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Topical Questions

Volume 536: debated on Thursday 24 November 2011

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In that context, I will attend important climate change negotiations in Durban next week. The items on the agenda include sustainable agriculture, as well as the protection of international forestry. In addition, I will have a series of bilateral discussions as part of the preparations for Rio plus 20, on which I will lead, and, of course, update the House on my return.

Farmers in the Kettering constituency continue to complain about the difficulties that they encounter in obtaining their single farm payment, especially where there have been changes to farm boundaries. I know that much has been done to sort out the Rural Payments Agency, but what more can be done to sort out that wretched organisation?

As I am sure the whole House is aware, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) has been working hard to improve the performance of the Rural Payments Agency, and there is indeed a strategic improvement plan to help achieve that. The target was met in June for payments, and we are making good progress towards achieving the target that is required to be met by the end of this year.

T2. The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside is concerned about the future funding of higher-level stewardship on the west Pennine moors and the Red Moss site of special scientific interest, which are both in my constituency. What assurance can the Secretary of State give that she will secure funding and not be out-negotiated by the French, or by the Treasury? (82290)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question, because we are very conscious that the uncertainties of the EU proposals on common agricultural policy reform are causing some landowners and farmers to worry about their stewardship payments. May I, though her and the House, assure everybody involved that the Government are determined to continue with our stewardship schemes, both higher level and entry level, and will do everything in our power to ensure that that happens? We are at an early stage of the negotiations, but we are determined that somehow—either through a transfer of money from pillar one to pillar two, or perhaps through the greening element of pillar one—we shall maintain those excellent schemes.

T6. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with Latin American colleagues to prepare for the forthcoming international conferences in Durban and Rio? (82295)

I have had two in particular. I met Brazil’s Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, during negotiations in Nagoya, and as Brazil is the host nation I went down there to help the Brazilians with preparations for Rio plus 20 next year, and most recently, as the House will be well aware, we had a visit from the Colombian President and the Environment Minister, Frank Pearl, whom I met at the Department with a proposal for sustainable development goals, to which we have given our support in principle.

T3. When the Government’s long overdue water White Paper finally comes out, will the Secretary of State confirm that small businesses, not fat cat water utilities, will be at the centre of deregulation? (82291)

T9. Currently we pay our farmers not to grow crops, but at the same time the world population is growing, and half the world is in need of food. What will my right hon. Friend do to end that scandal, so that our farmers can get back to what they do best: growing crops for this country and for the rest of the world? (82298)

I hesitate to challenge my hon. Friend, but that waste stopped four or five years ago. We no longer have set-aside. The worry now is the Commission’s proposal effectively to reintroduce a 7% set-aside as part of the ecological focus areas that the Commissioner proposes. We do not believe that that is the right way forward. We have to produce more food, but we must do so sustainably. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we are sorry that the proposals, so far, do not meet that challenge.

T5. May I draw the Minister’s attention to early-day motion 2273 in my name, which has attracted more than 60 signatures from Members of all sides of the House and calls for the implementation of mandatory CCTV in UK slaughterhouses? It is disturbing that around 90% of cases of animal cruelty in UK slaughterhouses do not result in a successful prosecution. Will the Minister consider introducing a pilot scheme to trial such an approach? (82294)

Animal Aid believes that around 70% of slaughterhouses already have CCTV. Regarding the recent, quite proper, furore over cruelty to pigs at what was then called Cheale Meats, it is important to point out that CCTV cameras were there—albeit perhaps pointed in the wrong direction—so they are not the final panacea that some people believe them to be. Nevertheless, we are considering them as part of a wider-ranging package to ensure that there is no cruelty to animals in those last few moments of their lives.

Does the welfare of laying hens directive present an opportunity for us to support our farmers and food producers through country of origin labelling and information on compliance suppliers and sources of egg? Will the Minister have discussions with supermarkets and other retailers on egg products, liquid and powder egg, and prepared foods, so that it is easy to buy good eggs?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have had such discussions and will continue to have them. I can assure the House that overall, the supermarkets, and indeed much of the processing sector, are determined to comply with the spirit of the legislation and procure egg and egg product only from compliant cages. As I said, I may well make a further statement shortly.

T7. The Minister has consistently said that the review of the common fisheries policy is a golden opportunity, and he has said the same again today. Will he therefore make a promise to the House that the British fishing fleet will be larger at the next election than it was at the beginning of this Parliament? (82296)

That would depend on there being more fish to catch. What we seek to achieve through a proper reform is conservation measures that we can manage much closer to home, which can lead to a recovery in fish stocks and therefore an increased opportunity for our fishing fleet. I want to see a reform of common fisheries policy that means that the sons and grandsons of fishermen can see a future, because they cannot at the moment.

Mandatory greening under new CAP reform proposals would remove a fifth of land on higher level stewardship farms from food production. What representations has the Secretary of State made to the EU Agriculture Commissioner about the damaging impact that that would have on food security in this country?

My hon. Friend is right to be concerned about that. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, we met the Commissioner only 10 days ago and impressed on him the fact that the proposals were not in accordance with the challenges of global food demands in the coming years. I can assure him that we are not a lone voice. Listening to the voices around the Council table reveals that the vast majority of Ministers are opposed to taking further land out of production.

T8. Business groups have warned that the Government’s decision to delay the establishment of marine conservation zones will impede investment in marine industries, including renewable energy and sustainable fishery projects. Does the Secretary of State agree? (82297)

We are progressing the implementation of an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones, which have to be sustainable in every sense. That means that they have to be able to withstand any challenge that may be put to them, legal or otherwise, so we need to get more evidence for some of them. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this Government remain absolutely determined to take this forward, but we need to get it right. If that means we have to take a month or two longer—or six months longer, to be perfectly accurate—that would be a better way than getting it wrong.

That is one of the commitments that we gave in the natural environment White Paper. We have asked Ian Cheshire, the chairman of Kingfisher Group, to chair the ecosystems taskforce, together with a number of business leaders and scientists. This is an opportunity to help business in this country to take the chance, with the new green technologies and green growth, to grow our economy into a low-carbon economy, and beyond that, towards all the opportunities that realising the true value of natural capital can provide.

Will the Secretary of State give an update on the progress being made by her Government to tackle international speculation in food commodities? That is a major factor in driving up food prices, which is affecting our constituents and others internationally, and it needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

The evidence regarding the role of speculation in the rise of food prices is perhaps not as clear as the hon. Gentleman sets out. The main reason for volatility in prices is that supply and demand are tight, and the best way to address that is to improve the supply of food to the market. Transparency is the key to helping to reduce volatility. We, as a Government, support greater transparency so that people around the world know who is producing what, where, and how much they have in stock. That will help to buffer prices.

The six-day movement rule and the ban on on-farm burial are particularly burdensome to livestock farmers. Since their introduction the scientific understanding of these matters has moved on. Will the Minister commission a scientific review of the regulations with a view to their relaxation?

Both issues appear in the Macdonald report, to which I referred earlier and to which we will be responding early in the new year. The burial of dead animals, in particular, is controlled at EU level, and it is not entirely within this Government’s gift to change the rules.