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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 547: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Agricultural Exports

In January we published the joint Government-industry action plan, “Driving Export Growth in the Farming, Food and Drink Sector”. Since then we have worked closely with a number of organisations, including the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board, to promote UK agriculture in a number of target markets, and we are pursuing all opportunities to export fine British food.

May I thank the Secretary of State for supporting the recent Worcestershire day in Parliament, to which all six Worcestershire MPs invited local food and drink producers? Does the ministerial team agree that there are many other producers in the county who could join the legendary Lea and Perrins in becoming known around the world?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point: the value of brands. The Lea and Perrins brand is obviously extremely well known and Britain has a great tradition of good food brands from Worcestershire and elsewhere, so we are taking every opportunity and doing everything we can to support the British food industry to export and build on those excellent brand reputations.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we export more food and drink to Belgium than we do to Brazil, Russia, India, China and Mexico combined. I am aware that he has recently been to China. What action is he taking to encourage more exports to some of these fast-growing, emerging economies?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to use that statistic, which I have used many times. He is also right to say that I recently took a food trade mission to China, representing a number of sectors of the British food industry. The most important result was that we opened up the Chinese market to British pigmeat exports, which the industry believes could be worth some £50 million a year. What is interesting is that the industry would not just be exporting the conventional cuts that we eat in this country, because China has an appetite for other parts of the pig, sometimes called the fifth quarter, which will add value to many pigs, not just those exported as full carcasses. He is absolutely right about there being plenty of other opportunities. In particular, we are targeting the Russian market to complete the process of opening it up for the British beef industry.

Forestry Commission

2. Under what circumstances the Forestry Commission may decline to comment on proposed developments on land for which it is responsible. (115214)

It is for the planning authority to decide whether to grant permission for a development, guided by the national planning policy framework issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. The Environment Agency and Natural England are statutory consultees in the planning process. The Forestry Commission will provide factual information on request on a non-statutory basis.

Parkhurst forest is an ancient woodland that is home to rare flora and fauna, and much of it is a site of special scientific interest. It is owned partly by the Forestry Commission and partly by the Ministry of Justice, which wants to site two 410-feet high wind turbines there, but the Forestry Commission has a policy of not objecting to schemes put forward by Government Departments unless there is a specific operational reason. Will the Secretary of State tell me who is responsible for evaluating the suitability and impact of these proposals on such sensitive sites?

Natural England is responsible for the SSSI. The land in question, on which it is proposed that the wind turbines should be built, is not managed by the Forestry Commission; it manages land adjacent to it. It has studied the proposal and the environmental assessment and assessed that the application will not impact on land it manages or owns.

To be able to offer advice, the Forestry Commission must be properly staffed and resourced. Given the announcement yesterday from the independent panel, will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no further cuts in the Forestry Commission’s staff or resources?

Yes. We gave the Forestry Commission additional funds to assist with its restructuring, but, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, we inherited a situation in which the previous Government left us with a very substantial deficit and we have to set about clearing up the mess. That involves all DEFRA agencies playing their part, but we have provided assistance to the Forestry Commission on restructuring.

May I commend the Secretary of State on completing her about-face on forests? She was an innovative trailblazer back in the day when she halted her sell-off of the forests, setting a U-turning example that I am pleased to see has been followed by almost every Department in Whitehall ever since. In her answer to the previous question, she said that additional funds had been made available to the Forestry Commission to carry out its programme of cuts. Will she now commit to halting those cuts until she brings forward her decision on the report that was published yesterday?

We are dealing with two separate things here, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for recording her cross-party support for the forestry report. To reiterate for the House and to make it perfectly clear, the public forest estate will remain in public ownership and there is no programme of sales, but, as I have just said in response to the question from the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), DEFRA has to help to reduce the deficit that the Labour party left this Government to clear up. Every DEFRA agency is playing its part, but we have given assistance specifically to the Forestry Commission with its restructuring programme.

Marine Biodiversity

3. When she plans to establish a network of marine protected areas to conserve biodiversity in England’s seas. (115215)

This question would normally be answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is currently representing the United Kingdom at the International Whaling Commission.

We already have a network of 84 marine protected areas in English seas out to 12 nautical miles from the coast, and we plan to complete the set designated under the EU habitats directive this year. In addition, we are working to designate more sites under the EU birds directive and more marine conservation zones, as provided for in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, to add to the network from 2013 onwards.

I am sure the whole House will wish to send its best wishes to the right hon. Lady’s colleague at the International Whaling Commission. I bear the scars of a number of those conferences and, in particular, I hope that the Under-Secretary delivers a tough message on the outrageous South Korean decision to resume so-called scientific whaling. No such thing exists.

Marine protected areas are absolutely vital if we are to protect fish, seafood and other aspects of marine biodiversity in the seas around our coast, including around Devon. Their designation is already running two years’ late, however, and there are worrying reports that the Government intend to reduce the number from 127, which the right hon. Lady’s own independent scientific advisory group said was the minimum required, to just 30. I hope that she can dispel those concerns now. Thirty would be totally inadequate; we need the 127 that her own advisory group recommends.

I will convey the right hon. Gentleman’s encouragement to the Under-Secretary, because the negotiations are indeed tough when dealing with countries that still pursue whaling practices.

May I put the matter of marine conservation zones in context? The Under-Secretary made a statement to Parliament in November last year, making it clear that an independent scientific review had found the evidence base for the designation of those zones to be insufficiently robust. I am sure the House wants the decision to be based on evidence and led by science, so we will not be rushed into making a decision without that additional evidence. On the figures in reports, the right hon. Gentleman should take them with a pinch of salt.

I welcome the introduction of further marine conservation zones, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the intention is not to put out of business those fishermen who engage in low-impact fishing, particularly mackerel handlining on the Cape bank off the Cornish coast? Surely, in designating these zones the intention is to strike a balance and to ensure that we get things right.

I thank my hon. Friend for that observation, which underlines the point about the need to ensure that the evidence is robust and to balance the needs of all those who require access to our marine and coastal waters, but who have at heart the health and welfare of our seas. We need to ensure that the evidence base is robust.

Food Producers (Lincolnshire)

The Government are determined, as I have already described, to support British food and farming. Much of our support for businesses in Lincolnshire, including food producers, will be available through the local enterprise partnerships in the county and, of course, through the rural development programme. As I said earlier, the Government will do all that we can to encourage such businesses to export their excellent products.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the application for protected geographical indication status for Lincolnshire sausages. The application has overwhelming public support, particularly in Lincolnshire, but it has recently been rejected by his Department, despite the acceptance of similar applications for Cornish pasties and Melton Mowbray pork pies. There is an appeal, for which new evidence has been submitted. I hope that my right hon. Friend can reassure me and the people of Lincolnshire that our compelling case for the Lincolnshire sausage will now be recognised.

Obviously, I am aware of the disappointment throughout Lincolnshire at the application’s rejection. However, given my hon. and learned Friend’s expertise, I am sure that he knows it was on valid grounds.

First, the sausages have been made outside Lincolnshire for more than 20 years. We found—[Interruption.] This is all on the public record. We found considerable variation in the recipes being used and a large proportion of so-called Lincolnshire sausages are made outside the county. If the appeal brings forward new evidence, that, of course, will be properly taken into account. I will write to my hon. and learned Friend with the final decision.

Is the Minister aware that Lincolnshire is in revolt on this issue? The last time we rebelled, it was against Henry VIII, who called us his “most brute and beestelie” of counties. This is not good enough. The Minister must support the people of Lincolnshire in this great campaign.

My noble Friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach has assured me, within the Department, of the concern expressed throughout Lincolnshire, but we have to be consistent in our application of the criteria. As I have just described, we felt that the whole application was rather too loose. We have an appeal to consider and if Lincolnshire people come forward with a variation on the application, that will also be considered.

Flood Insurance

The availability and affordability of insurance in flood risk areas is an important issue for the Government. We are at an advanced stage in intensive and constructive negotiations with the insurance industry on alternative arrangements for when the statement of principles expires. I will be providing a further update to the House shortly.

Simon Douglas, the director of AA Insurance, believes that some homes will not be able to renew their flood insurance this year because their new policy will extend beyond the life of the statement of principles. The situation is now urgent. The Secretary of State must resolve it. When is she going to sign the deal?

I took the trouble to find out the situation in the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Environment Agency has confirmed that it has received no reports of flooded properties there, notwithstanding the surface water pressure over Bolton in June. None the less, the issue is important.

On the urgency, I gently remind the hon. Lady that her party had two years in government from the time when it agreed that the statement of principles would not be renewed. It found no solution, leaving this Government with a ticking time bomb in the safe where no money was left.

In answer to a previous question, the Secretary of State said that she was keen on evidence-based policy. All the evidence suggests, and everybody knows, that in places such as Yorkshire, which have been hard hit by the floods, the relief that comes from insurance or any other help takes too long. During that time, individuals, families and small businesses suffer dreadfully. This is not party political. Will the Secretary of State do something to help those people?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, DEFRA Ministers have visited each part of the country severely affected in the sequence of heavy rain that we have had. I went to Gateshead last Saturday. A number of Government Departments can be engaged in providing help. Most importantly, the Department for Communities and Local Government has a formula—the Bellwin formula—that I urge local authorities to apply to for funds. Before the recess, I shall give hon. Members the opportunity for a briefing on how we can provide further assistance.

May I commend the report on the water White Paper published today by the departmental Select Committee? We stand ready to assist the Secretary of State in reaching a deal. Will she give the House an assurance that the cohort of tenants on low incomes will be granted affordable insurance where they are at risk of flooding?

Yes, I can give that assurance, which is very important. The deal that we are in the process of negotiating with the insurance industry tackles for the first time the question of affordability, which the statement of principles—the previous scheme—did not.

As the Minister will be aware, flood insurance is a vital issue for many people in my constituency. In 2007, the previous Government agreed with the industry the statement of principles, which, as we all know, expires next year. Will she advise the House on what work was carried out by the previous Government in preparation for that?

None. I could stop there, but I would also like to point out that this Government will be spending over £2 billion on flood defences and that the flood defences in Carlisle held despite the fact that the rainfall was heavier than in 2005.

15. Of course, this is a massive issue for the householders affected. It is also a big issue for the local authorities, which often have to face massive clear-up costs and help people who are left destitute. Will the Secretary of State now commit, as the Labour Government did in 2007 and 2009, fully to reimburse local authorities for those costs? (115228)

The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me the chance to place on the record my appreciation to the local authorities in different parts of the country which have done an excellent job in implementing the emergency plans that they prepare for flooding. The Prime Minister, no less, when visiting the north-west, urged the Department for Communities and Local Government to be generous when applying the Bellwin formula to assist local authorities in the way that the hon. Gentleman requests.

Does the Minister agree that rather than the short-term measure that was put together in 2007, we now need a long-term approach that addresses affordability and availability? That is surely something that colleagues in all parts of the House could support.

Yes. The successor to the statement of principles must address both universality and affordability of insurance in a way that the statement of principles did not. As I said, we are very close to reaching agreement on that. It is of great importance to the Government that we do so, and I will shortly inform the House of more details.

16. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for attending a flood summit in Hull last Friday. It was clear from that meeting that people are very concerned about flooding and flood insurance. Is it not time that the Government reached an agreement with the insurance industry that will guarantee that our constituents’ homes are protected in future? (115229)

Mr Speaker, you can understand that the Ministers who inherited from the previous Government the ticking time bomb of having no way forward on the statement of principles are frustrated by the suggestion that we get a grip on this. We have, and we are close to an agreement that will provide both universality and affordability of insurance. That underlines the significance of the dereliction of duty by the hon. Gentleman’s party when in office.

In thanking the Secretary of State for her Department’s help with flood management issues in my constituency, does she agree that flood risk assessments should include natural and man-made defences in any planning?

Putting sustainable development at the heart of the planning reform means that flood-affected and flood-prone areas now give greater consideration to their sustainability. Natural and man-made flood defences can both help to make an area prone to flooding more sustainable.

17. The relaxation of planning rules in the national planning policy framework has meant that planning consent was recently granted at Damfield lane in Maghull, which is on a flood plain. The town already has an overstretched drainage system—a situation that can only be made worse following recent additional developments. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with her colleagues about the impact of the new planning policy framework on flood protection insurance? (115230)

I do not know the detail of that case, so I do not know whether the planning permission was granted by the council before or after the planning reforms were made. As I have said, putting sustainable development at the heart of the planning system means that greater consideration is given to sustainability in flood-prone areas. A number of things can be done to improve sustainability in flood-prone areas but, without knowing the specifics of the case, I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I am very disappointed at the party political nature of the right hon. Lady’s comments. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) behaved admirably after the 2007 and 2009 floods, not least through the flood recovery grant. We are still waiting to hear from the right hon. Lady whether any money will go to the people who have been left homeless and destitute by the recent floods. She lit the fuse on the expiry of the statement of principles by cutting flood defence spending by 27%. She uses the figure of a 7% cut—

The right hon. Lady promised an update on flood insurance in the spring. She has talked about vouchers and now she is finally talking about insurance. Will she get a deal with the Treasury before the recess?

The hon. Lady clearly prepared that question before I gave my answers. I will give a detailed reply to the House before the recess. We are close to the end of the negotiations. As a former commercial negotiator, with experience in such matters, I know that one does not provide a running commentary on the state of negotiations.

Homes across the country are facing another night of severe rain and more homes are at risk of flooding. People are very anxious and upset because of the right hon. Lady’s total lack of progress on this issue. She has not given an answer. The deal runs out on 1 July 2013. Will she get a deal with the Treasury, and will it happen before the recess—yes or no?

How can I have lit a fuse underneath this problem when I am not a Labour politician and it was the Labour Government who agreed with the Association of British Insurers that they would not renew the statement of principles? That is when the fuse was lit. They placed a smoking bomb in the same container that said, “Sorry, there’s no money left.” We have found a way forward that will provide for the affordability and universality of flood insurance.

Dairy Industry

This week’s announcement of further price cuts for many dairy farmers, especially those who are not aligned to supermarkets, is a heavy blow, especially when global commodity prices seem to be rising again. I will be meeting industry representatives next week to hear their concerns. In the meantime, I remain committed to persuading the industry to develop its own code of practice regarding contracts and, as the House will be aware, the Bill to introduce a groceries code adjudicator is in the other place.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he will know that the dairy industry is in crisis. Dairy farmers in my constituency faced a 2p cut in June and face a further 2p cut in August. That is unsustainable. Is it not time that he intervened to impose a code of conduct, so that our dairy farmers get a fair price?

I fully understand the anger; it has been expressed to me by many farmers in the past few days. I am as concerned as my hon. Friend. However, as he knows, Ministers cannot and should not set prices. A compulsory code is provided for in the EU dairy package and we have said that we will consult on it. However, that would exclude a number of aspects that could be included in a voluntary code. That is why I still believe that a voluntary code is the better way forward.

A year ago, our sympathies went out to the Secretary of State, who said that she was having sleepless nights over the plight of dairy farmers—no one wants to see a Cabinet Minister with bags under her eyes at the Dispatch Box. However, Ministers have slept soundly while milk processors, one after the other, have slashed farm-gate prices to dairy farmers below the cost of production. Will the Government act urgently on the calls from Labour and the National Farmers Union to allow farmers to exit contracts when price changes are made; do more to bring farmers together in producer organisations; and either bang heads together to strengthen the voluntary code and enforce it, or consider regulation of this dysfunctional supply chain? No more sleeping on the job, please.

I think the House will recognise synthetic anger when it sees it.

I am absolutely determined to do everything in the Government’s power to put things right. I have already explained that we want a voluntary code, on which I am more than prepared to bang heads together, and that we will consult on a compulsory code. We have also made it clear that we strongly support the idea of producer organisations, but I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the biggest cut announced this week was by a producer organisation.

Dairy farmers in Cumbria and across the country are being exploited appallingly by supermarkets and milk buyers of all kinds. They are now getting an average price per litre of 6p less than the cost of production. I am sure we all welcome the introduction of the groceries code adjudicator, which is real action to tackle the problem in the long term, but will the Minister take immediate action to call in the supermarkets and other buyers and tell them that the current situation is not only morally reprehensible but massively counter-productive? The low cost of milk under the Labour Government saw 50% of dairy farms close.

We have to look at the picture in the round. The reality is that most farmers on aligned supermarket contracts have not had their prices cut. The problem is with supermarkets and the other big retailers that operate in the middle ground, whose processors have continued to invest in new bottling plant and undercut each other for contracts instead of attacking growing markets both overseas and in import substitution.

The Gangmasters Licensing Authority is very important to the dairy industry, and the recent ministerial statement on the GLA has given the supermarkets grave concern. Has the Minister had any discussions with the supermarkets about that matter and the potential suspension of the supermarket protocol?

No supermarket has approached my Department with any concerns about the GLA or the changes that I announced a few weeks ago, so frankly, I think the hon. Gentleman is whistling in the wind. If supermarkets have evidence that there are problems, I am happy to listen, but I am not aware of any concerns.

High-speed Broadband

7. What steps she is taking to ensure rural areas have access to reliable and high-speed broadband. (115220)

DEFRA is working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Broadband Delivery UK to meet our target to have the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. The Government’s £530 million rural broadband investment will provide 90% of premises with superfast broadband, and everyone else with standard broadband of at least 2 megabits per second. The Government’s £20 million rural community broadband fund provides grant support to enable communities on that basic 2 megabit speed to increase it for the last 10% of people in hard-to-reach locations.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. High-speed internet access is essential for rural areas to take part in a growing digital economy. When will my constituents, and people in greater Cheshire, see reliable high-speed broadband rolled out for them to access?

I can give my hon. Friend some good news. DCMS has approved all the local broadband plans covering north-west England, and Broadband Delivery UK has allocated £3.24 million to the plan for Cheshire. BT and Fujitsu have now signed the delivery framework, and the first projects to use it have commenced procurement. Cheshire’s will be among the group of projects to commence procurement in October.

Given that so much Scottish broadband funding is UK-provided, although the Scottish Government provide the delivery, what follow-through does the Minister’s Department have with Edinburgh once that funding is allocated? From reading the publicity, if not propaganda, north of the border, people would think it was all Scottish Government funding, which it manifestly is not.

As my right hon. Friend suggests, of course not all the funding is from the Scottish Government. As I have just described, the lion’s share is from the UK Government. As he well knows, it is not unusual for such claims to be made in Scotland, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that the Scottish people know the full facts. The £530 million that I mentioned is to roll out superfast broadband to 90% of the population of the whole UK, and as I have said, there are measures to address the other 10%. That is all a UK policy.

Marine Conservation Zones

My Department is awaiting formal advice from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, which is due on 18 July. We will then examine all the evidence before us and work towards a public consultation, which we plan to begin in December, with the first tranche of sites being designated in summer 2013.

Although it is always best to draw on the widest evidence base for policy, the Department’s guidance is clear that that is not a good enough reason for delaying site selection. We are an island nation and these marine habitats are an extraordinary natural resource. Let us get on with establishing these conservation zones.

To refer to an answer I gave earlier, it is clear that policy needs to be made on an evidence base. Therefore, the science advisory panel—an independent body of expert marine scientists—was established to support the four regional projects in selecting marine conservation zones. It offered the objective scientific advice that we need to make decisions.

Recycle Week

Recycle week is delivered by the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—on behalf of the Government. This year, the focus was on plastic bottles. Some 40% of the UK’s local authorities took part, highlighting local recycling schemes. It was supported by both retailers and brands.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting the work of Lincolnshire waste partnership, under which the county’s latest recycling figures reached 53%? Will the Department seek to encourage one of my local authorities—City of Lincoln council—to raise its recycling rate from 46%?

I certainly support the work of the Lincolnshire waste partnership, along with all other waste partnerships and local authorities. I urge all local authorities to continue that effort to reduce the volume of waste sent to landfill.

Circus Animals

My written statement to Parliament on 1 March 2012 confirmed our intent to ban wild animals in travelling circuses on ethical grounds. There are a number of issues to consider in developing the ethical case and the exact nature of the ban. We therefore hope to publish a draft Bill and full legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. In the meantime, we aim to lay regulations shortly to introduce a new licensing scheme that will protect the welfare of such animals in the interval.

In June 2011, the House of Commons unanimously passed a Back-Bench motion calling for all bans to be in place. We do not need to discuss it; we need to get on with a ban. DEFRA Ministers have failed to show any political leadership. They are just messing about, fiddling about. When will the Minister bow to the will of both the House and the public and bring forward the legislation?

I can only repeat what I have just said. We have said we will introduce a ban on ethical grounds. We have also made it clear that we cannot introduce a ban on welfare grounds, because we believe that is legally flawed—

I have explained several times why not. We believe that such a ban would be wide open to judicial challenge, which we might well lose, hence we are using ethical grounds. That will be done as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Topical Questions

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy.

In the light of the weekend’s forecast, I urge people to heed flood warnings and follow the advice of the Environment Agency, which has played a remarkable role in difficult circumstances. I will arrange a briefing for all Members in flood-affected constituencies so they can be aware of the full range of help available from the Government before the House rises.

Thanks to the Government’s disastrous cancellation of the housing market renewal scheme four years early, my constituency is dotted with derelict brownfield sites. At the Emma Bridgewater factory in Hanley, sunflowers and an urban meadow have been planted. What plans does the Secretary of State have to sit down with colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that some of our poorest inner-city communities have access to the natural environment?

That is principally a question for the Department for Communities and Local Government, but a close reading of the natural environment White Paper, which was produced by my Department a year ago, will show the attention that we pay to making space for nature, particularly in proximity to urban areas, where it is of disproportionately greater benefit.

T2. Dairy farmers in my constituency told me at a recent meeting of their continued frustration with the number of duplicated farm inspection visits, which are both costly and time consuming. What progress has the Minister made in addressing that, and will he go further in helping to alleviate some of these unnecessary burdens on our farming industry? (115233)

I am happy to say yes, we are determined to reduce the number of unnecessary inspections, and we have committed ourselves to doing so as a result of the farming regulation taskforce. Progress has been made, but I want to go further, and I can assure my hon Friend that, this year and next year, farmers who demonstrate one way or another that they are at low risk will see a significant reduction in the number of inspections.

T3. Last Friday, I met farmers in my constituency and was shocked to hear about the nature of the milk contracts in the dairy industry that many of them face. I appreciate what the Minister has just said about a voluntary arrangement, but I think he would acknowledge that there is great scepticism about whether it will be enough for colleagues on both sides of the House and farmers themselves. What can he say to reassure me that it will be enough? (115234)

We have to be realistic, and I want to be: no code of practice or compulsory contract will solve all the woes of the dairy industry. I believe that a voluntary code is better because the EU legislation on a statutory code restricts what can be in it to only a certain list of headings. A voluntary code would allow a wider range of headings. The stumbling block in negotiations appears—obviously I am not integrally involved, as this is a matter for the industry—to be over the period of notice that a farmer can give to leave a contract, if they do not like a price or other change, and over the period of notice that a processer can give the farmer. That is the point of difference, and the point on which I encourage both sides to find a compromise.

T4. I was horrified to learn recently that three Departments, which will remain nameless, have actually increased their operating costs over the past two years. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that she has reduced operating costs in her Department? (115236)

We have cut administrative spend by £140 million since May 2010, which is an 11% reduction in cash terms.

T7. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State say last weekend that people should heed the flood warnings. If she had been in the north-east on Thursday, she would have known that there were none. However, there is apparently an underspend in Departments. Has the Secretary of State made a bid to the Chancellor for additional money for flood defences? (115240)

I should underline the importance of this matter. Tragically, a gentleman in my part of the country, the west midlands, lost his life when he stepped into fast-flowing floodwaters. It is important, therefore, to reinforce the point to all our constituents not to walk or drive into floodwaters. We have secured £2.17 billion to spend on flood defences. I remind the hon. Lady that her party said it would cut capital by 50%.

T5. I am delighted that the Secretary of State will attend the Kent county show next week, when she will have the opportunity to meet some of our fantastic farmers and fruit growers. I would be grateful if she could explain to the House what action she has taken to boost the export of British fruit. (115237)

I am looking forward to the Kent county show this year, and I praise the Kentish farmers for the quality of their apples and other soft fruits, particularly in such a difficult year for soft fruit production. She will have heard my right hon. Friend the Minister of State say how actively DEFRA Ministers are promoting good British produce across the board and encouraging UK Trade and Investment to include food exporters in their outbound missions.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting my constituency last Saturday, in the aftermath of Thursday evening’s deluge, when 80 mm of water fell from the sky in two hours and about 1,500 lightning strikes were recorded in the Tyneside area. Is her Department thinking of reviewing the flood-risk incident assessments in the light of what seems to be a significant increase in the number of extreme weather events?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who was on the scene on Saturday, and to his local authority, which played a remarkable role in trying to assist his constituents during that extreme weather event. He is right that they are becoming more frequent. After every one of these events, we review the emergency plans to ensure that we improve them all the time. However, the emergency services and the Environment Agency have done an excellent job during all these flooding episodes, of which there are potentially more to come.

T6. The public will spend as much on the renewables obligation this year as on flood and coastal defences over four years, yet in my constituency the lower Thames flood risk management strategy risks being undermined by a 27% cut in the Environment Agency’s capital expenditure, given the debt legacy left by the last Government. Will my right hon. Friend take another look with Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers at the balance between public subsidy for renewables and public investment in resilience? Ultimately, it is the same people paying for both. (115238)

I am afraid that my hon. Friend has been taken in by the figure used by the Opposition. [Interruption.] It is important to set the record straight. In that comparison, the increase in expenditure made by the last Government the year before the election is being set against our first year in office. Under the correct comparison—the last four years of the Labour Government with four years of this Government—the figure is just 6%. I take seriously the threat in the lower Thames region, and under partnership funding it should be possible to get the flood defences built more readily than they would have been under the previous scheme.

The Youth Hostels Association does a brilliant job of getting kids from the cities out into the countryside. Will the Secretary of State look at how her Department can assist the organisation in expanding that vital work?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that DEFRA regards the issue of building bridges between people from our cities and the countryside as extremely important, which is why we are involved with a number of different schemes. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer about links with the Youth Hostels Association, but I assure him that I or one of my colleagues will be happy to have a meeting with the YHA.

12. I congratulate the Government on deciding to go ahead with mandatory reporting of carbon emissions for stock exchange listed companies. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the reporting arrangements she will put in place will provide an open but consistent platform, so that other companies can join it on a voluntary basis, in order to be fairly judged against others on their achievements in this field? (115225)

I can give that undertaking. I am proud of the fact that, as the Financial Times noted,

“Britain will be the first country in the world to make it compulsory for listed companies to include emissions data”.

After two years of its operation, we will review the efficacy of the decision we have taken to see whether we need to expand the number of companies involved.

What practical advice can the Secretary of State give to my constituents, as some 3,000 householders in my constituency face a risk of flooding? They are renewing their insurance, but no agreement has been entered into by the Government with the insurance industry. What is she going to say to my constituents?

Let me reassure the hon. Lady that, having been flooded out myself and in temporary accommodation for 10 months, I know what it feels like and I know the fear of flooding. I also know that it is really important to take out insurance. The premiums average £300; the average flood claim is £15,000. We are finding a way forward to provide universal and affordable insurance for her constituents, but it is vital that homes are insured.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s comments on milk prices, the international milk price has been far higher for many years now, and my farmers and my constituency have suffered lower prices. What can he do to get a greater export market for milk products?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a very important thing. I referred earlier to my visit to China, which has a massive market of 1.4 billion people, who are rapidly increasing their dairy consumption. I was disappointed that neither I nor my colleagues could find any British dairy produce on the shelves, yet there was plenty from other European countries. That demonstrates to me that there is great export opportunity. I would very much exhort our processors to target those growing markets.

Church Commissioners

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

Sale of Churches

1. What information the Church Commissioners hold on the number of churches sold and subsequently turned into bars or casinos since May 2010. (115242)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that extensive answer. I am disappointed that although I have asked this question on many occasions, I am yet to receive a satisfactory answer—which we have again not received. Is it not despicable that a place of worship should be turned into a bar or a casino? Is it not time that the churches looked at that, to ensure that it does not happen and that they are not sold to those kinds of people?

We are at cross purposes. The answer that I gave to the hon. Gentleman was very clear: I am not aware of any redundant or former churches having been turned into a bar or a casino. If he has details of any such instances, will he please let me have them so that I can investigate?

Parish Priests

2. What the average number of parishes is per Church of England priest in rural areas; and if he will make a statement. (115243)

The Church does not calculate an average figure for the number of parishes per priest in rural areas, because different dioceses take varying approaches to pastoral organisation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I wonder whether we could urge the Church Commissioners to undertake such an exercise. I should like to praise the work of rural priests. In North Yorkshire, they are being asked to spread themselves extremely thinly, and any support that they could be given would be most welcome.

My hon. Friend is quite correct to draw our attention to the fantastic work being done by priests in rural areas. We will collect statistics on rural priests, and I will ensure that they are shared with her.

House of Lords Reform

3. What discussions he has had with the Church Commissioners on the role of clergy in a reformed House of Lords. (115244)

I have regular discussions on the question of Lords reform with senior colleagues in the Church of England, including the archbishops and the Bishop of London, who are Lords Spiritual and Church Commissioners. Like me, they welcome the view of the Government and the parliamentary Joint Committee that there should be a continuing, albeit reduced, place for Lords Spiritual in a reformed House of Lords.

Some years ago, Parliament changed the law to allow members of the Anglican clergy to stand for election to this House, which has enabled my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to become a Member of Parliament. Will the Government’s proposals for an elected second Chamber permit the Anglican clergy to stand for election, and has the Church considered that it might make sense for the Anglican representation in the second Chamber to be elected, so that women as well as men could offer themselves for election?

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. I do not think that there will be any constraint on priests or former priests standing for election to the elected part of the second Chamber. On the second part of his question, I suspect that all of us here earnestly hope that, sooner or later, the Church of England will have women bishops.

I completely agree, and I praise the hon. Gentleman for all his work on trying to bring in women bishops, but has he read the Bill that we are to debate next week? It does not actually define what a bishop is. The Bill does not say whether it refers to diocesan bishops, suffragan bishops, Anglican bishops, Catholic bishops, bishops from Scotland or bishops from Wales. Is this a radical step that the Church is going to support?

I think that the hon. Gentleman has just applied to speak in the debate. He has already applied to me in writing, and I think that his question was an additional application, for which we are all very grateful.

May I also make an oral application to speak in the Lords reform debate, in response to the many speeches that I know the hon. Gentleman is going to make about bishops?

Metal Theft

4. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to mark metal items in churches for the purpose of preventing metal theft. (115245)

The Church Commissioners have taken a keen interest in the development of metal marking undertaken by the Institute of Minerals, Mining and Metals—IOM3. Marking systems are under development that can be used to mark new and existing roofs with a clear mark of ownership. We have been working to achieve that with IOM3 and the insurance industry.

Churches, war memorials and monuments throughout the north-east have been affected by this despicable crime. Will my hon. Friend do all that he can to get behind the private Member’s Bill that is to be debated in the House shortly, and ensure that the churches themselves do all that they can to mark their property?

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) has introduced an excellent Bill, and we hope that it will get a good hearing tomorrow and make progress. Of course the churches have a responsibility to do everything they can to protect their own metal from theft. They do this by using SmartWater, CCTV cameras and other examples of the latest technology. We are all seeking to crack this despicable crime, but at the end of the day we have to make the scrap metal business a cashless business involving only business-to-business transactions, to prevent people from ripping lead off roofs and taking it round to the scrap metal market the next day and getting cash for it.

My hon. Friend mentioned SmartWater, which is a tried and trusted method not only of bringing criminals to justice but of deterring them from committing crimes in the first place. Will he update the House on how many churches have SmartWater technology on their premises, and will he ensure that as many as possible are covered by it in the future?

Electoral Commission Committee

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Electoral Register

5. What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the accuracy of the electoral register. (115246)

The Electoral Commission’s 2011 report, “Great Britain’s electoral registers”, estimated the accuracy of the 1 April 2011 parliamentary register to be 85.5% and the accuracy of the 1 April 2011 local government register to be 85.4%. The Electoral Commission defines accuracy as the percentage of entries on the registers that relate to verified and eligible voters who are resident at that address.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. He will be aware that in areas such as Cornwall, the number of multiple property owners appearing on the register at various addresses is a matter of concern. I welcome the steps the Government have taken to provide electoral registration officers with the tools to help crack down on that issue. Will the Electoral Commission look at that issue to ensure that the guidance to electoral registration officers is absolutely up to date and that they are aware of the role they can play in ensuring that it really is one person, one vote?

I know that this issue has been a matter of continuing concern to the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for raising it again on this occasion. The Electoral Commission is certainly ready to advise electoral registration officers on how most accurately to ascertain the residences of second home owners and whether the people living in them have the right to be registered for a second home. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are rules in secondary legislation to make that more precise. I am sure that the Electoral Commission will be willing to advise all electoral registration officers if they feel in need of that advice.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the problem of inaccuracy in the register and, indeed, the lack of registration more generally is particularly serious in inner-city areas. Is it not right that the Electoral Commission should make particular efforts over the coming period to improve registration rates and accuracy in the inner-city areas of our country?

As a Member representing a city area, I share my hon. Friend’s concern about this matter. There are always going to be errors and shortcomings in the register, partly because in areas such as the ones he and I represent people often move house without necessarily informing the electoral registration officer that they have done so. The Electoral Commission stands ready to advise registration officers whenever they seek that advice.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

6. What advice the Church Commissioners have given on the implications of a decision to agree to the appointment of women bishops. (115247)

9. What representations the Church Commissioners have received on recent amendments to the Women Bishops Measure made by the House of Bishops. (115250)

I made my own position very clear in a speech to the General Synod shortly after my appointment. I had hoped that the Synod would give final approval to the legislation for women bishops next Monday, but as a result of an amendment made by the House of Bishops in May, it is possible that the Synod will ask the House of Bishops to think again, in which case we may be in for a short period of ping-pong between the Synod and the House of Bishops.

Those of us such as the hon. Gentleman who have argued for a long time for women to have equality in the Church and to be able to become bishops are getting a bit frustrated. I respectfully say that the objective he should communicate to his colleagues on the Synod is that during this year—either at the forthcoming Synod or the autumn Synod—a final decision should be taken. If there has to be a bit of compromise, so be it—but not on the principle. The differences of view need to be respected, but we need a clear decision on women bishops to be taken this year while this archbishop remains in office.

It is terribly sad that, yet again, the bishops have threatened this measure by trying to water it down. A couple of weeks ago, they accused this House of jeopardising the status of the established Church because we are likely to vote for equal marriage. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the bishops that establishment is a two-way street, and that by putting themselves so far away from mainstream opinion on women bishops—in this House, in the country and even in the Church of England—it is they who are threatening the established status of the Church?

I take the point, but let me say, in fairness, that I think the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops were trying hard to find a piece of territory on which they felt that everyone could stand. Many of us in the House are familiar with that concept. As the archbishop said, it is rather like one of those Christmas cracker games that involve trying to get three ball bearings into a hole: you always get two in, but one falls out. I think that a genuine attempt was made, but it obviously backfired, and we shall have to review the position.

The House of Commons well understands the concept of ping-pong. I hope that if the General Synod sends this back to the House of Bishops, the bishops will reflect on what has been said by people including my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). I also hope very much that, before the year is out, the House will have an opportunity to pass legislation that will make it possible for the Church of England to have women bishops.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in years to come, it will be as difficult for people to understand the controversy about women bishops as it is for them to understand now why 100 years ago women had to fight in every conceivable way to become Members of Parliament and to have the right to vote?

The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point, and one on which the General Synod ought to reflect at its meeting in York over the next few days.

Church of England Schools

7. What consideration the Church Commissioners have given to the use of an inclusive admissions policy for Church of England schools. (115248)

The ethos and purpose of the original foundation of Church of England schools was to serve the local community. The National Society was founded by the Church of England in 1811 to provide community schools for poor children, and currently provides resources for 4,700 Church of England schools and 172 Church in Wales schools. All those schools have a strong Christian foundation and a commitment to the local Christian community.

I find that in my constituency most Church schools are hugely popular with parents, but concern is sometimes expressed about admission policies. How can we best expand popular Church schools in an inclusive way?

I believe that the Church schools admissions policy involves a duty to balance the need to admit children from Christian families with the need to admit those from the wider community. The diocese of St Albans, which contains my hon. Friend’s constituency, places considerable emphasis on community involvement and ensuring that children from the wider community enter Church schools. The schools were set up in the first place to educate children of the parish.

Public Accounts Commission

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, representing the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—

National Audit Office

8. What assessment the Public Accounts Commission has made of the most effective piece of work undertaken by the National Audit Office in 2011-12. (115249)

The Public Accounts Commission’s role is not to assess individual pieces of work, but each year we ask the National Audit Office’s external auditors to assess the value-for-money aspect of the NAO. The NAO’s annual report shows that in 2010-11 it influenced the Government to improve public services in key areas such as financial management, and saved the UK taxpayer more than £1 billion.

What investigation does my hon. Friend think will be the most interesting, exciting and effective in 2012-13?

Probably the most successful piece of work done by the NAO is its recent report on central Government’s use of consultants, which had a financial impact amounting to more than £323 million. I am convinced that we could save a great deal more money in the operation of central Government: many billions of pounds.

The hon. Gentleman has confounded me. I thought he was going to say that he was spoilt for choice.

Church Commissioners

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

Listed Places of Worship Grants Scheme

10. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the listed places of worship grants scheme. (115251)

The sum of £30 million per year, for the life of this Parliament, will be added to the existing listed places of worship grant scheme, making a total fund of £42 million per year. The fund will be made available annually to ensure that all eligible repairs and alterations to listed church buildings receive a full rebate of the equivalent of VAT.

On behalf of many church leaders from Harlow and the villages who have written to me about this issue—Valerie and Simon Dinwiddy from St Mary-at-Latton church, Joan Jones and many others—I thank the Government for listening. Can my hon. Friend give those people comfort by assuring them that his financial support will not last for just a few months, but is a longer-term commitment from the Government?

I think that we must all thank the Chancellor of the Exchequer for making the extra money available. Indeed, he has undertaken to make it available each year for the remaining life of the current Parliament. I hope that we can secure cross-party agreement and understanding that the scheme will continue irrespective of what happens at the next general election.

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that churches in Wales will benefit from the rebate scheme when VAT similar to that in England is imposed on them?

I shall have to take advice on that point. I am not responsible for the Church in Wales, which was cruelly disestablished and dis-endowed by Lloyd George.