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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 21 November 2013

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Broadband

The UK broadband impact report, undertaken by analysts SQW, was commissioned by the Government and published on 14 November. It looks at the economic, environmental and social benefits of superfast broadband, including in rural areas. The report estimates that the net annual gross value added impacts for the UK attributable to faster broadband speeds will rise to about £17 billion by 2024, of which approximately £4.6 billion will accrue to rural areas.

Given the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises in the rural economy, will my hon. Friend inform us what support the Government are providing for superfast broadband, especially in places such as Hanbury, the Lenches and Inkberrow in my constituency?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the huge value of broadband in rural areas, particularly to the small and medium-sized enterprises that are so important to the rural economy. The roll- out of broadband to all rural communities across the country is a top priority for us. The Government’s current £530 million rural broadband programme will ensure that 90% of the country has access to superfast speeds. The Government recently announced an extra £250 million investment to extend superfast coverage to 95% of premises by 2017. Together with the industry, we are exploring how to expand coverage further, using more innovative fixed wireless and mobile broadband solutions to reach at least 99% of premises in the UK by 2018.

17. I recently met the managing director of ELE Advanced Technologies, a fast-growing, mid-sized engineering business based across two sites in Colne in my constituency, one of which is in a particularly rural area. It could grow even faster with better broadband connections between the two sites. Will my hon. Friend assure businesses in Pendle, such as ELE, and those in other rural areas that they will not be left behind under this Government? (901186)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ensure in his discussions with local delivery bodies that the projects now being put in place by the Government are delivered effectively in his local area. If he has any concerns about that, I will of course be happy to take that up locally.

18. Towns in my constituency, such as Hade Edge and Marsden, are still struggling with poor broadband provision. Does my hon. Friend agree that with snow coming and threatening to cut off businesses in such rural communities, strong broadband connections are vital for our local rural economies? (901187)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that broadband is crucial for the future of the rural economy. He sets out that if other communication links are cut for any reason, businesses will be even more reliant on it, so it is absolutely right that we press forward with it. I hope that communities in his local area will receive the benefits of schemes that we are putting in place nationally.

Water Bills

Ofwat estimates that, from 2015, pressure on bills could be reduced by £120 million to £750 million annually. I have written to water companies to call on them to consider the pressure on household incomes when making future bill decisions and, in particular, to consider whether they need to apply the full price increases next year allowed for in the 2009 price review. The Government encourage water companies to introduce social tariffs for vulnerable consumers and to reduce bad debt.

That is just not good enough. As families struggle with this Government’s cost of living crisis, can we have a duty on water companies to introduce social tariffs?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I entirely agree with him, I think. We fully appreciate the pressure that many of our hard-working constituents are under to pay their bills, but I am afraid that I have to remind him that in the last five years of his Government, between 2005 and 2010, water bills rose by 20% to £389. As of today, water bills are just under that, at £388.

Water bills have increased by almost 50% since privatisation, and yet last year, regional water companies made £1.9 billion in profits and paid £1.8 billion to their shareholders. What are the Government doing to ensure that water bills come down for the consumer?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. Unfortunately, he did not listen to my preceding answer, which was that under the watch of his Government—because Ofwat did not do its job and because, as with the banks, the last Government did not regulate properly—bills went up. We are fully conscious of the impact of bills on our hard-working constituents. We have a robust regulator in Mr Jonson Cox. It is clear from his statements and negotiations that he expects water companies to hold or reduce prices, while continuing with the enormous investment that privatisation has brought. Do not underestimate the £116 billion that has been brought into the industry, which will make it efficient and keep bills down.

Does the Secretary of State agree that a large component of the increase in the cost of water bills comes from European directives, such as the waste water directive, the urban waste water directive, the bathing water directive and the drinking water directive? All of us would support those directives, but will he commit to the earliest possible engagement of the Department and Ofwat in limiting the cost of implementing them?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for that question. She is absolutely right that we are bound by European law and regulation in this area of competence. We intend to regulate the industry in conformity with those laws. There is a balance to be struck. As I have mentioned, since privatisation, £116 billion has been brought into the industry. We have improved the quality of our rivers and water enormously, but we have to respect the impact of bills on our hard-working constituents.

The people of the west country have been suffering the pain caused by their water bills for many years. We are grateful to the Government for the recent help in that regard. Given that the wholesale price of water is not rising, in that it falls from the sky and is free, is my right hon. Friend convinced that the regulator is robust enough to ensure that rises will be kept to a minimum?

My hon. Friend is right to focus on the regulator, because the last Government did not have a robust regulator. The whole system depends on having a rigorous and robust person in charge of Ofwat. I am pleased that we have that person in Jonson Cox.

Will the Secretary of State set out for the House the steps he took to tackle the rising cost of water bills between his meeting with the water companies on 10 July and his follow-up letter four months later on 4 November?

The shadow Secretary of State has to recognise that it is not for me, in my office, to dictate prices. The industry is a combination of private companies and a vigorous independent regulator. It is important that I do not overstep the mark and that I support the vigorous regulation that he is bringing in. When the new price review comes through, I think the hon. Lady will be pleasantly surprised to see that prices will be held and that some may fall. However, we need to have the balance that I have spoken about because if we are to keep the industry efficient and keep prices down for the long term for our hard-working constituents, we need to keep the investment coming in.

In other words, the Secretary of State did absolutely nothing. Does he understand that families who are struggling to pay their water bills want action from the Secretary of State, not a weak letter? With only three companies helping just 25,000 households, it is clear that the voluntary approach has failed. Will he therefore commit to amending the Water Bill, which we will debate on Monday, to require all water companies to be part of a new national affordability scheme and finally ease the cost of living crisis on families?

The shadow Secretary of State has to recognise that the schemes that help some water bill payers are paid for by others. She wants to require there to be a universal tax on all water bill payers. I would not endorse that.

Fish Discards

The UK secured a landing obligation as part of the agreement on reform of the common fisheries policy this summer. The final agreement includes a phased timetable, with a landing obligation in pelagic fisheries coming into force in January 2015 and a landing obligation in other fisheries beginning in 2016. Preparatory work has begun and we are talking to the fishing industry and other stakeholders about how we can best implement those changes in practice.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Recent research has shown that a ban on discarding alone will not lead to sustainable management of the nation’s fish stocks. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will introduce a range of measures alongside the discard ban, and that full regard will be given to the interests of the inshore fleet, such as those who fish out of Lowestoft in my constituency?

I confirm that there will be a range of other measures. We have never claimed that a discard ban alone would work, and there are three parts to the reform. The discard ban was one part, and we also introduced regional decision making for the first time. Finally—and most importantly—there is now a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably. Taken together, those measures represent a radical reform of the common fisheries policy, and that is a tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who led the charge on those reforms.

The reforms are welcome and what the Minister said is correct, but the regulation on discards will require not just UK Administrations to comply, but other EU member states to do so as well. Will the Government ensure that the European Commission takes measures to ensure that, as far as possible, all member states comply with the regulations on discards?

I absolutely agree. We need other member states to comply with the regulations, and we will raise the matter with the European Commission if we have concerns that they are not doing so. I stress, however, that there is a legally binding commitment for member states to fish sustainably. Regionalisation will mean that for the first time, groups of member states with a shared interest in a shared fishery will come together and come up with better decision making.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. With a ban on discards, the roll-out of marine protected areas, a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably, the introduction of marine planning, and a whole range of other measures to ensure that our seas are sustainable, is this not a good time for those who are concerned about the health and sustainability of our seas?

My hon. Friend is right and I am delighted to continue the good work that he started in those areas. That shows the commitment of this Government to protecting and enhancing our marine environment.

15. Instead of establishing a marine conservation zone across Hythe bay, will the Minister consider other conservation measures that could be carried out in harmony with the work of the inshore fishing fleet in the bay? (901184)

We have today made clear our intention to designate 27 sites as marine conservation zones. I confirm that Hythe bay is not currently one of those, although we are doing further work on that and holding further discussions with stakeholders. We hope to make a decision on Hythe bay in the new year. One interesting area we are considering is whether we might reach an agreement with stakeholders by looking at zoning that site, rather than having it as an entire block.

Food Waste

We are working with food manufacturers and retailers to reduce food waste under the Courtauld commitment, which is targeting a further reduction of 1.1 million tonnes in food and packaging waste. We have also launched an agreement with the hospitality sector, which includes restaurants, pubs and canteens. We are helping households waste less and save money through the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign.

I am grateful for that answer, but does the Minister not accept that with food prices rising nearly five times as quickly as wages under the Government’s cost of living crisis, the most pressing issue for millions of families across the country this winter will be finding enough food to eat, not throwing it away?

Obviously, we want affordable choices for people across the retail sector, and we have an efficient retail sector in this country. Excellent local food is also produced, and we hope that people will take advantage of what is provided locally to ensure they are well fed over the winter. Having said that, it is important to consider waste because if we do not look at what is being wasted across the supply chain, we will be wasting resources that could be used to help feed people, and that will also have an effect on the environment.

A staggering amount of the food purchased in supermarkets ends up not being consumed. Will my hon. Friend liaise with supermarkets to ensure that any surplus they have goes to food banks, and that they look closely at their packaging so that food for consumption in people’s homes is sold in the requisite amount of packaging?

My hon. Friend raises a number of ways forward. There are many solutions for dealing with surplus food at different points in the chain, including at supermarkets. Further up the food chain there is the option advanced by Company Shop, which I visited recently. It looks at making affordable food available through company shops and, hopefully in the future, to people on low incomes as well.

Bovine TB

In the 10 years to 31 December 2012, 305,268 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered as reactors or direct contacts in Great Britain. Since 1 January to the end of August, a further 22,512 otherwise perfectly healthy cattle have been slaughtered solely because of bovine TB.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any political party or animal welfare group that accepts the massive cost in the wholesale slaughter of cattle, silent suffering among wildlife and huge disruption and worry to the farming community, is acting without care or responsibility by not combating this terrible disease?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I wish we could go back to the bipartisan approach of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when we got this disease beaten—we got it down to 0.01%. [Interruption.] The chuntering goes on, but we are following the science from Australia, which is TB-free; we are following the science from New Zealand, which is down from 1,763 infected herds to 66; and we are following the science from the Republic of Ireland, where reactors are down from 40,000 to 18,500, and the average Irish badger is 1 kg heavier because they are healthy. We will end up with healthy badgers and healthy cattle.

Recent figures from Natural England show that only 60% of farms in the west Somerset cull zone and only 43% of farms in the west Gloucestershire cull zone contained cattle. Why are the Government culling badgers on farms without cattle?

The hon. Lady must understand that badgers move around. When they are “super-excreters” and they move on to cattle farms, they are sadly very effective transmitters of this disease. That is why we are addressing the disease not just in cattle, but in wildlife.

13. It was announced this week that a record 220 farms in Wiltshire have been closed down because of bovine TB. One of my farmers has lost his entire herd on three separate occasions. He is reported to be driving a bus at the moment and going through terrible stress. Does the Secretary of State agree that tests in both Somerset and Gloucestershire are showing encouraging results? Will he announce when he intends to roll out the programme for culling badgers across the west country and, in particular, in my constituency of North Wiltshire? (901181)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sadly, the disease continues to increase in his constituency. It is absolutely our intention to continue the policy of bearing down on the disease in wildlife, as well as continuing our severe policy of bearing down on the disease in cattle. We will be announcing further measures in the new year.

The inconvenient truth for the Secretary of State is that there has been a fall in TB in new herds and in TB-infected herds since 2008, before the badger culls began. Now that we know that nearly half the board of Natural England, including its leading scientific officer Professor McDonald, challenge the badger cull extensions, is it not clear that the Secretary of State is a complete stranger to evidence-based policy, but a master of moving the goalposts?

Sadly, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The number of cattle slaughtered has gone up by 22,512. These herds are closed up, which means that they are already in a TB area, and the shadow Minister has to understand that. We are following a clear policy that has worked in every other country where there has been a problem of disease in cattle and in wildlife. I have cited Australia, New Zealand, Michigan, with the white-tailed deer, and badgers in the Republic of Ireland. I just wish that those on the Opposition Front Bench would join us, as they did back in the 1970s, in getting this disease under control.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there would be no sense in pursuing this course further if we did not see progress towards our objective of a significant reduction in TB among cattle in the trial areas?

My hon. Friend is right that there is no point in doing this unless we see a reduction in the disease in cattle—that is our intention—but I am happy to report that I was in Somerset last week talking to those conducting the cull, and they were doing so with great professionalism, skill and restraint, in the face of some opposition, and they were delighted with the results, were convinced there had been a significant reduction in the number of diseased badgers and were looking with great confidence to that part of Somerset being rid of the disease.

Food Aid

6. When the research commissioned by his Department into the provision of food aid in the UK will be published. (901173)

DEFRA has commissioned research to review publicly available evidence on the landscape of food aid provision and access in the UK. All Government-funded research projects are required to go through the necessary review and quality assurance processes prior to publication. Once this process is complete, the conclusions of the work will be made available on the Government’s website.

With more than 350,000 people using food banks since April alone and a more than 800% increase in the past three years, is the Minister delaying publishing the report because he is embarrassed to admit that the dramatic rise is due to the cost of living crisis caused by this Government?

No. As I just made clear—if the hon. Lady had listened—all Government reports must go through a review and quality assurance process, as set out in the Government’s social research service code introduced in 2008. There are many complex reasons for the increase in the number of food banks, but it is worth noting that there was a tenfold increase in their number under the last Government.

Is not the innuendo of the question from the hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) and similar questions that the Labour party wants welfare spending increased? If it wants that, should it not spell out by how much it wants it to rise and who should benefit and in what ways?

I call the Minister to respond, but on food aid in the UK, rather than on Labour party policy.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We all know that the best way to tackle poverty is to help people back into work.

Flood Protection Schemes

8. What effect partnership funding has had on the number of flood protection schemes initiated in the last 12 months. (901175)

Of the 507 schemes receiving DEFRA funding in 2013-14, 143 schemes have secured external contributions. Partnership funding contributions to schemes being built by the Environment Agency are expected to reach £22 million in 2013-14, up from £5.4 million in 2011-12. Contributions of up to £148 million have been identified for the four-year programme to 2014-15, and early indications suggest that up to 25% more schemes will go ahead than if costs were met by DEFRA alone.

I welcome such schemes in Swindon, but what steps has the Department taken to assist local authorities to use section 106 agreements to secure flood alleviation works for existing communities?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Local authorities are best placed to determine their infrastructure requirements through the local plan process and local flood risk management strategies. DEFRA, with the Environment Agency and the Local Government Association, has provided guidance, including practical examples of flood projects that have secured funding through section 106 agreements.

DEFRA’s own figures show that climate change could see the number of homes at risk of flooding more than double to more than 800,000 by the mid-2020s, yet the Committee on Climate Change’s report on adaptation makes it clear that even these figures underestimate the risk and that up to 500,000 homes might be left without protection. Why is the Secretary of State ignoring the science?

We are not. We are investing, with the various sources mentioned in my previous answers, a range of funds. Over this four-year period, we will spend more than any previous Government and protect 165,000 households—20,000 more than expected. This unprecedented programme is going ahead, despite the mess we inherited from the last Government.

Yes, indeed, the Department secured an extra £120 million from the Treasury last year, taking the amount of flood protection money to more than £2.3 billion, but may I impress on my right hon. Friend the urgent need to stress to the Treasury, in advance of the autumn statement, that for every £1 of taxpayers’ money spent on flood protection there is an £8 return?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and predecessor for her question and congratulate her on all the work she did in preparing for this. She is absolutely right. Shortly after I took over, I saw a scheme in Nottingham where there was an eight-to-one payback on a £45 million scheme protecting about 16,000 houses, but on the other side of the river there were 500 acres, blighted and left alone by the last Government, that are now up for redevelopment.

Air Pollution

Air quality in the United Kingdom has improved significantly over many years, but it still has an effect equivalent to reducing the average life expectancy of everyone living in the UK by six months. The Government are committed to ongoing work to reduce the impact and have invested many billions of pounds in measures that will help to reduce air pollution from transport, energy and industrial sources.

With 29,000 early deaths from poor air quality, a Supreme Court judgment against the Government and the World Health Organisation saying that poor air quality is a primary cause of cancer, what more can the Government do to avoid a public health crisis?

If we take the transport sources of air pollution, for example, we have invested over £1 billion in measures to promote growth in electric vehicles, which will help to transform future air quality, along with cleaner buses and a range of other policies. We are also negotiating at the European level for better standards in diesel vehicles, which contribute significantly to oxides of nitrogen levels.

Most of the polluted roads in the country are in London. What meetings has the Minister had with the Mayor of London to address this serious situation for residents in the capital?

In the last month I have had no such meetings, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the Mayor to discuss this issue.

Food Packaging

10. What assessment his Department has made of the role of packaging in minimising food waste. (901177)

Food packaging plays a vital role in ensuring that consumers do not throw away the food they buy. The Waste and Resources Action Programme’s “Fresher for Longer” work shows how the way we use food packaging and the storage advice it carries can help to keep food fresher for longer, by using techniques such as vacuum packing, shrink wrapping or re-sealable packaging to maximise the safe-storage life of food. This saves consumers money and reduces the impact of food waste on the environment.

The Minister has already acknowledged the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. I am sure he will agree, as my predecessor as chairman of the all-party group on packaging, that innovations in packaging such as vacuum and re-sealable packs, which he described, help to keep food fresher for longer. Does he agree that they also play an important role in reducing the value of the food thrown away by the average family, which is currently £270 a year?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about my work with the all-party group, but if there are things that I think the industry needs to be challenged on, as Minister, I will be happy to do that. However, I completely agree with him that we can see significant gains in tackling food waste through innovative packaging solutions.

Pork Exports

Our work in opening up the Chinese market to British pork saw an increase of pork exports to China from £5 million for the first nine months of last year to £14 million for the same period this year. That trade has helped to lift China into our top ten biggest international food markets for the first time.

I congratulate the Minister on that great success. British pork is the best pork in the world, and much of it is produced in Staffordshire. The potential for growth and jobs in British agriculture from exporting to China is huge. With just a little more support, in terms of marketing, promotion and trade shows, more jobs could be created. What plans does he have to help British farmers to sell in China?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that British pork is the best. My family breed British lop pigs, which I would argue is the best breed. To answer his question, earlier this month the Secretary of State took a delegation of British food and drink companies to champion British food at Food and Hotel China, the largest food fair in Asia. Food and drink is also a key pillar of the “Great” campaign to raise the profile of the food and drink industry internationally, and a “Great”-themed reception was held in China during the Secretary of State’s visit.

Order. The question is about pork to China. I am sure the hon. Lady will try to work that into her question.

In addition to pork to China, there is beef to Russia. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and I led a delegation to Russia last year with the UK chief vet—

Order. I am sorry; I was trying to be helpful to the hon. Lady, but let me say in the kindest possible way that Members must learn to be a bit versatile. If they are to come in on an earlier question, I am happy to accommodate them, but they have to adjust to the question. The question cannot be adjusted to them.

I welcome the news about our pork, and I would like to underline the importance of beef, too, particularly to the dairy sector. That is an important point to make.

Perhaps I can help hon. Members out by saying that the combined estimated worth of pork, beef and lamb to China and Russia is £230 million over three years. In September this year, the Secretary of State visited Russia to help open these markets.

Common Agricultural Policy

12. What progress he has made on reform of the common agricultural policy; and if he will make a statement. (901180)

A common agricultural policy reform deal has been agreed between the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council, the European Parliament and the Commission. Overall, the CAP package does not represent a significant reform, but we did improve the Commission’s original proposals, increased flexibility and fended off attempts by others to introduce a number of regressive measures. Our formal consultation on CAP implementation in England was launched earlier this month and will run until 28 November.

I am grateful for that reply. In order for British farmers to remain competitive in world markets, it is important that the CAP helps them to meet the reasonable constraints that stop them simply turning the British countryside into ranch and prairie. Is the Minister content that, as drafted, the CAP will deliver public goods without simply giving money to large farmers who do not need it?

One area we are looking at in our consultation is how to develop an agri-environment scheme in pillar two. We are keen to build on the fantastic track record we have in these areas. It has always been the Government’s position that we can do more for the environment by spending through pillar two rather than through pillar one. That is why we have aimed to keep as simple as possible the greening measures in the conditions for the single farm payment.

Earlier this week, I met leaders of the Scottish National Farmers Union who had come all the way to London to express their deep concern that the CAP convergence uplift, which the UK received only because of the historically low area payments in Scotland, is to be split four ways. Does the Minister accept the principle of convergence and, if so, will he look again at how to bring the review process forward before 2016?

As the UK Government, we have had to take an approach that is fair to all parts of the UK. The reality is that farms in Scotland tend to be larger and the per hectare rate has been lower historically because the land is less productive, but the average farmer in Scotland receives about £25,000 a year, the average farmer in England receives approximately £17,000 and the average farmer in Northern Ireland receives less than £8,000. On that basis, Scottish farmers are getting more than farmers elsewhere in the UK.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health. As part of our determination to leave the natural environment in a better state than the one we inherited, I am pleased to announce today the designation of 27 marine conservation zones in the waters off the English coast. The new MCZs will protect nationally important habitat for species and build on the 30,000 sq km of inshore and offshore waters that are already protected. Since 2010, the area of inshore marine sites surrounding them has increased substantially. With the MCZs designated today, just under 25% of English inshore waters are now within protected areas.

I would like to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to an outbreak of bovine TB in my constituency in County Durham this month. Will he explain how badgers are the cause of the spread of bovine TB in my region?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the fact that this disease is spreading and it allows me to draw attention to the fact that we are bringing in even more rigorous cattle movement controls. We know perfectly well that the disease is spread by cattle. It is also spread by wildlife, and that is why we are going to bear down on both, and we will make an announcement shortly on cattle movement.

T2. In 2011 more than 23 tonnes of illegal elephant ivory was seized across the world. What action are this Government taking internationally to counter this disgusting and barbaric trade? (901161)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Two weeks ago I went to Lewa in northern Kenya where the situation is shocking—since I have been there a number of elephants have been killed. Ivory is being sold at $2,000 a kilo and rhinoceros horn is selling at $65,000 a kilo. We offered immediate help to the rangers who are working very bravely there, so that some of our paratroopers could help train them. We are organising a conference at Lancaster house in February to which a whole number of nations from right across the world will be invited, in order to enforce better, to reduce demand and to end up with sustainable alternative activity in these countries.

T3. A few weeks ago we asked the Secretary of State about plans to take helpful food additives out of flour. What are the results of those plans, and is he thinking of looking at any other foods and taking away things that we know can help people? We do not want people to suffer because they are not getting the things they need. (901163)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We look at various regulations the whole time. We are studying that matter and we will make announcements in due course.

T4. My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that Lincolnshire produces a quarter of the nation’s food and does quite well in recycling waste, but with 15 million tonnes of food across the country going to waste annually, what steps is his Department taking to encourage the uptake of anaerobic digestion? (901164)

Government financial support and action under our anaerobic digestion strategy and action plan is leading to growing uptake of AD. Since the strategy was published the number of plants has increased from 54 to more than 120 and a further 200 projects have planning permission.

T6. The Government claim that excluding homes built since 2009 from the Flood Re insurance scheme is sending a message to developers not to build in flood-risk areas, so can the Minister explain to me why posters heavily promoting the Government Help to Buy scheme are plastered around Kingswood in my constituency, even though my constituents will be outside the flood insurance scheme in an area that is prone to flood risk? (901166)

The details of the scheme agreed with industry, which I welcome and we look forward to taking forward in the forthcoming flooding Bill, are predicated on what was agreed under the previous regime. We are happy to debate this, of course, and if the case is made to change it, we will look at that. As the hon. Lady says, however, our current plan is to send a very clear message that we do not want to see further building on the flood plain.

T5. Farmers in Fylde are losing thousands of pounds each year and homes are at risk from flooding in the fields around Main Drain and Liggard Brook. The Environment Agency came up with options to resolve this, but funding was denied. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can move this vital work forward? (901165)

Over several months—indeed, nearly two years now—I have frequently raised the issue of the health effects on certain individuals of low-energy lighting. Has the Department made any progress in its negotiations with Europe on this issue?

That is not an area I have discussed in recent weeks, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady about any progress we have made on it.

T7. Does the Minister share my concern about the apparent monopoly British Telecom has in installing broadband in hard-to-reach areas such as Monmouthshire under the terms of public schemes? (901167)

My hon. Friend is clearly making a case to examine this. There have been a number of reports into our delivery of the broadband programme saying our approach will lower risk and reduce cost to the taxpayer. If my hon. Friend has any specific concerns and he would like to write to me, I will be happy to examine them.

Proposals were made for 127 marine conservation zones, which it was agreed were necessary to create an ecologically coherent network. It is therefore very disappointing that the Government are going ahead with only 27 zones, and if press reports are correct they will not be consulting on the second tranche until 2015. Why is there such a delay?

We have made it clear that there will be two further tranches. I can confirm that next year, we will begin the research work necessary to start identifying some of the next sites. We will launch the formal consultation for the next tranche at the beginning of 2015, but that does not mean we will not be doing work in the meantime.

Fishermen in my constituency are periodically economically reliant on dredging around the Eddystone reef. Will my hon. Friend consider issuing permits that would expire after retirement or sale of vessel to allow them to continue to earn a living?

One of the principles of the marine conservation zones is that we want to development management measures locally with the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities, the Marine Management Organisation and harbour authorities. We want them to be constructive and, given how technology is developing, it is possible still to fish sustainably, in a way that protects many of the features we are trying to protect through these designations.

Asthma UK has condemned the Government’s proposals to reduce air quality monitoring across the UK. Will the Minister drop these damaging proposals?

We want to focus our efforts on reducing air pollution, and we are confident that we will have enough information coming back from monitoring to ensure that we can update the position. As I said in answer to a previous question, this issue remains a Government priority and we will take action on it at European, national and local levels.

There is conclusive scientific evidence that sheep as a species is not infected with a prion that causes new vCJD. Nevertheless, certain regulations relating to sheep, such as the compulsory splitting of carcases over 1 year old and the ban on on-farm burial, are based on the belief that sheep are so infected. What will the Minister do to take forward an investigation to ensure that these costly regulations can be brought to an end?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, because no vCJD prions have been found to be present in sheep. The European Food Safety Authority looked at this issue in 2010 and concluded that the spinal cord from sheep aged over 12 months should still be removed as a precautionary measure. However, we are investigating alternative methods of spinal cord removal that do not require splitting the carcase, and continuing to raise with the Commission the case for reviewing the current controls.

If the amount of air quality monitoring taking place is being reduced, how will we know that air quality is improving? How does this work?

There will still be air quality monitoring; we are talking about the level of monitoring. We want to focus resources on where we can do the most on this issue.

I am pleased that the marine conservation designation for the Stour and Orwell site has not been approved. I thank the Minister for that, and can he assure me that it will not be reconsidered in future rounds?

Throughout all the assessments we have made of these designations, we have taken account of socio-economic factors, and in the case of Stour and Orwell that was one of the effects we looked at. We recognise the importance of those ports to the economy, both locally and nationally, and that is why we decided not to designate in that instance.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Electoral Register (Military Personnel)

1. How the Electoral Commission proposes to increase the numbers of military personnel on the electoral register. (901188)

The Electoral Commission, working in partnership with the Ministry of Defence, runs a campaign each year to encourage service personnel and their families to register to vote. All military units worldwide run a unit registration day, and the commission encourages electoral registration officers to work closely with unit registration officers in their areas.

I thank my hon. Friend for that, but is he aware that of the 200 military at the Citadel, where 29 Commando are based, only 17 are currently on the register? May I therefore suggest that the adjutant on bases should be given the job of ensuring that everybody is registered?

My hon. Friend raises a serious and important issue that he should discuss directly with the commanding officer of the Royal Marines in his constituency, which of course borders mine. However, he will be pleased to know that in February 2014, the Electoral Commission will undertake a joint campaign with the MOD—this might help in the Citadel—in advance of the European elections to raise awareness of the importance of military personnel registering to vote.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not good enough? We know where our service personnel are, and we know that they have a duty to be registered. Their commanding officers should publish the figures, so that we know where they are when a vote takes place. In that way, the ballot papers can get to them and be returned in time; alternatively, a proxy can be appointed.

The Electoral Commission completely agrees with my hon. Friend, but these are questions that must also be put to the Ministry of Defence, because a more joined-up effort is required to ensure that the young men and women serving in our armed forces here and overseas have the opportunity to vote in British elections.

Given the high turnover in voter registration, could the upcoming awareness campaign be highly targeted at military families?

It is certainly the Electoral Commission’s intention to target military families, and I will take the hon. Gentleman’s representations back to the commission and ensure that that does indeed happen.

Does my hon. Friend agree that now is a particularly good time for such a campaign to be launched? We are bringing our troops back from Afghanistan and Germany, and we are establishing five super-garrisons around Britain, which will mean that troops will be based in one place for their entire lives. Now is the moment to get them on to the electoral register.

As usual, my hon. Friend makes a strong point. Perhaps we should really be looking for a change in the culture of the armed forces, so that it becomes the norm for our fine young servicemen and women to register to vote and to take part in our democratic processes.

Church Commissioners

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

Women Bishops

2. What progress has been made by the General Synod of the Church of England on legislating to enable women to enter the episcopate. (901189)

Yesterday, the General Synod voted by 378 votes to eight, with 25 abstentions, to approve a new package of proposals that will enable women to become bishops in the Church of England.

This is obviously very welcome news. Can my hon. Friend give us an idea of the likely time scale for the introduction of the change?

My hon. Friend is right; this is very welcome news. As a result of the vote yesterday, I am confident that this House will have an opportunity to pass the necessary legislation in the lifetime of this Parliament.

While I of course welcome the progress that has been made, may I point out that if the same arrangements were put in place for a black bishop’s leadership to be challenged and for the case to be taken to an ombudsman, there would rightly be outrage?

I am not entirely sure what point the hon. Lady is trying to make. The proposals put forward by the General Synod have had overwhelming support. If she looks at the figures, she will see that they have complete support throughout practically the whole of the Church. Perhaps she would like to discuss her concern with me outside, because I do not really understand the point she is trying to make.

I, too, welcome the fact that the Church has at long last made progress on the matter of women bishops. I know that my hon. Friend has seen the report by Professor Linda Woodhead entitled “Telling the truth about Christian Britain”, which makes rather depressing reading for those of us who are members of the Church. Is he confident that the Church can now move on from these endless internal debates and start preaching the gospel and working for the good of society?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The sooner we can resolve the issue and have women deacons, priests and bishops in the Church of England, the sooner the Church will be able to move forward and fulfil its broader national ministry.

After the disappointment of last year, this is indeed welcome news. Perhaps those members of the clergy who still have reservations—I hope that they are few in number—should come to the House of Commons and see the exhibition in the Admission Order corridor showing the struggle that women had to get the vote and the right to be elected to the House. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, now that the Church of England is taking this welcome step, other religions and faiths that discriminate against women—I could list them, but I will not—should follow the same path?

May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that it is slightly more complex than he suggests? Some of those who are opposed to women bishops are themselves women. They are conservatives and evangelicals who have theological objections because they believe in male headship. I do not think that we can necessarily castigate people who are against women bishops as being against women. The good news is that we now have a way forward that will enable us to have women bishops—I hope by the end of this Parliament.

The congregation of the Church of England has been in headlong decline for a long time, and that is continuing. How likely is it that that trend would be reversed were the Church of England by some chance to pursue its existing policy of barring women from being bishops, which most people think is redolent of a past era?

I am glad to say that a large number of parishes are growing. The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it clear that his primary mission is growth. We want to see the Church of England grow. Hopefully, now that we have resolved the issue of women bishops, everyone in the Church of England and everyone who supports it can focus their intention on that growth.

Recruitment of Clergy

The number of ordinations to stipendiary ministry has remained broadly stable over the past 20 years. In 2012, 11,375 ordained clergy and at least 1,411 chaplains were serving in the Church of England, and there were 12,953 parishes. As a result, it is not unusual for a parish priest to have the care of souls for more than one parish.

The vicar at St Lawrence church in Darlaston in my constituency has to cover All Saints in Darlaston and All Saints in Moxley. Will the hon. Gentleman find a way to support her, perhaps by considering the appointment of another full-time vicar?

The pay of clergy and how clergy are organised is a matter for the diocese and the local bishop. The hon. Lady has kindly written to me about this issue, which is causing her concern. I will, if I may, take it up with the Bishop of Lichfield and come back to her.

Local churches are at the heart of rural life. We have parish priests who are asked to look after sometimes four, five or six parish churches. Can we keep that situation under review? We want to keep the parish churches open, but it is more than humanly possible for one person to nurse so many parish churches.

Those are all challenges that we face. How we maintain and keep churches open in rural areas and ensure good ministry for new housing estates in urban areas are the responsibilities of diocesan bishops. We are fortunate in having some excellent new stipendiary clergy coming forward and a large number of self-supporting ministers who support the work of the Church of England. The point that my hon. Friend makes is a good one. Essentially, the Church of England has to be a national church, serving all parts of the country, and we are determined that it should continue to do that.

Credit Unions

The Archbishop of Canterbury has highlighted the need to support credit unions, so the Church is developing a credit union in association with some other national churches from across the country. To drive that, Archbishop Justin has convened a task group, which will be chaired by a senior figure from the banking industry with much relevant experience of the whole sector.

I welcome the archbishop’s commitment to credit unions, but is my hon. Friend aware of the investment by the Worcester diocese in the Castle and Crystal Credit Union in Dudley, which is available to many of my constituents living in social housing in Worcester?

That credit union is a model one. This will be a generational change; it will not happen overnight. We all need to support the credit union movement to ensure that those on low incomes and those who may have difficulties accessing credit do not fall into the hands of loan sharks. We are determined to take forward the building up of the credit union movement in this country.

Following on from the credit union question, the Church of England has many assets and quite a lot of cash investments, could it not invest that directly in a credit union to help the situation?

My hon. Friend will find that something like 45 bishops in at least 31 dioceses have already been involved in a range of activities to support and raise awareness of credit unions, including investing in them.

Given the financial firepower available to the Church Commissioners, this is an excellent way for the Church of England to re-engage with some of the most vulnerable in our society in these difficult times. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Church Commissioners to devolve the management of these credit unions down to parish level so that the parish priests and vicars can direct the help to those who most need it?

Credit unions are local organisations. The Church of England will not be running credit unions but will, wherever possible, support them with expertise and buildings and in any way we can. Credit unions are already local organisations and that is part of their importance, just like with local community banks. Of course it is very important that they deliver their services locally.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Overseas Voters

5. What further progress has been made on encouraging British nationals resident overseas to vote in UK general elections; and if he will make a statement. (901192)

7. What progress has been made by the Electoral Commission on setting a target for increasing the number of eligible overseas voters registering before the next general election. (901194)

Since May 2013, the Electoral Commission has met representatives from political parties and officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss how they can work together to reach eligible electors overseas to encourage them to register to vote. That has helped to inform the development of the commission’s extensive public awareness campaign for overseas voters in 2014 ahead of the European parliamentary elections. Finally, the commission has set a target for its overseas public awareness campaign for the 2014 parliamentary elections to be more than three times as effective as the campaign it ran in 2009.

With 1.6 million Brits living in the US and Spain alone, all entitled to vote in the European elections and the general election, what thoughts has my hon. Friend had about advertising in expat newspapers in those areas and others or perhaps using the embassies and high commissions to promote the fact that those people could and should vote?

Those are all issues that the Electoral Commission has considered and will continue to consider. In particular, it sends press releases and articles to English-speaking newspapers and radio stations in areas that are strongly populated by expats. The Electoral Commission also conducts a rigorous online campaign to try to persuade people of the benefits of voting in a British election.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are estimated to be 3 million Britons living abroad who could potentially vote yet at the 2010 election only 20,000 were registered to vote? Does he not think that that is a shocking statistic and will he encourage the Electoral Commission to set a target to increase that figure to 100,000 by the 2015 election?

I certainly agree that it is a shocking figure. Many people are working very hard to try to increase the numbers of British people who are registered to vote. There is a target to increase the number of overseas voters who download the registration form for the 2014 European election to three times the number there were in 2009. If we were to increase the 2010 figure threefold, that would take us to about 100,000 downloads in 2015, which would perhaps be much more beneficial.

Church Commissioners

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

Metal Crime

9. What assessment he has made of the effects on churches of metal crime since introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. (901196)

The enactment of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act is warmly welcomed by the Church. The additional powers under the Act have strengthened the hand of the important agencies against this crime, which for churches is now at its lowest level for many years.

I thank my hon. Friend for that statement. Will he provide some information about the effects of this welcome Act, promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), on churches in my diocese of Lichfield, led by the lord bishop?

In 2011 in the diocese of Lichfield there were 100 claims for lead metal theft costing nearly £200,000. As of May of this year, there were fewer than 10 claims costing less than £10,000. Churches still have a duty to use things such as SmartWater and CCTV, but the fact that it is now no longer possible for robbers to strip churches of lead at night, go round to the scrap metal yard next day and get paid in cash means that we are seeing a considerable drop in lead theft. That is good news and the whole House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) for getting the Bill through Parliament.