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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 502: debated on Thursday 10 December 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nuclear Power Station (Bradwell)

1. What representations he has received from English Nature on the environmental effects of proposals for a new nuclear power station at Bradwell, Essex. (305573)

The Government requested and received comments from Natural England—formerly English Nature—on the appraisal of sustainability and habitats regulations assessment reports on the site at Bradwell, which was nominated in the Government’s strategic siting assessment process.

I thank the Minister for his response but, even though I am an enthusiast for new nuclear power stations, may I draw his attention to the serious concern expressed to me, particularly by local fishermen and oystermen, that the volume of the outfall from a new power station is likely to be four times greater than that from the previous power station, thus causing serious continuing damage to the ecology of the Blackwater estuary? Can he assure me that that will be addressed, perhaps by ensuring that the intake and outfalls will be sufficiently far away?

The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in representing the interests of local fishermen and people who are concerned about the impacts on the environment. I can confirm that Natural England’s response suggested that there was insufficient evidence that a development at Bradwell could have no adverse impacts on the Natura 2000 sites and associated features. The Government took that on board during the assessment, and the conclusions in the habitats regulations assessment reflect that. Natural England has suggested that further assessment is needed, not least in relation to climate change and rising sea levels, of which he will be aware. I can assure him that I will keep a close eye on the matter, as will Natural England, to ensure that the pertinent factors he raises are taken into account.

Climate Change (Forestry)

2. When he expects to respond to the recent report of the Forestry Commission on forestry and climate change. (305574)

The Government welcome the Read report, which sets out clearly how forestry in the UK can contribute to tackling climate change. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Forestry Commission are considering the report in detail and we will use its findings to develop our policy. We will outline next steps in DEFRA’s climate change plan in the spring.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to increase tree planting in this country by 40 per cent., given the climatic change problems facing us? What consultations will he engage in with various organisations before reaching a decision on the matter?

The Read report has only just been published. I spoke at an event for its launch, where many of the people who would express a view on the subject were present. I agree that we should seek to achieve the objective that my hon. Friend mentions, not least because the Read report points out that if we managed to achieve it, that would contribute a significant proportion of the reduction in CO2 emissions that this nation needs to achieve by 2050.

North Wiltshire and Wiltshire more widely boast some of the most ancient and natural woodlands anywhere in England, in Bradon forest, Savernake and elsewhere. However, large parts of our oak population are threatened by oak decline syndrome, and a number of similar pathogens threaten our ancient woodlands. What does the Secretary of State intend to do about that?

We have a research programme that is examining a number of the diseases that have emerged, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Their emergence may indeed be a consequence of climate change. We have a very big programme examining phytophthora and I was able to see some of that work in a visit to the south-west in August. I am happy to write to him to provide more information about the specific issue that he has raised.

The report is very welcome. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Welsh Assembly Government about what Wales could contribute to increasing woodland cover to 16 per cent.?

I will certainly have discussions with all those who could contribute to ensuring that we achieve that objective. I should point out to the House that, in the 90 years since the establishment of the Forestry Commission, there has been a significant increase in forest and woodland cover in the country, after our having got to the point where we had chopped down almost all the trees that we had.

The Forestry Commission report states that, in the next 10 years, the capacity of the UK’s forests to absorb carbon could be reduced by up to 70 per cent. Will the Secretary of State therefore look to the capacity of Britain’s uplands as a complementary source of carbon sequestration? Given that the average hill farm income last year was just £5,000, does he acknowledge that he must act quickly to restructure farm payments, to ensure that the upland stewards of our carbon sinks are fairly rewarded and are kept in business?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have changed the system. We will introduce the uplands entry level scheme, which we consulted on widely and which was welcomed at the time. The truth is that those who farm and those who manage the land have a real opportunity here not only to contribute to sustainability and to the management of the landscape, but to reduce carbon emissions both through peat bogs—the national parks want to play a role in that—and by planting trees where we can to soak up carbon.

I accept that the report is just out, but does my right hon. Friend agree that forestry has the potential to make a highly significant contribution to our emissions reduction targets? Indeed, with an increase of 4 per cent. in woodland cover over the next 40 years, we could, by the 2050s, achieve a reduction equivalent to 10 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon Footprint (Copenhagen Summit)

4. What estimate he has made of the average carbon footprint generated by his Department’s representatives in attending the Copenhagen climate change summit. (305576)

I and three officials from DEFRA will attend the Copenhagen climate change summit, where we will push for an ambitious agreement on forests and the protection of our oceans. The CO2 footprint of these flights will be 1.54 tonnes. We will offset that by buying certified emission reduction credits, as we do for all flights.

Trees are very good “carbon-eating machines”. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that 202,500 trees will have to be planted just to cover the CO2 emissions of the Copenhagen jamboree?

I do not regard the Copenhagen summit as a jamboree. I am sorry that some Opposition Members seem to think that there is not a problem with climate change. I suspect that that is an embarrassment to those on their Front Bench. Frankly, I cannot think of a more important meeting, because the consequence of failing to get an agreement would be very serious for our planet, for our climate and for biodiversity.

Given the importance of getting a deal on carbon emissions at Copenhagen, DEFRA should be leading from the front. Eighteen months ago, the Government announced a new body, the centre of expertise in sustainable procurement—a quango within a quango—to assist, among other things, in cutting emissions from the Government’s own estate. We now know that the Government estate will miss its 2010-11 carbon targets by some margin. Is the Secretary of State, who leads on sustainability issues in the Government, embarrassed by that fact, and if so, what is he going to do about it?

In 2007-08, across the Government office estate, we achieved a 6.3 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions. In the DEFRA office estate, we have already achieved the 2010-11 target of a 12.5 per cent. reduction against the 1999-2000 figures.

Roadside Litter

5. What recent progress his Department has made on initiatives designed to reduce the amount of roadside litter. (305577)

This summer, DEFRA’s grant-aided delivery partner, Keep Britain Tidy, carried out a major vehicle litter awareness campaign that resulted in a 25 per cent. reduction in litter in locations monitored by local authorities throughout England. DEFRA continues to work alongside the Highways Agency and local authorities in keeping the roads under their responsibility clear of litter.

The most recent local environmental quality survey states that litter on verges and landscaping alongside rural roads is now a significant problem. When does the Minister intend to introduce measures to give local authorities greater powers to fine registered vehicle keepers or other responsible people when litter is thrown from vehicles, especially fast-food detritus, which is particularly obnoxious?

Those who litter from vehicles are subject to the same laws that apply to anybody else on the street. Although it can be difficult to identify an offender, especially in a vehicle moving at speed, 65 fixed penalty notices were issued during a recent vehicle litter campaign. The Government are examining the matter very closely and if a compelling case can be made, legislation might be forthcoming. We will certainly give that serious consideration.

In the light of the fact that surveys done in my own city, Belfast, show that the people who are responsible for most littering are those who eat fast food, smokers, the 18-to-35 age group and those who chew gum, is there a need to target initiatives to reach people who are particularly culpable?

The most important challenge is changing behaviour. DEFRA provides a grant funding of £25 million a year to Keep Britain Tidy, and about £1.2 million each year goes specifically towards behaviour-changing campaigns, which are clearly targeted, as appropriate. That has raised awareness of traffic litter, resulting in a 25 per cent. reduction in litter from vehicles.

A significant amount of the litter on our streets, especially that thrown from cars, is cigarette material, particularly butts. What is the Department doing to get tough on the cigarette manufacturers? It is about time that they put something forward for clearing up the mess to which they contribute.

Obviously, we have discussions with a wide range of people who manufacture items that contribute to litter. In truth, it comes back to behaviour change. Education, above all else, is what changes behaviour, and behaviour change is needed to deal with litter.

There does not seem to be much evidence of behaviour change. Will the Minister applaud the work on that aspect of Bill Bryson and the Campaign to Protect Rural England? Roadside and pavement litter especially are made up of cigarette butts and chewing gum, but as there is little evidence of behaviour change, what more can the Government do? What is the take-up of the Minister’s grants?

There is keen take-up of the grants. A number of local authorities have taken up various offers of grants to work towards reducing litter. The Government have made important powers available to local authorities, if they wish to use them. When those powers are applied, they have a good record of working effectively.

Food Labelling

This is a very popular question this morning. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we have tighter, clearer and more accurate origin labelling.

Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are all backing our honest food campaign to stop imported food, which is often produced under lower welfare standards than our own, from being passed off as British food. Why cannot the Government do more to help British consumers and farmers in that regard?

The Government have been working on this for some time. We welcome the Opposition’s honest food campaign—it would be churlish not to say that it is a good initiative. The Food Standards Agency issued new guidance in 2008. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), started a campaign in October last year with, I believe, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. We are working in Europe to try to ensure that food information regulations are as tight as possible, although they will not come in for perhaps another two or three years. We are supporting supermarkets that are labelling food more clearly, so that consumers can buy with greater confidence.

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of us have been campaigning on this issue for many years? Will he help us on veal, especially? Veal is a very good thing to eat—the animals are incinerated if they are not eaten—but we must ensure that people eat English or British veal, rather than imported veal, which comes from animals that have much poorer lives than our own animals.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who points out that the Government have been working on this for some time. Veal is one of the products whose labelling ought to be clearer under regulations. I hope that he and the whole House are aware that the EU protected food celebration takes place this afternoon at New Covent Garden; we will be launching Cornish sardines as the 40th UK food to achieve that status. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me at the celebration this afternoon, because those products are 40 of the best in Britain and are getting worldwide acclaim because of the protected name status, which we support vigorously.

Does the Minister accept that clear, honest food labelling is important not just for reasons of being straight with consumers, but because accurate information allows consumers to send a clear message to food producers about what they want to buy and what those producers should produce, which could allow his Department to reduce some of the burden of red tape and regulation on food producers?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are encouraging retailers to mark and label countries of origin more clearly. I chaired the latest meeting of the pig meat taskforce earlier this week. We have reached a collective agreement—it ought to be finalised by 1 February—on pig meat, which has suffered because many foreign goods that are imported are claimed to be British bacon or British pork pies. I have no doubt that the agreement and new regulations will be launched on 1 February.

Following my Adjournment debate last week about the labelling of goods from Israeli settlements in the west bank, has the Minister finalised the voluntary guidance that is due to be published for British retailers?

I can advise my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in the plight of the Palestinian people, as do many of us in the House, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has today laid a written ministerial statement before the House, announcing that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has issued guidance to retailers who wish to respond to consumer demand for greater clarity on the origins of produce from the Palestinian occupied territories. My hon. Friend will be able to obtain that guidance and download it from the DEFRA website.

I spoke yesterday to Peter Thornton, owner of the Cumberland and Westmorland Sausage Co., who like me is appalled that sausages can be processed in this country from imported meat and then labelled as British, even when the animals have been reared under conditions that would be illegal in this country. Does the Minister agree that one of the supermarkets ombudsman’s powers should be to enforce both the honest labelling of food and humane animal welfare standards for imported food to match the excellent standards in British farming?

There is clearly a consensus in the House that country of origin labelling should be tighter. I think that the Liberal Democrat spokesman is trying to tease from me what the supermarkets ombudsman should or should not do when he knows that we have yet to announce the conclusions on the position of an ombudsman. That might very well be one area in which such an ombudsman, were one to come about, would take an interest.

My hon. Friend should recognise not only the importance of country of origin labelling and welfare standards, but the importance of ensuring that when people purchase goods they know how many food miles they have travelled to reach this country, and the importance of recognising the quality of UK farming.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. British farmers are spending more on higher welfare standards and they want to be supported in that by British retailers. We believe that the British consumer wants to support them and that we should ensure that country of origin labelling is clearer, so that British farming gets the support it deserves.

When meat can be imported and then labelled as British, it misleads consumers and lets down our farmers. The Secretary of State says that he wants that practice stamped out. In January he said that he was pressing strongly in Europe, and in June he told this House that he was “pushing in Europe”. The Minister has just repeated that the Government are working in Europe, so why in European Union negotiations this year did the Government oppose mandatory country of origin labelling?

I do not think that that is the case. The hon. Gentleman knows that competency in those matters rests with the European Union. The Italians have already been taken to task for trying to introduce a compulsory labelling system in Italy, and Ireland and Malta have already been told that that is not possible in their countries, either. We are negotiating in Europe to try to get the best deal possible, which, I have to say, is not the same position as that of the Opposition.

I have here the minutes of the European Council’s working party on foodstuffs, dated 31 July. Let me tell the Minister what they record: the Italians, the French and nine other member states supported mandatory country of origin labelling; the UK opposed it. We knew that Ministers had failed to deliver honest labelling, but now we know that they actually argued against it. Is not it a disgrace that, for months, this Government have made cynical promises on food labelling which they have not had the slightest intention of keeping?

This is a complex issue, and the position that the hon. Gentleman describes is not that of the Government. We are doing all we can to get more accurate country of origin labelling, and we are working to ensure that the food information regulations, when they are introduced, are as tight as they possibly can be.

Canal Network

My Department is working with the Inland Waterways Advisory Council and the waterways authorities to establish and to quantify the wide range of goods and services delivered by inland waterways. That will build on work undertaken by my Department and IWAC to evaluate those benefits. British Waterways’ research estimates that its canals alone deliver public benefits of some £500 million per annum and support more than 20,000 jobs in local economies throughout the country.

I congratulate the Minister on winning the support of the Treasury for ways to maintain the integrity of our invaluable canal network and expand their capacity. Does he agree that, for the future, a third sector model—a sort of National Trust for the canals—would be the best way to harness public enthusiasm for the canals with environmental and economic benefit and the stability that has been achieved in recent years?

Indeed. I pay reciprocal tribute to my right hon. Friend and other hon. Friends who are so assiduous in keeping an eye on the future of British Waterways because of the wide benefits involved, and to the Treasury, which listened to the arguments and responded to them. The third sector model has featured in the Government’s announcement, and British Waterways sees the potential for this alongside the exploitation of its property portfolio. It is a fascinating way forward designed to tap into the good will towards the waterways around the country, and I am sure that we will explore it further.

The Minister will know from the reports that the Select Committee has done on our canal network of the importance of the property portfolio in contributing income to maintain the good progress that has been made on the historical infrastructure of the canal network. What assurances can he give me that that property portfolio will not in any way be degraded under potential new arrangements and put at risk the income needed to maintain the historical infrastructure of our canal system?

The real turnaround in the waterways has been to do with the success of the exploitation of the property portfolio under the British Waterways model, and we acknowledge that the third sector model referred to by my right hon. Friend would indeed necessitate the use of that property portfolio. It is also to do with the record investment that this Government have put in, with £800 million in grants over the past decade alone. The current state of our waterways and their maintenance, improvement and restoration, is a tribute to the work of British Waterways but also, I have to say, to the importance that this Government have placed on them.

Marine Conservation Zones

8. When his Department plans to establish marine conservation zones; and if he will make a statement. (305581)

The first marine conservation zones will be established on 12 January 2010, when the two existing marine nature reserves around Lundy and Skomer automatically become MCZs. Advice on potential sites from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee is due by autumn 2011. The Secretary of State will then consult on and designate sites in 2012. MCZs, together with other types of sites, will form an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas.

I welcome the creation of MCZs, with their rounded approach to conservation and the protection of marine life and wildlife. Can the Minister tell me whether the Dee estuary, which is already an important environmental site and a special area of conservation, will be a prime site to be designated?

I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the fact that, today, part of the Dee estuary—one of six sites of community importance in the UK—will be formally designated as a special area of conservation by the Secretary of State. I have written to other hon. Members who will have designations in their areas announced today. The Irish sea conservation zones regional project will consider the conservation potential of various parts of its area, including the River Dee. If there are parts of the Dee that have conservation potential—we already know from designations that there are—that are not already protected by other means, then they will indeed be considered.

Single Payment Scheme

9. How many penalties have been applied in respect of the 2008 single payment scheme; and if he will make a statement. (305582)

Payment reductions have been made in respect of some 7,748 claims under the 2008 single payment scheme. That represents 7.3 per cent. of the claimant population of 106,500.

I thank the Minister for that response. The minimum penalty for non-compliance is now 3 per cent. of the total single farm payment for any farmer. One of the most common triggers for a penalty is failure to notify animal movements within three days. That three-day limit is imposed by DEFRA, yet the EU regulation allows up to seven days. Why is the UK gold-plating the European regulations to the disadvantage of our farmers? Why cannot DEFRA allow the EU norm of seven days for notification of animal movements?

As the hon. Gentleman indicates, penalties are imposed for a variety of different reasons. These rules are laid down primarily by EU legislation, and the Rural Payments Agency does not have real discretion in applying them. We have recently made some improvements to the scheme relating to the removal of set-aside and the 10-month rule, and we will obviously continue to do what we can to make the system as beneficial to British farmers as we can.

Ministers have announced that 80 per cent. of payments under the single payment scheme have been made to farmers, but given that we have estimated overpayments of more than £20 million and underpayments of more than £38 million in the scheme last year, what guarantees can the Minister give farmers that 2009 payments will be accurate?

It is a little churlish of the shadow Secretary of State not to welcome the once again improved performance of the Rural Payments Agency. It has been improving year on year, and this year it managed to pay out £1.3 billion, which is almost twice as much as last year, two weeks earlier than last year to four times as many farmers. From our point of view, that should be complimented and lauded.

Dairy Farmers

10. What estimate he has made of the change in the number of dairy farmers between (a) 2008 and 2009 and (b) 2009 and 2010. (305584)

Although we do not have official figures on the number of dairy farmers, it is believed that the number of dairy farms in England fell by about 5 per cent. between 2008 and 2009. The source of that figure is the cattle tracing system. The trend in UK dairy production is towards fewer, larger herds.

The Minister will know that there has been a steep decline over the past 10 years. On Saturday, I was at the Gisburn auction marts to present some certificates to young farmers, who were enthusiastically showing their livestock. Clearly, however, enthusiasm will not be enough to secure the future viability of dairy farming in this country, so what sustainable future can he offer young entrants into dairy farming in the UK?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that, notwithstanding the concern and anxiety of young farmers coming into the industry, the British dairy sector is fundamentally sound and is expected to do very well over the medium to long term, due to efficiency improvements, innovation and investment in new products. We are much better placed than most of our European competitors, and we will do all we can in Europe and the UK to ensure that we support the British dairy industry.

I wonder whether I could confirm what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said about dairy farming. My constituency is similar to his—not quite as beautiful, but almost—and for the past two years I have been the president of the Keighley and district agricultural show. I have been made painfully aware of the feelings of many farmers, and I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of how deep those feelings go. Not just they but their children are being forced out of the industry, because there is not a wage to be earned.

Obviously, I commend my hon. Friend for the position that she holds locally. Notwithstanding the reduction in the number of dairy farmers, the volume produced is not far short of where we were 10 years ago—13 billion litres rather than 14 billion—and we are well within quota. I reinforce the point that the UK dairy sector is much better placed than those elsewhere, and the recent trends in prices across the world demonstrate a keen rise in recent months. We want that to continue, because the dairy industry is very important to UK agriculture, making up 18 per cent. of the whole industry.

A few weeks ago, the awful announcement of Corus closing on Teesside triggered an immediate and proper response and financial intervention from Government. The dairy industry is dying on its feet. The milk price today is lower than the production price, and that cannot be sustained. Will the ombudsman—ombudsperson in the Minister’s language—have anything to do with milk prices when examining the supermarkets’ actions?

Obviously, if an ombudsman is introduced, it will very much be up to him or her to determine which issues to consider most closely. Ultimately, we believe that markets determine prices. I reiterate that the UK dairy industry is in a much better position than most of our EU competitors. A high-level group has been set up by the European Agriculture Council to examine the problems of the dairy sector, which are not exclusively UK problems and are much more serious in other member states. It is examining the situation to see what assistance can be given to dairy across Europe.

Food Production (Research)

The Government invest £254 million a year in food and farming research in England and Wales, and £50 million through Department for International Development research overseas. That covers sustainable farming—reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change and protecting against pests and diseases—and tackling food waste.

My right hon. Friend mentioned climate change. Obviously, one of the enormous challenges to agricultural systems around the globe is the capacity of climate change to change agriculture totally. Are we satisfied that research in the UK will ensure security of food supply from our domestic producers, come what may with climate change?

Adapting to climate change is, as my hon. Friend indicates, an important task for the farming industry, and a significant proportion of the research that we are funding looks at that. To take a practical example, some very good research is being done at East Malling Research into the ability to produce crops using less water, which will benefit horticulture growers in the country.

What will be the impact on food production of the decision to discontinue weed cutting in the lower Avon valley? Is the Secretary of State prepared to meet a delegation of farmers to review the matter?

Food Labelling

12. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and representatives of the devolved Administrations on country-of-origin food labelling. (305586)

As I said earlier, I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we have tighter, clearer and more accurate origin labelling. I have had no discussions with the devolved Administrations.

The labelling arrangements as they stand facilitate not only the potential deception of consumers, but the theft of good will built up by generations of Welsh farmers who produce, for example, Welsh lamb. Does the Minister understand how dismayed those farmers will be when they hear of his rather lame response to the points put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)—that this Government have stood in the way of attempts to change those labelling regulations?

No—as I said a moment ago, we are doing everything we can to protect British produce. I also mentioned that we are celebrating Cornish sardines becoming an EU-protected food name later today. There are 39 other products, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to New Covent Garden to see them and celebrate with us.

Economic Downturn (Rural Economy)

While the economic downturn is having an impact in both urban and rural areas, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs analysis of data from other Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that, when compared with the economy in urban areas, the picture in rural England so far has been more positive.

Is the Minister aware that some 200,000 people living in rural areas do not have bank accounts; that mainstream banking facilities in rural areas are closing; that pubs, post offices and schools are closing; and that in some areas, village halls are closing because they cannot be maintained? Will the Minister and his Department undertake a review of the position of rural areas as a result of what has been happening recently, not least the recession?

That is a very important issue, as I know from my own constituency. In June 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions, which is the lead Department for financial inclusion, and the Commission for Rural Communities jointly published a report on financial inclusion in rural areas, “Rural Money Matters”, which found that rural areas did not appear to fare worse than urban areas, although it suggested that analysis on a smaller scale would be likely to identify smaller pockets of significant hardship. I am certainly concerned to keep an eye on that.

Bovine Tuberculosis

14. How many cattle were slaughtered because of bovine tuberculosis precautions in the last three months. (305588)

The most recent three-month report available is for the end of August 2009. Between 1 June and 31 August, 5,202 cattle were slaughtered in England for bovine TB control purposes. Figures are provisional and subject to change as more data become available.

I am sure that the Minister is aware of the devastating impact that the slaughter of herds has not only on the farmer’s business, but on the farmer and his or her family—it completely destroys their entire life. Furthermore, there are questions about the reliability of the TB tests. How much does the slaughter policy cost and what is the long-term policy, because we cannot just go on slaughtering more and more cattle when it obviously is not working?

The hon. Gentleman is right. We are sensitive to the tragic impacts on farms, families, regions and areas when TB strikes. The Secretary of State set up the TB eradication group last November. It has met 19 times and has already produced a report that recommended a raft of initiatives to try to deal with this. The problem will only be eradicated in the medium to long term, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department is doing as much as it can to support the group.

Mushroom Composting (Emissions)

15. What recent steps have been taken to reduce the level of noxious emissions from mushroom composting. (305589)

Mushroom compost-making plants such as that in my hon. Friend’s constituency require a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007 and local authorities are responsible for enforcing compliance. DEFRA also issues statutory guidance on best available techniques in order to minimise air emissions, including odour.

As well as the loss of quality of life in the surrounding houses from the stink from mushroom composting, is the Minister aware of emerging evidence of problems with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a killer disease, caused by people breathing in the spores? Is it not time that action were taken to close down Tunnel Tech in my constituency?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his hard work and conscientiousness in bringing this issue to my and my predecessor’s attention. The Health Protection Agency is, as of today, investigating the prevalence of COPD in the locality where he has identified concerns. Further, the agency will also investigate the potential for the composting operation to cause or exacerbate COPD. Those investigations will be in consultation with the local primary care trust and I understand that the local council has already made contact with the HPA.

Financial Inclusion

DEFRA works hard across Government to ensure that all Departments take account of specific rural needs in their policies. Indeed, I met with my colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions only last month specifically to discuss rural issues.

Picking up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who has pinched yet another question of mine—the problem is that we both come from the same stable—may I reiterate that approximately 200,000 people living in rural England do not have access to broadband facilities? Would that not aid financial inclusion as it provides access to valuable information, online banking, credit union services and other such services?

Perhaps the hon. Lady should have some more interesting pillow talk than it appears she is having—[Laughter.] She is right: digital communications are crucial in rural areas as well as in urban areas. They make a big difference not least in access to banking and other important services and facilities. We are working hard on that issue and putting extra resources into it, including moneys from heads for which I have specific responsibility.

Food Labelling

19. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on country of origin food labelling. (305593)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. I am delighted to see that we have been joined by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). We were a bit worried that since the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had promoted him to the Privy Council and shadow Secretary of State in its press release this week, he might have been banished by his colleagues.

Having heard the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and the Minister on this subject, I am confused about the Government’s position. Will the Minister now clearly say that he supports the Which? campaign for country-of-origin food labelling and backs British food?

We do support the campaign for clearer country-of-origin labelling. We took a different position from Europe in respect of mandatory labelling for everything. That would have meant labels a foot long on pizzas identifying the source of every bit of pepperoni. We want clearer labelling so that we can have informed consumer choice and support British agriculture.

Given that meat production generates six times more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of fish, cheese or vegetables, should CO2 emissions related to food products not also be included in any future labelling system? Would that not be one of the most effective means of adapting to climate change?

I can tell my hon. Friend that agriculture is making great efforts to reduce the impact of the carbon that it produces. It is very supportive of every effort to increase sustainable production and is doing what it can to tackle climate change.

Single Payment Scheme (Mr. Peter Philpot)

20. What progress he has made in resolving the single payment scheme difficulties experienced by Mr. Peter Philpot. (305595)

Mr. Philpot’s single payment scheme claims have been complicated by a number of factors, including both corrections to and transfers of entitlements. Progress has been made recently in resolving the underlying problems and the Rural Payments Agency is working to resolve the outstanding issues and to confirm the results to Mr. Philpot as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that, on 29 October in this place, I raised that issue with the Secretary of State, who kindly agreed to consider it if I sent the relevant paperwork. That was sent the same day, but since then neither my constituent nor my office have heard anything. Will Ministers consider the matter again as a matter of urgency? Otherwise, we can only draw the conclusion that the RPA is nothing more than a master-class in misadministration.

I outlined earlier the dramatically improving performance of the RPA, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some reassurance from that. I can only apologise that neither he nor Mr. Philpot have received an update of the position. My responses are obviously researched in preparation for questions, and I am told that progress has been made, but I will find out exactly when Mr. Philpot will be told and communicate that to the hon. Gentleman later today, if possible.

Flood Defences (York)

I am pleased to say that the Environment Agency is developing a flood alleviation scheme for the Leeman Road-Water End area of York. The scheme will cost approximately £6.5 million and protect 550 properties.

It is nine years since the worst flood on record in York. I remember clearly that night when hundreds of local citizens and soldiers built a mile-long wall of sandbags on top of the flood defences to protect 550 homes on Leeman road. We are still waiting for the flood defences to be improved. When will the Environment Agency consult the public on its plans, and when do we expect the improvements to be built?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am pleased to confirm that the consultation will begin in early 2010 to help to select the best solution. Subject to funding, construction should begin in early 2012. It is important to get the flood defences in place as soon as possible, subject to consultation.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s responsibility is to help us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that about 100 farms in Cumbria have been severely affected by the recent flooding, in particular by large quantities of stones deposited on their land. I visited two farms affected last week, and I will shortly announce details of help through the rural development programme for England.

I think that the whole House will agree with the Secretary of State and offer its condolences to farmers in Cumbria. However, on another matter, the United Kingdom—that means the British taxpayer—is currently facing a possible £300 million fine for breaching the air quality directive. London is doing something about it. What will DEFRA do to try to avoid the fine?

DEFRA is working carefully to ensure that we are within the scope of the directives. Only two weeks ago, we hosted an air quality summit with local authorities to look at best practice and to share it with many local authorities. We are in close contact with the Mayor of London, because most of the roads where there are problems are in the London area. We are working with him and his officials to try to ensure that together we can solve the problems in London and avoid the fines that might be coming our way.

Does the Minister share my relief that British Waterways will retain its property portfolio and the income from it? Does he consider that the third sector model that British Waterways is now pursuing will enable it to work more closely with local communities, such as that around Rudyard lake, which is concerned about sailability and is fighting for facilities for disabled people at the lake?

I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend and members of Rudyard Sailability recently to see the excellent work that they do. Everyone is concerned to ensure a satisfactory resolution as soon as possible, so that the work can continue. The Treasury has acknowledged that the mutual or third sector model is an interesting way forward and it is keen to explore it. I am sure that the Treasury will be seeking views from hon. Members and others on how the idea can be fleshed out, because it offers an exciting prospect for building on the good will that exists towards our waterways.

T3. Every year Kettering borough council has to round up about 250 stray dogs from across the borough, most of which do not have collars or microchips. Given the Department’s responsibilities for animal welfare, especially in the run-up to Christmas, what more can the Government do to promote responsible dog ownership? (305601)

We certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do everything that we can to achieve responsible dog ownership. I visited the Dogs Trust re-homing centre in Harefield to support its annual campaign, which raises awareness with the message that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. There are dogs charities and dog organisations all over the UK trying to get the message home, and we want to do the same. Dog licensing did not work. Chipping is a more modern, technologically superior, less expensive and less bureaucratic system, and it may be something that we want to consider in future. Chipping is not under consideration at the moment, but one can never close the door entirely, particularly to improvements in the welfare of animals.

T2. The Environment Agency is running an event today to raise awareness of flooding in my constituency. Although that is a welcome initiative, does the Minister agree that sustained and long-term investment in flood defences is what will really bring peace of mind to my constituents? (305599)

Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting the use of forestry and woodlands for a variety of purposes. We have come to recognise that forestries have not only an intrinsic value, but a value in respect of climate change, carbon and flood alleviation. Forestries also have a prominent role to play in many other respects. I applaud the work that she does to promote those ways forward.

T4. Today many Agriculture Ministers will be meeting in Paris to discuss the regulation of agricultural markets and the future of the common agricultural policy. I understand that Conservative shadow Ministers recently visited New Zealand to consider the future of farming without subsidies. Can the Secretary of State explain his position on the future of the common agricultural policy and whether it would include an element of co-funding or direct payment by nation states? (305602)

The UK will be represented at today’s meeting in Paris, but no Ministers are there for the simple reason that Ministers are here in the Chamber answering questions. Our policy on reform of the common agricultural policy has been set out clearly in the past. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been a leading advocate of reform and a strong supporter of a shift in funding towards pillar two and agri-environment schemes, for the reasons that we have already covered in questions so far.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that windrow composting is now widespread, with more than 40 sites throughout the UK. However, it presents a danger: it is smelly and dirty, and it involves the release of Aspergillus fungus spores, which are a danger to health. What is he doing to encourage local authorities to join together to provide ways forward for other energy systems, such as the anaerobic digestion system? Is that something that he is working on?

It certainly is. I am aware of the close interest that my hon. Friend takes in the issue that he has raised. We doubled the incentives for anaerobic digestion under the renewables obligation system from 1 April this year. I am putting in about £10 million for demonstration projects, and when feed-in tariffs come in, they will add a further incentive. The House recognises that we are talking about a technology of the future. It is about to take off, and I encourage farmers and others who are responsible for green waste to look into it.

T6. One question only this time, Mr. Speaker. The British people are rightly concerned about animal welfare, and will broadly welcome the phasing out of battery cages in 2012. However, they do not wish to see imports of eggs and other chicken products from countries outside the EU that still raise animals in poor conditions and in batteries. What will the Government do to prevent the import of eggs and other chicken products that have been produced using poor welfare standards outside the EU? (305604)

As I discussed with the egg and poultry conference about two weeks ago, our position is still to hold firmly to the 2012 ban on battery cages. I was asked what plan B was. Plan B is to lobby the Commission to ensure that there are no imports of eggs from countries with lower standards, and to introduce a new marking number—No. 4—for those eggs that fall below standard. That is plan B, but we have not yet given up on plan A, which is to hold firm, and hope that the Commission holds firm, to the ban on battery cages that will come in in 2012.

T5. May I ask my hon. Friends about insect pollinator research funding? In particular, can they allay the fears of those involved that the method of assessment of such research projects could lead to big gaps in essential research areas such as husbandry for bee keeping and in the money being devoted to honey bees and bees generally? We do not need elegant academic research; we need a practical result that will save the honey bee. (305603)

I certainly can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government take the health of Britain’s bees and other pollinators very seriously indeed. The decline in bee health is a complex issue with no single cause. The insect pollinator initiative consortium has now considered the expressions of interest received and has invited four research bids for the £10 million that has been made available. It will make its final decisions on allocations early next year. In the interim, it is crucial that all interested parties play an active role in DEFRA’s healthy bees plan in order to tackle this hugely important and complex issue. They have a lot to say, and lots of expertise, and we want to hear from them.

T7. I met representatives of the Environment Agency this week to discuss flood and river issues affecting my constituency, and I was advised that, despite efforts to tackle domestic and commercial waste dumping, there are still problems with people dumping waste in our rivers. What recent assessment has the Minister made of this problem, and what action are the Government taking to try to tackle it? (305605)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There is so much good work being carried out by the Environment Agency and by volunteer groups around the country, including in my own constituency. I am sure that, like me, he has spent many happy weekends knee deep in the waters—subject to the Environment Agency’s approval, of course. I will happily look at the issue that he has raised and drop him a line to give him the state of progress.

T9. Since I was first elected as MP for the City of York, the Minister’s Department has moved hundreds of jobs to its offices at Kings Pool in my city. There is now a major development site right next to Kings Pool that would allow DEFRA to build additional office space if it wanted to transfer more staff from London and the south-east to the north of England. Will the Secretary of State ask his director of estates to look at the real estate possibilities in York, and consider whether they would help the Department to deal with its staff relocation plans? (305607)

I promise to take careful note of the kind bid that my hon. Friend has made. Perhaps it will be the first of many.

T8. The Commons Act 2006 placed additional duties and responsibilities on those who hold commons rights. It has been brought to my attention that the lord of the manor of Rochdale, who is a New Zealand resident, has claimed title to considerably more common land than he is entitled to. Will the Minister undertake to look into this with the Land Valuation Office? Residents in the Littleborough area of my constituency are seriously concerned about the effect that that decision is having on them. (305606)

What are the Government doing to encourage the producers and retailers of halal meat to increase the use of pre-stunning, which is compliant with the Koran and which would have significant welfare, economic and political benefits?

There are no plans to change the regulations on religious slaughter as they stand at the moment. My hon. Friend and I have had a meeting with some of his constituents in the past month to discuss this issue in depth. We obviously encourage support for the regulations as they stand, but there are no plans to change the status quo.

The proposed Milton Keynes-Bedford canal enjoys cross-party support and will bring many benefits to the region. It has interesting financial arrangements and could well go ahead, but it is stalling at the moment. Will the Minister use his influence to get the project moving again?

For obvious reasons we try not to intervene in individual projects, recognising that British Waterways has a good overview and has achieved a lot in the past decade in opening up new stretches of canals that had fallen into disrepair. I wish the project well and if the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I shall take a look at it. I applaud the enthusiasm of the people who want to open that stretch. We have many such instances across the country, showing why the strength and enthusiasm of volunteers are such a bedrock of the British Waterways network.

Many farmers are challenging new maps from the Rural Payments Agency. Will the Minister consider looking at an RPA presence on the ground so that a more constructive process for challenge could be developed, along the lines of moving towards stewardship applications with which farmers seem much happier?

The progress on re-mapping the country is steady. Earlier this week I chaired a meeting between the RPA, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Agency and the Tenant Farmers Association, which are relatively pleased with the progress that has been made on a complex issue. There are deadlines in January that we have to meet and we are working as hard as we can to ensure that that takes place, so that we can pre-populate the maps for next year’s claims. At the same time, we welcome the progress made in the payments for 2009.

Will my hon. Friend give an updated statement on the surface water charges that affect sports grounds, churches and charities?

I am pleased to give an update. My hon. Friend and others who have lobbied assiduously on that matter will be pleased to know that the issue appears in our Flood and Water Management Bill. With the support of this House and the other place, we will get that measure on to the statute book and protect scouts associations, churches, community halls and others.

In light of the outbreak of the fatal disease swine fever in Russia, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to re-examine our bio-security arrangements?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point and he will know that we are always vigilant. The teams monitor carefully what is happening elsewhere and he can rest assured that we will do what is required in light of the evidence. If he would be interested—I am sure he would—I will be happy to write to him further.

The Secretary of State may be aware that there is great local concern that sites have been identified for potential land raise facilities for waste disposal on the boundary between my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). Will he give a clear statement that he believes that such approaches are increasingly out of date and unacceptable and that we should be looking for approaches that generate energy from waste, rather than just dumping it, often in inappropriate locations?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. We need to get our landfill down, which is why—because of the landfill levy—domestic recycling rates have risen from 8 to 37 per cent. in the past 12 years. I shall be consulting after the turn of the year on whether we should ban certain products from landfill. Food waste is a good example; why put it in landfill when we could turn it into energy?