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Topical Questions

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

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.