House of Commons
Thursday 25 March 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
London Local Authorities Bill [lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
The Government are satisfied that the Hunting Act 2004 has been effective in stopping hunting with dogs.
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
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 29 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 30 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill.
The business for the week commencing 5 April will include:
Tuesday 6 April—Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Equality Bill.
Wednesday 7 April—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords].
Thursday 8 April—A general debate on international development.
Friday 9 April—The House will not be sitting.
The House is grateful for the forthcoming business.
Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm the worrying rumour that this is her last business questions? Does she seriously believe that on Thursday 8 April the House will debate international development, important thought that subject is?
Yesterday, why did the Chancellor fail to explain that he was freezing all personal allowances below the level of inflation, leading to a £2.2 billion stealth tax on 30 million people? When the measure was announced in the pre-Budget report, inflation was negative; now it is 3.7 per cent. That will take almost £50 out of the pockets of the lowest paid. Is that what the Government call “A Future Fair for All”?
Next Tuesday, when a Treasury Minister winds up the last day of the Budget debate, will he take the opportunity to explain why the taxman is failing to pick up the telephone? Almost 45 million people failed to get through to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs last year—with many others stuck on hold. Does the right hon. and learned Lady think that that is acceptable?
Once again, will the right hon. and learned Lady correct the record for the Prime Minister? Last week she turned down my offer of an opportunity to apologise for the Prime Minister’s inaccurate use of figures on defence spending. Now he has failed to come to the House to explain why he said on 17 March that 300,000 businesses had been supported through the recession by HMRC’s deferred payment scheme—despite the real figure being cited in a parliamentary answer as 160,000.
Can we also have a statement on freedom of information requests? The Government have done everything in their power to prevent the publication of papers relating to the Prime Minister’s decision to sell our gold reserves, as well as his disastrous raid on pensions. Yesterday, at Question Time, the Prime Minister said:
“It is a matter for the Information Commissioner”.—[Official Report, 24 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 240.]
But it is only a matter for the Information Commissioner because the Treasury has refused to make the papers available. If the Government are so relaxed, why do they not publish all that information today?
Can I press the right hon. and learned Lady again on her plans to implement the Wright Committee’s recommendations on strengthening the House, and to do so before Dissolution? I note she has tabled the Standing Orders, but they do not make it clear that topical debates score as one quarter of a day, as Wright recommended. Will she re-table the Standing Order with that amendment? Will she also sketch out the details of her plan B, which she shared with the House last week? If amendments are tabled to her Standing Orders, as they have been to the other Standing Orders, when will we debate them before Dissolution?
Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady failed to assure the House that all written questions would be answered before Dissolution. According to the parliamentary information service, more than 2,000 questions are still outstanding. Will she make sure that all Ministers respond properly by the end of the Session?
Turning to next week’s business, I note that when we agreed to adjourn next Tuesday after the Budget, we did not know that we would be debating the Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill after all the Budget votes. That Bill is an important piece of legislation, on which the Government suffered several humiliating defeats in the upper House. I note also that we will be sitting earlier that day, but would it not be better to delay the recess by one day and deal with the legislation properly on Wednesday? That would also give the House the opportunity to debate the Easter Adjournment, a debate that the right hon. and learned Lady has denied to Back Benchers, many of whom were hoping to use it as an opportunity for a valedictory speech. That extra day could also be used to debate the Standing Orders in respect of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, and of course we could have another round of Prime Minister’s questions.
Finally, given that this may be the last opportunity to reflect on the high points of this Parliament, does the right hon. and learned Lady recall her victorious deputy leadership campaign? Apparently, this was not as well received as it might have been. According to an eye-witness—one of his aides—when the Prime Minister discovered the result, “his face fell”, but
“he put his hands on my shoulders and said: ‘It will be all right. We’ll make it all right’.”
Has he made it all right?
What I have done today is to announce the business for this week and the provisional business for the week after the recess, and that is the normal way we do things. I do not confirm anything beyond what I say in the business statement.
On the Budget debate, the right hon. Gentleman will have heard that this is a Budget that helps to secure the recovery, helps to invest in industry and new jobs, helps to protect front-line public services, and helps the many, not the few. He will not have seen in the Budget an announcement that there would be cuts in inheritance tax for the top 2,000 richest families; instead, he will have seen an increase in the minimum wage and a continued commitment to tax credits. We do not need any lessons from the Opposition about fairness.
As for improving the services of HMRC, the Public Accounts Committee report came out today, and obviously we will reflect on that.
On the question of the number of businesses that have been helped by being allowed to defer paying their taxes, giving them more time to pay, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and place a copy of the letter in the Library. I thought that more than 200,000 businesses had been able to approach HMRC and ask to defer any of their taxes so that they could stay in business through the recession. Irrespective of the final figures—I will ensure that I give him an accurate version and place a copy in the Library—I would say very strongly that this has been part of the Government’s help to small, medium-sized and larger businesses, all of which has resulted in revenue not going into the Treasury; that has been partly why the deficit and public borrowing have increased, which was necessary to sustain businesses through the recession. Whatever the figure is, whether it is 200,000 or 300,000, it represents businesses that have been saved and jobs that have not gone down the pan, and all those things would not have happened if the Opposition were in government, because they opposed these measures.
On the Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposals, we have put on the Order Paper the Standing Orders that give effect to the resolutions of the House, and we will bring those forward for approval by the House on Monday. Those Standing Orders do no more, and no less, than what the House agreed to in its resolutions of 4 March, so they sit absolutely on all fours with those resolutions. Because the Standing Orders will give effect to resolutions that were agreed by the House after debates of some 10 hours—they simply put into effect the express will of the House—it is my expectation that they will be agreed without dissent. I hope that that will happen on Monday.
As regards parliamentary questions, we expect all written parliamentary questions to be answered, and we are liaising with Departments about that.
On the Personal Care at Home Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has drawn to the House’s attention the fact that, yes, there is a motion on the Order Paper for the House to sit at 11.30 am on that day rather than at the normal time. We have a short recess this time. I have set out the business on the basis that we will be coming back on the Tuesday after bank holiday Monday, which is quite an early return.
May I ask the Leader of the House when she decided to adjust the timing of next Tuesday’s sitting? Some prior consultation would have been extremely helpful, not only with other parties, but with Officers of the House and others who have to make the arrangements. It is not easy suddenly—on a whim—to change the timing of events.
I hear what the right hon. and learned Lady said about the inaccuracies in the Prime Minister’s statements. I agree with her—it was a good thing to have arrangements to help businesses through the recession, but an impressionistic, “This is a good thing” does not excuse the Prime Minister’s saying that 300,000 businesses were helped when the actual number was barely half—160,000. It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to give the House inaccurate figures. Clearly, double counting was involved, and the number of events rather than businesses was given, but let us correct the figure—let us have an opportunity to put it right.
I obviously listened carefully to the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday and I heard him announce the people’s bank proposals and say that everyone can have a basic bank account. While we are considering double counting, I wonder whether we can find time to contrast yesterday’s announcement with that by the Chancellor’s predecessor, the current Prime Minister, in the Budget speech in 2000. Following the Cruickshank review, he said that he would
“offer this basic banking service to all”.—[Official Report, 21 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 868.]
The words are almost the same, but there is an interval of 10 years between the two announcements. Can we please not have re-announcements of policies without subsequent activity?
Last week, I mentioned two important private Members’ Bills, which have a great deal of support from Members of all parties: the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, which deals with so-called vulture funds, and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. I add to that the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, which is remarkable because we found an hour and a half to debate the Ways and Means motion and the money resolution on it only this week. If the Government can find time for those resolutions, surely they can make clear their intentions about providing time for those Bills to complete their passage in the House. Why must we be kept in the dark about that? Why cannot the Leader of the House tell us whether, if the Government support the measures, they will complete their progress in this House and go to another place in time for Second Reading and to be included in the wash-up?
On the Back-Bench business committee, I am told that I have a suspicious mind—I think that the right hon. and learned Lady said last week that I had problems with trust. For heaven’s sake, I trusted the Leader of the House to do what she said: consult the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and me about the content of the motions. No consultation happened. I trusted her to table them in good time to enable debate to happen in good time, yet they have finally been tabled only today. She said that they will be on the Order Paper below the line on Monday. If there is an objection on Monday, will she tell us, without prevarication, when she will allocate one and a half hours to debate them? There is no reference in what she has put on the Order Paper or in her explanatory memorandum to the House’s major decision to establish not just a Back-Bench business committee, but a House business committee. There is a motion from the Wright Committee to that effect on the Order Paper. Will the Leader of the House provide time for that?
In the past couple of years, business questions have been characterised by complaints from Opposition parties about misinformation, double counting, recycled announcements and business organised for the benefit of the Government, not the House. I hope that we can do better in the next Parliament.
The Personal Care at Home Bill, which has been through the Lords, is important, and it is right that it should come back to the House of Commons so that we can ensure that those with the greatest needs get free care in their own home. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the opportunity for the House to consider the Lords amendments.
As far as businesses are concerned, the Treasury briefing that I have here says:
“Over 200,000 businesses”—
I will get the precise figure, but it is not half of what the Prime Minister said, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested—
“employing over 1.4 million people have been helped with cash flow by spreading payment of over £5 billion in tax bills.”
That is important. I would say that the hon. Gentleman should be supporting us in allowing the deficit to rise to help businesses so that they do not go out of business. Obviously, it is important that we settle the issue of the figures, but the substantive point is that we have been helping businesses through the recession.
We have been helping not only businesses, but home owners—financial support and advice has helped 330,000 to stay in their homes. In addition to the time to pay scheme from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the car scrappage scheme, numerous other schemes have helped businesses through the recession. The Prime Minister’s record on this, bearing in mind what happened to the economy when there was an unprecedented global financial shock, is that he took action to support businesses, to support jobs, and to support people staying in their own home. Instead of carping about what the absolutely precise figure is, the hon. Gentleman should be welcoming the support that was given to businesses in his constituency and around the country. We do care about the figures, and I will get accurate figures to him, but let us just focus on the substance.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill. I reiterate what I said last week at business questions. We strongly support that Bill—there is no doubt about that—and we also strongly support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. However, for a Bill to succeed, it not only has to complete its passage in this House, but to have made some progress in the House of Lords. He knows that at this point in the Session—especially given that although we have some rudimentary control over business in this House, the Government have no control over the House of Lords and there are no timetabling procedures there—he should focus his attention, as we are, on seeking the support of the official Opposition. If they stopped their blocking of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, we could get it through—[Interruption.] They are protesting, but they objected on Third Reading, and it was the Chair of the Public Bill Committee that considered the Bill who called, “Object.” I ask the official Opposition to get their Members to stop blocking the Bill. If it is the official Opposition’s position, they should unblock the Bill.
As for the proposals from the Wright Committee—the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons—if the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome thinks there is something about the Standing Orders that we have drafted and that have been on the Order Paper for a number of days—[Interruption.] It is a consultation, because it is actually on the Order Paper. The hon. Gentleman can look at it, and if he thinks that the Standing Orders do not reflect the will of the House—if he thinks they go further or do less than that—he can come and ask me to re-table them in the form that he believes will accurately express that. However, I do not think that he will do so, because the Standing Orders have been drafted exactly to express the will of the House.
The point is that we are not having further decision making on this; we are having enactment. Therefore, we have made it clear what we are doing. If there are any technical objections that we have not done enough or that we have done too much, that is fine, but I do not think that that will be case. We have tried completely and faithfully to put into Standing Orders the resolutions of the House. They will be going forward, but not until Monday, at which point the House should approve them. The hon. Gentleman should be directing his attention to working to ensure that this House seizes the opportunity of completing the process of reform by getting the Standing Orders agreed on Monday.
It is obvious that we are not going to have time to give the normal scrutiny that we should to the Digital Economy Bill on Second Reading. As someone who is broadly supportive of that Bill, may I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I am concerned that it will be rushed through—it involves some very complex issues—on the basis of a deal between Front Benchers?
The Ministers responsible for the Bill are well aware of the concerns that have been raised, not least on many occasions in business questions. They are well aware of the importance of the measure. It is my responsibility at this point simply to announce that Second Reading will be on 6 April, but I can assure my hon. Friend and hon. Members that Ministers are aware of the points that are being made.
It is widely reported that the sudden, tragic death of 24-year-old Lois Waters from Norton-on-Derwent in my constituency may be linked to that young woman taking this terrible drug, mephedrone. I am sure the House would want to join me in sending condolences to her family and friends. If, because of lack of time, we cannot have a statement on the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—I understand that such a report is about to be presented to Ministers—can the Leader of the House ensure that the advice of Professor Iversen and the council is published, so that voters will know which political party is going to take action on that appalling drug?
I join the hon. Gentleman in sending my condolences to the family of his constituent. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, just because something has yet to be banned does not make it safe. It is very important that the warning goes out to all young people that they should not be taking mephedrone. As far as the advice is concerned, it is being brought forward expeditiously. The Government will consider it expeditiously and make our decision clear soon, but I think it is important in the meantime for us all to be warning young people that just because mephedrone is yet to be banned does not mean it is safe.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Sure Start children’s centres have been one of the most transformational aspects of policy in recent years? There are now 3,500 in this country. The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families will publish a report on this very subject next week. Is there a way for us to have a short debate to focus on that, because I think that people in this country ought to know what the attitudes of all the political parties are to the maintenance of such a wonderfully transformational policy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that the Select Committee that he leads has been doing on Sure Start children’s centres and the emphasis that it has put—for a long period of time—on early years. Not only are there clear educational benefits from good early-years provision, which is what Sure Start children’s centres provide, but they are absolutely what parents want. They want to see their children happy, safe and developing well in the children’s centres. On the conclusion of the Budget debate on Tuesday 30 March, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will be speaking, and there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to speak in that debate or to intervene on the Secretary of State.
However, I would say this to my hon. Friend: whatever the Conservatives say about Sure Start children’s centres—especially in the run-up to an election—I would not trust them as far as I could throw them on the question of protecting children. When they were in government, they did nothing for child care. They have all the way moaned that it is about political correctness and that it is undermining the traditional wife-at-home scenario. They have never supported this agenda, but they have been caught out because it is what the public want. The Conservatives cannot be trusted on this.
I think that what really matters to people are tax credits, the minimum wage, the opportunity to have and keep a job, and that we make sure that this economy keeps growing and that we tackle unemployment. All those things will help people, unlike the only tax commitment from the official Opposition, which is to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest together with cutting tax credits and cutting child trust funds.
May we have an early debate on the expenses of Members of the European Parliament, because Mr. Nick Griffin, the well known racist and anti-Semite, has already trousered several hundred thousand pounds, which have disappeared we know not where, to promote his noxious creed, and because the £2 million that Mr. Nigel Farage boasted on television about claiming in expenses last year are still totally unaccounted for? We need transparency, and certainly in the case of Mr. Farage we need a full investigation and audit so that we can know where some of our taxpayers’ money has disappeared to.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This is all public money and the public should be concerned if it is being misused. I will take the opportunity to get the relevant Minister to write to him, and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library. No doubt my right hon. Friend will place it in the public domain.
Well, on Tuesday, we have the conclusion of the Budget debate, which will be opened by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and closed by the Chief Secretary. After that, we will have time for consideration of Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill, and that is a good form for business before the House rises for the recess.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill is down for consideration today with an amendment that the sponsoring Member has tried to withdraw—although it was not selected for consideration in any case? Will that count as an objection and prevent the Bill from going into wash-up? If so, will she have urgent discussions with the Opposition business managers to ensure that the Bill can reach the statute book before the election? That would go a long way to restore the confidence of much of the public not just in one party or another, but in the proper working of this Parliament.
We strongly support that private Member’s Bill, but without the support of the Opposition we cannot get it through this House and the Lords. If they will give that support, we will do everything that we can to give it a fair wind. I would support my hon. Friend’s efforts to ensure that the Opposition are put on the spot as they hold the key to unblocking the progress of this Bill.
May I ask the next Leader of the Opposition whether we may have a statement next week on the failure of the Chancellor to freeze personal tax allowances, which is the biggest rise in the Budget—although he did not mention that—and will affect the poorest people in our society? May I suggest that that statement is entitled “We can’t go on like this: it’s time for change”?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for bringing forward the order on the Back-Bench business committee. I also thank her for her general role in enabling this process to be carried forward to a successful conclusion. This has not been a happy Parliament, but we can at least claim that we have laid the foundation for a slightly happier one next time.
Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there will be an opportunity for some consultation on the detail of what she proposes? Will the House have an opportunity to come to a decision on this on Monday?
It is my intention that the House should have an opportunity to agree the Standing Orders on Monday. I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the precise form of the Standing Orders. I have tabled a written ministerial statement today, and my hon. Friend has tabled a motion on the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders that I have tabled differ from his in respect of the process for the election of Members to the committee, the process for the adoption of the agenda, the number of allotted days, topical debates, Westminster Hall and private Members’ Bills, but I have set out in my statement why the Standing Orders that I have tabled give effect to the resolution of the House, whereas his motion would differ from and go beyond it. It is fine for him to table such a motion, but not for me, and I hope that we will obtain the House’s approval on Monday.
I thank my hon. Friend for his role in bringing this forward. I am confident that we will make further progress on Monday, but even without doing so, we have already made a great deal of progress. I thank him and the members of his Committee for that.
Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to read the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on counter-terrorism policy and human rights? Does she note that it calls for a fundamental parliamentary review of counter-terrorism laws passed since 2001, and does she agree that it is not a review that is needed but the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, and a re-evaluation of the European convention on human rights, to protect the British people from terrorist acts and so that we have British laws for British judges? If necessary, we should abolish the Committee that produced this report.
We strongly support the Human Rights Act which we introduced and which gives legal rights to people in this country if their rights under the European convention on human rights—to which we have signed up—are breached, and it allows them to go to court. That is a reassurance that when this House decides that it needs to pass laws to ensure that people are protected from terrorism, those laws do not breach individuals’ human rights. That is what the Act guarantees. We always consider legislation carefully, but we also have the failsafe of matching it against the Act. Indeed, on many occasions, laws that we have passed have been subject to scrutiny in the courts for compliance with the Act. In addition, Lord Carlile reviews terrorism laws on an ongoing basis. We have to respect people’s rights, but also ensure that this country is safe.
Following my right hon. and learned Friend’s positive response to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, can she say whether she has received any approach from the shadow Leader of the House, whose garrulous ramblings failed significantly and deplorably even to refer to the Bill, to say that the Opposition—a member of whom blocked the Bill—will now co-operate in both Houses to make this desirable legislation law by the Dissolution?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. It is not good enough for the shadow Leader of the House to nod that he supports the Bill: he needs to sort the situation out on his side. The Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill are important Bills. The Opposition say that they support them, so they should get their act together and stop these Bills being blocked.
The UK Border Agency kindly has a hotline for Members of Parliament and their staff to use to take up cases. May I write to the right hon. and learned Lady to demonstrate that, increasingly, when we telephone the hotline, staff just say that they cannot help us? An ever-increasing number of immigration cases therefore end up in permanent limbo in the system. That is very cruel to the constituents concerned and very frustrating for their parliamentary representatives who cannot do more for them.
This issue is kept under continuous review by Ministers in the Home Office. Indeed, as a constituency MP I have much experience myself of the Members’ hotline and I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s depiction of it. There has been a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to determine cases. No one wants constituents to be left in limbo and subject to uncertainty. The time taken has been dramatically reduced, and I pay tribute to the helpline whose staff do everything they can to help us to help our constituents.
It now seems likely that the two Opposition Front-Bench teams will have as much influence on the outcome of the Digital Economy Bill as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. If they allow their shadow Ministers to collude with the music industry to bounce through complex copyright proposals in the wash-up, they will be enabling a democratic impropriety to take place. Will she work with business managers to bang some heads together in Departments?
May I be very gracious, speaking from the Opposition Benches, and thank the right hon. and learned Lady for honouring her response to me last week when I asked her a question about the Falkland Islands? The Minister responsible at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has seen me and said that a letter is on its way to me.
My question to the Leader of the House is a very simple one: she has announced the business, including a debate the week after next on international development. Will she try to ensure that it goes ahead, not just for those of us who are leaving the House, but because it will give me an opportunity to raise matters relating to the continuing problems in Zimbabwe, for which this country is uniquely responsible?
As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, I announced the provisional business for the week commencing 5 April, including a general debate on international development. Over the past five or 10 years, this has been a commitment at the heart of the Government, from having created a Department for International Development—there was not one when we entered government—to doubling aid and putting the question of development, particularly of Africa, at the heart of the international political agenda. I hope that we will have our debate on Thursday 8 April. That aside, however, a great deal has been done on international development, and I pay tribute to the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in that respect.
May we have an early statement on the suspension by Justice Ministers of the Cartel claims handling company, which has milked about £20 million off the public and done very little work for it? It has refused to refund most of the money that it has taken. In particular, will the question about whether there should be an investigation into possible fraudulent activity by Carl Wright, the managing director, and his associates be part of that statement?
Any allegations of fraudulent activity will obviously be a matter for investigation by the police. However, it is important that the Ministry of Justice, in its scrutiny of claims handling, can ensure that we protect claimants from bogus claims-handling services and that we can also protect those against whom spurious claims are made.
May we have an early debate entitled “The Wash-up Period”? That would enable right hon. and hon. Members to express the view that during the wash-up period, we should not be enacting legislation that has not been fully discussed in both Houses.
The wash-up period allows there to be agreement between the Government and the Opposition. With those Bills that have been agreed on in the House of Commons, which have gone through their first, or all their stages in the Lords, and which have had their first-level agreement in the House of Commons, the choice remains of whether they should be left by the wayside or whether agreement can be reached to make progress on them. That is the process undergone. It is a very exceptional process that happens only at the end of the Parliament. I cannot really add further to that.
May we have a debate on benefits for pensioners throughout the UK? One of the many achievements of this Government has been free bus travel for pensioners, but I am reliably informed that if the Opposition ever get into power, they will refuse to retain that service.
I agree completely with my hon. Friend. The truth is that the Opposition seem to find plenty of money to give tax cuts to the wealthiest, but have never been interested in free bus travel for pensioners. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that he will continue with the winter fuel payment for another year. That will be very important to my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine, and to pensioners throughout the country.
I had always assumed that the Leader of the House was in favour of our freedom of information legislation, so why did she not answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and say that the relevant Departments will now no longer block the requests concerning the selling of the gold and the effect on pensioners of taxation under the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will she give an absolute guarantee that those Departments will now withdraw their objections and stop blocking our freedom of information requests?
The Prime Minister answered that question at the Dispatch Box yesterday. On pensions, however, I would like to say that when we came into government we had to deal with the massive problem of pensioner poverty. Since we have been in government, pensioners have no longer been what they used to be—most likely to be the poorest members of society. Along with tackling child poverty, we have done a great deal to tackle pensioner poverty. Indeed, for pensions of the future, we have ensured that there is an opportunity for employees to pay in, as well as requirements and obligations on employers to pay.
Baroness Deech gave a lecture last week on the negative impact on children born of first cousin marriages, so would now not be an appropriate time to have a full and frank debate on the subject, which might encourage health authorities to publicise their genetic screening and counselling facilities?
Will the Leader of the House agree, in light of yesterday’s Budget debate, and given the important responsibilities of the House, that Members might be aided by having access to a Bloomberg terminal, bearing in mind the financial analytics, comprehensive news service and ease of access to economic figures that it provides?
I understand that the director general of information services has written to the hon. Gentleman regarding that issue and said, in that letter, that the
“Department of Information Services subscribes to a wide range of electronic services to support the House and individual Members in the conduct of their parliamentary duties”.
Although there are no current plans to introduce Bloomberg, staff in the Library are always happy to help hon. Members with requests for specific information.
In my right hon. and learned Friend’s role as one of the primary defenders of the democracy of the House, would she personally be content if the highly controversial Digital Economy Bill, much influenced by lobbyists during its passage through another place, were to be rushed through this elected House of Commons on Easter Tuesday—a day, my sources tell me, when hon. Members might well have other things on their minds—and then rushed through all its final stages in a couple of hours the following day, without proper scrutiny?
I agree with the sentiments of my hon. Friend: obviously we want proper scrutiny when passing Bills that have a level of technical complexity, such as the Digital Economy Bill. However, I know that he will agree that it is very important that we have the right sort of regulation for an industry that is important not only to lobbyists, but to the music, film and other creative industries. There are digital issues more widely, and others relating to access to fast broadband—all those issues about the economy of the future—and this Bill will play a part in ensuring that we have the right framework for those jobs in the future.
The Leader of the House will be aware that I have been championing in the House, for many years, the cause of men’s health and, in particular, prostate cancer care. I was assured in 1998 that the Government were committed to seeking to provide equal access to high-quality services in this area. Does she agree that the Government have failed to deliver on this and that the opportunity has been wasted to put prostate cancer care on a par with that for other cancers?
There has been a massive effort to improve cancer treatment, and mortality in respect of cancer has fallen. We are building on that with a guarantee for every individual for the period after they see their GP, but before they get to see a specialist oncologist. As well as the investment that we are putting into the health service, those guarantees for people who suspect that they have cancer—guarantees that the official Opposition would abolish—will be very important indeed. I recognise the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in raising awareness, and improving diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, and I suggest that he raise the issue with the Secretary of State for Health on Monday in Health questions.
Can we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Given that paediatric services, and accident and emergency services at the Princess Royal hospital remain under threat, why did the Government announce yesterday that they were taking £4 billion out of the NHS budget? Is it not now clear for everybody to see that the NHS is not safe in Labour’s hands?
Hon. Members, and indeed everybody in the public, will have heard our absolute commitment to primary health care, hospital services and community health care. We have transformed the NHS since we have been in government, and people will know that they can judge us on our record. People will also remember what the NHS was like when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government. Indeed, I can remember visiting Guy’s hospital and talking to a cardiac surgeon, who showed me an operating list on the wall, with names and addresses of my constituents on it, and told me, “20 per cent. of those people will die before they’re operated on, because there’s not enough investment in the NHS.” That does not happen anymore. We will of course continue to improve the NHS, but one thing that could never help it is the election of a Conservative Government.
The Leader of the House will have seen my early-day motions in 2007-08 and 2008-09 that sought to stop MPs abusing their expenses and second jobs. Even now, can we plan to meet in the House on 31 March to debate the matter and press forward on the remaining, much-needed changes to the House? [Interruption.] As the Conservative party is shouting out at me, can we also include party political funding and Belize in that debate?
I gave a statement on that issue on Monday, and there has been much debate in this House about Lord Ashcroft and the apparent failure to abide by the reassurances that he gave in order to get into the House of Lords. However, I am afraid that this is not a matter for me; it is a matter of unanswered questions by the leadership of the Conservative party.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the exchanges in business questions, the Leader of the House, no doubt inadvertently, misled the House. She asserted in respect of two private Members’ Bills—the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill—that they had been blocked not by a Back Bencher, but by the official Opposition. Will she take it from me that the official Opposition support those two Bills and are not blocking them at all?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am extremely pleased to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, although that does not entirely excuse the activities of some Conservative Back Benchers. However, is it not the case that the matter is entirely academic anyway, because those Bills are private Members’ Bills, for which no more time has been allocated by the Leader of the House? Unless Government time is allocated, those Bills cannot make progress in any case, whatever the official Opposition’s position. Is that not the case, Sir?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. He has put his views firmly on the record, although I am not sure that this is point-of-order territory or that I need to respond. However, before I give the opportunity to the Leader of the House—if she wants to take it—to come to the Dispatch Box, let us hear a point of order from Ms Sally Keeble.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a mistake on the Order Paper, because although it says that there is an amendment, I understand that it was withdrawn this morning, so unless anybody raises any further objections or tables a further amendment to the legislation, I understand that the Bill can go forward to the wash-up. However, that will require a bit of good will on both sides and a self-denying ordinance by Members; and, with your long track record on the issue in question, I am sure that you will be keen to see that happen.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, to which I shall respond straight away, before returning to that of the shadow Leader of the House. What I would say to the hon. Lady is twofold. First, so far as the Order Paper is concerned, if something was withdrawn this morning, it is not a mistake that it is on the Order Paper, because obviously it will have been put on last night, or some other time yesterday, and then printed. The point is simply that a decision has since been made to withdraw it. As for her second point, I note the force with which she has made her concern known, but as she will know, the question of whether a Bill survives in the wash-up is a matter for others, not the Chair.
As for the shadow Leader of the House’s point of order, the safest thing that I can say is that it is not entirely clear to me that this is a matter of order for the Chair. A statement was made—[Interruption.] I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt): I know how earnest he is on these matters, and I will do my best to satisfy his appetite, if I can. Let me say to the shadow Leader of the House that it is not clear to me that he has raised a matter of order. A reference was made to blocking, but it seems to me that we are largely in the territory of debate, and I am happy to offer the Leader of the House an opportunity to respond.
You referred to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) being earnest, Mr. Speaker, but was he actually here when those exchanges were made? [Interruption.] No, he was not here, and he does not know what those exchanges were, so he can be earnest, but he is not relevant. As for what the shadow Leader of the House said, let me make my position clear. It is to no avail for the official Opposition to say from the Front Bench that they support the Bill if their Back Benchers block it. Basically, it is Members from the official Opposition who have been blocking the Bill—that is self-evident—so what I am saying is that the right hon. Gentleman should get his party’s act together, and then we can get that important Bill through.
First, let me say to the Leader of the House that we could have a most interesting debate on the importance of being earnest, but I am not sure that it would greatly avail the House for us to do so. Secondly, let me say in a very friendly spirit to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire that I certainly cast no aspersions on what he said. Indeed, I would say to the Leader of the House that the idea that knowledge of something is a prerequisite for subsequently contributing to debate would be a new precedent for the House to set.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the BBC website there is a piece about an announcement that coastal towns are to share £5 million of Government funding, something that was also a topic on the “Today” programme this morning, which you might have heard, Mr. Speaker. I have hunted high and low for more evidence of that announcement, but I have found nothing on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport website. Indeed, I have even approached a Treasury Minister, who knew nothing about it whatever. May I seek your guidance on this matter? Should we not find out about such information here in the House? Should there not be at least a written statement, or are we talking about another of those fictitious figures that come up at Budget time?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I feel rather confused about something, so I hope that you can help me. There was some talk earlier, in the exchanges about private Members’ Bills, about the wash-up, but as far as I can see from the Order Paper there are three more Fridays set down for private Members’ business. Surely there would be ample opportunity to discuss those Bills, if not on 23 or 30 April, then surely on 7 May.