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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Quality

As you know, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for food and farming, is not here today as he is representing the UK at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.

Air quality in the UK is much improved, though more needs to be done, especially in cities, where transport is the main issue. We must strike a balance between protecting health and the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth. Working with local authorities and others, we are investing significantly in cleaner, more sustainable transport. Underperformance against European vehicle emissions standards is making compliance on nitrogen dioxide challenging for us and many other member states.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about air quality in cities, but I understand that air quality compliance in Greater Manchester and 16 other areas in the UK will now not be reached until 2020. Given the heavily congested roads, such as the A57, which goes through Mottram and Hollingworth in my constituency, I am not surprised. The A57 goes past Hollingworth primary school. How many children in England and Wales as a whole live or go to school within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 vehicles or more on average? Does the Minister feel that the Government’s strategy is adequate to improve air quality for them?

DEFRA does not hold information on the location of schools. Local authorities have duties to improve air quality and the responsibility is shared between Government and local authorities. We have provided funding for a range of possibilities, including green transport initiatives, and many local authorities are responding really well. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are real challenges in some urban areas, particularly with nitrogen dioxide levels. We are seeking to assist local authorities in trying to deal with hot spots, particularly when they are close to schools.

Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s latest estimate, in percentage terms, of annual exposure to nitrogen dioxide for the poorest quintile of the population in England and Wales compared with the wealthiest?

The way in which member states quantify where they stand with regard to air pollution varies. In this country, we have a very rigorous system that divides the country into 43 air quality zones. If one area in a zone is failing, the whole zone is deemed to have failed. It is up to local authorities to work with the Government to deal with problems when they occur, when there are high levels of deprivation and, as the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned, around schools. It is important that local authorities with access to that information use the funding that the Government give to address problems with air quality.

When people enter this country—for example, to visit the Olympics—they land in the most air polluted area of the country. The Mayor’s strategy does not seem to have worked, the local air quality management zone has barely scraped the surface and we need a fresh initiative. Will the Minister meet me, a delegation of local councillors and others to see whether we can launch a fresh initiative, particularly around the Heathrow area?

I know that the hon. Gentleman works closely with agencies in the area, particularly on air quality issues emanating from Heathrow. My noble Friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who leads on this issue, will, I am sure, be willing to meet him and others to ensure that there are local strategies. I should point out that the Mayor, through his air quality strategy, has addressed many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. We are starting to see improvements in a number of areas and I look forward to being able to report improvements in London for 2011.

Clean air fund measures are locally targeted to reduce PM10s by 10% to 20%. They include green infrastructure, dust suppressants, retrofitted buses and dealing with traffic hot spots where the stop-start of traffic has caused severe or marked increases in air pollution.

Unbelievable! This is the second biggest public health challenge that the country faces, but all we have are excuses and inaction from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. With an estimated 29,000 premature—[Interruption.] We are talking about premature deaths, so I think that Government Members should quieten down. With an estimated 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK from air pollution, why does the only action taken by DEFRA try to weaken EU laws that seek to protect the public?

That last point is completely wrong. In fact, there is a meeting next week in Geneva on the measures that we have taken as part of the Gothenburg agreement that will result in further improvements in air quality. There is no doubt that air quality has a marked effect on people’s health, particularly if they suffer from heart or lung conditions. We have begun to improve things, but a big challenge remains in London. The Mayor inherited poor air-quality conditions and, as a result of his strategy, we have begun to see big improvements.

Dangerous Dogs

2. What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. (105404)

6. What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. (105408)

9. What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. (105411)

12. What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. (105414)

13. What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. (105415)

I am pleased to say that on 23 April, the Government announced a consultation on measures to tackle irresponsible dog owners. These measures include extending the existing dangerous dogs laws to cover all private property in England and a requirement that all puppies be compulsorily microchipped.

A number of residents in Stillington in my Stockton North constituency are angry that the police and everyone else feel powerless to deal with a dangerous dog in their village just because it has not yet attacked a human being. They fear that a child rather than an animal could be the next victim. Will the Minister explain to the people of Stillington how the proposed legislation will prevent an attack of that nature?

The dangerous dogs legislation already provides powers for the police, and local authorities have powers to tackle the problem of dogs that are dangerously out of control. The new measures will bring additional tools to the toolkit. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is absurd that policemen in that village have to think twice about going on to private property to investigate and pursue a possible dangerous dog case because they fear that they are not currently properly protected by the law on private property? The change in the law represents a significant step forward.

Will the Secretary of State explain how microchipping puppies bred by responsible, registered breeders will deal with those irresponsible back-street breeders who churn out unloved and mistreated, dangerous, status and weapon dogs?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that many animal charities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, share with the Government a determination to stamp out irresponsible dog breeding. Responsible dog breeders, who already chip their puppies, set an example to all dog breeders on the importance of chipping new-born dogs. The proposed way forward is to encourage chipping of puppies to ensure that at the point of sale we can identify where they have come from.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), it has taken the Government two years to introduce measures to tackle dangerous dogs. The consultation on dangerous dogs concluded in June 2010, and it is now April 2012. Nothing announced on Monday will prevent dog attacks in the first place. Clarissa Baldwin, the chief executive of the Dogs Trust, said that she was “extremely disillusioned” with the lack of preventive measures in the Government’s announcement. Further to what the Secretary of State has said, the powers that will be extended to cover private property can be applied only when an attack has occurred—they do not prevent an attack in the first place. Will she tell the House how many dog attacks will be prevented as a direct result of the proposals that she announced on Monday?

That is what I think is called a multi-part question. The hon. Lady is new, so she could be forgiven for not knowing that, while her Government recognised the inadequacy of existing legislation, there is a strong cross-party endeavour to deal with this terrible problem. It is complex, which is doubtless part of the reason why her Government did not get on and sort it out. We have proceeded with the consultation. What will help now is the £50,000 that I have given to animal charities and others to help to educate irresponsible dog owners on how to keep better control of their dogs.

I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that coverage of the recent dog attacks on police officers in east London was deeply shocking. When will she respond to the requests from the Police Federation and serving front-line police officers for dog control notices, which will help to prevent such attacks? Does she understand the deep frustration of the police at yet another lengthy consultation?

All of us want to make sure that the police and other professionals are properly protected when they go about visiting private property in the normal course of their duty. The package that we are proposing, which was set out on Monday, includes the extension of powers under the Dangerous Dogs Act to private land. The police have asked for help from the Government with training. I have provided resources to the Association of Chief Police Officers so that every constabulary in the country can have a trained dog officer. Local authorities have at their disposal dog control orders, which they can use to assist the police in dealing with this difficult and complex problem.

May I read the Secretary of State what Claire Horton of the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home has to say on the right hon. Lady’s disappointing proposals? She says:

“We question how much a priority tackling irresponsible ownership and improving public safety is for the Government. We fear this is just tinkering around the edges.”

Does the Secretary of State believe that Ms Horton and everyone else is wrong and that she alone is right?

Organisations such as Battersea Dogs Home have a terrible problem on their hands. Dogs homes are full to capacity with dogs that have had to be taken from the streets—100,000 strays a year and, tragically, 6,000 of those have to be put down. I am sure Battersea Dogs Home would agree that the measures that we have put in place, giving discretion to the police in relation to impounding a dog, and measures to educate irresponsible owners, as well as the resources that I have given the Battersea Dogs Home to help us tackle this problem, will all be welcomed.

I welcome the review and consultation. Will the Secretary of State extend the review to the Local Government Act 2010 to see whether the number of stray dogs has gone up since control passed to local authorities? Will she take the opportunity to close the current loophole with respect to attacks by dogs on other dogs and other animals, and extend the livestock provisions on worrying dogs to these other categories?

My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, makes some excellent points. Perhaps they are topics that the Select Committee might be interested in. The worrying of sheep, which is an understatement—it is often the death of sheep as a result of lack of control by the owners of dogs—is a very serious problem. I undertake to look at those issues.

As a member of the Kennel Club, I can say that the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust and other responsible dog ownership groups have for a long time argued for microchipping, so my right hon. Friend will no doubt have the full support of all those organisations. Has she had a single constructive suggestion from those on the Opposition Benches on how she might deal with the issue?

The 2010 consultation did indeed show strong support in principle among the public for compulsory microchipping. We are asking people specific, practical questions about how that should be implemented, our preference being the compulsory microchipping of puppies because of the additional advantage that it tackles irresponsible dog breeding. Yes, it would have been nice to have a little more cross-party support for an issue that is complicated and which, I know, Opposition Members have regularly taken up, to their credit, requesting the Government to do something. Well, we have, and it would be nice to have that welcomed.

Despite the Secretary of State’s well-meaning proposals, does she agree that there is a risk that not one single criminal thug who breeds illegal dogs will go tripping into the vet to have his puppies microchipped, and that her proposals will result in a wonderful database of perfectly legal, decent, middle-class dog owners? It will have no effect whatever on illegal dogs and illegal owners.

Obviously we cannot legislate against every thug. When I visited the RSPCA’s hospital in Harmsworth, what struck me was the consequences of irresponsible dog ownership, both for animals and people. I am very sensitive to the concerns of Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), whose constituent John-Paul Massey was lost as a result of a dangerous dog attack. Perhaps my hon. Friend would focus on the fact that it is the suffering of victims that we are trying to address in this package.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the burden on the NHS caused by injuries caused by dogs. Will she share with the House the figures for the number of people admitted to hospital with dog-related injuries in 2010?

I am not sure about the number of people admitted to hospital, but the cost to the NHS is £3 million a year. Let us not forget that among the professionals whom we currently ask to take risks by going into private property are midwives and health visitors, and they will be better protected as a result of the extension we propose.

I recently met the father of a little girl from Chingford whose ear was chewed off in a horrific attack in a public park. It was simply heartbreaking to hear how the unrestrained dog attacked, circled and attacked again—like a shark, he said. Victims of dog attacks, together with police officers, health workers, vets and postal workers, have specifically called for powerful new dog control notices that could, for example, force owners to muzzle and restrain aggressive dogs and prevent attacks. Will the Secretary of State explain, not only to the House but to that father and all the victims of dog attacks, why the Government have rejected these new powers that have been demanded, which could tackle irresponsible owners and save young lives and limbs?

Everybody in this House will want to express their sympathy for families whose children have either been maimed or lost their lives. It is tragic that four of the five most recent fatalities have been children under the age of five. I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s desire not to see that happen again.

With regard to the control of dogs in public places, the Dangerous Dogs Act gives the police powers to do that, including the ability to require the muzzling of dogs. These can be used as conditions for a dog owner retaining ownership of the dog. As I have said, local authorities can also use dog control orders.

Rivers and Waterways

We are making excellent progress with our plan to transfer British Waterways’ navigations in England and Wales to the Canal and River Trust: funding has been agreed, the charity has been registered, the board of trustees is in place, the charity’s council has had its first meeting, and recruitment of members of the waterways partnerships is well under way. Subject to parliamentary approval, we plan to transfer the waterways in July, ensuring the network’s long-term future. Much is also being done to improve the quality of our rivers and their surrounding catchments.

The River Avon runs through the bottom of my constituency. Alongside it runs the River Avon trail, a great example of how scenic waterways can be opened up for local people and visitors alike. Will the Minister accept an invitation to come to see at first hand the great work that has been done by those involved in this success?

I would certainly like to visit the trail, because I think that it is a wonderful example of how local people and riparian owners, working together, can really improve the quality of people’s lives and of the river. We recently launched our Love Your Rivers campaign, which I extol to Members on both sides of the House, because it is an opportunity to connect local people with their waterways and ensure that they understand that the water we rely on comes from the natural environment and how we can all be responsible for looking after it.

Having chaired the all-party group on waterways for the past couple of years, I welcome the Minister’s willingness to engage with those who care for the waterways and with parliamentarians on these issues and the steps he has just described. Will he ensure that in future Ministers and officials fully respect the independence of the new Canal and River Trust and its trustees, as that is an essential part of the new structures he is putting in place?

May I put on the record my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman—I thank other Members too, but him particularly—for his work in supporting what we have been trying to do? He is a long-standing supporter of the waterways. I absolutely assure him that the governance model we have introduced will create an independent organisation that cannot be tampered with by Ministers in future, and certainly not by this Minister, who passionately wants the charity to succeed.

Currently boats are allowed to discharge effluent into rivers and watercourses. I recognise the difficulties with some locations, which are very remote from any practical answer to the problem, but what measures is the Minister taking to call a complete halt to this practice so that the quality of beach bathing water, particularly in the west country, is kept to the very highest standards?

Water quality is an absolute fundamental, and releasing pollutants into waterways can affect our ability to comply with the directives that we have signed up to, such as the water framework directive, so it is an absolute priority as well. We have allocated funding to improve water quality. I will certainly look at any regulations, and if the new charity comes forward with suggestions that require legislation on any level, we will certainly consider that.

Agriculture Council

4. What meetings she has had with Ministers from the devolved Administrations to discuss the European Council meeting on Agriculture and Fisheries on 26 and 27 April 2012. (105406)

May I take this opportunity to explain to the House that I chose to be with hon. Members in the House today rather than to go the negotiations on the common agricultural policy? It is because the next set of oral questions to my Department may clash with the Rio+20 summit.

Normally I would meet Ministers from devolved Administrations to discuss reform of the CAP and the common fisheries policy, which are the main agenda items at today’s Council. I look forward to continuing those discussions, and my next meeting with them will be on 2 May.

It is normal practice for UK lead Ministers to meet Ministers from devolved Administrations before Council meetings, and I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will have done so.

In a recent major interview with a European publication, the Welsh First Minister said of participation in European meetings:

“It is not enough to be in the room, we have to be at the table as well.”

I certainly could not agree more with him. Under what circumstances would English Agriculture Ministers in the British Government give up the table to Welsh Ministers in European Council meetings, or would Wales get to the table only as an independent state in the European Union?

This matter was discussed in a memorandum of understanding when the coalition Government came into office. I regularly invite devolved Ministers to attend Council meetings, and we have on one occasion invited a devolved Minister to speak on behalf of the United Kingdom, but I should like to make two points: the UK is the member state; and as with all devolved nations’ Administrations, when we throw the full weight of the United Kingdom behind the needs of a nation such as Wales, we are more likely to secure what the hon. Gentleman’s nation would like.

Given the global food shortage and rising food prices, in the Council negotiations with other Ministers is the Secretary of State focusing all her attention on how we ensure that we maximise food production by our farmers in order to tackle this crisis?

I certainly am. The European Commission identifies food security and climate change as the twin challenges of CAP reform, but I am on the record as having said that what is proposed is not ambitious enough in that regard. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom is pushing very hard to ensure that the reformed CAP results in more productive and sustainable agriculture, whereby we produce more food both at home and for those in need of it abroad.


8. What recent discussions she has had on the extent of drought; and if she will make a statement. (105410)

Drought is a natural phenomenon, so with the Environment Agency and water companies we have been drawing up a contingency plan. Since May 2011 we have held three drought summits and established the national drought group to co-ordinate action to manage the impact of the drought. Water companies are taking action to conserve the public water supply, and that is why we put resilience at the heart of the water White Paper.

I think the public must question the competence of the Government when it comes to drought orders, given that we are having one of the wettest springs on record, but does the Secretary of State know anybody, or of anybody, who is using their hosepipe in spite of the hosepipe ban?

I could be deluded into thinking that I had the power to make it rain on the basis of this week, but I know that no Government can make it rain. The Government saw the drought coming, warned farmers of the need to make preparations, and said that if we had a second dry winter we would be in a drought situation. The water companies have made the correct decision to introduce temporary restrictions for non-essential uses of domestic water supply in the parts of the country that are water-stressed.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to create water interconnectivity between the regions of the United Kingdom, so that we have more of a national grid of water supply?

The Government made it clear in the water White Paper that we published last autumn that we want to see increased connectivity. Water companies are already joining up their sources of supply to help them to move water from areas of plenty to those of greatest need. For example, interconnection exists between United Utilities and the west-east link, and as my hon. Friend will have seen in the press, there is a bulk trading proposal between Severn Trent Water and Anglian Water. Local connectivity is the key, and Ofwat will bring forward proposals for the next price review that will encourage that.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on a shining and rare example of a successful Government policy. Since the drought was declared, it has been pouring with rain and she is in danger of doing a Denis Howell. Does she believe that people with boreholes should comply with any hosepipe ban in their area?

In her kind remark at the beginning, the hon. Lady recalled the plight of one of my west midlands predecessors, Denis Howell, who will be forever remembered as the Minister for Rain who tried to make it rain in 1976. He is fondly remembered.

I encourage people who have borehole capacity on their property to follow the example of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and abide by the restrictions that apply to those who do not have a private supply of water. That is good practice.

There is some debate about the Under-Secretary of State’s hosepipe and whether it was left on. We know that the hosepipe ban has prompted—

Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) should not accuse another Member of misleading the House. That is improper. I say to him in all charity and kindness that, notwithstanding his great abilities and track record, in his capacity as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister his role is to fetch and carry notes, and to nod as required; it is not to shout and heckle from a sedentary position. He will remain silent.

Order. I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. Before we go any further, the hon. Gentleman should immediately withdraw the suggestion or allegation that anyone has misled the House.

That is the first time that I have been accused of misleading the House when I have described something as a matter of debate.

The hosepipe ban has prompted a borehole boom. Taking from the groundwater supply affects everyone, because that is the water that fills the reservoirs, rivers and aquifers used by the public mains water supply. The Secretary of State’s water White Paper that was published in December—her definition of “autumn” is slightly unusual—astonished the water industry, because it proposed delaying the reform of water abstraction until 2027. What plans does she have in the meantime to tackle unsustainable water use by the few to preserve drinking water supplies for the many?

The reform of the abstraction regime has, in effect, commenced. At the drought summit in May last year, the stakeholders in the industry agreed that we needed to take a more flexible approach to the present 30,000 abstractions a year to ensure that the water gets to everybody who needs it. The Environment Agency was praised publicly by the stakeholders at the third drought summit for the flexibility and transparency that have been achieved in the existing abstraction system. That does not mean that there is no scope for further improvement. As I said in the water White Paper, because of the challenge of climate change, we need to reform abstraction.

At the time of the last Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions in March, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining, and the Secretary of State set out some important measures on drought. I congratulate her on the wettest month in recent years. Notwithstanding that, groundwater and aquifer levels are still low, posing some threat to farmers and habitats in Norfolk. Will she take this opportunity to encourage families around the country to use water judiciously in the home and house to prevent the risk of drought this summer?

My hon. Friend makes some very helpful points. Although we have had really heavy rainfall this month, that will not be enough to make up for two very dry winters in a row, so it continues to be important that everyone takes responsibility for saving water. The current conditions allow water companies and farmers to top up the reservoirs, which is a good thing, but it is important that we continue to make all the efforts we can to conserve water.

Rural Communities

11. What steps she is taking to ensure that rural communities and businesses are fully engaged with the work of her Department. (105413)

DEFRA’s new England-wide rural and farming network provides a means of two-way engagement between DEFRA Ministers and 17 rural and farming network groups representing rural communities and businesses. DEFRA Ministers are proactively seeking meetings with those groups to ensure that they are engaged with the work of the Department. DEFRA continues to invest in the rural community action network and holds regular discussions with Lord Teverson’s Rural Coalition.

I thank the Minister. Will he join me in congratulating all those involved in the successful bid from Coventry and Warwickshire for a rural growth network, and state how the Department will work with that network to improve engagement with the business community?

The cross-party board that examined the 29 applications from local economic partnerships and from some local authorities was really impressed by the rural growth network in my hon. Friend’s constituency. A credible, experienced set of partners brought it together, and it is a good network. Those partners are accustomed to delivery and believe that they will lever in £50 million of investment. That will mean jobs and technology-led industries, and I look forward to seeing how successful it will be in the coming years.

Topical Questions

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In that regard, it relies heavily on the scientific expertise of its key staff and, accordingly, I should like to record formally the appointment of Professor Ian Boyd as my Department’s new chief scientific adviser. Professor Boyd will take over from Professor Sir Bob Watson, whose experience and expertise have been tremendous in the service of successive Governments.

Earlier this year, about 650 elephants were slaughtered in Cameroon for their ivory. Sadly, that is just one example of that vile, illegal trade. What work is my right hon. Friend doing in the international community to ensure that it is stopped once and for all?

Yes, it is a despicable trade, and my hon. Friend, who has Gatwick airport in his constituency, will know how hard we work on our borders to deter it. We are working through the convention on international trade in endangered species to ensure that no further sales of ivory take place without firm evidence that such sales will reduce poaching. In the past year we have contributed £134,000 to Interpol and CITES precisely to combat the illegal ivory trade.

T2. There are reports that the Mayor of London sprays suppressants on roads immediately around key air pollution monitoring sites to reduce pollution readings. Given that there are an estimated 4,000 deaths in the capital a year owing to the air quality, would that not be an outrageous and rather callous scam? Does the Minister support the policy of pretending an issue does not exist rather than using scarce resources to deal with it? (105423)

Suppressants are used as part of a wide strategy for dealing with pollution, and if the hon. Lady believes they are only used around monitoring stations, she is entirely wrong. They are used at pollution hot spots as a temporary measure, and as part of a wider strategy. The Mayor should be applauded for the measures that he is bringing in.

T3. Broadband for the Rural North is a community group in my constituency dedicated to bringing superfast broadband to a neglected part of our rural uplands. It is a real example of the big society in action, with hundreds of people coming together, putting their own money in, digging their own trenches and laying their own cables. What further help could DEFRA give, and will a Minister come to see what the group is doing to see how we can support it in fulfilling its potential? (105424)

I have heard of that noble initiative and many others, and can confirm that DEFRA has allocated £20 million as part of its rural broadband fund precisely to support such communities. I am keen to ensure that local initiatives fit in with Broadband Delivery UK and DEFRA’s role to ensure that we get superfast broadband to the hardest-to-reach communities. I praise my hon. Friend’s community for what it has done thus far.

T4. PepsiCo, BT, the Co-op, Centrica and United Utilities all support mandatory carbon reporting to improve business environmental performance. The Secretary of State’s party supported it in opposition, but the statutory deadline for a decision has now been missed. They wanted to be the greenest Government ever, but when are they going to deliver on that? (105425)

The support of the companies the right hon. Gentleman identifies is welcome in that regard. I issued a statement to the House about the delay. The difficulty is that those companies report their carbon on a different basis. We therefore need to take the time to find a common basis on which to measure how companies report carbon so that investors can compare like with like.

Great Cornish food and drink producers contribute £1.5 billion every year to the local economy. What can DEFRA Ministers do to help them export their delicious products overseas?

Nobody disputes that the produce my hon. Friend describes is wonderful, but the challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises is how to overcome the hurdles of exporting to emerging markets such as China and India, which are sometimes quite complex. I am delighted to announce to the House that the Minister of State will visit Cornwall tomorrow precisely to discuss that, and in the following month, he will go to China precisely to advocate the kind of good-quality Cornish products my hon. Friend describes.

T5. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Brighton and Hove city council on its resolution to become a One Planet council, which means, for example, that it will be run using sustainable procurement policies, and renewable energy and biodiversity practices? Will she commit to adopting One Planet principles as a step towards keeping sustainability in all policy making? (105426)

I am happy to extend a hearty congratulation to the hon. Lady’s council, and I understand that the Isle of Wight is about to declare itself an eco-council, which shows the important role that local authorities can play. She will also know that the UK is playing a leading part in the preparations for the Rio+20 summit—the 20-year anniversary of the original Earth summit—where we will strongly advocate the need to put growth on to a more sustainable footing. We have also given strong support to the Colombian proposal for sustainable development goals.

I welcome the measures the Secretary of State has announced on controlling dangerous dogs, such as they are—we also need tougher penalties to tackle dangerous owners—but does she agree that we should do more to encourage local authorities to use tenancy agreements, to help manage dogs better in council-owned properties?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I commend Ealing council for its “Dog Watch” initiative. There are many examples of local authorities taking innovative approaches to tackling that complex problem, including, for example, Wandsworth, which has restrictions on dog ownership in its tenanted properties. We believe in localism and that local authorities should be free to decide how to innovate, and those are both good examples of how to do so.

T6. On Tuesday, we mark the 80th anniversary of the mass trespass at Kinder Scout. In Bolton West, we also remember the anniversary of the mass trespass at Winter hill in 1896, when 10,000 Boltonians trespassed on the moors above Bolton. However, all hon. Members know that the campaign for public access is not over. Will the Secretary of State inform the House when the process of designating the next stretches of England’s coastal paths will begin? (105427)

I visited one of the next phases of the coastal path earlier this week in Somerset, and saw some of the complications of integrating land management with access. We inherited quite a complicated system that we are trying to make simpler, and the first section of the path that I opened at Weymouth has a “lessons learned” report, which we are working on. The next five sections will be announced shortly.

Will my hon. Friend explore every opportunity possible to negotiate with our European partners to secure exclusivity for UK vessels within our 12-mile limit in the forthcoming negotiations on the common fisheries policy?

I am going to Luxembourg this afternoon to take part in the Fisheries Council tomorrow. My hon. Friend is the voice in my head on such matters—[Laughter.] You know what I mean. If I can obtain 12-mile exclusivity, it will be a great achievement.

T7. In the last year of the Labour Government, 42 community-owned shops opened, thanks mainly to support from DEFRA and the Plunkett Foundation. How many community-owned shops have opened in each year since the general election? (105428)

My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House says that he has one opening next month, and one opened in my constituency in recent weeks. Beyond that, I am afraid that I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman the exact figure, but there is fervent support for the kind of initiatives that see community shops opening. We want to do our best, through big society support and other policies, to ensure that more happen.

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), the Minister knows that the so-called historic entitlement of foreign vessels within the 12-mile zone is widely abused. In the forthcoming negotiations, will he ensure that the legal basis on which that historic entitlement is claimed is properly reviewed and the integrity of the 12-mile zone restored?

I want my hon. Friend and the House to understand that we are considering very seriously the suggestions that I have received in recent weeks, not least from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, about legal methods through which one could secure greater control. The most important thing is to get more regionalised and locally based management of our fisheries, and that is what I will discuss tomorrow in Luxembourg and will continue to discuss through the negotiations. I assure my hon. Friend that illegal activity in our 12-mile waters is something that I take very seriously and I want to ensure that enforcement is effective at every stage.

T9. Farmers across the United Kingdom are looking to the Government to live up to their pledge to legislate for a grocery adjudicator. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she has managed to persuade her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Prime Minister to include this in this year’s Queen’s Speech? (105431)

Obviously, I cannot tell the hon. Lady what is in the Queen’s Speech, but I invite her to look at the body language of the Deputy Leader of the House as a clear steer that she will not be disappointed.

The farming community are very worried about the outbreak of the Schmallenberg virus. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether pan-European work will be done to produce a vaccine against this terrible disease?

We are working on a co-operative basis with the other member states that have been affected. One of the lessons from the successful tackling of blue tongue for the farming industry and the vaccination industry is the viability of such a vaccine. It would take several years to produce such a vaccine as it is a new virus and still requires a lot of science to make sure that we make the right decision. I give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that, with the quality of our scientific base added to that of other member states, no stone will be left unturned.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Neighbourhood Planning Referendums

1. What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the rules relating to neighbourhood planning referendums. (105432)

The commission is reviewing the draft regulations for the conduct of neighbourhood planning referendums and will respond to the Department for Communities and Local Government shortly. As required by the Localism Act 2011, the Department also consulted the commission on proposed questions to be put to voters at these referendums. The commission published its assessment of the proposed questions on 11 April and has recommended some changes to the wording to make it easier for voters to understand. It also suggested the need for supplementary information to be made available to voters to enable them to participate in an informed way.

The people of Bromsgrove are pleased that the Localism Act has given them unprecedented powers to shape their local community, but the wording in the referendums is crucial. Has the commission considered the best way to word such questions and will it be issuing formal guidance?

I am delighted to be able to give my hon. Friend a positive response. He makes the important point that in any referendum it is important that the question is right, clear and fair. The commission is conducting detailed research with experts, the public, political parties and campaign groups to ensure that the wording in the upcoming referendums under the Localism Act is unbiased and intelligible.

Church Commissioners

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

VAT (Listed Buildings)

2. What representations the Church Commissioners have made to Her Majesty’s Treasury on the proposed extension of VAT to approved alterations to listed buildings. (105433)

The Bishop of London and I met my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury on Monday. It was a helpful and constructive meeting. We made it clear why we believed it to be in the best interests of the community to continue to exempt alterations to listed places of worship from VAT. We gave the Chancellor a full written submission, a copy of which I have arranged to be placed in the Library. The Chancellor undertook to consider our submission carefully and made clear the Government’s commitment to ensuring that listed places of worship are not adversely affected by the Budget proposal. I anticipate a further meeting with the Chancellor and the Exchequer Secretary in due course.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his actions, intervention and report. I have the privilege to be the Member of Parliament for two historic cathedrals—Southwark and St George’s—as well as many churches. Other colleagues share my concerns. Will he ensure that he continues to update us on this matter? I will continue willingly to apply pressure on this point, because it is important that the Government understand that simply extending the scheme’s remit to give money, when the budget has been cut, does not solve the problem, unless the rules are changed.

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. One reason we are keen that the Chancellor maintains the VAT exemption for church alterations is the certainty it brings. However much money is put into the listed places of worship scheme, it has its own inherent volatility and uncertainty, and no one is sure until after the event how much the refund will be. In the last quarter, for example, only just over half of the money for the listed places of worship scheme was refunded.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s remit applies to the Church of England, but he will be aware that churches throughout the UK, including many in my constituency, will be affected by the VAT changes. Does he agree that if any arrangements are made to assist the churches to meet their extra costs, they should apply to churches throughout the UK? Will he make that point in his discussions with the Chancellor?

Of course. I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the listed places of worship scheme extends to every church, synagogue and meeting house—to every listed place of worship. We are trying to make such buildings as adaptable as possible for wider community use. This is often about humble but important things, such as putting in kitchens and toilets to make such buildings as available as possible to the whole community.

10. I thank my hon. Friend for the representations he has made to Ministers. Will he take note of the objections raised by many members of the Church of England in my constituency, including members of St Peter’s church in Congleton and St Mary’s church in Sandbach? Will he consider two points? First, the Treasury has said that there will be an exemption from the new rules for contracts that have already been signed, but many churches have already undertaken ongoing works. Could there be some flexibility in that respect? Secondly, if the grant scheme is to be reviewed, could it be so over a period of several years, not just one or two years, so that there can be certainty? Works often take many years. (105441)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important to get the transitional relief right. We made it clear to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if he was not minded to follow us on continuing the exemption, but wanted to increase the grant under the listed places of worship scheme, we would want to see certainty over the sum, not just for this year but for a whole number of years to come.

Quite a number of projects will not go ahead if the proposal stands. The reassurance that the hon. Gentleman has received from the Chancellor is encouraging, but does he accept that that reassurance can be delivered only if the proposal is abandoned altogether?

The right hon. Gentleman is a former Treasury Minister, and I am sure that he will have understood from the substantive answer that I gave at the outset that the Chancellor and his officials are considering carefully the submissions and representations that we put to them. They obviously want to consider the legal implications of a VAT exemption just for alterations to listed places of worship. Discussions with officials are ongoing, and the dialogue is constructive and positive.

7. Of the 312 churches across the diocese of Truro, 56 are carrying out repairs and alterations this year. The proposed VAT changes would add £405,000 to the bill. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that churches such as St John’s in Truro that are making alterations to enable greater use of their facilities by community groups such as the Truro Homeless Action Group might be deterred by the prospect of having to find an extra £5,000 just for the VAT? (105438)

I have visited St John’s; it does excellent work. This is a good example of the kind of alterations involving such humble things as toilets and kitchens that are being carried out to serve the wider community. As every colleague in the House will know, £5,000 is a lot of money to have to raise through jumble sales and coffee mornings, and such funds are all being raised by local people working voluntarily. We should not underestimate the impact of the change on our communities, should it go ahead.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this matter so far. When the Prime Minister was asked about it at Prime Minister’s questions, he made a rather obscure reference to adding swimming pools to stately homes, but the fact is that nearly half of all grade 1 listed buildings in England and Wales are Church of England churches. Alterations are made to them to facilitate wider community use, and St John’s in Godley, Hyde, has so far raised £47,000 to carry out the work that it wants to do. Should not the Government think again on this?

The Prime Minister said, not so long ago, that the big society was

“the biggest possible opportunity for churches up and down the country to have a real social mission”.

I have no doubt that he appreciates the potential for churches and church buildings to be open not just for a few hours on a Sunday but throughout the whole week, to provide a basis for real social activity.

8. Historic churches across North Wiltshire, such as those at Castle Combe and Hullavington, will be relieved to hear what my hon. Friend has said, in a tentative way, about the possible increase in VAT to 20% on alterations. Does he agree, however, that replacing VAT exemption with a discretionary grant would not do, because it would not go to all churches? It would go only to those churches chosen by commissioners or other individuals, and lots of churches that currently have the exemption would therefore no longer have it. (105439)

I hope I have made it clear to the House that we share those concerns. That is why we are pushing for full exemption. The listed places of worship scheme is welcome, but it is very volatile and uncertain at the moment because people are never quite clear how much they will receive back under the scheme.

6. Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefit to listed places of worship from the planned changes to gift aid next year will be more than outweighed by the proposal to charge them VAT on alterations? I do not know of any listed places of worship that are planning to install a swimming pool, but I know that many churches and cathedrals are planning to carry out alterations. Does he therefore agree that it would be best to leave things as they are and to allow the exemption to continue? (105437)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but, in fairness, so does the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is why he made clear, at the meeting that the Bishop of London and I had with him on Monday, the Government’s commitment to ensuring that listed places of worship would not be adversely affected by the Budget proposal, and I am sure that he will do everything he can to deliver on that commitment.

Electoral Commission committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Police and Crime Commissioners

3. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of arrangements for the elections for police and crime commissioners in November 2012. (105434)

On 15 March, the Electoral Commission submitted its response to the Home Office consultation on the draft statutory instruments for police and crime commissioner elections. A copy of the response has been placed in the Library of the House of Commons. The commission’s main concern is the Government’s proposal to create a website to host information from candidates. It believes that this is not the most effective way of ensuring that all voters, especially those who do not have regular internet access, know about the candidates standing in their areas. The commission also made a number of other recommendations to ensure that the elections are well run.

Harlow residents are hugely excited about these elections, not least because Essex Conservatives are encouraging any resident to apply to be our candidate if they are up to the job. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Electoral Commission will help candidates with leaflets and in other ways, rather than be a bureaucratic hindrance?

As we have learned to know in this House, where Harlow leads, others will follow. My hon. Friend endorses the main point made to the Government by the Electoral Commission—that a website alone will not be enough for individual candidates, many of whom were not well known previously, to get the message across. I very much hope that the Government will listen to the Electoral Commission’s proposal that leaflets to every household are also important.

Is there anything that the Electoral Commission can do to provide that information if it is not possible to get the Government to change their mind about the leaflets and a free post to every household?

It is certainly not the job of the Electoral Commission to fund a free mail-out on behalf of candidates, but what it will do as part of its £3.6 million awareness campaign is to ensure that a booklet goes to every household in the 41 areas where these referendums are taking place to inform people about the elections, and it will include a reference to the Government website.

House of Lords Reform (Referendum)

4. Whether the Electoral Commission has had any discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister on a referendum on the Government's proposed reform of the House of Lords. (105435)

The Electoral Commission has had no such discussions. If there should be a referendum on House of Lords reform, the commission’s priorities are that any referendum should be well run in every part of the UK, and that the questions put to the voters should be intelligible and unbiased.

Given the effective and efficient way in which the Electoral Commission oversaw the referendum on the alternative vote system last year, does he agree that the commission is indeed well equipped to handle a referendum on the House of Lords or, indeed, any other matter of momentous constitutional change?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is, of course, a matter for this Parliament whether or not there will be a referendum on House of Lords reform. When it comes to it, the Electoral Commission will do all it can to ensure that the success of the alternative vote referendum last year is replicated. I am not necessarily talking about the outcome of the referendum—although I am really—but about it being well run and about the question put to voters being clear and unbiased.

In possible discussions between the Electoral Commission and the Deputy Prime Minister, will the point come up that any election to the House of Lords will rebalance the powers between this House and that House—a constitutional matter that I submit should become automatically liable to a referendum for popular approval?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I am afraid that it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

Voter Registration

5. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effectiveness of its recent campaign to increase voter registration. (105436)

The Electoral Commission’s recent campaign was targeted at audiences, including home movers, individuals from black and minority ethnic communities, students and service voters. The full evaluation of this year’s campaign will be made available in the summer, but initial indications are that during this campaign, there were more than 500,000 visits to the commission’s “About My Vote” website and more than 100,000 registration forms were ordered or downloaded.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and I think the adverts were excellent. What role, however, does the Electoral Commission have in ensuring that electoral registration officers play their part in making sure that people who cannot easily be reached are able to register?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although we have all seen the Electoral Commission’s TV adverts encouraging people to register to vote, it is the day-to-day task of electoral registration officers in each locality to maximise voter registration. Performance can be patchy, and the Electoral Commission is working with the poorest performing EROs to try to support them in doing a better job.