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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 1 March 2012

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Farmers (Regulations)

We published the Government’s full response to the farming regulation taskforce on 21 February. There were more than 200 recommendations, and our response sets out clear commitments to take action and to address most of the recommendations. We are already working to implement those commitments in partnership with the farming industry, and an implementation group chaired by Richard Macdonald himself will ensure that we deliver on them.

I thank my right hon. Friend. The House will know that Herefordshire is blessed with some of the finest farmland and farmers in the country, but many farmers in my constituency who are members of voluntary schemes such as “Freedom Food” are keen to know whether such schemes will be given a lighter-touch regulation and inspection regime, as recommended by the red tape review.

I cannot be specific at this stage about the “Freedom Food” scheme, but the principle to which my hon. Friend refers is absolutely correct. I assure him that the principle of earned recognition, under which farmers are already being inspected regularly in certain farm assurance schemes, will be used as a form of risk assessment to minimise inspections on holdings.

With regard to regulatory burdens on farmers, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that a replacement seasonal agricultural workers scheme is in place when the current framework is removed at the end of 2013?

My hon. Friend is entirely right—the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is an essential source of labour, particularly for the fresh produce sector. We fully recognise its importance, and my Department is working closely with the Home Office to ensure that the industry’s labour requirements will be met after 2013.

Farmers in Fylde will welcome the Minister’s response, but can he assure me that he will resist any further measures from Brussels that seek to undermine the Government’s good work on deregulation?

I am glad that my hon. Friend added the last bit, because to say that we would not implement any further regulations might be counter-productive. I can assure him that we will fight very hard against anything that we believe is against the interests of the British agriculture and food sector or the British economy. That has always been the case, and we will continue to do our very best to oppose such measures.

What steps will the Minister take to put in place regulations to ensure that the Schmallenberg virus is not extended and does not create problems for farmers who still have good-quality lamb available for sale?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for allowing me to address that issue, which also comes up later on the Order Paper. We do not believe that any regulation on the Schmallenberg virus is necessary. The important point to note is that all the evidence of it that we are now seeing—the deformed lambs and a few deformed calves—is from infection caused last autumn in the midge season. We are working closely with the other member states in northern Europe, where the disease was found earlier than in the UK, to develop the science. A year ago we had never heard of the virus, so we are having to develop all the basic science to move forward with tests and maybe vaccination.

I begin by wishing all Welsh colleagues dydd gwyl Dewi hapus, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) reliably informs me is “happy St David’s day”. I hope I have not offended anyone with my pronunciation.

We are grateful to the Minister for his speedy offer of a meeting with the chief vet on the Schmallenberg disease, which we hope to have early next week. As the Minister says, there is much that we do not yet know. Has the arrival of the virus in England led to any changes or pauses in the implementation of the Macdonald report?

The short answer is no. At this stage, we do not see any need to change the decisions arising from the Macdonald report. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her thanks for the briefing by the chief vet. It is important that all Members are properly informed about the disease. When her party was in government it kindly briefed me on such subjects, and it is only right to reciprocate. She will be aware that I wrote to all Members about a fortnight or three weeks ago with a very clear exposition of the situation.

I thank the Minister for those comments. May I suggest that it might be useful for the chief vet to meet all Members of Parliament to give those with badly affected constituencies the opportunity to question him?

The Minister argued against the disease being made notifiable in the EU. Will he explain why, when many farmers want it to be notifiable so that scientists can build up the full picture and help develop the effective vaccine that we all want? What steps has he taken to scale up the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency so that it is not overwhelmed by testing as we enter the peak lambing season? How much will that extra resource cost and who will pay for it?

On the last point, I assure the hon. Lady that, as this is—I will not say it is an emergency—obviously very urgent, we are finding the necessary resources. It is only right and proper that we do so. I cannot give a figure because it is all changing as we go. The chief executive of the AHVLA is addressing the issue of its resources. I am afraid that I have forgotten her first point.

I am grateful. The advice from the vets is that that is not necessary. We are receiving a tremendous amount of information from the private veterinary sector and, of course, samples from those in that sector and some directly from farmers, which all go into our labs for testing. As she implies, I urge all farmers to report any particular evidence. At the moment, we do not see any need for notifiability, but the matter is under review.

Water Resources

Our water White Paper set out the challenges we face to ensure we have resilient and sustainable water resources. The current drought illustrates the importance of planning for the future when our water resources are expected to come under more pressure from climate change and a growing population. We will need to be smarter and less wasteful in how we use existing water resources, develop new sources, and build greater connectivity across the network.

Does my hon. Friend agree that water security is an increasingly big issue, which we must tackle for the UK and the world, and that it will affect future generations if we do not significantly improve our water collection and storage, and the transfer of water from regions?

I entirely agree. That is why the Government got a grip on the matter through publishing our water White Paper before Christmas. We need to capture and use our water more efficiently. That means developing new water sources and greater interconnections, the need for which was never more apparent than now, when we face impending drought. I am pleased with how water companies are working together and with the Environment Agency, building resilience into our systems for emergency procedures now, but also for the medium to long term, when we will face different climatic conditions.

In Kent, a lot of our water comes from an underground chalk aquifer. What is its long-term sustainability, and what can the public and local businesses do to help?

My hon. Friend’s constituents, like mine, depend on that extraordinary geological feature, which contains millions of gallons of water. However, it is under real pressure at the moment, which is apparent from river flows. I had hoped that we would start to reverse the decline in some of our river flows this summer. Importantly, it is a demand as well as a supply situation, and we can all play our part in reducing the impact on aquifers. We had our drought summit last week to get people thinking now about the measures that they can take in their homes to reduce water usage.

This is a serious matter, and I hope that the Under-Secretary read the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made yesterday, pointing out that there is an abundance of water in the north-east. I checked today, and Yorkshire Water’s reservoirs are 96% full. Is not the answer therefore to move more of our industry to the north? Perhaps we should relocate Gravesham and its excellent Member of Parliament to the north of England, where he will be made most welcome. There is the land and we need the industry. If we are to rebalance our industry and our economy, we should head north—the water is there.

The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) made a very good speech yesterday, in which he pointed out the folly of the easy fix that people constantly suggest to me: building a vast pipeline from his constituency to mine. We know that that is prohibitively expensive, but we can get greater interconnectivity between water companies, and thus water flowing from areas where it is plentiful to areas where it is not.

If tackling drought, conserving water and reforming abstraction are so important, why has the Secretary of State delayed her own Bill?

The hon. Gentleman presupposes what is—or is not—in the Queen’s Speech. I have to confess that I am not privy to that; the Queen will announce the contents. We have said that the Bill will be available for pre-legislative scrutiny, but we do not need a Bill to deal with many of the issues that we are discussing on the drought. We can introduce the abstraction incentive mechanism—a bit of a techy issue, but one that can make a difference right now to the sustainability of water supplies.

Circuses (Wild Animals)

4. What assessment she has made of the Austrian constitutional court’s decision to dismiss the legal challenge against a ban on wild animals in circuses; and if she will bring forward proposals to implement such a ban in the UK. (97376)

A written ministerial statement published this morning sets out the Government’s policy on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in England. The statement includes our assessment of the Austrian constitutional court’s recent judgment on the legal challenge against the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses. As a result, we are developing legislation to provide for a ban.

I thank the Minister for his response and am aware of the ministerial statement. When does he anticipate that the legislation will come to the House? In the interim, are the Government willing to review the licensing regime to prevent the import of any new wild animals for circuses?

I cannot be precise on the timing of the legislation, partly for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary gave in answer to the previous question. It will take time, which is why we believe we must proceed with the licensing process. We are advised strongly that the hon. Lady’s proposal on new animals would almost certainly fail a judicial challenge, but importing animals is anyway covered by the convention on international trade in endangered species regulations.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), I congratulate the Government on their announcement today, but will this welcome measure be implemented by the time of the next general election? When will it be implemented? It is important that we have a date.

My hon. Friend knows full well that it is impossible to put an exact date on it, but I would be extremely surprised and disappointed if it was not implemented before the next election.

Last year, Parliament voted unanimously for a ban on wild animals in circuses with the backing of 95% of the public. DEFRA Ministers showed how out of touch they are with the public and hid behind spurious threats of legal challenges in the EU as an excuse for doing nothing. They now say that they will introduce a Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows, but yesterday they introduced a water Bill that will be passed in just two days. Why cannot they do the same with the ban on wild animals—

Order. We are grateful to the hon. Lady. I think we have got the gist of it, but both sides really must speed up.

If the hon. Lady reads what I said in that debate, she will see that I made it abundantly clear that the Government are in favour in principle of a ban—that is laid out in front of us in Hansard. As I also laid out, a ban for welfare reasons would almost certainly fail if challenged in the courts. That is why we must act on ethical grounds, which means that we must be sure that our measure is watertight. It would be easy to pass legislation today only for it to be bogged down in the courts for several years under challenge, with no protection for the animals. That is why we must take the two-pronged approach of licensing urgently while we proceed with a ban.

Apprentices

In the period from April to December 2011, 33 core DEFRA employees have been completing apprenticeship training programmes. We also fund apprenticeships across the DEFRA family of arm’s length bodies. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew should be specially commended for having 67 apprenticeships.

Will my right hon. Friend support the parliamentary apprentice school that I have set up with a charity, New Deal of the Mind, and hire an apprentice under that scheme? Will she consider adopting the standard contract that Department for Work and Pensions Ministers introduced last year, which has led to an extra 2,000 apprentices being hired by their suppliers?

I warmly commend my hon. Friend for his scheme, which all hon. Members understand has absolutely at its heart the desire to create opportunities for young people to get into work. I would be delighted if he would like to come and discuss his scheme with me at the Department.

I am very pleased to hear that there are apprentices in the Secretary of State’s Department, but I would be more pleased if I knew that she was pushing hard for more apprentices in agriculture, with every farmer taking on more apprentices and everyone in the environmental sector around the country taking on apprentices. We need more young people to have jobs. Although the workfare scheme has run into problems, it is wrong for young people to be unemployed and on benefit. If there is anything she can do to help, will she please do it?

I share absolutely the hon. Gentleman’s passion for seeing young people given the opportunity to work. That is one of the reasons why we announced 50,000 apprenticeships in the food and drink industry, precisely to create those opportunities for young people to work in this important industry.

Common Agricultural Policy

6. What recent discussions she has had on reform of the common agricultural policy; and if she will make a statement. (97379)

The proposals for reform of the common agricultural policy are being negotiated by member states in the Agriculture Council and, for the first time, by co-decision in the European Parliament. We take every opportunity to discuss the UK’s concerns in detail with other Agriculture Ministers at Agriculture Council meetings and in the course of bilateral meetings. I had the opportunity to do that with the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, both with Ministers from the devolved Administrations and, separately, with the National Farmers Union, most recently at the annual general meeting.

I am grateful for that answer. A report published this week by the think-tank Open Europe concluded that the best way to green the pillar one payments in a flexible way would be to replace the single farm payment with a market in transferable environmental obligations, so that we can use pillar one funding to bring to life some of the ambitions in the Natural England White Paper. Is that a proposal that the Secretary of State might take to the negotiating table?

My hon. Friend wrote an interesting article about CAP reform where he expressed the idea—which he calls “common objectives”—of introducing greater flexibility through the creation of a market in tradable biodiversity obligations. He is ahead of his time with this thinking. He has heard Ministers talk about the future importance of supporting ecosystem management through agriculture, although we are dealing with reform proposals as they stand. At this stage of reform, I am sure he would share with me the view that it is important that the CAP should be greened and that taxpayers should see other public goods for the support they provide.

Will there be any benefits from CAP reform for developing countries? The dire consequences for developing countries that flow from the operation of this dreadful policy—including, of course, from dumping—have been known for a long time.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance that the Government are keen to see the reduction in tariff barriers that would allow developing countries to send more of their produce to this country. We believe in trade liberalisation; we believe it is good for both the developed and the developing world.

Despite opposition from the UK and other countries, the electronic identification scheme for sheep is now part of the CAP. In her discussions, will the Secretary of State ensure that penalties for non-compliance with this impractical scheme are kept to a minimum, before getting rid of it altogether?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He may not know—and it is important to record for the whole House—that we wrung an important concession out of the Commission with respect to older sheep. However, in our discussions with the Commission we are of course taking forward the question of penalties, which should be proportionate.

I note the Secretary of State’s reference to discussions with devolved Ministers. Can she say when she last met the devolved Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive, and also whether reference was made to greening the CAP, the issue of conacre or the definition of an “active farmer”?

As I have explained to the House on a number of occasions, we invite devolved Ministers to attend every Council meeting, which means that we meet them once a month, as there is a meeting virtually each month. In addition, we have meetings at Westminster. As for conacre, the Minister of State raised the issue at last month’s meeting on behalf of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

Dangerous Dogs

I am pleased to say that we are close to finalising a package of measures to tackle irresponsible dog owners. We are considering the benefits of compulsory microchipping of dogs, along with requiring the details of non-prohibited dogs to be held on a central database. We will announce these measures very shortly.

Residents in Walthamstow live in fear of the growing numbers of people in gangs who keep and train dogs to use as weapons and to fight in our local parks. My constituents have now been waiting more than two years for progress on this issue. Will Ministers promise them not just another consultation on tackling dangerous dogs, but real powers, including dog control notices and a responsible dog ownership education programme?

Is it not amazing how we started a new world two years ago, without any reference to the inaction of the previous 13 years? I fully understand the anger of people who have to face gangs of youths using dogs as weapons, which is already unlawful. The Home Office will bring forward its own proposals, separately from our announcement, as a result of the consultation that it has carried out on measures to deal with precisely the issues to which the hon. Lady refers.

Battersea Dogs and Cats Home does very good work in educating young people, especially those in danger of being drawn into gangs and irresponsible dog ownership. Does the Minister agree that education is one of the ways forward in tackling this problem?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I understand that Battersea Dogs and Cats Home is undertaking initiatives, particularly with young children on the Doddington estate, where there is a high percentage of what we call status dog ownership among the children’s parents. She is absolutely right to say that education is the answer to many of our problems, but sometimes we also have to take other measures, and we will do so.

13. Will the Secretary of State commit to publishing the proposals for tackling dangerous dogs and irresponsible dog ownership before the House breaks for the recess on 27 March 2012? (97386)

If a Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says that something will happen very shortly, it means precisely that. It certainly means before the House rises for Easter.

All of us abhor the use of wild dogs for criminal purposes, but does the Minister not agree that the law of unintended consequences may apply here, in that perfectly reasonable, sensible, law-abiding dog owners could be scooped up in complex, bureaucratic arrangements while criminals continue to use their dogs for illegal purposes?

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but I must point out to him that a very large proportion of dogs have already been microchipped on a voluntary basis by responsible owners. We are now trying to draw in that sector of the dog-owning community that has not done that. We are certainly not planning to create a bureaucratic scheme, but he will have to wait for the full announcement.

Flooding (Insurance)

8. What recent discussions she has had with representatives of the insurance industry on the Government’s policy on maintaining coastal and inland flood defences. (97381)

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has had regular meetings with representatives of the insurance industry, and they include discussions about the future of flood insurance beyond June 2013. This is against the background of our continuing investment in flood and coastal defence.

Does the Minister agree that there needs to be a more accurate assessment of flood risk? The residents of Romney Marsh in my constituency are living in a drought area and have seen £60 million spent on a new sea wall, yet they have been told that they might not get insurance cover after 2013.

I understand the frustration felt by my hon. Friend’s residents. The Environment Agency makes the latest flood risk information available to insurance companies, on licence, on a quarterly basis. The approaches of insurance companies vary considerably, however. Some have sophisticated risk models that reflect that information, while some upload it only on an annual basis and others continue to make assessments on a postcode basis. That is why we are working closely with the insurance industry to ensure that information is shared. The Environment Agency can write a letter to my hon. Friend’s constituents, which they can then use to show their insurance company that they are no longer have the degree of flood risk that they had before.

Happy St David’s day, Mr Speaker.

In January this year, the Association of British Insurers released information to the national media stating that my constituency had the second highest number of homes in high flood risk areas in the whole country. The number that it quoted was 7,339, but the actual number is 500. The ABI was using old statistics. What can be done to minimise the time lapse between improvement works being carried out and householders’ bills being reduced?

I entirely understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents must feel. I am concentrating my efforts to secure an agreement that will lead beyond June 2013, when the statement of principles comes to an end. I also want to ensure that the information that is available is being used by insurance companies. Brokers are often the first point of contact, and we need to ensure that the information is shared with them as well. There are no state secrets involved in this; the Environment Agency has the information, and it makes it available on a quarterly basis, so it should be possible for the insurance companies to use it when calculating their premiums.

Metal Theft

9. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policy on waste of the Government’s strategy on metal theft. (97382)

I believe it is important to crack down on all those involved in metal theft, including rogue scrap yard operators who fuel the crime. That is why we are working collectively across Government to take a range of enforcement and legislative measures that will make stolen metal too hot to handle.

Does the Secretary of State share my view that scrap yards that knowingly facilitate this crime are just as responsible as those that actually commit the theft? In line with that, will she make sure that this important clampdown is pursued with vigour, as urged by the widely supported all-party parliamentary group on combating metal theft?

I commend my hon. Friend, who made an excellent speech on this subject on 7 February. Like me, he comes from the west midlands, which is badly affected. Let me reassure him that we will certainly pursue this matter with vigour. I support the ban on cash payments for the purchase of scrap metal and, indeed, the increase in penalties under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, which will provide the police with greater powers to enter illegal sites as well as registered sites.

16. While the popularity of metal theft does not seem to have extended itself to removing that dreadful lot of junk on College green called “cutting edges”, will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government are doing to streamline overlapping measures to deal with the scrap metal business? (97390)

I am disturbed to hear that there was any threat to Henry Moore’s beautiful sculpture on College green—that is news to me—but it reminds us of the dreadful depths to which these criminals have sunk in removing metal from statues and, particularly, from war memorials, which has brought misery. Yes, as part of this clampdown on metal theft, we will streamline regulations. From April, for example, the Environment Agency will consider convictions linked with metal theft alongside other criteria when scrutinising the applications for an environmental permit to run a scrap metal yard.

Sugar Industry

10. What steps her Department is taking to protect production and jobs in the UK sugar industry. (97383)

We benefit from two sources of sugar supply in the UK: sugar beet, grown by farmers in this country and processed by British Sugar, and sugar cane, which is imported and refined by Tate & Lyle Sugars. The European Commission’s current management of the EU sugar market is threatening the continuing viability of the cane side of the industry, and we are urging the Commission to provide a balance of competition and success between the two sources.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right. The proposed job losses at Tate & Lyle are not due to a lack of demand for sugar or a lack of modernisation by the company; they are actually due to a ruthless protection of the European sugar beet industry, which is putting up our sugar prices and putting my constituents out of work. Can the Secretary of State assure me that she will stand up against the bureaucrats and the vested interests in the European Commission, and stand up for British industry?

I absolutely give the hon. Lady that assurance. I know that she is coming to see the Minister of State on Monday. Both he and I have strongly put the case that she has outlined. There are obvious employment consequences for London as a result of this threat to the viability of the cane side of the business. We believe that we need both sources of sugar in this country to flourish and be successful, and we believe there is room for both.

14. There is a shortage of sugar in Europe, yet the Silvertown refinery is forced to run at just 60% capacity, which seems ridiculous. Does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be right to have a charge of €87 a tonne for extra beet quota, while the charge for each extra tonne of sugar cane is €270? (97388)

I am well aware that the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is also affected by the threat to the viability of the cane refining side of the business. I can assure him absolutely that, from the first sight of these Commission proposals under common agricultural policy reform, and in the context of high world sugar prices, we have worked hard to ensure in our national interest that both sources of sugar have their place as part of our sugar economy. Ultimately, trade liberalisation is what should give us a level playing field and a fair opportunity for both types of sugar processing.

Schmallenberg Virus (Wales)

DEFRA officials have been in regular contact with officials from all the devolved Administrations—including those from the Welsh Government—to discuss the Schmallenberg virus. There have been meetings and regular reports on the situation, both national and international.

Diolch, Mr Speaker. Does not the sudden outbreak of the Schmallenberg virus prove the need to preserve Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency services in livestock-intensive areas such as Carmarthenshire?

I hope—as, obviously, does the hon. Gentleman—that the virus does not spread as far as Wales. We believe that it has come, midge-borne, across the channel, and, as I said earlier, we hope that it will not continue to spread. However, we do not consider it necessary to revisit the issue of the two laboratories in Wales. As has been said repeatedly before Committees at which the hon. Gentleman has been present, we believe that the overall laboratory services will be sufficient, under the reorganisation, to continue the surveillance.

Will the Minister assure the House that any plans he makes to restrict livestock movements will involve proportionate measures, so that those involved in embryo or semen exports are not affected?

I assure my hon. Friend that we have no plans to introduce any export restrictions, and that, although one or two third-party states are beginning to raise question marks over not just UK but European livestock because of Schmallenberg, any further regulations will be based on the best scientific advice.

Topical Questions

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers, and strengthening the green economy. At the heart of that is the ambition to create a dynamic and growing rural economy that will play a significant role in helping us to tackle the economic deficit, and yesterday, to that end, we announced a new £60 million grant scheme for rural entrepreneurs. I urge Members to make their constituents aware of this exciting new opportunity, which could, among other things, help towards the building of more farm reservoirs.

I certainly welcome that announcement —very impressive indeed.

Many of my constituents along the Severn estuary are grateful for the work of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) —who is responsible for water and fisheries—in ensuring that the Environment Agency consults properly during operations that involve dealing with flood defences. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that that will become the hallmark of the agency’s activities? Consultation is essential to community life.

My hon. Friend did well to bring a delegation of farmers and residents of his constituency to meet my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss the specific question of the Severn estuary. As a result, my hon. Friend asked the Environment Agency to review its plans, and it is now doing so with the aim of reducing the area required for inter-tidal habitat.

T2. The coalition agreement promised a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004, of which a number of Ministers are in favour. That would not only allow the resumption of hunting with dogs, but remove the ban on hare coursing. Does the Minister think that the British people really want to see a return to the barbaric sport of dogs chasing hares? (97393)

I am not going to enter into a debate on the rights and wrongs of the issue, because that is precisely what the Government have said we will do when time allows. We have said that we will provide for a straightforward debate and a vote in the House on whether it wishes to revoke the ban, and that will be the time at which to discuss the principal issues. The commitment stands.

T4. Dairy farmers in my constituency tell me of the huge mental and emotional pressure that they and their families are under owing to the fear that their herds will be infected by bovine tuberculosis. Will the Minister update the House on the steps being taken to tackle the spread of the disease, which I believe constitutes a threat to a vital part of our agriculture sector? (97396)

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a tremendous trauma affecting much of the British countryside—the spread of bovine TB. As he knows, we have announced that badger culling will be piloted in two areas in the early autumn, and we have invited two groups from those areas to submit applications to Natural England. I must emphasise, however, that badger culling is just one part of a much wider, comprehensive package of measures such as further restrictions of cattle movements and testing, including pre-movement testing.

T5. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and I secured a consultation on dog control from the previous Government, on the basis that a comprehensive overhaul of the legislation was required. That was well over two years ago. Will the Government commit to that approach, or will they choose to introduce piecemeal reforms, which many now believe is the preferred option? (97397)

In answer to an earlier question, I said that the Department will be making its proposals known very shortly. I will not pre-empt that announcement. The Home Office will also be announcing the results of its own consultation on the human aspect of the ownership of dogs as weapons or trophy dogs.

T6. This week the Government announced the creation of 12 nature improvement areas, with a pot of £7.5 million, which no doubt will draw on the considerable experience and work of the Attenborough nature reserve in my constituency. I know that the Secretary of State has a great fondness for Nottinghamshire. Will she be so good as to put on her walking boots and join me at Attenborough to see for herself the great work that has been going on there for many years? (97399)

It is always a pleasure to put on my walking boots. I stood as a candidate for Bassetlaw in the 1992 general election, and I am familiar with the Attenborough reserve and the excellent work being done there. I will be very happy to visit it. I have encountered huge enthusiasm for the nature improvement areas. There have been 76 bids for NIAs. Although only 12 of them have been successful, I am confident that many of the others will go ahead anyway.

At the previous DEFRA Question Time the Minister, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), said that

“there never was any intention to dispose of the whole public forest estate.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 870.]

Yet in evidence to the Lords Committee inquiry in 2010 he stated that

“we wish to proceed with…very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”

Will the Minister now once and for all come clean about the Government’s original intention, and is his confusion on this issue the reason the forestry brief has now been taken off him?

I am happy to confirm that the final proposals we made to the House—the only ones that matter—did not include total disposal. The hon. Lady knows full well the contents of the consultation, and they did not include total disposal. In fact, it could be argued that the amount that would have been disposed would have been much less than that, as there would have been considerable leasehold. Turning to the question of the forestry portfolio, first, this year I will be far busier with common agricultural policy negotiations and, secondly, my noble Friend Lord Taylor has now joined the team, and he has special knowledge of the horticultural sector and plant and tree disease, which is very topical at present.

T7. The fisheries Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), responded to a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate that I secured last week. He heard that my constituent Paul Gilson had been fined £400,000 for catching too many fish. Please will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will now address the very unfair situation whereby under-10 metre fishing vessels comprise 85% of the fleet yet are allowed to catch only 4% of the stock? (97400)

As I made clear in that debate, seeking a fairer deal for the under-10s has been one of my main priorities. I will shortly announce the launch of six pilot schemes, under which fishermen will have more opportunities to catch fish. We have employed three coastal liaison officers to support them in both the management of their quota and the marketing of their produce.

Household flood insurance policies for next year are being written this year. Can the Minister reassure my constituents who live in a flood-risk area that the Government are working on this with insurers now, because the problem will kick in before 2013?

I entirely understand that, which is why we announced before Christmas that we would come forward with a solution with the insurers in the spring. I am confident that it will be a solution that works. There will be a year to embed new systems for what will follow from the end of the statement of principles in June 2013.

T8. As the Secretary of State will know, York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership has asked for an investment of £3.25 million from DEFRA to create a rural growth network. I fully support the bid as that investment will bring substantial economic benefits to our region. Please will the Secretary of State look favourably upon the bid? (97401)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend supports the creation of rural growth networks, and I must commend the role he played in developing a bid in his constituency. He has clearly done a very good job, because that bid is on the shortlist, but I am sure he will understand that I cannot, at this stage, reveal who will ultimately be in receipt of that status.

When does the Secretary of State and her team next plan to be in Northern Ireland, to discuss with stakeholders the reform of the common agricultural policy and how it affects our Province?

After you! I say that because both the Minister of State and I have planned visits to Northern Ireland, and I am to meet Jim Nicholson in a few days’ time. As I said, at every Council meeting we have the opportunity to meet devolved Ministers, but both the Minister of State and I have planned visits to Northern Ireland in the near future, as, I am being told, does the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon).

The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has come up with a novel means of negotiating decision making on fisheries management back to the member states. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to amend the regulations, as part of the common fisheries policy, to end the micro-management from Brussels and enhance local decision making?

I will examine any suggestion that unpicks a system that has failed fishermen and the marine environment. I am putting all my energies into trying to get a meaningful reform that will enable the regional control of fisheries, taking this away from the micro-management by people who often sit about 1,000 miles away from the fishermen who are actually doing the work.

It is more than 14 months since the Department sought guidance from the Commission on how to achieve an uplift in area VII—I spell that out for the benefit of Hansard—effort.

[Hon. Members: “Seven”] Well, it is seven, but it has to be written as “VII”. Can the Minister therefore let those with scallop interests know when he expects that guidance to come forth, and what he is doing to speed things up?

I do understand that this is an important matter for area VII and I will make sure that I write to the hon. Lady with full details about how we are taking this scalloping order forward.

I just make the point that the Hansard reporters are immensely able and dexterous characters, and they are quite capable of doing Roman numerals without special coaching.

Further to the earlier question from the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) and the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), will the Minister confirm that his written ministerial statement of today is somewhat deficient, in that it fails to mention that the decision of this House on 23 June 2011 is that there shall be a ban on wild animals in circuses? So when the statement says that the Government are “minded” to ban performing wild animals in circuses, is this just a smokescreen?

No, it is not just a smokescreen. It is quite clear: we are developing legislation for a ban, on ethical grounds, on the use of wild animals in circuses. We could not proceed on the basis of the recommendation in the motion that the House considered nearly a year ago, for the reasons I have already outlined: it would have opened us up to litigation and we would have had no protection for animals while that took place. We are determined to protect animals, which is why we are going to put in place a licensing system very shortly and implement a total ban as soon as we can.

Church Commissioners

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

Bishops (Staff)

The commissioners are currently employing 19 drivers, at a total cost of £352,719, which helps to ensure the best use of bishops’ time.

I understand that the average wage of a chauffeur for Church of England bishops is about £23,000 a year. The Welfare Reform Bill has just become an Act, but does the commissioner believe that the bishops who voted against it—who voted to ensure that people who are not working should earn more than £26,000—should now feel a moral imperative to pay their chauffeurs accordingly?

My hon. Friend makes his own point in his own way. Bishops were not arguing for the abolition of the cap; they were arguing for child benefit to be exempted because they believed that the cap was not flexible enough to be fair to those with large families or those in areas with high housing rental costs. May I say to my hon. Friend, who is an independent-minded Member of Parliament, that there are just 26 Lords Spiritual in a Chamber of nearly 800 Members and I suspect that all independent-minded Members of this House, wherever we sit, would think that from time to time it is no bad thing for the Lords Spiritual to rattle a few cages?

Cathedrals (Insurance)

2. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that cathedrals are able to access insurance. (97364)

The Church Commissioners are aware of the increasing demands that cathedrals are making on their insurance policies, especially as a consequence of metal theft. The majority of cathedrals are insured by Ecclesiastical Insurance and so far no cathedral has ever been refused any insurance claim by Ecclesiastical, which is working extremely hard with all cathedrals to assist in reducing the problem of metal theft.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer, because there has been alarming coverage in the press of cathedrals being unable to insure themselves. People in my constituency work very hard to raise the necessary funds to support Truro cathedral and its vital work in the community, so will my hon. Friend keep ensuring that cathedrals can afford insurance?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Cathedrals have not been immune from thefts within and without and only recently a silver cross was stolen from the Lady chapel in Manchester cathedral. Each time this happens, it puts up the costs of insurance in all cathedrals, including the much-loved Truro cathedral in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That is why we have to bear down on metal theft.

Bell Ringing

A general fund provides grants to enable the repair and maintenance of historic bell towers. The Church of England is delighted that bell ringing in church buildings is taking centre stage this year during the diamond jubilee and Olympic celebrations.

Over the past few years, the bell ringers of the 12th century St Mary-le-Ghyll church in Barnoldswick have raised more than £60,000 to increase the number of bells at the church from three to six, a project that was completed and dedicated by the Bishop of Bradford in January 2010. They are now in the process of raising a further £17,000 to add a final two bells. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating them on their efforts?

That is a fantastic achievement by St Mary- le-Ghyll and I hope that all those six bells will ring out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on 3 June, when churches throughout the country are being encouraged to ring out their bells to coincide with the river pageant on the River Thames. I am glad to report to the House that the lead barge—the herald barge—will contain a floating belfry, the first of its kind with a new ring of eight bells cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Each of the royal jubilee bells will have the royal arms cast on it and will be named after a senior member of the royal family. The bells will go down the Thames and ring a quarter peal on the river, with the church bells along the route providing a musical response. It is hoped that at 3 pm on 3 June bells throughout England will ring out to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee.

No one could accuse the hon. Gentleman of providing the House with insufficient information and we are grateful to him.

Living in the house directly opposite St Thomas, Musbury, church in Helmshore, I am a real fan of campanology. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating our congregation at St Thomas’s on the fundraising we have done to restore our bell tower so that bells can be rung again on Sunday morning?

Absolutely, and that demonstrates that communities throughout the country are very keen to keep their church bell towers in good order.

Metal Theft

4. What discussions the Church Commissioners have had with (a) the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and (b) the Secretary of State for the Home Department on metal theft from war memorials situated on Church of England property. (97366)

The Bishop of London, Anne Sloman, the chair of the cathedral and church buildings division of the Church of England, and myself have had numerous detailed discussions with a number of Ministers on the issue of metal theft from church property.

Incidents of metal theft, including vandalism of war memorials, in the church diocese of York have increased by 61% in the past year alone. Would the hon. Gentleman be willing to meet me to talk about how we can help parishes in my constituency that are suffering from such crimes?

Metal theft is a huge issue that concerns Church leaders across all faiths in Northumbria. Does my hon. Friend agree that the punishments for those who steal from churches and churchyards should be both severe and a proper deterrent?

As became clear in our recent debate on metal theft, there is a general desire across the House for the courts seriously to consider deterrent sentences for what is a despicable crime.

This crime is a threat to some of the greatest buildings and monuments across Britain. Is there any possibility of grants being made available to churches so that security can be improved to protect against it?

As may come up later, those churches that use SmartWater or that install roof alarms have found that the incidence of metal theft has been substantially reduced. SmartWater and roof alarms are not necessarily that expensive and I hope that all churches will look at how they can improve security to deter metal theft.

Does my hon. Friend know whether the Church Commissioners have had discussions with English Heritage about allowing fibreglass replacements of lead roofs so that the crime is no longer a temptation?

We are in continuous discussions with English Heritage about what can be done in replacing lead roofs, but 60% of grade-I listed buildings in this country are Church of England churches, and there are some restraints as a consequence of those listings.

Syria

The Archbishop of Canterbury and his staff are in regular contact with the Bishop of Jerusalem, whose diocese includes Syria. The archbishop has just returned from a personal pilgrimage to the middle east and has seen at first hand the issues facing Christians living there. The people of Syria who are being subjected to crimes against humanity need the prayers and support of all in this House.

I am sure that we would all support the end of the Assad regime, but it has at least protected the Christian community in Syria from some of the more radical Islamist elements in that society. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about whether the Christian communities in Syria, which are substantial, will get the protection they need if the regime goes, as I am sure we all hope it will, and a new Islamist regime comes in?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It is a fact that Christians in Syria have found a modus vivendi in the past and it is a real tragedy that such human rights atrocities have taken place in Syria. Throughout the middle east, I am afraid, Christians are being put under intolerable strain and pressure, and that must be a matter of concern for us all.

Bats

7. What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on bats in churches; and if he will make a statement. (97369)

On 29 November the Bishops of Lincoln, Norwich and Chelmsford and I met the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), to discuss how we could better deal with bats in churches. Also at the meeting were representatives of Natural England and the cathedral and church buildings division of the Church of England. I wish to thank the Minister at DEFRA who is working closely with the Church of England to support that work.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Are we not over-exuberant in our implementation of the habitats directive? Will he welcome DEFRA’s review to make sure that we are not gold-plating, so that the congregation at St Hilda’s church in Ellerburn can enjoy the facilities they usually enjoy?

I very much welcome the initiative taken by DEFRA Ministers. At the meeting I mentioned, the Minister made it very clear that he thought it was unacceptable that churches could not be used for public worship as a consequence of infestation by bats. He made it very clear to officials in his Department and officials from Natural England that he was looking to them to come forward with solutions in respect of the worst-affected churches and to report back by the autumn of this year.

Same-sex Marriage

8. What recent representations he has received on the implications for the Church Commissioners of the Government’s plans to introduce same-sex marriage. (97370)

The Church of England will be making a detailed submission to the forthcoming consultation exercise, which will provide an opportunity for a more focused critique of what is proposed, including the proposal to distinguish in law between civil and religious marriage.

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s response. Would it not be very simple just to write back and say, “Marriage is between a man and a woman so this is completely nuts”?

I am quite relieved by that question because I feared that we might have a question about Mrs Bone and, assuming that Mr and Mrs Bone are already married, I was not quite sure how I was going to deal with that. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. So far as the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and many other faith groups are concerned, marriage is a union between one man and one woman. That is a point that we will be putting forward, I hope, responsibly and clearly in the consultation.

Metal Theft (Forensic Marking Systems)

9. How many churches use forensic marking systems to prevent metal theft from church property; and what the cost is of such systems. (97371)

The use of forensic marking is widespread and is strongly encouraged at diocesan level and by insurers. Some 12,500 churches have registered with the SmartWater scheme. SmartWater has been successful in a number of cases involving arrests and successful prosecutions. An increasing number of churches are also now fitting roof alarms.

I recently visited a church dedicated to St Materiana in Tintagel. It is a small church carrying the SmartWater sign. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the costs should not be prohibitive so that smaller churches can remain open for worshippers and visitors?

I would hope that it would not be prohibitive for any church to install SmartWater. I take note of the hon. Lady’s point, however, because I would hope that, in such circumstances, dioceses could help small churches with the funding that they need to protect their heritage.

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his replies to nine successive questions, and for the prodigious work rate he has just demonstrated.