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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Marine Conservation Zones

1. What plans his Department has to consult stakeholders about the conservation plans which give effect to marine conservation zones. (131726)

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Like him, I am a strong advocate of this policy and have been for some time. May I seek reassurance that the introduction of this policy will create an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones, and will he ensure that all stakeholders—fishermen and environmentalists—are fully consulted on conservation plans, as well as on the designation of sites?

My hon. Friend and I are veterans of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. We have strived hard to achieve the definition of ecological coherence, which I am confident we will achieve. He is right to say that the next stage of consultation concerns the management of conservation zones, and I absolutely agree that fishermen and other stakeholders who were involved in the early stages of the process should be included.

Statutory conservation bodies and the scientific advisory panel have said that to achieve an ecologically coherent network we need 127 marine conservation zones. There are clear indications that the Government intend to reduce significantly the number of zones, so will the Minister look at substituting other zones for those that have been dropped?

With respect to the hon. Lady, I am not the slightest bit interested in numbers or lines on maps. I am interested in an ecologically coherent network that can stand up to the independent scientific advisory panel, which stated that some of the 127 sites did not have enough scientific evidence to support them. When introducing the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, the then Government said, quite rightly, that the zones needed to be evidence-based. We have put lots of resources into getting more evidence—we will bring forward the first tranche of that any day now—and we will continue to progress this expensive yet important measure as years go by.

I welcome the Minister’s proposed visit to the Isle of Wight. Is he confident that the economic impact of MCZs, particularly off the island, will be given sufficient consideration and weight before any formal decision is made?

Quite rightly, the Act allowed Ministers the discretion to consider socio-economic impacts in the designation of zones. I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that we will take such considerations into account.

The Minister’s Department insists that a lack of scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to delay the establishment of marine conservation zones. Three and a half years after Labour’s world-leading Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, and £8.5 million, the latest nature watch report by the Wildlife and Countryside Link has awarded Ministers a black mark for their inaction. When the Department is given an opportunity to act, why does it choose instead to dither?

The hon. Gentleman had only to consult his colleague on the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), to understand the basis of what we are seeking to achieve. A couple of weeks ago, those on the Labour Front Bench were wrongly accusing the Government of ignoring scientific advice. The hon. Gentleman is now telling us to ignore such advice but I am sorry, we are not prepared to do that. The establishment of marine conservation zones must be done properly and stand up in terms of evidence. In the full spirit of the 2009 Act, on which all parties agreed, we must have absolute clarity on what is meant by ecological coherence, and we will get there.

Milk Prices

After months of hard work, not least by my predecessor, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), the industry code of practice is now being translated into contracts. I am encouraged to hear of new contracts and pricing mechanisms that improve the transparency and fairness of milk prices for farmers. The Government will soon be consulting on our domestic implementation of the EU dairy package, enabling dairy farmers to form recognised producer organisations to further improve their bargaining power.

There has been a dairy herd of Holstein Friesians in Eggington, outside Leighton Buzzard, since 1933, but I was concerned to learn from the farmer in July that he is not confident that milk production can continue there, which would be an absolute tragedy. The farmer told me last night that he receives 30.5p per litre, but when I checked this morning, Tesco was selling milk for 86.3p per litre, which is 49p a pint. Is the Minister sure that farmers are getting a fair share, and what can we do to ensure they have a sustainable future?

We need to do a lot of things to support the dairy industry, but I am optimistic. If we can make the voluntary code stick—I have no reason to suppose we cannot—it will go a very long way to improving the transparency of contracts, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill is going through the House. The Department will do everything it can to maintain the profitability of producers and ensure that every part of the supply chain is fairly treated, including the retailer and the consumer.

Following our meeting of some weeks ago, will the Minister outline what discussions he has had with the devolved Minister in Northern Ireland on an evaluation of the operation of the voluntary code for the dairy industry? Is he satisfied that the dairy industry is being sufficiently protected?

As I have indicated to the hon. Lady, I would be very happy to talk to the Minister in the Northern Ireland Government, whom I met at the Agriculture Council. That matter did not crop up in our conversation, but the door is open to discuss how we might move forwards together on this important issue for farmers in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned Bedfordshire and Tesco, but will the Minister praise the work of supermarkets such as Waitrose, which not only pays a fairer price, but pays promptly?

Both those elements are essential, but I do not want to name and shame specific supermarkets, however tempting that might be. I want all major supermarket chains to behave in a fair and transparent way as far as their suppliers are concerned. There are signs that that is happening not only in the dairy sector, but in other produce sectors.

The supply chain practices affecting our dairy industry affect other livestock producers, perhaps none more so than our pig producers, which are close to the Minister’s heart. Pigs are being sold well below the cost of production. Given VION’s announcements last week, what will the Minister do to ensure a future for the pig industry?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that I am interested in the pig sector, having bred pigs myself. She will know that we cannot disguise the cyclical nature of the pig industry. Having said that, I am concerned about the current position, but there are signs of progress. Some supermarkets are now prepared to share risk in the pigmeat sector, which I want to encourage.

The milking of pigs is a novelty, and although I am not an expert on these matters, I hazard the guess that it would prove to be an unprofitable activity.


First, I offer my condolences to those who lost family and friends in the recent floods, and my sympathies to those whose lives have been disrupted.

I have had many discussions recently on flooding. On 23 November, I met representatives from all the public services in Northampton to discuss their experiences. Last week, I visited Exeter and Kennford to talk about flooding with local communities there. My ministerial colleagues, my officials and I are also in regular contact with our counterparts in other Departments and agencies on flooding issues.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about those who suffered in the recent floods. Given the misery caused by flooding to many people throughout the country, does he agree that we should do everything we can to prevent building on land that floods? Will he remind the planning Minister that his comments about building on the countryside have caused great concern among those facing the risk of flooding?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about those who have suffered so much in the recent floods.

The recent national planning policy framework is absolutely clear. It seeks to ensure that development is located away from flood risk wherever possible; that the development that is needed in flood-risk areas is safe and resilient; that flood risk is assessed so it can be avoided and managed; and that opportunities offered by new development are used to reduce the causes and impacts of flooding.

The Secretary of State’s hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State, will have seen the heart-wrenching devastation caused by terrible flooding last weekend in the town of Malmesbury in my constituency. They were not new houses on flood plains; 500-year-old cottages on the verge of the river were particularly badly affected. The people there are badly affected by the fact that they cannot get contents insurance. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to enter into negotiations with the Association of British Insurers to reach a solution that will allow everyone, whether in flood-affected areas or not, to insure the contents of their houses?

I wholeheartedly concur with my hon. Friend’s comments about the real difficulties faced in Malmesbury, which was visited by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

The first meeting I had outside the office was with the ABI in September, and we have been working closely in recent weeks. We are involved in detailed negotiations, as the statement of principles was always going to come to an end in 2013. We want to achieve a better system of insurance that is as comprehensive as possible, provides affordability, and is not a huge burden on the taxpayer. Those detailed negotiations are continuing. The ball is in the ABI’s court and we look forward to hearing from it shortly.

13. The floods in the past few weeks have highlighted the importance of affordable home insurance for home owners in constituencies such as Easington, Wansbeck, and across the north-east and the whole country. We were promised a deal on flood insurance by July this year. We heard from the Prime Minister that Oliver Letwin is in charge of the negotiations. Will the Secretary of State tell us why this policy has been so badly delayed? Will he clarify the position to the House? (131739)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the statement of principles was always going to run out in 2013. That was confirmed in 2008, and we inherited absolutely nothing from his Government. We have been working closely with the ABI. We are in detailed negotiations and I totally agree with him that we want to achieve a system that is affordable and as comprehensive as possible, and which is not a burden on the taxpayer. We are working towards that. These are detailed negotiations, but I cannot conduct them in public or on the Floor of the House of Commons.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt).

I am glad that the Secretary of State has been to Exeter. From that visit, he will know that the recent floods disrupted the vital train link between the far south-west and London. Will he ensure that any future investment in flood defences takes into account protecting vital transport infrastructure, not just homes and businesses?

I enjoyed my visit to Exeter and I pay tribute to everyone who pulled together—councils, public services, the Environment Agency and all those who managed to repair the railway line. I saw where it had been breached and they got the line working the day after I was there. I hope it reassures my hon. Friend to hear that the first phone call I made on leaving Exeter was to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport who had already been on the case to ensure that the vital rail link was restored. I totally endorse my hon. Friend’s point about transport links and flooding.

I echo the condolences of the Secretary of State to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the floods.

Last week, there was an announcement of a new £120 million U-turn on flood defence spending. However, even after that announcement, the Government will still spend less on flood defences in 2013 than Labour spent in 2008. Just 30% of that money will be spent next year because the Environment Agency no longer has the staff capacity to get the money out of the door. It is difficult to decide which is more incompetent: cutting the budget too far in the first place or, when they change their mind, not having the capacity to get the money out of the door and to the communities that need it.

I love the way the hon. Lady always looks for the downside in a story—her ingenuity is tremendous. The fact is that on 11 September, within a week of coming in, I met the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith. We saw a great scheme, which, in fairness, her Government launched in Nottingham. I asked him to come forward with proposals for future flood schemes, as the benefits in Nottingham were clear—not just 16,000 houses protected by the £45 million scheme, but the 500 acres freed up for development, which had previously been blighted. He wrote to me, quickly, on 26 September, and I am happy to give the hon. Lady the letter. We have put what he asked for into practice, to the letter: another £120 million, which will be of great benefit and save a further 60,000 houses from flooding.

I appeal to colleagues to speed up the exchanges. We have a lot to get through, and questions and answers are too long.

Of course, it is great to build flood defences, but it is just as important to maintain the ones we already have and to keep our rivers clear. Yesterday, however, the Chancellor announced that a further £60 million would be cut from DEFRA’s budget, so can the Secretary of State guarantee that no further cuts will fall on the Environment Agency’s river-dredging and maintenance budget, which is already set to fall from £108 million in 2010 to just £60 million in 2015?

As the hon. Lady knows, we inherited a hideous mess from her Government and are taking time to put it right in a very difficult world environment. I have to go back to my early reading, when I came into the House, of “Erskine May”, but she must stick to the truth on these issues. In total, with all the agencies involved, the Government will spend more over the four-year term than the Labour Government spent over their last four-year spending round.

I know that the Secretary of State was not suggesting that the hon. Lady would knowingly tell an untruth. He would not suggest that, I am sure, because he would be in breach of the conventions of the House if he were to do so. Will he confirm that he was not suggesting that she would knowingly tell an untruth?

Order. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think we will take that as a no. He is not suggesting anything of the sort, but simply seeking to put his own position on the record, for which we are grateful.

Water and Sewerage Industry

The Government’s water White Paper set out our vision for a resilient and sustainable water industry that is able to attract long-term investment. We are committed to measured reform to protect the strengths of the current system. Our draft Water Bill includes proposals to deliver evolutionary reform of the water sector. This will benefit customers and enable new players and new ways of thinking to enter the market.

The UK regulated asset base has been a great driver of inward investment into the UK for infrastructure projects. Will the Minister confirm that there is nothing in the draft Bill that will undermine the size of that asset base, and will he consider using the regulated asset model to bring in money for badly needed flood defences?

I can confirm that the golden thread running through our water White Paper, all our policies since then and, in particular, the Water Bill underpins our commitment to continued investment in this sector. It has benefited from £108 billion of low-cost investment over the past 22 years, and we want to see that outstanding success continue. I note what my hon. Friend says about the plans to extend the model to flood defences. That proposal has been put by one or two water companies. We do not propose to bring it forward at this time, but we are always open to considering such matters.

If the Minister is doing something about the structure of the water industry, I hope he will be influenced by the fact that, as it has been revealed, three companies do not pay any tax.

On a specific problem with sewage and water, is he aware that most hospitals discharge all their food waste straight down into the sewerage system? Is it not about time we did something about that 19th-century practice?

One of the reforms that we are seeking to introduce in the draft Water Bill is about bringing innovation into the sector. There are fantastic new technologies that can tackle precisely the sort of things the hon. Gentleman talks about, and the Bill will allow such schemes to be introduced in a cost-effective way.

Flood Defences

5. What assessment he has made of the effect of partnership funding on the provision of flood defences. (131730)

Partnership funding is enabling more flood and coastal schemes to go ahead and giving local people more choice in how their community is protected. The approach has brought forward £72 million of external funding so far. This is likely to increase further, compared with the £13 million during the previous period. Early indications suggest that up to a third more schemes will go ahead in the coming years than if the previous funding system had remained.

Has the Department been liaising with insurance companies to help individuals affected by the most recent floods, such as the businesses that were affected in Northwich?

I enjoyed my visit to Northwich and pay tribute to all who have worked so hard to put the town straight after a difficult time in the floods. We are working with a range of agencies, including the insurance industry, to ensure that floods cause as little disruption to people’s lives as possible.

In a press statement issued earlier this year outlining the £120 million of additional funding that would be made available for flood defence work, the Secretary of State mentioned Derby. Some 2,000 households in Chester Green and Darley Abbey are at risk of flooding. The city council has an excellent scheme of flood defence works. Can he outline the percentage that would be expected from the city council to get those works under way?

We are working on the details of the extra money as we speak, but the hon. Gentleman might be pleased to note that Derby was mentioned in the letter that Lord Smith wrote to me on 26 September. I would strongly urge the hon. Gentleman to get involved in the negotiations and push for his town.


6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that super-dairies do not have a detrimental effect on animal welfare and traditional British farming. (131731)

There is a place in UK agriculture for all sustainable production systems that meet our welfare and environmental standards. That is necessary to enable the industry to be competitive in UK, EU and global markets. Increasing the size of herds does not necessarily mean reducing welfare. More important factors are the design and construction of the units and the level of management and skill of the stockmen.

I am delighted that we have some of the most stringent regulations in the world to protect cattle, but can my hon. Friend confirm that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations will be rigorously enforced to protect cattle from those who would exploit them?

I can certainly confirm that. The 2006 Act provides a duty of care to animals, which includes welfare provisions. We will rigorously enforce those measures to ensure that the welfare of farmed animals is maintained.

One of the greatest problems for dairy farmers is the retention and disposal of slurry, especially in poor weather conditions. What steps is the Minister taking to help to ensure that farmers can dispose of slurry in the poor conditions we face.

Members are being very inventive in their use of questions today. This is a real issue: many of us find it frustrating that slurry disposal is dictated by date rather than good husbandry practice. As the hon. Gentleman may know, I have extended the period for spreading slurry in England to the greatest extent I can within the regulations. I cannot do more than that, but we are working with the industry to find the best possible ways of helping farmers to dispose of slurry, which they cannot currently spread on wet fields.

Long-term successful farmers always make animal welfare and nutrition top priorities. Does the Minister agree that at the heart of all successful and profitable farming lies a commitment to animal welfare and that any system should be judged against that principle?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A good stockman recognises that the welfare of the animals under his or her control is of paramount importance. No one can farm well if they ignore the welfare of animals. As far as we are concerned, maintaining the highest possible welfare standards—as well as maintaining the pressure on the European Union more widely to adopt them—is a top priority.

Farmers (Regulatory Burden)

7. What assessment he has made of steps taken by his Department to reduce the burden of regulation on farmers. (131732)

Good progress is being made to reduce regulatory burdens on farmers through our response to the farming regulation task force, through which, among other initiatives, we are working to reduce the burden of on-farm inspections and paperwork. Costs to farmers of complying with regulations are falling. Since 2011, for every £1 of new compliance costs, we are removing over £13 of inefficient compliance costs.

Farmers in Fylde are constantly raising with me the amount of paperwork they face and the regulatory burdens that causes. Will the Minister update the House on the recommendations he is making that will allow farmers to get on with farming and ease the burden?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It would detain the House for quite a long time if I went through all 137 commitments we have made on introducing deregulatory measures, but let me give one recent example of how we are working to reduce the burden of paperwork on farmers. We now provide for some record-keeping exemptions for low-intensity farms, as a result of the Government’s recent nitrates consultation. I hope that indicates the tenor of what we are trying to achieve in the Department.

Does the Minister accept that the Government’s ill-conceived plan to regulate for a minimum alcohol price will have a devastating effect on west country cider farmers?

The right hon. Gentleman is very well aware that, because of my constituency interests, I cannot answer that question in a ministerial capacity, but I can say—

The right hon. Gentleman appears not to know the procedure of the House. He is asking a supplementary question. I cannot sit down and ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to stand up in my place—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, I am sure that you will be able to advise the right hon. Gentleman on the procedures of the House at some time. I can say to him that we take the matter seriously, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State is taking the appropriate measures—[Interruption.]

Order. For the avoidance of doubt, although I am not privy to the details of the exchange, it is absolutely correct to say that only one Minister can answer the question. Whether or not people like the answer is another matter.

I note the point about responsibility. There are quite a lot of hand gestures going on, but we must now—[Interruption.] Order. The Minister of State must calm himself. We must move on.

Flooding (Wales)

8. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on measures to reduce flooding by changes in planting and drainage. (131733)

I have regular contact with the Welsh Government but our discussions have not covered that specific issue. However, officials from DEFRA and the Environment Agency share experience and evidence of land management measures such as drainage and planting with colleagues in Wales.

The River Severn rises in Plynlimon in mid-Wales but causes most of its flood damage in England. The Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust is doing magnificent work with its Plynlimon project, which benefits diversity as well as helping flood relief by holding back rainwater. Will my hon. Friend work closely with the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust and the Welsh Government to provide support that is commensurate with that benefit?

I am well aware of the importance of Plynlimon to the whole Severn estuary, and to houses and property on both sides of the border. We have to take an holistic view in flood management when cross-border issues need to be ironed out, and we are working to ensure that the new Natural Resources Body for Wales and the Environment Agency are working closely on this issue.

Low-energy Lighting

9. What progress he has made in negotiations with the EU on a derogation from the ban on the import or manufacture of incandescent bulbs for those who suffer ill health as a result of exposure to low-energy lighting ahead of the review of legislation in 2014; and if he will make a statement. (131734)

I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker. I blame the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for distracting me. Why not?

There are no provisions allowing the European Commission or individual member states to create exemptions from regulation 244/2009, which phases out incandescent bulbs. However, we are pressing to ensure that EU policy and legislation take full account of the potential health implications of artificial lighting. We have successfully ensured that provisions for people with light-sensitive health conditions were included in a new eco-design regulation that sets minimum standards for directional lighting and light-emitting diodes.

My constituents are pleased that the draft regulations for directional lighting acknowledge that there is a problem with health. The other regulations are due for review in 2014. Will the Minister confirm that he, along with other parts of the EU, will seek to achieve a change in 2014, so that the problem can be resolved?

My Department and the Department of Health are working closely with the lighting industry, the Health Protection Agency, charities and patient groups such as the Spectrum Alliance—I understand that the hon. Lady has a connection with the Spectrum Alliance—on how to make information on appropriate lighting solutions available. We have had productive discussions with the Department of Health and the lighting industry to identify health care professionals who can assist us. We will ensure that we have a plan of action by early next year, ready for next September when the new eco-design regulations come into force.

The European Commission has pledged further to investigate the link between artificial lighting and various health conditions. Will the Minister update the House on when that research will come forward?

I am afraid that I do not have that information for my hon. Friend, but I will happily write to him on the matter. We ought also to recognise the contribution that LED lighting can make. It may be part of the solution to the problem.


10. What representations he has received on his Department’s response to the recent floods; and if he will make a statement. (131735)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her letter on behalf of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, making representations on my Department’s flood response. I will reply in due course. During my visits to Northampton, Exeter and Kennford, I have also had a number of useful representations from the people affected, emergency services and local councillors.

I am grateful for that reply. A ministerial visit to North Yorkshire would be most welcome. We have experienced flooding for the second time since September. I would like to join the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) in what she said about drains. What has been a feature since 2007 is surface water flooding—clean water mixing with foul water, coming into people’s homes. The SUDS—sustainable urban draining systems—regulations need to be adopted as a matter of urgency, as 2014 is simply unacceptable. I think the British public expect DEFRA to act as a matter of urgency.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) visited York recently, and we fully take on board how people have been affected. The question of getting water away is very relevant, and the Environment Agency is quite clear that drainage channels have to be kept free for flow, but for the real emergencies such as those we have had, the priority has to be protection of life and serious damage to property. The question of the SUDS regulations is complicated, which is why we are intending to bring them in in 2014. I am happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend outside the Chamber.

One of the most pressing and important long-term responses to the challenge of flooding is the protection of those 200,000 home owners who will be left without insurance, leaving their homes unmortgageable and unsellable, if the Minister cannot get a deal. The Association of British Insurers has described discussions on flood insurance as “stalled”. Will the right hon. Gentleman be able to lay out calmly what he believes is the last acceptable date for a deal?

I would like to reassure the shadow Minister that the talks are not stalled. We have had detailed discussions on a regular basis with the ABI—before I came into office in September and since. I am not going to put a date on it, because we want to get to a system that improves on the current statement of principles. To repeat what I said earlier, we want something that is affordable and as comprehensive as possible but which is not a burden on the taxpayer. We intend to carry on these detailed negotiations, but I cannot conduct them in public.

Topical Questions

May I remind the House that topical questions and answers to them should be brief? Perhaps we can do better in this part of the proceedings than we did in the first part.

DEFRA is doing everything to seek to boost growth in the rural economy, improve the environment and safeguard the health of our plants and animals. I have this morning published our interim control plan for Chalara and the interim report of the expert taskforce on tree health and plant biosecurity, copies of which can be found in the Library. Our recent focus has, of course, been on the floods and the efforts to protect people’s lives, homes and businesses. I would like to place on record my condolences to those who have lost loved ones and my praise for the response of the emergency services, Government agencies and local authorities.

Given the challenging weather conditions experienced by farmers this year and the shocking performance of the Rural Payments Agency under the last Government, can my right hon. Friend reassure me that there will be no unnecessary delays regarding single farm payments?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the chance to put straight the current record. He is right that the performance of the RPA was a real failure in previous years. As of 4 December, however, 96,037 customers with claims or 92.3% had been paid £1.4 billion. That is comfortably the RPA’s best ever performance and we will see it deliver its December payment targets by the end of this week, providing certainty to farmers at a very difficult time.

T2. There has been a number of instances in Liverpool, Walton of dogs attacking other animals and persons. Police dog sections have been clamping down on irresponsible owners in our parks, but current legislation offers zero protection against dog attacks on private property. Can the Minister tell me when he expects the law to be extended and whether this will be announced in the next Queen’s Speech? (131747)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, a Home Office measure has been proposed to extend our controls to private property. I cannot second-guess the next Queen’s Speech, but I can agree to regular consultations with the hon. Gentleman.

T3. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodland Trust, known as Coed Cadw in Wales. As the Minister will know, over those 40 years some 16 million trees have been planted, but they are now facing a real challenge in the form of ash dieback. What steps is the Minister taking to work with the trust to overcome the problem? (131748)

I pay tribute to the Woodland Trust and its work, and to its 400,000 members, some of whom I enjoyed meeting at a reception in the House a couple of weeks ago. Today I am publishing an interim plan for controlling Chalara fraxinea, the pathogen that causes ash dieback, which sets out actions to build on existing participation in the process of identifying threats to tree health. That includes the provision of funds for a pilot project to develop a tree health early-warning system, involving volunteer groups such as the Woodland Trust, and the establishment of a “plant health network” of trained people to support official surveillance of Chalara and other pests. The Woodland Trust will play a very important role in that.

T8. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the Shark Alliance on its successful campaign against shark finning, and on closing the loophole in the European Union shark-finning ban? Will the Government now work to secure a complete ban on shark finning? As a first step, will they focus on securing international trade safeguards for vulnerable shark and ray species under the convention on international trade in endangered species when its signatories next meet in March? (131754)

The hon. Lady is looking at the Shark Trust’s greatest fan: it has done wonderful work. I am delighted about the recent vote in the European Parliament, and I hope that the hon. Lady is pleased that the Government have been at the forefront of this campaign. We have been leading the way in Europe, and we will now lead the way internationally.

T4. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the work that he is doing in negotiating reforms of the common agricultural policy. Does he share my concern about potential delays owing to lack of agreement on the budget, and will he assure the House that farmers will have enough time to prepare for the next round of CAP reforms? (131750)

When I attended a meeting of the Agriculture Council last week, I made clear to my 26 colleagues that if we were not going to meet the 2014 deadline we should admit it now, and that all existing arrangements—such as the special arrangement on modulation—should continue until the settlement date, which may be 2015 or 2016.

Unless every DEFRA Minister with a farm in his constituency is now disqualified from answering a farming question, will one of them now try to answer my question about the devastating impact of the Government’s proposed minimum alcohol price on the cider industry?

I shall be delighted to answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the cider industry. My hon. Friend the Minister of State has been told that he cannot speak on the issue because of the preponderance of cider farmers in his constituency, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are working on the issue with the Department of Health and the Home Office. We will raise with those Departments any instances in which the measure would have a pernicious effect on the rural community, and exceptions may be forthcoming.

Will the Secretary of State press the European Union harder to open its markets to developing countries, especially in relation to the common agricultural policy?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am in favour of free trade in all products, because opening up markets gives real opportunity to our own farmers who want to export in the other direction.

Despite new flood defences along the River Trent, which provided great reassurance during the recent floods, many of my constituents cannot obtain affordable insurance for their homes. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s earlier answer about the floods, but when will he be able to reassure those people that they will be able to secure insurance in the future?

I think I made it clear to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) that we want to get this right, but I am not going to place an artificial deadline on it. All of us, including the hon. Lady’s party, knew that the current arrangements would end in 2013. I repeat that we want to improve on those arrangements, and that it does not help when people make out, in the middle of negotiations, that the talks are foundering or in trouble. We are working very closely with the insurers, and we intend to secure a good deal for those whose houses are at risk of flooding.

T5. The export of lamb and beef is a vital part of the Welsh agriculture industry. Is the Secretary of State making any progress in promoting British exports? (131751)

I recently visited China and Hong Kong, and celebrated a tremendous launch in Hong Kong of the exporting of beef on the bone. Last year we celebrated record food exports worth £18 billion, and thanks to the Prime Minister’s intervention, the beef export market has been opened up in Russia. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s Pembrokeshire neighbours at Trioni Ltd, who are looking forward to selling organic milk to the Chinese.

What is more important to the Secretary of State: appeasing the Treasury or securing affordable, accessible flood-risk insurance for those 200,000 homes and businesses in flood-risk areas?

I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman—this is about the fourth or fifth time during these questions—that we are looking for a good, long-term deal that gives reassurance to his constituents who are worried about flooding, that is as comprehensive as possible and that is satisfactory to the taxpayer. We are working extremely closely with colleagues in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, and we will come to a better arrangement than his Government left behind.

T6. Given the growing incidence of plant disease across the globe and the increasingly global nature of trade, what plans does the Minister have to address the long-term threat of disease to our plants and trees? (131752)

On 30 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser to convene an independent expert taskforce on tree health and plant biosecurity to review the current arrangements and make recommendations to address long-term tree and plant disease risk. Today, the taskforce published its interim report and made a number of recommendations on measures to address the increasing threat to the health of our plants and trees. They included strengthening our approach to risk assessment, improving biosecurity and clarifying governance.

The Forestry Commission website indicates that there is an ash dieback infection in a tree in the north of my constituency, yet the Forestry Commission refuses to identify the location of the tree. Given that the Forestry Commission manages only a certain proportion of our trees, what about the danger to the other remaining trees? Why is there such secrecy in the Forestry Commission about revealing the identity of this infected tree?

Let us just be clear for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman: if the infected tree is mature, as we are not in the period of sporulation there is no danger to surrounding trees, certainly not at the moment. The advice from the scientific advisers is that it is better to leave mature trees in situ than to fell them. The contrary advice applies to new planting saplings.

T7. The people of Halberton and the Environment Agency worked very well when the damage to the canal happened, preventing flooding from occurring throughout the village. However, I want to see better management of our waterways, through farmers and local communities managing water and helping to dredge the rivers, because we are not doing enough to stop the flooding. (131753)

I assure my hon. Friend that we learn lessons from every flooding incident. Although we have implemented Pitt and the other aspects that came from recent floods, we are looking closely at issues such as dredging. I know that that is a concern in his constituency, as it is in Somerset and other places where the belief is that water is held on the ground for too long.

Will the Government support the United States and Russia in seeking an effective ban on the trade in polar bear hides at the forthcoming CITES—convention on international trade in endangered species—conference?

I met the US Government’s director with responsibility for fish and wildlife yesterday and heard the points that he was making. We are also listening to other countries that take a contrary view. We take our CITES responsibility seriously and we are looking into this issue, so I will consult the hon. Gentleman.

T9. Given lurid reports on the treatment of racing greyhounds, such as that they are being administered class A drugs, what assessment has the Minister made of the industry’s self-regulation regime, and will he make a statement? (131755)

Apart from that self-regulation, greyhounds are protected under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and racing greyhounds are also protected through the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010, which provide local authorities with powers to inspect independent greyhound tracks and to issue licences, as appropriate. If my hon. Friend has particular concerns that he would like to share with me, I would be very happy to meet him to see whether there is more we can do.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

1. What recent representations the Church Commissioners have received on the ordination of women as bishops. (131756)

3. What recent progress has been made in finding a way forward on the issue of women bishops which maintains the unity of the Church. (131758)

6. If he will discuss with the Government bringing forward legislative proposals to enable women priests to be consecrated as bishops. (131762)

Following the statement I made on 22 November, the Archbishops Council has met and concluded that a legislative process to admit women to the episcopate needs to be restarted at the next meeting of the General Synod. It was also agreed that the Church of England needed to resolve this matter through its own process as a matter of urgency. The House of Bishops is meeting early next week and has been urged by the Archbishops Council to put in place a clear process for discussions in the new year to inform the decisions that will need to be taken on the shape of the new legislation.

It may be for the convenience of Members of this House to know that they and Members of another place will have the opportunity to discuss these matters further at the meeting that I have arranged with the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the current Bishop of Durham, next Thursday at 9.30 in the Moses Room in the House of Lords.

I am very grateful for that full answer. When I was in church on Sunday, of the 14 people sitting in front of me 13 were women. I think all Members of this House understand how urgent the question is. If fresh legislation is to be passed by the current Synod, it is very important that members of the Church can lobby Synod in a proper way. The Church has published how members of Synod voted but not indicated to which dioceses they belong. Could that also be put up on the website so that people can lobby intelligently?

I see absolutely no reason why that information should not be made available and I will ensure that it is. The process should be perfectly transparent and every member of Synod should be accountable for how they voted.

As we know, the Church has been skirting around the issue for many years. According to the timetable my hon. Friend has presented, when will the vote come back to Synod to be reconsidered?

I hope that, if we can crack on with fresh legislation being presented to the Synod in July, the matter can be eventually resolved by the finish of this Synod in 2015.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing? I hope that the message will go out from the House today to the Synod that we are waiting for its members to make legislation or else we stand prepared to introduce legislation of our own within that time frame.

The clear message from Parliament and the country as a whole to the Church was that this issue cannot be parked. It has to be resolved as speedily as possible and I know that the next Archbishop of Canterbury fully and wholly endorses that approach. I am sure he will make that very clear when he meets colleagues next Thursday.

It is 46 years, almost to the day, since I raised in a debate the difficulties faced by those with colour in trying to get jobs—before the Race Relations Act 1976 was passed. I did not believe that nearly half a century later I would be on my feet protesting against discrimination against women. Is it not absolutely essential that there should be the utmost sustained parliamentary pressure to change a situation in which women are discriminated against in such a blatant manner in the Church?

I entirely agree. Everyone in the Church of England needs to understand that, so far as Parliament and the wider community are concerned, this issue is increasingly seen as the Church of England discriminating against women. That is fundamentally wrong and fundamentally bad for the image and work of the Church.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we must tread with extreme caution in trying to tell the Church of England how to run its own affairs? It is nearly 100 years since this Parliament has interfered with the Church’s affairs—

Although Members are entitled to hold very strong opinions, would my hon. Friend reflect that it is really up to the Church of England to sort this out?

I do not think that anyone is telling the Church of England what to do. I have a very privileged position in this House; I think I am the only person other than Ministers who has the right to answer questions—[Interruption.] Apart from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), of course. I do apologise. Very few of us have the right to answer questions. There are 26 bishops—24 bishops and two archbishops—in the House of Lords as a benefit of Establishment. Those are privileges and this House is therefore entitled to give good advice to the Church of England on how the Church should be run if it is to continue to have those privileges.

I do not want to intrude on any discussion about the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), but I think we can all agree that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) is the representative of a rarefied breed.

General Synod (Reform)

2. What plans the Church of England has to make the House of Laity more representative of members of the Church. (131757)

4. What discussions the Church Commissioners have held on the issue of women bishops since the General Synod's vote of 20 November 2012; and what plans the Church has to make the House of Laity more representative of local opinion in dioceses and parishes. (131759)

8. What steps the Church Commissioners could take to allow the majority view of the General Synod to be enacted with regard to the appointment of women bishops. (131764)

The membership of deanery synods has constituted the electorate for the House of Laity since the General Synod was created in 1970. The review of synodical government chaired by Lord Bridge of Harwich recommended in 1977 that deanery synods should be abolished and that the lay members of diocesan synods and General Synods should be chosen by parish representatives, each parish to have one for every 50 people on the electoral roll. The General Synod decided, however, to retain deanery synods. In July 2011 the Synod decided to ask for alternatives to the present electoral system to be further explored. The review group’s report is due to come to the General Synod this coming year.

Does not the complete failure of the House of Laity in the General Synod to reflect the overwhelming support in the diocesan synods for women bishops show that there is something deeply wrong with the system? We cannot wait for a new synod in 2015 for this to be resolved. I have to tell my hon. Friend that it must be resolved in months, not years, and if that means a single clause Measure and facing down the conservative evangelicals, as we in the Labour party faced down the militants in the 1980s, so be it.

On the women bishop’s Measure, the Church of England has to get on with it. I am sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate will be able to reassure colleagues next week that it is getting on with it. So far as the format of General Synod is concerned, as I have said to the House on a number of occasions, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to explain how 42 out of 44 dioceses voted for women bishops, yet the motion failed in General Synod. I think that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will want to focus on growth in the Church, and if one wants to focus on growth, one needs to make sure that everyone feels involved. I hope, personally, that in due course we will be able to move to a system in which every member of the Church who is on an electoral roll has a vote for those who go to General Synod. That seems to be a straightforward system.

If an emergency arises that the country has to deal with, the House of Commons and the other place have the power to expedite legislation and deal with it quickly. Is there no power within the structures of the Church of England to expedite matters when there is an emergency? I think the issue is an emergency for the Church of England.

I hope the hon. Lady will be able to be present next Thursday for the meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate. He, I am sure, will explain to her that the Church of England will expedite the issue as speedily as possible. At the start of his ministry I think that he will be very conscious that it will not be possible for the Church of England to get on to other matters such as growth and mission until we have resolved the issue of consecrating women to the episcopate.

In the more than 40 years since the General Synod became the governing body of the Church of England, whether one looks at the number of churches, the number of clergy or the number in the congregation, by any measure it has presided over a period of decline. Does my hon. Friend agree that however difficult the process might be, there is now a very urgent need for reform?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that Justin Welby, as the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate, will make it clear that he sees it as his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury to rebuild the Church. We have a once in a generation opportunity to start to grow the Church again. One in three parishes is growing. We need to work out how they are growing, and try to ensure that other parishes can grow similarly, if we are to have a Church of England which is truly a national Church speaking for the whole nation.

I agree with everything the previous three questioners said and think that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) gave comprehensive answers, so I have nothing to add.

I, however, have something to add. The Second Church Estates Commissioner’s last point was absolutely right: this is not a sect we are dealing with. I say that to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), whose assessment of our role in relation to the Church is completely and utterly wrong. The Church of England is established by law. We can turn down any changes to liturgy that it wants to make, for example. Is it not time we changed by law the system whereby people are elected to the Synod so that it is more representative and looks more like a national Church?

I am quite sure that the review that is taking place into the way people are elected to General Synod will try to ensure the greatest opportunity for people in the Church to have a vote and feel that they are represented. Parliament, for example, decided long ago that all of us—everyone in every parish—have a vote in elections for church wardens. One would think that at the very least in elections to General Synod everyone on a church electoral roll should have a vote.

I stand as someone who failed twice to get elected to Synod—for Southwark—for being too right wing, and I could not do it in London for being too left wing. Should we not recognise that most of the members of Laity at Synod voted for women bishops, and should we not let women be ordained as bishops and trust the bishops to make arrangements in their diocese that are suitable?

That was a loss for both the diocese of Southwark and General Synod, because my hon. Friend would have made a great addition. He makes a really important point: the Church of England is an episcopal-led Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury-designate and a number of bishops made powerful speeches in General Synod on why it was appropriate and right for there to be women bishops, and I hope that the broader Church will now listen to what the bishops are saying.

Parish Weddings

Church of England marriages increased by 4% in 2010. The increase coincided with a national project by the Church to promote and encourage church weddings and communicate new rights to be married in church where people and their families have a qualifying connection.

I am delighted to hear about the increase in 2010, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware that the number of marriages in 2009 was the lowest since records began in 1900. In fact, the number of weddings has decreased in England and Wales from 426,000 in 1972 to 232,000. Some clergy do terribly well in increasing the number of marriages, only to see it fall back under their successors. Does my hon. Friend think that bishops could take a slightly closer interest in that, to try to encourage the good work done by some clergy?

We should all take an interest in that. Everyone in the Church of England wants to attract more weddings in church. Weddings are an important part of Church life. We want to build awareness of the Church’s enthusiasm for marriage. Every member of the clergy would want to care for couples and support them once they have been married in church, and hopefully those couples will want to stick with the church afterwards.

Electoral Commission Committee

I would not want the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) to feel socially excluded, so we will hear from her.

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

Individual Electoral Registration

9. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to prepare for the introduction of individual electoral registration. (131765)

The Electoral Commission has supported the introduction of individual electoral registration since 2003. It is taking a number of steps to prepare for this important chance. Subject to the successful passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, the commission will be responsible for developing guidance and setting performance standards for electoral registration officers, conducting research into the equity and completeness of the electoral registers and planning national public awareness campaigns to support the transition.

Given the admission by Republican Senators and officials in the US that their election law changes were designed to suppress minority and Democrat votes, how can we be sure that individual registration in Britain does not have the same effect?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. We all want to increase the number of people who register to vote in elections. I remind her that this measure was introduced by her own party when in government. The Electoral Commission is confident that if the Government follow its advice there is no reason at all why the number of electors registered for the 2015 general election should not be at a very high level.