Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 9 September 2010

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pitt Review

1. What recent progress has been made on implementation of the recommendations of the Pitt review. (14172)

I am sure that the whole House would want me to record our condolences to the Prime Minister and to let him know that we are thinking of him at this time.

Good progress has been made since the publication of the Pitt review. We have started to implement the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and published the national flood emergency framework, and we continue to work with local authorities to develop capacity.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. She will be aware of the consistently excellent work of firefighters in dealing with floods—indeed, I am sure she has praised it. The Pitt report was clear that to deal with the problems of training, equipment and resources, there would be a statutory responsibility. In fact, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and many Labour Members supported such a measure under the previous Administration. Will she give an assurance that during this Session of Parliament—in the next four or five years—that statutory requirement will be introduced, because it is crucial?

I can tell the hon. Lady that we have of course read very carefully all the Pitt review recommendations, including that one. I should like to acknowledge the very important role that fire and rescue service authorities play in the face of any flooding incident. In fact, those authorities have not told us of a single case of their being constrained in their response by a lack of powers. The question of the need for a statutory responsibility will be tested in an exercise next year. The option of a statutory duty has certainly not been ruled out.

Sir Michael Pitt himself, however, admitted that his advice with regard to building in flood-risk areas was compromised by the fact that the previous Government had a very high national house building target. Now that that target, and indeed regional targets, has been removed, is it not time to revisit the planning guidance on building in flood risk areas, so that constituencies such as mine will be better protected in future than they were in the past?

The Department for Communities and Local Government has started a review of the building regulations regime, and my Department will work with it to consider how that review can support Pitt recommendation 11, being mindful of the Government’s aim to reduce the overall regulatory burden.

In view of the fact that the Pitt report identifies the problem of responsibility, both if a flood happens and before that in the planning process, and that the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 addresses that, will the Secretary of State tell us what progress is being made on the implementation of the legislation in terms of the designated authorities for flooding, and what talks has she had with the Welsh Assembly Government on how that will affect cross-border areas?

We have been making very good progress on that aspect of the Pitt review and will be talking to the Welsh Assembly Government in the next couple of months specifically on the Welsh dimension of the question. I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that it is important to raise capacity at the local authority level in response to flooding. That was a further Pitt recommendation. All those matters will be discussed with the relevant bodies in order to improve our resilience in the face of the threat of flooding.

Fish Quotas (Thanet)

Numerous discussions with fishermen in the south-east in recent weeks, including in Thanet, have made me acutely aware of quota issues and the problems caused by the closure of key fisheries to the inshore fleet. The Marine Management Organisation has worked hard to secure additional quota to reopen fisheries and continues to do so. However, the current system is not sustainable. That is why the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project and common fisheries policy reform are key priorities.

Will the Minister thank the Department for the work it has done to support fisheries in the south-east, and will he outline his ambitions for the renegotiation of the CFP in 2012?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s thanks to the officials in my Department, who have worked extremely hard, and to those in the MMO, who have worked tirelessly. However, fishermen in her area and many others up the east coast should be grateful to the MPs concerned, who have lobbied me very hard on those issues. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a three-phase approach to dealing with this problem. First, we want to keep fishermen in business, which involves swapping quota where we can and working on a short-term basis so that they can continue to fish. Secondly, we need to look at the recommendations of the sustainable access to inshore fisheries project, which has come up with some really good suggestions on which we want to consult widely. Thirdly, however, the CFP is in desperate need of reform. The door is open to the kind of reforms that would be appreciated, I believe, on both sides of the House. I want to work with my hon. Friend and other Members who represent fisheries communities to ensure that we have a CFP that is fit for purpose for our times.

Farm Animal Welfare

The coalition Government are committed to achieving high standards of animal welfare and are working through the detail of several policies to ensure that we accomplish this.

Does the Minister’s refusal to name a date for the abolition of beak trimming not demonstrate the Government’s failure to prioritise animal welfare?

That is complete nonsense. As the hon. Gentleman should know, the date is already enshrined in law. The question is whether we seek to change that. To suggest that I have not set a date is nonsense, because his Government set that date. But we are considering representations, as did my predecessor, about whether to change that date. One of the underlying factors, not just on this but throughout animal welfare, is the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which is the body set up to advise the Government, and I think the cross-party view is that it is a very worthy organisation. We take its views strongly into account as we consider this matter.

As a former Minister, I have seen photographs of the terrible consequences of some of the types of game bird farming that occur. Supported by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and other animal welfare groups, the previous Government brought forward legislation to improve the position. Why is it that this Government are determined to reverse that legislation and cause unnecessary suffering to game birds?

It is precisely because that was the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which his Government disregarded.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), does my hon. Friend agree that, for those people concerned about the issue of beak trimming, the worst possible outcome from an animal welfare point of view would be that we end up with legislation that resulted in exporting animal welfare concerns—and jobs—to other countries? That would surely be a far worse outcome.

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The sad reality is that chickens will feather-peck and adopt cannibalism in any circumstances, including in large free-range facilities. The challenge with which we have to wrestle is whether or not debeaking is a bigger or lesser welfare issue than the consequences of not debeaking. The Government want to see an end to debeaking and we will achieve that, but we have to ensure that we do not make the situation worse in the process.

As the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) hinted, we have some of the highest farm animal welfare standards in the world. Does the Minister agree that unnaturally increasing those would have two results? First, we would import food from places with far lower standards than we have here, and secondly, that would put perfectly good farmers in this country out of business.

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and we have learned the lesson. I accept that it was a Conservative Government who banned stalls and tethers in the pig industry, and we saw over the following 10 years a halving of the domestic pig industry while we continued to import pigmeat produced under the very systems that we had banned. That is why, alongside our determination to raise animal welfare standards in this country, we must also try to raise them at least across Europe.

Circuses (Wild Animals)

The Department is currently reviewing the summary of the responses received in response to the consultation held on that issue. Lord Henley has met representatives of the circus industry and animal welfare organisations to discuss this issue further. Following his meeting, he requested further information from the industry, which he has now received. He anticipates that the review will be completed shortly and a response to the consultation will be published later this autumn.

The Minister will be aware that in the consultation 94% of respondents said they supported the ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, and the previous Government said they were minded to go ahead with that ban. There is great concern about the delay in this matter. I know that autumn in this place really means Christmas, so may I urge him to make a decision as soon as possible so that there is no more delay?

As the House has returned in the first week of September, I am not sure that the hon. Lady is right to refer to Christmas. However, I will tell my noble Friend of her words. He is considering the results of the consultation and that further information, and I am well aware of the response to the consultation and my predecessor’s mindful remarks, to which she referred. However, other issues have to be addressed, not least that of the definition of a circus and how we distinguish that from other forms of performance, such as in films or theatre.

Does the Minister sincerely believe that exotic animals being forced to dance and do tricks is natural? Bearing in mind that very few animal circuses are now left, surely the best thing is to abolish them, which the last Government failed to do but had promised to do while in opposition.

The direct answer is no, I do not think it is right for large animals, in particular, to be forced to perform acts for people’s entertainment. I do not think that is right. However, the role of Government is to look at the whole picture. One issue that we have to address is the fact that, if we ban wild animals, we will ban not just elephants and big cats, but snakes and all sorts of things that might be present in a circus and which might be perfectly reasonable. A lot of issues have to be addressed, but my noble Friend is considering them and will make an announcement later.

Food Procurement (Public Sector)

6. What steps her Department is taking to encourage the procurement of food of British origin by the public sector. (14177)

17. What steps her Department is taking to encourage the procurement of food of British origin by the public sector. (14188)

We are committed to ensuring that food procured by Government Departments, and eventually the whole public sector, meets British or equivalent standards of production wherever this can be achieved without increasing overall costs. I have written to ministerial colleagues asking them to look closely at how they can help us to meet this objective.

As Ministers agreed, British animal welfare standards are among the highest in the world, which may make products slightly more expensive. I understood that Government policy was to ensure procurement in the public sector of British-produced food wherever possible. I am concerned, therefore, about the response that it may be procured from other sources. Also, how will the Government measure whether food has come from British sources?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are proceeding with the commitment that I have given and which was outlined in the coalition agreement. With respect to the gap, the Government also intend to develop Government buying standards for the public procurement of food, which means that Departments will have to buy food that meets minimum sustainability standards. We know that our rules, especially on animal welfare, reflect the importance that the nation attaches to this issue.

The Secretary of State referred to the fact that she has asked the Cabinet to implement her policy on food procurement. Will she explain more about the practical policies that she will implement to ensure that this procurement goes ahead?

Again, I can give the hon. Lady this assurance. I have just said that I have written to all Departments about the importance that the coalition attaches to encouraging the public sector to procure food to the highest possible standards, followed up by the development of Government buying standards for food. However, I would like to give her some encouragement regarding our progress. It is demonstrable that we can implement this policy without increasing overall costs. Nottingham city council is a good example. It procures 90% of its fresh food from the east midlands area while demonstrating that the average cost per meal is 30% lower than the national average. That fact is welcomed by the Secretary of State for Health.

May I begin by complimenting the right hon. Lady on her choice of outfit? It is very DEFRA-esque—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, there is surely room for manners in the House of Commons. Will she describe what obstacles she sees in the way of Departments and the rest of the public sector procuring British produce?

First, I should like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his very nice compliment, which was received absolutely as it was intended. As much as anything, the obstacle might be a perception in the public sector that buying in food to British standards might cost more. The illustration from the health service that I gave to his hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) demonstrates clearly that it is possible to procure to British standards—the highest standards—and save costs, but I will give yet another example that might help to change perceptions. Shropshire council sources local produce for school meals. It uses seasonal, local, organic ingredients and still made a saving of 11% in the first year of shifting to locally produced, British food made to high standards, particularly fruit and vegetables. Perception is an important point to address.

I assure the right hon. Lady that seeing British produce procured by the public sector is a shared objective. Will she therefore say how she intends to measure the success of her policy in increasing procurement, and how she will make this information available to the House?

I recognise this as a shared objective, as the hon. Gentleman described it. He will know that DEFRA carefully records, by Department, the percentage of farm-assured food from all food supplied to the public sector. In writing to every Cabinet Minister about the issue, I have attached the league table of performance by Departments to provide an added incentive. We believe that the public sector should not spend taxpayers’ money on food that is not equivalent to British standards of production, because it is unfair on our farming and food industries.

I was very reassured to hear the Secretary of State say that animal welfare standards were important, as well as the British origin of the food. If the application for an 8,000-strong dairy factory farm in Lincolnshire is approved, will she join me in urging a boycott of battery milk by the public sector, and does she support the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ “Not in my cuppa” campaign?

The hon. Lady is talking about welfare standards and examples of planning applications—well publicised in the press—for large-scale units which, to date, have not been accepted. Logically, however, it is not scale that is the determinant of welfare: there can be animal welfare problems at both small and large-scale units. It has everything to do with the quality of the husbandry.

Flood Defences

The statement of principles agreed between the Government and the insurance industry is due to expire in 2013, yet many of the remaining issues, following the summer floods in 2007, are to do with the adequacy of insurance cover for homes and business properties. What assurance can the Government give the House that the statement of principles will meet the requirements of the insurance industry and that Government expenditure will remain at the level expected until 2013?

On the latter point, obviously I cannot prejudge the comprehensive spending review, which will be announced on 20 October. However, my hon. Friend will know, from the coalition document and our Department’s structural reform plan, the priority that we are giving to such matters. Under her chairmanship, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will look closely at the issue. I have met with the Association of British Insurers, and I believe that my hon. Friend is joining us next week—or in the near future—for a summit with the insurance industry to talk about such matters. I assure her that the statement of principles is an absolute priority, and 2013 is a date very much in our minds. We want to ensure continuity in the future, because of the uncertainty for the 5.2 million households at risk from flooding.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on her elevation to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I know that she will do sterling work. She and the Minister will know that, even with the massive investment in flood defences in recent years, including existing plans to protect another 200,000 homes by 2015, we will need to double investment over the next 25 years just to keep pace with climate change. In the short term, therefore, will the Minister at least maintain our existing commitment to protect more homes, year on year, over the next five years?

The hon. Gentleman knows the comprehensive spending review process well, and I cannot change what I have just said to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right, however, and he knows the problem that we face. I am pleased that we are spending more this year than ever before, and I very much hope that that can continue. I am also pleased that the Environment Agency is ahead of the game in protecting 160,000 houses, against a target of 145,000. I have been looking at the flood implications of coastal erosion on the east coast, and I have seen what a massive problem we have there. I was enthused by some of the innovative local ideas for accessing more funding, and I hope that we can expand on them, not only in areas of coastal erosion but in regard to flood alleviation and resilience schemes elsewhere in the country.

Regulatory Burden

8. What areas she has identified where the regulatory burden on the agricultural industry can be reduced; and if she will make a statement. (14179)

9. What areas she has identified where the regulatory burden on hill farmers can be reduced; and if she will make a statement. (14180)

13. What areas she has identified where the regulatory burden on the agricultural industry arising from EU legislation can be reduced; and if she will make a statement. We are very aware of the need to reduce burdens on farmers, to increase competitiveness and to trust businesses to maintain standards. The taskforce on farm regulation, which I appointed in July, will consider how to reduce regulatory burdens and deliver risk-based and integrated compliance and inspection. It will consider all regulation that bears on farmers, including hill farmers, and it has started a wide consultation to understand which issues cause farmers most concern. (14184)

Can the Minister give some reassurance to farmers in my Mid Norfolk constituency who are still struggling as a result of the non-payment, late payment or part payment of their single farm payments? This is having a serious impact on their cash flow, and it is often the result of slow interdepartmental communications on issues such as land transfer.

As my hon. Friend knows, I made a statement to the House in July about the Rural Payments Agency, following the outrageous and unbelievable damnation in the report by David Lane on the agency’s operations. I have taken the chair of the oversight board, and we have appointed an interim chief executive while we search for a new one who is able to make that organisation fit for purpose. It is our determination to ensure that farmers in Mid Norfolk and everywhere else are paid accurately and on time.

Hill farmers are facing significant challenges caused by the previous Government’s scrapping of the hill farm allowance, and by the bureaucracy involved in its replacement. Will the Minister meet me to discuss specific cases in Skipton and Ripon some time in the near future?

Of course I would be very happy to speak to my hon. Friend on this subject, and I appreciate the point that he is making. The upland entry level stewardship scheme is basically a very good scheme; I would not dissent from that—[Interruption.] I am not going to criticise the basis of the scheme, but my hon. Friend is right to say that some aspects of it are too bureaucratic and difficult to access, particularly when issues between landlords and tenants or issues of common land are involved. I am happy to try to address that.

Farmers in my constituency of Bromsgrove rightly abide by EU regulations, including those that are frankly unhelpful to the farming industry. The Minister might know that farmers in other EU countries often ignore those same regulations, and attract little or no sanction from the authorities in those countries. Will he reassure us that he is aware of this issue and that his Department is doing all it can to make it better?

I am very much aware of the belief in many parts of the British farming industry that regulations are not applied elsewhere in Europe. I am going to be completely honest, as the House would expect, and say that I think some of those stories are slightly exaggerated. I have many friends and contacts in the farming industry elsewhere in Europe, and they complain just as vigorously about this. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend’s fundamental point is absolutely right. When a regulation is passed by Europe, it should be implemented and enforced equally across the whole of the Community, if we believe in fair trade and a single market.

Does the Minister think that the Agricultural Wages Board constitutes a burden or protection for vulnerable workers?

We have already announced our intention to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, which has gone unchanged for the past 50-plus years. It is entirely inflexible and unable to face up to modern needs. For example, a farmer is not even allowed to pay a worker a salary under the Agricultural Wages Order, which is nonsensical. We now have the minimum wage legislation, and it is only right that we should bring agricultural legislation into line with the rest.

As we have just heard, the Secretary of State announced in July the plan to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, which sets terms and conditions in an industry where pay is low. That is a step that, as the House will recall, even Baroness Thatcher shied away from. Will the Minister try to explain why setting wage rates of between £5.95 an hour—which is only just above the minimum wage—and £8.88 an hour constitutes the burden of which he speaks? Where is the evidence for that?

The issue is one of inflexibility, because of the wages orders implemented through the Agricultural Wages Board. The right hon. Gentleman has just made the point that the minimum wage for agriculture is 2p an hour more than the national minimum wage, so what is the point of having a whole superstructure of an Agricultural Wages Board for the sake of 2p an hour? That question answers itself. The right hon. Gentleman talks about who is responsible for abolition, but he should remember that it was Labour policy to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board and the Government were forced to rescind it by the Warwick agreement when they were in hock to the Liberals—[Interruption.]—I mean the trade unions.

There we have it—we see the burden under which the Minister is having to labour! That was no justification at all, because as the Minister is well aware, grades 2 to 6 will not be covered by the minimum wage legislation, and what about overtime rates and standby and what about bereavement leave? Does the coalition have something against the Agricultural Wages Board providing an entitlement to bereavement leave for farm workers? When will the Minister admit that all this talk about flexibility and so forth is nothing more than a smokescreen for a shabby little plan to cut the wages of agricultural workers?

That just demonstrates how behind the times the right hon. Gentleman really is. In today’s modern economy, we must have flexibility. We do not have wages boards for other sectors. His Government never brought back any of those abolished by the previous Conservative Government. If this system is so wonderful, why did Labour not bring any of those back? The answer is that at least some of his colleagues recognised the need for that flexibility. The reality is that the industry should make its own decisions in negotiations with its workers in tandem with the advice of the National Farmers Union.

As the Minister is in hock to the Liberals, he will be aware of our commitment to landscape and biodiversity, including hedgerows. In reviewing the regulatory burden, will he ensure that the taskforce considers the new report on hedgerows by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which suggests that regulations have helped, that it is necessary and possible to simplify them and that we should enhance the protection of hedgerows in the countryside?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I accept his comment. The point of deregulation and the role of the taskforce is to simplify the burden, not to lower standards. I cannot repeat that too many times. We have no intention of reducing the protection for hedgerows. I was as concerned as my hon. Friend about them, but if we look at the issue carefully, we will find that many of the hedgerows have been removed not by farmers—in fact, they have been planting a lot more in the last decade—but as a result of development and local government actions.

Mackerel Quota

In addition to a conversation I had on a one-to-one basis with the European Commissioner Maria Damanaki, I wrote to her on 10 August about the north-east Atlantic mackerel fishery, in particular to express my deep concerns about Iceland’s and the Faroe Islands’ total allowable catch for this species. The UK Government are working closely with the industry and the EU Commission to put pressure on Iceland and the Faroes to behave reasonably.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I urge him to continue those efforts and to ensure that he interacts with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and other fishing organisations in Scotland. Although this is not an issue in my constituency, it is a matter of concern to people across Scotland when an industry of such historical importance—and local importance in the north-east of Scotland—is potentially being undermined by the activities of Iceland.

That is a very good point. I had a conversation yesterday with Richard Lochhead and other Ministers from the devolved Assembly. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very closely with them, as with the fisheries organisations, to deal with the unreasonable actions of the Iceland Government and the Faroes. If they go ahead with this unilaterally declared total allowable catch, they will put a sustainable stock in a very dangerous position. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am using every means I can to work with colleagues across the UK and with the Commission to make sure that this serious situation is dealt with. I agree that 90% of the relevant jobs are in the north-east of Scotland, which is why I am working closely with the Minister from the devolved Scottish Government on the issue.

The Minister will know of my interest in fisheries. Will he confirm what discussions he plans to have with commercial fishermen in relation to any extension of special areas of conservation recently introduced, the introduction of marine-protected areas, and the introduction of no-take zones around our coast?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Of course, it is important to consider mackerel in relation to marine areas of conservation. Therefore, in the context of that species, as well as others, I will have close contact with all the four areas around our coast—how am I doing?—that are responsible for bringing forward these plans. I understand that the matter is causing great concern among fishing communities, which must take part in such schemes—I know that they are doing so, but they must continue. I have visited some of the areas—I will get round to all four of them—to ensure that their concerns are raised and to help to iron out any problems.

Food Labelling

11. What plans her Department has to amend the food labelling standards for which it is responsible; and if she will make a statement. (14182)

14. What plans her Department has to amend the food labelling standards for which it is responsible; and if she will make a statement. (14185)

The Government have made a commitment to clear and honest food labelling. Our food labelling standards work remains focused on protecting consumers and enabling them to make informed choices, as well as ensuring a level playing field to promote the competitiveness of our food industry.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Does she agree that it is important that consumers across the UK are able to see clear and honest food labelling, particularly in relation to the country of origin of meat and dairy products, so that they know where animals have been farmed?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are negotiating on the proposed EU food information regulation, to ensure clarity in food labelling for consumers, especially on country of origin. That will ensure that unprocessed meat can be labelled as British only if it comes from an animal born, reared and slaughtered in the UK. Processed foods labelled as being made here will also have to show the origin of their main ingredient if that is from outside the UK.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer. Will she go further and advise us how far she will push in the negotiations for the nations and regions of the UK to be reflected in labelling?

The negotiations have been ongoing for about three years, as the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) will confirm, but under the Belgian presidency it is hoped that a political agreement will be reached by the end of the year. The discussion is about country of origin labelling; regional identification is already permitted on labels and is an important part of the Government’s strategy to encourage the recognition and protection of good-quality regionally produced foods, with which all of us as consumers would readily identify.

Will the Secretary of State therefore speak to her Conservative MEPs to find out why they do not support food labelling through the European Parliament?

With respect, I believe that Conservative Members of the European Parliament did support honesty in labelling, and that has been a Conservative party commitment for as long as I can remember. The European Parliament is currently considering compulsory country of origin labelling, and we have not ruled out the option.

Non-departmental Public Bodies

15. What further plans her Department has to reduce the number of non-departmental public bodies for which it is responsible. (14186)

The Government are committed to making substantial reforms to public bodies to increase accountability and reduce costs. I have been looking closely to ensure that we deliver our priorities in the most efficient and effective way, and to enhance the role of the big society. I announced reductions in the number of bodies before the recess and will make further announcements this autumn.

Given the overlap of responsibilities and roles between the Environment Agency and Natural England, does my right hon. Friend agree that there could be scope to merge the two bodies and that considerable savings and efficiencies could result?

My hon. Friend will have to await the final announcements that will be made this autumn. However, we have already had constructive discussions with Natural England and the Environment Agency, which has been very helpful in our quest for savings that will not involve compromising the front line. Reducing duplication between those organisations will obviously be one way of achieving that.

Given the recent suggestion that the Government will scrap the Commission for Rural Communities, the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, how on earth can Ministers come to the House and claim that this will be the greenest Government ever, and how will the functions performed by those bodies be taken over?

If the hon. Lady examines our structural reform plan closely, she will see that we have incorporated the important issues of environmental protection and sustainable development in the Department’s mainstream work. They are among its top three priorities.

The Commission for Rural Communities was established a long time ago. I am sure that the hon. Lady would acknowledge that there is a considerable depth of understanding of the issues of rural communities on this side of the House, and that DEFRA is the rural champion at the heart of Government.

Waste and Resources Action Programme

16. When she next expects to meet the chief executive of the Waste and Resources Action Programme to discuss its work. (14187)

WRAP—which, with great perspicacity, has based itself in Banbury—does good work in developing markets for recyclable materials, but do my ministerial colleagues not feel that it is time to change its governance rules to make it easier for it to lever in, and work in partnership with, the private sector, so that over time private investment and funding can replace public funding?

As my hon. Friend says, there is a great deal of opportunity for further funding for this whole area. I applaud WRAP’s work in promoting the Courtauld commitment and other arrangements with industry. The quick wins obviously involve larger companies such as Sainsbury’s, which has come up with some very good ideas about food waste. We must now move on to the difficult stage of dealing with small and medium-sized companies, which will be a priority for the future.

Laying Hens

DEFRA completed a consultation exercise in April on an amendment to the Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007, introduced by my predecessor, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), which would remove the total ban on beak-trimming of laying hens to allow routine trimming to be carried out by the infrared technique only. All comments are currently being considered, and a summary will be published on the DEFRA website.

May I urge the Minister to ignore the protests of the United Kingdom poultry industry, which is driven solely by profit, listen instead to the humane voices of those poultry farmers who have never engaged in this barbaric practice, and implement a ban from January?

There is nothing wrong with having profit as a motive. That is the way in which this country operates.

As I said earlier, we must ensure that we do not make the welfare situation worse. Very few poultry producers do not de-beak their poultry, because of poultry’s natural inclination towards feather-pecking and cannibalism. The Government want to see an end to it, but we are determined not to make the situation worse in the short term. That is why we are considering the results of the consultation carefully.

Supermarkets (Food Sourcing)

20. What steps her Department plans to take to encourage local sourcing of food by supermarkets. (14191)

In response to growing consumer demand for local food, retailers have adopted buying policies aimed at increasing the availability of regional and local food on their shelves. I welcome that, and recognise the need to provide consumers with information on the provenance of the food that they buy. Clearer origin labelling is therefore a key commitment in the Government’s programme.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but if small food producers are to be able to grow and supply the big supermarkets they must be able to develop their business, and one factor that holds them back is regulation and bureaucracy. What steps is the Department taking to strip out regulation in order to make it easier for such producers to grow?

I know that my hon. Friend has long experience of working in the food retail industry and has a keen understanding of this issue, and therefore I would encourage him to participate in the work of the regulation taskforce, and to make his submissions to its chairman in a timely fashion so that, as far as possible, the burden of regulation can be alleviated without undermining the original intention for which it was created.

Unsold Food

21. What recent estimate her Department has made of the retail value of food discarded because it is unsold or unused; and if she will make a statement. (14192)

Studies by the Waste and Resources Action Programme estimate the cost of waste generated across the UK food and drink supply chain and by households at around £17 billion every year. It is estimated that the average household unnecessarily wastes around £480 of food per year. The waste policy review announced by the Secretary of State will look at policies surrounding food waste, to see what can be done to further reduce the amount that ends up in landfill.

Portsmouth is producing a recipe book focused on using leftover food in order to raise awareness of the issue, proceeds from which are donated to local charities. Will the Minister support such initiatives, and encourage his ministerial colleagues to donate recipes to the book?

I can already think of one recipe that I would be happy to donate; I will not share it with the House as Members on the Opposition Front Bench might be upset to know that it contains meat. My hon. Friend makes a serious point, however, and this builds on initiatives such as “Love food hate waste”. I pay tribute to Portsmouth for coming forward with these ideas and I will certainly be interested, as will my noble Friend Lord Henley, in finding other instances where that has been done in a local area.

Topical Questions

My Department has responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In line with that, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that since the last topical questions my Department has started work on the natural environment White Paper, which will strengthen the UK’s position as we approach the summit on biodiversity in Nagoya next month. This will be the first White Paper of its kind for 20 years and it will play a vital role in helping us to deliver our pledge to be the greenest Government ever.

The Yorkshire region has long been known for its expertise in agricultural matters, and given that part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is already based in York I am keen to put forward a proposal to make York into a centre of excellence for agriculture matters, following the example of Montpellier in France. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss that exciting proposal?

I will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend, who shows a commendable desire to do his best for his constituency and region. I have to inform him that DEFRA has all around the country a large number of outposts, which, during the recess, the ministerial team—including me; I went to Worcester and Bristol— made a great effort to visit. That diversification is part of our resilience.

Given that DEFRA is an economic Department with very big European responsibilities, is it not astonishing that the Secretary of State is not listed as being a member of either of the Cabinet committees responsible—the Europe and economic affairs committees—whereas the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is a member of both and, moreover, appears to be making waste policy. Why has the Secretary of State allowed DEFRA’s influence to be downgraded in that way, and how can the Department be at the heart of the Government when she is not even on the main Cabinet committees?

I am very happy to inform the right hon. Gentleman that I have attended every single one of the economic affairs Cabinet committees. The structure of the Cabinet committee is about to be changed, so there will be a sub-committee of the Departments that have the most dealings with Europe. DEFRA, with 80% of its business determined at a European level, is one of those.

T2. Could the Secretary of State outline plans to reduce the number of organisations carrying out farm visits and inspections, which in south-west Norfolk includes Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Rural Payments Agency, as that places both a burden on farmers and a cost on the Exchequer? (14198)

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend, who represents, as I do, some of the most fertile land in the country in south-west Norfolk. She is absolutely right about the problem of multiple inspections. One of the challenges I have laid down to the Macdonald inquiry is to come up with a risk-based system and to merge the different inspection arrangements. By doing so, we can bring this all together and start to trust farmers. Concentrating inspections on a risk-based system will enable us to address those who are likely to be abusing the arrangements while trusting the vast majority who will not.

T4. if she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. At the last International Whaling Commission meeting, a proposal that would have legitimised commercial whaling for the first time in decades was rightly defeated. However, concerns were expressed about corruption and vote rigging prior to that meeting. Will the Government say what steps they are taking to eradicate those concerns? (14200)

I met the secretary-general of the IWC in Agadir and raised those points clearly with him, as we will continue to do. I was as alarmed as he was by the articles in The Sunday Times, and I remain absolutely convinced that, if the IWC is to have credibility, it has to sort out its governance problems.

T3. The EU Budget Commissioner wants to abolish the UK’s rebate, for which Mrs Thatcher fought so hard, on the grounds that farm payments have fallen as a percentage of the overall budget. If that happens, it will cost the United Kingdom £5 billion a year. Does the Minister have any advice for the EU Commissioner? (14199)

I have a very clear view for the EU Commissioner, which was articulated by the Chancellor this week: the rebate remains fully justified, given the distortions in the EU budget. This is a matter of fairness for us, as the UK has the lowest per capita receipts. As 43% of the EU budget is spent on agriculture, our quest is also to seek genuine and ambitious reform of the common agricultural policy that will deliver good value for farmers, taxpayers, consumers and the environment alike.

The coalition agreement stipulates that the Government will legislate to ban both the import and possession of illegal timber. The Secretary of State has recently made it clear that that commitment has been dropped in favour of the lesser European proposals. Has she discussed that with her coalition partners, and if so, with whom and when?

We discuss these issues throughout the coalition regularly, so I cannot give a long list of “with whom and when”. But it is perfectly correct that we believe that the EU due diligence regulation does fulfil the expectations and desires of the coalition on stopping the trade of illegally forested timber throughout the EU. Once formal agreement is reached in the next few weeks, we expect every country to adopt a very robust implementation process to ensure that it actually has teeth.

T5. Up and down the country, local authorities are spending millions of pounds on introducing new waste incinerators. The authorities in Norfolk and Suffolk are spending £160 million each, whereas the authority in neighbouring Cambridgeshire is meeting its EU landfill directive obligations, using different technology, for just £41 million. Is the Minister confident and satisfied that incineration is appropriate technology for the 21st century and is giving good value for money? (14201)

That is certainly part of our waste review and it is also part of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s review of the planning process, because that process must be at the heart of obtaining energy from waste. I hope that we can give assurances that the key driver in all these areas will be sustainable development, and how we manage waste will be at the heart of that. Energy from waste is part of the mix, but it must always remain a less-favoured solution than recycling. These matters have to be resolved locally, but the Department can provide a clear driver and clear strategy.

Does the Minister accept that we could improve on the amount of material that we recycle, particularly glass and paper, if there were less contamination within the collection systems? Does he have any proposals to improve the myriad different collection systems used by local authorities throughout the country?

I have seen the waste system in place around the country described as “anarchic”. Inevitably, local priorities will dictate how waste is managed, and rightly so; we do not want to prescribe from Whitehall how local authorities should prioritise areas of recycling. We set very high targets and we are determined to fulfil those. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that precise matter will be part of the review, and that he, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others will be able to hold us to account on it.

T6. Although arable farmers in Romney Marsh in my constituency have had an excellent harvest, what is left of the dairy sector continues to struggle, particularly with high fuel and feed costs. What measures are being considered by the Minister’s Department to support and sustain the UK dairy industry? (14202)

I entirely follow my hon. Friend’s concerns. The dairy industry has fallen back dramatically over the past few years, but I am delighted to say that in the past few months there has been a small upturn in production, which is good. It is quite clear that the industry has a long way to go in some quarters. What concerns me most is the huge range of prices being received by dairy producers—in the liquid retail trade, prices are very high but for those in the processed area of trade, they are very low. The role of Government is to help farming to become more competitive, and that is what we are determined to do.

Do the Government intend to extend their big society ethos by keeping the previous Labour Government’s commitment to completing the English coastal path?

We have said that we will continue the cross-party agreement that we had during the progress of the Bill to develop the coastal path. We have identified four areas in which it is being proceeded with, one of which is close to the Olympic site in Weymouth. Inevitably, it is a 10-year proposal and £50 million has been put into the budget for that over those 10 years. We will see which priorities exist over that 10-year period.

T7. D. A. Clough and Son in my constituency has 12,000 laying hens and employs 10 people. Will the Minister reassure those people that he will vigorously oppose any attempt made by other EU member states to weaken their obligations under the laying hens directive, which would disadvantage British producers? Will he also consider measures to support British producers who are struggling to meet the costs of compliance? (14203)

My hon. Friend puts her finger on an extremely important issue. The British egg industry has invested a very large sum of money in bringing its production systems in line with the obligations that will come in at the end of next year. It is a great tragedy that some other European countries appear not to have done that. We are delighted that the European Commission rejected the application for a derogation by Poland and we will be very robust in supporting the Commission against any other applications for a derogation. If the situation is maintained, we will press the Commission to ensure that there is protection for those farmers who have made that investment.

The Minister will be aware of the concerns that are being raised about scallop dredging and the devastating impact that it has had on certain parts of the marine environment, particularly in the Clyde. Is any consideration being given to banning such practices or placing restrictions on them?

The hon. Lady probably saw the “Panorama” programme that touched on that subject, which starkly showed some of the problems. However, there are many areas of the seabed where scallop dredging is a perfectly legitimate and sustainable activity and does little or no damage. It has to be managed, but when we ban scallop dredgers from certain areas we have to remember that displacement can cause further problems elsewhere. That is why the marine strategy is so important: we can now zone different parts of the seas for different activities for a legitimate and, where possible, sustainable industry such as the production of scallops.

T8. We have seen in recent weeks just how important the flooding issue is internationally. It is clearly, from what we have heard in the House this morning, an important national issue. In my constituency of Newton Abbot we have had some severe flooding incidents in 2004 and 2008. Teignmouth has been particularly badly affected and flood prevention works are taking place in Shaldon. Now would be exactly the right time for a green light to be given to the proposed plans for flood prevention work in Teignmouth. I would be grateful for the Minister’s assurance that he will give that very careful consideration. (14204)

My hon. Friend is right to raise concerns on behalf of the residents of the 413 properties in Teignmouth that are at risk of rapid tidal flooding. There is a procedure going on with the Environment Agency for a £4.7 million scheme, which is at an advanced stage of planning. I am happy to meet her. I understand that, if all proceeds well, construction can start in the winter of 2011.

Does the Secretary of State plan to invoke The Hague preference to favour the under-10 metre sector at this autumn’s Fisheries Council?

Not unless we have to, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that invocation of The Hague preference will be done in full consultation with partners from all devolved Assemblies. It was done last year to support fishermen in the north-east of England and I recognise how important that was for them. I recognise also the concerns expressed by those in Scotland about the way it was done and I want to consult very openly on that.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Farmers are very keen to face up to the challenge of producing more food while impacting less on the environment and delivering the public goods of biodiversity, landscape conservation, water management and carbon sequestration, but they need a lead from the Department. When can farmers look forward to having that lead so that they can carry out those vital works?

I thank my honourable ally for that question. I refer him to the No. 1 priority in the Department’s structural reform plan which is precisely to support the British food and farming sectors to produce food in a sustainable way that also protects the environment.

Further to the response that the Secretary of State gave me earlier, does she believe that keeping cows indoors in cubicles for more than 10 months of the year when they are in milk, milking them three times a day instead of the usual two and their having an average lifespan of five years, as opposed to the natural lifespan of 20 years, is compatible with good animal welfare standards?

I suggest that the hon. Lady should learn a little about dairy farming. In the natural world a calf suckles its mother many times a day, so milking three times a day instead of twice is hardly a welfare problem.

Of course I recognise that there are concerns about that issue—that is why DEFRA has commissioned a three-year study by the university of Edinburgh into housing cattle all year round. That report is due next year and obviously we will study it carefully.

T9. I am sure that the Minister will agree that our agricultural and food research sector is a vital platform for both sustainable production and unlocking huge new markets around the world. Will the Department comment on the recent Taylor review and the excellent recommendations it has made? (14206)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, which allows me to place on the record our very grateful thanks to Lord Taylor, whose experience of working in the horticultural industry has been invaluable in the preparation of the report. It was commissioned while my party was in opposition, was not officially commissioned by the Government and therefore cannot be published as a Government report. However, my Department’s response will be published officially and shortly.