range and produced in the UK, whereas the small print makes it clear that they are intensively farmed and imported from abroad. (283408)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and I can assure him that DEFRA is working hard on the matter. Labelling and country of origin are being examined, and we will come forward with proposals in due course.

T5. On Monday the Prime Minister launched the White Paper “Building Britain’s Future”. There is no reference in that document to farming, the rural economy or recycling. With the exception of a reference to the Flood and Water Management Bill, DEFRA is completely invisible in it. Why does DEFRA not seem to appear at all in “Building Britain’s Future”? (283407)

The hon. Gentleman points to the Flood and Water Management Bill, which is a really good example of our getting on with it in the light of the terrible floods that affected people in 2007. I simply say that the answers that the House has heard so far today clearly indicate a Department getting on with it and helping the farming industry to ensure that we can produce enough food.

May I press my hon. Friend the Minister of State on his earlier answer about country of origin labelling? Meat that comes from abroad is being sold under pictures of Union Jacks, which is tricking people into thinking that they are buying British when they are not. What specifically is being done to enforce honest country of origin labelling?

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already pronounced that this is a nonsense situation. The matter was raised at the Agriculture Council last week in Luxembourg, and we are working as quickly as we can on it because we want exactly the same thing as she does.

T7. The Government rightly promote recycling, but is the Minister aware that Lewes district council’s recycling levels have effectively been capped at 27 per cent. by East Sussex county council, which will not provide further recycling credits because it wants a waste stream to feed its incinerator? Is it not about time that East Sussex county council was pulled out of the stone age and that councils that want to recycle more, such as Lewes council, which believes it can increase recycling by 50 per cent., were allowed to get on with it? (283410)

If the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me with the details of the point that he has just raised, I will happily look at them.

May I urge my right hon. Friend to hold to his intention of responding to the consultation on the so-called replacement insecticide with a voluntary scheme that will be workable and achievable and which will demonstrate our willingness to trust the farming community, which shares our concerns about the impact of agriculture on the environment?

I will announce my decision very shortly, but as I indicated to the National Farmers Union conference this year—and as my right hon. Friend will be well aware—in the end, I do not have a fixed view about the means of achieving the goal that we all share, which was set out well by those on the Opposition Front Bench earlier. In the end, we want an effective scheme that will work and, generally speaking, if we can encourage people to take part, we will get better results.

From his meeting with the farmers of South Staffordshire earlier this year, the Secretary of State will remember the acute concern expressed about bovine TB. Has he rethought his policy on a badger cull?

No, I have not—I believe in being straight—because the evidence from where badger culling has been tried, as reported by the independent scientific group, was clear. However, we are working with the industry through the TB eradication group. In the end, the considerable amount of money that we are putting into vaccines will, I hope, offer a better way of dealing with the disease. We are looking to start the demonstration projects next year, subject to licensing, in the six areas that are being identified now.

Further to the previous question, as an MP for a rural area for 12 years, I regularly contact the NFU in my area to track its concerns. Indeed, I am seeing the NFU as part of that schedule at Oaks-in-Charnwood on Monday morning. High on the agenda will be bovine TB, which is showing worrying signs of spreading towards our area and thereby posing a threat to herds, farm incomes and, potentially, health. I want to take this discussion to my local farmers, so will my right hon. Friend elaborate a little on his answer to the previous question?

In the interests of time and in keeping with the spirit of topical questions, I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details. In the end, this is about doing things that will work. No one would thank us if we did things that did not work, although I understand just how difficult it is for the farmers who are affected by bovine TB. The testing programme that we have put in place is, in large part, about trying to stem the spread to other areas of the country.

Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked about DEFRA’s budget, could the Secretary of State tell us what informed his statement that his Department’s budget would be reduced from 2011 and say when he will publish details of what that means for DEFRA and the people whom it serves?

I did not say what the right hon. Gentleman has just indicated. What I was referring to last week was the published figures—they have been out for some time, although I realise that it has taken other people a little while to see them––which show the change between 2009-10 and 2010-11. As he will be aware, there are no budget figures beyond 2010-11, because that would be the subject of a future comprehensive spending review. What we are doing, as indicated earlier by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), is spending money efficiently. However, like him, I am a little loth to take advice from a party that would cut budgets across the piece now.

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House when Ministers last met the waste industry with a view to considering proposals to reduce the amount of packaging and waste produced, the amount of waste going to landfill and the amount going into the production of energy? If we reduce the amount going to landfill, we will have more for energy.

We meet representatives of the waste industry on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, as the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) indicated in answer to an earlier question, we have seen progress in recent years in increasing the proportion of packaging being recycled. However, my hon. Friend is correct: the other part of the equation is about trying to reduce the amount of packaging that goes on goods in the first place.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to stop or at least mitigate the worst effects of the introduction of electronic sheep tagging, which will have a disastrous effect on the farmers and crofters in my constituency? NFU Scotland is seeking a face-to-face meeting with Commissioner Vassiliou. Will the Secretary of State use his office to get NFU Scotland that meeting, so that it can put its concerns straight at the heart of matter?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have worked very hard to express the concerns of many people in the UK about the cost of electronic identification of sheep. He will also be aware of the changes that we have been able to get to the implementation of the directive under the slaughter derogation, and of the fact that the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health is looking at the idea of third-party recording, which would lift some of the burden that would otherwise fall on sheep farmers. I recently wrote to all my fellow Agriculture Ministers urging further support, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State raised the issue with the Commissioner at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council.

As nationalisation is the flavour of the month, has the Secretary of State considered taking Dairy Farmers of Britain’s dairies at Bridgend and Blaydon into temporary public ownership?

No, we have not. However, as I told the House last week, we indicated to the receiver that we and One NorthEast would be prepared to offer financial support to keep the Blaydon dairy open while an effort was made to find a management buy-out. Unfortunately, it was not possible to achieve that and, for that reason, the dairy closed.