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Topical Questions

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013

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.