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Topical Questions

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

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.