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Topical Questions

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 17 March 2011

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In that regard, I draw attention to the written statement I have laid today, confirming the details of the independent panel to advise on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy. The panel will be chaired by the Right Reverend James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, and will be made up of leading experts in the field of conservation and woodland management, along with other representatives of the broad range of issues associated with forestry in England, such as access and timber supply.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on setting up this panel on forests. She talked about food prices rising, but one of the great problems is that the money is not going back to the farmers—too much is being taken out by the supermarkets and others. I know that the Business Secretary has to deliver this, but when is he going to put the grocery adjudicator in place?

On 17 February, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) indicated during his Department’s questions that he would publish the relevant Bill in April. Obviously, Parliament is in recess for a significant amount of that month, but the Bill will be published some time around Easter.

I welcome the production of the forestry panel, but the trees are not yet out of the woods. This Sunday, thousands of people will gather in forests across the country to keep up the pressure on the Government to abandon their sale of 100,000 acres of England’s forests. People will be asking me in Dalby forest why their local organisations have been excluded from this panel. What should I tell them?

I am delighted to tell the hon. Lady that the independent panel will hold its meetings in different parts of England, as was the original intention with the consultation, to come to people who have concerns about forests. A huge number of organisations—more than 70—applied to go on the panel, which will engage them all by seeking information, views and evidence from them all so that everyone feels involved.

T2. May I return to the topic of the difficulties faced by pig farmers, which are particularly acute in my constituency? Is the Minister aware of the answer given by the Minister for the Armed Forces to my recent written question showing that under the previous Government less than 1% of the bacon served to our armed forces was British? Does he agree that if we are to do what we say as a Government and help British farmers, we should put our money where our mouth is and encourage the public sector to buy British? (47219)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the Government will publish Government buying standards very shortly. They will require all of central Government to purchase food produced to British standards wherever that can be done without extra cost, which should not really come into it. I must tell her that we are working very hard on the specific issue of bacon and the armed forces with the British Pig Executive and the Ministry of Defence. We face some specific challenges relating not only to the specification but to the quantity that the MOD needs and that fact that everything needs to be frozen. Trials have been done using sow bacon and other things, but we are still working on the challenge.

T5. According to the Commission for Rural Communities, one in 20 women in rural areas is an entrepreneur, which is a higher proportion than in cities. However, in a recent article in The Independent, many complained that slow broadband was slowing down their business. Labour guaranteed universal broadband by 2012. What is the Secretary of State doing about it? (47222)

I am very happy to tell the hon. Lady that our plans to roll out superfast broadband to rural communities will assist all entrepreneurs, including women, and rural areas will be able to see the benefits of superfast broadband in the creative industries and every other kind of industry. We have put £530 million over the next four years into that, so it will be happening very soon.

T3. I wish to raise the whole sorry saga of the single farm payment, as administered by the Rural Payments Agency. One farmer in my area has not received payment since 2009. I understand that the target for March will not be met, that the accuracy of the figures remains woefully short of what might be expected and that we risk incurring EU fines. Can the Minister assure the House that that will not be the case this year? (47220)

As my hon. Friend said, the new Government inherited a catastrophic situation with the RPA, which had incurred for the country massive fines from the EU as a result of late payments and inaccuracies—I am determined not to repeat that. I am extremely sorry that we are not going to be able to meet the target for end of March payments, but we are determined that this year’s payments should be accurate, rather than have a continuation of the problems of errors and the fines that then ensue. I am determined to get money flowing as quickly as possible to the many farmers whom I recognise need it.

T7. The Government’s policy on badger culling once again seems to be a complete shambles. Will the Minister confirm that they have now decided to take into account the vast majority of scientific evidence, which says that badger culling is not an adequate way to deal with bovine TB, and rule out a return to the culling that we have seen in the past? (47225)

The Government consulted on our proposals in the autumn and we are still working through the consequences and results of that consultation, including all the scientific advice and practical issues that were raised. We shall make our announcements in due course. I can promise that at this stage we have made no final decisions.

T4. The Arpley landfill site in my constituency is in the process of applying for a multi-year extension to its licence and yet we know that best practice countries, such as Germany and Denmark, have virtually no landfill because they incinerate for power that which cannot be recycled. Can we not move faster in that direction? (47221)

We are shortly to publish our waste review, which is examining the balance and trying to move waste up the waste hierarchy. It will demonstrate this Government’s serious ambition to work towards getting as close as we can to a waste-free society and to ensure that communities are protected wherever they can be.

This morning, the Secretary of State repeated her suggestion that the Environmental Audit Committee might take over the functions of the Sustainable Development Commission, which she has abolished, as a watchdog on sustainable development. Does she recognise that that will be a complete fantasy unless resources and organisation are fundamentally addressed? What efforts has she made to get resources for the EAC so that it can perform that role?

The hon. Gentleman might have misunderstood what I said. There is a four-pronged approach to mainstreaming sustainable development, in which the Environmental Audit Committee might, I suggested, play the role of holding Secretaries of State to account in the way that Select Committees regularly do. Although the Select Committees are bodies of Parliament rather than Government, I have written to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to ask whether some of the 700 auditors in the National Audit Office, which comes under her jurisdiction, might be released to help the Environmental Audit Committee in that role.

T6. Returning to my earlier question, will the Minister consider ensuring that the public sector buys only eggs that have been produced to EU standards when the new legislation banning battery cages has been implemented? (47223)

Yes, I will. As I said a few moments ago, the Government will be publishing Government buying standards in the very near future and that will include a requirement to purchase only produce produced to British standards—that does not mean that it has to be British, but it has to be produced to our standards. From 1 January next year, no British eggs will be from traditional cages. They will all be from enriched or better systems.

Does the Secretary of State believe that reducing funding by nearly a third to the national parks, such as the North York Moors national park in my constituency, is good for promoting tourism and helps small and medium-sized businesses in Guisborough and east Cleveland?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance. I visited the Lake District national park last week as part of launching the uplands policy and the park authority expressed itself quite capable of making savings, which are pro rata across the Department because we have to repair the finances after what was left behind by his Government. I am therefore confident that it can protect the front line while making savings in the back office. That park, in conjunction with many national parks, is setting about doing that constructively.

I met a number of Warwickshire dairy farmers last week and they told me that they are still receiving less for their milk from the supermarkets than it costs to produce. When the high cost of feed is added to that, it will either drive farmers away from producing milk or out of business altogether. What can the Secretary of State do to support our dairy farmers and protect UK food security?

My hon. Friend has identified a real difficulty in the dairy sector that, as he rightly says, affects most dairy farmers throughout the country. The biggest challenge is the range of prices, which go from the relatively acceptable prices paid to producers who are designated into the liquid supply chain down to the very low prices paid by processors. I am working through the dairy supply chain to try to improve the overall market structure so that we can raise prices at the bottom, which will create an upward pressure right through the chain.

At first sight, the independent panel on forestry includes three people who represent landowning or industry forestry interests but does not include anyone who represents the trade unions or the people who work in that area. The Institute of Chartered Foresters is represented, but that is very much a specialist interest. Is it not an omission not to have a trade union represented on the panel?

When I made my statement on this matter in the House, I heeded very carefully the point that was made by Opposition Members that those who work in the forests ought to be represented on the panel. That is why Shireen Chambers of the Institute of Chartered Foresters will be on it. The panellists are there not as delegates but as representatives to look at the broad range of issues concerning forestry and woodland in England.

T9. Epping forest has 20% of all Travellers pitches in the east of England, over 80% of which are in Nazeing or Roydon in my constituency. Can the Minister reassure my constituents that local communities will now be free to choose how many Travellers pitches they accept rather than having them imposed from Whitehall? (47227)

This is a matter principally for the Department for Communities and Local Government, which I know is striving to find a balanced solution for both the settled and the travelling communities. I have sympathy with my hon. Friend, as I also have to deal with this issue in my constituency. The abolition of regional spatial strategies puts an end to the top-down provision of sites in favour of local solutions to provide the authorised sites that the travelling community needs.

Yesterday, there was a march on City hall by residents of Poplar and Limehouse who are very concerned about the possible loss of King Edward Memorial park due to the necessary building of the Thames tideway tunnel. Can the Secretary of State or one of her Ministers reassure me and my constituents that just as DEFRA will keep an eye on costs, as outlined on its website, it will also keep a conscious eye on the need to protect that precious open space, which is much loved by thousands of my constituents?

I understand the concerns of a number of communities in London about the construction phase of this project, if it goes ahead. I am delighted that one particularly popular area of green space south of the river has been protected and I applaud Thames Water for having found an alternative site. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman and others to make sure that the impact of the construction of the project is as minimal as possible.

Will Ministers look again at the funding of Northumberland national park, because pro rata cuts hit very hard the least well-funded national park, which suffers from what is known to be an unsatisfactory distribution of funding between national parks?

I am well aware of the national park’s concerns. I have to be cautious because I believe that there might be legal proceedings under way, but I am a firm fan of what it does. It is important to note that the national parks will go back, as a collective group, to the funding of about five years ago. Life did not stop in the national parks back then—they did a lot of good stuff then and they will continue to do a lot of good work in future.

I welcome the Minister’s attempts to reduce inaccuracies in single farm payments and the fines incurred as a consequence, but he will know that fines are also incurred for late payment after the June deadline. Has he conducted any research in his Department about the flexing between inaccuracy fines and late payment fines to ensure that the best and optimal amount is achieved for the taxpayer?

The objective is to have no fines at all rather than to choose between fines. I am determined to make the payments as accurate as possible so that we can draw a line under the sorry past under the previous Government. Equally, however, I want to keep to the payment deadline of June, and we plan to do so.

If the Under-Secretary were to find himself seeking to preserve ferry operations in the Lymington river by use of a declaration of overriding public interest, would he be empowered to impose conditions such as the use of more suitable vessels in the medium term?

I am well aware of the importance of this issue to my hon. Friend and his constituents. We have to bear in mind the economic value of that route to the Isle of Wight as well as other elements in his community. I assure him that I will exhaust every effort to make sure that we can get a solution with which every side is happy.

Are we ever going to get a fair deal for farmers or consumers when ruthless monopolies such as Tesco dominate our retail trade? Tesco now has 30% of the trade—by my economic training, that is a monopoly that any Government have to recognise and take on.

The Department’s business plan sets out clearly its priority of supporting British food and farming. Obviously, we are trying in the CAP negotiations to get a fair deal for British farmers, consumers and the environment alike. There was an investigation into abuse of competition through the Competition Commission, but the new element that we bring into play is the grocery adjudicator. As I said, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills intends to introduce legislation on that around Easter.

On taking sustainable development mainstream, the Secretary of State gave me her clear assurance during DEFRA questions on 4 November that she would continue to meet the designated green Ministers from each Department. Will she tell the House who the designated green Ministers in each Department are, and when they last met?

I am delighted to be able to tell the House that DEFRA has instituted the green Ministers breakfast. Ministers from across the Government come to DEFRA once a month for this popular event. As you would expect, Mr Speaker, the Department of food and drink makes absolutely sure that they do not go hungry. The events have brought about the huge benefits of breaking down silos between Departments and putting in place a really joined-up approach to green issues and sustainable development right across the Government.

We saw this week that the Department has been slapped down a second time by the Prime Minister—this time over CAP payments. Does that explain why we still do not have a water White Paper?

Further to questions about the grocery adjudicator, I should declare an interest as chair of the Grocery Market Action Group, as well as because last week I met the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who confirmed that the draft Bill would be published after the purdah period in May. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that she will use every endeavour to work with the business managers of this place and the Business Department to ensure that the measure is introduced this year and that we have effective regulation of the sector as soon as possible?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that I will use all my best endeavours to ensure that we proceed swiftly. I pay tribute to his work on producing a Bill in this Parliament, which I hope will help to inform his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House is anxious that we make good progress on the important Bill that my hon. Friend mentioned.

I thank colleagues for their co-operation which, not for the first time, has ensured that every question on the Order Paper has been reached and substantially more besides.