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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dogs

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to control the number of dogs being kept within a domestic property. (163114)

While there are no measures that control the number of dogs kept on a single property, a number of laws regulate the effects of keeping animals, which include welfare, cruelty, safety and environmental effects. Furthermore, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, with which the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) is very familiar, had its Commons Second Reading on 10 June and it provides further measures to help tackle irresponsible dog owners.

Following the tragic death of Jade Lomas Anderson, my constituents in Atherton and across Bolton West believe that more should be done to reduce the number of dogs in houses where they create a nuisance and create fear, because of their ferociousness. Will the Minister amend the current legislation so that there are specific clauses whereby owners can be made to reduce the number of dogs if they are causing fear and potential danger?

I am aware that the hon. Lady has tabled amendments to the Bill exactly to that purpose, and they will be considered in Committee. I do not wish to pre-empt that discussion, but she will know that our view is that the antisocial behaviour orders available in the Bill, on which guidance will be available shortly following discussions with all the appropriate authorities, will deal with the very nuisances that she seeks to remedy.

Of course it is right that the legislation should protect postal workers and utility workers, and make provision against antisocial behaviour. But may I just tell my hon. Friend that there is actually High Court authority—a settled law—whereby if one has more than six dogs, one requires planning permission? We should not be too prescriptive here—if I want to own a number of pugs, it should not be for the state to tell me whether I should own two or four pugs, providing those pugs behave themselves properly.

My hon. Friend has stated the position exactly. Irrespective of the number of pugs he has in his possession, the key thing is whether he is a responsible owner of those dogs, whether he has them under proper control and whether they represent a danger to himself and his neighbours.

It would be a bit worrying if the Second Church Estates Commissioner, of all people, were other than a responsible owner.

Endangered Species

2. What assessment he has made of the effects of UK policy on the protection of endangered species worldwide. (163115)

The UK is an influential leader in the protection of endangered species, through our own actions as well as our input to relevant global agreements. For example, we recently helped to secure additional protection for various marine and timber species through the convention on international trade in endangered species. The UK has contributed to various assessments of global biodiversity, but it is difficult to assess the effects of one country’s policies alone.

We used to be a great leader on this issue, but now we do not even properly fund wildlife crime prevention in this country, despite the change to the law that I successfully moved under the previous Government. Why do we have almost silence from this Government on protecting endangered species and promoting the issue abroad?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. We have funded the wildlife crime unit, which does great work, both at home and abroad; we have been a leader in global forums on dealing with international crime—for example, we have co-funded Project Wisdom, through Interpol, to tackle the illegal trade in endangered species; we are involved in a variety of different operations in Africa and other range states to protect wildlife species; and the expertise we have at home is part of a fantastic partnership between the UK Border Agency, the police and various other agencies, which other countries come to look at.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the key role that Chester zoo is playing in the “If They’re Gone” campaign, whereby it is leading on orangutans and it has orangutan month in August. Will he tell us about the key role the campaign is playing in promoting awareness in the UK?

The “If They’re Gone” campaign is one of the highlights of what this country is doing in giving leadership. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has launched the rhino part of the campaign, and the elephant part highlights the importance of making people aware of the risks that ivory poaching poses to that species. The next phase is the orangutan phase. The orangutan is an endangered species and this country is determined, through our footprint abroad and in terms of the palm oil we all use—making sure we are responsible at home and abroad—to protect that very special species.

The Minister mentioned rhinos and elephants and recent reports have shown that terrorists are slaughtering those animals to raise revenue for terrorism. In making their assessment, will the UK Government link up with the experts in counter-terrorism in the Foreign Office to ensure that we make as big a contribution as possible to stopping that dreadful trade?

The Foreign Secretary recently convened a meeting of Ministers to do in this country precisely what is happening in the United States. There has been a realisation that this is not just an environmental problem—it is about security, too. In large parts of Africa, organisations such as al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army are helping to finance the evil they do through this trade. There is a realisation that we need a cross-government approach and that was the basis of the event that the Prince of Wales hosted at Clarence house. We will formulate that approach in a meeting later this year to ensure that we are co-ordinating things across government while pooling resources with other Governments to ensure that we are doing precisely what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Of course, the largest area on the planet’s surface given over to the protection of endangered species is the Chagos marine protected area, which we established when we were last in government. The Pitcairn governing Council and the Bermudan Government are now asking the UK to designate marine protected areas in the south Pacific and the Sargasso sea. What technical assistance will the Minister’s Department give to ensure that those excellent proposals become a reality?

First, let me congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to the Front Bench; I am sure that he will adorn it with his skills. I think that he is the sixth shadow Minister in opposition to me, and he is very welcome.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The scheme in the Chagos islands is exemplary and we want to see such schemes developed throughout the overseas territories. There are already plans to see proper marine protection around St Helena and a very exciting project in South Georgia. I want to see a necklace of marine protected areas that can be this country’s legacy from our imperial past to the future protection of marine zones.

Common Agricultural Policy

3. What assessment he has made of the effects of the final common agricultural policy settlement on the UK’s ability to achieve its environmental objectives and 2020 targets. (163116)

The new CAP framework through pillar two provides a good basis, with a range of tools to help us, to improve the environment and our biodiversity. Farmers and other land managers already provide a range of environmental benefits. The new arrangements will allow us to enhance the effectiveness of existing schemes and consider new approaches that contribute to our “Biodiversity 2020” quantified outcomes.

Will the Secretary of State now make good on his promise of public money for public good and ensure that the new CAP is implemented in the most effective way possible by maximising the transfer of funds from pillar one to pillar two, ensuring a central role for agri-environment schemes and implementing an ambitious approach to the greening of pillar one funding?

I am happy to confirm my long-standing belief that we should transfer 15% from pillar one to pillar two. Our pillar two schemes do real good for the environment and 70% of our arable land uses those schemes. We also need to develop new schemes, as 30% of the new pillar one will depend on greening. We also have a guarantee, which we drove through the negotiations, that 30% of the rural development funds will be spent on the environment.

The settlement for farmers across Britain is a tough one and they need to compete in a single market with all their continental competitors. Can we ensure that we implement our part of the single farm payment in this country in the most sympathetic way possible so that we can have effective and competitive food production?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. I have said on many occasions—I frequently repeated myself during the negotiations—that we must ensure that the way in which we impose CAP reform is simple and easy to understand. We will not make the mistakes of the previous Government, who caught us up in a horribly complex system that cost us €590 million in what the EU calls disallowances but in what I would call a fine.

May I urge the Secretary of State to be a champion of joined-up government? The G8 settlement on social impact investment was a breath of fresh air; can it link to anything in the CAP settlement, so we can get some serious social impact investment in the rural economy?

As I told the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), we intend to modulate 15% into pillar two, and there are real benefits for the rural economy, the rural environment and rural society from our rural development programme for England schemes.

Upland farms in the UK, particularly those in England, are good at delivering environmental objectives. What will the reformed CAP do to ensure that upland farms maintain their financial viability, so they can continue to deliver those public goods?

I confirm again my belief that because in parts of the UK, such as upland areas, it is tough to make a living purely from food production, there is a significant role for taxpayers’ money to be spent on environmental schemes supporting the valuable work upland farmers do to protect and improve the environment, upon which sits a tourism industry worth £33 billion.

The “State of Nature” report produced by 25 major UK conservation organisations found that 60% of UK species reliant on farmlands are in decline. Does the Secretary of State agree that there has been concern about a shortage of funding for high nature value farming areas? What steps will he take to support farmers so that they can continue to produce high-quality food in those areas and protect threatened species as well?

I think the hon. Lady knows that we get real value out of our existing higher level stewardship scheme. As I made clear in previous replies, I will endorse the transfer of money from pillar one to pillar two for environmental schemes, which will bring real benefits to our biodiversity and the species about which she is concerned.

The financial viability of smaller farmers in Warwickshire is of concern. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give my smaller farmers that transfers from pillar one to pillar two will not cause them hardship?

It is simple: the funds will be spent on projects related to agriculture and the rural environment and economy, and farmers both small and large will benefit from the transfer of the funds.

Food Insecurity

The UK food security assessment published in 2010 is a detailed analysis of the global and domestic factors affecting UK food security, including productivity, supply, affordability and safety. The Government continue to monitor trends, but overall the assessment concludes that the UK is well placed to deal with future challenges. In 2012, officials reassessed the report and concluded that it still represents a robust analysis of food security in the UK.

This week, The Economist’s global food security index ranked the UK 20th this year, behind Germany, France and Spain. Can the Minister confirm that food prices in this country rose by more than 4% in the year to May? In the absence of a strong plan from the Government to boost lower-cost, home-grown food, is it not the poorest who bear the largest share of the burden?

The hon. Gentleman is mixing up food security and affordability, and the two are not exactly the same. I answered his original question about food security, on which this country is in a pretty good position. However, rising food prices are a real problem for many families across the country. The factors that affect food prices, which include commodity and oil prices and currency changes, are largely out of the control of any single country. We need to make sure that, as he says, we boost UK production as much as possible and make affordable food available on our shelves, and that is exactly what the Government are doing.

The 700 children in food poverty in my constituency and their parents would find the Minister’s answer that we are in “a pretty good position” incredibly complacent. I have visited the food bank in Corby, and the people there attribute the massive rise in the number of people coming to them directly to this Government’s economic and social policies. Will the Minister visit the Mustard Seed food bank in his constituency to find out why demand is rising so quickly?

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the meaning of the term “food security”, which was the question I was asked and gave a response to. I have said clearly that there is an issue about rising food prices and about poverty across the country, and the fact that families sometimes find it difficult to buy the food that they need. If he thinks there is a direct correlation between the number of food banks and poverty, will he explain why the number of food banks increased by more than 10 times during the previous Administration? Was that the result of the same factors or not?

With world population set to rise to 9 billion, we need to nearly double world food production with half as much land, energy and water. Does the Minister agree that British agriculture science and research from GM to a range of other technologies has a major part to play in helping us feed the world?

It is absolutely right that we have the know-how in this country to exploit a wide range of technologies which could make a real difference to being able to feed the rising population not just in this country, but across the world. I hope the agri-tech strategy that we are in the process of launching will make a real difference in getting research into the right areas, making that usable in terms of applicability, and then sharing that expertise with those people who can put it into effect on the ground.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who asked the last question. Does the Minister agree, in addition, that the use of otherwise productive land for biofuels in particular and for solar power is a waste of perfectly useful productive agricultural land, and that we ought to minimise those things and maximise the amount that we can produce in this country?

We have to get the balance right between land that is used for energy, which we need—let us not get away from that—and land that is best used for food production. Those decisions are often best taken at local level. Nevertheless, I am conscious of the need to make full use of good agricultural land for food production.

The Minister’s complacency and definitional hair-splitting on the issue of food insecurity, at a time when half a million people were fed in this country by food banks will go down very badly outside this place. This week, his ministerial colleague in the other place said it was difficult to make the causal connections between the benefits squeeze and the soaring use of food banks, yet the Trussell Trust says that 45% of the people who need the help of its 300 food banks have come because of benefit delays or benefit changes. Which of those statements is true?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady fails to understand the terms that she obviously fed to her Back Benchers to ask me about. Food security is a well understood concept. We are talking about feeding the world. We are not talking about food prices in the UK, but food prices in the UK are a very serious issue and not, I think, a matter on which to try to score political points. I am grateful to the various charities which help those who find themselves in difficulties. It is important that we support that in every way we can. I notice that the hon. Lady, with some fanfare, issued a policy review last night, “Feeding the Nation”, which supports virtually all our policies. I give her just one word of advice. If you are going to mention one of our great British cheeses, get the name right: it is single Gloucester, not single Gloucestershire.

Common Agricultural Policy

At the Agriculture and Fisheries Council on 26 June political agreement was reached on the CAP reform regulations. Overall the CAP package does not represent a significant reform, but we substantially improved the Commission’s original proposals and fended off attempts by others to introduce a number of regressive measures. By agreeing to the regulations now, we are able to provide certainty to farmers and paying agencies.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate him on his work at the council. Will he enlighten the House on what those regressive measures were, because my farmers remain very concerned that they will be worse off as a result of some of the changes compared with their continental competitors?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to enlighten the House. It was extraordinary that at a very late stage in negotiations the European Parliament made moves to penalise the most efficient dairy processors and reward the least efficient. There were extraordinary moves as late as last Monday night to introduce coupled payments for tobacco, pigs, poultry and cotton. I think the UK played a part, working closely with our allies, and we saw off a number of other regressive measures, such as double funding. I hope that when the detail is worked out with the representatives of the farming unions, they will see that we stood by British farming and stopped a lot of really bad things coming through this reform.

Order. I am keen to get through another half a dozen questions, if possible, so we need to speed up.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best possible reform of the CAP would be to return agricultural policy to member states? Will the issue of agriculture be on the table when the Prime Minister renegotiates our relationship with Europe?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I am a strong supporter of being able to make more decisions on these matters in this House. It might reassure him to know that this reform means that a lot more decisions will be made locally, so there will be, in effect, an English CAP and each of the regions, which were very keen to be able to make decisions, will have power to decide on all four regulations.

The key will be how the reform is implemented in this country. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the active farmer will remain the main beneficiary, particularly those in the uplands, tenant farmers and commoners whose animals graze on common land?

Emphatically, yes: I am very happy to confirm to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that, as we work out the detail of the implementation of the reform in England, our drive will be to ensure that the agricultural sector gains from it. As I made clear in my comments on pillar two, we want to direct this towards rural areas in a way that benefits the rural environment and rural farmers.

It is, of course, right that public money should be spent on public goods. At a time of severe austerity, what public good is there in spending hundreds of thousands of pounds—indeed, £1 million cheques—on large landowners who do not need the money?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The fact is that we are going from 7 billion to 9 billion people. There has been complacency in this country over recent years, because there was unlimited, safe and easily accessible food to be bought abroad. We want to make sure that we have an extremely efficient, high-tech agricultural sector producing food. I take food security extremely seriously and welcome large, efficient farmers.

Marine Conservation Zones

We are analysing all the responses and evidence submitted following the recent consultation before making final decisions on designating the first tranche of marine conservation zones later this year.

I thank the Minister for that reply. He will know that the Select Committee was getting a bit frustrated about this, and the Government’s response to the Committee did not improve the situation. Does the Minister understand that there is real frustration about the slow speed at which this is going and the apparently arbitrary way in which the Government have selected the zones? Will he reassure the House that they are serious about delivering the policy?

I assure my right hon. Friend that I share his frustration. I inherited a system that created huge expectations but which did not match the evidence required to make these zones work. We are now seeking to make sure that they are evidence-based, affordable, fit in with what happens locally in the seas and part of a coherent package.

Vital marine habitats off Devon and Cornwall will be lost for ever because this Government are not implementing a fully ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones or following the time scale laid down in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. Will the Minister please think again and tell the Chancellor that the costs of inaction in the long run will be far greater than the costs of protecting our marine environment now?

The right hon. Gentleman is looking at marine conservation zones as if they are the only show in town. We have 42 special areas of conservation and 37 special protection areas around the English coast. About a quarter of our inshore waters are protected and we have more than 300 sites of special scientific interest in the intertidal zone. What we are trying to do with marine conservation zones is part of a much bigger picture of marine protection. We will be one of the leading countries in the world for marine conversation and the right hon. Gentleman should feel proud about that.

Flood Insurance

Last week, we announced a headline agreement with industry to guarantee affordable flood insurance for people in high-risk areas. The Association of British Insurers has assured Ministers that implementing Flood Re will have minimal impact on customers’ bills. We will be seeking the necessary powers in the Water Bill. Tackling flood risk will help to keep insurance terms affordable in the long term. We have announced record levels of capital investment of more than £2.3 billion for 2015-16 to 2020-21.

I congratulate the Minister on securing that new deal for universal and affordable flood insurance, which eluded the last Labour Government and me. Will he actively encourage people who live in flood-prone areas to take up the capped premiums and not risk being uninsured?

My right hon. Friend should take a large slice of the credit for the deal that we have achieved. She worked hard to set in train something that the previous Government did not even look at, which is a successor to the statement of principles. I assure her that the key part of the deal is ensuring that we cap premiums, particularly for the most vulnerable, and, importantly, that we cap excess charges.

After the great flood, in the words of the old negro spiritual,

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,

No more water but fire next time”.

Smethwick has certainly suffered from fire this week. Will the Minister, with other Departments, look urgently at banning sky lanterns and, with the Environment Agency, look at the licensing arrangements regarding storage at recycling sites that have large quantities of flammable material?

I have huge sympathy for the people of Smethwick, but this matter is nothing to do with floods or flood insurance. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are taking the question of Chinese lanterns very seriously indeed.

People in my constituency who have been flooded will welcome the news about flood insurance and the extension of the £50 off their water bills. Does he agree that that shows a commitment to the people of the south-west that was never shown by the previous Government?

I agree entirely. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that we have addressed an intrinsic, long-term unfairness for people in the south-west. We have proved that we are doing that not just for today, but for the long term.

We have a proposal from this Government, not a deal. The Secretary of State said that

“this announcement means that people no longer need to live in fear of being uninsurable”.

However, all band H properties are excluded, as are so-called “genuinely uninsurable” properties and all properties built after 2009. Given that it has taken the Minister three years to get to this point, will he now admit that his proposals do not provide universal access to cover?

What an uncharacteristically graceless question from the hon. Gentleman. When the deal was announced from the Dispatch Box last week, there was an audible sigh of relief, not only from Government Back Benchers, but from Opposition Back Benchers. The deal has been welcomed and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows in his heart that it is a good deal and one that will last for the long term.

Rural Broadband

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the roll-out of broadband in rural areas. (163123)

The Secretary of State meets regularly with his counterpart at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to discuss the roll-out of the £530 million rural broadband programme. We are determined to deliver that quickly to provide 90% of premises with superfast broadband at 24 megabits a second and elsewhere with standard broadband of at least 2 megabits a second. Further discussions will focus on the £250 million of additional broadband funding that was announced as part of the spending review.

It is clear that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been briefing against Broadband Delivery UK in recent weeks. The Minister must acknowledge that it is his Government’s decision to abandon Labour’s pledge of good broadband for all by 2012 in favour of superfast broadband for some by 2015 that has left rural businesses and residents in the digital slow lane. How does he justify the devastating impact of that on the rural economy?

I am sorry, but I cannot accept that. One reason why the hon. Lady is sitting on the Opposition Benches is that her party lost the rural vote, partly because it left rural Britain in a digital no-go zone. We have set out a programme that, by 2015, will see the rural economy playing its part in the rest of the economy through the extension of superfast broadband, and I think she knows it.

I would like to report that there is good progress in rolling out superfast broadband in Gloucestershire. Does the Minister agree that that is one of the core reasons why the private sector is able to create more and more jobs?

I am delighted that things are moving on in Gloucestershire. Of the 44 county projects, 27 are now contracted and the remainder will be by September. We will start to see fibre being laid in huge quantities around rural Britain, and it will be as easy to run a creative industry firm in a converted farm building in my hon. Friend’s constituency as it would be in the middle of Gloucester.

Has the Minister carried out any assessment of the impact of digital exclusion on deprived communities such as mine, particularly for young people, who increasingly need internet connections to complete schoolwork, apply for jobs and so on?

We have indeed. We know, for example, from the work that PricewaterhouseCoopers has done that there is an average benefit of £365 a year to families who have proper digital access, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gives. I was at a remote location in Northumberland national park the other day seeing a satellite solution that was providing an extraordinary benefit to the eight houses at the end of a long valley, so I am well aware of the points that he makes.

I very much welcome the moneys that the Minister’s Department has made available to extend broadband into the hardest-to-reach places, but identifying exactly which places those are and what it will take to achieve that is no trivial exercise. Will he reserve some of the funds for councils such as Wiltshire that have submitted an expression of interest but still need to conduct the detailed survey work required?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is convening a meeting in the next few days with a number of community-led schemes that are concerned about the uncertainty over whether they will be among the final 10% hardest-to-reach areas. Over the next few weeks, we will have a much clearer view of where there are problems. We want to ensure that we iron out those problems so that people know that they are in that 10% and can then access money through the rural community broadband fund.

Topical Questions

The Department’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health. Today, I have published a draft strategy for achieving official bovine TB-free status in England over 25 years, and a copy has been placed in the Library. The strategy draws on international experience demonstrating the need to bear down on the disease in cattle and wildlife. It sets out our determination to work in partnership with the industry to develop and deploy new technologies, and we will also explore new options for governance, delivery and funding. Tackling the disease will require long-term solutions and national resolve. Our cattle industry and countryside deserve no less.

Ash is a huge and important part of woodland scenery in Yorkshire, especially in upland areas, and ash dieback is increasing at an alarming rate, with more than 500 cases having been identified. The Secretary of State has reduced the staffing of the Forestry Commission by more than 500. How will he deal with something that could be a catastrophe for our woodlands without shifting staff and closing other parts of the Department?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the potential damage of Chalara to our rural environment is absolutely devastating. We will make our dispositions of the resources within the Department in the autumn, but I assure him that I have made plant health an absolute priority, right up with animal health. I have been to Australia and New Zealand to see what they are doing on biosecurity, and the plant taskforce has made some important recommendations, such as the risk register, which we are already implementing.

The answer for ash is to find a genetic strain. There is sadly no magic potion that we can spray on ash trees yet, although we are testing 14 of them, so a genetic strain is the real answer. For that reason, we have put out 250,000 young ash trees to see which ones are resistant.

T3. The average household loses £700 of food each year to waste. The Government have improved the date labelling of food, but will the Minister help even further by supporting prominent labelling advice on how food can best be stored at home to prolong its freshness? (163135)

My hon. Friend is right, and through the recently announced third phase of the Courtauld commitment, the Government are working with retailers and manufacturers to design products in ways that help households reduce food waste and save money, including improved storage instructions. The Waste and Resources Action programme—WRAP—is working directly with consumers through the Love Food Hate Waste programme, to help people know how best to store different foods.

The Government spent £25,000 on a consultation into sky lanterns which concluded that the fire risk is significant, and that they pose a risk to planes and a significant risk to the operation of coastal rescue services. With an estimated £6 million damage caused by a single sky lantern at Smethwick, and a fire that needed 200 firefighters and left only one spare fire tender to cover the whole of the west midlands, are the Government still seriously saying they will do absolutely nothing?

The hon. Gentleman knows all about doing absolutely nothing on sky lanterns. I asked questions about sky lanterns year after year from the Opposition Benches, and within a month of taking office I commissioned a report into the potential harm they cause to farm animals. The report concluded that it was not possible to quantify the damage to animal welfare in ways that would justify a ban, but it indicated that there was a significant danger of fire. I have communicated that to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and I plan to meet them to discuss further action.

T7. I know that the Secretary of State takes a close interest in EU affairs and how they interfere with businesses in rural areas. What steps is he taking to ease that situation? (163139)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question because it pertains to every business in the countryside. Through the red tape challenge, DEFRA will have reviewed all its regulations that emanate from the EU by the end of the year, and as a result there will be 12,000 fewer dairy inspections per year. Since 2011, for every £1 of compliance cost, we have removed £13.

T2. News of a national pollinator strategy is welcome, but will the Minister confirm whether other relevant Departments as well as DEFRA will be involved in its development? (163134)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for recognising the importance of the national pollinator strategy, which we hope to have in time for consultation at the end of this year. A wide range of other pollinator-friendly policies and initiatives are in place, but there are gaps we want to fill, particularly in research. That will give us the opportunity to look across Government and work with non-governmental organisations to review everything we are doing and establish our commitment to the future security of pollinators.

T9. The single-use plastic bag tax has proven successful in Wales. It is being adopted in Ireland and will soon also be adopted in Scotland. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s current plans regarding the introduction of a similar tax in the rest of the country? (163142)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have been looking at this issue for some time and we believe there is a need to bear down on the use of plastic bags, particularly those that are non-recyclable. We are looking carefully at evidence from Wales and note the decision in Scotland. We hope to come forward with plans in due course regarding what is appropriate for the English market.

T4. Now that the Government of millionaires for millionaires have waged war against the poor people of this country by driving down their incomes and pushing up the cost of fuel through the roof, what will the Minister do about food prices, which are increasing three times faster than the pay packet of the average worker? (163136)

It will come as some surprise to my wife to learn that I am a millionaire. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fuel prices, but it was this Government who abolished the fuel price escalator, and the Labour party which put it in place.

Given the importance of the common agricultural policy to the EU, does the Minister share my frustration at the lack of Europe-wide food labelling? We heard yesterday from the all-party group for European reform that this was down to language problems, but food labelling can be done with symbols and pictures. Will he pursue this to make sure that we can trade more of our food across Europe?

The most important thing about food labelling is to have systems that are readily understood by the consumer. One of the difficulties is that there is a huge weight of information that could be put on a packet, but putting everything on a packet does not necessarily make it more intelligible and useable for the consumer. We have to get the balance right, and talk to other member states in the EU about it as it is a European competence, but we are absolutely determined to provide proper understandable information that allows consumers to make informed choices.

T5. Blackrod town council recently passed its second resolution to ban Chinese lanterns because of the risk to animals and the danger of fire. The Minister says that he is taking the issue seriously and that he raised it in opposition. Three years on, when will we see legislation to do something about this problem? (163137)

The hon. Lady raises an important point that has been raised before. I am clear about the potential danger but we must act proportionately. We have done a study as far as our departmental responsibilities are concerned, which are to do with animal welfare. Other issues—for instance fire—fall into the areas of responsibility of other Departments, and I must now talk to my counterparts to take their views on it and on how we take the matter forward. But I have to say that we have done more in the past 12 months than was done in the previous 13 years.

The Minister is familiar with the concerns of my constituent Andrew St Joseph about the lack of involvement of landowners in decisions taken about flood defences and maintenance. Will he look into it and give me an assurance that this will no longer happen and that landowners will be consulted on the maintenance of defences?

I have huge respect for Mr St Joseph and his Essex Coast Organisation. If he feels that he is not being consulted, I want to make sure we address that. My understanding from the regional director and others is that they have regular meetings with him and with the Essex Coast Organisation. If my hon. Friend has other information, I will want to work closely with her to ensure we correct that.

T6. Following the horsemeat scandals, there are still serious concerns about meat in the supply chain. When will we get a full report? In Leicester there are still concerns about halal food. What discussion has the Minister had with the Food Standards Agency on this? (163138)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have commissioned a major review of food safety as it relates to contents, led by Professor Chris Elliot, which will be made available to the House and discussed. On halal food, we have held discussions with the faith organisations because it is a critical issue for them; not necessarily a Government issue, but certainly something that matters to them.

Farmers in the Kettering constituency told me recently that their greatest concern was rural crime and the theft of farm equipment. What work is the Department doing with the Home Department to address this problem?

Rural crime is a real concern and needs to be resolved locally, which is one reason why we have directly elected police and crime commissioners who can now be held accountable to their local electorate. But there is also a firm role for Members of this House to make sure that local police forces are making this a priority.

T8. The Government’s rural broadband roll-out is such a disaster that I have farmers in my constituency who are expected to upload data both to the Rural Payments Agency and to HMRC online when they have no possibility of getting a connection. Will the Minister stop this demand? (163141)

One of the absurdities under the last Government was that they wanted things done online but farmers did not have the ability to do so. That is one reason why we have made roll-out of rural broadband so important. The hon. Lady knows that it is on the verge of being rolled out in her area, which will be of great benefit to some remote communities.

What proportion of those living in rural areas have not just slow broadband, but no affordably priced commercial broadband at all, such as the village of Isfield in my constituency? Will the Minister liaise with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that these “not spots” are given priority in the roll-out of superfast broadband?

Beyond 2015, the intention, with the extra money that has been allocated, is to get superfast broadband to 99% of properties. I have seen technology that gets good quality broadband to very remote communities, so I hope my hon. Friend’s constituents will soon be online and able to compete in the global economy.

Church Commissioners

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

Bats in Churches

1. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effects of bats in churches; and if he will make a statement. (163103)

A small number of bats living in a church can be manageable, but parish churches are finding an increasing number of bats taking up residence in large roosts. There are significant costs in financial and human terms to those who worship in these churches, and to the wider community. The present situation is simply unsustainable.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. As a church warden, I know that many members of parochial church councils live in fear of bats taking up residence in their church buildings, because of the damage bats cause and the difficulty they have in removing them because of EU rules. Will my hon. Friend give the House some idea of what costs can be incurred by churches that have to remove a colony of bats?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Parish churches have to raise the money for bat litigation at considerable cost to their community, and that can prevent their own mission and ministry. The sums of money can be large. For example, the church of St Hilda’s in Ellerburn in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has spent a total of £29,000 so far, which is a significant sum for a small congregation to finance. As yet, there is no resolution in sight, but I was grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) for indicating in a recent debate in Westminster Hall that there might be a prospect of St Hilda’s, Ellerburn at last receiving a licence from Natural England to resolve this issue.

I must say that I rise with some trepidation on this topic, given the explosive response from the Second Church Estates Commissioner to my gentle question in a Westminster Hall debate last week. Since then, I have been told that the Bat Conservation Trust and the Church Buildings Council were having productive conversations on the bats, churches and communities pilot project funded by Natural England until February this year when they stalled. Will the hon. Gentleman use his good offices to bring the two together to continue those conversations?

My concern with the hon. Lady’s approach and the Bat Conservation Trust is that they seem to think that this is an issue that can somehow just be managed. I have to keep on saying to her that this is not an issue that can be managed. Large numbers of churches are being made unusable by large numbers of bats roosting in them. Churches are not field barns; they are places of worship. Following my debate in Westminster Hall, I had a number of letters from clergy up and down the country saying how distressing it was for them, before they could celebrate communion on Sunday, to have to clear bat faeces and bat urine off the altar and the communion table. That is not acceptable.

May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner and the Under-Secretary for helping St Hilda’s, Ellerburn? It is a matter of urgency that the congregation can reclaim their church from the bats.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point. [Laughter.] This is not a joking matter. This is serious and people have to understand that. I am grateful for the attention paid to this issue by the Under-Secretary. We are making real progress, but we need to ensure that places such as St Hilda’s, Ellerburn can continue to be places of worship and are not closed as a consequence of bat faeces and bat urine.

Pastoral Care

2. What guidance the Church of England plans to issue to parishes and Church schools on pastoral care for same sex couples and their children. (163104)

The House of Bishops issued a pastoral statement before the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in 2005. I expect that the House of Bishops will want to issue a further statement before the legislation on same-sex marriage comes into force. The House of Bishops is due to consider this December a report on sexuality, chaired by former permanent secretary Sir Joseph Pilling. The work of that group will assist the House of Bishops in its deliberations.

I am grateful for that reply, because I recently came across a case of a Christian couple in a same-sex relationship and with children in the local Church primary school to whom it was made clear by the local conservative evangelical church that they would not be welcome to worship in it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such intolerance and bigotry have no place whatever in the Church of England? When the Church issues guidance, it is very important that that is made quite clear to both parishes and Church schools.

Of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that. If he would like to give me the details of that case, I will most certainly take it up with the diocesan education officer. Children in Church schools come from a wide variety of family backgrounds, and teachers offer the same compassion and care for all. Each child is valued as a child of God and deserving of the very best that schools can offer. I would not expect any Church school to discriminate against any child, whatever their personal or family circumstances. If any right hon. or hon. Member comes across any instance where he feels that a Church school is in any way falling short of the standards that this House would expect, I hope they will get in touch with me.

Notwithstanding any differences we may have over the same-sex marriage legislation, does my hon. Friend agree that one immediate contribution that the Church of England could make towards improving pastoral care for same-sex couples and their children would be to recognise blessings for civil partnerships in churches?

Those are all matters that I suspect the House of Bishops will give thought to in its considerations following the Pilling report.

Further to the important question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), is the Second Church Estates Commissioner aware that one of the weaknesses of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is that the rights given to children of same-sex couples are not planned to be the same as those for children of traditional couples? Will he have a word with his colleagues on the Front Bench about rectifying that?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Perhaps she would like to talk to me about it in greater detail afterwards. If this is an issue that needs to be resolved, it will have to be resolved in the other place, where the Bill currently lies.

Closed Churches (Alternative Use)

3. What the policy of the Church Commissioners is on finding alternative uses for churches which are closed. (163106)

Under the Mission and Pastoral Measure 2011, the Church Commissioners are responsible for settling the future of closed church buildings. For most, we are able to secure suitable alternative uses in partnership with a local diocese, but I should stress that the Church of England is not in the business of closing churches unless absolutely necessary.

Although I hope that churches will always remain principally used for worship, it was great to visit the grassroots family centre at St Philip’s church in Nelson recently and see the job club IT courses and other programmes now being run from the building by the Blackburn diocese. That stands in stark contrast to St Mary’s in the same town, for which the Church Commissioners have not had responsibility for over 20 years and which has remained boarded up since it was deconsecrated back in 1987. Does my hon. Friend agree that the St Philip’s family centre is a great example of an alternative use for a church building?

What has happened at St Philip’s in Nelson is outstanding. I pay tribute to all who have made it happen. St Philip’s now homes a Sure Start project, a drug rehabilitation project and an Early Break project. I hope that churches and church buildings can always be at the centre of the community for wider community use.

It is also important to prevent churches used by other denominations from closing. Will the hon. Gentleman look at the situation facing St John’s, an historic building in Burslem? A different denomination wishes to continue worshipping there, but urgent action is needed to ensure that all the community groups can continue to use the church as well.

I have sufficient difficulties sorting out the problems of the Church of England. I do not have responsibility for how other denominations open or close their churches. That will be, if anything, a matter for the local planning authority.

Financial Performance

4. What assessment he has made of the financial performance of the Church Commissioners in 2012; and if he will make a statement. (163108)

For the financial year 2011-12, the commissioners achieved a total return of 9.7%. Over the last 20 years the commissioners have returned an average of 9.9%, which outstrips our personal aim of meeting the challenging target of retail prices index inflation plus 5%.

Can my hon. Friend update the House on the current ethical investment policies of the Church Commissioners?

The Church of England has very tough ethical investment policies, and we can demonstrate that the Church Commissioners have significantly outperformed the market while investing ethically, and that it is possible to invest ethically and get a genuinely good return on those investments.

Credit Unions

5. What support the Church Commissioners plan to give to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s initiative to promote credit unions; and if he will make a statement. (163109)

Archbishop Justin wants to see a more flourishing community finance sector, and he has asked those responsible at Church House to explore how the Church of England can support the credit union movement. The Church Commissioners have agreed to provide support for that initiative.

Following the welcome summit called by the Government on payday loan companies, and given the view of many in this House that there should be a cap on the interest that such companies can charge, will my hon. Friend suggest that an all-party group goes to see Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to encourage support for the Church’s credit union initiative and to persuade the Government that we need to cap the interest on payday loans?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The Anglican Mutual credit union is raising capital from a number of sources to increase its capacity. I have been checking, and I think that practically every book in the Old and New Testaments exhorts against usury. In the other place, the Archbishop of Canterbury wisely stated:

“The Financial Services Act provides for a study of the consequences of a cap to be looked at and then for the cap to be brought in at an appropriate level. Caps are needed at a sensible level that does not choke off supply and send people into the hands of loan sharks…Caps are there to prevent usurious lending…We need to…cut out legal usury from our high streets.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. 485.]

I entirely agree that we need to work out how we can prevent legal usury from continuing in this country.

May I press the hon. Gentleman on this matter? Surely what was said at the G8 about social impact investment is manna from heaven for the Church of England, because it can be used to provide an alternative for social enterprises at the heart of the community. This is not just about payday loans; fixed-odds betting is the curse of our urban communities.

I am not entirely sure where the hon. Gentleman seeks to differ from me on this. I certainly think that we need to sort out legal usury, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) and I will form part of an all-party delegation to discuss with Ministers how we can cap those rates of interest that seem somewhat usurious.

Association of English Cathedrals

6. What recent discussions have taken place between the Church Commissioners and the Association of English Cathedrals. (163110)

Recent discussions between the Church and the Association of English Cathedrals have covered such topics as promoting the impact of cathedrals on their locality and on national tourism, and determining how best to fund fabric repairs and maintenance.

English cathedrals are among the cornerstones of English culture, of our music, of our art, of our sculpture, of our writing in the English language and even of our engineering innovation. Unlike our museums and art galleries, however, they get no regular Government funding. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) has agreed to meet representatives of the Association of English Cathedrals. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us when that meeting will take place?

York Minster is one of the glories of England. Maintaining our cathedrals is a huge responsibility. The hon. Gentleman was present when the Under-Secretary met cathedral deans recently. That meeting raised a number of issues, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary agreed to meet representatives of the association. I hope that the meeting will take place shortly, and I will try to ensure that the hon. Gentleman can attend.

Kettering Street Pastors

I was greatly impressed by my visit to the street pastors in my hon. Friend’s constituency; they do outstanding work.

I thank Sir Tony for his late-night visit to the Kettering street pastors. Does he agree that their work is making Kettering town centre a better place, and that the country would be a better place were it to follow Kettering’s example?

No greater luck hath an hon. Member than to spend a Saturday night with my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and their street pastors. The work that the street pastors do is genuinely impressive. Large numbers of volunteers from all denominations are concerned to ensure that those who are enjoying the night economy are well looked after and that they get home safe and sound. I pay tribute to both my hon. Friends for the support that they are giving to those initiatives.

I do not want to delay for long, but before the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) explodes, we must hear from him.

The secondary reason why my hon. Friend came to the two constituencies was to judge the night life. Will he please tell us whether Wellingborough or Kettering had the better night life?

Well, I fear that however I answer this question, I am likely to receive invitations from right hon. and hon. Members of all parties to go and sample the night life in their constituencies. I thought the way in which the night economies were managed by the police, by the street pastors and by everyone in Wellingborough and Kettering made them both attractive destinations for people to go and visit.

That was a diplomatic answer of the kind that one would expect from a former Minister at the Foreign Office. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.