House of Commons
Thursday 9 September 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
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.
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.
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?
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)
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.
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.
The Environment Agency continually reviews the condition of its assets. Its target for 2011 is for 97% to be at or above target condition.
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.
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.
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.
10. What recent discussions she has had with the European Commission on mackerel quota. (14181)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
My noble Friend Lord Henley has met Liz Goodwin and other representatives of WRAP on several occasions, and they have a good working relationship.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 13 September will include:
Monday 13 September—Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.
Tuesday 14 September—Second Reading of the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill, followed by motion relating to the House of Commons Commission.
Wednesday 15 September—Motion to approve Ways and Means resolutions on which a Finance Bill will be introduced, followed by remaining stages of the Identity Documents Bill.
Thursday 16 September—General debate on the strategic defence and security review and future of the UK’s armed forces. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 October will include:
Monday 11 October—Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.
Tuesday 12 October—Proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Day 1).
Wednesday 13 October—Remaining stages of the Superannuation Bill, followed by, the Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration.
Thursday 14 October—Business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 18 October will include:
Monday 18 October—Proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Day 2).
Colleagues will also wish to know that subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Christmas recess on Tuesday 21 December 2010 and return on Monday 10 January 2011.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 September will be:
Thursday 16 September—A debate on the international year of biodiversity.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the Prime Minister on the recent death of his father.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business. On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I, too, offer our sincere condolences to the Prime Minister and his family at this very sad time.
As the Leader of the House knows, a number of Ministers made announcements during the recess that should properly have been made in the House, and they have since had to be rather dragged here to explain what they have been up to. We know that the Secretary of State for Education likes quite a few goes at getting his figures right, not least when he is announcing cancelled school building projects, but the Opposition are incredulous that after all the hype and kerfuffle the figures he finally released for free schools and academies were only 16 and 32. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether he has been asked to find time for a statement—maybe two or three statements—so that the Secretary of State for Education can confirm that he has not got into another muddle and that the figures he has come up with are indeed accurate?
Given the speech made by the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, presumably in response to the BBC reporting of the effects of the cuts on the regions, is the Leader of the House expecting a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister so that he can confirm that under the Labour Government £1.5 billion per year was to be made available to the regions through the regional development agencies, whereas under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government the regional growth fund is £1 billion over two years? In anyone’s language this is not extra support for the regions, it is a massive cut, and the Deputy Prime Minister should admit that to the House.
With regard to the allocation of time for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, can the Leader of the House tell us whether he thinks there will be adequate time to put right the abject failure of the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why public inquiries into parliamentary constituency changes are to be abolished? It was fairly clear on Monday that the Deputy Prime Minister has employed the services of the Tory grandee “Sir Gerry Mander” as his special adviser, but surely even he must realise that removing the right of local people to have a say in constituency boundaries is not only wrong in principle, but will lead to endless expensive judicial reviews in the courts.
We now have clear advice from the Clerk of the House that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is similarly ill thought-out and will also end up being challenged in the courts. Those two Bills are prime examples of the betrayal of the promise of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government to have pre-legislative scrutiny wherever possible. Worse than that, they are in the first case anti-democratic and in the second case unworkable. The only thing the Leader of the House should do is withdraw those Bills, go back to the drawing board and come back with legislation that respects our democracy and respects Parliament. I urge him to do so.
I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said at the beginning of her remarks. I know the Prime Minister will be reassured by what the whole House has said.
On statements, the code that the right hon. Lady refers to says that while the House is sitting statements of major changes in policy should first be made to the House. We propose to adhere to that policy. It does not apply, of course, when the House is not sitting, when the business of government continues. We also went out of our way to bring before Parliament as many statements as we could before the House adjourned for the summer recess. Unlike the previous Government we have brought the House back in September so that we are held properly to account and we do not have the very long recesses she enjoyed when she was a Minister.
On academies, I should hope that the right hon. Lady would congratulate the Government on the swift progress that the Secretary of State for Education has made in getting the Academies Bill through the House and academies up and running. More than 200 schools will become academies this year, and that compares with the four years that it took to open the first 30 academies and the five years that it took to open 15 city technology colleges. More than 200 schools are in the pipeline to become academies, so, far from decrying the slow progress she should welcome the swift, ambitious progress that this Government have made to bring higher standards of education to the nation’s children.
On regional development, I hope that the right hon. Lady heard what the mayor of Middlesbrough said on the “Today” programme. He made it absolutely clear that over the past 15 years his city had become over-dependent on public expenditure, and he was determined to rebalance the city’s economy. He was not asking for huge sums of Government money; he recognised that it was up to himself and the citizens of Middlesbrough to rebuild the economy so that it was less dependent on public sector expenditure. On top of the £1 billion growth fund, there are the incentives, through the national insurance rebates, for new businesses to relocate to those areas that benefit from the scheme.
On the programme motion, I am astounded that the right hon. Lady says that seven days—seven days!—on the Floor of the House for the boundaries Bill is not adequate. We had one day on the alternative vote under the previous Government; we are giving seven days on AV and boundaries. I am absolutely convinced that, in the five days on Report and the two days on remaining stages, she will have ample time to press the Government on the issues that she raised, such as the timetable for inquiries.
Finally, I welcome the fact that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is looking at the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, and I, like the right hon. Lady, have seen the evidence that the Clerk of the House gave to the Committee. I assume that the Committee, later on in its inquiry, will invite Ministers also to give evidence, so that they can respond. There will be an opportunity on Monday, when we have the Bill’s Second Reading, for Ministers to respond to the points that have been made, and I just remind the right hon. Lady that Professor Robert Hazell said:
“A related question is whether there could be recourse to the courts to enforce the requirements of a fixed term law. The probability is that they would consider the issue to be non-justiciable; an obligation to be enforced in the political but not the legal sphere.”
This may disappoint the right hon. Lady, but the Government have no intention whatever of withdrawing either Bill. We believe that they are in the long-term interest of the country, and we will get them through both Houses as soon as we can.
Order. There is important Back-Bench business to follow and real pressure on time, so I issue an appeal, beyond the ordinary appeal, for brevity if we are to maximise the number of contributors. A fine example of that brevity is to be provided, first, by Mr Edward Leigh.
Traditionally, Conservative Governments have never programmed constitutional measures, and, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has made clear, there was savage programming during the previous Parliament. He has allowed seven days, but can he give an assurance that the Government will use their best endeavours to ensure that all the most important points are covered, and in particular that there is time to debate and vote on thresholds?
Having allocated seven days for consideration of the Bill, I very much hope that the House will use that time intelligently. It would of course be open to the Government, if that were the wish of the House, to ensure that we reached certain matters by including programme motions. We are reluctant to do that at this stage. We believe that the House will use the seven days intelligently and to best advantage. If there is any sign of mischief and any determined efforts to slow down progress, we will of course have to think again.
The Leader of the House was uncharacteristically dismissive of the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton) about the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which we will debate on Monday. Does he genuinely, when he is in his more reflective mode, not think that there is a very strong case for the pre-legislative scrutiny of a measure that, at the very least, is controversial and, at worst, might end up placing the fate of any given Parliament in the hands of the judiciary? Surely that cannot be right.
I very much hope that against the background of the timetable that I have outlined, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will have time to complete its inquiry and report to the House on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I welcome the fact that it is conducting this inquiry, and I am sure that it will inform our debate. I am committed to draft legislation. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands that at the beginning of a new Parliament, with a new Government, it is not possible, if one is to make progress, to put everything in draft, particularly when commitments have been made to do certain things by a certain time. Those political imperatives sometimes override the ambition that both he and I have to subject all Bills to draft scrutiny.
During the recess, BBC South East reported on bogus charity collectors operating in my constituency. Given the growing, serious and organised nature of this crime, which deprives charities of millions of pounds a year, may I draw the Leader of House’s attention to early-day motion 689?
[That this House condemns the activities of fraudulent charity clothing bag collectors who abuse the goodwill of those who donate clothes for good causes; recognises that this organised crime is becoming a nationwide issue; expresses concern that these activities undermine the valuable work of genuine charities, depriving them of millions of pounds worth of donations per annum; and calls on the Government to ensure that local police authorities tackle the criminal gangs responsible and facilitate the strict enforcement of the House to House Collection Act 1939 and punishment of those found in breach of the Act.]
Will the Leader of the House consider allocating parliamentary time for an urgent debate on this issue?
I commend my hon. Friend on her initiative in tabling this EDM and drawing to the wider public attention the activities of criminal gangs who are not only defrauding legitimate charities of income but casting a question mark over the authenticity of genuine collections because of the bogus ones. The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee will have heard her plea for parliamentary time. In the meantime, I hope that the police and local authorities’ trading standards officers will give this activity the attention it deserves.
Further to the announcement of the next slot of Back-Bench business on 14 October, is the Leader of the House aware that, for the first time as a Backbench Business Committee, we will be taking representations from Back Benchers directly and in public on Wednesday 15 September—next Wednesday—at 5 pm? May I take this opportunity to urge all Members to make direct representations to the Committee so that we can determine what topic is most suitable for debate on that day?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who is acting as a lightning conductor for the many bids that I get to find time for debates. I welcome this initiative. I hope that she can write to hon. Members as well as making that statement in the House. I congratulate her on the innovative way in which she is chairing her Committee and broadening to a wider public the discussion about what issues should be debated.
Although the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill seeks to determine the length of future Parliaments, will the Leader of the House please confirm that if the Bill is passed the ensuing Act will have no special status and could in fact be repealed by a future Parliament?
In view of the impact of spending cuts on boroughs like mine, which was mentioned on the wireless today arising from a survey which had been undertaken—[Laughter.] There is nothing amusing about imposing spending cuts on those with the lowest incomes and the impact that it is having not only in my borough but throughout the west midlands. Would it not be right to have a debate as quickly as possible on this subject? Once again, a Tory Government are attacking the very people with the lowest incomes. It is disgraceful, and the spending cuts should certainly be reconsidered.
Of course I understand the strong feelings that the hon. Gentleman expresses. The Government are determined to protect the most vulnerable from the difficult decisions that we are going to have to take—decisions made necessary by the activities of a Government whom he supported.
Mrs Ashtiani is still languishing, four years on, in a jail in Iran. She has endured 99 lashes. Will the Leader of the House give us time for a debate to discuss her plight in the wake of the excellent motion in the European Parliament, which was carried 668 to nil in support of Mrs Ashtiani? Can we have a debate to discuss her plight and human rights in Iran more generally?
The hon. Gentleman draws a very serious issue to the House’s attention. He may have seen the Foreign Secretary’s statement, which made it absolutely clear that we deplore the actions of the Iranian Government in proposing to execute that lady. I hope that there may be time, through either the Backbench Business Committee, questions or the activity of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to add weight to the representations that have already been made, and I know that everybody in the House hopes that the life of that lady may be spared.
The Leader of the House will be aware of the continuing problems that parents with care have in obtaining child maintenance from some absent parents who are self-employed or company directors and are able to reduce their income artificially. May we have a debate on what more can be done to tackle that problem, and particularly on what changes are necessary to the application and determination procedure in the Child Support (Variations) Regulations 2000?
I think every hon. Member hears cases at their advice bureau in which an absent parent is accused of under-declaring their income, and if they are self-employed it is very difficult for the Child Support Agency or its successor organisation to verify that. That results in real hardship for the parent with the children. One possible way forward is that the new Select Committee on Work and Pensions may wish to revisit the subject. Alternatively, if the Backbench Business Committee receives sufficient representations, it may wish to find time for a debate. The subject for 14 October has not yet been allocated. I agree entirely that the issue needs to be addressed, because it comes up in all our advice bureaux.
May we have a debate on houses in multiple occupation? Three years ago, in a debate in Westminster Hall, I expressed my concern about the potential for fire in such properties, and sadly last weekend my worst fears were realised when a mother and her three-year-old daughter burned to death in my constituency. From 1 October, the Government intend to give local authorities greater latitude in granting such properties. Can the Leader of the House reassure me and the House that, when that is done, there will be no compromise on safety?
I was very sorry to hear of the loss of life in Milton Keynes over the weekend. There will be housing legislation, which may provide an opportunity to revisit the issue. In the meantime, as a former Housing Minister, I would say that we do not want to do anything that makes life in HMOs more dangerous.
I, too, listened this morning to the BBC’s announcement of the findings of its study carried out by Experian, on my digital radio. I was extremely concerned about the impact of those findings and should like to add weight to the request for the Leader of the House to make time for an extremely important and urgent debate on the issue, because the study showed clearly that the Government’s programme of cuts will have a disparate impact on regions such as my own, the north-east.
I understand the hon. Lady’s strong feelings about her constituency. The best response I can give is that there will be a statement on 20 October on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, and I imagine that there will be a debate on it. That will provide the right opportunity for her to share her concerns with the House and for the Government to respond to them, when we have the facts before us on exactly which programmes are being maintained and which are being reduced.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. He may have seen a series of articles in The Times that have vividly illustrated the problems that face us. We are well aware of the concern about the effect on postgraduate medical training of implementing the European working time directive, and in the coalition agreement, the Government are committed to limiting the application of the EWTD in the UK. Negotiations will start early next year, and the Department of Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will adopt a robust negotiating position.
May we have a debate on what is now known as the Cyprus problem? The Prime Minister met the Turkish authorities recently and spoke warmly about their ambition to join the European Union, but he forgot to mention Turkey’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus. A debate would provide an ideal opportunity to remind both our own Government and the Turkish Government of their responsibilities should they wish to join the EU.
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I do not know whether he will have an opportunity to raise it at Foreign Office questions, but I am sure that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee will have heard his bid for a debate on that serious issue.
Many new Members have entered the House since the climate change talks in Copenhagen. When may we have a debate on proposals for the Mexico conference later this year, so that the Government’s negotiations can be informed by Members at an early stage?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really serious point and an important bid. If he is not doing anything on Wednesday at 5 o’clock, he might like to present himself to the Committee of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and repeat his eloquent plea for a debate well in time before that conference takes place.
Throughout the general election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister campaigned against the irresponsibly swift and deep public spending cuts that his Government are now pursuing. In June, he said that he had changed his mind as the result of a conversation with the Governor of the Bank of England after the general election, but during the recess it transpired in a BBC documentary that he had in fact changed his mind before the general election. May we have a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why he did not think the electorate were entitled to know his change of position before the general election?
I reject the hon. Gentleman’s allegation that the Deputy Prime Minister misled anybody in any way during the election campaign. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister explain that the events in Greece, for example, changed his perception of the right thing to do for the UK economy. In any case, he appears regularly at the Dispatch Box and I am sure he would be only too anxious to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Will the Leader of the House consider a fuller debate on covert surveillance, following my early-day motion 697?
[That this House is concerned by the moral hazard involved in covert surveillance by local councils; regrets that this was enabled and encouraged by the previous Labour Government’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; notes that freedom of information requests by the organisation BigBrotherWatch have revealed that in the last two years alone, local councils have carried out over 8,500 separate covert surveillance operations under this legislation, which is equal to over 11 new surveillance operations every day; further notes that the previous Labour Government encouraged this through deliberate policy, and thereby created a culture of surveillance, where an individual's right to privacy was significantly eroded; and therefore welcomes the new Government as it stands firm in restoring Britain's ancient freedoms and civil liberties.]
Research by Big Brother Watch has shown that local councils have authorised more than 8,500 covert surveillance operations in the past two years, using the previous Government’s legislation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the House is to debate surveillance, we should discuss the major and real threats to our civil liberties?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. It is important that surveillance powers are used proportionately and for the purposes for which they were designed. The Government are committed to reviewing counter-terrorism and security powers, and later in the Session there will be a so-called freedom Bill, which will provide a proper opportunity to examine how local authorities are using those powers and, if necessary, curtail them.
I am sure the whole House will share my concern about the plans of the Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World outreach centre in Florida to organise a public burning of the Koran on Saturday. Might we expect a Government statement along the lines of that of the US Government, condemning that action?
I cycled into Parliament this morning only to be greeted by the sight of yet another protester who had breached security and remains, as we speak, on the scaffolding on the side of the building. I then approached the police who were standing underneath and asked why an arrest had not been made. They gave that ubiquitous British justification for inertia—health and safety. I then offered to go up myself and make a citizen’s arrest, and was told to move on or I would be arrested. It is a strange day indeed in Parliament when an MP is threatened with arrest while a protestor sits on our roof having breached security. May we have a statement on the security priorities for this House?
I commend my hon. Friend for his robust response to the constabulary. Had he been arrested, all sorts of issues might have been raised if he was going about his parliamentary duties. I very much regret that there has been another breach of security in the Palace. I understand that the police are doing what they can to remove the placards and protestors, but obviously they want to do so without injury if they can.
Might time be found for a debate, in either Government or Back-Bench time, to raise awareness among all our constituents of the housing benefit reductions, and especially the change coming in next October? Although it might sound like a complex change to move from setting the rate at the 50th percentile of regional rent to the 30th, nearly 6,000 of my constituents will have a sudden cut in their housing benefit, with massive implications for homelessness and disruption.
As a former Housing Minister, I am of course concerned about what the hon. Gentleman says. The fact is that in 2004-05, expenditure on housing benefit was £10 billion. If no action were taken, that would go up to £20 billion within 10 years. That is simply unsustainable, as is the fact that people can claim and are claiming £100,000 a year in housing benefit. At the moment, working families, through their taxes, pay the housing benefit of families who live in better-quality accommodation. That is also unsustainable, which is why we are introducing proposals to restrain the increase in housing benefit, but there will be discretionary payments and transitional arrangements. There will be an opportunity to debate the matter at greater length when legislation is before the House.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the current position is unsatisfactory. Although the protesters have been moved from the square, they are now encamped on the pavement, which is unacceptable and unsustainable. I accept the right to protest, but we cannot have permanent encampments on the pavement. Legislation will be introduced following discussions with Westminster city council and the Metropolitan police in order to put that right. I hope that the legislation introduced by this Government succeeds where that introduced by the previous Government manifestly failed.
When do the Government intend to proceed with their ridiculous proposal to give away or privatise the whole of Royal Mail? Will he indicate to the House that no statement will be made by any Minister outside the House on such a decision until such time as the House has been informed?
My hon. Friend is aware that one of the biggest infrastructure projects in this country—the Hinkley Point nuclear power station—is about to begin in my constituency. However, there is an anomaly in planning legislation, namely the Government’s ability to help us on planning gain for local communities. We are on phase 2 of the discussions at the moment, and my worry is that unless that is sorted out, when every major infrastructure in this country goes before the Infrastructure Planning Commission, local communities will say, “We don’t want this project because of the anomaly in getting money for the local area.”
My hon. Friend raises an important but rather technical point about the IPC, which I think we are going to abolish. I should like to raise the issue that he mentioned with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and urge the latter to give a swift response.
Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton), we need an urgent debate on Building Schools for the Future. The problem has been rumbling on for three months, and I have seven cancelled projects in my constituency. This is not a party political issue because it affects those on both sides of the House. I suspect that the Leader of the House, who has always demonstrated a lot of faith in this place, also wants a debate.
To some extent, the future of that programme is tied up with the comprehensive spending review, but the Select Committee on Education is holding an investigation into BSF. That might be the right vehicle by which the hon. Gentleman can pursue his interest.
There is concern on both sides of the House about human trafficking. Women are trafficked into our country, forced into prostitution and kept like slaves by pimps. It is therefore astonishing and distressing that the Government have refused to opt in to a European directive to combat that horrendous crime. Will the Leader of the House therefore grant a debate on that modern form of slavery?
I understand the hon. Lady’s concern, but I think I am right in saying that the Home Secretary responded to exactly that point just a few days ago. She said that what really mattered was the legislation in this country rather than automatically following what the EU has prescribed. She gave a robust response and made it absolutely clear that that activity is unacceptable, and that we will do all we can to stop it.
I am pleased with the appointment of the new trade Minister, Mr Green, and hope that he will focus on exports to the middle east, where there are huge opportunities for British firms. However, may we have a debate specifically on how Parliament, Members of Parliament and the Government can help small and medium-sized businesses to export?
I, too, welcome the appointment of the new trade Minister. I am not sure whether the Government can find time for a debate, but my hon. Friend has had remarkable success—if I may say so—in his bids for debates in Westminster Hall, and he might like to try his luck again on that one.
May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the future of the BBC World Service, and in particular on the future of the BBC Russian Service? It has not been above criticism in the past, but if it were to disappear completely, we would never get the frequencies back for broadcasts.
Does the Leader of the House agree that the House urgently needs to debate the balance of trade in relation to the process industry in the north-east? Also, given that the BBC today reported that areas such as Middlesbrough, Redcar and Stockton are the least resilient to the Government’s potential cuts, is it not paramount that we debate the process industry in, and exports from, that area, particularly in relation to the Government’s plan for a reduction of regional aid?
The hon. Gentleman has, like others, touched on the CSR. We did not want to make those reductions; we inherited the need to implement them. I support his idea of a debate on export opportunities for industries in the north-east. Perhaps the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, can add that to her list. However, if we debate the CSR, the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his points on Government policies on those matters.
The Leader of the House might be aware of the immense distress caused to the family of the victims of the Jeremy Bamber murders by the recent media interview he gave, which was allowed by the Ministry of Justice. May we have a debate in Government time on the impact of prisoners and mass murderers such as Bamber, who are serving whole-life tariffs and life imprisonment, being granted access to the media, so that victims of such crimes can be protected?
It cannot be right that those who have been sentenced to imprisonment for serious crimes such as murder should then from prison be allowed to cause distress to the relatives of their victims. I will certainly raise the case to which my hon. Friend refers with the Justice Secretary and ask him to write to her.
While the Leader of the House is talking to the Justice Secretary, will he ask whether he can make an early statement on the Government’s policy on continuing the previous Administration’s effort to divert vulnerable women and girls from custody? So far, we have heard warm words from Justice Ministers, but absolutely no detail on their plans. That silence is beginning to cause concern, so I would be grateful for an early statement.
I hope that the hon. Lady shares her concerns the next time the Ministry of Justice ministerial team come before the House—that seems to be the right vehicle—but certainly there is no question of this Government resiling from the initiatives to which she refers.
I understand that the appointment of the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility is to be approved by the Treasury Committee. Do the Government plan to allow any other important Government appointments to be approved by other Select Committees?
My hon. Friend asks a good question. Under the previous Government, a whole range of public appointments were made subject to the appropriate Select Committee validating or commenting on them—an extra tranche of names was added towards the end of the previous Parliament. We will certainly keep that under review. We are anxious that Select Committees have a role to play in key public appointments.
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate or statement on the answering of written parliamentary questions? In July, I tabled a number of named day questions to the Department for Education, but they were not answered before the recess. I returned to Parliament after the recess expecting all of them to be answered on 6 September, but not all were. I would appreciate his help in getting them answered. We know the difficulties that that Department has at the moment, but answering written questions, which gives MPs the information we need to hold the Government to account, is essential.
Over the summer I met the representatives of several businesses in east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire who, having survived Labour’s recession, are now in a difficult position in relation to their banks and obtaining loans. One particular allegation put to me by those businesses was that banks were refusing to entertain full applications so that their refusal rates, which are published, were not affected. The lending requests were being refused at the pre-application stage. May we have an urgent debate on that matter so that businesses in my area can be assured that the Government are on their side?
In advance of any debate that we may have on that issue, I wish to draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to see whether those matters can be addressed in the dialogue that they have with the banks. I know that other hon. Members have had the same experience that he has just recounted.
Given the Leader of the House’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) about the regional development fund, the importance of the comprehensive spending review and the BBC’s report today about the biggest cuts since the second world war, is it not the case that we need a debate about how we can protect the most needy and those parts of the country that are at most risk, given the north-south divide? Stoke-on-Trent, for example, was named in the BBC’s report.
The north-south divide that the hon. Lady mentions was inherited, and we seek to address it. I do not know whether she listened later on her radio—as opposed to her wireless—to the robust response from the Deputy Prime Minister, in which he outlined the action that the Government are taking to narrow the north-south divide and ensure that growth is encouraged in those areas that suffered under Labour.
I wonder whether the Leader of the House would consider having a debate on aircraft carriers before the spending review is completed, so that we can ensure that the workers who live in my constituency—and the thousands of people who would suffer the knock-on effects of any reduction—can make their feelings known before the cuts are announced.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern on behalf of his constituents. He will know that there is a strategic defence and security review taking place in parallel with the comprehensive spending review, and I fear that he will have to await the outcome of the processes before he learns of the Government’s decisions.
I was pleased to hear the comments by the Leader of the House about ministerial statements. However, on 29 August, the BBC reported—and the Department of Health confirmed—that the Secretary of State intended to scrap NHS Direct. That resulted in a petition of 14,000 people opposing that move. It now appears this morning that the Secretary of State for Health has said that he never intended to scrap NHS Direct. Will the Leader of the House reiterate to his colleagues how important it is to make clear statements to the House of Commons when Parliament is sitting, not in the middle of the summer recess.
The hon. Lady had an opportunity on Tuesday to take this matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of the State for Health. He is continuing the pilots initiated by the last Government to transfer NHS Direct to 111. NHS Direct is not being abolished: the organisation will support the new regime. On her plea for Ministers to make accurate statements to the House, no one is more strongly in support of that than I.
May I congratulate the Leader of the House on his excellent decision to table a debate on the year of international biodiversity in accordance with the suggestion that I made to him before the recess? I offer him another suggestion, which is that he takes more seriously the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), because the devastating impact of the cuts in housing benefit on constituencies up and down the country is something that this House needs to discuss fully in Government time as a matter of urgency.
The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will lead to a 25% reduction in Welsh representation in this House. In the light of that, will the Leader of the House support the request made by the shadow Secretary of State for Wales for a special meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to consider the implications of the Bill for Wales?
The Leader of the House will be aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the House that we need a swift and fair solution to the issue of compensation for the nuclear test ban veterans. Will he ensure that when the Secretary of State for Defence has decided the compensation package, he will make a full statement in the House so that hon. Members can make comments and question him?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about compensation. I cannot give a categorical guarantee of an oral statement, but I will do what I can to ensure that the House is fully informed and has an opportunity to hold Ministers to account for their decisions.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. A few moments ago, in response to my question about Royal Mail, the Leader of the House said that he would seek to ensure that the House was sitting when the statement on the decision was made. Do you agree with me that that is a cop out? Should not statements on matters as important as the future of Royal Mail be made first of all to this House?