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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Industry

1. What steps his Department is taking to assist the food industry in the current economic climate. (324046)

12. What steps his Department is taking to assist the food industry in the current economic climate. (324060)

Mr. Speaker, it would not be right to let this moment pass without remembering our good friend and colleague, Ashok Kumar, who died so suddenly last week. He was my Parliamentary Private Secretary for seven years, so I find it hard to believe that when I turn my head I will not see him sitting behind me. He was a gentle man, a pioneer and extremely proud of his Indian heritage. He was a scientist and, above all, he was a magnificent fighter for his constituents. I know that the whole House will mourn his passing.

The Government are taking a number of steps to support the UK food industry, which is our biggest manufacturing sector, including the Food 2030 strategy; more investment in research and development; consulting on a supermarket ombudsman; the agri-skills plan; and the work of the task forces to assist the pig sector and to encourage more production and consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Like my right hon. Friend, I mourn and miss Ashok Kumar greatly. I knew him very well; he was a close personal friend and constituency neighbour.

I welcome the Food 2030 document that the Secretary of State has produced, but will the Government make additional funding available for research to enable food manufacturers and farmers to produce food with a lower carbon footprint and less impact on the environment?

We have responded to the call for even more investment in research in the food and farming sector, particularly with the additional funding of £50 million announced by the Technology Strategy Board last year. The board was set up to look at opportunities for the future for industry in the UK, so the fact that it has recognised the sector is warmly welcomed, and it will support a wide range of research. My hon. Friend is right: we will have to produce more food in a way that reduces our carbon emissions.

My right hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has introduced a Bill to establish a grocery ombudsman. Will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book, so that an ombudsman can be established?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government—having carefully considered the Competition Commission’s recommendation—have accepted the need for a means to enforce the new grocery supply code of practice. We are in the middle of a consultation on the most effective enforcement mechanism, and clearly a person or persons will need to undertake that job. I hope that everyone will contribute to that consultation so that we can get on with this as soon as possible.

According to the Food and Drink Federation, this sector is the only manufacturing sector to record an increase in production throughout January 2010. What lessons will the Minister take from that?

Well, it shows the resilience and strength of the sector despite the difficult economic circumstances that we have been going through. It is a tribute to the skill and professionalism of those who work in the sector and it is further evidence that over the months and years ahead we will see increased demand for food, food production and food products. We will need farmers and those working in the food sector to produce that food. The fact that it is our largest manufacturing sector, employing some 3.6 million people, is a sign of its strength and importance.

May I add my words of regret at the passing of Ashok Kumar, whom I first met in 1991 on the streets during the Langbaurgh by-election? It is always confounding to meet an opponent who turns out to be full of warmth, integrity and decency. He will be very sadly missed.

One way to assist the food industry would be to ensure that British food producers stay in business. My survey of food producers in Lancashire and Cumbria shows that more than 80 per cent. are still waiting for their single farm payment and face business collapse as a consequence. Will the Secretary of State intervene directly to ensure immediate interim payments to keep our farmers and food producers in business?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about Ashok Kumar.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, 93 per cent. of the payments have been made and the Rural Payments Agency has once again exceeded the targets that we set, so its recovery is continuing. As he will know, interim payments create some difficulties, but we have always made it very clear that if farmers are genuinely in dire circumstances they should contact the RPA and we will see what we can do.

Dangerous Dogs

2. What steps he is taking to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. (324047)

10. What steps he is taking to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. (324057)

We have launched a wide-ranging consultation on the problem of dangerous dogs, and I recently met with welfare groups and enforcement agencies to discuss this. We have also produced new guidance for the public, enforcers of the law and magistrates, as well as provided the Association of Chief Police Officers with funding to help train police officers.

It seems to me that the 9 March consultation document does not deal with a crucial issue, which is people actually breeding dogs to be weapons and the increase in the breeding of pit bull terriers. A microchipped pit bull terrier is still a pit bull terrier, and there needs to be discussion with the Kennel Club, vets and others about how one can limit the breeding of dogs that are intended to be weapons.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, that was one of the points raised at the meeting with stakeholders to which I referred in my answer. The consultation paper ranges quite widely, but given that there is a bit of history on legislation passed in haste and repented at some leisure and cost to many people, it is important that we get this right. I encourage all those with an interest to express a view. There was agreement on some points in the meeting: there is pretty broad support, I think, for extending the legislation to private property and for the idea of dog control orders, which would, it seemed to many people at the meeting, provide a pretty targeted way of trying to deal with particular owners, and the dogs they own, who are causing the bulk of the problem.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to say quite clearly that there is one hell of a difference between a pit bull terrier and a Staffordshire terrier, which has a very different temperament indeed?

Of course, many people in the country own Staffordshire terriers, and they are much loved family pets. The lesson, which the Home Secretary and I saw when we visited the RSPCA hospital in Seven Sisters a couple of weeks ago, is that other breeds are now being trained as fighting dogs, status dogs, weapon dogs—or whatever phrase one uses to describe them—and the question is how we target effort and energy on those who are doing it. Let us be honest: there is a very lively debate about breed versus deed. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 specified four breeds, but in the consultation meeting that I held, the majority of those who expressed a view were sceptical about a breed approach, and thought that we should focus more on deed.

In the horrific case of John Paul Massey in my constituency, a focus on the breed disrupted and undermined the partnership that needs to work between a housing association and the police when the public report concerns about the behaviour of dogs. Chipping dogs and encouraging owners to be trained in ownership, not focusing on the breed, is the way forward.

There is a great deal of sense in the comments of my right hon. Friend, who sadly has experience of this matter, through the constituency case to which she referred. In the end my concern, and I think that of the House, is that we come up with a set of proposals that will help to deal with the remaining problem. Certainly, some people argue that spending time looking at the features of a particular dog to determine whether it falls within the four categories in the original legislation might not necessarily be the most sensible approach. That is one of the questions that we have raised in the consultation paper.

I wish to follow the comments by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about the Staffordshire bull terrier. Anyone who owns a Staffordshire bull terrier knows what lovely, warm animals they are, but they were demonised in our national media through ignorance and a misunderstanding of what a dangerous dog is. The very title “dangerous dog” is misleading in the campaign to control the ownership of a dog—it is a privilege and not to be given out lightly. What are we going to do to stop the people who own these dogs?

I take my hon. Friend’s point that demonisation will not help anybody to deal with the problem. This debate is about what further steps we can take, building on existing legislation, and amending it if that is sensible, to put in place effective measures to deal with the problem of the small number of owners—the vast majority of dog owners are responsible and as concerned about this as anybody else—who through breeding, training or incitement allow their dogs to do the kind of things that we have seen.

On Monday the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), said,

“we are still interested, certainly from a Home Office perspective, in views on third-party insurance”.—[Official Report, 22 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 4.]

Ministers know the problems with bull breeds in certain communities and they know about their effects on people living in those communities, so what do this Government do? They use a sledgehammer to miss a nut. They have had 13 years to get this issue right and now, in the run-up to an election, they produce measures, immediately withdraw them and then partially reintroduce them again. Do they actually talk to their Home Office colleagues? What confidence can we have that this Government will bring in measures that will deal with a serious and urgent problem?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I am pretty reluctant to take lectures on effective legislation from the party responsible for the original, 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which had to be amended in 1997. He should be slightly cautious on that subject. That is the first point.

The second point—[Interruption.] I was not in the House at the time; I will take credit for what I have done. The second point is that third-party insurance could be useful to particular dog owners. For example, it could be part of a dog control order. Third-party insurance was included in the consultation paper because some who have been party to the debate suggested it. The Dogs Trust, for example, is in favour of the proposal and thinks that it would be sensible to have compulsory third-party insurance. However, I am afraid to say that the Opposition decided to go around suggesting that the Government had already made up their mind to introduce compulsory third-party insurance for everybody. That is not our position, and that is why I made it clear that we do not intend to proceed with that proposal.


3. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the recycling of household waste; and if he will make a statement. (324048)

Local authorities are best placed to make decisions on waste management. We strongly encourage recycling through a range of measures, from targeted funding to help to set up recycling and composting facilities, to the landfill tax and the landfill allowance trading scheme. Direct support is also provided to local authorities through the Waste and Resources Action Programme.

Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing regret at Lib Dem-controlled Sheffield city council, which is proposing to take away the very popular blue bins for paper and green bins for garden waste, and replace them with green sacks, which are potentially dangerous, and small blue boxes for paper, which are heavy for pensioners to lift? Will he use his influence to persuade the council not to go down that route, because there is widespread public opposition and it could actually reduce recycling?

I fully appreciate that my hon. Friend is concerned that his constituents have great concerns about the issue. Indeed, I have been reading about it in the Sheffield Star, in which there have been some strong editorials. However, at the end of the day, it is a matter for local authorities to decide how they manage waste, although we would obviously encourage them to listen carefully to the communities that they serve, to ensure that they take into account their specific needs.

UK households generate enough waste in one year to power a town the size of Kendal for 65 years if that waste is recycled properly. It is vital that we recycle and reduce our waste, but it is also vital that we make good use—and green use—of the waste produced, so will the Minister tell us why, when Germany has 2,500 anaerobic digesters, the UK has merely 38?

The truth is that we are investing significantly in anaerobic digestion. We are very keen on it: it is an important technology, which we should be using much more effectively than we have done historically. I accept completely that other countries are ahead of us at the moment, but we are learning from their experience, so that we are not reinventing the wheel. I am confident that we will make significant progress through a range of incentives that we have created for that important process.

But will my hon. Friend look again at how private finance initiative credits can crowd out recycling, which can mean that we end up with what some of us do not want, namely the encouragement of incineration? That is happening in Gloucestershire, and it is about time that it was stopped.

I am not sure that I would accept my hon. Friend’s analysis of the situation. In fact, we have a good record on recycling. It has quadrupled in the past 10 years. I accept his point about crowding out, in the sense that we would not want to encourage anything to do with landfill or incineration if there are other options, but reducing, re-using and recycling are essential, and that is the thrust of everything that we say and do.

Air Quality

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards meeting European air quality standards; and if he will make a statement. (324049)

As a result of improvements over many years, EU limits for air quality are met across most of the UK. Limits for particulate matter are yet to be achieved on only a small number of roads in central London. For nitrogen dioxide, limits are exceeded on less than one third of major roads in urban areas across the UK. The Government are working with delivery partners to achieve the limits as soon as possible.

The Minister’s answer suggests that he has not read the report that was published this Monday by the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, which states:

“Poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of seven to eight months and up to 50,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it.”

The Committee, which has nine Labour members, concluded unanimously that

“air quality is not seen as a priority across government and the UK is failing to meet a range of domestic and European targets”.

Why have the Labour Government not got their act together after 13 years?

The hon. Gentleman does me a disservice by saying that I have not looked at the report. I gave evidence to the Committee and we are obviously very interested in the report’s conclusions and recommendations. We look forward to considering and responding to them in due course. An assessment based on 2008 data shows that air pollution is expected to reduce life expectancy by an average of six months and have an annual cost of £15 billion, compared with an average of seven to eight months and a cost of £20 billion based on 2005 data. This demonstrates that, even in that short period of time, we have made considerable progress. We are not in denial over this, however; it is a very important issue. We welcome the Committee’s report and we will be proceeding with the recommendations as soon as we can.

Will the Minister take his team to Bogotá in Colombia, a city of 7 million people, where, every Sunday, all vehicular traffic is banned and the city becomes a paradise for cyclists, walkers and joggers? Why cannot we shut down in London in that way for a day a week, or for an hour each morning to allow children to be taken to school and to allow me to bike or jog to Parliament without my lungs being clogged up by the filthy fumes of our city? Let us have an hour a day free of traffic in London—[Interruption.]

My right hon. Friend is obviously in good form this morning, as has been demonstrated by that question and by the sedentary comments that his suggestion has received. Since 1997, there have been significant reductions in road transport emissions—including of particulate matter 10 by 42 per cent., of oxides of nitrogen, NOx, by 48 per cent., and of sulphur dioxide, SO2, by 91 per cent.—in spite of traffic increasing by 13 per cent. The Mayor of London is due to publish the findings of a public consultation on a draft air quality strategy for London today, and we look forward to seeing what he recommends.

First, may I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute to Ashok Kumar? I worked with him on the issue of tuberculosis and its effects on developing countries, and I soon grew to appreciate his great decency and wisdom. Just as the Secretary of State will miss his supportive presence behind him, I will miss Ashok’s reproachful gaze from across the Floor of the House.

Britain is exceeding pollution limits, and we are still waiting for a plan to clean up our act. Just as the Government were slow to act on landfill targets, they have dragged their feet on air quality and we now risk infraction proceedings from Brussels on air quality and on waste. They have had more than a decade to make Britain cleaner and greener; why have DEFRA Ministers failed to deliver?

This Government have introduced many significant measures to reduce air pollution. Additional measures announced in the excellent Budget speech by right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday include a reduced pollution certificate for heavy goods vehicles that achieve early compliance with the Euro 6 emissions standards, and a halving of company car tax for ultra-low carbon vehicles. Both those measures will help to improve air quality and support UK green jobs. We are working hard to avoid the risk of infraction, which can lead to fines; we are hopeful that we will be able to avoid them.

The Government’s inability to produce a credible plan could result in infraction fines of up to £300 million. Their incompetence with the Rural Payments Agency has already resulted in fines of £75 million. Is it not a scandalous example of a waste of public money that they are raising taxes on the public to pay financial penalties to Brussels because of their failure to deliver?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ability to criticise the RPA during a question on air quality. That is very imaginative, but there is no relation between the two. I have just said that we hope to be able to avoid the risk of infraction leading to fines. For particulate matter, the risk is now very small. On nitrogen dioxide, meeting the limit values is more challenging, but we have additional time to prepare our case to the Commission; and, as I said in my original answer, the Mayor of London is responsible for improving air quality here, along with the London boroughs. Following a review of a public consultation, a draft air quality strategy for London is expected shortly. As I mentioned, we hope to see it today.

Local Food Sourcing

5. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on steps to increase local food sourcing by the public sector. (324051)

Earlier this month I met Ministers from the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to discuss ways of improving the sustainability of food that is procured for those Departments. I have also written to Ministers in all relevant Government Departments to make sure that they are personally backing this agenda, which includes strong support for regional and local food.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He knows that 2009 was another difficult year for many British farmers. Will he explain why Government procurement of British food actually fell during that year, and in particular, why NHS procurement dropped sharply? Why are the Government failing to back British farmers and British food at this time?

I am sorry; I do not recognise the statistics quoted by the hon. Gentleman to show that Government Departments across the board are moving backwards. We believe that we are making good progress on this subject. A recent report says that 13 out of 21 Departments have increased the amount of home-grown food that they serve as a percentage of all food supplied. Two have remained the same and three have gone down. For the others, there is no comparable data relating to the year before. We do not pretend that there is no room for improvement—of course there is—and we are working hard to address the issue in the meetings with ministerial colleagues that I mentioned and through the exchange of correspondence among Departments. The latest figures are a year behind and I believe that we will see further progress this year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to get people to understand the importance of local sourcing, we have to educate children and families? Does he share my concern about a Natural England survey showing that the likelihood of a child visiting any green space has halved in a generation? Is it not about time that we opened up the countryside and showed children where food is grown?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are indeed working hard with the DCSF and other organisations to promote school visits into the countryside so that children can learn where their food comes from and be encouraged to grow some food on their school premises. More and more schools are engaging in that. Under the eco-schools project, about 1,000 green flag schools are finding out where food comes from and are growing their own as part of a holistic approach to the environment. My hon. Friend makes a very good point; we will continue to work hard on that agenda.

I am afraid that the Minister’s attempt to spin these figures will fool no one. Only last month he told us that he hoped they would show improvement, but the reality is that the figures show that the Government are sourcing a declining proportion of British food—less British poultry, less British beef, less British lamb and less British pork. Some Departments are not buying a single rasher of British bacon. What kind of leadership and example does it show when this Government purchase a lower proportion of British food than the country as whole? Is it not time that we had a Government who cared about British farming and who bought food only to sustainable British standards?

We need the best of British producers to be able to tender for and win the big public and private sector contracts both at home and abroad. We are doing what we can to help promote the sustainability criteria and the animal welfare criteria and we will do everything we can to encourage Government Departments to procure British products.

Drains and Sewers (Transfer Guidance)

6. When he expects to publish guidance on the transfer of ownership of private drains and sewers to water companies. (324052)

We have previously made clear our intention to consult on proposals for regulations to implement the transfer of private sewers before the summer, setting out the detailed arrangements for transfer. I am pleased to announce that we have made further progress and that we will be able to bring forward proposals for consultation on the regulations a little earlier—by the end of May.

That will be of some encouragement to my constituents in the village of Codsall who fear flooding every time there is torrential rain. Can the Minister give me an absolute guarantee that we will have action within the year?

Yes, indeed. I am greatly encouraged by the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

We have made clear our commitment to the transfer of private sewers. We will provide enough time for consultation, and we will begin the transfer in 2011.

This will be my last appearance at DEFRA questions. Members will be pleased to learn that I shall not be asking about fish, otters or cormorants. The session has, however, been enhanced by the notion of Sunday walk-by shootings in Bogota.

The Minister will be aware of the 10-year campaign that I have waged on behalf of my constituents on the Haddocks estate in Tilehurst for the adoption of their drains by the water companies, as recommended by the excellent Pitt review. Can the Minister assure them that he has managed to secure cross-party agreement for that very necessary measure, so that whoever wins the next election, my constituents will not face the horror of a hike in their bills as a result of the failure to adopt their drains many years ago?

I commend my hon. Friend on his campaign on behalf of people living on the Haddocks estate and elsewhere. I also commend others who have campaigned long and hard. I think—I am now looking across at the Opposition Front Bench—that we have a consensus on the transfer of private sewers from 2011. That will be good for my hon. Friend’s constituents, and for tens of thousands of people throughout the country. It will be good for Norman and Sheila Jewell of Pencoed, Mike Edwards of Sarn, Brian Whitmore of Brynna and many others. It will save them from the horror of facing bills for, in some instances, tens of thousands of pounds when their private or lateral drains collapse.

Farming (Competitiveness)

The Government are committed to maintaining a thriving, competitive and sustainable agri-food sector in partnership with the supply chain, as part of our Food 2030 strategy. Reforming the common agricultural policy will improve the industry’s ability to respond to consumer demand. We are providing £300 million between 2007 and 2013 to improve competitiveness in the agriculture and forestry sectors through the rural development programme for England, and over five years we are investing £80 million in research and development, of which £50 million is new money.

Whatever the Government may say, it remains a scandal that, according to both Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian, the latest European Union fines for late payments by the Rural Payments Agency amount to £90 million. Does the Minister not accept that the money would have been better spent on ensuring fair competition for our farmers, particularly when it comes to imports?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, according to the latest figures relating to RPA payments under the single payment scheme, it met its two formal targets, which were to pay 75 per cent. by value by 31 January and 90 per cent. by value at the end of March, ahead of schedule. The latest figures show that, as of Tuesday 23 March, 93 per cent. of customers have been paid and 93 per cent. of the fund has been paid. The RPA’s performance has improved year on year.

We certainly do not want to pay unnecessary fines to Brussels. We want to support the food and agriculture industry, and we will continue to do so.

The National Association of Cider Makers has led the way on responsible drinking. How has the Minister got the nerve to tell the House all those nice things about agriculture when yesterday, on the same spot, the Chancellor increased duty on cider by 10 per cent. over inflation? There are 600 businesses in Herefordshire alone producing this exclusively British drink. How will the Minister ever persuade anyone to take anything he says about British agriculture seriously again?

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the industry in his constituency. Historically, however, cider producers pay lower rates of duty than other producers, and the rate that they will now pay is about half that paid on beer. The smallest UK cider producers will remain exempt from the duty increase—they are subject to a small cider makers’ exemption which applies to makers who produce fewer than 7,000 litres a year—and we estimate that, as a result, nearly 400 UK cider makers will not be affected by any of the changes announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

As has already been pointed out, the competitiveness of farming has been affected by the appalling record and performance of the Rural Payments Agency. There has been considerable investment in IT, but it has failed to remedy all the failures. What steps has the Minister taken to improve the efficiency of operations managers in the RPA, so that they can balance resources to meet their work loads and thence deliver improved performance for their customers?

The RPA is under extreme pressure to ensure that it makes efficiency savings, as is every Government Department and Government organisation. Online pre-populated application forms will be available this year, and drop-in centres will be opened for farmers so that they can speak face to face to RPA officers, because we want to make sure that we have an even smoother passage in terms of concluding the mapping this year and next year’s payments. Clear improvements have been made year on year since the debacle of the 2005-06 regime, and I hope this year’s efficiencies will be apparent to all farmers. We are also having regular meetings with the RPA and stakeholders to try to make sure that everybody is aware of all the possible improvements.

Order. We now urgently require brevity, a legendary example of which will be provided by Mr. Jim Paice.

Anything is possible, Mr. Speaker.

Our farmers produce some £7 billion-worth of food, which, as the Secretary of State has said, supplies an £80 billion food processing sector. Farming also provides the basis for our £14 billion rural tourism industry, and, in total, is responsible for about 5 million jobs. Yet last week the Government stated in their skills document that not only agriculture, but the food sector too, are of low economic significance. Do they have any idea how damning that is after 13 years of a Labour Government?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we recognise the significance and importance of the food-agri sector to the UK economy. I mentioned earlier the support we have put in place for it, such as through the rural development programme for England and our attempt to reform the common agricultural policy. The Dairy Supply Chain Forum, the Fruit and Vegetable Task Force and the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force also provide sector support, and we are also investing in both the skills agenda and research and development. As outlined earlier this month, we have reduced regulation by more than 20 per cent. as well. We are doing what we can, therefore, but we know there is more to do, and we will continue to try to do it.

Landfill (2010 Targets)

8. What progress has been made towards meeting the 2010 targets for waste management under the EU landfill directive. (324054)

Very good progress is being made toward meeting the 2010 target to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill. In 2008, significantly less of this waste was land-filled than the 2010 target requires, and there is every reason to believe that the amount of waste sent to landfill has continued to follow a downward path since.

But when it was drawn to the attention of the Secretary of State’s Department that the 2013 target was going to be nowhere near met, his spokesman replied that the

“targets remain challenging and local authorities need to continue their good work to date.”

Does the Secretary of State agree that that reflects breathtaking complacency? In the dying days of this Parliament, will he produce a policy that has some zip and coherence and that people can respect?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I must say that I profoundly disagree with what he has just said. In 1997, this Government inherited a household recycling rate of 8 per cent., but it is now 37 per cent., and I pay tribute to the work done over the past 13 years by local authorities and others to achieve that improvement. The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that I recently launched a consultation on how we might make still further improvements, and there is even a suggestion that we should reach a point when, as a nation, we say that certain products will no longer be sent to landfill. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that, if he is keen to get us as close as possible to achieving zero waste, which is my aim and that of the Opposition spokesmen.

We remember Ashok, and we will greatly miss him.

In yesterday’s Budget, the Government increased landfill tax, which we welcome because it will improve green disposal of waste, but how does the Secretary of State respond to the damning National Audit Office report and the finding that the Government have failed to set binding targets for business waste? There is six times more business waste than domestic waste, and the Government are failing to deal with it; they are completely missing their target.

I do not agree, because the rate for recycling commercial and industrial waste is higher than for household waste, not lower. When the last comprehensive survey was conducted in 2002, the recycling rate was approaching 50 per cent. There is no doubt in my mind that it is higher now, which is why we will undertake a further survey later this year. The hon. Lady will have seen the paper that we published on commercial and industrial waste. I have just launched a consultation on landfill bans, which are pretty darn ambitious and would apply to commercial and industrial waste, as they would to household waste.

Small and Medium-Sized Family Farms

9. What recent assessment he has made of the future financial viability of small and medium-sized family farms. (324056)

Although we have not made a specific assessment as requested by the hon. Gentleman, the financial viability of the agriculture sector is strong. Average farm business income across all farm types increased by 6 per cent. in 2008-09 and is expected to remain at similar levels for 2009-10. Although these are averages for all sizes, small and medium-sized farms would be expected to show the same year-to-year trends in income.

My beautiful constituency of Macclesfield has many small and medium-sized family farms. Will the Government support the seven policy statements in the National Farmers Union manifesto, which I believe will bring about conditions in which family farms can improve both their production and their income and, thus, make a great contribution to the economy and food production in this country?

We recognise the invaluable contribution made to the rural economy by small and medium-sized farms, and we have already discussed the sector’s importance this morning. We work closely with the NFU, and we are aware that it has produced this checklist of policies that it would expect political parties to consider in advance of the general election—obviously we will be doing just that.

Hunting Act

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Hunting Act 2004; and if he will make a statement. (324058)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he share the concerns of constituents who have written to me to say that if the 2004 Act were repealed the only part of Britain that would have a ban on hunting foxes with hounds would be Scotland? Does he agree that this cruel and barbaric practice should be consigned to where it belongs—the scrap heap of history?

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. I find it very hard to understand why it is the Opposition’s policy to enable the repeal of the hunting ban, because that is not in line with public opinion. It would help in the process of understanding the policy being urged upon the Government if the Opposition could make it clear whether their policy also extends to allowing a return to stag hunting and hare coursing. I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition about this some time ago and I have not had the courtesy of a reply.

Anaerobic Digestion Facilities

16. How many anaerobic digestion facilities for the disposal of fallen stock have been opened in each of the last three years. (324066)

Disposal of fallen stock by means of anaerobic digestion is not permitted under the EU Animal By-products Regulation 1774/2002. This is because of the animal and public health risk associated with such means of disposal.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Last July, the Government set up an anaerobic digestion task group which, in conjunction with the Renewable Energy Association, recommended feed-in tariffs to encourage the use of anaerobic digestion for biogas electricity production. Those recommendations have been completely ignored by the Government. Instead of four bands, they have proposed two bands at a lower level. This will not provide sufficient encouragement—

Order. We must have a question, not a series of statements. One sentence and we will finish.

My question to the Minister is: how will this reduced feed-in tariff lead to the development of 1,000 anaerobic digestion plants on farms as the Government are hoping?

This is a new feed-in tariff, but capital allowances will deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises. May I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to announce that today our implementation plan for anaerobic digestion will be published? The plan sets out how we will work with partners in the public and private sector to accelerate the uptake of anaerobic digestion in England. This will include things such as feed-in tariffs, anaerobic digestion programmes and other such elements.

Food Wastage

The Government are working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—to cut food waste through the “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign and the Courtauld commitment, and we are working with the Food Standards Agency to improve the understanding and use of guidance on food date labelling and storage.

The pressure group Pig Business has highlighted that 4.1 million tonnes of food is wasted every year. In addition to the good work that the Government are doing, as listed by the Secretary of State, what work can be done with supermarkets to encourage a reduction in food waste?

A number of supermarkets are working very hard towards reducing that and towards sending no food waste to landfill. Indeed, I visited one of the nation’s anaerobic digesters at the start of the week, and there were two great big piles of waste—one had come from supermarkets and stores and the other had come from households, principally in west London. That plant is generating about 2 MW of renewable energy, thereby turning a problem into an opportunity for the nation. That is why we need more of that, and the measures to which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), has just referred will encourage a further increase in the number of anaerobic digester plants.

When my right hon. Friend next talks to food producers and packers, will he ask them to bear it in mind that an increasing number of us are living alone? It would be much easier to stop throwing food away if, for example, packets of bacon were reduced from eight rashers to just four rashers.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. Another step that some supermarkets have taken is to move from “buy one get one free” offers to “buy one now, get one free later”. That simple change gives the same benefit to the consumer and helps to reduce food waste, so I warmly encourage it.

As this will be my last Question Time, may I thank the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers for the help that they have given to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? In that context, in our report on—

Rural Economy

19. What steps his Department is taking together with other Government Departments to strengthen the rural economy. (324069)

Rural economies are as diverse and, on average, as strong as their urban counterparts. All parts of Government are committed to supporting rural economies through mainstream departmental programmes. Those include £3.9 billion-worth of support to businesses and communities, from 2007 to 2013, from the rural development programme for England, as well as maintaining rural post offices through a £150 million annual network grant and providing £2.6 million in European recovery programme support for rural community broadband.

Given that list of activities, why does the Minister think that the rural advocate, Stuart Burgess, said in his latest report that

“the future viability of our rural communities is at risk if young people are unable to live and work”

in our rural areas?

The rural advocate, who was, of course, appointed by the Prime Minister, was absolutely right to point out those concerns. I, too, represent a rural constituency, and it is clear to me that young people are being forced to move out because there is a lack of affordable homes in rural communities. Local authorities have to work with Government and other people within rural communities to provide that housing, but that simply is not happening.

Topical Questions

It is the Department’s responsibility to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I am pleased to tell the House that I am today placing a copy of Sir John Lawton’s progress report on his review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological networks in the Library. The work is looking at all land, not just that which is currently designated, and will examine the opportunities to help land managers to restore and enrich England’s natural environment using such things as biodiversity offsets, agri-environment schemes and other measures. I look forward to acting on Sir John’s report when it is published in the summer.

Are Ministers a little disappointed that, out of the 43,000 miles of river in England and Wales, fewer than 1,500 are open to canoeists, still? Given that the Welsh Assembly is thinking of following the Scottish model of opening access to the country’s rivers completely, is there not a danger of England being left behind?

First, may I commend my hon. Friend on his work to promote access for canoeists? We have had some useful meetings, and I can give him a commitment to bring together the various stakeholders—the Environment Agency, himself, the canoeing fraternity, anglers and others—to sit down and see what more we can do. We should approach this matter in partnership to make sure that we have biodiversity in our rivers, that our rivers are healthy and that there is good access to them.

T2. What action is the Secretary of State taking to validate the polymerase chain reaction test to detect tuberculosis-infected badger setts? (324072)

We continue to work on effective means of diagnosis. The problem, as the hon. Lady will know, is that there is currently no reliable in-field test to identify it. On bovine TB, the House will, I am sure, want to know that the injectable badger vaccine has been approved by the veterinary medicines directorate. That means that the six demonstration projects on which I have previously reported to the House can now go ahead in the summer.

Will the Secretary of State join me in applauding the trail-blazing work of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, whose methods for ensuring that business waste is used as a valued resource are now attracting attention from all over the world—and, indeed, exports? Will he ensure that the Treasury continues to enjoy the benefits of that input to the economy by not cutting that programme?

I echo everything that my hon. Friend has said about NISP. It is groundbreaking stuff. Any Member who wants to see just how good it is should look at its latest annual report, which is stuffed full of examples. For instance, under that programme, people with materials that they no longer need are brought together with those who want to make use of them. This really important work shows us the potential to make much more resource-efficient use of materials in the future. We will continue to support that.

T3. This month, Natural England identified nearly 500 animals and plants that have become extinct in England in the past 200 years, including the gypsy moth and the great yellow bumblebee. Last week, at the international convention on endangered species, we failed to provide protection to the bluefin tuna. What advice does the Secretary of State give to his successors so that we can make more effective the protection of endangered species at home and abroad? (324073)

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that we need to keep looking at the mechanisms on how we reach the right decisions for biodiversity, for the natural environment and for climate change, too, in tackling those issues. I hope that he recognises that this Government have been at the forefront on not only the protection of bluefin tuna but other international welfare issues.

One of the encouraging things was that although Natural England’s report, which the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights, showed the decline across a range of species, it also pinpointed our successes. It offered a note of optimism in that if we make the right decisions as a Government and collectively, we will make progress and will reverse the declines that we have seen in this country.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that DEFRA, when it is procuring advice and consultancy, should seriously consider the great work that is done by small charities such as Urban Mines, which I chair? Does he share my concern that the big commercial consultancies are often coming into that field, tendering and getting work for which they are much less well qualified?

In taking decisions about procurement for consultancy work—as we have already made clear, we will need to make savings on that—it is important that we take on the people who are best qualified to do the job of work.

T4. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has already raised the issue of biodiversity and the Government’s approach to it. At the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission in June, it is feared that there will be a decision to reintroduce commercial whaling. If no consensus is reached by the European Union IWC members, all European member states will have to abstain. Can the Minister assure me that the UK will oppose the resumption of commercial whaling, even if it means breaking the informal European agreement to abstain, and vote against any proposal that would endorse any form of commercial whaling? (324074)

We are resolutely opposed to any form of commercial whaling—we always have been and always will be. Our position is clear: we oppose all forms of whaling other than limited whaling operations by indigenous people for clearly defined subsistence purposes. As we have reservations about the reform proposals, not least because there is no guarantee of a significant reduction in the number of whales killed and because they do not provide for a phasing out of either scientific or commercial whaling, I will be writing to and seeking a meeting urgently with the European Commission to ensure that any EU common position works in favour of whales rather than in favour of whalers.

The Minister will be aware of the hare-brained plan set out by the last but one Leader of the Opposition to abolish the anglers’ rod licence, which was hinted at again this week by the current Leader of the Opposition in his Angling Times interview. Based on today’s figure, that would mean stripping £24 million or 70 per cent. from the Environment Agency’s fishery budget. This means no restocking, dirtier rivers and a bleak future for Britain’s 3 million anglers. Would the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to retaining the anglers’ rod licence and its income for fisheries work?

My hon. Friend has put me on the spot somewhat, but I can give him a guarantee on the matter. The rod licence is one of our rare hypothecated levies, and the proceeds from it go directly back into river management. The guarantee that I give him is that, when this Government are returned, we will make sure that that continues, to the benefit of anglers and others.

T5. Do Ministers realise the practical difficulties that sheep farmers face in implementing the ear tagging electronic reading scheme? Those difficulties have been added to by the abolition of the five-year rule, which means that farmers have to use the scheme even when moving sheep between their own nearby fields. Will he make sure that, at least in the first year, the authorities place the emphasis on helping, working with and supporting farmers, and not on rushing into prosecutions? (324075)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that when the eID regime was introduced we fought right to the end at negotiations in Brussels to secure some late improvements and amendments, to the benefit of British farmers. We will continue to press for such changes, because we think that the scheme can be improved still further. We will do what we can to help the industry deal with the new regulations.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It is my swansong too, and I am grateful for your generosity. Has my hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1142? Does he accept that it ought to be a matter of concern to the Government that a decision at Warwick university, which I perfectly understand, is risking the applied science research base in agriculture and horticulture in the UK? It would be very helpful if Ministers could lead an impact assessment of that decision.

Strangely, Mr. Speaker, I have here a copy of the early-day motion put down by my right hon. Friend, who is a highly regarded parliamentary colleague and a distinguished former Minister in the Department. We recognise the concerns that she raises in her early-day motion. We will look at them and report back to her as soon as we can.

T6. The five rivers that flow into the Avon basin are being depleted by abstraction. Has the Secretary of State finished reflecting on last year’s consultation on the abolition of Crown immunity from water abstraction licensing, particularly as it applies to the Ministry of Defence and its establishments on Salisbury plain? (324076)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for applying continuing pressure on this issue. He is right to do so, because the impact of abstraction can be significant in the beautiful areas that he represents. As he knows, we consulted last summer about implementing the remaining water abstraction provisions of the Water Act 2003, including on the removal of exemptions for Crown bodies. He will be slightly disappointed to hear that we are still considering the responses to the consultation. They are complex, so I am unable to say when abstraction provisions will be introduced, but we are actively considering all the detailed issues.

Order. My appetite for hearing colleagues’ questions and Ministers’ answers is almost unlimited. I would like to be able to satisfy that appetite, so short questions and short answers are required.

My question is about local food sourcing by the public sector. Is my hon. Friend aware that Airedale general hospital in my constituency now gets all its meals trucked from Pembrokeshire by a company called Sodexo? I campaigned against that, with people from the local community, but to no avail. That is what is happening, and it is absolutely ludicrous.

As I said in response to an earlier question, I recently had a meeting with my ministerial colleague at the Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), when we discussed the question of procurement. I am disappointed to hear of my hon. Friend’s experience with her local hospital. We are doing everything that we can to increase the amount of locally produced food procured by Government Departments.

T7. Agricultural and horticultural shows, such as the one in Poynton in my constituency or the annual trials held by the Macclesfield and District Sheep Dog Trials Association, are getting increasingly costly. They are also getting more difficult to organise each year because of regulations, health and safety considerations, and so on. Is there anything that the Government can do to try and ensure that these wonderful countryside traditions can continue? (324077)

Some of the great memories that I will take from serving as Minister of State at DEFRA over the past 10 or so months are the visits to agricultural shows across the country. I certainly hope that I will be able to continue to visit shows after the election, but that is beyond my gift. The Government recognise the importance of the shows, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do what we can to help organisers make sure that they can continue.

T8. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) mentioned the Leader of the Opposition’s comments in Angling Times, but what my right hon. Friend actually said was:“What we can promise you is that we will have a proper conversation about the licence. If it works and it is genuinely hypothecated we will keep it.” Does the Minister agree that the hon. Member for Reading, West, should not be playing cheap politics with anglers in this country? (324078)

I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has been giving many interviews lately. Let me tell him that there is no need for any conversation about the licence; it does work, and we are keeping it.

T9. In the light of the report on the National Forest and its future by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what reassurance can the Minister give the body that its funding will be maintained, so that its long-term reafforestation work can continue? (324079)

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to raise the fact that we are increasing woodland coverage. In the UK, it is now 2.8 million hectares, up from 2.2 million hectares back in 1980, and it is continuing to increase. Of course, as part of our climate change commitments, we have an undertaking to increase woodland coverage, not least for the commercial conifer sector, which needs the wood to trade with.

T10. This week, the Select Committee’s report on the failure of Dairy Farmers of Britain expressed regret that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will not allow income tax relief to farmers who converted the debt owed to them by the co-operative into shares. Will the Secretary of State join the Select Committee in urging HMRC to reconsider its position? (324080)

We will, of course, look very carefully at the Select Committee report. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened, but I welcomed the Committee’s kind words about the role that DEFRA played in trying to support Dairy Farmers of Britain through the difficult times that it experienced. I pay tribute to my colleagues who worked very hard on the issue.

I am indebted to your appetite, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has already lost twice in the High Court to the Lymington river association. Can we avoid another expensive spat? Will the Minister show Natural England the rough end of a pineapple to encourage it to take seriously the evidence that the association is giving it?

The hon. Gentleman and I have had many conversations and a deal of correspondence on the issue. He has worked hard on behalf of his constituents. There are lessons to be learned all round, not least by the ferry operators. Natural England will continue to do what it is doing. It is good at engagement on the ground with stakeholders, but there are lessons to be learned to help us to avoid such situations in future.

Will the Minister show the rough end of a pineapple, and give much stronger advice, to my local council, Castle Point borough council, to stop it planning to put a massive housing estate on our floodplain?

I will take up the hon. Gentleman’s issue with the Environment Agency, but he will understand that we do not intervene in individual applications for housing developments. The review that we have undertaken of planning policy statement 25 on building on floodplains, and Sir Michael Pitt, have made it clear that local authorities have to be able to put forward a good case for building on floodplains occasionally; otherwise, towns such as Hull, and places such as the centre of Lowestoft, would be condemned to planning blight for ever.

Order. I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he was standing up a few moments ago. I thought that he was going to congratulate me on my generosity.

I fear this is becoming a love-in, but thank you for the surprise, Mr. Speaker; it is not even my birthday.

On a serious point, may I challenge the Secretary of State on why this country still has 5,000 primates being kept as so-called pets? Is it not time to end that barbaric practice, rather than just licensing it?

We recognise the concerns raised by many people across the country on that area of policy. The regulations are there to give the protection that people expect, and obviously we keep them under review. There is growing concern about the keeping of primates or other species, particularly those that are endangered, and about animals in circuses, but we always maintain vigilance to make sure that policy reflects public opinion, and that the highest standards of animal welfare are maintained.