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Topical Questions

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

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.