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Topical Questions

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 2 July 2009

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.