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Topical Questions

Volume 512: debated on Thursday 24 June 2010

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.