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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 16 May 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dog Ownership

Good morning, Mr Speaker.

The Government are introducing a range of measures to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, including: extending the criminal offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control to all places, including inside the dog owner’s home; requiring all dogs to be microchipped from April 2016; and powers to enable local authorities and the police to respond to incidences of antisocial behaviour that involves a dog before the situation becomes dangerous.

I thank the Minister for that answer. In my constituency, Medway council has been running a local community initiative offering free microchipping and advice on looking after dogs. What are the Government doing to encourage such community initiatives that help to foster responsible dog ownership?

That is exactly what we want to see happening, and I applaud my hon. Friend’s local council for promoting responsible dog ownership. We provided £50,000 of funding to three welfare charities to carry out community engagement programmes in targeted hot spot areas with known problems of antisocial behaviour with dogs. Final reports are being received and we intend to publish the results for further dissemination of best practice. Educating the public on how to look after their dogs properly is absolutely essential to tackling irresponsible dog ownership.

What assessment has the Minister made of the cost of microchipping to the consumer? What discussions has he had with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have a UK-wide approach?

I am not quite sure who the consumer is in this instance. Presumably, the right hon. Gentleman means the dog owner. Most of the microchipping will be done by charities and will be free to owners. A number of charities are happy to work with us on that, so I do not think that we are talking about prohibitive cost. We are working with the devolved Administrations so that, as far as possible, we have consistency across national boundaries.

One of the charities the Minister has been working with is Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which is focusing particularly on encouraging more responsible attitudes in younger people. May I commend to the Minister the video “Bully Breed”, which it launched in Parliament recently and which could be a good educational tool for schools and youth groups?

Indeed. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home does a lot of very good work to promote responsible dog ownership, not least because it sees the consequences when things go wrong, and I certainly commend its work. I hope we will be able to make people appreciate that, whether through ignorance, neglect or malice, it is simply unacceptable to have a dog that is a danger to other people under any circumstances.

While we welcome compulsory microchipping and the extension to include private property in pursuing prosecutions of irresponsible dog owners, why did the Government not also include dog control notices as part of the measures, something that the Dogs Trust has been calling for and which would go a long way to helping to solve this problem?

Of course, the Home Office is introducing the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which will deal with precisely this problem. I cannot see the obsession with the label that is placed on those orders—it is the outcome that matters. What matters is the fact that flexible tools will be available to the police and others to deal with this nuisance in the way the hon. Gentleman wants. The measures will be in the Bill, and he will have the opportunity shortly to discuss whether they go far enough and whether there are any opportunities for improvement.

British Producers

Mr Speaker, good morning.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to work with UK Trade & Investment and industry to promote exports and address market access barriers. We have opened the pork markets in China and Australia, expanded the beef market to Hong Kong, and opened poultry, beef and lamb markets in Russia. We continue to work hard to open and maintain markets for UK goods. We also champion British food at the world’s key trade events.

Good morning, Mr Speaker.

I would like to press the Secretary of State, if I may. Given the continuing emerging strength of the BRIC—Brazil, Russia, India and China—countries, what scope is there for British products in that market?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to spot the growth in these markets. Last year, our exports to China grew by 6%, our exports to India by 7% and our exports to the USA by 9%, and only last week the Prime Minister was in Russia talking to President Putin about increasing our exports there. At the moment, the BRIC economies represent only 3% of our total export market, but there are massive opportunities to expand further.

16. Happy Thursday, Mr Speaker. Will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that the British food producers industry makes a significant contribution to the UK economy? What impact would it have on that industry, were the UK to leave the EU? (155350)

The hon. Gentleman is right to spot the importance of food production. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, and we would like to see exports expanded into Europe and the BRIC countries, as I have just said.

The Opposition were pleased to see the Prime Minister in the USA this week negotiating a trade deal on behalf of the EU to open up that new export market to the British food industry. I was disappointed to note the Secretary of State’s failure to support his Government’s Queen’s Speech in its entirety last night. Does he agree with his Prime Minister and President Obama that the UK is better off in the EU? Yes or no?

I entirely agree with the Prime Minister that we would like to increase our exports to the EU and around the world, and that is why he was doing sterling stuff in Russia. I entirely endorse his policy, which is that we should renegotiate and then put the proposed settlement to the British people. The question for the hon. Lady is whether her wishy-washy Wally of a shadow leader will give the British people a choice.

I am not sure where we stand on those words. I always play the ball, not the man, Mr Speaker. It is interesting to note that the Secretary of State is a little rattled.

At a CBI dinner last night, Roger Carr, its president, said that Britain needed to be in the EU in order to build our export base. Membership of the EU gives us access to a domestic market of 500 million people. Our export trade deals are negotiated through the EU. Nearly three quarters of our food exports go to our European neighbours. Once more, will the Secretary of State explain how Britain’s leaving the UK would help jobs, exports and growth in the British food industry?

We are talking about exports. We want to export to Europe, but yesterday’s results for the French economy, led by her leader’s close ally, show that unemployment there has rocketed to 10.6%. In such circumstances, it is hard to sell and increase our exports to the eurozone. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) is on exactly the right lines in looking at the BRIC countries. We want to export more to Europe, but we also want to export to expanding parts of the world, such as the BRIC countries.

Live Animal Exports

3. If he will consider banning live animal exports from British ports; and if he will make a statement. (155336)

Banning the export of live animals would be illegal and undermine the principle of the free movement of goods enshrined in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

My constituents are concerned about live animal exports: they think them bad for animal welfare and the local economy. Will the Minister confirm that no amendment could be made to any of the harbours or ports Acts that would be effective in tackling this cruel and unwanted trade?

The key piece of legislation here is the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847, which would be a singularly inappropriate vehicle for any such ban, because its aim is to ensure that ports are available to all without discrimination. Even were one to set that aside, however, no such ban would be legal under the free trade rules that this country is not only a signatory to, but the architect of.

Does the Minister envisage that in any renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU, the capacity to change the law in this regard would be one of the things agreed?

We should not confuse animal welfare issues, on which we will continue to push for changes, and the free movement of goods and services, on which this country has a clear position. We are in favour of the free movement of goods and services, and we are unlikely to argue for significant changes to that basic principle.

Glasshouse Industry

4. What steps he is taking to support the glasshouse industry; and if he will make a statement. (155337)

DEFRA works with colleagues across Government to support sustainable development and remove regulatory barriers. We work with colleagues in the EU to support fruit and vegetable producers through reform of the common agricultural policy, the general marketing standards and the fruit and vegetable producer organisation scheme. The Government support and encourage innovative approaches to growing through research and development, the agri-tech strategy and the green food project.

Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituency of Harlow—in particular, Roydon and Nazeing—has the highest concentration of cucumber and pepper growers in the United Kingdom? Will he support the excellent Lea Valley Growers Association and suggest how we can help it to expand? Will he also meet me and the association to discuss these matters?

I think every Member of the House is well aware of my hon. Friend’s commitment to his local growing businesses. He is a stalwart supporter of them. We want them to expand, not only for the local jobs that would create, but for our food security. That is why, for example, we have done combined horticultural production and energy research to try to assist companies such as those in his constituency with the energy they use, which is a big outgoing—and why we have an agri-tech strategy, drawing together engineering skills, R and D, and genotyping to try to reduce costs, using the fantastic innovation we have around the country. I am happy to consult him to see what more we can do to help specific growers in his constituency, who do a fantastic job.

Forests and Woodland

We have set out our commitment to protecting, improving and expanding England’s forestry assets. This includes establishing a new body to run the public forest estate, maintaining a core of forestry expertise in government and supporting the forestry sector to improve its economic performance. We are also giving greater priority to plant health and we look forward to receiving the final report of the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce later this month.

The Forestry Commission owns a considerable amount of land in and around my constituency, including on Cannock Chase and Highgate common. What action are the Government taking, along with the Forestry Commission, to work more closely with voluntary organisations such as the Staffordshire wildlife trust to improve not only access, but the wildlife management of these important local beauty spots?

The hon. Gentleman has absolutely hit the nail on the head. That is exactly what we set out in the forestry and woodlands policy statement. We made it clear that we want the new public forest estate management organisation to work closely with local communities to improve the delivery of public benefits such as access, recreation and biodiversity. The Forestry Commission is already taking that commitment forward by developing a new package of community engagement measures.

The Forestry Commission’s strategy stated clearly that recent outbreaks of tree health problems, such as oak processionary moth, underline the need to maintain an experienced team of pathologists and entomologists capable of carrying out both strategic research and “fire brigade” investigations of new problems. Will the Minister therefore rule out any new cuts to DEFRA and its agencies in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, particularly as that would endanger the future survival of our country’s trees and forests?

It is desperately important that we not only keep together the cadre of experts we have, but expand it. There is a need to recruit new expert entomologists, for instance. The hon. Lady mentions oak processionary moth, which is a significant problem, but there are many other potential diseases and pests that we need to be aware of. I am absolutely clear that we need to retain that centre of expertise in the Department. That is exactly what the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce is looking at. It is not for me to pre-empt what the spending review might say, but it is certainly our intent to ensure that we protect essential services to protect tree health.

High Speed 2

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport and farmers on mitigating the effects of High Speed 2 on farms affected by the proposed route. (155339)

The Government are committed to ensuring that the construction of the high-speed rail line is undertaken as sympathetically as possible. That is why we have asked HS2 Ltd to undertake a draft environmental statement to better understand the impacts of the scheme on affected parties, including farmers. The draft statement will set out the likely significant impacts, as currently understood, and will identify proposals to avoid, reduce or remedy those with a significant adverse impact.

Whatever we might think about the principle of high-speed rail—I am actually for it—it can hardly be sympathetic, as the Minister said, given that the route that we have chosen, the Labour route, crashes through rural England and affects many farms. What discussions has the Minister had with the National Farmers Union about compensation for farms that will be decimated, with fields being separated from other fields, and land shortages being created by 100 metre swaths?

The environmental statement is published today and will be available in the Library. We have had meetings, and in February the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association signed up to a voluntary agreement with HS2 Ltd that sets out the process for contacting landowners to discuss gaining entry to their land. It also contains a fee structure and a duty of care commitment. This will help HS2 Ltd better to understand the impacts of the scheme on farmers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere along the route.

Will the Minister also discuss with the Secretary of State the problems that farmers in my constituency are facing as a result of proposed business developments on their land to improve the rural economy being put on hold or stopped altogether because of the blight?

We certainly remain willing to work across Government to ensure that those kinds of concerns about the undoubted impacts are raised. There is huge experience in relation to other infrastructure developments that have taken place over recent years and decades, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely with him to get this right.

Horse Passports

The Government remain committed to strengthening the horse passport system. I met members of the Equine Sector Council for Health and Welfare’s strategy steering committee to discuss this and other issues on 21 February. My noble Friend Lord de Mauley will be meeting them again next week to discuss these matters further.

A single horse passport-issuing organisation could improve traceability and bring greater rigour to the system. What transitional arrangements is my right hon. Friend planning for the more than 1 million horses in this country that already have passports and that are far more likely to end up at slaughterhouses than next year’s foals?

My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on this matter, having been chief executive of the National Pony Society before entering the House. That is one of the 75 bodies that issues horse passports. She makes the very sensible point that more than 1 million passports have already been issued. We are working with the European Commission, which has sensibly suggested that we move to a single database, and we will obviously work closely with the passport-issuing organisations as we work out the transition to the new system.

On the question of having a single process across Europe for dealing with horse passport fraud, does the Secretary of State believe that it would be harder or easier to tackle such fraud if we left the European Union?

We are discussing this matter immediately with the European Commission, which has put forward the sensible proposal that member states should have a central database. The issue might be subject to renegotiation at a later stage, at which point I would love to hear the hon. Gentleman’s opinion on whether he would push his party leader to back us in giving the British people a choice on the renegotiated settlement.

Everybody agrees that there must be reform and improvement of the horse passporting system, but under the current system there is a derogation for native breeds such as Welsh mountain ponies and Exmoor ponies. Without that derogation, it would become almost financially impossible for people to continue to keep those breeds. Will the Secretary of State consider keeping the derogation so that we can continue to see those wonderful ponies on our wild hills and mountains?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right to say that a number of breeds are currently excluded. We will have to work this out as we discuss the new system, but I also hope that he will see the merits of having a centralised database, which we will work through with the passport-issuing authorities.

Bore da i chi, Mr Speaker—good morning to you.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has become infamous for U-turns, but now our Eurosceptic Secretary of State has been forced into making an embarrassing EU-turn as a result of the horsemeat scandal. He scrapped the national equine database last year, right in the middle of a tendering process, to save £200,000. Now the European Commission has told him to re-establish a central equine database. How much will it cost to set it up again?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We called a meeting with senior members of the equine sector before we had discussions with the Commission, and we all agreed that the system we inherited from his Government is a mess and badly needs to be improved. He exaggerates the importance of the national equine database as he left it, because it did not contain food chain information. We will work closely with the industry. We have seen success with the dog industry contributing to the microchipping programme, and we will work with the equine industry to see how it can help to build the new database.

Is there any scope in these proposals to help to combat the growing problem of fly grazing? Farmers and landowners in my constituency are intimidated by Gypsy and Traveller groups who let their horses graze on their land, when the only route open to them is civil prosecution.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I discussed with senior representatives of the horse industry at the Royal Windsor horse show on Saturday. There is a real problem with fly grazing, but we are taking measures forward in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which I hope will lead to a reduction of the problem.

Dangerous Dogs

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the forthcoming legislation on dangerous dogs. (155341)

May I congratulate the hon. Lady again on both the tenor and content of her Adjournment debate speech on this subject last night? As she will know, there have been several discussions between DEFRA and Home Office Ministers on how the new measures contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will apply to low-level incidents involving dogs.

My constituent, 14-year-old Jade Lomas Anderson, was the most recent person to be killed by dangerous dogs. Despite the Minister’s assurances, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, all the animal welfare charities, the British Veterinary Association and the Communication Workers Union still believe we need dog control notices to prevent dog attacks and do not believe that the current proposals will do enough to prevent injuries to people and other animals by aggressive dogs. Will the Minister please reconsider his position so that we can do more to prevent tragedies such as the one that befell Jade and her family from occurring in the future?

We certainly need to do everything we can to avoid that sort of tragedy. The fact is that nine children and six adults have been killed in dog attacks since 2005 and 12 of those took place on private property. On the question of what species of injunction we use to prevent irresponsible dog ownership, I believe, as does the Home Office, that its proposals provide the flexibility we need. I do not think that having a proliferation of different measures with different labels, which I am afraid was a characteristic of the previous Government’s approach, is necessarily the right way forward. We will be able to discuss this, however, in the context of the Bill, and I hope we will come to a satisfactory conclusion.

I believe that assistance dogs are wonderful selfless animals as well providing an invaluable resource for individuals with an impairment. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as a result of this Government’s proposals, future attacks on assistance dogs will be considered to be an aggravated offence?

That is absolutely right. It is contained within the Home Office proposals and the Home Office Bill, and I think it will largely be welcomed across the House.

Flood Insurance

We are at an advanced stage in negotiations with insurers towards producing a successor to the statement of principles. Today, the Association of British Insurers has written to say that insurers will continue to abide by the current agreement for a month beyond the end of June to allow further time for the outstanding issues to be concluded. I am placing a copy of the letter in the Library of the House. We are aiming to conclude negotiations as soon as possible to ensure that households can continue to access affordable flood insurance.

Home owners in flood-risk communities are becoming increasingly anxious about this Government’s failure to get a deal on flood insurance. Two hundred thousand properties in flood-risk areas face the prospect of either higher premiums or not getting insured at all. Extending the talks is fine, but when are we going to see a deal on this issue?

The current arrangements are not guaranteed to hold premiums down. We are seeking an arrangement that will last well into the future, will deliver affordability and comprehensiveness, and will not impose a huge burden on the taxpayer. The hon. Lady may wish to pop into the Library, or, if she comes to see me later, I will give her a copy of the letter from the ABI. She will see that the tone of the letter demonstrates that we are very close to an agreement, although there are still some important issues to be resolved.

A one-month extension is simply not good enough. The Government have had three years in which to sort out the problem, and, in the meantime, householders and businesses in Exeter and throughout the south-west face huge hikes in their premiums because of the uncertainty. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor understand that no country in the world has a free market in flood insurance, and that there will have to be some sort of underwriting if there is to be a deal?

Having seen the floods in Exeter, I know that this is a key issue there. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the new schemes, which will be of great benefit to many thousands of his constituents. I cannot negotiate with him on the Floor of the House, but we are fully aware that a great many people are vulnerable to increases in premiums, and we view this as a real priority. I think that the fact that the ABI has told us that only one month is needed for us to conclude our important discussions shows how close we are to an agreement.

I welcome the news about the ABI, but can my right hon. Friend reassure us that enough time is available for the introduction of the legislation that will be required to replace the statement of principles, given the time frame involved? Can he also reassure us that it will cover home contents insurance for those who live in rented accommodation that is flooded?

As my hon. Friend—who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—is aware, we will be presenting a water Bill in the summer, and we shall have an opportunity to include clauses that will lead to the legislation that is required. We are convinced that, whatever happens, there will have to be some form of legislation to ensure that the arrangement is comprehensive. The detail to which my hon. Friend refers will be dealt with in the negotiations.

17. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his Ministers for the hard work they have been doing. Does the Secretary of State share my frustration over the fact that it seems to be the ABI and the insurance industry—one of our great successes in this country— that are exerting the pressure, and holding out for some sort of subsidy from the taxpayer in order to secure an agreement? (155351)

Having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency during the floods, I am fully aware of the importance of the issue to her constituents, but it is a complex issue. We are trying to find a long-term solution, and to sort out the conundrum of affordability, comprehensiveness, and not imposing a long-term burden on the taxpayer. I pay tribute to the ABI for the constructive manner in which it has engaged in the regular meetings and discussions that have taken place. We are not quite there yet, but I hope to be able to come to the House soon to announce a resolution of the problems.

14. Has the Secretary of State seen a report, published this week, which suggests that rather than there being a once-in-a-thousand years chance of the Thames barrier being overwhelmed by rising sea levels, the statistic could be once in a hundred years or even once in 10 years? What are the implications of that for insurance costs in London? (155348)

We have begun preliminary investigations of the prospects of long-term flooding. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a possibility of major construction projects which may help.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. Residents of Pagham and Middleton-on-Sea, in my constituency, greatly valued the visit by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), on 29 April. Surface water flooding was a huge problem in my constituency on 10 June last year, and it is now becoming clear that silt build-up in the Pagham and Aldingbourne rifes exacerbated that flooding. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Environment Agency to give greater priority to routine clearing and dredging of the main river water courses that are so important in preventing and mitigating flood damage?

I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. I think that the Environment Agency has a role to play in clearing major waterways, but I am also talking to the agency about speeding up the ability of landowners to look after low-risk waterways, where there is also a problem in rural areas.

The Secretary of State has been given a welcome breathing space with the month-long extension of the statement of principles negotiated by the Labour Government. That, however, will come as little consolation to the company in Calderdale that is facing an increase in its flood insurance excess from the current level of £500 to a staggering £250,000, putting jobs and the local economy at risk. Does the Secretary of State really believe that that is a price worth paying for his ideological support for a free market in insurance?

That is a glorious question, because the hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. He describes the problem with the existing system left because of the incompetence of the Labour Government, who made such a mess for 13 years. We are trying to bring forward a better system that will deliver affordability to some of our most vulnerable citizens. We will deliver; they didn’t.

Community Orchards

Community orchards provide a place for local people to reconnect with nature, and they encourage biodiversity. That is why we have worked across government and with the European Union to make it easier for local people to establish community orchards.

In Herefordshire, the Bulmer Foundation does outstanding work in opening up community orchards for disadvantaged people of all backgrounds, and only last week Orchard Art was celebrated at a special service in Hereford cathedral. Does the Minister of State share my view that community orchards can have enormous social as well as environmental value, and will he join me in congratulating the Bulmer Foundation on its Orchard Art initiative?

Herefordshire has the distinction of being the second best county in the country for production of orchards. In 2012, research commissioned by Natural England found that community orchards produced a range of valuable benefits over and above the fruit they supply. They provide a haven for wildlife, lock up carbon and enhance the quality of life of the people living around them. I do indeed congratulate the Bulmer Foundation on the work it is doing and the difference it is making for local communities.

Order. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), but I want speedily to move on from fruit to bees. I call Mr David Nuttall.

Bee Population

Threats to the health of bees are many, and their impacts change from year to year. Our National Bee Unit’s bee health inspectors report a mixed picture. While the foulbrood diseases are at historically low levels and exotic pests remain absent, the varroa mite is still a major concern. NBU inspectors are assessing what impact almost 12 months of poor weather is having on our bees and will report later in the year.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Given the importance of bees to our environment—and, of course, our orchards—what more can his Department do to make it easier for people to take up beekeeping and encourage a new generation of beekeepers in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the supreme importance of encouraging the growth of pollinators all round, and our healthy bees plan provides £1.3 million to fund the NBU, with its inspection, training and diagnostic services, which encourage people to take up beekeeping.

In Northern Ireland, the predicament of the bees is just as critical as it is in England. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and specifically the Minister responsible for this area, Michelle O’Neill, to ensure that the United Kingdom strategy is put in place across the whole of the United Kingdom, including England and the regions?

This issue is devolved, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but I will be having a meeting with the devolved Ministers very shortly, and bees and pollination will obviously be one of the issues we will discuss.

Speaking as a beekeeper myself, is the Secretary of State aware of the extreme disappointment of the British Beekeepers Association, of which I am a member, at the recent EU ban on neonicotinoid insecticides and the very grave concern that as a result farmers will go back to older, and more damaging, insecticides and that the health of Britain’s bees could therefore inadvertently be more at risk now than before the ban was introduced?

My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on this, so what he says is worrying. We argued exactly that case: that there should not be a precipitate ban until proper analysis has been done of the alternatives. There may be legally licensed alternatives, such as pyrethroids or organophosphates, but they are not nice, and we were not convinced that the case against neonicotinoids had been made following the analysis of our field trials. We were supported by eight member states—important ones such as Hungary, with 2 million hectares producing 20,000 tonnes of honey—but, sadly, we were outvoted and the Commission has decided to bring in a two-year ban.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment, and safeguarding animal and plant health. In recent weeks, we have helped farmers respond to the pressures created by the recent severe weather, not only through immediate support, but by bringing together the banks, farming charities and industry to co-ordinate farmers’ short-term access to finance and build the long-term resilience of their businesses. As we seek to enhance rather than merely protect our natural environment, we are exploring the potential for biodiversity offsetting, so that we can improve our cherished habitats and wildlife, while enabling the rural economy to prosper.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In Medway this summer, following a successful bid to the central Government weekly collection support scheme, recycling will be collected weekly. What action are the Government taking to enable more local authorities to increase their recycling rates?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The UK is on track to meet its 50% household waste recycling target. Decisions on collection regimes are for local councils to make, taking into account local circumstances, including local logistics, the characteristics of the area and the service that local people want. The Government are encouraging a number of councils to run incentive schemes for various kinds of recycling collection, through the reward and recognition scheme and the weekly collection support scheme. The Government have also introduced higher packaging recycling targets for business, which will help to increase household recycling rates.

T3. A draft Bill on banning wild animals in circuses was published by DEFRA in April but did not feature in the Queen’s Speech. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that Bill will be introduced in this House in this Session or not? (155356)

The Bill has been introduced to the House for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is in the hands of the Select Committee at the moment, and I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of the Select Committee’s considerations.

T2. May I return the Government to the issue of antisocial behaviour caused when a large number of dogs are packed into a small garden, which not only causes a nuisance to neighbours, but is not good for the dogs themselves? I have written to the Home Office about this, the letter has been transferred to DEFRA, and I have not yet had a response. May I please have a meeting with the relevant Minister? (155355)

I am sure that that will be possible. The relevant Minister is Lord de Mauley, to whom I will communicate my hon. Friend’s request. I hope it will be acceded to.

Almost a year ago, the then Secretary of State told me that a deal on flood insurance was imminent. Is not the real villain of the piece here the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has blocked a deal being reached? Is this not another example of a shambolic Government, who have had three years to sort this matter out and now have to get a further month’s extension, with there still being no guarantee that a deal will be in place after that extra month?

That is complete nonsense. The Chief Secretary and senior Ministers are all working closely together on this issue. I am sorry that we may have nearly shot the Labour party’s fox. We are working closely with the Association of British Insurers and we will deliver a good deal.

T4. What is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that the new single farm payment forms are as short as possible? (155357)

That is a very interesting point, because one of the main principles underlying our negotiation for common agricultural policy reform has been that whatever comes out has to be simple and deliverable. One of the mistakes made back in 2005 was that we had an over-complicated system and a lack of resource to deliver it, and as a result we had a shambles in the Rural Payments Agency.

In answer to previous questions from me about how we can protect people from the adverse effects of low-energy lighting, Ministers indicated that they would need to get support from other European partners. What steps have they been taking in the past six months to do that?

I am delighted to report that at 6.15 am yesterday we got an agreement that the Council of Ministers is now in a position to do a deal with the Parliament that means we will, at last, see a meaningful end to the practice of discarding perfectly edible fish. This is part of a radical reform of the common fisheries policy, for which Members from all parts of the House have been calling for a great many years.

We have made it very clear that this Department will cover the marginal costs to the police forces involved of policing the cull, when it takes place. Obviously, the level of costs will be entirely dependent on the level of illegal activity in the areas in which the cull is taking place.

T6. The Secretary of State often makes reference to the common agricultural policy delivering public goods for public money. Does he agree that the delivery of increased amounts of safe, high-quality, affordable food from this country’s farms is one such public good? (155359)

I certainly do agree. The clear intention of CAP money is to support those areas where the market does not provide, as I know my hon. Friend would agree. But we need a thriving agricultural industry in this country, and that means that we ensure that for the future we have the food security that this country desperately needs.

Calcium, iron and other nutrients have been added to white flour in this country for over 65 years, and it is very worrying to hear that the Government are considering possibly scrapping that. Does the Secretary of State see that as an important addition to nutrition for families, particularly in hard-pressed times, or simply a regulatory burden that he wants to get rid of?

We are considering a review of the national rules relating to bread and flour as they apply to England. We held a public consultation seeking views on possible deregulatory options, which closed on 13 March 2013. We are analysing the 47 responses that we received, in conjunction with the Department of Health. We are committed to ensuring that any policy decision on the removal of mandatory fortification will take into account an assessment of the health impacts, the impact on industry and the implications for other parts of the United Kingdom and the interests of consumers. We intend to announce our decision before the summer recess.

T7. Is the Minister aware of any international examples of disease control that could be applicable in the bid to control bovine TB in the UK? (155360)

In opposition, I visited the USA; I went to Michigan. Last month, I went to Australia and New Zealand and I shall shortly be visiting the Republic of Ireland. What they all have in common, in getting rid of this horrible disease, which is a zoonosis, is that they bear down on disease in cattle and they bear down on disease where there is a reservoir in wildlife. That is exactly what we intend to do.

In recent days, it has emerged that burgers served in Leicester schools that were classified as halal contained pork. There have been similar examples elsewhere in the country. Will the Secretary of State undertake to have urgent discussions with the Food Standards Agency to ensure that halal food is indeed halal food?

This is a matter of great concern to consumers; I perfectly understand that. That is one reason why we have had meetings with the religious authorities, and of course with the Food Standards Agency. It is the responsibility of manufacturers, processors and retailers to ensure that what they provide is what they say they are providing. Certification is a matter for the religious authorities; that is not a Government issue, but we will work closely with them to ensure that what people eat is what it says on the label.

T8. Hill farmers across Britain were badly affected by the severe weather at the end of March and in early April. Some of the worst hit were in Macclesfield. Will my hon. Friend confirm to the House that the payment process will be clearly communicated, and that the very welcome funds will be available at the earliest opportunity? (155361)

I certainly will. All the key information was announced yesterday; the hon. Gentleman may be aware of that. The National Fallen Stock Company will administer the scheme both for farmers who are members of the company and those who are not. Farmers should visit the National Fallen Stock Company website or call its telephone helpline to get the details and check whether they are eligible. Applications must be received by 30 June and payments are expected to be made by the end of July.

The Government said that the pilot badger culls are being carried out to test whether badgers can be killed humanely. They still have not released the criteria by which the cull will be assessed to ascertain whether it is humane. When will those criteria be published—or is the Minister holding them back because he knows perfectly well that they will demonstrate that it is not possible to kill them in a humane way?

It is always interesting when people know the results of a trial before it is carried out. These trials will indicate whether it is possible to effect this cull in a humane, a safe and an effective way. That will be reviewed by an independent panel, quite independent of the Department and those taking part in the cull, and we will then assess that and report to the House in due course.

T9. Pillar two funding of the post-2014 CAP arrangements is vital to continue the rural development in the Vale of Glamorgan. Local decision making and administration has been key to that success in the past. This is at risk. Will the Secretary of State do everything possible to ensure that it is maintained? (155362)

The Welsh Assembly Government are developing the next rural development programme for Wales. We are in a difficult positions in that we have not quite reached the conclusion of the negotiations. When the European Commission confirms the UK allocation of pillar two funding, we will be in a better position to assess the funding available for each of the UK’s Administrations.

Does the Minister think that the fortification of bread and flour with nutrients is a burden on business or an important way of ensuring that hard-pressed families facing the cost of living crisis get the nutrition that they need?

I think we should hold a consultation, listen to the results and then reach a decision. That is what we are doing.

T10. I recently met my National Farmers Union branch on a farm in Barrowford to discuss the challenges that many are facing, with many leaving the industry. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage new entrants to the industry? (155363)

That is absolutely crucial. We need to attract the best and the brightest into farming, the other land-based industries and the food industry. It is the biggest manufacturing industry in this country. That is why a short time ago I launched a future for farming review, which is under way. I hope that it will provide us with a clear picture of where the barriers are and where the opportunities are for attracting people into these industries.

Individual Electoral Registration

1. What progress the Electoral Commission is making on preparations for the full confirmation test in the transition to individual electoral registration. (155324)

The Government, not the Electoral Commission, are responsible for the set-up and delivery of the full confirmation test, which is likely to start in July. The commission will be evaluating and reporting on the process and providing electoral registration officers with guidance and tools to support them in the test. The commission’s evaluation will focus on how the technical system for transferring and handling the data has performed and it will then make an overall assessment of whether everything is in place for the successful delivery of individual electoral registration in October.

Does the Electoral Commission agree that there is real concern out there about the IT system that is being used in the process of confirmation, and that it is very important to allow sufficient time for the transition to IER to ensure that things are done properly?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The IT system is extremely important. That is why a full and proper assessment will be made in good time before IER is introduced in 2014. I remind him and the House that, in any event, at the 2015 election all those on the register in 2014 will be automatically transferred, so there is some safeguard.

Church Bells

Church bells are an important part of our national character and heritage, and the Church of England has some limited grant aid available for work to bells and bell frames that are of historic interest. This is distributed by the Church Buildings Council, which also provides advice to help churches approach other funders, including the Heritage Lottery Fund.

In April I joined the Colne ringers for a practice night in the bell tower of St Bartholomew’s church in Colne. The main reason for my visit was to help publicise the ringers’ work and encourage other people to join to help ring the church’s eight bells. However, while I was there it was clear that the installation is showing signs of its age, with much of it dating back to the early 1800s. The ringers hope they can refurbish the bells for their 200th birthday in 2014. Is there any help that the Church Commissioners can provide?

In addition to the possible grant aid for the bells at St Bartholomew’s church in Colne from the Church Buildings Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which I have already mentioned, bell frames are eligible for support under the listed places of worship grant scheme to reclaim the cost of VAT on them. Useful advice and assistance are also available from county and diocesan ringing associations.

National Audit Office

3. How many staff the National Audit Office employs; and what information the NAO collects on their previous employment. (155326)

The National Audit Office currently employs the equivalent of 870 full-time staff. It collects detailed information on an individual’s employment and education history when recruiting staff.

The National Audit Office undertakes a lot of good work investigating many public bodies. Does my hon. Friend think the make-up of his staff is sufficiently broad, from all sorts of different sectors in the private and public world, for them to do their job effectively?

Yes, I do. As an audit institution, the NAO’s core accounting skills are obviously provided through qualified accountants, many of whom join as trainees. The NAO currently employs about 330 qualified accountants and 200 trainees, graduate and school-leaver, from all sectors and all types of society. It also recruits staff from public and private sector backgrounds to provide operational expertise and disciplines, including economics, statistics, information and communications technology, banking and finance. In addition, it has an active inward and outward secondment programme to enhance its skills and experience base.

Will the hon. Gentleman send the House’s congratulations to NAO staff, who do such a good job, particularly in bursting the bubble on High Speed 2? They have shown what an absolute waste of public money it will be. It will cost approximately £50 billion, which could be spent regenerating our towns and cities.

Of course NAO staff have no views on the policy implications of HS2, but I know that they will ensure that it, like all public sector projects, is properly investigated to ensure that there is no waste or incompetence.