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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 512: debated on Thursday 24 June 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Broadband (Rural Areas)

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of broadband to rural areas. (3937)

9. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of broadband to rural areas. (3945)

11. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of broadband to rural areas. (3947)

As I am sure the House is aware, a former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Walker, has passed away. I felt it right to record our gratitude for his services to agriculture, and our condolences to his family.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and have followed that up with conversations with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Business Innovation and Skills and for Culture, Media and Sport about this important issue. I have spoken to the latter—the Government lead on broadband—to express my support for the initiatives announced on 8 June to take broadband to rural communities.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her post, and thank her very much for coming down to South Dorset during the election campaign. I also welcome the Government’s plans to roll out broadband. Can she please confirm that there will be a rapid broadband legacy in rural South Dorset after the Olympics?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I have seen for myself that his constituency presents challenges in terms of broadband provision, especially given the high ground before the acute descent to the coast. He is, however, fortunate to have the opportunity provided by an Olympic facility that will leave a lasting legacy in his constituency.

I take the view that we should not try to reinvent the wheel. Where broadband infrastructure is already in place, of course we should seek to use it. However, I will use my good offices to speak to those at the DCMS and to ensure that the legacy is a good one.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her post. Yesterday’s Budget confirmation that the Government will fund three pilot schemes to bring super-fast broadband to hard-to-reach areas is crucial to my constituency. It is especially crucial for the 50 to 80 age group—which, for various reasons, is one of the fastest-growing groups of internet users—and, obviously, for enterprises in the area. Can the Secretary of State tell us a little more about her discussions on those three pilot schemes?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the importance of super-fast broadband provision to all generations in our society, and to the social inclusivity it provides. The coalition Government have made a clear commitment to roll out super-fast broadband to ensure that those who live in rural communities are not disadvantaged. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that includes businesses, but it also includes children, who often need broadband to complete their homework. I assure him that this is a priority for the Department, and that the choice of location for the pilots will be decided shortly.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to the Front Bench. I also welcome what she said about rural broadband. In counties such as Suffolk, it is an important part of our modern infrastructure. The people of Suffolk are enterprising and innovative, and I know that they too will warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has said. However, will she tell us more about the importance of community initiatives for improving broadband, and what she will do to support them?

Obviously, broadband is very important to my hon. Friend’s constituency, which contains many farmers. It is simply assumed that those farmers will have access to broadband in order to complete form-filling online.

As I said earlier, this is a community opportunity. There are some excellent examples of the big society at work in Northumberland and Rutland, where communities have come together to ensure that good broadband access is available to all.

Farming Regulation

2. What plans her Department has to reduce the level of regulation on farmers; and if she will make a statement. (3938)

As I announced at the cereals event on 9 June, bureaucratic burdens on the food and farming industry will be scrutinized by a new industry-led taskforce on food and farming regulation. The taskforce will identify ways to reduce regulatory burdens by trusting farmers to deliver the necessary outcomes, rather than telling them how to do so. It will also advise on how best to achieve a risk-based system of inspection in future.

I am sure that many farmers in Fylde will take comfort from the work that is being done. To what extent is the Minister’s Department liaising with EU member states regarding further reducing the regulatory burden?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to his first DEFRA questions. He is absolutely right: a huge amount of DEFRA regulations emanate from the European Union. Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the Agriculture Commissioner and impressed upon him not only the measures I have announced, but the need for the whole EU to adopt a much more simplified approach to regulation and to concentrate on outcomes. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that that message went down very well with the Commissioner, who entirely endorsed that approach.

Will the Minister guarantee that this rush into deregulation will not be at the expense of the health and safety of people working in agriculture, farmers themselves, their employees and the wider public? Will he guarantee a place for the trade unions on his taskforce?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have absolutely no intention of reducing standards. We in this country—particularly under the last Government—seem to have become obsessed with the view that to maintain standards, we must have high levels of intervention in how people comply with regulations. We have become obsessed with process. I can assure the House that we have absolutely no intention of allowing our standards to fall, be they in health and safety, food safety, pollution or anything else. We are focusing on reducing the burden on businesses regarding how they comply with such regulations by concentrating on whether they do.

I welcome the Minister to his position. He will not be surprised to learn of my recent conversation with a farmer in South Westmorland who bought a bull from market to his farm and was then unable to move any sheep from a field two miles away because of the six-day movement rule. That made absolute sense during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, but is now an unnecessary burden on the farming industry. When will the Minister scrap it?

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I have visited; I have probably had the same farmer saying the same thing to me there, as well as farmers in many other places over the many years when I sat on the Opposition side of the House. I tend to share his doubts about the six-day rule, but the advice I have received so far is that there is a very sound reason for it. It will certainly be one of the issues considered by the taskforce and I hope that, along with other such provisions, it will recommend getting rid of the rule.

May I associate this side of the House with the remarks of the Secretary of State about the late Peter Walker?

Regulation is very important in animal health, including in combating animal disease. Will the Minister therefore tell the House when a decision was taken that there would be a targeted cull of badgers in hotspot areas?

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the commitment appears in the coalition agreement, so, bearing in mind that we have a new Government, I suppose the answer to his question is that the decision was taken when that coalition agreement was drawn up. Until that point, there were measures being proposed by the Conservative party and by the Liberal Democrats. There is a great deal of science concerning bovine TB. We are looking at all of it and drawing up our proposals, which we will publish and put out for consultation. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, there is a valid case for addressing the reservoir in wildlife, including badgers, in this country, as has been done by every other country in the world.

If a decision has been taken that there will be a cull, which is what the Minister said at the Devon county show, why did he say in a written answer on 22 June that all the evidence would be considered “before taking a decision”? How will it help to deal with the disease when the two Ministers responsible appear to be saying completely different things?

The former Secretary of State is desperately trying to create a division where none exists, because the situation is clear—in black and white, if I may use the phrase—in the coalition agreement. The considerations mentioned in the parliamentary answer to which he refers concern the details of how, where and who, along with all the other issues that have to be addressed in working out how to do a cull of badgers and how to integrate it with the badger vaccine deployment project.

May I follow up an earlier question on the movement of animals? During the winter, a sheep farmer in Honiton had to fill in a form every time she moved her sheep in and out of a field for lambing because she did not own that field—it was not part of her holding. We have got to find ways of simplifying movement orders.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and to DEFRA questions. I entirely agree with him: that is one of countless regulations that appear on the face of it to be nonsensical, and which the taskforce will consider.

Flood Defence (Chesterfield)

3. What progress has been made on flood defence projects in the Chesterfield area since 2007; and if she will make a statement. (3939)

The Environment Agency is currently taking forward a project that will provide protection from the River Rother to more than 150 homes and businesses in Chesterfield. Further schemes to provide protection in Chesterfield are being assessed.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her Front-Bench team to their positions. Flood defence work was one of the many areas on which the Conservative party when in opposition criticised the Labour Government for not spending more, rather than asking for cuts. Can Ministers please confirm that there will be no cuts to flood defence work, which is so important, particularly given the likely increase in flood risk due to climate change?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He has a particularly interesting project in his constituency: the work on the River Rother. I am very interested in it because it involves local levy funding, which is a very good way forward in times of difficult financial circumstances. We have found some savings in the budget for this year, and that is simply because the Environment Agency was ahead of the game in its targets for this year. I cannot say to the hon. Gentleman that there will be no cuts in the flood defence budget, but if he looks at the coalition agreement he will see that flood protection is an absolute priority for this Government.

May I congratulate the entire ministerial team and assure Ministers of a very warm welcome when they appear before the departmental Select Committee? May I press my hon. Friend on flood defences for Chesterfield and other more urban areas? Will he take this opportunity to review the way the points are skewed in favour of urban areas to the detriment of rural areas, and make sure we restore more funding to regular maintenance rather than, almost exclusively, capital expenditure projects?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, and it will be very interesting to take up these matters with her Select Committee; I know they will be of great interest to it. This is all about getting the balance right. There are circumstances in which rural communities can put together a very good financial case, particularly with a form of local levy funding, to which I have already referred. We also have to recognise, however, that spending must go to where it is most effective and can secure as many homes as possible from the risk of flooding. I cannot talk in specifics on such a general issue, but I can assure my hon. Friend that this is an absolute priority that we will take forward.

Campaign for the Farmed Environment

6. What recent discussions she has had on the objectives of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment; and if she will make a statement. (3942)

The Government are strongly committed to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, which we consider to be an excellent example of the farming industry taking responsibility for its environmental impacts. The Secretary of State and I met a number of senior representatives of the campaign’s partner organisations at the recent cereals event and discussed aspects of the campaign with them, and we look forward to receiving the progress report later this month.

I thank the Minister for his response. He may be interested to know that I shall be attending an event to promote the Campaign for the Farmed Environment in my constituency this very evening. Can he say what the level of uptake has been for the campaign across the country?

The latest statistics we have are from a survey done in February. As I have said, there will be a further report shortly, but the latest statistics show that 25% of farmers had already taken measures under the campaign and that another 50% plan to do so in the near future.

Pulmonary Disease

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the Health Protection Agency’s investigation of the potential for mushroom composting to cause or exacerbate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (3944)

The local primary care trust has been investigating the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised previously about possible health impacts from the mushroom composting plant in his constituency. I understand that its report is due in the next few weeks.

If the report says there is a link of any kind, will the Minister act immediately to ensure that the health and well-being of my constituents and others is immediately protected?

I cannot forecast what might come out in the report, so I am not going to make any commitments as to what the Government might do afterwards, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, as I am sure he is aware, the preliminary findings of the PCT investigation show no links between the mushroom composting plant and incidences of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the locality.

Workplace Activity (Natural Environment)

12. If she will discuss with trade unions measures to reduce the adverse effect on the natural environment of workplace activity. (3948)

With public sector employers having to make the longest and deepest cuts since the second world war, will the Minister recognise the role of trade union environment representatives in helping to achieve energy, water and waste savings? Can he assure me that managers in his Department regularly discuss and monitor environmental cost savings at joint union-management meetings?

I assure the hon. Lady that such matters are taken up. The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently about the trade union sustainable development advisory committee, wanting reassurance that the Government will continue with that organisation, which links employees with government regarding ideas for sustainable working methods. My right hon. Friend wrote back to Brendan Barber this week to say that my noble Friend Lord Henley will chair that committee in future. We certainly will be taking these issues forward in government.

I welcome the ministerial team to the Front Bench. It is good to see someone with some farming experience finally putting forward the case on behalf of DEFRA. Will the Minister confirm that in these difficult times, when decisions have to be made regarding cuts, consideration will be given to the Agricultural Wages Board, as its task could be dealt with through the national minimum wage procedure?

I can confirm that the future of the Agricultural Wages Board is being considered as part of the whole review of arm’s length bodies and non-departmental public bodies, and that there will be an announcement soon.

Common Agricultural Policy

13. What recent discussions she has had with the farming industry and other interested parties on reform of the common agricultural policy. (3949)

I have attended the Agriculture Council twice and have discussed the CAP with Agriculture Ministers from other member states. Last night, I hosted a dinner attended by the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Commissioner Ciolos, my colleagues here and from the devolved Administrations, the Secretary of State for Scotland and other key UK stakeholders. We discussed a number of issues, including CAP reform, and I have more European visits planned in the coming months.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. She will be well aware of the problems caused by the Rural Payments Agency’s remapping exercise, particularly in non-flat areas such as Staffordshire Moorlands. Can she reassure farmers who are still waiting to agree their revised maps that the single farm payment will not be delayed and that they will not suffer undue hardship?

I am sure that my hon. Friend’s farmer constituents will be very grateful to her for bringing up this issue. If she gives us the details of any significant problems with the mapping in her area—I understand that they might relate to the slopes and gradients of the land—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will look into it closely, as he has offered to chair the board of the RPA.

May I also welcome the right hon. Lady and her team to their posts? I believe that her talks yesterday with the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment were very constructive, but will she clarify for the benefit of the House how she intends to work with the devolved Administrations? In particular, how does she see the future of pillar one support in the common agricultural policy reform process?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question, and I can tell her that discussions with her honourable colleague from Scotland were indeed very constructive. I made it clear to him that I would always consult before taking a position ahead of any Council meeting. I added that we will have very close and good contact with all the devolved Administrations, and I said specifically that I am confident that pillar one and direct payments will continue.

May I, on behalf of the people of Mid Norfolk, send a warm welcome to the members of the Government Front Bench? It is nice to see a DEFRA team with such a rich experience of the countryside, after 13 years of feeling rather neglected.

On CAP reform, will my right hon. Friend reassure the House and the people of Mid Norfolk that, as far as possible, we will seek a revised structure that rewards our farmers for growing food competitively? Such a structure should reward them for what they do in the countryside, for which they get no support at the moment.

I thank my hon. Friend for those warm words. In fact, I should like to take this opportunity to say to all Government Members that the Front Bench is grateful for their admirable level of support. I can assure my hon. Friend that in the CAP reform negotiations, we will be seeking the best deal for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment. There is no doubt that sustainable food production is a public good, and there is broad support across European countries for recognising the contribution that farmers make.

May I add my welcome to the Secretary of State and her ministerial team, and congratulate them on their new positions? Indeed, I extend that welcome to all new Back Benchers on both sides of the House.

A few moments ago, the Secretary of State mentioned her discussions with other interested parties, but do they include the Treasury? Reductions in the overall CAP budget might be attractive to the Treasury, but does she agree that that would be to the detriment of British agriculture? Will she assure the House that she will defend the interests of British agriculture, in both Brussels and Downing street?

Of course I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I just said that I was seeking to get a better deal for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment, and he can be assured of that. DEFRA is an economic Department with a very clear role in the economic recovery that this country needs. It is absolutely at one with the objectives set out by the Treasury in that regard.

Animal Health Agency

15. What recent discussions she has had with the farming industry and other interested parties on the Animal Health Agency; and if she will make a statement. (3951)

As has been mentioned already, the most urgent issue in animal health and welfare is bovine TB. I have reviewed the badger vaccine deployment project and have decided to proceed with one area near Stroud for the time being, in order to help maintain the capacity to train lay vaccinators. Badger sett surveys will also be completed in the Gloucester area, near Cheltenham. That change reflects the need to consider all our public expenditure carefully.

The previous Government appointed Rosemary Radcliffe to examine options for responsibility and cost-sharing for animal disease control. Unlike that Government, though, we will await the outcome of that report, as it may well include options for the agency’s future. I have had a number of discussions regarding that review.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and may I also add my welcome to some fellow meat-eaters in the Front Bench team for this particular portfolio? I want to emphasise how important animal welfare is for farmers in West Worcestershire. A vet came to my constituency surgery recently and highlighted the fact that, while the AHA seemed to have spent a lot of time on management, computer systems and office work, it was not placing enough emphasis on its veterinary function. Does the Minister have any plans to tackle that?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I welcome her to this question session. She is absolutely right and, as part of our overall review of all arm’s length bodies, we are looking for the sorts of efficiencies to which she has referred. However, I can tell her that the AHA has already instituted a road map for change that should deliver a significant tranche of savings, and a much more efficient business as well.

Rural Payments Agency

An independent review of the Rural Payments Agency, commissioned by DEFRA last autumn, has recently concluded. We will publish the recommendations of the review and our response to it shortly.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and I wish him well in his work. As he knows well, each claim to the RPA costs £1,700, and the RPA has been characterised by mistakes and inefficiency throughout its years of operation. What reassurance can he give farmers in my constituency and throughout the country that those problems will improve?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think he knows that the impossible we can do at once, but miracles take a little longer, and putting the RPA right probably comes within the last part of that saying. I assure him that I am extremely determined to get a grip on the problems at the RPA; I am conscious, as I have made clear over recent years, of the problems and the service to many farmers, and we have to get it right. When I publish the review I will also put forward the measures that we propose to take to address them.

Flood Defences

DEFRA’s estimate of its expenditure in 2010 to 2011 on flood and coastal erosion risk management is currently £664 million. This does not include local authority expenditure, estimated at £87 million, which is funded by Government through the formula grant.

In welcoming the new ministerial team to the Front Bench, may I point out that on 23 March last year the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the then shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said that it was

“essential that the Government takes a strong lead and implements the key recommendations from the Pitt review”

on flood defences? This was at a time when Labour was committed to protecting flood defence expenditure, which is very important in the north-east—in Morpeth and Carlisle—in view of the recent floods. Will cuts to her Department mean that key recommendations from the Pitt review will not now be implemented?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance, because the coalition agreement states our commitment to taking forward the findings of the Pitt review on the 2007 floods. We are considering how best to put this into effect, against the difficult spending background, and as he will have heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, this year, because the Environment Agency was ahead of the game with the amount of flood defences it had provided, there is no question of this important front-line service being compromised. In the spending review we will of course give priority to flood defences.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the importance of the investment in sea defences in my constituency at Dymchurch, the Romney Marsh coast and Dungeness. May I ask that she continues to give consideration to the importance of that work when reviewing the budget in the future?

My hon. Friend will not know this, but Dymchurch and Hythe have a special place in my heart because as a small girl I used to enjoy my summer holidays taking the light railway to such places. So I perfectly understand the importance of defending that part of the Kent coast with effective coastal defences.

Common Fisheries Policy

18. What recent discussions she has had with the fishing industry and other interested parties on reform of the common fisheries policy. (3954)

Since May, I have had preliminary discussions with representatives of the fishing industry, and within the next two weeks I will meet the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association, along with the EU Fisheries Commissioner, to discuss CFP reform specifically. I have also had discussions about CFP reform with other interested parties, including environmental non-governmental organisations, and shall do so again in the future.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that he is aware of the shameful way in which the under-10-metre community of fishermen has been treated in the past 13 years. What steps might this Government take to restore their way of life?

My hon. Friend is to be credited for her assiduousness on behalf of her constituency’s fishing community. She badgered me when I was sitting on the Opposition Benches, and she continues to do so now. My answer will be in three parts. First, there is a longer-term strategy of reforming the CFP and getting an improved deal for vessels under 10 metres in length. In the medium term, we support the very good initiative on sustainable access to inshore fisheries, which was started by the previous Government. The project will report in the next few months and we will take forward its recommendations. In the short term, we can take on board the good suggestions made by fishing communities and hon. Members and try, when we can, to improve the lot of those communities through methods such as swaps of quota. This is not easy, but I assure my hon. Friend that I shall listen to the honest pleadings of her fishing community and do what I can to help them.

I am grateful to the Minister for attending the meeting of the Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment commission on fisheries on world oceans day. Has he had the opportunity to read the letter that I sent him following the meeting in which I outlined the proposals for a marine fisheries recovery strategy that were made by the 16 nations represented on that day, and when might I expect a response?

I must apologise if I have not replied already. I thank the hon. Gentleman for inviting me to the event, which brought together people from across the world, and for chairing it so well. The event gave us the opportunity to show that what we are doing on marine conservation in this country is ahead of what is being done in many other countries, so people can learn from what we do. I assure him that I will reply to him as soon as I can and take forward the recommendations of that excellent organisation.

I welcome the ministerial team to their positions. I know that they will do their very best in their roles and I ask them to keep the Department in good shape for us.

The CFP is on the agenda of the European Council meeting on 29 June. At that and subsequent meetings, will the Minister try to change the rigid rules that bind the hands of member states in international negotiations so that they abstain when they cannot reach consensus, thus condemning iconic species such as the bluefin tuna and perhaps whales?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I worked closely when we sat on opposite sides of the House, for his hard work in doing an awful lot for the fishing community.

I am bemused by the arrangements requiring members of the European Union with a long tradition in the International Whaling Commission, including ourselves, to find an absolutely solid position with EU colleagues. The hon. Gentleman is to be credited for taking an independent line on bluefin tuna. I will take up the matter seriously, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other colleagues are also concerned about the voting procedure.

On the issue raised by the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), I know that great expectations were raised in Hastings and elsewhere about the future of the under-10s fleet. I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the work that has already been done, particularly with the SAIF—sustainable access to inshore fisheries—project. There was, however, an expectation of a master plan and an additional way forward, so will he tell us what that is?

I do not want to sound weak, but it is work in progress. I concede, and am the first to admit, that what seems incredibly simple in opposition can become more complicated, as the hon. Gentleman will understand. However, I am deeply mindful that we must recognise that fishing supports not only fishermen themselves, but communities. The Government will be focused on those communities. On the back of the SAIF project, we will bring forward answers in the medium term. We are looking to try to provide more quota and fishing capacity on a daily basis, and that will continue around the coastline.

Environment Agency

In the Queen’s Speech, the Government announced their intention to bring forward a Bill to reform public bodies. DEFRA is carrying out a critical examination of the number and cost of its arm’s length bodies. The Environment Agency is being considered as part of that review.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. I am worried about the bureaucratic and remote nature of the Environment Agency’s processes, specifically on the flooding of the A1101 at Welney and flood defences at Wiggenhall St Germans. Will she tell us how local communities can hold the Environment Agency’s functions further to account and make it more responsive?

One assurance I can give about unnecessary bureaucracy is that every one of the arm’s length bodies with which DEFRA does business will be subject to the three tests applied to arm’s length bodies across Government. They are: does it perform a technical function; does it need to be politically impartial; and does it act independently and transparently to establish the facts? The Environment Agency will be subject to those criteria.

I shall certainly take up my hon. Friend’s concerns about flooding. She has made it clear on her website and in a number of interventions how anxious she is to ensure that her constituents are protected from flooding. I shall impress that upon the Environment Agency.

Will the Secretary of State ask the Environment Agency to act independently and establish the facts of the use of aminopyralid herbicides, which have recently been licensed by the chemicals regulation directorate? They have got into manure and the toxic chemical has destroyed allotments in my constituency and allotments belonging to thousands of our citizens. She might not be an expert on the subject now, but I hope that she will take some responsibility and look into the misery that the chemical is causing.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, although I took my chemistry O-level so long ago that I have a little difficulty unravelling the description of the pesticide. There is also a pesticides inspectorate, but whether the Environment Agency or some other DEFRA agency is the appropriate body, I will take up his specific question.

Fishing Restrictions (Suffolk Coastal)

21. If she will take steps to support fishermen in Suffolk Coastal constituency subject to restrictions in fishing activity arising from quota allocations and regulations on fishing vessels under 10 metres in length. (3957)

As I said, I recognise the difficulties currently facing the inshore fleet. In the immediate term, the Marine Management Organisation is actively managing catch limits to keep fisheries open as long as possible, and is working to secure additional quota through swaps for stocks of importance. However, the current system is not sustainable in the long term. I plan to meet representatives from across industry and reflect on the outputs of the SAIF—sustainable access to inshore fisheries—project as a matter of priority. Common fisheries policy reform will also play a key role, where I want to see greater clarity on user rights and management devolved to local communities.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I hope that when he comes to my constituency to look at the impact of coastal erosion, he will make time to meet local fishermen and, indeed, enjoy some delicious fish and chips in Aldeburgh or Sole Bay. For too long, fishermen have felt remote from what goes on in this House, and direct access to a Minister for a short time would be very welcome.

I hope that I have got it across to many members of the fishing community that I am accessible and that they can approach me to explain their problems, which are often very local and specific to the area of coastline where they fish. I shall certainly take up my hon. Friend’s kind offer of fish and chips in her constituency and have a detailed discussion with members of her fishing community about the problems they face.


I assure the House that biodiversity is one of my highest priorities. I shall take action domestically through a White Paper on the natural environment, which will promote green spaces and wildlife corridors to restore and increase biodiversity. At international level, I shall ensure that the UK shows leadership in this international year of biodiversity by working to achieve a global agreement on a new biodiversity framework at the meeting of the convention on biological diversity in Nagoya in October.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that a key aspect of improving our nation’s biodiversity is planning. In Kingswood, our much treasured green belt has been threatened by the previous Government’s disastrous regional spatial strategy and the plan to build 10,000 houses on it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the urgent abolition of the RSS and returning powers to build houses to local communities will help to protect our green belts and defend biodiversity?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that he is speaking to a Secretary of State whose constituency is entirely within the green belt and who has campaigned tirelessly on its erosion and, in particular, the unfortunate consequences of the phenomenon of garden grabbing. Those matters are the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government and I am well aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government intends to abolish the regional spatial strategy and to protect and maintain the green belt, as my hon. Friend would like.

Farming Regulation

24. What plans her Department has to reduce the level of regulation on farmers; and if she will make a statement. (3960)

I welcome those on the Front Bench to their new roles and I thank the Secretary of State for visiting Bromsgrove during the election campaign.

The Minister referred earlier to the review of EU regulations, but may I draw his attention to the fact that they are often not enforced by our major trading partners? While we enforce regulations harshly, many EU countries ignore them, so will the he consider that urgently?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that very important question. There is a huge amount of concern that some EU countries are less vigorous in enforcing regulations, and it is one of the issues that the taskforce will want to look into. I would just add the caution that when one looks closely at a matter on the ground, it is not always as clear-cut as it appears. If he has a particular case in mind, I will be happy to look into it.

British Waterways

I made a statement on Monday 21 June on inland waterways policy for England and Wales. The Government consider that civil society has a valuable role to play in delivering public services as part of the big society. We will be looking in detail at options for a third sector model that will be appropriate for British Waterways, including the possible inclusion of Environment Agency navigations. No decisions will be taken until after the spending review.

The Minister will know that Stoke-on-Trent is blessed with many things, and among them are the great canals of England: the Trent and Mersey and the Caldon canal, where we recently had the Hanley regatta. In order to become a proper third sector organisation, British Waterways needs an appropriate financial settlement following the comprehensive spending review and a longer contract with Government to replace annual grants. Can British Waterways’ property endowment be put in a charity-locked mechanism, so that the Treasury does not sell it down the canal, and we can be assured that, as an example of the big—

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that we have the gist of his question.

I am grateful for all those questions, and I look forward to debating this matter with the hon. Gentleman and other colleagues to whom it is important. I know that he is particularly interested in the heritage of our waterways. The answer to his question is yes. For the third sector model to work, British Waterways will have to have access to its estate, or a large proportion of it, for it to gear up funding for sustainable funding in the future. I can assure him that it will not proceed unless it is locked in in that way. Those are the negotiations that we are taking forward with British Waterways.

Topical Questions

I will be publishing my Department’s priorities shortly in our structural reform plan, but I can share with the House that they are: to support British farming and food and encourage sustainable food production; to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve the quality of life; and to support a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to climate change.

Fishing and farming are important industries in my constituency of Waveney in north Suffolk, and the forthcoming reviews of the CAP and the CFP provide a great opportunity to improve the prospects of those two industries. Can the Minister and her team assure my constituents that they will stand up for British farmers and fishermen and show the leadership to get them the best possible deal?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the coalition Government are engaging effectively and constructively with the EU in the UK’s national interest. I hope that the early evidence of the invitation to the commissioner, which was accepted last night, will demonstrate that we are taking the concerns of British farmers and fishermen right to the heart of European matters.

Sixteen conservation organisations have recently written to the Secretary of State urging her to protect agri-environment schemes from spending cuts. Given that every pound that we spend brings in money from Europe, and given that once biodiversity is lost, it is very hard to bring back, can she give the House an assurance that she will make the natural environment a priority in the decisions that she makes?

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance. In answer to a question about biodiversity, I have just made it clear that I and the Department attach great priority to it, and agri-environment schemes are an integral part of ensuring good biodiversity.

T3. It is a shame that the former Prime Minister and right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) made only a fleeting visit to the Chamber, as I would have liked him to have heard my question. Does the Secretary of State agree that the previous Government’s payments agency was an expensive shambles? Will she visit Matching and other villages in my constituency and meet farmers who were threatened with financial ruin when payments were delayed? Will she take steps to simplify that service? (3964)

Order. May I say very gently to the hon. Gentleman and to other Members that topical questions in particular are supposed to be brief, and that a Member has a topical question—singular?

I shall try to reply with one answer. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I would be very happy to visit his constituency, as I have done many times, and I am very conscious of the distress that the mistakes of the Rural Payments Agency caused to many farmers.

T2. Earlier this year, Nocton Dairies submitted an application for a factory farm for 8,000 cows in Lincolnshire, and said:“Cows do not belong in fields.”Now the pig farmer of the year 2009 has submitted an application for 26,000 pigs to be held in a factory farm in Derbyshire. Does the Minister agree that we should resist that increasing industrialisation of our food production? (3963)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for a question that tests many people, as she rightly identifies. I make two points. First, specific planning applications must, quite properly, fall to the local planning authority and are not for DEFRA Ministers to comment on. Secondly, on wider animal welfare issues, the coalition has made achieving the highest standards of animal welfare one of its absolute commitments. However, all the evidence is that management, rather than simple numbers, necessarily dictates the quality of animal welfare in any particular unit.

T6. Does the Secretary of State understand the frustration of people who hear the European Commission for ever promise to reform the common agricultural policy, and Governments of all parties promise to get it reformed, when nothing ever happens? Does she not agree that the failure to reform the CAP, which costs this country £10 billion a year, is yet another perfect example of why we would be better off out of the European Union? (3967)

I perfectly understand the frustration of my hon. Friend and, in fact, farmers, who feel that we could and should get a better deal from the common agricultural policy. From the preliminary stages of the negotiations, however, I can share with him the fact that, across Europe, there is a clear consensus on lifting the regulatory burden on farmers. That augurs well for the issue being an important part of CAP reform and for my ensuring that the UK gets the best possible deal for its farmers, fishermen, consumers and taxpayers alike.

T4. Has the Secretary of State had the chance to talk to her colleague in local government about the building of 7,000 houses on Coventry’s green belt in Keresley and Kings Hill? Will she honour her pledge to stop that proposal, which was put forward by the previous Conservative-controlled city council? (3965)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that with the abolition of the regional spatial strategy the local plan is what determines where and how many houses are built. That will be a matter for Labour-controlled Coventry city council: it is within its gift to decide where the houses that are needed for the people of Coventry should go.

T7. The electronic sheep tagging rules were introduced by the previous Government. Will the Minister review the practical operation of those hated rules? Traceability can surely be maintained without the unnecessary cost and bureaucratic burden on farmers and Government alike. (3968)

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a key regulation for which I cannot find any sensible justification. Nevertheless, it is in place, but I plan to speak to the relevant commissioner about it in Luxembourg next week.

T5. Will there be any cuts in taxpayers’ subsidies to farmers in 2011 and in the consequential four years? (3966)

Obviously, the common agricultural policy determines in large part the remuneration that farmers receive, and taxpayers from all member states contribute to its funding. As the hon. Gentleman will just have heard, I have made it clear that, as part of the CAP reform negotiations that will take place shortly, my objective is to ensure that we get the best deal for farmers, taxpayers and consumers alike.

T8. Smallholdings in Carshalton suffer badly from fly-tipping. What consideration have the Government given to the National Farmers Union’s request to extend fines for people who fly-tip and to extend the Flycatcher database to include private land? (3969)

I am very interested in the NFU’s suggestions. I have been following advice on this issue from organisations such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Fly-tipping is by and large a local issue, and it is often solved at a very local level by the immediate community. It is a burden that often falls to landowners, and to farmers, to clear up. We will be working with the NFU to get a better strategy, but also trusting local communities and empowering them with the necessary laws and regulations that they need to bear down on this scourge of the rural environment.

Does the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) a few moments ago mean that she will indeed be arguing aggressively within the European Union for Europe-wide cuts in agricultural subsidies?

I have made it clear that my objective as part of the CAP reform negotiations is to get a better deal for Britain’s farmers and taxpayers. That should include, for example, proper recognition of the measures that farmers take to protect the environment at the same time as producing food in a sustainable way. The negotiations are at the early stages. It will be quite some time before we know how the UK will be affected, but my objective is to get us the best deal.

On landfill, the coalition agreement says that the Government hope to promote energy from waste through anaerobic digestion. How will that be done?

My hon. Friend, whose constituency is not far from mine, will perhaps have observed that our local authorities find that the increasing cost of the landfill tax is a strong incentive to try to reduce the amount of material that goes into recycling. There are opportunities for organic waste not to go to recycling at all; it is often composted by people who live in a rural or suburban locations. As regards anaerobic digestion, it is possible to consider collection from places where large quantities are produced, such as hospitals, catering outlets and schools.

The plan to privatise British Waterways by the back door—that is what the Minister is planning—has been knocking about for decades. What makes him think it will work this time?

It is not a plan to privatise British Waterways, but a plan to mutualise it. That was a very good suggestion that was made under the previous Government. It will offer the opportunity for longer-term secure funding. This is the sort of organisation that can exist in a voluntary sector role, as long as it has the proper resources to call on. I urge hon. Members to look carefully at the proposals that are being made. We are listening and consulting; we have not made any decisions yet. This is a method of securing a long-term, viable future for waterways that we all value greatly.

Will the Minister give the House an update on the health of bees in this country and on what future measures are planned to help the current situation?

The whole House has always taken a great interest in bee health, and we were very critical when the previous Government initially planned to cut funding for it. My hon. Friend may be aware that this week, using a significant contribution from DEFRA, a £10 million research programme was launched on the whole issue of bees and other pollinators, because we recognise their value to the economy.

What support can the Secretary of State’s Department give to traditional markets to encourage the sale of local produce?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. As I am sure she has seen, there is now a proliferation of farmers markets in most locations, because consumers very much like the diversity of high-quality produce that they offer. The decision about facilitating a farmers market in a particular location rests with local government. However, I am happy to discuss with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government how we might give further encouragement so that we see more such markets.

As part of her forthcoming review of arm’s length bodies, will the Secretary of State consider the track record of the Environment Agency in facilitating the introduction of hydroelectric power schemes on rivers? Its indecision and delay are an obstacle to progress on the River Avon in my constituency.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I believe that the question of hydroelectric power is one for the Department of Energy and Climate Change rather than the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, the Environment Agency operates as an arm’s length body and, as I have previously said, will form part of the review.

Canals and waterways are vital in my constituency in inner London, where there is a huge renaissance thanks to the Olympics. I welcome the Minister’s tone, but what conversations has he had with the Treasury? It is vital that British Waterways is not sold down the canal but is there for the long term, to protect this asset for the British public as a mutual.

I am aware that Regent’s canal, in the hon. Lady’s constituency, is a great heritage asset to that part of London. People who love it, and those who love the canals in my constituency and elsewhere, will look on with great concern to ensure that that point is made and that the Treasury understands—and it does—the need to provide British Waterways with the endowment it needs to gear up for the necessary repairs and maintenance of our canals.

I welcome the Ministers to their responsibilities. They will probably be aware by now that the previous Government were being taken to court by the WWF and the Angling Trust for non-compliance with the European Union water framework directive. Will the new Government adopt a different strategy on that important environmental legislation, based on involving local communities and stakeholders rather than lawyers?

We want to see much greater consultation with local communities, anglers and all sorts of interest groups—

And Liberal Democrats, certainly. We want that consultation on the management of our river systems, and it is important to understand that we are talking about not just river ways but the whole system, including the farmers who ensure that the water that gets into the rivers is clean. The water framework directive is a vital piece of legislation and a good directive with which we want to comply, and we will work with all parties to ensure that it is a success.