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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Natural England

First, I welcome the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and her new team to the Front Bench. I enjoyed cordial relations with her predecessors in the short time we were opposite each other and I hope that cordiality will continue.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been working closely with Natural England on substantial reforms to transform it into a leaner, more efficient front-line delivery body that is focused strongly on the Government’s ambitions for the environment.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Will she give a little more detail regarding the impact of the comprehensive spending review on the two stewardship schemes that are run by Natural England and how she sees that impact progressing in coming years?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that as a result of the comprehensive spending review, both types of stewardship scheme will be maintained. There will be new entrants to both the entry-level and the higher-level stewardship schemes. We have ambitions to increase by about 80% the number of farmers in the higher-level stewardship scheme and to increase qualitatively the environmental benefits provided under the entry-level scheme.

Natural England is the nation’s principle conservation agency and our champion of biodiversity. In the name of reform, the Government are leaving it with no choice but to hand over 140 national nature reserves to anyone who will take them on, to put our network of national trails up for grabs and to cut back on the expert support that is vital to delivering the environmental stewardship schemes. We are talking about the nation’s front line in protecting our environment. The Government claim to be the greenest ever, but is not the reality that the Secretary of State is prepared to sacrifice Natural England and our precious environment in a bid to win friends and credit at the Treasury?

I should like to countermand those suggestions. Natural England, in common with all the arm’s-length bodies in the DEFRA delivery network, is taking a pro rata reduction. It is required to make efficiency savings in the same way as the core Department has to. None the less, there will be no changes in Natural England’s statutory functions. It will cease to undertake some activities, such as lobbying and policy making, which should rightly be the domain of the Department at the centre. Consideration is being given to options for improving the management of our national nature reserves because that is consistent with a big society approach.


Tackling biodiversity loss is one of my Department’s top priorities. I have just returned from international negotiations in Nagoya where the UK played a pivotal role in securing agreement on the ambitious new framework to halt biodiversity loss. The challenge now is to implement this domestically. In the spring, I intend to publish a White Paper outlining the Government’s vision for the natural environment, backed up with practical action to deliver that ambition.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Given the Government’s intention to sell off a substantial part of the forest estate, what measures will be in place to ensure the biodiversity potential of this land and to ensure that the commitments in the Forestry Commission’s forest design plans will be fully implemented?

I can give the hon. Lady clear assurances on this point, but we need to start with a little myth-busting on the back of press speculation. Only 18% of forests and woodland in England are owned by the state and it is wrong to confuse ownership with any suggestion of a reduction in biodiversity. It is quite right, and in the spirit of the coalition agreement, to consider giving the community who live nearest to the forest the opportunity to own it, as that community and civil society are most likely to give it the best protection. Finally, I should like to reassure her by clarifying that not one tree can be felled without a licence being issued by my Department. In the last analysis, we are committed to forest biodiversity and to enhancing biodiversity. Our forests are among the richest of our genetic resources and we have every intention of protecting them.

May I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for welcoming me to my new role and for the briefing that she gave me on Nagoya? I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the new fund that the Government have pledged in order to deliver international biodiversity benefits through international forestry.

On Government plans to maintain biodiversity at home, however, we have seen a series of deeply worrying moves from the right hon. Lady over the past three months. The Government plan to sell off or simply give away 140 national nature reserves; our national parks, which a Labour Government began in 1949, will suffer a catastrophic 30% cut to their budgets, leaving park workers unemployed, our national trails abandoned and precious habitats neglected; and her Department has announced a review of England’s forests, seeing them sold to the highest bidder—asset stripping our natural heritage. Is it not the case that she preaches environmental evangelism around the world and practices environmental vandalism at home?

That is a disappointing opener from the hon. Lady. She appears not to understand that her own party when in government would have had to make cuts, and there will be no credibility to her accusations unless she tells the House where she would have made savings. In any event, however, there is no suggestion that we are poised to sell off nature reserves. Can she not see that it is not necessarily for the state to do everything? The Wildlife Trusts welcome the opportunity to be more involved in the management of our nature reserves.

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but I suggest that she ask them. As for selling off the forests, she just heard my explanation that it is wrong to confuse ownership with the quality of environmental protection, and I believe that the communities and charities that would like to be more involved in protecting and enhancing our forest biodiversity welcome our suggestions.

The truth is that the Government have reserved their most vicious spending cut for a 30% cut in environmental spending. We know that in the spending review, the right hon. Lady caved in early to the Chancellor’s pressure, and that she gave away too much too quickly. Why did she sell out the country’s environment to the Chancellor?

The hon. Lady shakes her head, but her Government were committed to a 50% reduction in capital. Perhaps she would like to identify in the Department’s budget what she would have done. What I can tell the House is that, going into those negotiations with the Treasury, we took a strategic approach, because it was important for us to protect as much of the capital as possible. Her party, had it been in government, would have cut the capital budget by 50%, but we succeeded in reducing that to a 34% reduction, meaning that the bulk of our flood defence capital has been protected.

Forestry Commission

3. What recent estimate she has made of the monetary value of the land managed by the Forestry Commission. (21643)

There is an ongoing programme of sales run by the Forestry Commission, year on year, to achieve operational efficiency. In the 2009-10 accounts, the public forest estate in England was valued at £700 million. That is the net book value; it does not necessarily reflect the true market value. I intend to consult on proposals for new ownership options for the public forest estate in England, and on how to secure the important public benefits that they provide.

I think that for once, given the answers that we have heard today, The Daily Telegraph might be right, because it says that the Government cannot see the forest for the fees. However, can the Minister give a categorical assurance that, contrary to other press reports, if Government-owned forest is sold off, it will not be sold off to developers to be turned into things such as Center Parcs and golf courses?

I am delighted to have the opportunity to debunk that absurd notion. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, before trees can be felled, one requires a felling licence from the Forestry Commission. The Forestry Commission will continue to have that role, even through those disposals, if that is what happens; and, of course, planning consent would be required to undertake any of those things, such as golf courses or Center Parcs. We have no intention of seeing our forest damaged; we want to maintain the public benefits that we already have.

Will the Minister make a commitment that all land transferred from the Forestry Commission’s control will be covered by legally binding commitments on new owners to maintain current policies for environmentally and socially beneficial use, especially those on the restoration of planted ancient woodland and on public access? Can he also put on the record what will happen to the funds raised from the proposed new programme to sell off those woodlands?

There would be no point in having a consultation if I were to announce the results of it now, so I am not going to do so. However, I can tell the hon. Lady, as my right hon. Friend has said and I have just said, that we have absolutely no intention of allowing any public benefit of our woodland, be it access, biodiversity or carbon storage, to be damaged by whatever action we take on public ownership.

Is the Minister aware of the Forestry Commission’s involvement in a pilot flood protection project to protect Pickering from future floods by planting a great number of trees to soak up the excess water and prevent it from entering Pickering? Will he give me an assurance today that that project will not be at risk from any future cutbacks and that the Government will continue with their tree planting programme?

It is worth making the point to my hon. Friend that under the previous Government the amount of trees and new woodland planted in this country fell dramatically. The Opposition, as they now are, need to account for that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; trees have a vital role in flood prevention and alleviation, and although I do not know the detail of the scheme to which she refers, I have no doubt that it will continue in some guise.

ConFor, the Confederation of Forest Industries, represents sawmills and other processing businesses, and it values the supply of timber that it receives from the Forestry Commission estate because of its quality and consistency. As he considers the sale of some of that estate, will the Minister consult ConFor and the timber industries to ensure that their interests are taken into consideration?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I assure him that I have already had consultations and discussions with ConFor. I have discussed various options with its representatives, who, obviously, will submit a response to the consultation when we launch it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a number of the timber trade businesses rely on a constant supply of timber from the Forestry Commission, and I am very much aware that that factor will have to be taken into account to ensure that our important timber industry gets continuity of supply.

I thank the Minister for his letter of last week about the future of Forestry Commission land, even if it is regrettable that it has not been accompanied by a full statement to the House.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Woodland Trust have said that the sale price for that ancient forest land does not match its environmental or social value and that they lack the resources to purchase the land. Why has the Minister failed to give the House any assurance that the money raised from this fire sale of English woodland will be reinvested in environmental protection or green jobs, rather than simply ending up in the Treasury’s coffers? Is not the reality that big business, not the big society, will benefit from this land grab?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position—and long may he hold it, if that is the best that he can do. I had hoped that we could have a rational debate about the future of our forests. Much of what the hon. Gentleman said is absolute nonsense. As I have repeatedly said, we are determined to protect our forests and increase the rate of new planting in this country, beyond the failure of his Government, whom he supported. That is what has to be done. Working towards new ownership does not in any way countermand the important value of our British forests, which we intend to maintain.

Farming Industry

The Government are determined to help our farming industry play its full role in the food supply chain by clawing back markets lost to imports and by increasing exports. We are therefore changing the whole culture of regulation to one of trust rather than one of threat. We provide investment assistance under the rural development programme and we are working with the industry on knowledge transfer, skills development and sustainability issues.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he reassure members of the Farmers Union of Wales, whom I met earlier this week, that he is making progress on the creation of a supermarket ombudsman?

As my hon. Friend knows, the legislative aspects of that issue relate to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but I assure him that I am in close contact with my colleagues. We are determined to press ahead with the supermarket adjudicator, as recommended by the Competition Commission a year or so ago.

Animal disease is costly to the Government and farmers, both financially and emotionally. In 2009-10, the Government spent £330 million on animal health and welfare, and the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, which devastated the local farming economy in Devon, is believed to have cost the UK £8 billion. I recently had a meeting with farmers in Newton Abbot, and they are very concerned that the Government will not listen to them about shaping plans, going forward, for cost and risk sharing—

Order. I know that the hon. Lady is a new Member and I appreciate her commitment to the House, but far too many questions are prefaced with substantial descriptive statements. That must not happen. I ask her for a quick sentence, and then we will move on.

Will the Minister meet me and some of my local farmers to discuss their ideas on how to reduce cost and risk sharing?

Yes, I will happily meet my hon. Friend. If you will allow me one more sentence, Mr Speaker, under the cost and responsibility discussions I am absolutely determined, and I will reassure my hon. Friend’s farmers on this, that they will have a major role in formulating disease control policy.

May I ask the Minister how the Government will use their new buying standards for food in the public sector to support British farmers in the 88% of public sector food purchases not covered by the new Government standards? My private Member’s Bill next week is the ideal opportunity for a detailed debate in Committee where we can discuss how we can support farmers.

I can tell the hon. Lady that I am certainly looking forward to next week’s debate on her private Member’s Bill and I congratulate her on introducing it to enable us to have that debate. We will consult on the Government’s buying standards in the next few weeks and we will be launching them early next year. They will apply compulsorily to central Government—we have determined that we should drive these standards forward—and they will include the need to ensure that food procured by the Government is produced to the standards that we expect of our own farmers. That is the best way to ensure fair competition in public procurement.

Does the Minister accept, in the interests of what he has said about competitiveness, that the decision to abolish the national Agricultural Wages Board will not contribute to competitiveness but will simply reduce the living standards and wages of our agricultural workers?

I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Lady. That legislation has been in place for 60 years and industrial relations and wages negotiations have changed dramatically over those years. It is worth pointing out that the previous Government, in office for 13 years, did not bring back any of the other wages boards that we had abolished. The present wages board does not allow salaries, it does not allow proper piecework rates and it does not allow annualised rates. Those are all measures that modern labour relations require. That is why it needs to go and all workers will be protected by the national minimum wage regulations, which apply to every other worker in this country.

Under-10-metre Fishing Fleet

5. For what reasons her Department has instructed the under-10-metre fishing fleet to maintain log books. (21645)

The Marine Management Organisation has introduced a requirement for masters of under-10-metre fishing vessels fishing in, or transiting, either International Council for the Exploration of the Sea areas IVc and VIId, or ICES areas VIId and VIIe in the same fishing trip, to complete and submit an EU logbook. The new requirement has been introduced to provide greater assurance over the accuracy of catch information for fish stocks in those areas, following concerns expressed about potential misdeclaration of catch areas.

As a great supporter of the under-10-metre fishing fleet, I hope that the Minister will point out to the MMO that this is a highly bureaucratic, quite impractical approach for some of the smaller boats. Will he urge the MMO to consider working much more closely with the local patrol fleets, which know these local fisheries much better than anybody else?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. I know her local fishing community and how much she stands up for them. I am happy to meet them and discuss this. As we go forward with our negotiations with the Commission on catch quotas for next year, we have to do so on the basis of knowledge of what is there and on the basis of science. That sometimes requires us to ask fishermen to take actions that can add to their working day. I do not want to burden people with regulation—that is not the direction that the Government are going in—and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and the MMO to see whether we can find another way forward, but we need an accurate declaration of stocks in those areas.


6. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the likely effects of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review on the funding available to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. (21646)

We have worked closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to understand cost pressures on local authority waste management over the spending review period and have taken these into account in the overall local government settlement. Significantly increased financial flexibility will free local authorities to allocate resources to meet their priorities and make continued efficiency savings while continuing to deliver our overall environmental goals for waste management.

Has the Secretary of State looked at last year’s estimate by the Waste and Resources Action Programme suggesting that there will be an additional 3 million tonnes of dried municipal recyclates circulating by 2015, while all-materials recycling facilities would be used up and 60% of local authority areas would have insufficient capacity? What has changed in this analysis since May 2010 other than her Department’s withdrawal of seven private finance initiative waste projects and the cutting of local authority budgets by 28%?

I invite the hon. Gentleman, who has a great interest in this subject, to look at some municipal waste statistics that have just been published this morning. The more recent data show three things: first, that we are producing less waste; secondly, that we are recycling more waste; and thirdly, therefore, that we are sending less to landfill. That is what makes us confident that the 2020 targets can be met with fewer publicly funded projects.

Dangerous Dogs

7. When she plans to respond to the recent consultation conducted by her Department on dangerous dogs; and if she will make a statement. (21648)

The consultation closed on 1 June and received 4,250 responses. The Government will be publishing a summary of those responses and will make an announcement on the way forward very shortly.

In 2008, almost 6,000 people needed hospital treatment for injuries sustained by dangerous dogs. The Communication Workers Union reports that every year between 5,000 and 6,000 of its members suffer injuries by dogs. Every month, three guide dogs are attacked. In the past three years, five children have been killed by dangerous dogs, including John Paul Massey in my constituency. Will the Minister seriously consider the draft legislation proposed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the RSPCA and the National Dog Warden Association in order adequately to deal with this problem?

I do not think anybody in this House can be unaware of the increasing problems of dangerous dogs to which the hon. Lady refers, and the tragedy of John Paul Massey and other children who have been killed by dogs in recent years. Clearly, we do have to act. I can assure her that my noble Friend Lord Henley, who leads on these matters, will be taking account of the proposals to which she refers. We should understand that we need to find a way forward that addresses the real problem of people who are already, in many cases, disobeying the law by holding dogs which are classified as dangerous dogs. It is those people we need to attack rather than the much larger number whose dogs are perfectly harmless.

We do not let a criminal or unsuitable person have lawful possession of a firearm or a weapon. Given the known temperament of certain breeds of dog, could we not insist on a fit and proper person test as a precondition of owning a dangerous dog? After all, criminals seem to have a proclivity for precisely these breeds.

As I have said, that proposition and many others are being considered by my noble Friend, and he will make his announcement shortly. My hon. Friend needs to recognise that to take that approach would require an immense amount of regulation and control about who was able to purchase dogs, which would then feed back through the whole supply chain of puppies and become quite a mammoth undertaking. Nevertheless, it is worth considering, as with all other propositions.

Common Agricultural Policy

8. What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on reform of the common agricultural policy. (21649)

I, along with other DEFRA Ministers, regularly meet our EU counterparts to discuss reform of the common agricultural policy. The Minister of State and I attended the Informal Agriculture Council, where CAP reform was discussed, and most recently I hosted the German Agriculture Minister to discuss a range of issues of common interest, including reform of the CAP.

Can the Minister tell me what impact the latest increase in the EU budget will have on the common agricultural policy?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the EU budget needs to reflect the straitened economic circumstances that all European member states are experiencing. Last weekend, the Prime Minister met the German Chancellor, Frau Merkel, and earlier this week he met President Sarkozy from France, to have important discussions about the realities of the size of the EU budget. Part of those considerations will be the allocation that goes to the common agricultural policy.

We all know that a successful outcome to the common agricultural policy negotiations is vital for Britain’s rural communities. In an interview on “Farming Today”, the right hon. Lady said that the Treasury had conducted a regional impact assessment of the CSR, and that her Department had considered its rural impact. I asked her Department for a copy of that rural impact assessment, and the reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), stated:

“DEFRA has not carried out a formal assessment of the impact of the spending review on rural matters.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 606W.]

Once and for all, can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the rural impact assessment exists?

As I am sure the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is not just the decisions made at DEFRA that have implications for rural communities. As the Government’s rural champion, DEFRA is therefore undertaking an assessment of the implications of other Departments’ elements of the spending review across rural areas. For example, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has made some positive decisions arising from the spending review, including the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas, that will have a positive effect on rural areas. The matter needs to be regarded in the round, and that work has been undertaken since the announcement of the decisions affecting all Departments was made on 20 October.

Local Rural Environments

9. If she will discuss with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government proposals to extend the power of communities to protect local rural environments. (21650)

The Government are committed to reforming the current top-down planning system to give communities far greater powers to shape their neighbourhoods and share in the benefits of growth. In particular, neighbourhood plans will give communities the freedom to bring forward more development than is set out in the local authority plan, or to introduce more localised rural environmental protection policies. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will work closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government in taking that forward.

I thank the Minister. To ensure that there is public support for important renewable energy programmes, does the Minister agree that it is crucial that such projects are put in the right place, and that projects such as onshore wind farms are not put in spectacularly beautiful parts of the country where there is no local support? Will he visit my spectacular part of the country in Suffolk, to see just how beautiful it is?

I am happy to inform my hon. Friend that I will be spending Christmas in his constituency, because my in-laws live there.

The importance of renewables is known and agreed upon throughout the House, and the Government recognise the value of increasing the amount of electricity that we produce from renewable energy. However, we also recognise the genuine local concerns, which have to be included in the planning process. We are reforming the planning system so that it will give local communities more of a say. We want to get that balance right, because it has become skewed in recent years.

As part of his discussions with the DCLG, will the Minister consider transferring responsibility for the management of the rural development programme for England to local enterprise partnerships where they wish to take on that role?

The Department is currently considering the best way of handling the RDPE budget in future years, and we will certainly keep hon. Members informed.

Covanta (Mid Bedfordshire)

11. What recent discussions she and officials of her Department have had with Covanta on its planned projects in Mid Bedfordshire constituency. (21653)

I can confirm that there have been no recent discussions between DEFRA Ministers and Covanta about its planned projects in my hon. Friend’s constituency. DEFRA officials have attended meetings between Covanta and local authorities about Covanta’s planned projects there, as part of the standard procedure of supporting local authorities in their waste management procurement processes.

The Infrastructure Planning Commission has begun an online registration process for Mid Bedfordshire constituents to register their intent to object to the Covanta proposals. That process depends upon constituents having read a 7,000-page document. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister support me in a call to halt the online registration process today, so that the irregularities of it can be examined, and possibly so that it can be aborted and revisited at a later stage?

I am interested in that process, which fulfils part of the greater democratic accountability that the Government are talking about for decisions such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency, about which I know she feels strongly. That is why we are abolishing the IPC and replacing it with an organisation within the Planning Inspectorate that will have much more democratic accountability. I hope that as many of her constituents as possible can contribute to the consultation before 19 November, but I will discuss her views with colleagues elsewhere in government.

Agricultural Wages Board

12. What assessment she has made of the likely effects of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board on wages and working conditions in the farming and food production sectors. (21654)

Abolition of the board will allow modern employment practices within the agricultural and food packaging industry, which will help the industry develop and provide more job opportunities. Workers will retain any existing contractual rights in place at the time of abolition. New workers will be protected by general employment legislation, including the national minimum wage, as with workers in all other sectors of the economy. A full impact assessment and equality impact assessment will be made available during the legislative process.

How does abolishing an organisation that ensures that workers get 2p above the national minimum wage support growth in rural communities such as mine in east Cleveland and in the rural economy?

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the nonsense. What is the point of having the whole superstructure of the Agricultural Wages Board simply to provide a 2p-an-hour premium over the minimum wage? That is part of the justification for saying that the board is not necessary. I stand with the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members in wanting to see all farm and agricultural workers treated properly and receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, but we need to bring agricultural wages regulations into the present day so that the modern, efficient businesses in my constituency and his can grow, expand and provide more job opportunities, not fewer.

Badgers (Bovine Tuberculosis)

14. What recent representations she has received on the proposed cull of badgers to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis. (21657)

A public consultation is currently under way on a badger control policy to tackle bovine tuberculosis. As of yesterday evening, we have received 1,613 responses from a variety of individuals and organisations. I would encourage anyone with a view to respond to the consultation, which closes on 8 December. We will be making a decision on the Government’s approach early next year.

We have been consulting the Home Office and police forces in areas where we think culls might occur, and we will obviously take their advice forward. I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the consultation or, indeed, our consideration of it, but the hon. Lady puts her finger on a very important point, which has to be addressed in the overall approach that we adopt. I can assure her that we are talking with the relevant bodies and authorities.

Sugar Beet Industry

As my hon. Friend knows, supporting the farming sector is fundamental to my Department’s business. The sugar beet sector remains heavily regulated by the common agricultural policy, and it is expected that it will be considered during the forthcoming round of CAP reforms in response to the European Union budget review. The UK Government will seek an outcome where our sugar beet industry can thrive in a more competitive and sustainable environment.

The Minister will understand that the greater use of biofuels in this country will not only cut CO2 emissions, but give a vital boost to East Anglian sugar beet growers. British Sugar would like to know what the Government are doing to provide incentives to companies such as itself to invest in future biofuel production. Can the Minister tell us?

Incentives for biofuel production are primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we fully recognise the pioneering work that British Sugar has done at the Wissington factory in Norfolk, where it produces biofuels and uses the heat generated as a by-product to grow tomatoes in glasshouses. I can also assure him that we are determined to encourage and enable our sugar industry to contribute just as much to biofuels as to our sugar supply. However, in terms of the detail, he needs to address himself to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

Environmental Sustainability

16. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on progress by the Government towards its performance objectives on environmental sustainability. (21661)

This Government are committed to showing leadership on sustainability through our own decisions and policies. I am discussing ways to mainstream sustainable development across Government, specifically focusing on Cabinet-level working, policy making and the Government’s own operations and procurement with Cabinet colleagues. I have also spoken to the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee to discuss how Government can be held to account for our performance against our commitments.

In the Secretary of State’s role of leading mainstream sustainability across the Government, will she continue to meet the designated green Ministers from each Department to ensure that sustainability is the organising principle behind all that they do?

I give my hon. Friend that assurance. Sustainable development cannot be delivered by one Government Department alone. In fact, the Cabinet Office has a cross-cutting role and will report on pan-Government progress against the targets for the sustainable operations of the Government estate. The latest performance data will be published by the end of the year.

One key performance objective on environmental sustainability is protection from flooding. The Association of British Insurers has expressed disappointment at the Government’s cuts to flood defence spending, and the Institute of Civil Engineers estimates that the cuts could cost us £4.8 billion in future. How will those cuts affect the insurance premiums and excesses of those 5.5 million British properties that are currently at risk from flooding? Can she give a guarantee that the cuts will not lead to any properties becoming either uninsurable or unmortgageable?

I can assure the House that the Government are working very closely with the ABI on the question of insurance. Its statement of principles is up for renegotiation in 2013. My impression of the situation is different from the hon. Gentleman’s, because actually the ABI welcomed the fact that much of the capital for flood defences was protected, so the Government can spend £2.1 billion on flood defences within the spending review period. There will be an 8% reduction per annum, but a lot of that can be absorbed in efficiencies, as the Environment Agency demonstrated this year by building more than its target of flood defences notwithstanding a 5.5% reduction in its resources.

Child Labour (Farming and Food Sectors)

17. What recent discussions she has had with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority on the use of child labour in the farming and food industry sectors. (21662)

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority licenses labour providers in the agriculture, food processing and shellfish-gathering sectors, and also enforces the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. It does not have responsibility for enforcing legislation on child labour—that falls to the police, who work alongside local authorities’ children’s services departments. Nevertheless, the GLA played an important role in liaising with the relevant authorities in the recent very shocking case of Romanian children found picking spring onions in Worcestershire.

The Minister is right that we are all shocked at the news of those Romanian children. I take on board what he said about the GLA, but does he feel that, given the remoteness of some locations where people are expected to work in the agricultural sector, managing the possibility of child exploitation is difficult?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, children below the age of 13 are not permitted to work other than in certain parts of the entertainment industry. He will also know that restrictions apply to the number of hours that 13 to 16-year-olds can work and that a licence must be obtained from the local authority before such employment begins. Let us therefore be under no doubt that if children are employed in agriculture, they are employed illegally, unless they are licensed in the way I described.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the remoteness of much agricultural activity. I entirely understand his point, but I do not think that we should allow that incident—I cannot comment on the detail—to make us think that such practices are rife all over the country. The vast majority of farmers and fruit and vegetable growers behave properly towards their work force and ensure that they comply with employment legislation. We need to ensure that breaches in the law, as might have happened in that case, are dealt with appropriately.

The Romanian children were found working in my constituency. Many of the local farmers use migrant labourers. Has the Minister any general advice for those farmers on the employment of migrant labour?

I can say to my hon. Friend quite clearly that the most important thing that anybody who wants to employ migrant labour—or, indeed, any non-local labour—should do is ensure that they are dealing with a licensed gangmaster. They should ask to see the certificate or licence of the gangmaster proposing to bring the labour on to the farm. That way they can all be reassured they are doing the right thing.

Farming Industry

This country has a highly competitive pig and poultry industry that is completely unsubsidised and relies heavily on imported feed. Will the Minister assure us that we can get a greater threshold when allowing imports of non-genetically modified feed into the country, otherwise we will export our industry abroad?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Discussions are taking place in Europe about the threshold for the import of GM soya, predominantly, which is what he is talking about, and I can assure him that we will be taking a constructive view to those negotiations. Quite clearly it would be pointless to deprive our livestock sector of something in a way that simply means we import more livestock products that have been fed on GM food.

Farmers clearly cannot be competitive if supermarkets have got them in an arm lock. In response to the question from the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), the Minister rightly supported the Government policy of enforcing the grocery code supply practice. However, will he acknowledge that there is anxiety in the farming community about the fact that the Government may not be introducing this legislation soon enough. Can he reassure us that they will take the earliest opportunity to bring it forward?

May I recognise and pay tribute to the sterling work that my hon. Friend has done on this matter over a number of years in bringing forward this proposition, which is now Government policy? I can reassure him that I am constantly talking to my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and urging them to bring this forward, because I fully recognise its importance to the whole of the agriculture industry.

Topical Questions

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will want to welcome the agreement secured in Nagoya, not least because, as Members will know, the previous Government, and many before them, sought over a long period to secure agreement on a protocol on access to, and benefit sharing of, genetic resources, putting in place the tools to help countries halt the loss of biodiversity. It is right for us all to pay tribute to the officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who have worked so hard for so long to achieve this agreement.

On my way back, I represented the UK at the closing ceremony of Expo 2010 in Shanghai, and I am delighted to be able to tell the House that the UK won the top award for a pavilion part-funded by DEFRA on the theme of biodiversity, and that the Chinese premier himself recognised its excellence. I would like to thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff who delivered this considerable achievement—Simon Featherstone, who rescued the project, and Carma Elliot and her team, who spent four years driving the project to its successful conclusion.

In June, the Secretary of State said that the Hunting Act 2004 had not been a demonstrable success and was difficult to enforce, but figures published by the Department last year showed 57 prosecutions in 2009—an average of one every week—and more convictions than any other piece of wildlife legislation. How do Ministers square that with her belief that it has not been a demonstrable success?

If the hon. Lady examines those figures more deeply, she will find that most of them are to do with what is known as illegal hare coursing on land where the owner has not given permission for that to take place—let alone the fact that the process is currently illegal under the 2004 Act. The Government have said that they will bring forward legislation. It will be a free vote in the House, and she will have an opportunity to make her statements and to vote accordingly when the Government introduce that legislation.

T3. May I thank the Secretary of State for having announced today that she will give permission for the £14.25 million Banbury flood alleviation scheme? It will be really welcomed in Banbury. It is being funded partially by the Environment Agency, partially by others such as Cherwell district council, and will enable the Banbury canal side regeneration scheme to go ahead, which will be very welcome. May I simply thank her and Ministers for doing the right thing? (21670)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Banbury scheme is a prime example of bringing together business, organisations such as Railtrack, the local authority and the Environment Agency. That is a really important partnership, and a model for schemes elsewhere in the country. I am delighted that it is going ahead. My hon. Friend can take credit for frequently cornering me in the Lobby to show his support for the scheme.

T2. The European Food Safety Authority has concluded that the major factor causing poor welfare in dairy cows is genetic selection to produce high yields. Given proposals to intensify milk production for higher yields, such as those planned at Nocton, will the Secretary of State agree urgently to review the welfare code for dairy cows in the UK, and to meet a delegation of cross-party MPs and non-governmental organisations to discuss how her Department can ensure that its code takes into account the latest scientific advice and ensures that any new dairies do not compromise cow welfare? (21667)

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and others to discuss the matter, but I assure him that the Department puts welfare at the top of our agenda, as I hope our record to date shows. However, we must be guided by science, which is why I am looking forward to the results of the three-year study being carried out in Scotland on intensive dairy farming, and the work at Harper Adams university college on the same issue. After that, we will be in a better position to know the precise answers. I remind him that the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which the Department normally listens to, has said clearly that welfare is a function more of management than of scale.

T4. Given that the Department would like all animals to be stunned before slaughter, may we please have some food labelling regulations to mark halal and kosher products as such, so that those of us who object to ritual slaughter do not inadvertently buy such products in shops and restaurants? (21671)

As my hon. Friend is aware and as the House fully understands, this is a highly emotive issue, and I understand the demand for labelling. As he rightly says, the Government would like all animals to be properly stunned before they are bled to slaughter. There is a discussion at European level about food information regulations, but we do not believe that that is the right vehicle. Next year, we will consult on implementation of the European animal welfare regulations, and the labelling issue will certainly be examined as part of that. I recognise the strength of feeling to which my hon. Friend refers.

I am sure that Ministers share my disappointment that last week’s talks aimed at resolving the mackerel dispute between Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and the EU ended without resolution. The ongoing uncertainty is causing great distress to the pelagic fleet and parts of the processing sector in my constituency, where much of the industry is based. Those people have much to lose and little to gain in the negotiations. Will the Minister update the House on the outcome of those negotiations, and assure us that the Government will take a robust line in those talks to defend our historic fishing rights and to ensure that the EU does not acquiesce to the unreasonable and environmentally destructive demands being made by Iceland and the Faroes?

I am well aware of the issue’s importance to the hon. Lady’s constituents and many others. The UK has been robust in its attitude to the Icelandic and Faroese proposal to damage a sustainable stock. We fear the risk that it may have on the Marine Stewardship Council’s accreditation for the stock, and its impact on her constituents and many others. I assure her that we have been robust, we are being robust, and we will continue to be robust, as I believe is the Commission.

T5. Will the Minister tell me what impact the comprehensive spending review has had on flood defences, and particularly the Folkestone to Cliff End erosion and flood strategy, which is important for maintaining the sea defences along the Romney marsh coast, and to my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd)? (21672)

My hon. Friend will be pleased that we managed to protect the flood budget in the comprehensive spending review. The amount is reducing—[Interruption.] At 8% a year it is considerably lower than the 50% capital cuts the Labour Government proposed. An 8% cut across the piece is a considerable advantage.

I have seen the schemes in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I have met the excellent Defend our Coast community group. That is exactly the sort of arrangement whereby we deliver more by working in a partnership, and deliver a better result at the end of the day. I hope that many of his constituents will—

Does the Secretary of State accept the findings of the independent scientific group on bovine TB, in particular when it says:

“Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone”?

The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that that study ended several years ago. We now have more science, which has superseded those conclusions reached by the independent study group. I have laid out the new scientific evidence from ongoing studies in the consultation document, and that is the reason for the proposal that we have put forward.

T6. The Prime Minister responded to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) on 15 September about the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s report on a bottle deposit and return scheme, and gave an indication that the Government would be looking at it. Given the potential to increase recycling and reduce litter, will the Minister give some views on the report and say what action might be taken? (21673)

We welcome the report, which we think is a good addition to the review of waste being carried out by my noble Friend Lord Henley, and we will certainly consider it as part of that process.

Investment in anaerobic digestion not only helps farmers to become more competitive, but helps small rural communities such as those in North East Derbyshire both to process waste and to make energy. What is the Department doing to ensure that farmers can diversify in this way?

Anaerobic digestion has great potential in helping the farming industry reduce its overall carbon emissions and will be an important part of the Government’s aim, as part of being the greenest Government ever, of achieving those reductions. Anaerobic digestion is something that we welcome, but the important thing is to have constant feedstocks. Anaerobic digestion has a wider application in the communities that we all live in, but for farming it is definitely an interesting option.

T7. Can my hon. Friend advise the House on whether he has had any discussions with independent animal welfare organisations about the prospects for intensive dairy farming of the sort proposed by a planning application in Lincolnshire? (21674)

I have had no specific discussions or meetings on the matter, nor have I received any specific representations, but it has arisen in other discussions that I have had with animal welfare lobbies, which have all put their views forward. I should point out that, as I understand it, a planning application has not even been made yet. That will be a planning issue, and I cannot comment on the detail.

I am sure that the Minister will share my disquiet at the reported comments by the Icelandic negotiator last week. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that next week’s meeting of the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission is used as another vehicle to try to find a solution to the dispute about the mackerel quota in the North sea, which is vital to many communities in Scotland?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will use any means possible to resolve the issue, which has wider implications. Iceland is going through a process of accession to the Europe Union, and it seems a strange way to behave to tear up the rule book before joining the club. We are using a variety of mechanisms to try to put pressure on Iceland to operate in a sustainable way and protect a sustainable stock.

Does the Minister share the concerns of a number of farming organisations—in particular smaller farming organisations, such as the Small Farms Association and the Family Farmers Association—that plans to build a mega-dairy in Nocton will fatally undermine the viability of a great number of small and family farms?

Obviously I understand those concerns, and as my hon. Friend knows, I have been in the industry for most of my working life. Two points need to be made. First, it is good news that somebody thinks that the dairy industry is worth investing in, given that so many dairy farmers have given up over the past few years. Secondly, I genuinely believe that there is huge scope for reclaiming much of our domestic market, which has been lost to imported dairy products. If through expansion and greater efficiencies we can do that, there will be room in the industry for both large and small producers.

Given the reference made to the Environmental Audit Committee, I hope we can return to the issue of resources in due course. On a constituency matter, I met the Staffordshire wildlife trust last week and it is looking to make a submission to the EU LIFE+ programme to enhance biodiversity in Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Secretary of State commit DEFRA officers to give support to any proposal that comes out of that?

I am delighted to be able to offer that support. The wildlife trusts do an excellent job, which is why we see great scope in the concept of the big society for more work of this kind.

I might have made an error, Mr Speaker, in not responding myself to the question put by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I apologise, as I should have taken it—but, of course, I agree with everything that the Minister of State had to say.

The right hon. Lady, whom I have known for 15 years, is unfailingly courteous, and I think that will be very much appreciated by the House.

The heart of the new national forest lies in my beautiful constituency of North West Leicestershire. Will the Minister assure the House that any sale of Forestry Commission assets will not reduce public access or enjoyment of our woods and forests?

I am happy to give yet again the assurance that if any disposal of Forestry Commission land takes place—it is a matter for consultation—it will not be at the expense of any existing public benefit. I make the point that the National Forest Company, to which my hon. Friend rightly refers, has done a superb job. The discussion does not include the national forest, much of which is, of course, already in private hands.