Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 547: debated on Thursday 5 July 2012

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.