Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 17 March 2011

House of Commons

Thursday 17 March 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Uplands Policy Review

I begin by informing the House that I have written to the Japanese Environment Minister, Mr Matsumoto, with whom I spent a great deal of time negotiating in Nagoya, to express our sincerest condolences. As the House would expect, I have also offered the services of my Department in respect of technical expertise on flood recovery, air and water quality and radiological decontamination.

I thank my hon. Friend and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which she chairs, for highlighting the importance of the uplands. I have received numerous positive reactions from a wide range of stakeholders to the conclusions of the uplands policy review, which I announced last week.

May I share in the Secretary of State’s expression of condolences and thank her for writing to offer the services of her Department? I also thank her for her answer.

The uplands are the jewel in our farming crown, but the continuation of active farming needs to be encouraged, particularly the keeping of livestock. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the difficulties that tenant farmers are currently suffering. Will she come up with some positive measures in the policy review to encourage them to maintain livestock in the uplands?

We feel very strongly about the value and potential of our uplands, which have been overlooked for too long. That is why, as a new Government, we have prioritised our review of uplands policy. Our intention is to support and encourage all hill farmers to become more competitive, and we have made available up to £6 million a year more for environmental stewardship schemes. When I launched the review, I impressed on landowners that they should be constructive when they receive requests from tenants to participate in such schemes.

The uplands review obviously came out of the excellent report produced by the Commission for Rural Communities last summer. Will the Secretary of State explain why she has attempted to frustrate the clearly expressed will of the other place by cutting the CRC’s budget by some 90%?

It is not a question of frustrating the will of the other place. There has been a change of Government, and the two parties that together form the Government have Members of Parliament who mostly have rural constituencies. It is thus easier for us to champion rural causes, as in our uplands policy review. The hon. Lady’s Government had 13 years in which to do something about the uplands, but it has taken a change of Government to achieve that.

Pig Farming

The Secretary of State and I discussed the difficulties faced by the pig industry with representatives of the National Pig Association and the British Pig Executive two weeks ago. I am very much aware of the high cost of feedstuffs and the problems that it is creating, causing serious losses for pig producers.

I am sure the Minister is aware that, according to the National Farmers Union, over the past three years pig producers have been losing £20 per pig, whereas at the same time retailers have still been making £100 profit per pig. May I call on him and the Department to take some action and put pressure on retailers to give our pig producers a fair price for their pigs?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point entirely. It is incumbent on any retailer that is concerned about ensuring that it can supply British pigmeat not just this year but in years to come to do what it can to ensure that our industry can continue through this difficult period. I am sure that prices will recover at some stage, but it is down to the retailers to ensure that their long-term supply chain interests come through into the practices they follow today.

Will the right hon. Gentleman outline what particular help he is giving pig farmers at a time when not only are feed prices very high but oil costs are rising? That is increasing the price of pig farming to breaking point.

As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, pig farming has largely been outside any Government involvement for many years now. Pig farmers have not received any form of payment or subsidy for many decades, and that is the right way to go. I trust that she is not suggesting that we reverse that approach. She is quite right that energy prices are a major problem across all of agriculture. All that I can offer is the rural development programme, through which we can provide assistance for businesses that wish to invest.

Does my right hon. Friend think that customers of Tesco and other supermarkets would be surprised if they understood the disgusting animal welfare practices that those supermarkets support by importing meat produced under such poor animal welfare conditions? Is not the answer for British consumers to go to supermarkets such as Morrisons, which has a 100% British meat policy?

I am sure that consumers have heard what my hon. Friend says without me getting into an internecine war between retailers. What really matters is that the consumer is properly informed of the benefits of buying British pigmeat. That is why the Government are keen, as he is, on country of origin labelling.

Sky Lanterns

I have received a number of representations regarding the risks to livestock from releasing sky lanterns. I share those concerns and urge consumers to think twice before releasing lanterns. DEFRA officials are working with other Departments and the farming unions to see what action can be taken to reduce risks. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to local authority trading standards officials to encourage them to work with importers and manufacturers, and we are taking other actions.

The Minister will be aware of that other great hazard facing farmers and livestock—namely fly-tipping, which currently costs taxpayers something like £1 million per week. Will he assure us that that will be addressed in the Government’s waste strategy, and to coin a phrase, will he be tough on grime, and tough on the causes of grime?

I do not wish to open that can of worms, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we very much recognise the problem of fly-tipping and that it will be addressed in the waste review.

Mackerel Quotas

4. What assessment she has made of the outcome of the recent coastal states discussions in Oslo on mackerel fishing quota; and if she will make a statement. (47196)

The meeting of coastal states in Oslo from 9 to 11 March ended without agreement on the management of the north Atlantic mackerel stock for 2011. This is very disappointing as it puts the future sustainability of this extremely important stock at risk. The positions of the parties involved remain wide apart but we will continue to work with industry, other EU member states and the Commission to find the best possible outcome to this difficult situation.

I hope the Minister shares my outrage at the 150,000 tonnes of mackerel that the Faroese have subsequently unilaterally awarded themselves as a quota for mackerel for next year, and I know he shares my concerns about the jobs that will be affected by that, both in my constituency and in other pelagic areas. As a matter of urgency, will he meet the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association and other key UK stakeholders to discuss this matter further?

I recently met stakeholders and raised the matter this week—yesterday, in fact—with Commissioner Damanaki, when I gave support to her strong call for measures to be taken against the Faroese and neighbouring states that cause so much damage to a sustainable stock. The problems that the hon. Lady’s constituents and others around our coast face are very much our priorities, and we will continue to support strong measures to deal with them.

Fish Discards

5. What recent discussions she has had on reductions in fishing discards; and if she will make a statement. (47197)

13. What recent discussions she has had on reductions in fishing discards; and if she will make a statement. (47208)

I was delighted to participate in a recent high-level meeting on discards with the EU Commission and other members states, which agreed with the UK that tackling discards must be a priority for common fisheries policy reform and that action must be taken now. There was a constructive and positive debate about measures needed as part of that reform. The UK is clear that these must be practical, effective and developed in co-operation with industry.

I know that the Minister, like me, welcomes the fact that Devon fishermen have cut their discards by 50%. Can he work on the total eradication of discards by promoting the greater use of other types of fish? Fish that do not meet human consumption standards could be ground down for use as fishmeal for fish farming, because we must keep that resource.

I understand my hon. Friend’s point—he eloquently made it yesterday at the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA’s “Fishing for the Market” project looks at the fact that more than 50% of discards are created because there is no market for those fish. By taking up my hon. Friend’s suggestions and by working with fishermen to support the industry to find better markets for such fish, we will further reduce discards.

Does my hon. Friend agree that in this important quest to find new markets for what were formerly discarded fish we should work alongside organisations such as my local fish and chip shop in Penryn, the Mariners, which offers people delicious, locally caught and unusual choices, but not cod and haddock?

I applaud my hon. Friend for bigging up her local fish and chip shop. I also applaud the Fish Fight campaign, one benefit of which is that thousands of people have been going to their fishmongers and supermarkets and asking for precisely the species that we have been discarding on a large scale, such as dab and pouting, which are perfectly delicious, and which we should be using more of, because they can be fished sustainably.

Will the Minister commission research into the scientific levels of non-quota stock, and will he consider making it mandatory for scientists to go onboard vessels or at least to ensure that discards are quantified, so that scientists can have that information?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The fisheries science partnerships have been doing precisely that, and have been doing good work. In prioritising this matter we are going with the grain of public opinion and the opinion of fishermen, who want to see an end to this practice, and yes, we have to do it on the basis of sound evidence. There is good practice going on, with scientists going onboard fishing boats for a variety of reasons, including to get a better understanding of what discards are and how we can tackle them. That work is highly valued.

As well as an end to discards, we need firm action on by-catch. Does the Minister welcome the announcement by Princes and Asda to follow other major retailers in ceasing to sell tuna caught using fishing practices that Greenpeace estimated in 2007 resulted in levels of by-catch of 182,000 tonnes per year? Will he also give a guarantee to persuade the remaining retailers selling unsustainably fished tuna to reflect the views of the 661,000 people who signed the Fish Fight petition and end fishing practices that damage the biodiversity of our oceans?

Yes to all that. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are at the forefront of measures to protect blue fin tuna. I thoroughly welcome the move by Princes and other processors to ensure that they use tuna from sustainable stocks, and we will continue to work with Members on both sides of the House to ensure that this continues.

I am pleased with what I hope is significant progress in this policy area after many years of campaigning, but how can fish stocks be protected effectively if discards are taken into account, and how can we distinguish between intended and unintended by-catch in the management of stocks?

No doubt when a lot of those who signed the Fish Fight petition see the words “Discard ban imposed”, they will think, “Job done”, but unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman and his fishermen know, life is not that simple. Working with the fishing industry is the way to find solutions. For too long there has been too much stick and not enough carrot. We are proposing—we have benefited from this through policies such as the 50% project and catch quotas—that when we work with the industry we get much better results.

Battery Cages

6. What recent discussions she has had on the introduction of a prohibition on battery cages for laying hens. (47199)

7. What recent discussions she has had on the introduction of a prohibition on battery cages for laying hens. (47200)

At the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 21 February, some member states sought more time to implement the ban on conventional cages, which is coming into force on 1 January 2012. I was the first Minister to emphasise that any delay would be grossly unfair to egg producers in the UK and other member states that have made significant investments to adapt and enrich cages. The Government will continue to play a full part in EU discussions to find a practical solution.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and for her excellent efforts. Did those discussions also include the importation of derived products into this country?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is important that we are clear about the provenance of liquid-egg and dried-egg products. Many farmers in the European Union have made the investment to improve the welfare of laying hens, and therefore the deadline has to be respected.

The Minister will be aware that many farmers in my constituency of Monmouth have worked extremely hard to comply with that legislation. I am grateful to her for saying that it would be unfair if other EU countries do not, but can she say what would happen if other countries, including new entrants, were exempt from that legislation?

I am not talking about exemption. Obviously the Commission can threaten infraction proceedings against member states whose egg producers are non-compliant, but in my view that will not be enough. One of the options that we have suggested to the Commission is an intra-Community trade ban, which would restrict the sale of eggs that continued to be produced from conventional cages after the deadline had expired.

Will the right hon. Lady show some caution on this? Those of us who are passionate about animal welfare remember when this country moved ahead on protecting young calves reared for veal from disgraceful conditions. Veal in this country is now well produced. The young animals have a decent life, but most of them are killed at birth, which means that we import badly produced veal from France.

Veal is not the same thing as eggs. None the less, the sentiment expressed in the hon. Gentleman’s question is important. The point is that member states and producers have known for 10 years that the change would come, and the accession countries seeking to join the Union knew full well before they entered that those were the welfare standards that would apply.

Given the Secretary of State’s remarks, can she clarify whether she will be proposing a ban on shell, liquid and powdered egg from countries such as Poland that will not meet the deadline, and if so, will she also be banning products such as quiche and cakes from those countries?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the Commission is looking at this. He might be interested to know that the Minister of State and the Commission will both appear before the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 22 March, when there will be ample opportunity to debate in detail the application of measures to ensure that the deadline is respected.

According to the European Commission’s social and economic report, a free-range egg costs just 2p more to produce than a battery egg. Does the Minister agree that this is a price worth paying for animal welfare?

It is absolutely clear that the welfare of laying hens is improved by investment in enriched cages. However, it is also true that many consumers enjoy the choice of free-range eggs, and those choices should continue to exist.


8. What measures her Department is taking to ensure its preparedness to respond to major flooding incidents. (47201)

Last week, Exercise Watermark took place, which was the largest civil emergency exercise ever held in the United Kingdom. It successfully demonstrated the ability of Departments, emergency services, local authorities, communities and voluntary organisations to work together to deal with a range of devastating flooding scenarios. We will learn lessons from the exercise and publicise them to the House.

I welcome the Minister’s exercise in flood prevention and working through all the different systems. However, in my constituency, Sandwich—one of the most beautiful medieval towns in the country— faces huge flood problems. Will the Minister update us on what the defence scheme is and when it might be implemented?

Sandwich was included in the original draft list of schemes going ahead next year, so I specifically asked why it was not in the programme. I understand that the reason was that we could not guarantee that the scheme would start in the coming financial year. However, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend—and perhaps also Paul Carter, the leader of the taskforce looking at regeneration in her constituency—to discuss how hopeful we can be about the scheme progressing in the very near future.

This is a key issue in my constituency, which was badly flooded in 2007. Why have the Government decided to ignore the Pitt recommendation that flood investment should enjoy an above-inflation settlement each year?

We are taking forward all 92 of the Pitt recommendations—well, certainly 91 of them. The question of flood funding has been raised frequently in the House. We have protected capital funding works over and above all other areas of activity because we recognise that that is an absolute priority for the future.

This Department has taken the biggest hit across government, and flood defence spending has been cut by 27%. The Pitt review did indeed recommend Exercise Watermark. It also recommended that flood defence spending should be increased above inflation year on year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said. Will the Minister tell us what lessons have been learned from Exercise Watermark? What does he say to those communities who thought that their flood defences were going ahead but now find that they are not? Can he guarantee that they will be able to access universal flood insurance after the statement of principle ends soon?

We have had many discussions on this matter. The 8% difference between the last four years’ spending on capital and the next four years’ spending shows that this is a massive priority—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) knows that continuing with this tired old riff is 180o away from the facts. We are working closely with the insurance industry to ensure that we can move beyond the statement of principles after 2013. The lessons from Exercise Watermark are being learned and will be learned in the future.

Urban Foxes

While the extermination of urban foxes, or indeed rural ones, is neither desirable nor possible, problem foxes do need to be controlled. In urban areas, that is the responsibility of the owner or occupier of the property, who can use legal methods to cull or remove foxes.

Last summer, a number of my constituents were attacked in their own homes by urban foxes, including Annie Bradwell, who lost part of her ear, and Natasha David, who was bitten twice as she slept in her bed. Will the Minister liaise with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see whether we can change the law so that urban foxes can be treated as vermin in the same way that rats and mice are?

I am very happy to talk to the Communities Secretary about that, but I do not think that a change in the law is necessary to enable local authorities to take action. They are not required to do so, but it is perfectly within their remit to take action if they have the kind of problem with the fox population to which my hon. Friend refers.

The Minister will be aware that it would be an error to make laws on the basis of isolated and rare cases. Having some wildlife in urban areas gives great delight to many people, and foxes can make a contribution to urban life by scavenging for waste food. We certainly do not need the usual Tory solution to such problems, which is to kill wild animals.

I made it clear that we do not think that foxes should be exterminated in any part of the country. However, to pretend that they do not cause problems in some areas would be blinkered thinking. The fact is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) said, foxes can be a serious pest in urban areas and elsewhere. Also, the scavenging that the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) describes can cause serious problems with refuse and waste left out overnight. But, yes, foxes have a role to play in our urban areas.

The Minister might be aware that there is a belief in the countryside that urban foxes are trapped alive, put in lorries, taken out into the countryside and released, at great detriment to their welfare and great inconvenience to their country cousins. Will the Minister deprecate that activity and make every effort to resist it?

My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. There is a lot of evidence—albeit anecdotal evidence—that people trap urban foxes and release them in the countryside. I suggest that that is very cruel, because those foxes are not accustomed to living on their own or to hunting for their prey, because it is all there for them in the refuse bags in urban areas. Farmers and others will bear witness to the fact that many of them wander round the countryside in a somewhat dazed state.

Fish Discards

Will the Minister outline exactly what he is doing to give incentives to the UK fishing industry to reduce discards?

We have promoted the catch quota scheme, and this year we will see no discards in the North sea from the boats in that scheme. We are extending the scheme to the south-west and I am delighted to announce that four vessels from that region are entering the scheme for the channel sole stock. We are also promoting the “Fishing for the Market” scheme, which I mentioned earlier. Of course, there is the success—applauded abroad and by the Commission—of the 50% project in the south-west. All those examples show how if we work with the fishing industry, we can have a serious impact on the scourge of discards.

Does my hon. Friend agree not only that it is wrong to throw dead fish back into sea, because it damages the viability of our fishermen, but that there is an environmental and marine eco-system effect of which we must also be aware?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have heard evidence of crab potters, for example, saying that the problem is affecting the bait they put in their pots in certain areas. The real point, however, is that in a hungry world, throwing away perfectly edible fish is an affront to the vast majority of the British public, as well as to the fishermen who have to carry it out.

Wild Animals (Circuses)

Following further discussions with welfare groups, the circus industry and other parties involved with performing animals, I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government’s policy is now close to completion.

I am pleased to hear that the policy is close to completion, but I am sure that the Minister will realise that his answer is somewhat disappointing—not just to me, but to Members of all parties, to organisations such as the Born Free Foundation, Animal Defenders and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and, not least, to the 94.5% of the 13,000 respondents who said last March that they wanted this practice stopped. We have now reached the anniversary, so how much longer is it going to take?

No one will be more pleased than I will be when the issue is closed and the hon. Gentleman stops asking me the question. I can assure him that, although I cannot give a precise time, the policy is very close to completion. However, as he knows, because he used to be the responsible Minister, other issues are relevant, such as the impact on the film and theatre industry and other areas where animals are involved in performances, and we have to clarify them and get them right before we announce anything.

Labelling (Meat Products)

12. What recent progress her Department has made on labelling meat products by method of slaughter; and if she will make a statement. (47207)

As part of our implementation of the new welfare at slaughter regulations, which will come into force in January 2013, I shall be meeting all interested parties during the course of this year, and this will of course include discussion of possible labelling aspects of the issue.

Many of my constituents who are concerned about animal welfare are worried that they are unknowingly eating meat from animals that might not have been pre-stunned during slaughter, and supermarkets simply will not provide the information. Does the Minister agree that labelling is the simplest solution to the problem? Will he reassure my constituents that he will push for implementation as soon as possible?

The Government strongly believe that consumers should be properly informed about what they are buying. It is also true that the Government believe, overall, that animals should be stunned before slaughter, but we recognise that the Jewish and Muslim communities like some of their meat to be produced differently. The challenge for labelling is traceability. As my hon. Friend is probably aware, the vast majority of meat slaughtered under halal conditions is pre-stunned, so the issue is not quite as straightforward as some people believe.

Climate Change

DEFRA leads on climate change adaptation in England and on engagement with the EU on adaptation. DEFRA works to reduce emissions domestically in the areas for which we have responsibility and also works across Whitehall to ensure that progress on mitigation is achieved in a sustainable way.

The Prime Minister is keen on smaller and more efficient government. If the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills were to take back responsibility for energy, would the Secretary of State think it appropriate for her Department to take back the rest of the climate change responsibilities, because then we could get rid of a whole Department?

If we are talking about efficiency, I can tell my hon. Friend that in my experience, reorganisation—including the attempted reorganisation of local government by the last Administration—is not always the most efficient thing to do.

The Secretary of State will know of the growing fear that, in the European Union and elsewhere, the understandable increasing use of biofuels is having a distorting effect on the food market, and particularly on food prices for some of the world’s poor. I do not want to make any assumptions about the implications of the tragic events in Japan, but it is clear that they might have implications for the energy market and biofuel prices. What is the Government’s current policy on biofuels at European level?

If we are to increase the amount of renewable energy that we secure and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, it is important for renewable energy from biomass to be in the mix. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, faced with the challenge of food security, we must be careful to ensure that prime, productive agricultural land is there to provide the food that we are so obviously going to need.

DEFRA has said that it is tackling climate change through its new strategy, contained in the document “Mainstreaming sustainable development”. The seven-page document, which was snuck out the night before the Government abolished the Sustainable Development Commission, has been attacked by the president of the National Farmers Union and slated by Jonathon Porritt, who said that it was

“without a doubt the most disgraceful government document relating to Sustainable Development”

that he had ever seen. How is the mainstreaming going?

First, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. I hope that he will convey our thanks to his predecessor for the role that he played.

Perhaps we could start off on a slightly better footing. We made a decision, as a Government, to mainstream sustainable development, and there is clear evidence from the business plans of the Government Departments that it has been mainstreamed. In addition, I have asked the hon. Gentleman’s colleague the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), to hold Departments to account for the sustainable development that is mainstreamed into their business plans. DEFRA will continue to perform its role of scrutinising new policy on sustainable development. However, mainstreaming is an obvious step forward from the position when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power, when sustainable development was outside the remit of Government and in the hands of an arm’s length body.

Common Agricultural Policy

15. What recent discussions she has had on reform of the common agricultural policy; and if she will make a statement. (47210)

At this precise moment Lord Henley is attending the Agriculture Council, representing the United Kingdom. I hope Members will appreciate the presence of a full team of House of Commons Ministers here to answer oral questions. However, I have spent two full days this week in Brussels, where the Environment Council discussed CAP reform. I met Members of the European Parliament—including the officers and rapporteur of the Agriculture Committee —to discuss CAP reform, as the European Parliament has the power of co-decision.

Let me begin by drawing Members’ attention to my declaration of interest.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the negotiating position that she intends to take on CAP reform is different from that of the last Government, and that food security is at the heart of all decision-making processes?

Yes, I can confirm a change from the traditional stance taken by the last Government. Calling for direct payments to end forthwith was unrealistic. Our farmers need those direct payments at the moment, although I can envisage a time when, given rising food prices, they may not be necessary. The new, more realistic position means that we are a player at the negotiating table, part of an important alliance of member states that want CAP reform so that we can confront the serious challenges presented by the need for food security and by climate change.

According to, the number of CAP millionaires rose by 20% in 2009 to 1,212, and they pocketed a total of €4.9 billion. Does the Secretary of State agree with those who say that there should be a cap—if Members will excuse the pun—on maximum payments to individual recipients, and that there should be far more transparency across Europe in relation to who is receiving such payments?

We are calling for a substantial reduction in single farm payments, but we do not share the Commission’s view that a cap should be introduced. The capping of farms whose size made them eligible would result in the fragmentation of farm structures, which would prevent agriculture from becoming more competitive and market-oriented.

The CAP has two key roles: ensuring security of food supply and environmental management. On 17 December, The Daily Telegraph reported a secret stitch-up between the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy of France: no reform of the CAP in return for French support for the British rebate. Yet the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State told the Oxford farming conference in January:

“Now is the time to make very significant progress towards reducing our reliance on direct payments”,

but her colleague the Farming Minister, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), contradicted her in the Farmers Guardian saying:

“Farming could not survive without direct payments…we will be suggesting a long, long transition from the current CAP system.”

We know the Prime Minister has full confidence in all his Cabinet Ministers, but who is in charge of CAP negotiations?

I think the hon. Lady should rely a little less on speculation reported in newspapers. She has been a politician for long enough to know that we should take what we read in the papers with a pinch of salt. She obviously was not listening when I very clearly set out our position. Her Government’s position on the CAP over their 13-year period in office was, frankly, not credible: they suggested that direct payments should end immediately. If the hon. Lady does not know enough about farming in this country to know that farmers cannot manage at this point in time without their direct payments, she has a lot of learning to do. Our new position is much more realistic: it is to look forward to the time when subvention will not be required, while in the intervening period helping the industry to adapt so that it is more competitive and market-oriented.

OECD reports show that UK food prices have risen by more than 6% in the last year, and families across the country are feeling the pain. The Foresight report says we need to increase production not just to feed the UK, but to meet growing demand for food across the world. The Environment Secretary told her officials she wanted to be briefed on the price of a loaf of bread. Can she tell the House by how much the price of a loaf has gone up in the last six months, and why does her newly published sustainable development strategy make no mention at all of the CAP, food or farming?

I am sure the hon. Lady does the household shopping in the same way that I do, and it is interesting that the hike in world food prices has not yet fully translated through into the cost of the grocery bill. This issue is a concern not only in the UK, but in other countries. It was also a concern to her Government during the last price hike in 2008. She should also be concerned about the farm-gate price of food: farming input costs are rising, making it extremely difficult for farmers to provide us with food at a reasonable price. That is one of the reasons why we made it a priority in our business plan to support British food and farming in a way that her Government did not.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I call Simon Kirby. He is not here. I therefore call Yvonne Fovargue.

Animals (Illegal Trade)

19. What funding she has allocated over the period of the comprehensive spending review to reduce the level of illegal trade in animals and animal products. (47215)

DEFRA provides funding for the convention on international trade in endangered species. Total funding levels for the next four years have yet to be agreed. The National Wildlife Crime Unit will be funded for the next two years. DEFRA provides no funding to delivery agents, but continues to provide policy and risk advice to the UK Border Agency, which has enforcement responsibility for illegal imports of animal products.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Department about the impact of UK Border Agency cuts on intercepting products of animal origin at UK airports?

I met a representative of the UK Border Agency this week to discuss these matters. I also attended a meeting of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime, which has built up an enormous breadth of expertise. When I visited the animal reception centre at Heathrow, I understood very clearly how partnership working and working on a risk basis is effective in making sure Britain plays its part in cutting out this terrible trade.

Topical Questions

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.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 21 March will be:

Monday 21 March—Remaining stages of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to Members’ salaries.

Tuesday 22 March—Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill.

Wednesday 23 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 24 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 March will include:

Monday 28 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 29 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 30 March—Remaining stages of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill (Day 1).

Thursday 31 March—Remaining stages of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill (Day 2).

Friday 1 April—Private Members’ Bills.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his reply.

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in expressing our deep sorrow at the continuing suffering of the Japanese people as they seek to deal with the many disasters that have befallen them? Did he hear this morning’s report of protestors being fired on and killed in Bahrain, and will he join me in condemning that?

On Monday’s motion on the Senior Salaries Review Body report, will the Leader of the House indicate when he proposes to give effect to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority taking responsibility for MPs’ pay?

The humanitarian emergency response review is due to report shortly. May we have an oral statement from the International Development Secretary?

Two months ago I raised with the right hon. Gentleman the suggestion of extending topical questions to all Departments that do not currently have them. He said that he had a lot of sympathy with my proposal. Can he tell us when he plans to implement it?

It has been a very bad week for the Government’s NHS reforms, with revolting Lib Dems, 21 of whom failed to vote with the Government yesterday, angry doctors and Ministers reduced to pleading that their Bill has been misunderstood, a sure sign that they have lost the argument. Mind you, it takes a special kind of political genius to turn those whom they say they want to help—general practitioners—against them, so I have to hand it to the Secretary of State for Health. The more he talks about his Bill, the more he destroys public confidence in it.

Will the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government come to the House to explain why he decided to attend the recent meeting of the Young Britons’ Foundation, an organisation whose president has described the NHS as a 60-year mistake and whose chief executive has called for it to be scrapped? Was the Secretary of State there to pick up tips on how to destroy local government from people who want to destroy the NHS?

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on figures from his own Department that show that the housing benefit changes will leave 450,000 disabled people an average of £13 a week worse off? People are worried about having to leave their homes, which might have been specially adapted to their needs. What a waste of money. Can the Leader of the House reassure them that that will not happen?

Last week I raised Westminster city council’s odious new byelaw banning the distribution of free food to the homeless. Now we discover that the council has an accomplice: the Home Secretary. Will she make a statement during the report stage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill to explain why clause 149 will give local councils the power to seize and retain property in connection with any contravention of that byelaw? It means that, as well as fining people up to £500 for giving out free food, Westminster city council will be given the power to seize, if it so wishes, the soup, the urns, the vans, the ladles, the bread, the tea bags and anything else that is distributed.

The byelaw will apply to an exclusion zone that includes Westminster cathedral. Will the Leader of the House clarify for us and for the Archbishop of Westminster whether, if there is a service of holy communion in the open air outside the cathedral, under the byelaw and the Bill, priests would face a fine and communion wine cups and wafers could be seized by zealous officials of Westminster city council? What on earth would St Patrick, whom we celebrate today, make of all that? It is quite clear that Westminster city council’s Tory members have completely taken leave of their senses, but why on earth are the Government helping them in this madness by a shabby piece of legislative complicity?

Finally, while we are on the subject of nasty Conservatives, I am afraid that I must tell the House that yet another private Member’s Bill trying to cut the minimum wage has made an appearance. This time it is the Training Wage Bill, which is due to be debated tomorrow. I was delighted that after my criticism of the previous Bill it mysteriously vanished from the Order Paper. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning this Bill so that we can perhaps make it disappear as well?

I endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said about Japan and Bahrain. In the debate that is to follow shortly, he might find that the Foreign Secretary will say much more about Bahrain and touch on the humanitarian issues in Japan and what is happening to UK citizens there. I certainly endorse what he said about the need for Bahrain to move towards democracy and not deal violently with those who are protesting peacefully.

On IPSA and the debate on Monday, the Government support the independent determination of MPs’ pay, as I said in my written statement of 20 January. I fully intend that that debate should not lead to Members routinely voting on their salaries, so I can confirm that I will commence the relevant parts of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 shortly to allow for fully independent determination of MPs’ salaries in future.

On DFID, the right hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a full statement to the House on 1 March about the humanitarian work and the Department’s aid reviews, and since then the House has been kept informed about what we are doing in Christchurch, Japan and Libya. The humanitarian emergency response review, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, is an independent review and, therefore, slightly different from the reviews that were the subject of the statement at the beginning of the month, but of course I will pass his views to my right hon. Friend about that very important report, which is being undertaken by Lord Ashdown.

On health, we had an extensive debate yesterday, but I was slightly disappointed at the relatively few Opposition Members in attendance, indicating a slight lack of interest in this very important subject. During the debate, we made clear our commitment to the NHS: we are spending more on it than the outgoing Labour Government planned to spend; we want to address the decline in NHS productivity that the Public Accounts Committee referred to earlier this year; and we want to drive up outcomes.

On housing benefit, the right hon. Gentleman will know that local authorities will have at their disposal substantial discretionary funds to avoid exactly the sort of situation to which he refers—people being displaced from their homes because of any shortfall in housing benefit as we introduce the changes. I very much hope that those discretionary funds, which have been increased, will be adequate to avoid the problems that he outlines.

On Westminster city council, I do think the right hon. Gentleman’s imagination slightly ran away with him, given what he said about the byelaws. I understand that the council has invited him to see what it is doing and how it is approaching the rough sleeping initiative, and I hope that he will accept that invitation. I hope also that that will give the council an opportunity to allay some of the concerns that he has raised. I pay tribute to the work of the nuns at Westminster cathedral, who run The Passage, a very sympathetic approach to helping those who are homeless, and I very much hope that Westminster city council can work with the volunteers and work as a team to address the problems of homelessness, which I think he and I would both like to see resolved.


Topical questions, yes.

On topical questions, it is indeed my intention to make progress. A number of Departments answer questions for only 30 minutes, and at the moment there are no opportunities to answer or, indeed, to ask topical questions. I am having discussions with ministerial colleagues to see whether we can change that. The most urgent one relates to DFID, where there has been a direct approach from the shadow Secretary of State, and I hope to make an announcement relatively soon, once I have completed the necessary consultations with my ministerial colleagues.

My constituents were delighted to hear in the autumn comprehensive spending review that the final stretch of the A11 was to be dualled. This will have a magnificent impact on economic growth in the county and on local businesses, yet we are still to hear exactly when that major work will take place. Will the Leader of the House ask the Transport Minister to make a statement to the House about when that will happen?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am afraid that when I was Secretary of State for Transport for two years I omitted to do as much as I should have about the A11, but it is now among the 14 schemes that the Highways Agency expects to be able to start before 2015, subject to the completion of statutory processes. I understand that the agency is now working on the detailed delivery of that particular scheme, and I will ask the Transport Minister to write to my hon. Friend.

Before the general election, there was cross-party support for a consultation on improving voting opportunities for service personnel serving overseas. That was also recommended by the Electoral Commission in its report on the administration of the 2010 general election. With only 500 of the 10,000 troops in Afghanistan exercising their right to vote last May, should not the Government have progressed the matter with much greater urgency? Can we have a statement on the postal voting arrangements for the forthcoming alternative vote referendum in respect of service personnel serving overseas?

The hon. Lady is quite right. There was considerable concern in the previous Parliament at the problems that confronted a number of those in the armed services who wished to exercise their right to vote, and there was disappointment expressed, certainly by Opposition Members in that Parliament, at the failure to make progress. I will raise with the Electoral Commission the issue that she has mentioned. I am anxious, as I am sure is every hon. Member, that everyone should take part in the AV referendum on 5 May.

In the past, we have had themed days for the Budget debate. Can the Leader of the House tell us on what day we will be able to debate the claim by the Opposition that a cut in VAT on fuel could be paid for by the bank levy, given that Labour has pledged that money 10 times over?

There will be discussions through the usual channels on which Ministers will be answering on which day, but I am confident that during the four-day debate that I have just announced there will be an opportunity for Opposition Members to shed some light on the rather plaintive comment made over the weekend by the Leader of the Opposition that, when it comes to the economy,

“I can make no commitment to do anything differently”.

Two of my constituents are ex-soldiers in receipt of very small pensions of £60 and £124 a week. They have been told that they do not qualify for jobseeker’s allowance. Can we have an urgent debate to see whether the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions could use a discretion to exclude such small pensions so that these ex-soldiers who have served their country can qualify for benefits?

As the hon. Lady knows, there are two accesses to JSA, one contribution-based and the other means-tested, and it sounds as though her constituents have fallen short on the one that is means-tested. I will certainly raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to see whether there is any possibility of a disregard in the circumstances she has outlined.

It is British tourism week, and the Tourism Alliance has produced an encouraging report showing good progress for Government tourist initiatives. That said, tourist chiefs in Cleethorpes and northern Lincolnshire tell me that additional support is needed to assist specific tourism business start-ups. Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the wider aspects of the benefits to the country of the tourism industry?

As someone who produced a thesis on the future of the British tourism industry in 1972, this is a subject in which I still have some interest. My hon. Friend may find that there is an opportunity during the Budget debate to raise the issue of support for the tourism industry. I will certainly bring his comments to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Would it be possible to have an oral statement from the relevant Health Minister about Government support to improve the health and lives of people with learning disabilities and, in particular, whether the Department will continue to support for a further two years a study on the health care needs of people with learning disabilities? The study is currently hosted by the North East of England Public Health Observatory.

The hon. Gentleman may know that last week we announced a review of those who have special educational needs, and there may be an opportunity for him to take part in that. It is an important subject, and I hope that he might apply for an Adjournment debate so that we can explore the issues at greater length and see what more can be done to help the people to whom he refers.

Could the Leader of the House please confirm that the Committee stage of the Bill that will be required to ratify the proposed change to the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, which the House debated last night, will be taken on the Floor of the House? If he is not able to do that today, could we have a statement on the matter in the future?

Can we have a debate on the treatment of Bradley Manning, the young US soldier who is held in solitary confinement in the United States accused of passing on information to WikiLeaks? His mother is Welsh, and she attended a school in Wales for a time. There is considerable interest in his case. I would say his treatment is similar to that meted out to people at Guantanamo Bay.

I understand the right hon. Lady’s concern, which I think is widely shared. I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but it sounds like an appropriate subject for a debate in Westminster Hall in the next few weeks.

With localism in mind, could we have a debate about the future of local government finance, particularly the future of the business rate, in which my own council is very interested?

There may be legislation in a future Session that addresses the issue of the business rate. As my hon. Friend knows, there are no such provisions in the Localism Bill that is before the House. The coalition Government propose to reform the arrangements for business rates, so there may be legislation in a future Session.

On 9 February, the Prime Minister told this House that Liverpool passport office, which has 400 employees, was being considered for closure. He said that the Minister for Immigration was choosing between Newport and Liverpool. I do not believe that a proper consultation has been carried out. Yesterday, I received a letter from the Minister for Immigration which said that the Prime Minister’s information was wrong. I have yet to receive a reply to my letter to the Prime Minister. Can we have a statement so that we know what is going on?

The hon. Lady is certainly entitled to know what is going on. I would like to make some inquiries about the exchange of correspondence to which she referred, and will ensure that an accurate representation of what has taken place is communicated to her very soon.

The decision by officials at the Ministry of Defence to purchase and destroy the complete first print run of Toby Harnden’s book, “Dead Men Risen”, cost the UK taxpayer more than £150,000. The second edition that was printed today contains just 50 word changes. Given that the Ministry of Defence is seeking to address a budget deficit of £38 billion and in light of the book’s contents, will the Leader of the House allow for a debate on MOD procurement and spending decisions?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. The Ministry of Defence rather reluctantly bought the entire first print run of the book because at a late stage the text was found to contain information that would damage national security and put at risk the lives of members of the armed forces. Faced with the stark choice between compromising that security and making the payment to the publisher for amendments, regrettably the MOD had little option but to pay the money. I will share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend with Ministers at the MOD.

Yesterday, the Minister for Immigration chose to go to the stock exchange, rather than the House, to announce changes to the immigration rules. At midnight last night, the Select Committee on Home Affairs published its report on student visas. I appreciate that the Leader of the House will not have had a chance to read it since its publication. However, is it not important to debate immigration changes in the House in Government time, rather than announcements being made in places such as the stock exchange or in written statements?

It is certainly the case that all important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to the House when it is sitting. That does not mean that Ministers are not free to make speeches outside the House, as appropriate. I have not read the report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, but I have heard details of it in the media. The Government will respond in due course to the report, which has just been published. We believe that the system is in need of reform and we want to reduce net inward migration from outside the EU from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. The Select Committee will receive a considered response in due course.

It has been a bad week for the shadow Chancellor. First, he was wrong about being able to obtain an EU derogation for VAT on fuel. Then he did not seem to know whether we were planning to cut—

Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. Business questions are an occasion for requests for statements and debates in the following week, and not for prefacing questions with lengthy descriptions of things that have happened to another party. That is not an orderly way to proceed. I hope I do not have to say that again. We will move on to someone else.

Recently in business questions, the Leader of the House was unhappy with the idea of confirmation hearings for Ministers. On reflection, I was clearly not being radical enough. Can we have a statement next week on whether we can reintroduce the procedure whereby if someone is appointed to be a Minister, they must resign their parliamentary seat and fight a by-election?

My hon. Friend is correct that that was the procedure until some time around 1920. I detect no particular appetite from those on either Front Bench to revert to that procedure. On reflection, I am not convinced that it would serve any useful purpose.

Notwithstanding the public sensitivities surrounding Members’ salaries, may I ask the Leader of the House in his dealings with IPSA to remind it gently that public opinion should not be the only criterion when deciding Members’ salaries, but that external comparators should also be used?

I hope that when it comes to IPSA taking over responsibility for Members’ salaries, the hon. Gentleman will make representations. It is important that IPSA remembers that its task is to ensure that MPs have the resources that they need to do their job and to discharge their responsibilities. I am sure that we all await with interest the outcome of the review, which I think is due next week.

Following the Cabinet’s recent visit to Rolls-Royce in Derby, which is near my constituency of Erewash, and the Prime Minister’s announcement on enterprise zones, will my right hon. Friend consider making time available in this House for a debate on the important issues of wealth creation and support for businesses in the regions, perhaps with particular emphasis on the east midlands?

My Cabinet colleagues and I enjoyed our visit to Derby last week, including the presentations from Rolls-Royce and from other entrepreneurs in the area. Enterprise zones are currently being considered. Having been a Minister in the 1980s, I think that enterprise zones were a particular success, for example in transforming the London docklands development area. I hope that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity in the four-day debate on the Budget to develop her views on how we might help the east midlands and the enterprises to which she referred.

During yesterday’s debate on the NHS, the Secretary of State for Health implied that the Health and Social Care Bill will not extend competition law into the NHS to a greater extent. That contradicts the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), who told the Public Bill Committee that competition law will affect the NHS to a much greater extent. Can we have an urgent statement on how competition law will bite on the NHS under the Bill?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made it crystal clear in yesterday’s debate that under the Bill before the House, there is no change in EU competition law.

The Leader of the House has referred to how thinly occupied the Opposition Benches were during yesterday’s debate on the NHS. Will he tell the House what pressure he can put on the Opposition to hold another debate on this important topic, so that we can discuss thoroughly the idea—

Order. Again, that is not an appropriate matter for business questions. I appreciate that new Members are getting to grips with these things, and generally extremely well, but I am afraid that that question is not orderly and we will have to leave it there.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on the sale of murderous knives on numerous internet sites? According to a presentation at Harlow college by my local police community support officers, Phyllis Chipchase and Karen Rogers, 100 people suffered from knife crime in Harlow last year. Will he take urgent action to ensure that the big society becomes the safe society?

We want the big society to be the safe society. On 2 February, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced £18 million of funding over two years to tackle knife, gun and gang crime, and to prevent youth crime. The Government’s position is clear on what should happen when someone carries a knife. Any adult who commits a crime using a knife can expect to be sent to prison, and serious offenders can expect a long sentence.

I, like others, was delighted for Prince William and Kate Middleton when the news of their engagement was announced. I look forward to celebrating their wedding with many of my constituents at street parties on the big day. However, this day of national celebration should not be exploited by fly-by-night companies looking to make a fast buck from the wedding, such as Eleven Events, which is planning to transform Clapham common in my constituency into a mass campsite for thousands of people to mark the occasion. The company is of questionable origin, having been in existence for only a year, and has no track record on such events. Can we have a statement from the appropriate Minister to tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that communities such as mine are protected from unscrupulous outfits trying to cash in on the royal wedding?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. As a former councillor in Lambeth who represented a bit of Clapham common, I have a residual and nostalgic interest in that part of south London. It sounds to me as if responsibility has been devolved to the local authority—either Lambeth council or the neighbouring Wandsworth council. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government whether there is any locus for him to resolve the dilemma.

Many churches in west Worcestershire have fundraising thermometers to monitor how much progress they are making on their fundraising. In light of next week’s Budget debate, could we discuss installing similar thermometers on either side of the House so that we can keep track of the spending commitments, and in particular of how many times the one-off bankers’ bonus levy can be spent?

I understand my hon. Friend’s interest. I do not know whether Westminster city council would allow the installation of a giant thermometer outside New Palace Yard on which was calibrated the growing number of commitments made by the Opposition, but in principle I agree entirely.

Given that the Government have already damaged the economy in the north-west by doing away with the regional development agency and cutting regeneration funding by two thirds, may we have a debate on their latest proposals to sell off the assets of the RDA and return them to the Treasury?

I dispute the premise on which the hon. Gentleman bases his question. The OECD report published yesterday states:

“The government is pursuing a necessary and wide ranging programme of fiscal consolidation and structural reforms aimed at achieving stronger growth and a rebalancing of the economy over time.”

That is a somewhat different position from the one that he suggested. If there are surplus assets that can be returned to the Treasury, I am sure they would be gratefully received.

In my constituency, antisocial behaviour is an ongoing problem. I welcome the Government’s consultation, but will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate so that we can discuss that serious issue and demonstrate that we, unlike the previous Government, are serious about tackling antisocial behaviour?

I announced in the forthcoming business two days of Report stage on the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, and my hon. Friend may have an opportunity either to table amendments or to take part in the debates so that he can ventilate his concern and urge the Government to do even better.

I have a letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General, in which he states:

“It is not acceptable practice for those commissioning a service subsequently to be remunerated as contractors for that service…and it is not appropriate for one group of providers to have exclusive power to determine the value of that portion of the contract for which they will become the contracted party.”

In the light of that advice, will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a statement from the Health Secretary about probity and procurement in a health service with GP contractors?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not casting any aspersions on the integrity of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but I will share with my right hon. Friend the concern that he has just mentioned and seek to reassure him that there are no irregularities at all in the arrangements for GP commissioning.

Members of Sandymoor parish council recently presented me with a petition signed by hundreds of parents in my constituency about a lack of secondary school choice in that new-build area. The root cause of the problem is the Labour council giving planning permission for many thousands of new homes without thinking to provide essential amenities such as schools. May we have a debate about planning policy and the importance of avoiding such problems in future developments?

My hon. Friend will know that it is not unusual for local authorities to use their section 106 planning powers to require a developer to make provision for a new primary or secondary school to cope with rising population. He will also know that we have passed legislation introducing free schools and reducing the planning barriers that confront them, to respond to parents’ wishes when they want a new school to be established in their area to provide high-quality education.

The Leader of the House will have seen the dire unemployment figures this morning, particularly to do with the young unemployed. That is a mounting problem in our society and bodes very ill for the future. May we have an early statement and/or debate on that important matter? Members of all parties are deeply worried about the growing problem of youth unemployment.

Of course, Members on both sides of the House share the concern about youth unemployment, which went up by some 40% during the period of the last Labour Government. There will be opportunities to debate unemployment during the four-day debate on the Budget. I hope the hon. Gentleman will take some comfort from the fact that 430,000 new private sector jobs have been created in the past year, and that more than 70,000 were created in the last three months of 2010, more than counterbalancing the 45,000 jobs lost in the public sector.

The Leader of the House has just announced the days for debate on the Budget. Has he had any indication of the day on which the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), has put in to speak?

Order. I must say that there is a growing discourtesy about some of these inquiries, against which I counsel very strongly. There are certain conventions in this place, and a basic courtesy from one Member to another is expected and must apply. I have no idea whether the hon. Gentleman mentioned to the right hon. Member in question his intention to refer to him—if he did not he certainly should have done—but in any case, it is not a proper matter for a business question.

Last week, our national elite female swimming squad were asked to do a naked underwater photo-shoot, which was apparently linked to funding for the team’s Olympic dream as sponsored by the national lottery and British Gas. I understand that the national lottery requires our elite athletes to do such public relations and photo-shoots as a condition of their funding. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on how we are funding the Olympic ambitions of our elite athletes? Does he agree that it would be inappropriate if conditions and requirements for that sort of PR, which seems exploitative, started to be attached to funding?

I will certainly raise the hon. Lady’s concerns with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. There is total investment of £264 million in Olympic sports for the London four-year cycle, and funding for swimming has increased significantly in the past two Olympic cycles. It now receives the third-highest amount of public investment of the Olympic sports. I understand the concern that she has expressed, and I will share it with my right hon. Friend.

May we have a statement next week on Southern Cross Healthcare? It is a company in financial crisis that has more than 750 care homes, about 31,000 residents and many worried employees. In a reply to me on 2 December, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), stated:

“Any discussions regarding continuing provision for residents of care homes should take place between care providers and CASSRs.”—[Official Report, 2 December 2010; Vol. 519, c. 1014W.]

CASSRs are councils with adult social services responsibilities. Will the Leader of the House get some urgency into the Department of Health and get it to take a grip of what is clearly a major national problem, and may we have a statement next week on the outcome?

I understand the concern on behalf of Southern Cross residents in the light of the financial problems that confront that company. Southern Cross is having discussions with Government officials about the plans that it has in place to address its financial difficulties and, crucially, to ensure that services are maintained. Ministers will continue to keep in close touch with the situation and will work with local authorities, the Care Quality Commission and others to ensure that there is an effective response that delivers protection to everyone affected. I will ask the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), to write to the right hon. Gentleman.

My 77-year-old constituent Mr Muir received a letter from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs stating that it was

“sending HMRC agents to your house to seize your possessions for sale at auction in order to pay your debt.”

That was for a £549 rebate that Mr Muir had received in HMRC’s error, which had already been repaid some months before. Such complaints about HMRC by my constituents are becoming regular. May we have an urgent debate or statement on the resources available to it to do its job effectively?

I very much regret the sequence of events that the hon. Gentleman refers to, and I understand the distress that it has caused. There will be questions to Treasury Ministers on Tuesday, and he may like to raise the matter again then.

Unemployment is at a 17-year high and running at 14% in Middlesbrough. Growth is sluggish according to the OECD, and public sector cuts are yet to come. May I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) in asking for a debate on the Floor of the House about unemployment and its consequences for communities such as mine in the north-east?

As I have said before, there will be four days of debate on the Budget, and a Budget for growth has at its heart dealing with the unemployment problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers. There will be ample opportunities to discuss unemployment next week and the week after, but to put it in context, employment has also risen.

As has been mentioned, young people’s unemployment is at a 30-year high, and the number not in education, employment or training continues to rise exponentially. We still do not know what the discretionary learner support to replace the education maintenance allowance will look like. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister to come and make a statement to the House about what the Government’s policy for young people is?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Those who are continuing with their education in September will want to know what regime is replacing EMA, which we believe had a lot of deadweight attached to it. We will shortly announce a replacement scheme for EMA that will enable low-income families to continue accessing further education. It will be aimed at eligible individuals aged between 16 and 19.

If a thermometer is to be erected outside the House, could it measure rising youth unemployment in this country? May we have a debate on that, shortly before a debate on the nationalist proposal for Scotland to have a separate time zone, which was recently before the House? I understand that Scotland’s time would be roughly an hour and a quarter different from London’s, so at noon in London it would be 13.14—Bannockburn time—in Scotland, thereby allowing the result of the Barnsley by-election to be announced in Scotland before the polls closed.

I gather that that proposition received extensive attention during the debate on the Scotland Bill a few days ago. It was a very good joke the first time round, but it has diminishing returns. There are limits to the extent to which one can take devolution.

If there is to be no statement on the publication this week of the Hutton report—the Will Hutton report—which rejected a pay cut in the public sector alone and called for much greater transparency on pay in both the public and private sectors, may we have a debate on top pay in both, so that we can see what can be done about the arms race that has been going on in recent years?