Skip to main content

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 559: debated on Thursday 7 March 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rural Economy

Stimulating economic growth is the top priority for this Government. We want to see rural areas contributing to and benefiting from that growth. A £165 million package of measures from the 2011 rural economy growth review is helping rural communities. We are improving superfast broadband infrastructure in the remotest areas and boosting key sectors such as tourism. We are increasing export potential and unlocking barriers to growth by removing red tape.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He is right that superfast broadband is one of the key drivers of growth in the rural community. York and North Yorkshire have made great progress on delivering the Government’s target of 90% coverage by 2015. However, there is a danger that the digital divide could widen for some rural communities in the other 10% of cases. Will my hon. Friend do all he can to push the case for those rural communities?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We must make sure that the advantages of high-speed broadband reach every community across the country, which is exactly what we are determined to do in time. The good news is that we are reaching an extra 100,000 households a week, so they now have the opportunity to use high-speed broadband. I think that is very good news and we will, of course, continue to roll out the programme across the country.

If the Minister is so committed to boosting rural growth, why is he taking out of the pockets of poor agricultural workers a quarter of a billion pounds by abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which was opposed by two thirds of those in the consultation, including many farmers?

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about the consequences. I note that in the other place yesterday evening, their lordships, having carefully considered the evidence, supported the Government’s position.

Last night at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on cheese, the Minister was able to see a wide array of excellent British cheeses, which are highly regarded in the world markets. I know that the Secretary of State has done good work promoting British cheese in China. What other countries will the Department target on behalf of these excellent British products?

I think we have to do everything we can to promote excellent British products. Indeed, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about cheese. I was delighted to see cheese from my own constituency on display at last night’s meeting, but I was even more delighted only last week to see cheese produced only four miles from where I live on display in Dubai at the biggest international trade fair in the world. We were promoting the interests of British business, and over 60 businesses were there. I will also be pleased to join British companies in promoting good British produce in Bangkok next week.

The Minister will be aware of a good article and the very fine speech given just this week to the Engineering Employers Federation by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Much of what he is saying would regenerate the rural economy, but he is also a passionate supporter of crowd funding and crowd sourcing, which many of us see as a regenerative tool in towns and in the rural economy. What does the Minister think of that?

I think that any tool that is effective in urban areas is likely to be effective in rural areas as well. I have repeatedly sought to make the point not only that rural areas must not miss out on economic regeneration but that they are in many ways in a position to lead, as they have a huge contribution to make. I want to ensure that every single community in this country has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of economic growth as it develops.

The residents of 22 villages in the borough of Kettering are concerned about petrol and diesel prices, rural crime and the access to and cost of off-grid energy, as well as access to rural broadband. What representations to the relevant Government Departments has my hon. Friend made on those important issues?

This Department has a responsibility for rural proofing across government, which means that we continually have a dialogue with other Departments about all the factors that have the potential to hold back individuals, businesses and communities in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman may be assured that we constantly make the point that we must have a clear regard for the more than 80% of the landmass that is rural Britain. It comprises only 20% of the population, but it is nevertheless enormously important to the fabric of this country.

How I wish that I had a pair of the Minister’s rose-tinted spectacles. In fact, the Government’s national economic strategy is shot; rural growth is further constrained by inflation running at double the national average, higher costs of living and working; and the slow roll-out of rural broadband is leading to open warfare around the Cabinet table. How does the Minister believe that taking another quarter of a billion pounds out of the rural economy and the pockets of low-paid farm workers by scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board will jump-start the rural economy?

I spent 13 years on the Opposition Benches trying to press the case for rural areas. The then Labour Government did not listen to what was said in rural areas then, and I note that the hon. Gentleman is not listening now to the realities of what is happening in those areas and the realities of what is happening in the agricultural industry. If he did, he would take a very different position.

Flood Defences

2. What assessment he has made of the effects of partnership funding on the provision of flood defences. (146577)

Partnership funding is enabling more schemes to go ahead and allowing greater local choice. It has already produced up to £148 million in external funding over the four years to 2015, compared with £13 million during the previous three years. There are indications that a larger proportion of protected households will be in deprived areas, and up to a quarter more schemes are set to go ahead in the coming years than was the case under the old system.

The additional funding will be most welcome to my constituents—not least those in Buckfastleigh and Kennford, who were grievously affected by the recent flooding—but may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that it is rolled out as quickly as possible, and may I also ask him how many properties in Devon will benefit from it?

My hon. Friend has been a strong advocate for his constituents, who suffered so much flooding last year, and his question is entirely understandable. I can tell him that £35 million of the £120 million that we announced in the autumn statement last year is already available for the 2013-14 financial year, and that the remaining £85 million will be allocated to schemes starting in 2014-15. That means that 5,000 homes in Devon will benefit from additional funds.

Will the Minister confirm that even with the money announced in the autumn statement, capital spending by his Department in 2013-14 will be less than it was in 2008?

That old chestnut must be laid to rest. In cash terms, we are spending roughly the same in this comprehensive spending review period as the hon. Gentleman’s party spent in the last one. His Chancellor, in his last Budget statement, announced 50% cuts in capital budgets for Departments such as mine. The hon. Gentleman cannot come here and try to compare apples with pears. Labour Members must move on from this, and understand that we are doing what we need to do in very difficult financial circumstances.

In February, the Minister announced £10.8 million of capital to upgrade the tidal defences on the east bank of the River Arun in Littlehampton, in my constituency. That is a welcome decision, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to building new flood defences, but it is not time for the insurance industry to match that commitment by agreeing to a replacement for the flood insurance statement of principles, which expires in June this year?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he did in drawing attention to the needs of the people of Littlehampton following the floods that they suffered so recently. We are working at a very fast tempo at the highest levels of Government to try to achieve an agreement which will massively improve on the statement of principles, which first does not cover every home and secondly contains nothing about affordability. We want a better system for the future.

Extreme Weather

3. What steps he is taking to prepare and adapt homes, businesses, agricultural practices and infrastructure against the threat of flooding and water scarcity resulting from the increased frequency of extreme weather. (146578)

The Government will publish a report on the national adaptation programme later this year, which will set out actions to address the impacts of the increased frequency of extreme weather events on the built environment, our infrastructure network, businesses, our farming and forestry sectors, the natural environment and our health. The Government are spending £2.3 billion on reducing the risk from flooding and coastal erosion over this four-year period.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will know that last year in the UK flooding was experienced on one in every five days, while on one in every four days there was drought subject to a hosepipe ban. One in seven houses and 10% of the country’s critical infrastructure are now exposed to flood risk, yet by 2014-15 some 23% less will be spent on these matters. Will the Minister consider the exhortation from the chairman of the Environment Agency to take urgent action now to avoid the coming problems?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about the extremes of weather we have experienced in the last 12 months. We were facing a real problem with drought, and there was a 3% chance of getting a sufficiently wet summer to alleviate it, yet it happened. However, it has of course brought huge other problems. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the level of spending—I refer him back to my response to the previous question—and I can assure him that we listen very carefully to experts in the EA. When we asked its leadership what further projects it could bring forward if we found extra money, it told us and we got the money; that was announced in the September statement.

What can the Minister do to assist residents who live near small tributaries and who cannot understand which authority is responsible for them? There seems to be confusion between highways authorities, the EA, local councils and county councils as to who has responsibility for clearing the waterways around tributaries.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This matter was discussed at yesterday’s EA board meeting and we are in close touch with the EA and other organisations. There is a degree of confusion. That was brought out in the Pitt review. Some effort has been put in, and some progress has been made in addressing the problem, but I absolutely concede we are not there yet and there is still confusion about who is responsible and what the priorities are. We want to make sure that the priorities are protecting people and their properties and the environment.

Puppy Farms

4. What recent representations his Department has received on tackling the problem of backstreet puppy farms and breeders. (146579)

In addition to a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on dog control and welfare, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, Lord de Mauley, has received a number of letters on the subject of puppy farms, irresponsible breeders and the internet advertising of dogs. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides the necessary powers for local authorities to investigate allegations of poor welfare among all dog breeders.

I am grateful for that answer. In the Committee’s recent inquiry, we received evidence that a contributory factor in respect of the problem of status dogs is the number of backstreet puppy breeders, because dogs are more likely to become aggressive and unmanageable if they are not socialised and cared for properly in the first few months. The law currently allows people to breed up to five puppy litters a year without licensing, but we recommended that the figure should be reduced to two. Will the Minister look carefully at that proposal?

I have every sympathy with the reasoning behind the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, and I certainly deplore the irresponsible breeding of dogs. I can assure him that it is already the case that if a local authority considers that someone is in the business of breeding and selling dogs but they have produced fewer than five litters in a year, a licence would still be needed, and any dog-breeding establishment that produces five or more litters in a 12-month period will also need a licence regardless of whether it is considered to be in the business of breeding and selling dogs. Guidance on that was given to local authorities back in 1999, explaining precisely where those responsibilities lie.

Backstreet puppy farms are a problem in the entire United Kingdom. As a Northern Ireland MP, I am also aware of such farms in the Republic of Ireland, with puppies coming through Northern Ireland to the UK and going directly from the Republic of Ireland to the UK mainland. Has the Minister had any discussions about this problem with the Government in the Republic of Ireland, so that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together with the Republic of Ireland can address it?

I will certainly draw that point to the attention of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary and see whether he has had an opportunity to speak to his counterparts in the Republic of Ireland and also in Northern Ireland on the issue. If he has not, I am sure he will want to take up the suggestion that has been made.

EU Regulation

5. What steps he is taking to reduce the costs of EU regulations affecting farmers and food producers. (146580)

We are committed to reducing regulatory costs on farmers and food processors. In the EU we are working closely with the Commission to ensure that all new proposals adhere to the Commission’s communications on smart regulation and the Government’s guiding principles for EU legislation. We are reducing unnecessary burdens from existing legislation through our response to the farming taskforce, with initiatives that include taking action to simplify paperwork and improve the way on-farm inspections are performed.

Figures from my hon. Friend’s Department show that in the past two years, 67 EU regulations have been passed, adding £500 million in costs to British farmers and producers. What steps is he taking to support our farmers by cutting back on EU regulations and cutting the costs of the EU for British farmers?

Not all those costs will impact on farmers and food processors, of course, but the hon. Lady raises a valid point about the cost of EU regulation that I hope is not lost on Members of the European Parliament and European Commissioners. That is precisely why we are committed to making progress on our better regulation agenda and why at EU level we continue to press for all new proposals to adhere to the Commission’s smart regulation policy. We are also abiding by this Government’s principles for EU legislation, which include regulating only when there are no alternatives and ensuring that there is no gold-plating when introducing European measures into UK law.

When I met the Minister on 10 December last year to discuss my Food Waste Bill, he promised he would give me a copy of the advice his Department had received from the Food Standards Agency about whether the provisions in the Bill to remove civil and criminal liability from good faith donors of food waste would be compatible with EU food safety regulations, as it was suggested by his Department that they were not. I am still waiting for a copy of that advice despite chasing the Department—can he update me on that?

I can only apologise that the hon. Lady has not yet received that information. I will look into the matter in the Department to ensure that she gets what she has asked for.

Food Adulteration

On 25 and 27 February I updated the House on the discussions I have had on the adulteration of food in the UK with the food industry and at a European level. I continue to have regular update discussions with the Food Standards Agency and I shall also be meeting the food industry on a regular basis.

Obviously, this is not just about adulteration with horsemeat. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that consumers have the right to know everything about the content of food that is sold to them. Will he reassure the House about whether he has done a proper analysis of the capacity of British laboratories to undertake the research necessary to give consumers the confidence that they are entitled to?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and entirely agree that no matter what the price of a product, it must be as marked on the label and as sold. To do otherwise is a fraud on the public. He asks about laboratory capacity. We need only look at what has happened: in an extraordinarily short time in recent weeks, the industry has conducted 5,430 tests that have shown that less than 1% of the products are adulterated.

May I draw the House’s attention to a non-declarable interest as a former employee of the Meat Hygiene Service? It costs approximately £170 to test each slaughtered horse for bute, yet the meat is worth only about £300. The industry has talked a lot about full cost recovery, so will the Minister tell the House when the taxpayer will stop having to pick up the bill for bute testing and how much he estimates the total bill will be?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, which is very relevant. We have cauterised the problem of bute getting into the food chain, as no horse carcase can enter the food chain until it has tested negative for bute, but he is right to raise that question. This is a holding position. I had a meeting with senior members of the horse industry recently because the horse passport scheme that we inherited is unsatisfactory. We will make proposals on that in due course.

The Food Standards Agency has a big role to play in this regard and I believe that it has failed to step up to the plate. Following the capability review that was completed in January and the work being undertaken by the National Audit Office, when might the Government be minded to make proposals to reform the FSA?

I have to remind my hon. Friend and the House that this is an overall European competence. Under regulation 178/2002 we must work within the European regime, and having an independent agency is very much part of that. I pay tribute to the work that the agency has conducted under great pressure in recent weeks, working very closely with the industry and conducting an extraordinarily large number of tests—5,430, as I said. Once we have seen where this criminal conspiracy began and once we have found the criminals—I remind the House that this is an international problem, with 23 countries involved—we will begin to look at the lessons learned. I am clear that within this regime we must have more testing of product and more random testing of finished product.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the lessons that we can learn from this is to have much better, honest labelling and to know exactly where our processed meat product comes from and that it is produced to good farm-assured standards such as the red tractor scheme in this country?

I agree that clearer labelling could help, but we are up against a criminal conspiracy and I think the criminals would have got through. I had a constructive meeting with the French, German, Austrian and Finnish Ministers in Brussels last week, and we are asking the European Commission to accelerate its report on the labelling and marking of the country of origin.

On 22 February Sodexo announced that it had found horsemeat in a beef product and withdrew meat from schools in Gloucestershire, Southampton and Leicestershire and the armed forces. Sodexo has refused publicly to name the product, the level of horse adulteration or the meat company which supplied it, thereby preventing other organisations from knowing whether their supplies are at risk. The Government know the name of that meat supplier. Will the Secretary of State now name that company so that the rest of the public sector can check its supplies?

I discussed this issue yesterday with the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, who is completely satisfied that the information required from Sodexo has been supplied. The hon. Lady must understand that there is an investigation going on and in some of these cases it might lead to criminal prosecution. [Interruption.] No, the FSA is clear that it must be guarded about what information can be revealed in case the investigations are impinged upon.

I find that answer extraordinary. The Secretary of State has a duty to tell the public what he knows and in every other case where supermarkets and other suppliers have found adulterated meat products, their suppliers have been named. How is the public sector supposed to check?

I want to move on to a letter from John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, who sent this letter from High Peak Meat Exports to DEFRA in April 2011. It warned the Government that bute-contaminated horsemeat could illegally enter the human food chain because of failures with the horse passport system, which I have raised in the House before. On 17 February the Secretary of State ordered an urgent investigation into those claims. What has that investigation found, and has he discovered why his Government colleagues ignored that warning?

To clarify the previous answer, Sodexo made it clear to all its customers which products there was a problem with. It has withdrawn them all but in the case of an investigation which might grow criminal, it would not be sensible to reveal names of suppliers. This is a criminal conspiracy which covers 23 different countries, and it does not help the police to arrive at prosecutions if information is revealed.

On horse passports, we are clear that we have fixed the problem of bute getting into the food chain. No carcases will get into the food chain until they have tested negative for bute. That is absolutely clear, and we are clear that the horse passport regime which we inherited from the hon. Lady’s party needs reforming, and we will do that in due course.

Food Adulteration

7. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the devolved Administrations on the adulteration of food in the UK. (146582)

I have been in regular contact with Ministers in the devolved Administrations to discuss the issue. Ministers from Scotland and Wales attended my meeting with the food industry on 18 February, where we made it clear that the adulteration of food is unacceptable and that consumers have to be the top priority. I most recently met Ministers in all the devolved Administrations at a pre-Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels on 25 February and the Welsh Minister briefly on Monday. I am grateful for their support.

Scotland has a high-quality food industry and it is important that its reputation is maintained. What steps is the Minister taking, along with the devolved Administrations, to look at the prevention of adulteration in areas other than those that we have seen so far? Clearly, we cannot predict criminality but we should make sure that we act proactively as far as possible.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to be proud of the quality of Scottish products, as we are, because of the high quality of the raw materials, their traceability and the thoroughness of our production systems. That is why this case must be sorted out. We cannot allow a small number of criminals to do huge damage to a key industry. We are discussing the issue of other types of adulteration with the FSA. That is particularly important to some minorities, so we will be looking to test for pork adulteration.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who chairs the Select Committee, has been clear that the Government were caught flat-footed by the horsemeat scandal. In that case, how would the Secretary of State describe the Scottish Government’s response, given that they picked up the phone nearly a week after Asda began clearing its shelves?

I am not responsible for the Scottish Government. All I will say is that I would like to thank the Scottish Minister and the Welsh Minister for their steadfast support. They came down to the last big meeting I held with industry leaders, and we were all completely united on the need to sort out this criminal conspiracy in order to clear the name of British food making. We want to get exporting and pushing on to expand the industry. We will not have it held back by criminal activity.

Cross-contamination by horsemeat in every part of the United Kingdom could be stopped if we prevented the killing of horses in multi-species abattoirs. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the trade in horsemeat is fairly revolting and that Britain would be a better place if we had none of it at all? Let us kill the horsemeat trade altogether and we will not have to worry about contamination.

A small number of horses—about 9,000—are slaughtered every year in this country. I am not sure that abattoirs would be viable if they concentrated only on one species, but it is an idea that I would like to discuss with my hon. Friend and perhaps take further.

Has my right hon. Friend discussed with his Welsh and Scottish counterparts the fact that many of our constituents find this issue very distasteful, not only because of the thought of eating horsemeat but because of the certain knowledge that horses will be transported and slaughtered in appalling circumstances by shadowy people in those 23 countries?

I have discussed the issue with Commissioner Borg and other Ministers, because there is a significant trade in horses across the continent of Europe. My hon. Friend and his constituents are absolutely right: if they buy a product that is sold as processed beef, regardless of price, it should be processed beef. Any adulteration with any other material is a conspiracy to defraud the public, and we are determined to get to the bottom of it.

15. The export of Scotch beef and Scotch beef-based food products is vital for the manufacturing base in the Scottish economy. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Scottish Government to ensure that producers and consumers can have confidence in the products they buy? (146591)

My hon. Friend the Minister of State attended the 100th anniversary celebrations of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and I have discussed the matter with Minster Lochhead. We both agree that we have a job to do, working closely with the industry, to promote strict traceability and production systems. I was interested to note that at the NFU conference last week in Birmingham that people really had their tails up because there is now an opportunity, with the public being so interested in the supply chain, to stress how good our industry is and how reliable our products are.

Flood Insurance

The availability and affordability of insurance in flood-risk areas are important issues for the Government. Constructive negotiations continue with the insurance industry, at the highest levels of Government, on a range of approaches that could succeed the current statement of principles. The Government are on course to spend £2.3 billion on reducing the risk from flooding and coastal erosion and delivering better protection to 165,000 households over the four years to March 2015.

On 24 January I asked the Minister how much premiums will rise if he fails to reach agreement with the insurance industry. In response, he assured me that negotiations were at an advanced stage and that he would come to the House with details shortly. I understand that he does not actually have a seat at the negotiating table, but when does he expect to have news of a deal from his Cabinet Office and Treasury colleagues?

I think that there is a misconception in some parts of the House that the statement of principles represents some halcyon world in which our constituents living in high flood-risk areas are protected from exorbitant rises in premiums. That is not the case. What we want is affordability to be brought into the new system. I am involved in those conversations at the highest levels and want to assure the House that we are working as hard as we can to find a solution that can give comfort to everyone who is at risk of flooding, particularly those on low incomes.

17. My constituents in West Worcestershire, which is quite flood-prone, are concerned about the length of the negotiations. I understand that the Association of British Insurers is asking for the taxpayer, in effect, to be the reinsurer of last resort. How confident is the Minister that we will be able to come up with a private sector-led solution in time for the expiration of the statement of principles? (146593)

My hon. Friend has a great many constituents who live in flood risk, and we want to be able to assure them that there is something that will continue after the end of the statement of principles. As I said to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the new system is better because it will not only be available to all properties that are at flood risk but will have an affordability element. We have in mind my hon. Friend’s constituents and many others around the country who live in flood risk, but we are also responsible to the taxpayer. We want to make sure that what we are doing is fair to the taxpayer and fair to the person living in flood risk.

The Building Societies Association has said that the consequences of failing to get a deal would be “grave”. Potential buyers would find it difficult or impossible to get a mortgage, loan book values would drop, capital requirements would rise, and there would be less money to lend in the real economy. Is sales blight on 200,000 properties an acceptable price to pay for this Government’s inaction?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong when he says that there is inaction; I can assure him that there is an awful lot of action. Alongside the negotiations that have been going on, we have been producing documents such as one that has been highly recommended by the British Institute of Insurance Brokers Association: “Obtaining flood insurance in high risk areas”. We are also assisting people in flood-risk measures they take for their property at household level so that that will be reflected in the premium. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about the potential impact on mortgages and lenders, and that is one of the main drivers towards the quick result we want to get in this matter.

I am deeply obliged to the Minister, but there are a couple of people called Smith whom I still want to accommodate. I call Sir Robert.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I reinforce to the Minister the importance of achieving affordability? Will he take the message from the people of Stonehaven, who have been flooded for a second time, that urgency is also important so that they can have the comfort of reinsuring their properties?

I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says. There is an urgent need to get a resolution, but I hope that he agrees—I am sure he does—that it cannot be at any price; we have to be mindful of the needs of the taxpayer as well as those of his constituents. This is a fiscal matter and therefore a UK responsibility, so it is important that we liaise closely with the devolved Governments as well.

Fish Discards

At last month’s EU Fisheries Council I secured agreement to a reformed common fisheries policy which includes a ban on discards. Alongside firm deadlines and the practical means to deliver a ban, this moves us much closer to eliminating the terrible waste caused by discarding. Discussions with the European Parliament will now begin in order to agree the final common fisheries policy reform package later this year.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tenacity of his negotiating skills in Brussels, because some of the options that were being proposed would have been disastrous for British fishermen. May I seek assurances that in the further negotiations he will champion British fishermen and the welfare of British waters?

I thank my hon. Friend. Our fishermen have led the way in reducing discards through innovative schemes such as the catch quota scheme and Project 50%. There has been good work by my Department on supply chains and other measures that will need to be brought in to ensure that a discard ban works. My hon. Friend is right that we managed to see off some changes that would have dramatically watered down any discard ban. I am really pleased that we are now on track to achieving what the vast majority of our constituents want.

Topical Questions

The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are to grow the rural economy, improve the environment and safeguard animal and plant health. As well as handling issues such as the adulteration of processed beef products, we continue to seek to put farming on a sustainable footing for the future. This includes working towards a common agricultural policy settlement that will enable farmers to respond to the needs of the market, while delivering valuable environmental benefits and boosting potential for exports. As I outlined at last week’s National Farmers Union conference, both of these things will enable farmers to capitalise on the growing domestic and global demand for high-quality UK produce. At every opportunity we will champion our farmers and their rigorous standards of production and traceability.

In a series of decisions, the European Commission has unbalanced the previous level playing field in the European sugar market between beet processors and cane refiners. As a result, we have very high prices for sugar, super profits for beet processors and a threat to the viability of cane refining in Europe. Will the Minister make sure that the forthcoming changes to the CAP get us back to a level playing field?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely correct. At present, the quota regime is due to end in 2015 and he is right that sugar prices are 35% higher than world prices, which is 1% on the cost of the average shopping basket. We are clear that we want the quota regime to go. I promise the right hon. Gentleman that, at every opportunity when this issue is raised, I remember the need to defend the interests of cane importers and to make sure that the duty regime is fair to them.

T3. Will Ministers update us on where we are with dangerous dogs legislation, given the continued prevalence of attacks and, indeed, organised dog fighting? (146597)

My hon. Friend will be aware of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that we intend to proceed with changes to dangerous dog legislation by bringing in new antisocial behaviour provisions. We are talking to the Home Office about that and we intend to bring them in at the earliest opportunity.

T2. What can the Minister say to reassure my constituents in Sunderland that when they buy a product, whether it is beef, lamb or even horse, they are getting what they have paid for and what they have been promised? (146596)

I think that we have made it abundantly clear that that is exactly what needs to happen. Retailers and people in the catering industry have a clear responsibility and we are determined to do everything we can to make sure that that is the case, which is exactly what has been happening over the past few weeks.

T4. Do Ministers consider it acceptable that a number of historic English churches are being made unusable as a consequence of bat faeces and that mediaeval wall paintings and other historic monuments are being irretrievably damaged as a consequence of bat urine? Churches are not farm barns. They are places of worship and should be respected as such. (146598)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and share his intense frustration. I am glad to say that we are moving forward with one church in Yorkshire, where we think we may have found a resolution, and some churches in Norfolk. It cannot have ever been the intention of those who imposed this directive on us to limit the ability of people to worship in a church that has been there for centuries.

T5. Last week the Secretary of State said that he was keen to delay European Union proposals to protect essential pollinators from neonicotinoids until new British field data were available. At the very same time, his own chief scientist was telling members of the Environmental Audit Committee that those same trials had been deeply compromised. When will the Secretary of State stop prevaricating and implement a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids without further delay? (146599)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making the position clear. There have been a number of reports based on laboratory data. I have raised the issue with Minister Coveney, who has the presidency of the European Union, and had a meeting with Commissioner Borg about it only last week. We have asked them to wait until the data from our field trials have been analysed. We are fully aware of the strength of feeling that the hon. Lady represents, but there are also people who believe that these materials are not damaging. What is absolutely critical is that we do the right thing for bees, because they play such a fundamental role. There is no point in removing one product if it does not actually hurt bees. What we really need to do is look at how we can promote bee health, because it is so important to all plant life.

T7. Is my hon. Friend aware that yesterday was an important day in the political calendar, as it was national salad day, and that, in my constituency of Harlow and the surrounding villages of Roydon and Nazeing, we have the highest concentration of cucumber and pepper growers across the United Kingdom? Will the Government place more weight on food production in the planning system to help the Lee valley growers and glasshouse industry in my constituency? (146601)

It certainly was an important day, because I had the opportunity to meet growers and discuss exactly that issue. There clearly needs to be proper accommodation for growing food stuffs in this country through the planning system, but it is equally right—the Government are clear on this—that local planning decisions need to be taken locally. Central Government have continually to remind our colleagues in local government, however, that having sustainable food production in this country is a top priority. We have an increasing population to feed, and we must ensure that we can do so in a sustainable way.

T6. Even if the Treasury allows the Minister to resolve the general stand-off with the insurance industry over the statement of principles, will not the coalition’s flood defence cuts and the partnership funding plan mean that deprived areas such as mine in Hull will not be able to get the investment into the area to allow the insurance industry to provide insurance to my constituents? (146600)

I suggest that the hon. Lady looks at the facts of the schemes that we have just brought forward. These are schemes in many cities that have constantly failed to get above the line, but which, owing to partnership funding and extra Treasury funding, are now going ahead—in Leeds, Exeter, Ipswich and many others places. I understand the great concern in Hull, as it has suffered from flooding in the past, and I can assure her that it will remain a Government priority to build flood protection.

T8. May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the progress being made on reform of the common agricultural policy? He must be aware of the particular difficulties of tenant farmers who are graziers on common land in north Yorkshire. Will he ensure that Natural England and the Department fully understand that tenants who are active farmers must benefit from the funds after CAP reform? (146602)

As my hon. Friend knows, the CAP negotiations are getting particularly intense at the moment. I have taken her comments on board and will bear them in mind as we draw nearer a conclusion.

I very much welcome the progress being made towards ending the scandal of fish discards, but is the Minister aware of the dramatic recent falls in fish prices and does he share my concern that certain sections of the media are representing our sustainable fishing industry in a grossly irresponsible way?

My time in post has shown me that large areas of the media have no interest in understanding the complexities of marine management, so I share the hon. Lady’s concern. I can assure her that I am very concerned, particularly about the drop in the cod price, which I know will affect livelihoods in her constituency. We want a fair price for a sustainably harvested product, and everything that my Department is trying to do, with the devolved Governments, is working towards that.

T9. I represent one of just three constituencies named after a river, so my question concerns our waterways. What support are the Government giving to groups such as the Erewash Canal Preservation and Development Association in my constituency, which, along with an army of volunteers, does a huge amount to help preserve our historic waterways? (146603)

I pay great tribute to that association, which does such great work. Last year, we achieved something very rare in this House. With all-party agreement, we secured the transfer of a Government body to a charity that has been well-funded for a considerable number of years, giving the opportunity for such organisations to benefit. The number of volunteer days around the country has rocketed as a result of the new charity.

Following DEFRA press releases on the food adulteration issue, one of my constituents wrote to ask if she was the only one who had a problem with the fact that even 1% of products might not be what they claim to be on the label. As she pointed out, that means that of 5,000 products 50 will be adulterated, and that if those 50 are popular lines, millions of people are being duped. Will the Minister please do something about the self-satisfied tone of DEFRA press releases?

I am not sure about a self-satisfied tone, but the Food Standards Agency is discussing exactly that issue with consumers at the moment. There is a clear difference between very trace contamination and deliberate adulteration. We all understand that. The question is where the dividing line is and what is acceptable. It is quite right that the FSA should talk to real people about that and see what they think.

T10. It was a tough year for farmers in west Worcestershire last year, so can the Minister cheer them up by telling them how well the Rural Payments Agency performed this year? (146604)

I would be delighted to do that, but I am not sure that even the performance of the RPA will be enough entirely to cheer up farmers who are wrestling with the weather. In the written statement that I made to the House earlier, I confirmed that by 19 February 2013, the RPA had paid out a total of £1.6 billion to more than 102,000 farmers, which is 98.4% of customers. That exceeds the performance target for March and meets the EU benchmark some four months early. Farmer satisfaction levels are the highest ever recorded, and the RPA has just delivered the most successful payment record in its history. That is an extremely good job.

The common fisheries policy was described recently by a continental EU politician as a “disaster”, so those of us in the UK who take that view are not alone. Is it not the case that monitoring fishing in EU waters, including discards, cannot be effective until those waters are returned to the historic boundaries of member states?

I share the view that the common fisheries policy has been a disaster: it has been a disaster for fish stocks, fishermen, coastal communities and the health of our seas. Working within the world in which we have to operate and playing the hand that we have been dealt, I hope that we are getting good, meaningful reform. We will be delivering much of the regionalisation that the hon. Gentleman wants through the reform of the policy.