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Topical Questions

Volume 502: debated on Thursday 10 December 2009

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?