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Topical Questions

Volume 520: debated on Thursday 9 December 2010

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.