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Topical Questions

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 1 March 2012

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.