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Topical Questions

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

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.