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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Waste Review

1. What recent representations she has received from local authorities on her Department’s waste review. [Official Report, 23 May 2011, Vol. 528, c. 5-6MC.] (55086)

My ministerial colleagues and I have met a wide range of local authority representatives to discuss our review of waste policy in England. Eighty local authorities, and a range of partnership groups, responded to our call for evidence and many have participated in subsequent discussions with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials, emphasising the diversity of local circumstances.

Can the Secretary of State tell me what DEFRA is doing to help local authorities to crack down on persistent fly-tippers in rural and urban areas?

Responsibility for dealing with fly-tipping is also a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that, over time, the fines have been increased. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 makes provision for penalties for fly-tippers, and I want to make it perfectly clear from DEFRA’s perspective that it is a practice that we abhor, and that we seek to catch and prosecute those who perpetrate it.

Given that the South West Devon Waste Partnership has decided that Plymouth is the right place for its energy-from-waste facility, will the Secretary of State please try to persuade Devon county council, in its forthcoming consideration of an application for a commercial waste incinerator in south Devon, that we certainly do not need two incinerators so close to each other in the area? [Interruption.]

Whatever I said has resulted in a very rapid departure by the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon).

The waste review will look at waste in the round. We recognise the difficulties that incineration can cause locally, which is why we strongly support these decisions being made at local level.

Order. I apologise; this is nothing to do with the Secretary of State. A Member must not leave the Chamber before his or her question has been concluded, whatever other pressures there might be.

Recycling under the last Labour Government increased threefold, but this Government’s continued delays over the waste review have deprived British business of the certainty that it needs if it is to use resources in a smarter way and improve its reuse and recycling of materials. This is damaging for the economy and for the environment. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the waste review will enable business to make up the ground lost as a result of Government delay? Can she also guarantee that it will provide the right regulatory framework to enable businesses to invest in these areas?

The hon. Gentleman wrongly credits his party with being at the centre of the improvement in recycling rates. The fact is that local authorities have achieved this, and the majority of them are Conservative controlled to boot. Perhaps we can also nail this myth about delay. Our business plan makes it clear that the waste review, which was launched in June last year, will be published in June this year. This is not a question of delay. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait just a short while to see the importance that the Government attach to undertaking a thorough review of waste, which includes picking up some of the mess that the previous Government left behind.


2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on allotments. (55087)

8. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on allotments. (55094)

This Government strongly support the need for more growing spaces to be made available for people to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Assertions that we would scrap the duty placed on local authorities to provide plots for growing food to persons resident in the area are entirely false. DEFRA officials and I are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to develop further initiatives to release land that could be used for allotment sites.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Four thousand people in my area currently have an allotment or are on a waiting list for one. Can he reassure me that he will not support any measure that would scrap legal protection for allotments, and that he will bring all possible pressure to bear on his colleagues in the DCLG?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that my colleagues in the DCLG have already made public statements to make it clear that there are no plans to weaken the protection for allotments.

British Food Industry

The Government take the British food industry extremely seriously. We have established the industry-led taskforce on farming regulation; we have also invested £13.6 million in collaborative research and agreed an action plan to increase fruit and vegetable production; and we will publish the groceries code adjudicator Bill shortly. Furthermore, on 26 January I wrote to all Departments setting out the Government’s commitment that, subject to no overall increase in costs, they will source only food that meets British or equivalent standards of production.

Nazeing village, in my constituency, is a UK centre for greenhouse farming, and that is especially true of the farm of Mr Franco Pullara. He is hoping to build a new plant to produce biogas, which will provide him with renewable heat and power, but the rules are a minefield. What further assistance can the Minister provide to support such farming projects, and will he meet Mr Pullara to discuss it?

I am very much aware of a number of growers in my hon. Friend’s constituency who are pre-eminent in glasshouse production, and I would be very happy to meet this particular constituent. My hon. Friend is aware that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is undertaking a review of the feed-in tariffs for biogas production. Obviously we will have to await the outcome of that, but I hope that we can remove any other barriers to enable his constituent’s development to take place.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation forecast last month that global food production will have to rise by 70% by 2050, and that goes alongside the twin challenges for government of reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and ending food waste, which costs British families an estimated £5 billion a year. Why then, four months after the publication of the foresight report, have the Government produced no plan to increase sustainable food production? Was the president of the National Farmers Union not right to indicate that a Department without a plan for food means a Government without a grip on the vital issue of food security?

That is a bit rich, given that the Labour Government spent 13 years running down our agricultural industry so that we now have to import to cover half our needs—that is the result of their policies. Of course we are developing our own proposals. The foresight report was produced under this Government and we stand by it. It is a very comprehensive report and we will, of course, be responding to it with a series of proposals to put British agriculture back where it belongs—back on its feet.

British Food Exports

DEFRA leads on a number of initiatives to support British food exports, such as working with industry to develop export certification schemes for non-EU markets. A recent success has been certifying dairy products for export to India. We are working with the food industry, and across government, to maximise the growth potential through overseas trade. That commitment is clear in the recently published UK trade and industry strategy.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Two of my constituents run a very successful pet food company, First Class Foods Ltd. They are trying to tap into international demand, but they face a significant obstacle in China because, surprisingly, we do not have the relevant export licence. Will he help to bring good, wholesome, tasty British pet food to Chinese cats and dogs by addressing this issue?

I shall resist all the obvious temptations in that question. I am aware of First Class Foods in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The difficulties of entering the Chinese market are not confined to pet food; it took us three years to make the necessary import arrangements in respect of breeding pigs. However, my officials are working with the Chinese Government and, in particular, their General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine to find a way forward so that his company can export good quality pet food to China.

Fish Discards

Since the ministerial meeting I attended in Brussels on 1 March, discussions have progressed at official level. Officials attended an event on 3 May with other member states, industry representatives and other interested parties, where the discussion about a discard ban continued. I consider that any move towards a discard ban must be backed up by genuinely effective, enforceable and affordable measures, driving more selective behaviour towards reducing what is caught in the first place.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. He will certainly have my support and good wishes, and those of my Front-Bench team, in making progress on that particular action. When he does so, will he also raise with the European Union and with John West Foods Ltd that company’s performance on tuna discards and tuna fishing generally? Some 49,000 people have signed a Greenpeace petition calling for improvements in that performance, and John West remains the only retailer and producer not to have taken action in the United Kingdom.

I entirely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point. It is worth applauding companies such as Princes that have moved over to line-caught tuna only. Many other multiples and supermarkets now sell only tuna that has been caught by sustainable means from sustainable stocks. I entirely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman said.

I congratulate the Minister on the negotiations about discards, which is a wholly unacceptable practice. The Commission seems to be moving towards a quota for 15 years. Will he spare a thought for the Coble fishermen in Filey who have no quota, want to fish cod at the moment, but are unable to do so under the current regime?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point. We have to work off track records and historical fishing effort. I understand the many concerns of fishermen in the non-quota areas. They want to be part of a reformed policy and I will certainly consult my hon. Friend and Members of all parties to make sure that we take forward a long-term policy that has sustainability at its heart.

How will the Minister assess the success of the catch quota trials that have been going on in Scotland and England? Does he foresee an extension of that effort to tackle discards?

When I was in opposition, I visited the hon. Lady’s constituency and talked to fishermen who were very concerned about having cameras on their boats as part of this scheme. Those concerns have now, by and large, dissipated and fishermen across the country are joining similar schemes. We have signed a declaration with France, Germany and Denmark, saying that catch quotas should be at the heart of a reformed common fisheries policy. That is really good news. I applaud the fishermen in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere; there will be no cod discarded from boats fishing from her constituency in the catch quota scheme this year.

Is the Minister aware that the 200 fishermen in the Cornish mackerel handliners association have decided not to continue their certification with the Marine Stewardship Council because they judged that the costs clearly outweighed the benefits, particularly bearing in mind that the MSC appears to have become more business-led and supermarket-driven in its standards, allowing some high-impact trawler-based methods to achieve certification?

Marine Stewardship Council accreditation is a highly respected brand globally, and must remain so. We must do all we can to work with it to ensure that it does remain so. I was dismayed to hear recently about the decision of the handline fishermen in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and I want all fishermen to try to get into accredited schemes like this one, which shows that they are not only fishing sustainably but accessing the market at a premium price. We want to make every effort to sustain the MRC accredited scheme.


Before I answer the question, I want to say that all Members are in awe of the hon. Lady’s courage in standing up for her constituents and the industry she loves so soon after the tragic loss of her husband

Fishermen are facing significant challenges, particularly in the English under-10 metre fleet. Forthcoming domestic and European reforms offer the opportunity fundamentally to change things and put the industry on a sustainable footing in the longer term. In the meantime, along with financial support available through the European Fisheries Fund, the Marine Management Organisation is working with industry effectively to manage the current system, to secure additional quota through swaps and to keep fisheries open as long as possible.

I thank the Minister for those kind words.

I have a special interest in this subject as a custodian of an under-10 metre trawler. The impact assessment accompanying the consultation on the reform of fisheries management arrangements in England has not considered key sensitive assumptions. Will my hon. Friend test the sensitivities and risks for the impact of fixed quota allocations on under-10 metre vessels that, for various reasons, move between ports located in different ICES—International Council for the Exploration of the Sea—areas. Will he also assess the impact of fluctuations in fuel prices?

I think the law of unintended consequences is more prevalent in fisheries management than in anything else I have encountered. I want to make sure that our reforms for the under-10 metre sector work. That is why we developed a consultation, building on the sustainable access to inshore fisheries that was started by the last Government. I hope that we can put inshore fisheries on a sustainable footing. I will look at anything that stands in its way, so I will consult officials on what my hon. Friend has said and get back to her.

I am sure that the Minister will know of reports this morning about of the Commission’s proposals which are to be issued in July, referring to longer quota periods. I hope that he will use his good offices in the negotiations to ensure that no EU-wide conditions are applied that do not take account of local conditions and practices. It is important for the sustainability of fisheries throughout UK waters for local practices not to be disregarded.

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the issue. He is absolutely right. One of our problems in British waters is that we have, by and large, a very mixed fishery, and the top-down system management has not taken that into account. We are pushing for some form of at least sea-based and perhaps more local control and management of our fisheries. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that at the heart of a reformed fisheries policy is the need for local factors to be allowed to play a role, and that many of them should be controlled by member states or more locally to ensure that we have the right and most sustainable policies.

Access to Ministers

7. What steps she is taking to increase the level of access to Ministers and engagement with departmental decision making for farming and rural communities. (55093)

13. What steps she is taking to increase the level of access to Ministers and engagement with departmental decision making for farming and rural communities. (55099)

Our new rural communities policy unit is building links with a wide range of organisations representing and supporting rural communities. We are also encouraging the development of a new rural and farming network enabling people from different parts of the country to advise Ministers directly on farming, food and rural issues.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful reply.

One of the challenges facing rural communities is the sense of isolation that results from poor access to broadband and voice calls. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that Ministers address the problem of rural communities’ feeling of apartness from government in regard to lack of access to online means of communication?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. Those living in rural areas with no access to broadband are at a digital disadvantage, which is why the coalition Government have committed £530 million to assisting the roll-out of superfast broadband to those areas. That is particularly important to farmers, who are expected to file their forms on line, but it is also important to children, who are nowadays expected to file their homework on line.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most damaging characteristics of the last Government was their apparent distance from issues affecting people living in rural communities such as mine? Can she reassure my constituents that people living in the countryside will be given every opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard directly when it comes to rural policy making?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has given the Conservatives strong backing from 2009 onwards on the need to put the rural heart of the country back at the centre of government. May I encourage him, our hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) and all other Members present to persuade their constituents to engage with the new rural and farming network? It will provide an opportunity for people to have direct access to Ministers, and I hope that every Member will take advantage of that.

I welcome the Department’s effort to engage with rural communities, which is obviously important in the south-west, but is the Secretary of State aware of the growing fear that the Department is beginning to represent the interests of food producers and farmers at the expense of those of food consumers? What steps is she taking to ensure that consumers are involved in departmental decision making as well?

I do not recognise that distorted view of what the Department does. If I were to list just a few of our achievements over the last 12 months, they would point strongly to the breadth of our remit . For instance, I helped to secure agreement on biodiversity in Nagoya, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), helped to secure the ban on illegal timber logging and ensure that the ban on commercial whaling was retained, and we will shortly produce a natural environment White Paper, the first for 20 years. That should give a strong assurance to all Members and everyone we know who cares deeply about the protection of the environment.

Forests and Woodlands

9. What steps her Department is taking to encourage greater community involvement in the running of local forests and woodland. (55095)

I recently had the privilege of planting a tree with the Friends of Kingfisher Country Park, the Tree Council, Keep Britain Tidy, BTCV and local tree wardens to mark the milestone of 100,000 trees planted as part of our big tree plant. Since the launch in December, we have helped local communities and civil society partners across the country to plant trees where they live and work.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. In January 2000, ownership of Brandon wood in my constituency passed from the Forestry Commission to the Friends of Brandon Wood and became the first community woodland in England. Since then, volunteers have worked hard to provide a network of footpaths for all-weather and all-ability walking throughout the woods, and local schools have been involved. Will the Minister ensure that the Independent Panel on Forestry fully considers the benefits that can arise from local ownership of woodlands such as that of Brandon wood?

I am sure Members know this, but I should perhaps point out that my hon. Friend has a degree in estate management, and his constituency is therefore very blessed given its appetite for engagement in community forestry. Brandon wood is one of the best examples of community forestry, and I suggest that my hon. Friend should pass it directly to the IPF, because that panel is open to all members of the public, and part of its work will involve going around the country. He has an excellent opportunity to commend this example to the panel.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways of getting local people further involved in woodland management would be by progressing the wood fuel strategy? Responsibility for that now lies with her colleagues in the Department of Energy and Climate Change of course. Several months ago I had a meeting with the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), at which it was agreed that the programme could be doubled, but that it was important that both Departments work together on this because it is important that both demand and supply are matched up and incentivised.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the potential of wood fuel as part of a portfolio of renewable energy sources. We work very closely with our colleagues at DECC on this matter. We share a vision for the role of renewable energy, and I will address the wood fuel strategy with my DECC colleagues.

I doubt that the Secretary of State will be aware of Nottinghamshire police’s efforts to clamp down on antisocial behaviour in one of my woodlands in Sherwood, but does she agree that opening up woodlands to members of the public for the right use serves to drive out such antisocial behaviour?

I can well imagine the problems. I suspect that every Member has some woodland in their constituency, so we will all know that that environment can, from time to time, attract the unwelcome attentions of those who perpetrate antisocial behaviour. It is therefore all the more important that people in our communities are vigilant and active in the right use of woodlands and green spaces, so that, as far as possible, we stamp out the antisocial behaviour that spoils them for everyone.

Carbon Reporting

Yesterday, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, Lord Henley, launched a public consultation seeking views on whether or not regulations should be introduced to make it mandatory for some companies to report their greenhouse gas emissions. I commend Christian Aid for raising awareness of this issue in Christian Aid week, and I hope that that will also serve to raise awareness of our consultation among members of the public and encourage them to engage in it.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Just yesterday, Lord Henley stated:

“More consistent reporting of emissions should help investors make better use of such data”.

Does the Secretary of State therefore agree with me and the 60,000 people who have taken the time to join Christian Aid’s campaign that consistency can be achieved only if the scheme becomes mandatory?

We cannot pre-empt the outcome before the consultation, but institutional investors want this information in order to be able to make a more accurate assessment of companies. Most big companies already report their greenhouse gas emissions, but this is the perfect time for the hon. Lady and her colleagues to take part in the consultation, so that views may be ascertained.

Although we all want to encourage companies, particularly big companies, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a risk of over-burdensome regulation, particularly on small and medium-sized enterprises, which will result in only a very small reduction in carbon emissions?

The coalition Government are committed to relieving the unnecessary burden of red tape on all of business, but we understand that pressures can be particularly burdensome on SMEs. If my hon. Friend looks at the proposals in the consultation, he will see that these concerns have been taken account of, and I am sure that if he participates in the consultation and further reinforces the views he has expressed in the Chamber, it will all add weight to the outcome of the consultation.

May I start by saying how unhappy the Opposition are, along with the National Farmers Union, that DEFRA questions have been castrated to a mere 45 minutes, although I understand the Government’s desire to give more time to their stellar parliamentary performer, the Deputy Prime Minister?

In opposition, the Conservative party promised to

“bring forward the date that the largest companies are required to report on carbon emissions”,

yet the consultation the Government published yesterday gives companies an option to do nothing. We heard earlier this week that the hawks in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are holding up Cabinet agreement to the UK’s fourth carbon budget. Is there a Cabinet split on carbon reporting as well?

We must set the record straight, for the sake of all hon. Members. It was the official Opposition who asked for the Deputy Prime Minister to be given a 15-minute slot, which had to come from one of the longer sessions of oral questions. If one analyses the number of questions that Opposition Members have tabled, one will see that the answer lies in their own hands. A glance at the Order Paper will confirm that twice as many Members on the coalition Benches tabled questions to DEFRA.

Order. The Secretary of State has made her point, but she must quickly answer the question on the Order Paper, and then we will move on.

The question on the Order Paper concerns woodland cover and encouraging communities to plant more trees. I think I have made it clear how—[Interruption.] As for carbon reporting, the consultation contains four options for companies to engage in carbon reporting. The consultation was launched yesterday, and this is the time for people to express their views on the options in the paper.

Red Diesel

11. What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effects on British farmers of planned EU changes to rates of duty on red diesel. (55097)

The Secretary of State has not discussed this issue directly with the Chancellor, but officials have been in contact with the Treasury. The Commission’s proposals will not affect the ability of member states to set a lower duty on the off-road use of diesel as vehicle fuel. However, the UK does not support a mandatory pan-EU carbon tax, and nor does it support the Commission’s proposal, which would require 27 member states’ unanimous agreement before it could be adopted.

I thank the Minister for that reassuring answer. The EU draft proposal to remove the tax exemption on agricultural red diesel sent shockwaves through farming communities in my constituency and across British agriculture. After a decade in which the Labour party put up duty on red diesel four times, may I urge him to make the strongest representations across Whitehall and show that it is we on the Government Benches who are standing up for the rural economy?

My hon. Friend is to be applauded for standing up and campaigning on behalf of farmers in his constituency. They need to know that they have got a Government obsessed with keeping them competitive against a lot of international and domestic challenges. The Government recognise the value of farmers in producing food, protecting the environment and being the guardians of ecosystem services, and they now have a Government who are on their side.

Red Tape Challenge

12. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the environmental regulations considered for possible revocation under the red tape challenge. (55098)

I want to make it clear that there is no intention of relaxing existing levels of environmental protection. As a former MEP, the hon. Lady will be well aware that most environmental legislation emanates from European directives, and their complete removal would not be possible. Nevertheless, it might be possible to improve their implementation arrangements. The red tape challenge should therefore be embraced by all as an excellent opportunity to gather ideas on how we can regulate better.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer, by which I am not entirely reassured. Does she know that in my constituency, in Brighton and Hove, standards for nitrogen dioxide are regularly exceeded at 20 sites across the city? Much of the pollution—as well as its costly health consequences—is caused by traffic. Will she therefore absolutely guarantee to defend the regulations on air quality that set health protection standards should they come under threat from the insidious red tape challenge?

The air quality directive is a piece of European legislation. Therefore, it is not involved in any red tape challenge. I share with the hon. Lady a desire to improve air quality, as it has enormous benefits for the environment and for human health. The fact is that air quality demands at a European level are very ambitious and we are working closely with local authorities, the Mayor of London and others to do all we can to improve air quality.

Zoo Inspectors

14. How many inspections have been carried out by her Department’s zoo inspectors since May 2010; and if she will make a statement. (55100)

According to our records, from 1 May 2010 to 9 May 2011 DEFRA’s nominated zoo inspectors carried out 59 inspections. This is a matter for local authorities, however, and sadly they do not always inform us when inspections take place.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Can he give me the figures for the inspection of circuses as well?

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, there has been a lot of speculation about circuses. There have been recent press reports that the Austrian Government have been taken to court for their attempt to ban wild animals in circuses, so our Government can hardly recommend something that might not be legal. I can assure him, however, that the proposals we will bring forward shortly will be tough enough to ensure that animal welfare in circuses is properly protected.

It has been reported, and suggested by the Minister, that there will be enhanced inspections rather than a ban on wild animals in circuses. Labour’s consultation showed that 94% of respondents favoured a ban. The petition in The Independent attracted nearly 15,000 signatures in the past week, and crucially on 3 April DEFRA briefed that it favoured a ban as well. Another month, more drift and no announcement: is it dither, delay or No. 10 that is preventing the Secretary of State from showing some leadership?

The hon. Gentleman obviously did not listen to the answer I just gave. Whether we like it or not, this court case is going on in Europe and therefore the British Government could not bring forward a proposal—although I am interested to hear that he would—that might well prove shortly to be unlawful.

Topical Questions

My Department’s priorities are to protect the environment, support farmers and strengthen the green economy. On Monday, I launched a report on climate resilient infrastructure with Lord Krebs and Simon Kirby of National Rail at the remodelled Blackfriars station, along with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport. This dry spring—the second in succession—which we are closely monitoring, reminds us all of the need to adapt to the increasing frequency of extreme weather events.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. She mentioned climate, so may I ask why she is delaying bringing forward legislation on water and why she is even considering compulsory water metering in areas where there is no water shortage? In this month of the Chelsea flower show, has she considered the impact of this water tax on gardeners or even talked to her Health colleagues about the benefits of gardening for body and soul? What do this Government have against allotment holders and gardeners?

There were a number of things there. As part of our achievements in our first year in office I would count the implementation of most of the Pitt review, so there has been clear progress in implementation. The water White Paper is due later this year, and I just mentioned how closely we are monitoring the water situation. I am very concerned that it is already having an irreversible impact on agricultural production and I have convened a meeting of all stakeholders next week as it is very important that we take this matter extremely seriously.

T2. The Department has spent many millions of pounds buying up some of our best farmland next to the Ouse washes to provide extra habitat for birds. The Littleport and Downham internal drainage board has expressed grave concern at the increased flooding risk to homes and other farmland. This action undermines food security and is not a good use of public funds at a time of austerity. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a local delegation to discuss that, and will his Department now publish a detailed assessment of the costs associated with it so that we can assess it properly? (55112)

The short answer is yes. Our policies have to balance nature conservation against our commitment to food security. I want to know how established schemes that have been running for many years are working, and the development of the scheme that my hon. Friend talks about dates back almost a decade. I want to make sure that we are getting things right, so I appreciate his raising that point.

The Minister will know that children learn best when they are out of the classroom. Often they learn very well in the natural environment—in forests and wild places. The number of school visits is collapsing under the present Government. What is the Secretary of State doing with her Education counterpart to boost the number of trips that children make to the green environment?

If the hon. Gentleman can curtail his enthusiasm for a few weeks and wait to see what is in the natural environment White Paper, I think he will rejoice that this Government get outdoor learning. The Department is working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and others, and is engaging with great visionaries such as Kate Humble and others for whom this is a passion, which we share.

T3. Early this morning, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State committed to publishing the waste review in June. It is obviously going to be a landmark document for the United Kingdom, so will she commit to bringing it to the House for debate? (55113)

It is important that all DEFRA’s publications are laid before the House; we go to great lengths to keep the House informed of all our activities. The waste review is, as the hon. Gentleman says, a landmark publication, and we look forward to publishing it shortly. We will make it widely available to hon. Members.

In view of the forthcoming European Commission conference on the LIFE+ programme to protect biodiversity, will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that officials in the Environment Agency and Natural England will work right across the UK to make sure that we can get the maximum funding from that programme, particularly for the proposal that I am working on in Stoke-on-Trent to improve access to natural resources and to keep biodiversity?

I share the hon. Lady’s passion for the protection of biodiversity and the enhancement of biodiversity where there has been biodiversity loss. I am sure that every sinew will be strained by every member of the DEFRA family to make sure that the United Kingdom does well out of any resources that are being made available through the European Union so that we can benefit by putting those resources where they will make a difference—with the protection of biodiversity.

T4. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) and I were campaigning long and hard against the introduction of compulsory horse passports—identification cards for horses—legal advice to DEFRA was that Ministers had three options. The first was to seek to extend the EU derogation on the subject for a further 10 years, the second was to bring in a minimal regime so that horses at abattoirs would have to have some kind of documentation, and the third was an all-singing, all-dancing, bells and whistles option, requiring every zebra, donkey, horse and pony in the land to have an ID card. Will the Minister re-examine that legal advice from 2005 to work out whether it might be possible to make horse ID cards voluntary rather than compulsory? (55114)

I am very much aware of my hon. Friend’s passion for this issue, some of which I share. The advice I have received is that the decision that the previous Government unsurprisingly made to develop the most bureaucratic and regulatory option is irreversible, but I am more than happy to look at it again.

Notwithstanding the Minister of State’s previous defiant answer, could the Secretary of State find it in her heart to praise The Independent for its campaign to ban wild animals from circuses? Perhaps she will join the 10,000 people who have already signed the petition that the newspaper is running by signing it herself.

Every Member of the House can find it in their heart to do that—of course they can. We have all read newspaper reports about the terrible suffering of Anne the elephant, and I am very glad that she is being spared and has a new, far more enjoyable home. However, the report in The Independent clearly states that the Austrian Government have been taken to court by a German circus company because of a breach of the EU services directive. It would be irresponsible of any Government—I hope he is not saying that he would do this if he were part of a Government—to recommend something that is in legal dispute.

T5. Yesterday at the Westminster youth fête, I was delighted to join other hon. Members in signing the Red Tractor 4 Wheels manifesto. I know that the Government and my right hon. Friend are committed to supporting UK farmers and to giving consumers information about environmental quality and assurance. How will they support the initiative? (55115)

The Government strongly support the Red Tractor initiative, and I am sorry that I could not attend yesterday’s event, as I was at an event elsewhere in the country. However, I understand that it was a great success. As my hon. Friend well knows, we have distributed a circular, and we hope to introduce Government buying standards, as we will require all parts of central Government to buy food produced to British standards which, in most cases, will mean Little Red Tractor standards.

In the past, there has been exceptional pressure on the fishing industry at sea, which has spread to food production on land. In particular, the problems are coming from China, which is buying up a lot of food products. Has the Minister had discussions with Ministers in other regions, particularly the most recent Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland, to agree a strategy and policy to address that issue?

I look forward to building again the good relationship that I had with devolved Ministers from all kinds of different parties in the different parts of the United Kingdom to make sure that, particularly on fisheries and marine issues, we work as one and agree, as we did, on nearly everything so that we work towards sound policies on food security, conservation and protecting valuable ecosystems. I will continue to do so.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister. I am trying to help Back-Bench Members, but in topical questions we must have single, short, supplementary questions and short answers.

T6. British dairy farmers such as Graham Tibbenham from Weybread in my constituency are struggling to be paid a fair price for their milk by British supermarkets. I am sure that the Minister would like to help. What can his Department do? (55116)

I know the dairy industry, and many sectors face great difficulties, particularly with regard to price. The Government are about to publish proposals— we trust with all-party support—for a groceries code adjudicator, which we hope will go a long way towards helping with that. There are measures, too, going through the EU with regards to contracts. We do not think that they are the sole answer, as some do, but we think that they are a step forward.

The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 states that a badger cull can be carried out only between May and September. Given that any change to the Act would require secondary legislation, which could be introduced only after 1 October, will the Minister say whether there will be a badger cull this year?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we published a consultation last autumn and, as I said to the National Farmers Union annual general meeting, it produced a number of challenges that we need to work through. We will make an announcement about a total package of measures to combat this awful disease as soon as we possibly can.

T7. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Minister has kindly agreed to meet a delegation from the Brecon and Radnor NFU, which will want to know what representations his Department have made on behalf of upland farmers in negotiations on the common agricultural policy. Perhaps he would like to rehearse his answer. (55117)

I look forward to meeting my hon. Friend’s farmers next week, and I will give them a longer answer. However, the short answer is that the Government published their own uplands review a couple of months ago. As for the CAP, we have reservations about the Commission’s initial proposals to top-slice pillar 1 payments for less favoured areas. We do not think that that is the best way forward, because it would be much more bureaucratic. We think that they are best funded from pillar 2, but it is a very early stage in the negotiations and we will have to see what works. However, we recognise the sensitive difficulties, including of remoteness, for farmers in upland areas.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voting Preferences

1. If the Electoral Commission will amend its guidance so that only a vote cast that indicates a positive preference for a candidate is counted as a valid vote. (55121)

The Electoral Commission informs me that its guidance to returning officers for dealing with doubtful ballot papers is based on the statutory rules for elections and case law in this area. The decision to accept or reject a ballot paper lies with the returning officer.

In the recent local elections in the borough of Kettering, one seat was decided by one vote, and the ballot paper in question had no, no and no against the three candidates from one party and no other marks. That was counted as a positive vote for the three candidates from the other party. Will my hon. Friend advise me on which aspect of legislation we need to change to correct that injustice?

My hon. Friend was kind enough to show me a likeness of the offending ballot paper earlier this week, and I have considerable sympathy for the point he makes. However, the situation is covered by rule 47(3) of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) (England and Wales) Rules 2006, with which most hon. Members will be very familiar. It states that a ballot paper shall not be deemed void if an intention that the vote shall be for one or more candidates clearly appears. He may wish to take up his laudable campaign to change the rules with the relevant Minister.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


2. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to increase the number of weddings performed by the Church of England. (55122)

The Church of England’s weddings project is a package of training and resources now being used in two thirds of Church of England dioceses and is designed to encourage and promote the local parish church as a choice for weddings. It follows recent changes introduced by the Church to broaden the choice of church venues available for couples wishing to marry.

We have strong Government support for marriage and 90% of young people say that they want to get married, yet the number of marriages has halved since 1972 and it is at its lowest since 1895. As this is a serious issue of social justice, will my hon. Friend write to me, placing a copy in the Library, describing examples of where parishes have increased the number of weddings, with good preparation and after care, and will he encourage the archbishops to ensure that there is more of the same?

I assure my hon. Friend that the archbishops, bishops and indeed all the Church of England believe strongly in marriage and want to encourage couples to consider getting married in church. There is now a website,, which offers information on how prospective couples can get married in a church and provides a ceremony planner for them to design their own service. Every church wants to welcome couples who wish to get married in church, and I am certainly happy to write to him as requested.

Last week in Westminster Hall there was a very clear debate on families, in which the issue of marriages came up in particular. I have been approached about the matter of price and fees. Will the hon. Gentleman give some indication of whether the Church would be prepared to consider lower fees, because as we all know, the price for marriages is becoming exorbitant?

The hon. Gentleman missed the chance only the other day to consider in Committee the occasional fees for the Church of England. He will find that the fee paid to the church for conducting a marriage is actually very modest in comparison with the overall costs. We are very keen to ensure that no one should feel in any way deterred from getting married in church as a result of the fees that are payable.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voter Registration

3. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to increase voter registration among hard-to-reach groups. (55123)

The commission’s public information campaigns are targeted at groups that are less likely to be on the electoral register. The commission also sets standards for electoral registration officers, provides them with guidance and materials to increase electoral registration, and provides targeted support where underperformance is found. The commission has recently announced that it will take specific steps with the 45 electoral registration officers in Great Britain who have not met the standards for a number of years.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for low voting numbers is lack of literacy and people being unable to read the forms? In my constituency, we have problems with literacy. What is he doing to increase the powers of the Electoral Commission to help those with literacy problems so that they can register to vote?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the problems confronting those with literacy challenges. The Electoral Commission uses a number of media, including radio and TV, in its targeted campaigning to do its best to reach everyone. It also produces a range of information in an easy-read format, which can be found on its website, but following my hon. Friend’s interest in this important matter I will certainly speak to the Electoral Commission to see what more can be done.

Can I raise a matter very dear to your heart, Mr Speaker, about how we involve more people in the work of Parliament through electoral registration? Will the hon. Gentleman look at the ways in which some pilot funding could be secured to assist those in the parish and town councils of Kidsgrove in my constituency with setting up a youth parliament in order to make young people aware of how our parliamentary democracy and electoral system work?

The Electoral Commission is very keen to increase electoral registration and engagement in democracy. I will certainly take forward the hon. Lady’s very interesting suggestion to the commission, and we will write to her with what I hope will be a positive response.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Churchyard Trees

4. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that ancient trees in churchyards are protected. (55124)

8. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that ancient trees in churchyards are protected. (55128)

Ancient yews are defined as trees older than 250 years and possibly as much as 5,000 years old. Yew trees were felled on a huge scale for English longbows between the 13th and 16th centuries. The yew tree has been an important part of historical religious practice, and in Britain the Celts and Romans thought it to be associated with immortality, regeneration and protection from evil.

In large numbers of cases, the ancient yew trees in churchyards are significantly older than the churches occupying the surrounding land. Many yew trees trace their history back to sacred groves and other such significant sacred places of earlier civilisation. There are eight sites of ancient yew trees recorded in Warwickshire and 12 in Cheshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As well as being the final resting place of the great bard, William Shakespeare, Holy Trinity church in Stratford-on-Avon has 12 yew trees representing the 12 tribes of Israel and is home to a yew tree that is estimated to be several hundred years old. Does my hon. Friend agree that the protection of such trees is extremely important in maintaining the historic settings of our great churches?

It is fantastic that Holy Trinity, Stratford, has planted 12 new yew trees, but my hon. Friend highlights the fact that a number of older yew trees, designated as ancient or veteran, have not had adequate statutory protection. The Church of England is determined to do all that it can to ensure that every yew tree in our churchyards is properly protected.

It is excellent to hear from my hon. Friend that ancient yew trees are being preserved and protected in that way, but even with best practice no tree will last for ever. What is being done to introduce new trees to our churchyards so that future generations might enjoy that attractive part of our churchyard heritage?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that on the eve of the millennium the Conservation Foundation charity presented churches throughout the country with some 8,500 young yew trees, propagated from trees estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. We are now asking churches that planted millennium yews to record their growth and condition on Biodiversity day, which is on Sunday 22 May. I hope, however, that a number of churches up and down the land will follow the example of Holy Trinity, Stratford, and consider planting 12 new yew trees to represent either the 12 tribes of Israel or, indeed, the 12 apostles.

Biodiversity in Churchyards

5. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to encourage churches to develop and foster biodiversity in churchyards. (55125)

The Church of England, through its own environmental campaign “Shrinking the Footprint”, along with Natural England is supporting an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund by the charity Caring for God’s Acre to extend its work encouraging and supporting churchyard biodiversity schemes nationwide.

North Wiltshire has some of the finest and oldest churchyards anywhere in England—one thinks of Malmesbury abbey, St Bartholomew’s in Wootton Basset, St Mary’s in Calne—and dozens of tiny, ancient, hidden churchyards miles from anywhere. What can the Church Commissioners do to encourage greater biodiversity in them while preserving their peaceful, quiet charm?

The Wiltshire living churchyards project has 45 participating churchyards, helped and supported by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Wiltshire Churches Together and Social Responsibility in Wiltshire. As my hon. Friend tells the House, Wiltshire has a unique and rich diversity of landscape, and there are annual seminars at which Wiltshire living churchyards awards certificates for continued wildlife management. The Bishops of Bristol and of Salisbury and the Church locally are determined that churches throughout Wiltshire should be opportunities to celebrate biodiversity.

Gift Aid

Church of England parishes recovered £82 million in gift aid from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in 2009, which is the last year for which we have data. Over the past 10 years, we believe that the Church has recovered a total of nearly £713 million from parish donations; this excluded donations made at cathedrals.

I welcome the recent measure in the Budget to allow donations up to £5,000 for which declarations have not been made to have tax recovered on them. What measures are the Church Commissioners taking to ensure that parishes take up this welcome opportunity?

That provision in the Budget was very welcome, as was the provision for the small donations gift aid scheme, because each year, in addition to using planned giving envelopes, people put into the collection plate some £58 million of loose change, and the scheme will be of considerable assistance in recovering tax on that money as well. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Church has to make the best possible use of funds that are given to it in meeting social need and ensuring that churches can be places of community resource. That also means their being places not just of worship but for the widest possible community use, whether it be for cafés, concerts, crèches or other uses for the community as a whole.

Lead Theft

7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to reduce the level of lead theft from church buildings. (55127)

Last year, churches in Manchester had more lead theft than in any other area of the UK, with a significant number of insurance claims being made. Metal theft, particularly the theft of lead from church roofs, is the most serious problem facing the maintenance of the historic legacy of church buildings, with Wakefield cathedral being the most recent case. The Church recently sent a report to the Home Office in which it makes recommendations for the greater regulation of the scrap metal industry.

What advice, if any, has the Church Buildings Council been able to give churches to advise them on how to help to deter thieves?

The Church is giving all possible advice to churches about effective deterrents, including what they should do regarding wireless roof alarms and other things. Frankly, though, it is a broader issue than that. The Church Buildings Council is of the view that the regulation of scrap yards is fundamental to reducing the level of metal theft. It is all too easy for roofs to be stripped of lead one night and the lead to be sold for cash the next day. We want cash transactions for lead to be made illegal, a requirement for scrap yards receiving lead or traders selling it to be licensed specially for that activity, a requirement to show documentary proof of identification when selling lead and to photograph each person when their identity is checked, and a requirement on scrap yards to report suspicious activity or persons to local police forces.

It is difficult to underestimate the damage that this is doing. The number of claims—

Order. It would be very difficult for me to underestimate the comprehensiveness of the hon. Gentleman’s reply, which I think I can safely say is unsurpassed in the House.

Women Priests and Bishops

9. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the financial consequences for the Church of England of (a) women priests and (b) women bishops. (55129)

The General Synod of the Church of England legislated to make special financial provision for the 441 clergy who resigned from ministry between 1994 and 2004 as a result of opposition to the admission of women to the priesthood. The total cost of that to the Church Commissioners was £27.5 million plus a further call of £2.4 million on the unfunded pension scheme. The draft legislation to enable women to become bishops makes no financial provision for those who might leave should it in due course pass into law.

Now that the last remaining people who had a long-term philosophical commitment to opposing women in the ministry appear to have left the Church of England, may I urge the Church Commissioners to move with all speed to do what the vast majority of Church of England members want, which is to make sure that women can become bishops, as well as priests, at the earliest available date?

My views on this matter are well recorded. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, this matter is now out with the dioceses. I am sure that the Archdeacon of Southwark, who is a strong campaigner on this issue, will keep him informed. The dioceses are reviewing the matter and will vote on it in the near future. If they vote in the affirmative, the matter will go to the General Synod. This matter is being dealt with as speedily as is possible.

I apologise to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, but the House must hear from Mr Brian Binley.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

National Audit Office

10. What recent assessment the Public Accounts Commission has made of the effects of the UK’s fiscal situation on the work and budget of the National Audit Office. (55130)

In response to the UK’s fiscal situation, the National Audit Office’s strategy for the three years from April 2011 set out plans to save 15% in nominal terms and 21% in real terms over that period. In exploring the strategy in November, the commission considered the effect of the cost reductions on public spending and on the NAO’s work on the use of resources by public sector bodies. The commission concluded that the cost reduction proposals were sound, and it approved the NAO’s budgets for the three-year period.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. However, does he recognise that the National Audit Office generates about 11 times its cost in savings? Was the commission therefore wise to create a reduction? Should the NAO not be given its usual allowance of resources to allow it to save more money for the general public?

Normally, I agree with my hon. Friend, but the NAO cannot be exempt from the pressure on the budgets of all Departments. It is vital that the NAO leads by example. Under the guidance of the commission, it is doing as many reports as possible, more economically and more speedily, and is saving more money for the taxpayer.