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Topical Questions

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 9 September 2010

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.