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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 29 October 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Natural Environment

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department's policies to protect the natural environment; and if he will make a statement. (296300)

We have seen improvements in water quality, more species have been protected, pollution levels are decreasing, and 89 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are in a favourable or recovering condition. However, we all need to do more to protect our natural environment, and securing a good deal at Copenhagen would be a very important step forward.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that last Monday night I hosted the fourth annual bat and moth evening in the House. A large number of Members attended to see how those vital species, which are interdependent, are declining. In this year when we are celebrating 150 years since the writing of “On the Origin of Species”, and with next year being the international year of biodiversity, what is he going to do to ensure that in another 150 years, our descendants will not be attending museums and looking at further bat and moth species that we have lost?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on hosting the event, and I am sorry that I was not able to join her for it. The single most important thing that we can do is understand and appreciate more the value of biodiversity, including what it does for us, because it is fundamental to human existence and we have taken it for granted for far too long. It sustains our economy, our clean water and air and the production of our food. We need next year to get a new target internationally agreed that we can measure and make progress on.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the scourge of ragwort is a shame to this country? His Department has issued a code, which appears to be widely ignored. Will he therefore take steps to see to it that this infection is removed from our countryside?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, and we are trying to find the most effective way to deal with such invasive species. I am happy to write to him to set out the steps that we are seeking to take.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to protect the natural environment, we have to get people to visit it? Has he seen the Natural England survey showing that children’s access to green space and the natural environment has halved in a generation. What are the Government going to do about that?

I have seen that report, and I share my hon. Friend’s desire that more people should have the chance to get out there. The national parks provide a wonderful opportunity for that, and of course the coastal access provisions of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which received its Third Reading earlier this week, will provide further opportunities for young people and others to enjoy the beauty of our countryside.

It is clear that the Government will break their promise to halt biodiversity loss by 2010. In an admission of failure to the Environmental Audit Committee, they said that it was “never realistically achievable”. Now the Secretary of State talks of more targets for some date way in the future. Is it not the truth that there remains a marked lack of will in the Government to reverse biodiversity loss?

I profoundly disagree with that last statement. The Government are very committed. If the hon. Gentleman considers, for example, bird numbers, we have managed in this country to stop the decline that happened between the 1970s and the 1990s. The number of sea birds is up, we have offered protection to Lyme bay to safeguard the pink sea fan and there are otters in every single English county for the first time in 40 years. However, we need to do more, and the point about having a target is that it gives one something to aim for.

Floods (Pitt Report)

2. What progress has been made in implementing the recommendations of the final Pitt report on the 2007 floods. (296301)

The Government published their response to the Pitt review last December. It set out what we had already achieved and what we needed to do to implement the remaining recommendations.

We published the first progress report in June 2009, and it showed that further good progress had been made across the board. The next progress report will be published in December.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to stop houses being flooded is to stop building them on floodplains? If he agrees, why have the Government presided over building so many houses on so many floodplains?

Ultimately, the hon. Gentleman knows about the progress on the review of planning policy guidance note 25 and that approximately 98 per cent. of developments follow the Environment Agency’s recommendations. I am slightly disappointed that he has not remarked on the doubling of investment under the Government for flood defences since 1997.

The Pitt inquiry states that the public utilities should be protected—the fresh water, electricity and waste water plants. That was especially a problem when Carlisle flooded. Has satisfactory progress been made on that?

That is an important point and I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we set up a new Cabinet Office team to ensure that critical national infrastructure—for example, power stations—is properly protected from flooding. If we are lucky in what may be in the Queen’s Speech—we can never second-guess it—there is an imperative under the Labour Government to get on and deliver the legislation that will give further protection to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

This Cabinet Office team was meant to meet last year and report by the spring on a national audit of all critical infrastructure at risk. Why has it failed to do that?

I am pleased to report that that work is well under way. Every time we stand at the Dispatch Box, Conservative Front Benchers harry the Government to do more. They simply ignore what has been done—the £9.7 million awarded to 77 local authorities with the highest risk and potential for surface water flooding; the £5 million currently open for bids to deal with well-known local flooding problems; the £1 million for training, data and other tools for local authorities; and our work on flood forecasting. Sometimes it would pay to stand up and recognise the work that is being done.

As a native of Gloucestershire, I saw at first hand the devastation caused by flooding in the Tewkesbury, Gloucester and Cheltenham area. I hope that the Minister agrees that measures to ensure that that never happens again should be introduced as a matter of urgency. What prospects are there of a suitable Bill in the Queen’s Speech? What assessment has my hon. Friend made of securing all-party support to get it through as quickly as possible?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are very keen to get on. I welcome the fact that at a conference run by Marketforce and the Institute of Economic Affairs as recently as 15 October, my Opposition Front-Bench colleague said that

“we are concerned that a Bill may be dropped from this final session altogether. The Government will have serious questions to answer if, two years after the Pitt report, there is not only no legislation for the water industry but also nothing to address the urgent problem of flooding.”

I can tell my hon. Friend that, through consultation on the draft Bill and through our work, we are keen to get on with it. We cannot presuppose the contents of the Queen’s Speech, but I hope that, on the basis of what I have said, we will have full, solid and cross-party support to deliver the protection that we need for homes and businesses.

May I ask about the property-level flood protection grant scheme? If householders take measures at their own risk in advance of the survey, which is part of that procedure, is it the case that they cannot be paid retrospectively for the work done? That seems unfair. It is no good waiting until it rains before taking the measures needed to protect one’s home.

My understanding is that that is a matter for local authorities, many of which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, have applied and bid for the funding. However, I am more than happy to write to him with details to clarify the point that he has raised. It is important, and when people take responsible approaches to their properties’ resilience, that needs to be recognised, but I will write to him.

Local Food Chains

We provide a range of assistance to local food chains, including helping regional and local food producers to overcome various barriers to market. We have funded meet-the-buyer events for both retailers and the food service sector. We also support farmers markets and farm shops, and encourage the use of food hubs and shared distribution facilities.

I thank the Minister for that answer. It is common for people to mouth support for local food chains, but in the past year, two box schemes that I belonged to finished prematurely, which is very disappointing. There is clearly a problem in this day and age. I wonder whether the Government ought to do more, and certainly whether they ought to encourage local authorities to do more.

I am sure that we would want to do more. Only last week I had a useful meeting with representatives from the National Farmers Retail and Markets Association to discuss a range of issues relating to farmers and markets and farm shops. I commend my hon. Friend on the excellent local food initiatives in his constituency. Only last week, officials from the food policy unit in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Gloucestershire to find out more about a wide range of food-oriented activities that are taking place in the county. I am sure that we will be able to use the information and disseminate it to local authorities to improve the situation even further.

Did the Minister hear the piece on “Farming Today” this morning on what is likely to happen to food prices over the next 20 years? I will not try your patience, Mr. Speaker, so may I just ask the Minister whether he will add his voice to mine in seeking a full day’s debate on agriculture from the Leader of the House?

I remember fondly my first week as Minister of State with responsibility for farming, from 9 June, when I believe that we had two debates in the House on agriculture. We would welcome more debates on agriculture. I suggest the hon. Gentleman applies to your good offices, Mr. Speaker, for that very opportunity. We would be delighted to meet him across the Dispatch Box.

As we celebrate British food week, may I tell the House that I recently visited the Anglesey oyster fair in my constituency, where I saw the very best of British food? One issue that local producers raised with me was the barrier to getting into local supermarkets. Is it not about time that we had a proper champion—an ombudsman—to redress the balance in favour of the British consumer and the British producer and away from the supermarket?

I think my hon. Friend has managed to merge three questions into one: the retail sector supporting local produce, barriers to local producers getting into supermarkets and the ombudsman. I can assure him that on the ombudsman, the Government are considering the Competition Commission’s recommendations. I can also assure him that we are doing what we can to ensure that local producers can get into supermarkets.

Farmers (Suicides)

4. What representations he has received on the number of suicides amongst farmers whose cattle herds are subject to bovine tuberculosis movement and testing restrictions; and if he will make a statement. (296303)

I have not received any particular representations about this, but earlier this year the Farming Crisis Network produced its sobering report on the impact of bovine TB on farming families. This showed, as we all know, that for those most seriously affected, the economic and particularly the human consequences of bovine TB are devastating. The TB eradication group for England has since met with the executive director of the FCN to discuss how TB-affected farm businesses could be better supported.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he consider the recommendations in the detail of the report, alongside the good work that the Department is doing on cattle movements and testing regimes? In particular, will he look at the impact on farmers whose herds are subject to testing every 60 days? That happens in some cases, and it is a devastating regime for the farm and the family.

I know that my right hon. Friend took a great deal of interest in the matter and I pay tribute to her work on it. The TB eradication group that we have now established is both looking at what can be done to help farmers to try to cope with the disease and getting on with doing effective things to try to tackle it. I have approved all the recommendations that the TB eradication group produced recently. The House will be aware that our TB eradication plan has now been approved by the European Union and funding has been given to us to help implement it.

When does the Secretary of State expect the TB eradication group to report back with its final recommendations, and will those recommendations be acted on?

It is a matter for the TB eradication group to report as it sees fit. Its first report, as I just indicated, has been received, and I accepted all its recommendations. The fact that we are working in partnership now to try to deal with this devastating disease is a big step forward compared with where we were before.

I thank the Secretary of State for that, but has he received any as yet unpublished reports that would help the TB eradication group develop better policies that would assist in reducing the levels of TB in cattle and in badgers? If there are any unpublished reports, can he make them available to the House?

I do not know to which unpublished reports the hon. Gentleman refers. If he is talking about scientific research, that has to go through a peer review process and be published. One of the things that the eradication group is doing is keeping a close eye on unfolding scientific information—that is part of its remit and it referred to that in the report that was recently put out.

I wish to pursue the same line of questioning. Has the Secretary of State yet seen and read the report, which I am told is now available, by vets on the continued studies of the incidence of TB after proactive culling has ended in the trial areas? Will he publish it soon, and then we will all know that the incidence has continued to decline since the culling of badgers stopped?

The publication of that research information is a matter for the journals who publish these things, and it has to be in a form suitable for publication. As soon as it is publicly available, I will ensure that it is placed in the Library so that we may all see what it has to say.

Common Agricultural Policy

5. What recent discussions his Department has had with the European Commission on reform of the common agricultural policy. (296304)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has ongoing discussions on reform of the common agricultural policy with the Commission both formally and informally, including at regular meetings of the Agriculture Council, the last of which I attended on 19 October. The next phase of negotiations will begin informally next year with the new Agriculture Commissioner.

Previously the Secretary of State has acknowledged the difficulties facing hill farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in the UK, which have not been eased by the implementation of sheep identification tags. Those farmers are deeply alarmed by the DEFRA vision for the future of agriculture. In the context of the recent Calman commission recommendations that Scottish and other devolved Administrations should have a serious input into UK policy making, will he give a pledge that Scottish concerns will be heard before a final British position is taken on CAP reform?

I can certainly give that assurance. We would in no way move forward without consulting all the relevant authorities and organisations. We clearly have our own priorities and negotiating position, which will be mapped out in due course, and they would not ignore such an important sector as the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Will the Minister continue to press for a switch in the CAP from a subsidy for production to measures that benefit the countryside, such as investment in jobs and industry, an enhanced environment and greater access? These are public goods and public money, and we ought to be pursuing them.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We certainly wish to foster an internationally competitive industry without reliance on subsidy or protection. The Government believe that CAP expenditure under pillar two offers better value for money than pillar one because it rewards farmers for the delivery of public benefits, especially environmental outcomes, as he outlines.

The Commission’s draft reformed CAP is reported to include a third pillar on climate change. Farming must play its part in reducing carbon emissions, but does the Minister agree that Lord Stern’s call for people to give up eating meat was totally irresponsible and damaging to our livestock industry?

It is certainly my belief that that is not quite what Lord Stern said. He made a comment that was lifted out and exaggerated. We certainly believe in a balanced diet, and there are many ways in which emissions of greenhouse gases can be tackled. That is not the position of the Government or the Department, and we will negotiate with the Commission to ensure that its position is as close to ours as possible.

Lord Stern said—and I quote directly from his interview:

“Meat is…wasteful… A vegetarian diet is better.”

Britain’s livestock producers are listening carefully to the Government’s answer. Does the Minister agree with those comments or not?

It is for individual citizens and consumers to decide what they eat, and we support that. We also support the British agricultural industry and our meat producers. Sir Nicholas Stern’s comments must be looked at from the perspective of the whole piece that he wrote, not just one quote or sentence.

Bovine Tuberculosis

Since November 2008, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has worked alongside the farming industry and veterinary profession as part of the bovine TB eradication group for England. On 8 October, the group published a progress report including a number of recommendations now being implemented. We are pursuing the future use of vaccination through vaccine research and development of a badger vaccine deployment project, alongside our current control measures.

Far too many good dairy cows have been put down in my constituency of Congleton in Cheshire and elsewhere. While I welcome the progress made by the bovine TB eradication group, will the Secretary of State accept that veterinary surgeons who are members of the British Veterinary Association and the British Cattle Veterinary Association believe that he should reassess his criteria for targeting and culling badgers in certain circumstances?

I am well aware that, as the hon. Lady points out, others take a view different from the judgment that I formed and reported to the House last year. For me, the overwhelming requirement has been to take action that will be effective in dealing with the disease. As I indicated earlier, I understand completely, having talked to many, many farmers, how devastating the disease is, but we have to do things that will work in the circumstances. I had to have regard to the scientific advice given to me on the basis of having tried culling.

Has the Secretary of State come to a conclusion about what he will do when the injectable vaccine is trialled and diseased animals are found? Will they be euthanased?

As I have indicated to the right hon. Gentleman previously, there is no simple cage-side test that can be used—[Interruption.] With respect, no test is reliable enough to indicate whether a badger is infected with tuberculosis. However, as I also said to him previously, if someone is of the view that an animal is in such distress that it would be a kindness to put it down, the law provides for that. However, that person would have to be satisfied that the animal was in such a condition.

Light Pollution

7. What recent representations he has received on regulation of light pollution; and if he will make a statement. (296306)

DEFRA has received two recent representations, one about current legislation to tackle light nuisance, the other about future proposals to address light pollution.

Despite responding positively to the Science and Technology Committee’s 2003 report, the Minister’s Department and the Department of Communities and Local Government have yet to provide a draft annexe to planning policy statement 23 to make local planning authorities take light pollution as seriously as other types of pollution. When will guidance be published so that all local authorities can ensure that light pollution is prevented or minimised?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. DEFRA is no longer involved in the light pollution aspect of the DCLG’s PPS23. The DCLG is now the lead Department on that, and that work is on hold pending its decisions on planning policy reform. However, I am in regular contact with my ministerial colleagues in DCLG on issues such as rural housing, and will raise the matter with them when I next have the opportunity, which I anticipate being next week, and I will ensure that the annexe about which he is concerned is published as soon as possible.

I recognise that the Minister might be the wrong person to ask, given that this matter is no longer his responsibility, but has any model or trial ever been produced with regard to highway or local authority lighting on which we can call?

As I mentioned, we are not the lead Department on this matter. However, I shall take my hon. Friend’s point away with me and ensure that it is raised with the respective Minister next week.

When the Minister meets his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, will he remind them of a report produced by the then Department of the Environment called “Lighting in the Countryside: Towards Good Practice”? That was published 12 years ago and highlighted the danger of poorly planned lighting schemes in rural communities and market towns. Since then, very little has happened. As an MP who represents a constituency that contains some of the darkest areas in England, the matter is hugely important to me and my constituents.

One of the difficulties is the close relationship between quality of street lighting and levels of crime, which the Conservative council in Bury recently discovered to its cost when it planned to switch off the street lights in the middle of the night. When my hon. Friend speaks to his colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, will he ask them to look at the experiment currently taking place in Toulouse in south-west France with motion-sensitive street lights? Might that not be a model for the United Kingdom to follow?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that safety has to be taken seriously when considering switching off any lighting. However, that does not mean that lights should not be switched off in some situations. I am interested in the Toulouse experience, and I am sure that technology will provide the answer to those challenges in the future.

When the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I was a member, recommended in 2003 that light pollution be covered by statutory provisions in legislation, the Government agreed. However, local authorities, which regard light pollution as seriously as water or air pollution, can do nothing until the Government, through whichever Department, produce their planning policy statement. When will that happen?

I hope that it happens soon; indeed, that is my understanding. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman strongly that the issue is about safety as well as saving the environment, and there is no easy answer to that. Councils that have considered the issue seriously have often pulled out. I hope that he will recognise that there are many shades of grey in this complex issue. We need to get it right and allow local authorities to do the same.

International Whaling Commission

8. What his most recent assessment is of progress made by the small working group on the future of the International Whaling Commission. (296307)

At the IWC’s 2009 annual meeting, which I attended, it was agreed that the small working group would continue work on the future of the IWC for another year. The support group, of which the UK is not a member, appointed to assist the small working group was unable to complete discussions on possible reform packages in October, but we hope to complete discussions before the small working group in March next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Has he had any discussions with the new Japanese Government regarding the Japanese attitude towards whales?

On 20 October, British officials met the Japanese Government and expressed continued concern about Japanese dolphin hunts, among other things. I wrote personally to the Japanese Fisheries Minister last week on a range of issues, including whaling, and expressed the British public’s concern about the hunting of dolphins, urging Japan to prohibit the killing and capture of dolphins and other small cetaceans. We also welcome the reports that Taiji in Japan, which is at the centre of “The Cove”—the file and the film—is trialling a no-kill bottlenose dolphin policy.

UK Fishing Industry

9. What steps he plans to take in negotiations in the Council of Ministers to safeguard the interests of the UK fishing industry; and if he will make a statement. (296308)

My approach to the current negotiations will reflect agreements reached with ministerial colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and with the UK industry and other key stakeholders on a balance of appropriate priorities. Those will seek to ensure the long-term sustainability of the stocks in question, while maintaining the future viability of the UK fleet.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but I am sure that he will agree that haggling into the early hours of the morning at the December Council is not desirable. What will he do to ensure that the common fisheries policy is changed to the benefit of Scottish fishermen and UK fishermen as a whole?

My hon. Friend raises a vital point. We need to get away from this haggling until three in the morning in late December. We need to change the CFP, as we made clear in the May and June Councils, where we led from the front. We need to reform the CFP on the basis of good, long-term science, sustainable fish stocks, regionalisation and the long-term viability of all parts of the UK fleet, and away from micro-management, bringing the marine environment and fisheries together. I am pleased to say that we in this Labour Government are right at the forefront of driving that radical change.

Is the Minister aware of how disconnected inshore fishermen feel from discussions with his Department? Now that he is, what does he intend to do about putting that right?

I would counter that. I am aware of a perception in certain parts of the fleet and in certain harbours, where it is widely reported that there is a perception of being disconnected. The reality is that we have set up the sustainable access to inshore fisheries—SAIF—project, and we have a ministerial quadrilateral group on quota reform, in which we are engaged and reaching out to others. In all aspects of our work—including CFP reform, the recent launch of which by the Secretary of State was attended by under-10 metre and over-10 metre producer organisations—we will always reach out to the under-10 metre sector. It is a vital part of our communities and our economy.

The fishing industry in Northern Ireland is almost wholly reliant on prawn, and there is a proposal for a 30 per cent. cut in prawn fishing. Coming on top of further cuts in days at sea and cod quotas, that will have a devastating effect on the Northern Ireland fishing industry, which is already in a perilous state. Can the Minister assure us that he will take on board the very difficult situation in Northern Ireland in his discussions in Brussels?

Yes, I can indeed. I give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that we are continuing to have close discussions with Northern Ireland stakeholders, Ministers and colleagues. Northern Ireland Ministers play a vital part in our negotiating team as well. I was also pleased recently to meet skippers in Portavogie. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as we determine the package of UK priorities, Northern Ireland will feature strongly in it.

Dairy Industry

We closely monitor the economic prospects of the sector, with an extensive review made on a six-monthly basis. I am also chairing the twice-yearly meeting of the Dairy Supply Chain Forum on 1 December. The forum regularly brings together all the key players in the dairy sector and has been doing so for several years.

The Minister will know that the UK dairy industry accounts for around 18 per cent. of UK agricultural production by value, is the single largest agricultural sector and is worth £3.5 billion. It is essential to this country, and to my constituency. What assessment has he made of the European Union’s proposal to set up a fund for dairy producers, aimed at assisting farmers under pressure from unacceptably low and unfair prices?

Only last week at the Agriculture Council, we raised our serious concerns about the fund that has been set up, which I am sure would meet the hon. Gentleman’s concerns as well. We have been asking questions, and I also gave evidence on this item yesterday to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). It is not clear how the €280 million is going to be separated and broken down, or what the criteria are for claiming it. We have concerns about that and we are monitoring the situation closely at ministerial and official level.

One of the problems with milk is that the supermarkets often sell it below cost price, which puts huge pressure on the producers. Will the Minister press his colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look into this as part of the remit of an ombudsman, if they come forward with such a proposal?

The Dairy Supply Chain Forum regularly looks at these issues, providing an opportunity for all sides of the dairy sector to come together. These matters are discussed there. The Competition Commission’s recommendations are being discussed between Government Departments, and I know that this is a key aspect of those discussions. We will be announcing our conclusions in due course.

Bees (Pesticides)

11. What recent representations he has received on the effect of pesticides on bees and other pollinators; and if he will make a statement. (296310)

My Department has received a number of representations from Members of Parliament and members of the public concerned about the effect of pesticides on bees and other pollinators.

An American scientific report on Syngenta’s neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamexotham, shows that it is deadly to honey bees. Does the Minister think that the Warwick university research into bee and pollinator morbidity, which is being funded by Syngenta, will have sufficiently wide terms of reference to assess any links that exist between neonicotinoids and the collapse of UK bee colonies?

The Government take the health of Britain’s bees very seriously and have pumped an extra £4.3 million into bee health. There is no evidence that authorised pesticides pose an unacceptable risk. However, I understand why my hon. Friend asks his question: where somebody is paying, one questions whether the research will be reflective of scientific rigour or not. We will, of course, consider all the research, including that commissioned by pesticide companies, into this important issue, but we will also ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained. I would also quickly say—

Order. I think that we have probably got the gist of the Minister’s answer, for which we are grateful. May I gently say to him that he must address the House and try to look in the direction of the Chair?

Given the international aspects and origin of some of the diseases that affect our bees, how much contact has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the National Bee Unit had with our counterparts abroad?

We are in constant liaison and discussions with a whole range of people on the serious issue of bee health. It appears that there is no one cause, so we are looking very carefully at all the possible explanations, which obviously means that we need clear communications with a range of people here and abroad.

Farm-gate Milk Prices

I have regular discussions with the National Farmers Union, as well as dairy farmers, about this and a range of other issues. I found that the dairy and livestock show in September provided me with a good opportunity to meet dairy farmers and hear first hand about the challenges they are facing.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I would like to press him a little on the European emergency milk fund, which was mentioned earlier. If the problems that were mentioned are ironed out, would he in principle do something to support dairy farmers here, who are really struggling to survive?

Once the arrangements for the distribution of the €280 million are worked out, we would obviously want to ensure that our dairy farmers are not disadvantaged by the price and the cost of supporting farmers on the continent.

The British herd of dairy cows is down by more than a fifth since 1997, and the number of dairy farms has halved since 2000. Will the Minister explain why dairy farmers should believe that this Government remain committed to UK production?

By virtue, I hope, of our performance and, in particular, of our negotiating stance in Europe, which is about defending the British dairy industry; and by virtue of the contact and connections, and the support and advice that we give, here in the UK. The Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which I chair, is another indication that we are doing what we can to support our industry. Our industry has innovated and it is rationalised; it is in a better position than that of our European counterparts. We hope that it goes from strength to strength, and we will do all we can to support that.

British Waterways

13. What recent representations he has received on the activities of British Waterways in the Stoke-on-Trent area. (296312)

No recent representations have been received on the activities of British Waterways in the Stoke-on-Trent area. However, I understand that British Waterways, the local regional development agency and other partners are working together on a variety of projects in the area, reflecting the importance of partnership in working to achieve our shared goals of getting the best from our waterways.

In anticipation of the representations that the Minister will receive from the Burslem port project, may I welcome the investment in canals? However, will he give his active support in that partnership working to the plans to bring the arm of the Trent and Mersey canal back into use at Burslem port? We want to see the volunteer scheme, which is about to clear the site, matched by a firm commitment from British Waterways to find a way of getting a realistic and feasible business package for it.

I am very happy to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s sterling role in advocating the canals that are so important to her area. In fact, I would be more than happy to meet her to discuss the issue further. Ultimately, it is a question of British Waterways and its partners getting on with the business on the ground, identifying the priorities and driving them forward. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with my hon. Friend.

Is the Minister aware that studies have shown that the existence of canals can increase economic activity by some 300 per cent. in the areas they serve? What help can he give to the Litchfield and Hatherton canal restoration trust, which will provide the much-needed link between canals in the east and the centre parts of the west midlands?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point. Through our work with British Waterways, the Broads Authority, the inlands waterways authorities and others we have made it clear that we recognise the wider public benefits of canals, not just in terms of recreational boating but, for instance, of health, education and awareness of nature. Again, I do not want to interfere in individual projects—it is important for them to take place on the ground—but I am always happy to meet Members who feel passionate about their own areas.

Does the Minister share my concern about the fact that Rudyard Sailability and its centre of excellence for disabled sailors at Rudyard lake is still being blocked from building the boat store that is essential to its survival, despite its victory in a public inquiry nine months ago? Will he urge British Waterways, which owns Rudyard lake, to promote talks to save a vital charity that transforms the lives of so many people and their families?

I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend does as a trustee of RYA Sailability, and we have corresponded on the issue she has raised. The organisation does sterling work in encouraging people of all abilities to participate in sailing activities. I understand that the matter is currently being discussed by the parties involved, and I hope that it will be resolved speedily. I gather that a local British Waterways manager is still helping to broker a solution and will keep my hon. Friend fully informed of the state of the negotiations, but I am happy to discuss the matter further with her.

Flood Defences

14. What resources are planned to be made available for the provision of flood defences in (a) west Oxford and (b) Abingdon. (296314)

As well as continuing its annual programme of maintenance for the main rivers in Oxford, West and Abingdon to manage flood risk, the Environment Agency is nearing the completion of a £1.8 million programme of short-term measures for Oxford, and is developing the long-term Oxford flood risk management strategy, which is currently out for consultation. A study on the River Stert in Abingdon is also taking place to identify options to alleviate flooding.

As the Secretary of State will know, both west Oxford and Abingdon were badly affected. My constituents appreciated his visit during the floods, and I recognise the work that has been done, but will he agree to meet members of the flood action group and me, with the Environment Agency, so that those people can be reassured that progress will be made before the next flood—which will happen?

Topical Questions

I wish to inform the House that following routine inventory checks earlier this year, 38 Rural Payments Agency data back-up tapes and one compact disc were unaccounted for. Thirty-five have now been accounted for. Of the rest, one tape and the CD did not contain personal protected data, but the two remaining tapes potentially contained partial data in code. However, tapes of this sort can only be read with specialist equipment and detailed technical knowledge. Furthermore, one of the two tapes was known to be faulty and had been reported as such, since it could not be read.

I want to reassure farmers that there is no evidence that the tapes are in the public domain, that a forensic investigation was carried out in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines, and that officials concluded that there was only a low risk that any usable personal data had been lost. I will arrange for further information, including a copy of the investigation report, to be placed in the Library of the House.

At the Labour party conference, the Government announced that exemptions from the so-called rain tax would be introduced. Can the Minister confirm that they will involve all charities, and can he tell us when he expects them to be introduced?

I am pleased to be able to update the hon. Gentleman on discussions that we had as recently as the week before last, following the announcement made at the Labour party conference. There has been a very good response. We will introduce a concessionary scheme, subject to legislative opportunities and also to guidance. I think it important for us to get the details right, so that the right organisations benefit from the scheme. It will not be a simple top-down approach; we will be asking people for their thoughts as well.

T4. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reinforce what he said in the earlier part of Question Time by gently saying to Lord Stern that, during British sausage week, we celebrate a varied diet and the value that it brings; that it should be a question of “all things in moderation”; and that if it is being suggested that vegetarianism will save the world, I am not sure that it is a world in which I want to live? (296328)

I am happy to accept the prompts of my right hon. Friend and to ensure that we communicate her comments and our view—which is clearly the view of the House—to Sir Nicholas Stern.

One of the things that I ought to have mentioned earlier is that dealing with the waste of 30 to 40 per cent. of all the food that we buy from supermarkets is a far more crucial way of dealing with the problem of emissions. We should be focusing on that.

The reason why the Secretary of State has suddenly announced another data loss by the Government is that Farmers Weekly obtained the information and will report it tomorrow. If the loss was discovered earlier this year and an investigation done, as the Secretary of State said, why have the public not been told until now? This looks like a cover-up. Will he accept responsibility for another foul-up by the Rural Payments Agency, which has already cost taxpayers £70 million in EU fines because of its bungling?

I of course accept responsibility. I was informed yesterday and I thought it important to take the first possible opportunity to inform the House, which is what I have done this morning. In accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines, a full investigation was done. As the data were in code that cannot be read, as I have indicated, a judgment was made in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines that Ministers need not be informed. I wanted to reassure farmers today that the risk of this information getting out is very low, for the reason I have explained to the House at the first available opportunity.

The announcement about what the Scout Association called the rain tax was very welcome, especially in the north-west. However, in applying discretionary relief, will my hon. Friend take note of the plight of all political clubs? If the scheme is applied to such clubs, as originally intended, it might result in further closures. I do, of course, declare an interest in this question.

First, I cannot guarantee anything at this moment. The Government are committed to bringing forward proposals on a discretionary scheme at the first available legislative opportunity, and that has been widely welcomed. I would not want to go into detail but I am glad that we have support for this right across the House. We will need to go into detail about who is and is not included, but it is important to acknowledge that this is a cost-neutral issue and, as such, the cost must fall on someone, somewhere—whether that is businesses, individual households or others.

T2. Pursuant to the Secretary of State’s opening comments, the National Audit Office has issued a second damning report into the Rural Payments Agency, which it said had scant regard for protecting public money and had too high a cost base. When will someone at ministerial and senior official level take responsibility for this shambolic organisation, get to grips with it and publish a report about what its future holds? (296326)

I take responsibility; that is my job. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the history of the RPA is not a happy one. Since I took up this position, the one thing I have made clear to the Department and to the RPA is that the agency must maintain the improvement it has achieved—we should acknowledge that—in getting payments to farmers more speedily, given the unhappy past. I am not prepared to do anything that gets in the way of doing that, because what farmers want is to get the payments as quickly as possible. There have been previous occasions on which the House has invited me to do things in relation to the RPA, but I am not prepared to put in jeopardy that progress from what was a mess.

Should there not be a virement of farm subsidies from farmers whose income has increased to those whose income has not, especially as the income of grain farmers doubled between 2006 and 2008?

There is no mechanism I can think of that would enable that to take place. Different parts of the farming industry are in different positions, and the latest information on farm business income will be published shortly.

T3. A constituent of mine is a breeder of alpacas. Have the Government looked into the spreading of bovine TB to alpacas? Is there an appropriate test to ascertain whether that is happening and, if so, is there an appropriate compensation scheme? (296327)

The question of alpacas and TB is investigated by the Department. There are arrangements and tests in place, and I am happy to write in detail to the hon. Gentleman about the procedures.

Has the Secretary of State seen the League Against Cruel Sports large-scale survey indicating that 62 per cent. of Conservative voters, 77 per cent. of Liberal Democrat voters and 83 per cent. of Labour voters strongly support the existing legislative ban on hunting with dogs? Does he intend to review the legislation in light of the survey?

I have indeed seen the information to which my hon. Friend refers, and it shows where public sentiment and opinion lie. In the light of that, I find it very hard to understand why Opposition Members want to change the law so that foxes can once again be ripped to pieces by hounds, because that is the change in the law they appear to be seeking.

T6. May I press the Secretary of State on the Rural Payments Agency? He will know that it has taken far too long to resolve a number of late payments under the single payment scheme. Many farmers throughout the country are suffering as a result, including my constituent Mr. Peter Philpot. I urge the Secretary of State to press forward with the reforms and get these payments sorted out now, for the sake not only of my constituent but of farmers throughout the country. (296330)

I would be very happy if the hon. Gentleman gave me the details of his constituent, in order to pursue that case. It is precisely for this reason that we announced in September a review of the RPA, so we can learn the lessons and improve the service to the level that farmers have a right to expect.

Could the Secretary of State give the House an update on the implementation of the ban on hunting with dogs, and particularly on the impact on rural employment?

I am not aware of a study having been done on that. We should be aware, however, that when the ban was voted on a lot of predictions were made about the consequences that would flow, but they have not flowed, which is why I do not agree with those who say the legislation is flawed. The onus is on those who want to revisit it to explain why they want to return to a practice that most people do not approve of, as is shown by the evidence that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has just drawn to the House’s attention.

T7. I want to know about the impact of swine flu on farmers in my community. Does the Secretary of State have any evidence that there has been a disproportionate impact on those who work on the land? (296331)

I am not aware of there having been such a disproportionate impact, but if there is any available information on that I shall find it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Sixty years have passed since the introduction of national parks by a Labour Government. What more is the Secretary of State going to do to promote access to the countryside?

Indeed, and in this 60th year it is right that we look to the future of the national parks. That is why we are working very hard with the national parks authorities and other agencies to look forward and shape a vision for the future. I suspect that that vision will be concerned with access, sustainable ways of living, living and breathing communities and climate change. The national parks have a critical role to play in the future of this country, and re-imagining what the next 60 years will be like is part of the current review.

T8. Is the Minister aware of the risk, if changes are made to the United Kingdom pet travel scheme—it might be extended in 2011—of introducing from the European Union to the United Kingdom a parasite called echinococcosis? An EU-wide risk assessment, followed by a prevention, reduction and control strategy, should be introduced before risking both animal and human health in the United Kingdom. (296332)

The hon. Lady rightly raises this concern about any reduction in the protection and safeguards against infection from other countries. That is uppermost in the Government’s mind. As she has outlined, we are in discussions with the Commission about extending our derogation for an extra 12 months, and these matters are under very close scrutiny.

T9. The Secretary of State will be aware that the new grocery suppliers code will cover the relationships between suppliers and the supermarkets and first-tier suppliers. What conversations has he had with his counterparts in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the ombudsman’s remit and the code can be extended so that farmers will not be subjected to excessive cost and risk? (296333)

As I outlined in one of my earlier answers, the Department convenes a number of forums to allow farmers to engage directly with DEFRA and others to discuss these very issues. As I have also said, the Government are considering the question of the ombudsman, and discussions between Departments should reach a conclusion shortly.

T10. As a farmer, I have dealings with the Rural Payments Agency, and I am well aware of its difficulties. May I take the Secretary of State back to the loss of data? He has honourably and quite properly accepted responsibility, yet he was not told about this matter—my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) was told two days ago. What is the Secretary of State going to do to ensure that he is told about things for which he is responsible, given the seriousness of this matter? (296334)

Any potential loss of data is of course a very serious matter, which is why I wished to report to the House at the very earliest opportunity. As I have indicated, I will provide further information, including a copy of the report on the investigation that took place. I hope that that will offer some reassurance, because I say to the House—I do take this seriously—that when one looks at the form in which the data would be seen by someone who does not have technical knowledge and special equipment, one finds that they would be unreadable. That is why it is important to take this opportunity to reassure farmers about the steps we have taken and the low risk of any data getting out.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s “Mapping local food webs” project, which is operating in about 20 locations, including Otley, and is linking local producers, shops and markets? As his constituency is nearby, will he visit those local producers, shops and markets in Otley to see this fantastic scheme working?

I am always happy to receive an invitation from the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour. This is an excellent project, because we need to link people to opportunities to grow their own food and to supply it to others locally—it is good for our health and good for the climate.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, four years after the Buncefield explosions in my constituency, the environment and agriculture around the site remain heavily contaminated, particularly with perfluorooctane sulfonate—PFOS? Will he meet me and a delegation of my constituents to discuss their concerns about PFOS contamination?

I remember when the events at Buncefield happened. The hon. Gentleman and I had a number of meetings about tackling the fire, as we are both ex-firemen and I was the Minister with responsibility for dealing with fire. As Minister of State in DEFRA, I will be very happy to meet him and whomever he wishes to bring with him to discuss this important issue.