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Topical Questions

Volume 533: debated on Thursday 13 October 2011

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers, and strengthening the green economy. In line with that, I have just returned from the Rio+20 preparations in Delhi, where good progress was made in identifying areas of common ground on sustainable agriculture and energy, resource efficiency and inclusive growth for what I hope will prove to be a successful summit next year.

I have referred to the CAP reform proposals published yesterday. We are currently scrutinising the full document for its impact on all parts of the United Kingdom, and it will of course come before the European Committees in due course.

The Forestry Commission’s current consultation proposes to reduce educational visits to public forests in England from 43,000 per year to just 15,000 per year. Will the Minister commit to consult teachers, parents and Forestry Commission staff over this shocking attack on children’s outdoor education?

Obviously, the Forestry Commission is responsible for taking decisions in relation to its own budget, but this is a consultation and I will certainly look into the matter. In response to an earlier question, I said how important it is that young people are able to engage with nature, including with our woodlands and forests. Through the Rural Development Programme for England, we make it possible for young people to do that, and we would actively encourage the Forestry Commission to consider this as well.

T7. The Minister will be aware that the Fishery Protection Squadron is the oldest squadron in the Royal Navy. Does DEFRA see an enduring role for fishery protection within the Royal Navy once the current arrangements finish in 2013? (73904)

I much enjoyed a visit to HMS Mersey and boarding a trawler from another country, and I was impressed by the squadron’s professionalism and approach to the whole job. It is at an advanced stage in negotiations with the Marine Management Organisation on the continuance of this contract. I very much hope that that can be achieved, because I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is a very professionally run operation that is doing great service not only to our fishing industry and the maintenance of our waters but to our national security.

T2. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has announced proposals to close eight of its labs, including both Welsh sites at Aberystwyth and Ceredigion. I am informed that closure of the Welsh sites will result in a 24-hour delay in diagnosing livestock diseases—an unacceptable period that could leave the communities I represent terribly exposed. Does the Minister agree that it is a disgrace that this decision was made without any consultation with the Welsh Government or the farming and workers trade unions? (73898)

As I mentioned earlier, this was a decision by the agency, but I understand that it was discussed with the equivalent agency and the chief vet in Wales. No sites are being closed. As I said, this is purely about the laboratory aspect, not the post-mortem aspect. I agree that 24 hours extra delay may be unacceptable, but that is not what is expected; we expect timeliness to remain as it is.

T8. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm when she expects to receive the final report of the Independent Panel on Forestry? (73905)

I am pleased to say that the chairman of the panel, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, has recovered well from his operation and is back at work. That has not in any way affected the timetable for the publication of the final report, which will still happen next spring. When speaking to Bishop James Jones last week, he assured me that the interim report will be received by the Department in November.

T3. The Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government this month made Wales the first part of the UK to introduce a carrier bag charge. That was done not to raise money but to encourage reuse and avoid waste. Is the Secretary of State willing to take the lead from Wales, in view of the Department’s recent back-tracking on recycling? (73900)

I do not accept the accusation of back-tracking. My Department has the first waste review policy for 20 years. We are certainly looking at the Welsh proposal and we should consider everything that might deal with elements of litter that are part of our waste prevention strategy. At a European level, the European Commission is looking at the Italian Government’s proposal to ban plastic bags. That has to be considered in a single market context.

T9. The Shropshire Union canal runs through the heart of Chester and is much-loved by canal users, fishermen and local residents. How can local people and canal users get involved in the new north Wales and borders waterways partnership to help support the future of our local canals and inland waterways? (73906)

The good news that the launch of the canal and river trust is on schedule will be welcome to my hon. Friend’s constituents and all who know and love their canals. There is a plethora of ways in which they can get involved. They can take part in their local partnership, which, following our consultation, will have a much more local focus. I look forward to working with him and other hon. Members to ensure that the new charity is a great success.

T4. Farmers and food suppliers in Wigan are desperate for the protection of a groceries ombudsman from the unfair practices of supermarkets. The Government recently promised a Bill to implement that proposal very soon. Will the Secretary of State put pressure on her colleagues to ensure that “soon” really will be soon? (73901)

The short answer is yes. As the hon. Lady knows, a draft Bill has been published and has been considered by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. The Committee’s report has gone to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently. It is that Department’s Bill, but we are pressing hard for it to be passed as soon as possible.

I welcome the Government’s negotiations in Europe on food labelling, but I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that we maintain the flexibility to keep the things that Britain holds dear, such as buying eggs by the dozen and beer by the pint.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s words. This is a policy commitment that the Government have delivered on very clearly. We promised honest labelling and we now have a voluntary code in this country and mandatory country of origin labelling across a lot of products in Europe. I entirely agree with her point about quantities; Britain has its traditions and we want to stick to them.

T6. Food prices have risen by 6% in the last year, costing a family with two young children an extra £350 a year. When will the Secretary of State do something positive to tackle speculation in food prices and its impact on families? (73903)

The underlying cause of rising food prices is, of course, rising global prices of food commodities. The market fundamentals are the driver of that. Supply and demand is tight. We have to feed a hungry world, which will possibly have 9 billion people by 2050, as the Government’s own Foresight report says. That is why this Government and my Department have set a priority of producing more food sustainably.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the canal and river trust. What plans does he have to ensure that its decision-making is transparent and accountable? Indeed, will he consider applying to it the Freedom of Information Act?

I am grateful for the opportunity to point out that all the provisions that currently exist for British Waterways in that regard will follow through to the new charity. If the new charity is to have the credibility that it must have, it is important that we assure all those who really mind about this matter that we are protecting those rights.

On 6 July, in a Westminster Hall debate on dangerous dogs, the Minister said in his response that there was

“real evidence that the situation is worsening”

and that

“Action must, therefore, be taken.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 485WH.]

Given that admission, is it not morally reprehensible that even today he refuses to give a date for a response to the consultation started by the previous Government?

As I said earlier, the Government are fully committed on the matter, and I do not resile from anything that I said in that debate. However, as I have just mentioned, the Home Office rightly decided to examine the wider issues. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are bleating from the Opposition Front Bench, but they know as well as I do that much of the problem is the people, not the dogs. That is why it is right that the Home Office should be involved, but we will bring forward our proposals as soon as we possibly can.

I am frequently advised by potential investors in my constituency that they lack confidence in the planning process due to delays caused by Natural England. Can the Secretary of State assure me that she will look into that and ensure that Natural England is mindful of the commercial pressures on investors?

Natural England is a statutory consultee in the planning process, but I certainly give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I will look into the case in question. There is, of course, a balancing act, and Natural England is responsible for ensuring that directives that the previous Government and their predecessors signed up to are complied with correctly, but I will look into that specific case with urgency.

In light of the meeting that is to take place on 25 October between the Secretary of State and the Ministers from the devolved Assemblies across the United Kingdom, will she set out what the agenda for that meeting is going to be? Will she assure us that CAP reform will be on the agenda, and that she will listen carefully to the needs of representatives of the rural regions across the UK and of the 40,000 farmers in Northern Ireland who rely on the CAP as it currently stands?

I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are due to meet devolved Administration Ministers on 25 October, and agricultural reform is on the agenda. I expect that they will attend the Agriculture Council meeting next week, as I have encouraged them to, and we will work very closely with them. I hope the hon. Gentleman noticed that when I referred to how the Government were looking at CAP reform, I said that we would examine its impact on all parts of the United Kingdom.