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Topical Questions

Volume 554: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012

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.