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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 520: debated on Thursday 9 December 2010

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rural Payments Agency

1. What progress her Department has made on increasing the efficiency and reliability of the Rural Payments Agency. (29438)

The agency is implementing the key recommendations from the independent review of the organisation, which was published on 20 July. That involves six priority projects designed to improve customers’ experience, establish an efficient operation and make essential preparations for the expected 2013 CAP reforms. Progress is being closely monitored by the RPA oversight board, which I chair.

I thank the Minister for that answer and for attending the sustainability event the other evening. He is well aware of the chaos in the past few years with the single payment scheme system, and the Rural Payments Agency’s inability to pay farmers promptly—three alone in the Arthington area of my constituency. Can he please give an assessment of the Rural Payments Agency’s ability to carry that out and sort out the mess?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As the House knows, there have been some dreadful performances by the RPA in years gone by, and they have not yet all been eliminated. There are still some long-standing cases, which we are trying to work through. We will do that as soon as possible. The board is making arrangements to speed up that process, but I am happy to tell my hon. Friend and the rest of the House that between 1 December, when the payment window started, and 3 December some 83,300 farmers were sent their single farm payment in those first three days—that is 79% of all claimants by volume. It is ahead of last year’s achievements, despite all the problems of mapping changes.

Educational Access Programme

2. What recent representations she has received on her Department’s funding for the educational access programme. (29439)

The countryside provides a wonderful learning environment and many organisations do valuable work. My Department will continue to provide funding for educational access through existing agri-environment agreements and through capital payments under new higher level stewardship—HLS—agreements. We are also investigating ways of encouraging the continued provision of educational access, and of addressing the barriers that currently exist.

I am very grateful for that answer—I am delighted to hear it. I hope the Minister agrees that my constituents John and Kathy Charles-Jones, who provide access to farms for schoolchildren, do an excellent job of showing the next generation how technology and high levels of animal welfare are playing a big part in food production for the nation.

I and my ministerial colleagues are passionate about getting more people in this country to understand how our food gets from field to fork. We are impressed with the work that so many farmers, charities and other organisations do. We are listening to representations that several organisations are making to us. We want to see whether we can expand what goes on in the next phase of HLS schemes, to secure the capital payments and to work out ways we can eliminate some of the barriers to encouraging schools to get on to farms. That can include changing health and safety provision.

Flood Defences

3. Which planned flood defence schemes will not proceed as a result of her Department’s planned reduction in expenditure on flood defences. (29440)

18. Which planned flood defence schemes will not proceed as a result of her Department’s planned reduction in expenditure on flood defences. (29455)

I am sorry to have to tell the House some sad news. A member of Environment Agency staff was tragically killed yesterday in an accident. I hope the whole House will join me in extending our condolences to his family at this difficult time.

No schemes have been cancelled as a result of the spending review. Schemes already under construction or under contract will be completed. The Department has launched a consultation on how national funding should be allocated to flood protection schemes in future.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks a moment ago?

In Chesterfield in 2007, more than 500 homes were flooded and it was expected, from DEFRA’s previous statement, that 145,000 homes across the country would be removed from flood risk by 2011. I understand that the date has now been moved back to 2015. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the reduction in funding for flood defences and the removal of those homes from that earlier expectation flies in the face of the comments that she and her party made in opposition?

With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman is confused about the figures. The Chancellor in fact gave the figure of 145,000 homes as a minimum to be protected during the spending review period—there was never any suggestion that that would happen by 2011.

I know that the hon. Gentleman has constituents in Chesterfield who are flood-affected. The Environment Agency is currently proceeding with the Avenue coking works remediation project, which is under construction. That should help to provide protection to more than 100 properties in his constituency.

One key recommendation of the Pitt review was that the Government should increase spending on flood defences by more than inflation year on year. With the Government’s 27% cuts to flood defence budgets, have they turned their backs on communities such as mine in Hull East, which is still suffering very badly from the effects of the 2007 floods?

Sir Michael Pitt’s review, which was commissioned by the hon. Gentleman’s party when it was in government, says that we

“should not simply assume that the costs of flood risk management will be met centrally…The Government should develop a scheme which allows and encourages local communities to invest in flood risk management”

schemes. The Government have launched a consultation on payment for outcomes, which will help to provide more flood defences to more communities in future.

May I join the Secretary of State in expressing my condolences to the family of the Environment Agency member of staff who tragically lost his life? I pay tribute to all those who put themselves in harm’s way in the event of floods. All who serve on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee would like to record our appreciation of their work.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on protecting capital expenditure. However, I am concerned to ensure that work will continue on maintaining watercourses and that more work will be done, because that too can protect from floods. May I draw her attention to the fact that the statement of principles may well not be reviewed in 2013? Is she alarmed by that development?

My hon. Friend is right, as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, to record the Committee’s sympathy for the EA staff member.

DEFRA is expected to spend £2.1 billion over the period of the spending review on flooding—half will go on maintenance, and the other half on capital—so I am confident that we can maintain our flood defences. The Association of British Insurers has warmly welcomed the proposals under the payment for outcomes scheme. That will assist us in renegotiating the statement of principles.

I have mentioned the Teignmouth flood defence scheme to the ministerial team on a number of occasions. May we have an update? Will funding be made available for those very important works?

I cannot comment on individual projects ahead of Environment Agency decisions, which it has said it will make after the end of the consultation period on payment for outcomes, which concludes on 16 February. However, my hon. Friend’s concern about flooding in her constituency is taken very seriously by all of us.

All on this side of the House share the condolences expressed by the Secretary of State for the Environment Agency worker who sadly lost their life.

I am afraid that the confusion mentioned by the Secretary of State is on the Government’s part. DEFRA’s 2009 report stated that 145,000 homes would be protected from flooding by March 2011. They have abandoned that aim because of huge cuts to the EA’s flood defence budget—27% next year—and instead now hope to protect the same number of homes by 2015, two years after the current agreement with the insurance industry expires. That deliberate choice to delay will cause widespread anxiety and uncertainty for homeowners, businesses and local authorities up and down the country. The Government should now be honest with the country: either they know which flood defence schemes will be abandoned and are aware of the consequences of those cuts, or the cuts are indiscriminate, and the consequences are not understood. Does the Secretary of State know which schemes will be abandoned—yes or no?

I just said in answer to the previous question that the Environment Agency would make decisions on all pending schemes after the close of the consultation on 16 February. As regards the figure that Opposition Members keep quoting, at no point has the figure of 145,000 properties receiving more protection ever been attributed to a time any sooner than 2015, the end of the spending review period. It would be inappropriate to compare spending levels with those of the previous Government, because Labour has failed to say how it would have accommodated the 50% cut in capital that the previous Chancellor had committed it to.


The Government do not encourage the keeping of primates as pets, but a code of practice for the welfare of privately kept non-human primates lays down robust guidance for primate owners and keepers. Failure to follow that code would put the owner at risk of prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response, but self-regulation is not working. There are currently 5,000 primates kept as pets in the United Kingdom, many of them in cruel and cramped conditions. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century the party of Wilberforce, who apart from abolishing slavery set up the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the coalition Government are not doing more to end that barbaric and outdated practice.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his determination on this subject and his rightful concern about animal welfare. I must point out that his figure of 5,000 is at the top end of the estimate. We do not know how many there are, but the estimate is between 1,200 and 5,000. If, as he says, many of them are being kept in cruel circumstances, that is not a matter for self-regulation; it is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act. If he or anybody else knows of primates being kept in what they believe to be cruel conditions, the owners are almost certainly in breach of providing the five freedoms, which is an offence.

What discussions has the Minister had with counterparts in the Home Office on measures to ensure that primates that are brought into the UK for sale as pets are not caught in the wild and then diverted and used for research purposes in particular?

I am very glad that the hon. Lady has asked me that question, because I asked it of myself yesterday when I was going through the information. In reality, primates are not coming in from the wild. I understand that only one animal in the past decade is believed to have been wild-caught and then brought into this country. Of course, they are all covered by the convention on international trade in endangered species anyway, so there are restrictions in place. Anyone wishing to import a primate into this country has to have a licence, and there are very strict conditions. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady if she would like to know about them.


5. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas. (29442)

The Secretary of State and I are in regular contact with our ministerial colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on this important matter. As a member of the ministerial group on broadband, I speak regularly with Ministers in those Departments on the key issues, including the rural superfast broadband pilots announced on 21 October and the national broadband strategy “Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future”, published on 6 December.

The Kettering borough rural forum, which represents residents in all 22 villages in the borough, has contacted me to say that it is unhappy about slow rural broadband speeds, and about Kettering’s apparent exclusion from the Government’s attempt to tackle the problem and from the 160 locations announced by BT. Will my hon. Friend do all he can to help residents in the rural parts of Kettering borough address the issue?

I am very keen to help the constituents of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, particularly in rural areas, who will benefit massively from the very good sum of money that we have announced—£530 million over this spending review period, increasing to £830 million in the two years after that. That will mean that constituents such as his will have the means not just to improve the quality of their lives but to run businesses and employ people. It will change the environment, and I can assure him that the disappointment of his constituents will soon be addressed as we start rolling out the hubs from which superfast broadband will operate. There is an enormous sum of money for a very ambitious project right across government, and I hope he will notice the difference very soon.

When the Minister is in discussions with providers, will he make representations on behalf of people in rural areas who are complaining to me—and, I am sure, to many other hon. Members—that they keep seeing advertisements indicating significant broadband speeds, but that they can very seldom, if ever, get those speeds? Will he ensure that those companies’ advertisements are more accurate?

It is important that providers are accurate and that the Government give the lead in ensuring that what people are told is within the realms of reality. The first paragraph of the executive summary of “Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future” states:

“Rural and remote areas of the country should benefit from this infrastructure upgrade at the same time as more populated areas, ensuring that an acceptable level of broadband is delivered to those parts of the country that are currently excluded.”

That is our intention. We intend to carry those providers with us and to deliver for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others in rural areas.

Dog Control Notices

As I think my hon. Friend is aware, a proposal to issue dog control notices on private land was included in the dangerous dog consultation, the responses to which we have now published. The Department will respond to the issues raised in the consultation, including wider matters, and will make an announcement about the Government’s approach in the new year.

I thank the Minister for his answer. As he will be aware, the vast majority of those who responded to the consultation expressed opposition to the idea of dog control notices on private land. However, does he agree that we need to find a way of protecting workers, such as postal workers, who have to access private land to carry out their official duties?

The answer has to be yes. Of course we feel responsible for public service workers who, to a degree, put themselves at risk from dogs on private property. I cannot prejudge the outcome of the discussions, but I can tell my hon. Friend that what is important is that, since the end of the consultation, the Home Office has announced a review of all antisocial behaviour tools. DEFRA is represented on that working group, which is reviewing all antisocial issues, including the law on dogs.

I am sure I am not the only Member who has been bitten by a dog while election campaigning. More importantly, several of my constituents have also been bitten or had their dogs bitten by aggressive dogs. It is clear that dogs are being bred and kept for aggressive purposes. The Government have to get that under control. I suggest to the Minister that we need compulsory licensing, chipping and muzzling of dogs, especially for those known to be aggressive.

In my experience, most letter boxes are dangerous enough on their own without the dog behind them. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point entirely—this is a serious issue. I can only repeat that we have been out to consultation, and that the results of that consultation, including the most popular outcomes, are all on the website. The Government are considering the matter now and, as I said, are working with the Home Office, and will make an announcement shortly after Christmas.

Pitt Review

7. What progress her Department has made on implementation of the recommendations of the Pitt review on lessons learned from the 2007 floods on levels of flood protection for homes. (29444)

Good progress has been made on taking forward the Pitt review recommendations. We are implementing the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 and have recently launched a consultation on our national strategy. We published the national flood emergency framework in July, and held a response exercise last month to launch preparations for Exercise Watermark, which will test responses to severe wide-area flooding in March next year.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s reply and was delighted to welcome her to Cornwall so that she could see for herself the recent flooding in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray). One of the lessons we have learned is that the Met Office gave a warning at 10.30 pm of an 80% chance of flooding some six hours before homes were affected and businesses destroyed, but that warning was never passed on to residents. Will she agree to meet me to discuss how we can improve early warnings?

I commend my hon. Friend’s work in helping with the ongoing recovery in his constituency. I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that it is hard to predict surface water flooding events. In the afternoon of that event, there was only a 20% risk of severe flooding, but by 10.30 pm, when most people are in bed and asleep, it had increased to an 80% risk. One lesson learned from previous flooding incidents is that flood wardens, who can knock on doors and alert, in particular, vulnerable members of the community of the increased risk, can assist a community’s resilience.

Simon Douglas, the director of AA Insurance, was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying that “inadequate spending” on flood defences would

“leave thousands of homes uninsurable and thus un-mortgageable.”

What help will the Government offer to the thousands of people who will find themselves in that situation?

I refer the hon. Lady to my earlier answer about the warm welcome that the Association of British Insurers has given to the payment for outcomes approach, which, as the ABI chairman made clear, is what Pitt called for, what the ABI has been calling for and what the communities that would like to build greater resilience have also been calling for. I am sure that it will assist those at risk of flooding.

Rural Impact (CSR)

8. When she plans to publish a rural impact assessment in respect of the comprehensive spending review. (29445)

My Department is the rural champion in government, and we are working with other Departments as they develop their policies following the spending review. Those policies are the responsibility of individual Departments, but DEFRA will work with them to inform a policy statement in the new year, setting out this Government’s commitment to rural people, and our approach to promoting and supporting their needs.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer, but will she home in a little and give me one concrete example of something that DEFRA has done in this area?

DEFRA is continually active in rural-proofing all policy that comes through, and hon. Members who have served in government will know that any Cabinet Minister has that function within their Department through DEFRA. The allocations have not yet been made, so the individual working out of the spending allocations has not been achieved. Let us consider, for example, the impact that DEFRA has had, working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in achieving a roll-of out superfast broadband in four rural pilot areas.

The Department is facing deep cuts—34% in capital and 28%, I think, in current costs—thanks to the appalling profligacy of the previous Government. Does the Secretary of State agree that vital to our countryside is the maintenance of environmental schemes on our farms? We have got to preserve biodiversity and a higher level of environmental conditions in our countryside. I hope that she will be able to reassure the House today that despite the cuts, she will be determined to ensure that that still happens.

I am delighted to be able to draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that we anticipate an 80% increase in higher level stewardship schemes, notwithstanding the need for DEFRA to make a contribution to addressing the budget deficit that we inherited from the previous Government.

We had expected the publication of the rural impact assessment, but I am afraid that all we got was more weak excuses for the Secretary of State’s failure to produce it. If she is having trouble completing her own assessment, will she at least back the findings of last month’s report on rural poverty by the Commission for Rural Communities—soon to be scrapped by her Department—which found a lack of proper business support provided to farmers by the Government, poorer access to welfare services in the countryside and a quarter of farming households living below the poverty line, under the first Government since 1926 to try to remove employment protection from agricultural workers? Is not the reality that this is a spending review that slashes investment from rural bus services and social housing, from a Government who are indifferent to the greater inequality that their policies will cause in rural Britain?

Oh dear. I think that constitutes a serious own-goal. The hon. Gentleman should surely be aware that the data that the Commission for Rural Communities was using to make its assessment relate to the period when his party was in government.

Regulatory Burden (Farmers)

One of my first actions was to appoint Richard Macdonald to lead a taskforce to identify ways of reducing the regulatory burden on farmers. The taskforce recently completed a public consultation and will make recommendations to the Government by April next year. I hope that it will bring about a change in culture in implementing our regulations, while at the same time maintaining standards.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Farmers in Stratford-on-Avon will welcome the Government’s commitment to the industry-led review of regulation. Can he give farmers a time frame for the review, so that they can begin to enjoy a regime that makes it easier for them to produce the food that we eat and care for the countryside that we all cherish?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as he and many others are championing the cause of reducing regulation in our rural areas. As I said, the taskforce will report to the Government in early April 2011, and we will then have to see how to take it forward. I cannot be absolutely precise about the time scales, but I would like to take this opportunity to say that this is not about reducing standards, but about reducing the burden of process that has become so prevalent over recent years. We have seen an obsession with process, whereas we need to move much more towards making a judgment on outcomes.

DEFRA has had a better regulation agenda for many years, but few, if any, farmers have seen any tangible benefit from the reduction in bureaucracy and red tape. What reassurance can the Minister give that the current review will lead to real benefits for farmers in my constituency and elsewhere?

The reassurance I can give is simply this. When we were in opposition, seeing how the previous Government made noises about reducing regulation but never did it convinced me that we had to find a new way. It is not just a question of abolishing regulations—although if they can be abolished, they should be—but how we implement and enforce them. We have become obsessed with requiring farmers to fill in countless forms, tick loads of boxes and read legions of guidance notes when what really matters is whether the benefit expected from the regulation is achieved. That is what we have to focus on now.

I thank the Minister for his responses. One big concern of many farmers and landowners over the years has been about red tape, particularly filling in grant forms such as for, among other things, single farm payments. Sometimes they inadvertently fail to tick a box. Can we have some flexibility in the system to ensure that those who qualify for the grants get them and do not lose out because of one small mistake?

The hon. Member puts his finger on an extremely important point. I have studied many cases in which farmers have been penalised because, as he said, they omitted to put a figure in a particular box or something like that. Although I have pushed back hard on this front, we are unfortunately constrained very much by the European Commission’s Court of Auditors, which is very robust. The disallowances are completely out of proportion. We are working with the Commission, and I have chased up these matters with it to try to get a more proportionate sense of penalty. Hopefully, we will then be able to move forward.

One key issue repeatedly raised with me by farmers is cross-compliance and the heavy penalties they face for minor infringements that are of no material consequence whatever. Does the Minister share my view that these penalties are out of all proportion? Will he raise this issue with the Commission as a matter of urgency?

Yes, I entirely share the view that these penalties are out of all proportion. I have raised this with the Commission and, more importantly, I and many other Ministers of Agriculture have raised it in the context of the review of the common agricultural policy, which has just commenced. We have firmly expressed to the Commission our view that the next system of CAP support must be simpler, both for individual farmers and for member states to implement.

Having met Richard Macdonald, I am confident that he will undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of the regulatory burden on farmers. When he reports, will my hon. Friend ensure that he receives support from other Government Departments and that that these matters are discussed, if necessary, with the European Union as well?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I am in close contact with the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), and, as I said in answer to an earlier question, with the relevant Commissioners across Europe. We are determined that if this industry is to flourish and succeed in the face of increasing world demand for food over the next decades, it must be freed up from unnecessary burdens of regulation.

Tree Planting

10. What representations she has received on her Department's plans for its project to plant 1 million trees in the next four years. (29447)

Thus far, DEFRA has received around 100 e-mails from local authorities and community groups seeking information on or expressing an interest in the big tree plant campaign and a small number of letters from other individuals and organisations.

How much of the money received through privatisation will be spent in the areas of planted trees? How much of it will be spent north of the border, particularly in Glasgow?

With respect, the question is about the big tree plant campaign, a partnership campaign that DEFRA will support with £4 million of public money. The campaign is being run in conjunction with a large number of partners and charities, including Groundwork, Keep Britain Tidy, the Tree Council and the National Forest Company. In every sense, it is a big society campaign.

Two hundred and fifty thousand a year sounds like a lot of trees, but not when compared with the estimated 250 million trees—1,000 times as many—owned by the Forestry Commission in England, much of which the Government are intent on selling off and putting at risk. Will the Secretary of State tell us what she will say to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who is actively campaigning against proposals to dispose of a similar proportion of Forestry Commission land in Scotland—a sale of trees that Lib Dems have described as “hugely flawed” and as a “money-making scam”?

Let me say a couple of things in response to that. With the 250,000 trees a year planted as part of the big tree plant campaign, the challenge is that the majority will be in urban areas, particularly in deprived communities, so significant plantings in those areas will benefit those communities. As for the Forestry Commission, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman, rather than reading the newspapers as a guide to Government policy, should adopt the better-informed approach of waiting for the launch of the consultation proposals, which I have discussed closely and successfully with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Common Fisheries Policy

11. What recent discussions her Department has had on reform of the common fisheries policy; and if she will make a statement. (29448)

As UK fisheries Minister, I have had discussions with a range of organisations and people about common fisheries policy reform, including discussions with the EU Fisheries Commissioner and other member states’ Ministers during November’s EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council. I have also met representatives of the fishing industry—both the large-scale and under-10-metre sector—MEPs and non-governmental organisations. I plan to have further discussions in pressing our case for radical reform of the CFP.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and for meeting a delegation of Lowestoft fishermen last week. I wish him well in his negotiations at next week’s Council of Ministers meeting. The future of fishermen and communities all around Britain depends on a successful outcome. Will the Minister confirm that in the review of the CFP, his priorities will include a fair deal for the under-10-metre fleet and the elimination of discards?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his good wishes for next week’s negotiations, and I confirm that the UK is committed to genuine fundamental reform—to achieving healthy fish stocks, a prosperous fishing industry and a healthy marine environment. Part of that agenda is to ensure that we have regionalised decision making and an end to the top-down failure of the current common fisheries policy, and that we give fishermen a stake in the long-term health of fish stocks. That involves those in the under-10-metre sector; I am deeply mindful of the problems that they have faced in recent years, and I want to give them and the communities that they support a long-term future under a reformed CFP.

As I represent two fishing ports in Northern Ireland, may I ask the Minister what further progress has been made towards regionalisation?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and to other Northern Ireland Members who have been forceful in putting the case for the fishing communities that they represent. I recognise that they, like many other areas of the country, are affected by an industry in crisis. Our immediate attempts will be to secure for them adequate fish stocks to exploit over the coming year. However, I put on record my determination that they should not continue to live from hand to mouth. As someone who has been in business, I do not know how fishermen can deal with a bank manager when they do not know what they will be able to achieve in three, four or five months’ time. I want to give them a longer-term future, in which they can be part of the solution, rather than being constantly browbeaten by an overbearing and multi-layered regulatory system.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister, but may I remind those on the Treasury Bench that there are a lot of questions to get through, and that a little economy is needed in their answers?


We will act on agreements reached at the successful biodiversity conference in Nagoya through a new biodiversity strategy for England, which will be published alongside the natural environment White Paper in the spring.

Will the Secretary of State outline the Government’s policies on the protection of biodiversity in our 16 British overseas territories? In particular, will she tell us what the Government are doing to protect the biodiversity of the Henderson island, one of the Pitcairn Islands, where an appalling rat infestation has caused 25,000 chicks to be killed every year?

I think that everyone in the House is well aware of my hon. Friend’s concern about, and interest in, the overseas territories. I am delighted to be able to tell him that while attending the biodiversity conference, and the day before, I was able to announce additional spending under the Darwin initiative and, specifically, help with the protection of the Henderson petrel.

Nocton Dairies

13. What representations she has received on the proposed provision of a super-dairy in Lincolnshire by Nocton Dairies; and if she will make a statement. (29450)

I have received numerous letters on this subject from animal welfare organisations, Members of Parliament and individual members of the public. I recently met a group of Members and others to discuss their concerns. However, I must emphasise that the proposal is for planning consent, on which I cannot comment.

Animal welfare organisations, dairy farmers and all who care about natural food in this country rightly fear that this is the thin end of a very thick wedge, with the potential for activities such as those that go on in California. What action will the Minister take to ensure that that does not happen?

I readily understand that the idea of mega-dairies creates strong emotions, although I cannot talk about a specific example. I believe, however, that we should be led by the real evidence and the science, which is why DEFRA has commissioned a three-year study at the Scottish agricultural colleges of the issues surrounding mega-dairies. A separate study of the directly related subject of the genetics of high-yielding cows is also taking place. I promise the House that if the outcomes of those studies—we should have the first results towards the end of next year—precipitate the need for action, action will be taken.

When I have raised the subject with the Minister in the past he has made it clear that this is a planning issue, but he has also said that he personally has no objections to mega-dairies. Could there not be a moratorium on the granting of planning applications for big schemes that are in the pipeline, such as Nocton’s, until the results of the reviews that he mentioned have been made public?

I entirely understand the hon. Lady’s point, but no Minister in DEFRA has the power to create a moratorium. This is entirely a planning matter, and it is up to the local district council to decide how to respond. I have no powers to stop the development.

Higher Level Stewardship Schemes

14. What recent representations she has received on provision of funding for permissive access routes under higher level stewardship schemes in rural areas. (29451)

About 3,000 current agri-environment agreements support permissive access, contributing around 3% of the public rights of way network. As part of the spending review, we have looked very closely at how best to maximise the funds that we receive from the European Union for higher level stewardship. Funds will continue to be provided for permissive access under existing HLS agreements, and we will also continue to provide capital payments under new HLS agreements.

As the Minister will know, there are 129 higher level stewardship agreements in Suffolk. They help to provide an excellent link between rural and urban communities, and to interest young people in schools in issues relating to agriculture and food. Given the importance of such schemes in Suffolk, will the Minister agree to meet me, along with Suffolk farmers, to establish how we can develop the schemes further in the county?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, and farmers in his constituency. We are keen to maximise the use of money from the rural development programme for England. For every pound that we put into biodiversity or environmental works through HLS, we receive £3 from Europe, whereas access is funded entirely through Government spending. That does not mean, however, that there is not an enormous amount that we can to do to encourage the kind of access to which my hon. Friend has referred. We will secure the capital spending, and we will make further provision to secure access in other parts of the country.

The loss of primitive access from future HLS schemes will have a very detrimental effect on the improvement of schemes under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and various sorts of stiles and benches that are erected in the countryside to provide access for people. How is the Minister going to resolve that, and ensure that the countryside remains open to the entire British population?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that people will be able to claim for items such as stiles because they are capital items, as are car parks and the provision of access for disabled people. Those claims can still be made, therefore. The hon. Gentleman is a very strong advocate of HLS, and he and many other Members were worried that we might not be able to protect it under the spending review. We have done, however: we are going to increase it by 83%, but we are focused on reversing the decline in biodiversity and helping environmental works on farms. That is why we have taken the decisions that we have.

Insurance Premiums (Flooding)

15. What assessment she has made of the effects of proposed changes to her Department’s flood defence budget on the level of insurance premiums for homes at risk from flooding. (29452)

DEFRA is working closely with the insurance industry to maximise the availability of flood insurance cover. We are consulting on changes to the way in which Government funding is allocated to flood and coastal erosion risk management projects. That will help safeguard insurance terms by encouraging increased investment beyond levels that the national taxpayer alone can afford.

The insurance market in Hull has been closed since 2007, and unless people had insurance then, they will not be able to get it now. Moreover, for people who can access insurance, premiums have gone up hugely. What does the Minister have to say to my constituents, as even those who currently have insurance are now very concerned that they will not be able to continue to have it in the future?

The hon. Lady’s constituents, like mine, have suffered greatly from flooding in the past, and what she says is true: there are excess charges and premiums have risen. We have taken forward, from our very successful flood summit, two important working parties with the insurance industry—one on data sharing, so that information on where money has been spent is made available to insurers, and a second on working with the insurance industry so that following the post-2013 statement of principles, there will be an environment in which insurance is still available. The insurance industry will then be able to gear up for a new environment in which specialist brokers can start to help constituents such as the hon. Lady’s and mine.

Recognising the challenge of securing insurance in certain parts of the country, I recently met representatives of the Association of British Insurers, and they talked about building design and the fact that electric circuits are at the bottom of buildings rather than in the middle and higher. That is one of the primary reasons why people are out of their homes for months if not years, as opposed to merely needing replacement furniture and so forth. Will the Minister agree to meet the ABI to discuss such building design principles?

I have met, and do meet, the ABI, and we do talk about such matters. I need do no more than recommend one of the great legends, Mary Dhonau—[Hon. Members: “Maradona?”] No, Mary Dhonau. She runs the National Flood Forum, and her home has frequently been flooded. The last time she was flooded she made no claim because she had taken precisely the precautions that my hon. Friend mentions. I hope that more households will learn from her experience.

There was a bit of confusion from the Secretary of State earlier about the figure of 145,000. The figures are in DEFRA’s 2009 annual report, and I will happily send the link to the Secretary of State’s office so that she can see the delay that the 27% cut has caused.

The Minister says he is consulting on new flood defence proposals. The new system would remove the Environment Agency’s role in deciding who gets flood defences, and communities would be expected to pay a flood tax in order to receive central Government funding. Will this new system not disadvantage people from poorer parts of the country who cannot afford a new flood tax?

Oh dear—another own goal, I am afraid. The hon. Lady really must read the consultation documents. She will then see, first, that that is one of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations, which she and her predecessor were very keen the new Government should continue to put into effect, and secondly, that payment for outcomes is not a flood tax. It is not compulsory; it is an additionality, and it provides clarity for communities that for too long have failed to get their schemes above the line. The hon. Lady’s point will be very unwelcome if that is her party’s future policy, on its blank sheet of paper.

One of the key recommendations of the Pitt review was that investment in flood spending should rise above inflation year on year. No matter what dodgy DEFRA maths the Minister tries to put before the House he cannot disguise a 27% cut in flood defence spending. We increased it by 38% over three years—that is the difference. That gave communities and the insurance industry certainty. He has increased the risk that the insurance industry could walk away from universal flood insurance after 2013. He has already mentioned speciality brokers; does he agree that we will need a new statement of principles in 2013 to make sure that flood insurance is universally available?

We will certainly need a new relationship with the ABI post-2013, but the hon. Lady must be careful with the numbers that she bandies around before the House. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) had spoken of 50% cuts in capital for the Department that she now shadows if Labour had been re-elected, and she cannot now decide that that was a pipe dream and was not mentioned. Of course this issue is important: it is about people’s homes and flooding. Some 5.2 million homes in this country are at some risk of flooding, and the Government have made this issue a priority. That is why we have protected this budget out of all proportion to other budgets in the difficult round that has been forced on us by the previous Government.

Topical Questions

I remind the House that if we are to get down the Order Paper we need short questions and, from Front Benchers, short answers.

I commend the work of those who volunteered their services during the extreme weather, particularly our farmers. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that they provided a valuable service to many communities—from clearing snow to transporting midwives. That is a great example of the big society.

Will my right hon. Friend give the House a rough idea of the cost of food imported into the country that we are able, and have the capacity, to grow?

In 2009 the UK imported indigenous food—food that could be grown in season in the UK—with a total value of approximately £15 billion. Total imports of food, feed and drink in the same period were valued at £32.5 billion.

The right hon. Lady’s colleague the Minister of State, who has responsibility for forestry, wrote to all MPs in October saying that he would consult the public on the sale of England’s forests before the end of the year. We now hear that he has postponed that consultation until the new year—yet in a parliamentary answer to me he revealed that he is busy meeting forestry companies on this very issue. When will the public get their say on the future of England’s forests?

The hon. Lady is getting a bit carried away. The consultation will start in January, and it is perfectly reasonable for us to discuss with experts in the field the possible implications of all the things that we are thinking of doing before we firm up the ideas that we put to the public for consultation. The hon. Lady must be extremely careful on this subject, because we have just discovered that the previous Labour Government sold 12,000 hectares of forest without any form of sustainable protection for any of it.

T2. Essex landowners and farmers contribute £1 million annually to the Environment Agency for sea defence and maintenance work, and they have provided information for the Essex shoreline management plan, but they have not been able to access the committees that have made the decisions and finalised that plan. Will the Minister ensure that in future my local farmers will have access to those committees and be fully integrated in the decision making? Will he also pledge to meet representatives in my constituency? (29464)

I am very concerned by what my hon. Friend says. I know that the Environment Agency contributed £25,000 to the “Managing Coastal Change” project led by the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. If they are not being listened to as part of the shoreline management process, they should be. I will take every step to ensure that happens.

T6. I am a keen hill walker, but the Government are selling off England’s forests and nature reserves. Why are they selling off those natural assets for a quick buck without getting strong assurances on public rights of way? (29468)

The hon. Gentleman should have listened to earlier answers. We have not announced that we are selling a single hectare yet. [Hon. Members: “Yes, you have!”] We are going out to consultation on that. The Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported, even if he was not a Member then, sold off 12,000 hectares of forest without protecting the access that he talks about. We will make sure—and it will be in the consultation—that whatever we do protects all public benefits.

T3. Green spaces and trees are vital in our cities, and I am fortunate that my constituency has many beautiful parks, including Dukes meadows, Gunnersbury park, Osterley park, Boston Manor park, Syon park and Hounslow heath. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what plans the Department has to plant many more trees across the city of London? (29465)

I invite my hon. Friend, and encourage her constituents, to participate in the big tree plant campaign, which was launched at the beginning of December and will continue, and for which there are publicly available funds. We will do this in partnership with a number of charities, and I imagine that they have members in her constituency. In participating, she will demonstrate the effectiveness of this big society approach.

T7. This Con-Dem Government propose to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board—a proposal that even Mrs Thatcher refused to implement. The Prime Minister suggests that because of the minimum wage the AWB is just a quango, but that “quango” covers workers’ wages, holidays, sick pay, overtime, standby arrangements and even bereavement leave. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is just a quango? (29469)

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that until the Warwick agreement, when the trade unions forced the Labour party to back down, it was Labour party policy to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. I should make the point that agriculture has changed dramatically in the 60 years since the board came into being. The previous Government did not reinstate any of the other wages boards when they had the chance to do so. Instead they instigated the Low Pay Commission, and we believe that that is the right body to manage agricultural wages, as it does everybody else’s wages.

T4. Following the successful Nagoya conference on biodiversity and against the background of the current very important climate change conference in Cancun, can the Secretary of State tell us how she intends to take forward the protection of biodiversity, both in this country and internationally? (29466)

As I said in response to an earlier question, the new biodiversity strategy for England will be published alongside the natural environment White Paper in the spring, to which we have had an astonishingly high number of contributions from the public: there have been in excess of 15,000.

T10. Given the Minister’s acknowledgement on Second Reading of the Sustainable Livestock Bill of the serious nature of the deforestation caused by the production of soy for livestock feed, what position will the Government take on reform of the common agricultural policy to reduce UK imports of soy? (29472)

The hon. Gentleman rightly raises an important issue. We want to reduce our dependency on imported protein, but not if that means, in the short term, destroying our domestic livestock industry only to have to import product fed on soya from the very sources we are trying to protect. On the CAP, it is very early days because the Commission has only just published its early proposals. However, I can assure him that agricultural sustainability, in the dramatically changing circumstances foreseen over the next 40 years, is right at the heart of our position. We want to make sure not only that we have money for research to find alternatives to imported soya, but that we can continue to provide for our domestic needs and those elsewhere.

T5. Does the Secretary of State agree that monitoring agencies such as the Environment Agency need sharper teeth, so that they can step in more forcefully when pollution rises to unacceptable levels, particularly in residential areas such as Horn lane in Acton? (29467)

I thought that this subject might come up, because my hon. Friend has a debate on it next week, when I look forward to giving her a more detailed reply. The simple answer is yes, we have to make this clearer. There are no secrets here; the data should be available to local communities and I will do everything I can to support her constituents in this regard.

My constituent, Lisa Boughton, who lives in Catcliffe, which was flooded in 2007, has this year—not in 2008 or 2009—suddenly been faced by Aviva with a 79% hike in her insurance premium. Will the Department call in Aviva to say that that is an intolerable burden to put on a person of limited means?

I entirely understand that, because it is an experience that many hon. Members around the country have had. This is why we have to engage with the ABI and have an arrangement that continues after 2013. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are working hard with the ABI to try to ensure that the concerns that he has raised are understood.

T8. The Secretary of State knows that the Thames tideway tunnel scheme has already seen its costs double from £1.8 billion to £3.6 billion, and that it will cause massive construction disruption along the Thames and add £40 per annum to Thames Water customers’ water bills. Can the Minister assure me that the Government have tried to find the best value-for-money solution to sewage discharge in the Thames? (29470)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we continue to challenge the cost assumptions behind that scheme. It is a massive undertaking, and I can see that it will fall on Thames Water’s charge payers, so we want to ensure that if it goes ahead, it goes ahead because it has to, and that the work is done at the best possible price.

In 2003 my private Member’s Bill became the Household Waste Recycling Act, obliging local authorities to introduce doorstep recycling. Local authorities have until the 31st of this month to comply, and I am glad to say that 94% are in compliance. What does the Minister intend to do about the remaining 6%?

The right hon. Lady is a great expert in that field, and I pay tribute to her on that issue. It is an absolute priority for our Department, and it is being taken forward as part of the waste review, not only to ensure that the difficult wins are achieved, but to consider how we can continue to encourage local authorities to deal with areas where, on recycling, there is still a long way to go.

T9. At meetings throughout the dales in recent weeks, constituents have complained that the Yorkshire Dales national park authority is distant and aloof. How will the Minister ensure that in future national park authorities will be more thoughtful towards the communities they seek to represent? (29471)

I am very pleased with the response so far to our review of national park governance. We like national parks and want to support them, but the Government’s firm view at this point is that we should review how they are governed to ensure that they are accountable to local people, and that local people can take part in their decision-making processes. That is the purpose of our review, and I hope that my hon. Friend’s constituents are taking part in it.

Given the huge importance of provenance and traceability in agriculture, is it not time to consider compulsory country of origin food labelling?

I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman, and to remind the House, that two weeks ago the food industry produced a voluntary set of principles to which all major retailers and respective organisations have signed up. The code involves making clear the country of origin of meat, meat products and mainstream dairy products. Alongside that, we have the European negotiations in which the prospect of mandatory labelling is also being considered.

Much organic matter still finds its way to landfill, where it is not only a hazard but a great waste of sustainable energy. What progress has the Department made in promoting anaerobic digestion as a good way of dealing with such waste?

Anaerobic digestion offers not just great potential for our society, which is concerned about diverting food waste up the waste hierarchy and away from landfill, but opportunities for communities, farmers and farming businesses to develop schemes that can deal with waste and feed into our energy system. So we are certainly considering that as part of the waste review, which will be announced in early spring. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take close notice of it.

May I implore the Minister, when he attends next week’s fisheries discussions in Brussels, to raise with his French and Italian counterparts the issue of the continued fishing of bluefin tuna? What can he do to ensure that we protect that very endangered species?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that we have continued the very strong line that his party, when it was in government, took on bluefin tuna. I am very keen to work with him, because he has great expertise in that field, and I can assure him that we raise the issue frequently at every level to ensure that we continue to push towards the protection of that iconic species.

The Department is aware of the importance of the port of Falmouth’s plans to create new jobs. When will its application for marine consents be decided?

I know that that issue is of massive importance to my hon. Friend and her constituents. The decision is imminent; I shall involve her at the earliest stage, and we will work from there. I absolutely understand the importance that the application has for local jobs.