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Topical Questions

Volume 559: debated on Thursday 7 March 2013

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.