Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 568: debated on Thursday 10 October 2013

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Aid

The provision of food aid ranges from small, local provision to regional and national schemes. There are no official figures for the number of food aid organisations or the number of people using them in the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has commissioned research to assess publicly available evidence on food aid provision in the UK, and that work will be made available in due course.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. In the past year, several new food banks have been opened in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of Stockton South by excellent organisations such as A Way Out and the New Life church. Some are supported directly by the Trussell Trust, which states that the number of people relying on food banks has gone up from 41,000 to 350,000 since this Government came to power. What does the Minister think has caused that explosion in demand?

There are a number of complicated reasons for those changes and nobody is quite sure. That is one of the reasons we commissioned this report. The use of food banks has been going up for some time, and it also increased dramatically under the previous Government. This is a good example of the big society in action, and we are seeing some good organisations stepping up to help people.

I welcome the Minister to his new post, but I hope he will have time to refer to the facts and figures of the matter. Under this Government, the use of food banks has rocketed, and I hope he will read carefully the report from Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty that came out in May and shows that, this year alone, half a million people will access emergency food aid. I think that is a national disgrace. Does the Minister agree?

As I said, the reasons for the increase are complicated. The hon. Lady asks about the facts and figures, so let us look at them. The accepted way to measure household expenditure on food is by looking at the bottom 20%. We know that in 2008, when the previous Government were in power, the lowest 20%—the most disadvantaged households—spent 16.8% of their income on food. That figure is now 16.6%. If we look at the facts, spending on food as a percentage of household income for the most disadvantaged is no more than it was in 2007.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the provision of food banks in this country should be seen in the light of the tenfold increase in food banks under the previous Government, and will he commend the work of the Coalville food bank in my constituency?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we must recognise that if we want to tackle poverty we must help people get back into work and off benefits. That is one reason why the Government’s welfare reforms are so important.

I welcome two west country colleagues to the Front Bench and wish them every success. Does my hon. Friend recognise that food banks have careful rules about how much food they give to people and how often they give it, to ensure that people do not become dependent on food parcels? Surely giving a helping hand in times of need is a very good thing indeed.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Two food banks in my constituency do very good work, and, as I said earlier, that is an example of the big society in action. We should support that and welcome it.

Bovine Tuberculosis

I welcome the Opposition Front Benchers to their new positions—the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who is the new shadow Secretary of State, and the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who have stood down from the Government Front Bench, for their sterling work, for the absolute support I received, and for the sensible advice and experience they brought to their posts. I also welcome two new Under-Secretaries of State, my hon. Friends the Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). They come from a rural background and will embellish the Department.

The answer to the question from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is that the Government have recently completed their consultation on a draft strategy for achieving officially bovine TB-free status for the whole of England in 25 years.

The truth is that the cull is incompetent—it has been described as such by the lord mayor of Oxford, and the whole May family, including Brian May, say that it is a disaster—but we should not ignore the fact that what is being done to badgers in the west country is morally reprehensible. It is ineffective and inefficient, and ignores scientific opinion. Why does the Secretary of State not resign?

The hon. Gentleman supported a Government who did nothing about the disease. Thanks to the policies of the Government he supported, 305,000 otherwise healthy cattle were hauled off to slaughter at a cost to the British taxpayer of £500 million. If we go on as he left it, the disease would double over nine years, we would be looking at a bill of £1 billion and we would not have a cattle industry. The pilots were set up to establish the safety, the humaneness and the efficiency of a controlled shooting by skilled marksmen. It is quite clear that, after the first six weeks, we have succeeded on all three criteria.

Schools across Britain recently celebrated world milk day—milk is produced by cattle, Mr Speaker—which I saw for myself when I visited Pavilion nursery school in Attleborough, Mid Norfolk. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House applaud that initiative as a key opportunity to highlight the benefits of milk as the health drink, and the enormous pressures facing the UK dairy sector, not least the threat of TB in cattle. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the dairy market is working properly for consumers, processers and farmers?

Order. That was an extraordinarily strained attempt on the part of the hon. Gentleman to shoehorn his personal pre-occupations into Question 2, but the Secretary of State is a dextrous fellow, and I dare say he can respond pithily.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend raises a vital point—we need a dynamic, productive and successful dairy industry. We will not have a dairy industry if we do not tackle that bacterium, and if we do not do what every other sensible country has done when there is a reservoir of disease in cattle and a reservoir of disease in wildlife.

The estimate last October was that there were 4,300 badgers in Somerset. The estimate this week is 1,450. Is it the Secretary of State who has moved the goalposts, and not the badgers? Has he not scored a massive own goal in pursuing this misguided cull?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady saw my comments. I stated something that was screamingly obvious: badgers are wild animals that live in an environment in which their numbers are impacted by weather and disease. She should reflect on this. I can report to the House that some of the animals we have shot have been desperately sick—in the final stages of disease—which is why we are completely determined to see the pilot culls through, and why we will pursue measures that the previous Government ducked. We are dealing with a bacterium that affects cattle and wildlife, and ultimately human beings. We will address that bacterium in a rigorous and logical manner.

Further to that point, given that the policy must be based on sound science and evidence, can my right hon. Friend say whether there have been similar dramatic drops in badger numbers in the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency site at Woodchester park and sites such as Wytham in Oxfordshire, where they are monitored closely?

I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact numbers at Woodchester park, but in other areas there has been a significant reduction in badger numbers compared with this time last year.

Last year, the Secretary of State cancelled the cull because there were too many badgers. Yesterday, he admitted that the cull in Somerset would be extended because he could not find enough of them. Can he explain why Gloucestershire has also applied for an extension, even though the six-week trial there has not finished? Is it because the badgers have moved the goalposts there as well?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I should like her to reflect that, back in 1972, we had the disease beaten—it was down to 0.01%—when we had a bipartisan approach. In every other country where there is a serious problem in cattle and a serious problem in wildlife, both pools are addressed. Her Government tried to sort the problem out by addressing the disease only in cattle. That was a terrible mistake.

On the numbers, as I have just told the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), these animals are wild. There have been similar reductions in Gloucestershire. We are satisfied that, if the local farmers company wants to go on and to apply for an extension, we will be broadly supportive.

I am afraid that this policy is an absolute shambles. The Secretary of State has failed to meet his own target of eradicating 70% of the local badger population in Somerset, and it is clear that he expects to fail in Gloucestershire too. He must know that extending these trials risks spreading TB over a wider area. Rather than the ever-rising cost of policing his failed approach, we need a coherent plan to eradicate TB through the vaccination of badgers and cattle, and tougher rules on the movement of livestock. Instead of blaming the badgers, when will he stop being stubborn, admit he was wrong and abandon this misguided, unscientific and reckless killing of badgers?

I am disappointed by that question. We are clear—and we have had advice from the chief veterinary officer—that the number that was achieved in Somerset will lead to a reduction in disease. The hon. Lady should look at what Australia did with its buffalo pool, what New Zealand did with the brushtail possum and—importantly—what the Republic of Ireland did when it had a steadily rising crest of disease in cattle. As soon as the Irish started to remove diseased badgers, they saw a dramatic reduction in affected cattle and, happily, the average Irish badger is now 1kg heavier than before the cull. The Irish are arriving at a position that we want to reach— healthy cattle living alongside healthy badgers.

As part of the cull is taking place in my constituency, I thank the Secretary of State for being the first in over a generation to tackle this issue. Does he share my concern at the statement made by the police and crime commissioner for Gloucestershire yesterday opposing the extension of the trial? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is for the Government and Parliament to decide what should happen, not a publicity-seeking PCC?

Policing issues are not for me. There will be legitimate protests because we live in a democracy and we respect that, but there is a grey line and we do not support obstruction of a policy that was endorsed by both parties in opposition and in government and has been endorsed by this House.

England Coastal Path

We have not set a timetable for completion of the English coastal path. We will be implementing coastal access step by step by tailoring the amount of activity to the resources available. Natural England is currently working on a programme to deliver coastal access on a number of stretches of the English coast.

At a cost of £1 per metre, the coastal path represents excellent value for money. However, the Minister’s predecessor showed little enthusiasm for the project, leading to fears that it would be shelved. Will the Minister confirm that the coastal path budget will be protected during deliberations on the Department’s future spending, and give a date for final completion?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question: it was a pleasure to serve alongside her briefly on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee following her election. The key issue for us is pushing forward this project, but we have to be honest about the fact that we are in a time of restricted resources. We must therefore be efficient in working with landowners and others to streamline the process and to deliver the coastal access that everyone in the House would like to see.

Bovine Tuberculosis

4. How many cattle were slaughtered in Britain as a result of bovine tuberculosis in the last 10 years; and at what cost. (900345)

Between 2003 and 2012, a total of 305,270 otherwise healthy cattle were compulsory slaughtered in Great Britain as a result of bovine TB. In England alone, the disease has cost the taxpayer £500 million in the past decade.

Cattle may not have the same anthropomorphic advocates as some other animals, but they are equally part of God’s creation. Is it not a tragedy that more than 300,000 healthy cattle have had to be slaughtered? Is it not right that unless, collectively, we manage to sort out bovine TB, huge numbers of other healthy cattle will be slaughtered? There has to be some concern for cattle in all of this.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. In his county, 234 otherwise healthy cattle were slaughtered in 2012. Shockingly, in the first six months of this year the number of healthy cattle slaughtered reached 307. I again appeal to those on the Opposition Front Bench to look at the policies pursued in America, Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and even by their socialist friends in France, where there are regular culls of diseased animals. We do not have a valid cattle vaccine. We are working closely with the European Commission, but we are at least 10 years away from that, so the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) cannot hide behind dreams ahead. We have to address the disease now with the tools we have at the moment, as every other sensible country does.

It is indeed a tragedy that so many cattle have been slaughtered, but that does not make a badger cull right or effective. The Department is reported to be undertaking new research into the possible gassing of badgers. Will he confirm that that is the case? If so, what is the scope of the research, and why does he have cause to think that the 2005 DEFRA review, which found that gassing badgers could not be done humanely, is no longer valid?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. As I have just said, until we can establish vaccines we have to use the tools employed by other sensible countries to remove wildlife. Our TB strategy is clear about looking at other methods of removing wildlife. Yes, gassing is under consideration, but we will not use it unless it is proven to be safe, humane and effective.

14. Farmers in Stratford-on-Avon welcome the Government’s commitment to the control of bovine TB through the culling of badgers. There is, however, significant concern about the reservoir of TB in camelids and the lack of a testing or control regime for these animals. What do the Government intend to do on this matter? (900356)

I am acutely aware of the concerns of livestock farmers about the risk to cattle posed by camelids. However, evidence suggests that camelids pose a very small risk of spreading the disease to cattle and badgers. In fact, there are no known cases where a cattle breakdown has been caused directly by transmission from camelids. Nevertheless, I have asked the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England for advice on a proportionate disease control regime for the camelid sector, including how surveillance, breakdown and pre-movement testing can be more effectively carried out.

Media reports suggest that some gassing of badgers is taking place. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if his officials come across any evidence of the gassing of badgers, they pass it on to the police?

Emphatically yes, because any random cull would worsen the disease. If the hon. Member has such evidence, he should take it to the police.

I congratulate my hon. Friends on their new positions and I look forward to working with them. Sadly, bovine TB is well established and endemic in various parts of England, but other parts are free of the disease. What action is the Department taking to ensure that the disease does not spread from the highly infected areas to the less infected areas?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. The danger is that unless we get a grip on the disease in high risk areas it will work its way across to other areas—I cited the figures for Oxfordshire in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry). Our TB strategy is clear about containing the disease in high-risk areas and not letting it spread. We must be emphatic about that.

Given that it has so far cost the taxpayers of Somerset and Gloucestershire £4 million, I was rather concerned that the Secretary of State implied that he did not think that policing was of any concern to him. Does he not think that that money would be better spent on a comprehensive badger vaccination programme?

I think the hon. Lady may have misinterpreted my comments. I do not handle policing; I handle disease in animals. This is a zoonosis, which has to be brought under control. It will take 10 years for a programme agreed with the European Commission to develop a cattle vaccine. Labour Members need to recognise that we cannot sit around as they did, waiting for a new tool to arrive. We have to use the existing tools, which have effectively reduced the disease in other more sensibly run countries.

Dog Ownership

We have a robust package of measures to tackle irresponsible dog ownership and improve public safety. New powers will allow local authorities and the police to deal flexibly with local dog issues. There will be new legal protection against dog attacks on private property and stiffer penalties for those who let their dogs kill or injure someone.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. With my rescue pugs, Bo and Lily, about to take part in the Westminster dog of the year show, does my hon. Friend agree that I will be responsible for their behaviour—may God help me—just as all dog owners are responsible for the behaviour of their own dogs?

May I wish Bo and Lily the very best of luck in the Westminster dog of the year competition? I was told by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) earlier that his own dog, Cholmeley, will be there offering competition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) makes a very good point. I had a rescue dog—a border collie called Mono, and these dogs make for loving and dedicated companions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that getting responsible dog owners is the way to get good dog behaviour.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate the Minister on his new position. Unfortunately, I do not have a dog, so I cannot enter one into the competition.

As for dog attacks, my own mother was attacked in the run-up to local elections by a dog on private property. As the Minister will be aware, around 70% of dog attacks on postal workers occur on private property. What effect does the Minister think the extension of the criminal offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control on private property will have on all those whose jobs depend on visiting people’s homes?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Volunteers in my own constituency, too, have experienced dog attacks. For the first time, this measure will give hard-working people such as postal workers and others who visit homes as part of their job the full protection of the law when they are confronted by an out-of-control dog. This Government support hard-working people—not just in words, but in deed.

The ease with which puppies can be traded on the internet is bringing more and more poorly looked after and sometimes dangerous dogs into the community. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made to ensure that animal welfare and responsible ownership are promoted when puppies are made available for sale online?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My noble Friend Lord de Mauley recently met members of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group and they discussed a voluntary code to improve standards of internet advertising. Officials have looked at the problem of illegal puppies being imported through our ports—an area in respect of which I intend to have further meetings in the weeks ahead.

The hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess) will be pleased to know that my rescue German shepherd dog, Diesel, is not taking part in the competition this year. However, on a serious point, one way in which dog owners can act more responsibly is to make sure that they do not buy puppies from industrial puppy farms, which are often sold through pet shops or online and too often result in dog rescue centres bursting at the seams with the numbers of puppies and older dogs in them. Will the Minister agree to meet me and dog rescue charities—Marc Abraham has done a lot of work in this area—to look at how we address the disgraceful issue of industrial puppy farms?

I commend the work the hon. Gentleman has done on this issue. I know he hosted a recent meeting on the subject in Parliament, which I attended. I would indeed be happy to meet him about the problem. We all know that part of the problem with out-of-control dogs stems from them not being raised or socialised properly in the first six months of their lives. That is why we need to look at the issue of the responsibility of dog breeders. We should remember that good laws are already in place requiring those breeding puppies for sale to have a licence from the local authority. We need to ensure that that is enforced more widely.

Will the Minister explain why he is ignoring all the dog charities and other agencies, including the RSPCA, the Royal College of Nursing and the police, and is not introducing dog control notices in the forthcoming Bill?

I have considered the issue carefully, and have concluded that, far from being more limited than the Scottish-style dog control notices, the community protection notices proposed by the Government have more scope and are more flexible. This week we have published guidance for practitioners. I think that there is concern not because the proposals for community protection notices are not good enough, but because there is not yet enough understanding of how they can be used.

11. Regrettably I have no four-legged friend entered in the House of Commons dog show today—[Hon. Members: “Aah!”] I know, I know. Also regrettably, the number of dangerous dog attacks on guide and assistance dogs—which cost £50,000 to train—is rising. What steps might my hon. Friend take to increase the sentences that are handed down for such attacks? (900352)

That is a very good point, which has also been raised by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. In the summer, we consulted on proposals to increase the maximum penalties for dog attacks on people and assistance dogs. Such attacks can have a devastating effect on the victims. Attacks on assistance dogs can cause them to lose their confidence and become unable to help their owners. We are currently considering what sentences would be appropriate for such attacks.

Water Bills

Water bills are regulated by Ofwat, which sets price limits every five years. Government guidance to Ofwat in advance of the 2014 price review has emphasised the importance of delivering a fair deal for all customers, and of protecting customers who are struggling to pay their bills. We have also published guidance to help companies to introduce social tariffs for vulnerable customers.

There is a cost-of-living crisis in my constituency and throughout the country. Millions of households in England and Wales are experiencing water poverty. Will the Minister support Labour’s proposal to impose—not just recommend—a duty on water companies to introduce social tariffs to help struggling families to pay their bills?

I entirely understand what the hon. Lady has said about the cost of living. We are all aware of the problem. I represent an area in which incomes are very low, and in which water bills are a significant issue. It is clear from our discussions with Ofwat—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has engaged in some recently—that it understands the importance of the issue, and believes that the benefits to water companies of, for example, low borrowing rates should be passed on to customers. I am pleased that companies are considering the introduction of social tariffs, and I shall continue to keep the matter under review.

I congratulate all who have been elevated to both Front Benches. We look forward to the return, in the very near future, of those of them who have served on the Select Committee—[Laughter]—in their ministerial capacity.

Will my hon. Friend use his good offices to press Ofwat to ensure that the 2014 price review enables the necessary investment to be made in the infrastructure and in innovation? May I also tease out of him the date on which the Water Bill will be given its Second Reading, and can be scrutinised by Parliament?

I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, was petitioning the Prime Minister to summon us back to it, and that our tenure on the Front Benches might be very brief.

The timing of the Bill is, of course, a matter for those who manage our business. I look forward to debating the issues with colleagues in the House and, subsequently, in Committee.

What my hon. Friend has said about investment in the sector is crucial. We have already managed, through our regime, to deliver huge investment in water infrastructure. We now want to establish a regime which, while being fair to customers, also attracts further investment, so that we can have an industry that is fit for the future.

May I begin by paying tribute to the previous Minister who worked in a bipartisan manner throughout his term in office and welcoming both new members of the Government Front-Bench team? I should also thank the chairlady of the Select Committee for her tutelage of us all over the past three and a half years.

Does the Minister understand that when households are struggling with inflation-busting water bills, it is simply unacceptable for water companies to try to avoid paying corporation tax? If he does, will he work with Opposition Members to make the necessary improvements to the forthcoming Water Bill?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post and look forward to debating these issues with him. As we look at the regime the Bill is seeking to bring in, we can discuss some of these issues, although there are probably other key areas we will want to focus on. The issue of corporation tax is crucial across many industries and I look forward to hearing what the hon. Gentleman has to say on the subject as we move forward.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health, and I am today pleased to announce £3 million of funding from the anaerobic digestion loan fund, which will enable farmers to obtain funding to set up small-scale anaerobic digestion plants. The technology will not only save farmers money on energy costs, but will provide them with the opportunity to boost their income by exporting electricity to the grid. It will also help them cut waste and reduce the amount of artificial fertilisers they use. This funding is an example of this Government’s commitment to sustainable economic growth and environmental improvement. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I want to ask about food banks and, in particular, about the answers the Minister gave a few moments ago in response to questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). I understand that in April 2013 DEFRA commissioned important research to review evidence on the landscape of food provision and access. Given that this information and research will be very helpful to Government in targeting policy to the most needy, why is it not being published? I know the Minister is new in post, but can he expedite this, because a promise was made that it would be posted on the Department’s website?

I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We undertake research on a whole range of areas and this obviously cuts across a number of different Departments, with whom we are consulting.

T4. Will the Secretary of State ensure more people are able to enjoy access to woodlands, particularly those close to our towns and cities? (900401)

We are consulting on the future of the publicly owned forest and management of forestry issues generally and looking at what we will take forward. There are many excellent landowners, such as the Woodland Trust and the National Trust, who encourage public access and enjoyment of woodland and I look forward to working with them and other landowners to ensure we increase access for everybody.

A National Audit Office report today shows the response to the horsemeat scandal was hampered by confusion caused by the coalition Government splitting the Food Standards Agency’s responsibilities in 2010. It also raises concerns over the reductions in food testing, public analysts and local officers working on food law enforcement since this Government came to power. So will Ministers now accept their share of responsibility—or is this the fault of the badgers?

The Department will look at this report from the NAO and study its recommendations very carefully, but I have to say there is no evidence that the division of the FSA’s role has contributed to this, and, more importantly, we have appointed Professor Chris Elliott to look at this whole issue in great detail and his report will be key.

T5. Given the importance of exports to the country’s economic recovery, what is my right hon. Friend doing to help producers and exporters open up foreign markets? (900402)

Only this week I was in Cologne, taking our largest ever delegation to the world’s largest food fair; last month, I was in Moscow, where we announced a trade deal opening up the market for beef and lamb which will be worth up to £100 million over three years; and our work last year in opening up China has led to a 591% increase in pork exports in the first six months of this year.

T2. My constituents who work at Tate & Lyle have been very appreciative of the Secretary of State’s efforts to secure a level playing field for cane sugar refiners in the European market. His former ministerial team were very diligent on this issue. I welcome his new team and wonder whether he can reassure the House that they will be equally determined on this issue. (900399)

I can, indeed, give the right hon. Gentleman that reassurance. The EU sugar regime is one of the most distorting parts of the common agricultural policy, and we had great success in negotiating the removal of sugar beet quotas in 2017. However, he rightly says that we need now to take those trade barriers down, and time is of the essence. We are therefore pushing the European Commission to ensure that all opportunities to secure additional trade concessions are taken at the earliest opportunity.

T6. The Secretary of State will recall the petition I sent him that was collected by Climate Friendly Bradford on Avon; more than 1,000 Wiltshire residents were calling for a charge on single-use plastic carrier bags. How will the Minister ensure that neither the Chancellor nor the supermarkets cling on to the cash it collects? (900403)

Although in England we cannot mandate where the money will go, because the relevant primary legislation, the Climate Change Act 2008, does not allow for that, we will discuss with retailers how the money raised should be spent and encourage them to give the profits to good causes. We have an expectation that, as in Wales, the money raised should benefit good causes.

T3. Is the Secretary of State aware of the most recent piece of scientific research on the Cayman turtle farm? It supports the position of the World Society for the Protection of Animals that: “There is no humane way to farm sea turtles”. Will he, along with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, take decisive action to alleviate the suffering of these endangered animals? (900400)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The matter he raises is of real concern to a number of Members who have written to me. We are taking what actions we can, but we are the Government of the UK, and he has to remember that.

T8. Poaching in some parts of Africa is getting so bad that Tanzanian Minister Khamis Kagasheki has called for a shoot-to-kill policy to deal with poachers, following the loss of half of Tanzania’s elephants in the past three years. On current trends, it is estimated that the African elephant will be extinct in the wild by 2025. What action are the Government taking to tackle the illegal trade in endangered species? (900405)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this shocking issue, on which he is absolutely right. The problem is even worse in respect of rhinoceroses; we lose one every 11 hours. So this Government are taking a world lead. We are calling a conference on 13 February next year, and we intend to co-ordinate world action—with western countries, with the countries where these animals live and with the countries where there is significant demand—before these iconic species become extinct.

T7. Whether or not the Government see sense next week and accept our amendments on dog control notices, that will not resolve all the issues relating to dangerous dogs, including controlling breeding, and ensuring that puppies are properly socialised and that children and adults are educated about dog ownership. Does the Minister agree that we still need a full dog welfare and control Bill? (900404)

Actually, I do not agree. There are lots of bits of legislation covering many areas, but the laws are in place. We need to ensure that they are better understood, which is why we have published guidance this week pointing out what community protection notices can do and how they can be used by practitioners.

Will the Secretary of State meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) to discuss the persistent and serious breaches of control of the Waste4Fuel site on the boundary of our constituencies, which the Environment Agency appears to be unable to cope with?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the concerns of his constituents about this site. I have looked into the issue, am aware of it and discuss it with the Environment Agency. If he and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington wish to meet me to discuss it, I will be happy to do so.

Does the Minister share the concern of Stoke-on-Trent boat club, and the Association of Waterways Cruising Clubs all over the country, about DEFRA’s deferment of the decision to stop Environment Agency navigation waters going over to the Canal and River Trust? Will he urgently review that situation and raise it with the Treasury?

The hon. Lady has obviously been concerned about these matters for some time. I would be happy to hear more from her about the details and perhaps we could take the matter forward on that basis.

Do my right hon. and hon. Friends share my alarm at the growing practice of Natural England’s insisting on the removal of sheep from land under new stewardship projects? Given the absolute need for the UK to be able to provide more of its own food, is that not a dangerous step? Will Ministers take action?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, which touches on our conundrum in the hill areas, where we clearly want to increase food production but also want to improve the environment. We will be consulting shortly on whether we modulate a significant sum from pillar 1 to pillar 2 and what the shape and form of those pillar 2 schemes might be. I am absolutely clear that we have a real role to play in helping hill farmers to keep the hills looking as they do and to provide them with sufficient money to provide food.

Is it acceptable that properties built after 2009 and small businesses will not be covered by the Government’s new flood insurance scheme?

We are working very closely with the Association of British Insurers on the new scheme, which will replace the statement of principles, and we are looking in detail at a range of different options. We do not propose to extend the scheme to post-2009 properties.

Local people have for many years expressed concern about the Whitsand bay dump site. They have identified an alternative site; will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the reclassification of that alternative site?

I know that the issue is important for my hon. Friend and I would be more than happy to meet her and others affected by the decision.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but I think that Mr Philip Hollobone must be the last questioner.

To better understand the spread of TB in wildlife, why are the badgers that are being culled not being tested to see whether they are infected or not?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Let me clarify in simple terms: carcases that have been shot would not give an accurate reading following post-mortem.

Church Commissioners

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

Cathedral Congregations

1. What lessons the Church of England has learned from the increasing size of congregations attending services at cathedrals. (900313)

I am glad to report that over the past 10 years there has been a 35% increase in average weekly attendance in cathedral services. A team from Cranmer Hall at St John’s college, Durham is conducting a detailed survey of the trends in increased cathedral attendance.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. It is indeed good news that there has been such a significant increase in the number of people worshipping in cathedrals over the past 10 years. Will the research seek to discover why attendance at services held in cathedrals has been going up at a time when attendance at many parish churches has been declining?

Absolutely; the research will seek to understand the detail of attendance trends at cathedrals and I hope that the results of the study will be published early next year.

I am sure that many of us will be of the view that the increased attendance in cathedrals must be down not only to the high standards of liturgy but to the fact that they have a diverse range of clergy. On the subject of churches and diversity, would the hon. Gentleman like to congratulate the Church in Wales on the decision to elect women as bishops? Would he say that there are great lessons to be learned for the Church of England, which is increasingly becoming a minority within the Anglican communion on that issue?

The House well knows that I very much look forward to the day when the Church of England can welcome women as bishops.

Syria and Egypt

2. What discussions the Church of England is having with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office regarding the protection of religious minorities in Syria and Egypt. (900315)

Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to the middle east in the summer, he met my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in July to discuss the vulnerable situation of religious minorities in Syria and Egypt. The Church of England has made representations to Foreign Office Ministers to suggest appointing an ambassador at large for religious freedom.

That is a welcome bit of news, both about the meeting and the initiative. May I reinforce the point that in Syria and Egypt and across the middle east and north Africa the decline in Christian communities is alarming and they are feeling horribly oppressed, as they are in many other Muslim countries of the world? Will my hon. Friend ask the commissioners and the Church in this country to make that a priority in the years ahead? They need our help, and they need to know that the rest of the Anglican communion is on their side.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is difficult to underestimate what is happening. The International Society for Human Rights, a secular organisation based in Germany, estimates that 80% of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians. The bishop of the Coptic Church in Egypt, based in London, has said that there is almost ethnic cleansing to eliminate Christianity and Christians in Egypt, so this is an issue to which we must all—the Church of England, the Foreign Office and civil society as a whole—give the highest priority. Whether it is people being murdered in Peshawar or churches being burnt in Baghdad, this is a terrible issue which must be addressed collectively.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the recent report by Amnesty International into the attacks on Coptic Christians and on churches, in Egypt in particular but in the middle east more generally. I echo the request by the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) for the hon. Gentleman to talk to his colleagues in the Foreign Office and ensure that this issue is an absolute priority for them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I reiterate what the Archbishop of Canterbury said on the Amnesty International report. Archbishop Justin said that he welcomed

“this timely report from Amnesty International”

and continued:

“Attacks on any community are deplorable and any state has the responsibility to protect its citizens. The appalling attacks in August on the Christian community in Egypt highlight the need for all citizens to be duly protected. Despite the pressure they are under, by the grace of God, Christians in Egypt continue to do all they can to work for the good of the whole of the society of which they are an essential part.”

It is very welcome that organisations such as Amnesty International are drawing attention to what is happening to Christian minorities in the middle east and elsewhere in the world.

If Muslims were treated in this country as Christians are being treated in Egypt and Syria, there would be international outrage. Can the Church of England work with the papacy, the United Nations and other international organisations to have a real international initiative, perhaps with the Arab League, to condemn all these atrocities before they get far, far worse?

The international community as a whole needs to recognise that the persecution of any faith group, and the persecution of Christians across the world, is wholly unacceptable and has to stop.

Food Banks

3. What work the Church of England is undertaking to support food banks in local communities; and if he will make a statement. (900316)

Many parish churches are closely involved in running and supporting food banks all across the country, and a recent report from the Church Urban Fund found that four out of five churches are supporting a food bank in one or more ways.

I was pleased to hear what the hon. Gentleman just said about the progress made in the Church of Wales. The fight obviously continues in the Church in England to ordain women bishops. On the increasing number of people using food banks, however, does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury that

“there is a danger…that people are categorised, that all people on benefit are seen as scroungers and that’s clearly completely untrue”?

The benefits system exists to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits receive benefits. In respect of food banks, the question really is one of concern, which has been raised earlier in the House today, about the increase in the use of food banks. I would like to report to the House that the Church of England’s mission and public affairs team, together with Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group, are examining the underlying reasons for the rapid growth in the use of food banks, and will recommend changes in policy and practice that would help to reduce the use of food banks in the longer term.

Order. I will not repeat what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) has just said from a sedentary position. The Second Church Estates Commissioner is an extremely distinguished Member, but he is not what was said of him from a sedentary position.

If we were not discussing such an important subject as food banks, Mr Speaker, I would comment to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) that one of the great things about this place is that one must have humility. Ever since I received my knighthood, the family at home have called me “Sir Cumference Hippo”, so I would not worry too much.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Accountancy and Auditing Standards

4. What steps the Public Accounts Commission is taking to encourage improvements in the quality and standard of training in the accountancy and audit professions. (900317)

The Public Accounts Commission has a number of statutory functions in respect of the National Audit Office, including approving its corporate strategy, agreeing and laying its estimate and appointing non-executive members of the NAO board. Naturally we have no direct responsibility for training, but we always press the NAO to fulfil fully its obligations on training.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that many of us who had employees in the banking sector and friends who had a stake in the banking sector were horrified by the lack of ethics of the accountancy profession when it came to the basic job of auditing the banks and auditing other big corporations where they did it badly. Surely we should speak up through the Commission about ethics, responsibility and moral certitude in accountancy.

That is a very interesting question but it is rather wide of our responsibilities. I wish we had those responsibilities, but we are responsible only for the budget and the annual report of the National Audit Office, which audits accounts in the public, not the private, sector, so I am sorry I cannot do more for the hon. Gentleman.

Church Commissioners

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

Bats in Churches

5. What recent discussions he has had with Natural England on bats in churches; and if he will make a statement. (900318)

I understand from Natural England that the licence application for St Hilda’s in my hon. Friend’s constituency was submitted last Monday and a decision is expected this week. Following the granting of a licence, the work would start on site next week, blocking the access points of bats. The application is for the exclusion of bats from the interior of the church only, so this solution is intended to allow the interior of St Hilda’s church to be completely free from bats, while allowing their continued use of the exterior of the building.

It is a source of some cynicism that the licence was issued or applied for only after my question regarding bats having the run of the church, St Hilda’s at Ellerburn, appeared on the Order Paper. As £30,000 of taxpayers’ money has been spent conducting a survey which has as yet led to no result, will my hon. Friend exert all his influence on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to issue the licence so that the congregation can meet and use the interior of the church free from intrusion by bats?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is worth recording that this one single parish church has had to spend tens of thousands of pounds so far just to get to this position. We have to improve the whole situation in relation to bats in churches. It is not a joking matter. Churches are not field barns; they are places of worship, and it cannot be right that bats can be excluded from reopened railway tunnels and the living spaces of domestic homes, but it is so difficult for active community buildings such as churches to resolve such an issue.

Church Credit Union

The Church of England is developing a three-pronged strategy in its work with credit unions. The first is to link parish churches to local credit unions to offer support where any is available. The second is to set up an archbishops taskforce to work with the credit union movement and the local banking sector to produce credible alternatives which offer financially responsible products and services. The third is the plan to found the Church’s credit union, primarily for clergy and Church employees.

I welcome the work the Church is doing to promote the good work of credit unions. Will my hon. Friend also update the House on the involvement of the Church Commissioners in the proposed new bank, Williams & Glyn’s, which I understand is to lend to local small and medium-sized enterprises in particular?

I am glad to be able to report to the House that the Church Commissioners were part of a consortium of investors that will be partnering with Royal Bank of Scotland to set up a new bank, Williams & Glyn’s. It will be a vigorous challenger bank which is intended to set up the highest ethical standards and give consumers more choice, and I hope that it will work out how we can better help some of those denied access to financial services.

With regard to the first of my hon. Friend’s three prongs, are there any sub-prongs, by which I mean ways that local parishes can work with credit unions, perhaps through the use of premises, the recruitment of volunteers and board members, and, critically, raise awareness by marketing the credit unions?

Absolutely; the Church of England is rich in resource, buildings and expertise, and we want to share all of that. We want to encourage many more credit unions to be established across the country.

Scrap Metal

8. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to publicise the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act on 1 October 2013; and what steps churches are taking to protect themselves from lead theft. (900322)

The Church of England has been working closely with its insurer, Ecclesiastical, to promote the “Hands off our church roofs” campaign, and the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which came into force on 1 October, is extremely welcome. Overall, we hope that we can promote the various deterrence methods available to protect church roofs and metal artefacts from theft.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that since it was made clear that that legislation would be introduced there has been a significant reduction in the incidence of metal theft? Although vigilance is still needed, does not the passing of the Act mean that we are no longer fighting a losing battle?

The whole House will be really pleased about the introduction of the Act, because although we still have some way to go, the reduction in the incidence of metal theft has been substantial. Although churches of course still need to use CCTV, SmartWater and so forth, the fact that scrap metal can no longer be traded for cash—people can no longer rip lead from roofs and sell it the next morning for cash to a local dealer; it is now a cashless business—is clearly already having a considerable impact on ensuring that our heritage does not continue to be ripped off.