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Topical Questions

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 29 October 2009

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.