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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 573: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Tree Diseases

We have made rapid progress towards implementing three of the independent taskforce’s recommendations: we have produced a prioritised plant health risk register, undertaken work on contingency planning and initiated recruitment of a senior chief plant health officer. We have accepted the remaining taskforce recommendations, and we are working with stakeholders to develop a new plant health strategy, to be published this spring, which will set out a new approach to biosecurity for our plants.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient attention is being given to import checks? Are we doing sufficient to help other countries manage the risks of pests and diseases that may be transferred in plants and woods exported to the UK, and how are we agreeing priorities for action?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We have introduced further restrictions on, for example, the import of sweet chestnut and plane trees before the 2013-14 planting season. Our negotiators are successfully influencing the review of the EU plant health regime, which will maintain strict controls and simplify the broad range of legislation.

The Minister will know that this year is the 150th anniversary of the death of one of our greatest poets of the countryside, John Clare. He wrote a great deal about diseased trees—there was a plague of oak disease in his lifetime—and he was certainly a great defender of the English countryside. What does the Minister think John Clare would have thought of giving up our ancient woodland and replacing it with new growth?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing a cultural dimension to our proceedings so early this morning. I share his concern, and that of John Clare, for ancient woodland, and that is why the guidance is very clear. In any discussions about development, the guidance we offer to all local authorities is very clear that ancient woodland should be protected.

There are a number of threats, as my hon. Friend will know. We are of course concerned about ash, although ash dieback is a disease that takes several years to progress, and we are obviously concerned about larch as well. Across the range of species, we maintain under review all potential threats that are not yet in this country.

I want to press the Minister on the issue of protecting our ancient woodlands. Today’s written ministerial statement talks about planting lots of new trees, but does he accept that that is no replacement for the destruction of ancient trees? The quantity of new trees will not be a substitute for the diversity and quality of such woodland.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out that, given the maturity of such ecosystems, ancient woodland has a whole range of things that new planting cannot hope to replicate. That is why the planning guidance is absolutely clear that the hierarchy should protect ancient woodland.

Farming Industry (Red Tape)

We are committed to freeing farmers from red tape to help them to seize economic opportunities. We are reducing paperwork burdens and making guidance clearer and simpler. Farmers who play by the rules now receive fewer inspections. For example, 740 members of the Environment Agency’s pig and poultry scheme are inspected once every three years, rather than annually. I expect to make an announcement shortly on further opportunities for cutting red tape as a result of the agriculture red tape challenge.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but for many farmers in my constituency overly complex livestock identification and movement controls remain a burden on their businesses. What plans does the Minister have to simplify this regime?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Considerable progress has already been made on livestock identification and the complex rules governing animal movements. We introduced electronic reporting for pigs in 2011, and we will do the same for sheep from the spring. We have negotiated changes to the EU sheep tagging rules for the historic flock, generating savings of up to £11 million for sheep farmers. We will also implement the recommendations made by the farming regulation taskforce to simplify how we define livestock holdings in England to avoid confusion around the rules, and we will phase out cattle tracing links and sole occupancy authorities to further streamline the regime.

Will the Minister confirm that one matter that is not red tape is the establishment of a food crime unit? Will he indicate when he intends to do that and how he will discuss the matter with the devolved Administrations, particularly that in Wales?

The right hon. Gentleman is referring to the interim report by Professor Elliott. We will look at all his recommendations and respond to the final report when it is published later this year.

Farmers in Cumbria and elsewhere have their hands tied by excessive restrictions, such as the six-day movement rule. Given that the Government agreed in full to the recommendations of the Macdonald report two years ago, when will farmers in this country see them put into practice?

It is difficult to remove the six-day movement rule because it was a key measure that was brought in to combat the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth. We are clear that we want to get rid of unnecessary regulation, but we do not want to do anything that would compromise animal health or safety. I am willing to talk to the hon. Gentleman about this particular point. It has been raised with me by farmers. However, it is not a simple matter because we do not want to jeopardise animal health.

Wholly disproportionate financial penalties for minor and often unavoidable regulatory infringements, such as lost ear tags, have been a characteristic of the common agricultural policy in recent years. What guarantee can the Minister give that the new regime will distinguish between wilful disregard of the rules and the unintentional and inconsequential infringements that are currently being penalised?

These issues are a devolved matter. We are looking at the rules in England. The hon. Lady is right, although the EU regulations do emphasise the need for proportionality in the application of sanctions. The regulations are being reviewed. We are making the case to the European Commission that there should be changes to the rules from the beginning of 2015 so that the sanctions are more proportionate. The negotiations are ongoing.

Flood Defences

3. What recent assessment he has made of the sufficiency of flood defences; and if he will make a statement. (901856)

About 5 million properties in England are at risk of flooding. The flood defences protected more than 1 million properties during recent events. More is being spent during this spending review period than ever before. That will better protect 165,000 houses from flooding. In the six-year period from 2015-16, we will invest a record £2.3 billion in capital improvement projects, which will improve the protection for a further 300,000 households.

That is a remarkable answer, given that on 9 September, the former Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), told my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that total expenditure on flood defences was projected to fall from £646 million in 2010-11 to £546 million in 2015-16. Given those figures and the scale of the recent flooding, will the Secretary of State say how flood defences such as those in my constituency will be repaired? Will he confirm whether he will press for additional funds for flood defence repairs?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it gives me the chance to tell the House, yet again, that the Government are spending more in this spending round than was spent by the previous Government and that we plan to increase the amount to a record £2.3 billion up to 2021. Thanks to the fact that we have galvanised local councils through the partnership funding scheme, there will be all sorts of opportunities for his constituents to work with him and his local council to access more funds for flood schemes.

It is remarkable that the flood defences have held to the extent that they have during the battering that the country has taken. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to the House that he will review the budget for repairs to existing flood defences and look favourably on schemes such as the maintenance by drainage boards of the regular watercourses that protect farmland and other properties?

I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her question. What she says about maintenance is absolutely correct. In November, it was found that 97% of the defences were in a good condition and would remain so within our existing budgets. I repeat again that we have made a clear commitment up to 2021. I would love to see the shadow Secretary of State stand up and say that the Labour party will back that commitment.

10. Although there were major flood alerts, there was a lucky escape for the vast majority of residents of my constituency. I thank all those involved, particularly Natural Resources Wales, which has improved defences in recent years and, crucially, ensured that there have been no flood protection job losses. Given how severely Wales was affected by the floods, the size of our coastline and our exposure, will the Secretary of State consult the Welsh Government closely about the resource to be given to Wales in the future? (901866)

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about those who have worked so hard, and that situation was reflected across the country. As she rightly says, this is a devolved issue, and the Welsh Secretary and representatives of the Welsh Government have obviously been involved in our numerous Cobra meetings. I will be happy to pass on her comments, but I suggest that she takes up the matter directly with the Welsh Government and the Welsh Secretary.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the extensive damage along the west Wales coastline, particularly in Ceredigion in the Aberystwyth and Borth areas. Flooding is a devolved matter, as he says, but is the prospect of a bid to the European Union solidarity fund, specifically set up for the restoration of defences and infrastructure, a feature of the discussions that he has had and will have with colleagues in Cardiff and the Secretary of State for Wales?

My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion, which is well worth the Welsh Government and the Welsh Secretary taking up. We are happy to help liaise with him, but ultimately we have to respect devolution, and if it is an issue of money for Wales, it is down to the Welsh Government to negotiate it.

When he became Secretary of State in September 2012, the right hon. Gentleman reviewed his Department’s priorities. Why did his new list of four priorities make no reference to preparing for and managing risks from flood and other environmental emergencies, as the old list of priorities and responsibilities had done?

That gives me a perfect opportunity to explain the huge gain for the economy from our ambitious flood schemes. Very shortly after I took over, I met the noble Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, at a brilliant £45 million scheme in Nottingham, which was not just protecting 12,000 houses but, on the other side of the river, freeing up a whole area of blighted land, which is now up for development.

My first priority is to grow the rural economy, and I am delighted to say that our ambitious schemes will help to do that. I just wish that, in her second question, the hon. Lady would say the Labour party endorse our plans.

When asked by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs where the £54 million of extra savings from his departmental budget announced by the Treasury in June 2013 would come from, he said:

“We will concentrate on my four priorities, so it is as simple as that. Pretty well every single activity in Defra has to be focused through those four priorities.”

Those priorities do not include flood protection. How can people facing an increasing risk of flood damage due to the effects of climate change have any confidence in a Secretary of State who has downgraded flood protection as a priority and thinks that climate change is benefiting Britain?

Dear, oh dear, this is lame stuff. We are spending £2.3 billion over the course of this Parliament, with £148 million of partnership money. We have an extra £5 million for revenue, and in the course of the recent reduction across Departments I specifically excluded flood defence, so the reduction is spread across the rest of DEFRA. Uniquely, we have a programme going right out to 2021, with £2.3 billion. Yet again—this is the fifth opportunity—the hon. Lady has not agreed to match our commitment. If you want flood defences, you vote Conservative.

Every time we have floods in the far south-west, our vital rail link with the rest of the country is either severed completely or severely disrupted. Is my right hon. Friend confident that, within the existing resources and his excellent existing budget in the Department, sufficient priority is being given to flood prevention measures for vital transport infrastructure?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I went to Exeter, I saw the real damage to the economy of the south-west caused by the important link to Exeter being interrupted by floods last year. I can reassure him that there have been senior Ministers from the Department for Transport at our Cobra meetings, and they are fully aware of the consequences and have been working hard to ensure that our transport links have been restored rapidly.

Badger Cull Pilots

We are waiting for the independent expert panel to report its findings, and we will consider all information the pilots have generated and decide on our next steps in due course.

Everybody wants bovine TB to be defeated, but there is great scepticism out there that this tactic was ever going to work. Will the Secretary of State say when we can expect all the evidence to be published on the risks associated with culling?

That is a perfectly valid question but we must wait for the independent panel. That panel is independent and I do not want to put any pressure on it. It has a large amount of data from the two pilots that it will analyse for safety, humaneness and effectiveness. We must be patient and wait for it to report.

The Secretary of State is to be congratulated on taking action to hold the pilot culls, but it is now necessary to analyse them and in particular to look at the Somerset scheme, where trapping was very effective. In Devon we need a full-scale cull to get control of this disease, as they have done in the Republic of Ireland.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and he is right to say that we cannot ignore this disease, as the previous Government did. He is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the Republic of Ireland. I met Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, at the Oxford Farming Conference, and he told me that thanks to the policies adopted by the Republic of Ireland, the disease there is at its lowest level since records began.

The Secretary of State has delivered an unscientific cull that has spectacularly failed, that his own Back Benchers are openly questioning, that has weakened the reputation of DEFRA and Natural England for evidence-based policy, and from which the Prime Minister’s office is reported to be working up an escape plan. Will he now commit to bring the report of the independent expert panel to this House for a debate in Government time, and put to a vote any further proposals on badger culling?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question but I remind him that last time this issue came before the House, the Government had a good majority of 61. I am not prepared to put any pressure on the independent panel; it is up to it to take its time to evaluate the evidence and report to us, and we will come back in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will obviously analyse the reasons the panel puts forth in its report. He asks a hypothetical question, and all I can say is that we just have to look at other countries. There is no doubt that if we look at Australia, the scientific evidence shows that it is now TB free. We can look at the United States and the white-tailed deer, the brushtail possum in New Zealand, or Ireland, which I have just cited. The Republic of Ireland is a scientific, practical example because by bearing down on the disease in cattle and in wildlife, it has got it down to the lowest level since records began. We will follow its example.

Water Companies (Social Tariffs)

5. What progress he has made in requiring water companies to introduce social tariffs; and if he will make a statement. (901858)

The Government do not require water companies to introduce a social tariff. Water companies are best placed to take decisions on the design of social tariffs as part of their charges schemes, in consultation with their customers. Social tariffs are funded by cross-subsidy between customers, so it is vital that they take account of local circumstances and the views of local people. Most water companies will have a social tariff in place by 2015-16.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer but I draw his attention to the fact that a cost of living crisis is affecting about 2 million households in England and Wales who are classed as living in water poverty, which means they are paying at least 3% of their household income in water bills. Will the Government think again and consider supporting Labour’s proposals to introduce a reduced social tariff to help families who are struggling to pay their water bills?

As I made absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman in my previous answer, many water companies are now taking such action, but there are other things we can do to help people who are struggling with their water bills. The biggest thing we can do is to ensure that we bear down on charges for everybody. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been clear in his expectations, Ofwat has been clear in the way it has entered into the price review period and companies are now responding. We will see, in the vast majority of cases, bills going with inflation or even perhaps, in some cases, going below inflation. That is a real improvement on the last price review period, given the opportunities companies have had with low borrowing.

Water bills have increased by almost 50% in real terms since privatisation, yet in the past financial year the regional water companies made £1.9 billion in pre-tax profits and paid out a staggering £1.8 billion to shareholders. Will the Minister explain why on Monday his Government rejected Labour’s proposed amendment to the Water Bill for a national affordability scheme with clear and standardised criteria set by the Secretary of State to replace the Government’s failed voluntary approach?

I am happy to reiterate to the hon. Gentleman what I said on Report on Monday. His proposal to fund some sort of national affordability scheme out of excess profits relies on the regulator allowing excess profits in the first place. This Government’s robust price review period will press down. Under the previous Government, when the previous spending review took place, there was a lack of guidance. It is a very different situation now.

Bovine TB

Between January and September 2013, 24,618 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered as reactors or direct contacts in Great Britain. That is an average of more than 90 cattle a day. In Staffordshire over the same period, 2,245 cattle were slaughtered for TB control purposes.

Each one of those instances is a tragedy. Farmers in Burton, Uttoxeter and across the country are having their lifetime’s work destroyed by this disease. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the Opposition seem to criticise constantly the work to tackle this disease, while having no plans of their own and offering no support to my farmers?

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments, particularly as my constituency is so close to his. Having got this disease down to 0.01% in 1972 when we had a bipartisan approach—in those days, there was absolute unity on the need to bear down on the disease in cattle and in wildlife—it is tragic that we let that go. Since then, 305,000 perfectly healthy cattle have been hauled off to slaughter at a cost of £500 million. If we do not get a grip on this, as my hon. Friend says, we are heading for a bill of £1 billion. We just wish that we could get back to that bipartisan approach, which has been endorsed by every other country I cited in my previous answer.

TB is causing chaos in the county of Monmouthshire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a completely open-minded and united approach? If culling works, then all sides of the House should support it. If it does not work, after we have seen the independent survey, we should unite in supporting an alternative.

I have to respect the rules of devolution and the Welsh Government are pursuing a vaccination policy. Our belief is that vaccination is, sadly, expensive and pointless on diseased animals. There is an interesting role for ring vaccination once the pool of disease has been reduced, and I think we can probably learn from both areas.

Elliott Review

7. What plans he has to propose changes to the responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency following the Elliott review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks. (901861)

This is an interim report which Professor Elliott plans to discuss further with interested parties in the coming months. The Government are interested in hearing the views of others, as we consider all of Professor Elliott’s interim recommendations, before responding to his final report in the spring.

Given the emphasis on criminality in the food chain in the Elliott review, what are the Government doing to ensure that unscrupulous people who deliberately defraud the public will be brought to justice?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I can tell her that investigations continue at a number of sites across the UK. The City of London police are the co-ordinating police force for all of those investigations and five arrests have been made. The Food Standards Agency continues to liaise with the City of London police and, through them, is sharing information on UK investigations with Europol.

Food Banks

No such assessment has been made. I welcome the work of charities providing access to nutritious meals to those who may otherwise struggle. Food aid providers are local organisations responding to specific community needs. It is not the Government’s role to tell these organisations how best to run the service they provide.

The Minister will be aware that care professionals issue food bank vouchers to those they identify as being in crisis, but I am concerned that many people are not accessing food banks, either because they cannot contact care professionals because of mobility or disability issues or because they are not aware that they are eligible. Will he take steps to ensure that people are made aware of food bank services and are encouraged to use them if they are in food poverty?

Different food banks take different approaches. Some give one-off support for an immediate crisis, and many have people coming through only once or twice in six months, while others enable people to self-refer if they have not been referred by social services or other agencies. There is a range of different approaches, therefore, and the Government would be reluctant to start interfering with these charities and telling them how to run their services. They are on the ground and developing policies to deal with these problems.

What discussions has the Minister’s Department had with the Department for Work and Pensions about the latter’s decision to remove from forms the tick-box indicating that people might be going to food banks because of benefits changes? Should we not know why people are going to food banks and should his Department not be saying so to the DWP?

On delays to benefits payments, the DWP’s performance has improved: 90% of payments are now made within the time scale set out. Benefits matters are for the DWP. My Department deals with food, and I am happy to talk about food prices and food inflation, but I will not interfere in benefits policy.

Environmental Permitting Regulations

9. Whether his Department has any plans to strengthen the enforcement provisions of the 2010 environmental permitting regulations. (901865)

There are no current proposals to alter the enforcement provisions of the 2010 environmental permitting regulations. The 2010 regulations and the Environmental Protection Act 1990 together provide a range of enforcement powers at regulated and illegal sites. I would consider the case for strengthening these or other regulatory provisions if there is evidence that exercising them is proving insufficient in preventing harm to health and the environment.

If the Minister wants evidence, would he like to look at the waste-for-fuel site in my constituency, which has so far had 15 fires in the past two years, at a cost of £568,000 to the fire service and 1,900 hours of firefighters’ time—more than the clear-up cost of removing this rogue operator—and where repeated attempts by the Environment Agency to secure an injunction have so far failed? Will he press the agency to honour its commitment to give my constituents the results of toxicity testing on that site?

I am happy to pass on that request to the Environment Agency. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have met him and local representatives to consider what is occurring at that site, and subsequently I met the chairman and chief executive of the Environment Agency specifically to talk about how it could intervene earlier on new or untested operators to prevent these vast amounts of material from appearing on sites such as the one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As he knows, however, there is an action at the High Court, and there is now a deadline to clear the site by 1 May. The agency will have to respect that in the enforcement action it takes.

The waste gasification plant proposed at the Brookfield site on the edge of Corby is causing great local concern. Will the Minister assure me that any changes to the environmental permitting regulations will not prejudice the proper planning process by allowing a waste permit to be issued in advance of planning consent being received?

As I believe the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have been consulting on how the planning and permitting processes can be better aligned. If he would like to raise with me specific problems regarding that potential development, I would be happy to hear from him by letter.

Flooding (Northern Lincolnshire)

11. What reports he has received on the recent floods in northern Lincolnshire; and what discussions he has had with the Environment Agency on its plans to improve flood defences. (901867)

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency on 7 December and saw some of the damage caused. The flooding caused an estimated £40 million-worth of damages to Immingham docks. The Environment Agency is currently updating its Humber flood risk management strategy, which looks at long-term justification, funding and solutions for the management of flood-risk communities along the Humber. Data and learning from recent flooding will also be used in the development of the strategy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I draw his particular attention to the village of Barrow Haven, between Barton and Immingham, which has twice suffered floods in the past six years. It is unacceptable that the local community should have to live in constant fear of a repeat. I urge my right hon. Friend, as part of his review to look at involving more local people in the task of how best to alleviate floods. People who serve on drainage boards and the like want to be able to input their local knowledge.

I enjoyed the visit with my hon. Friend. It was astonishing to see that that was a one-in-500-years incident. I totally endorse his view that there should be involvement of local people. I am happy for him to write to me, and we can negotiate with the Environment Agency. I strongly urge him to get his local councils involved so that they can participate in our partnership regime.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health. As the country continues to experience significant flooding, I would like to thank the emergency services, the Environment Agency, local authorities and public utilities for their tireless work in seeking to safeguard both life and property. Despite those valiant efforts, eight people have lost their lives as a result of the severe weather conditions over the Christmas and new year period. I know the House will want to join me in extending our deepest sympathies to their families and friends. With water levels still rising in many areas, I ask the public to continue to take heed of the Environment Agency’s warnings. We must remain vigilant. I shall chair a further Cobra meeting this afternoon.

Children growing up near busy roads in West Ham are, because of the quality of air that they breathe, likely to enter adulthood with smaller lungs. Now that the Secretary of State has abandoned proposals to reduce air quality monitoring—a decision roundly condemned by professionals—will he explain what action he is going to take to deal with this growing public health crisis?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important question about what is a real and growing problem in certain conurbations. In fairness, however, it is exactly the opposite of what she says, as we are consulting on how to bring in more effective regimes. She has raised a key question that affects large numbers of people.

T2. Following the new year celebrations, farmers in my constituency have voiced their concerns about the dangers of Chinese lanterns not only to the welfare of their livestock, but to property and, ultimately, their livelihoods. Following bans in Germany, Spain, Australia and much of south America, is it not time to consider banning these flying death-traps? (901844)

We share some of the public’s concerns about the potential risks posed by sky lanterns. However, we commissioned an independent study, which was published in May last year, and it concluded that the overall impact of sky lanterns on animal welfare was quite low. We are therefore focusing our efforts on ensuring that people are aware of the risks and trying to improve voluntary action to deal with the problem.

T3. I am sure Ministers will agree that we need to be vigilant against rabies. There has been a huge increase in the number of illegal puppies smuggled into the UK, many from eastern Europe. Will the Minister commit to re-evaluating the procedures for protections against rabies entering the UK? (901845)

An increase in the number of illegal imports of puppies has been reported, but the trading standards authorities are monitoring the position carefully, and intercepted the illegal movement of a number of puppies last year. We consider the pet passport scheme to be proportionate to the risk, but we also monitor the position carefully and work closely with agencies in other European countries.

T4. Flooding has continued in my constituency, as it has in many other constituencies throughout the country. Seaton sea defences have held, but will the Secretary of State carry on devolving powers and money to parish councils and local land and property owners so that they can clear culverts and ditches when they become blocked? Will he also ensure that silt from rivers can be spread on fields as a fertiliser rather than a waste? (901848)

The hon. Gentleman has maintained an interest in these issues for a long time. Pilot studies are being carried out to assess the impact and potential benefits of the dredging of watercourses, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any further points about the use of materials or has any other ideas relating to local management of river catchments and watercourses, I shall be happy to hear from him.

T6. Yesterday, during Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that he strongly suspected that the recent abnormal weather events had been a result of climate change. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister? (901850)

What the Prime Minister said was that we should consider the practical measures that we are taking, and I entirely endorse his remarks. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask those on his party’s Front Bench whether they will now endorse our very ambitious spending plans for flood defences, which they have so far been very reluctant to do.

T5. Will the Minister confirm that his Department intends to exempt small and medium-sized businesses from its proposed tax on plastic carrier bags? Given that biodegradable plastic in the waste stream is a contaminant and will reduce the number of plastic bags being recycled, will he withdraw that exemption? (901849)

I am happy to confirm that there is a proposal for the exemption of small businesses. DEFRA’s call for evidence in relation to a charge on single-use plastic bags closed on 20 December, and the results are now being analysed. The Government recognise that there is a significant debate about acceptable levels of contamination from biodegradable plastics in the recycling stream, and have therefore called on industry to develop new ways of separating plastic bags from the waste stream. Two companies have been awarded contracts for the research, and will complete their feasibility studies by April.

T7. Will the Secretary of State clarify his earlier statement about an increase in his Department’s funding for flood protection? During the second half of last year, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who was then a DEFRA Minister, told me in a written parliamentary answer that in the year in which his party came to power, the Department spent £646 million. Spending in the current year is £113 million less, at £533 million. Did the Secretary of State’s earlier statement mean that the Government have now increased funding for flood protection in this and future years, and does that mean that he can now abandon the proposals to cut 1,700 jobs at the Environment Agency? (901851)

I know that those in the Labour Whips Office struggle with slow learners, but I shall put it on the record again: this Government are providing more than any previous Government in the current spending review. We are spending £2.3 billion, which is in addition to £148 million of partnership money. Exceptionally, the present Government have a £2.3 billion programme of capital spending up to 2021. Will Labour Members please ask those on their Front Bench to endorse that spending programme?

In parts of rural Hampshire, the cost of high-speed broadband runs to many thousands of pounds per connection. Can my hon. Friend reassure those living in villages such as Barton Stacey that resources from, for instance, the rural community broadband fund might provide them with high-speed connections?

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the benefits of broadband connections to the rural economy. Through the work that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is doing with Broadband Delivery UK, and also through the rural community broadband fund, we are providing resources that will deliver projects in locations such as the one to which she referred. Some 10,000 properties a week are already being connected to superfast broadband, and we expect the figure to rise to about 40,000 a week by the summer.

T8. Will the Secretary of State clarify how the remarks he made on allowing ancient woodland to be lost to development meet the spirit of his Department’s forestry policy statement which states categorically:“Protection of our trees, woods and forests, especially our ancient woodland, is our top priority”? (901852)

I am absolutely delighted to be able to reassure the hon. Lady and the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that the idea that biodiversity offsetting could be used as a means of imposing unwanted houses on ancient woodland is an absolute travesty. It is absolutely clear: all along we have always said that should we bring in offsetting—I made this clear to the all-party group—all the current protections of the planning regime and all the mitigation hierarchy remain. Only at the very last moment could offsetting be considered, and we have always said that some assets will be too precious to offset and—[Interruption.] Exactly, and that might well be ancient woodland.

The hon. Lady should look at examples of offsetting in countries like Australia, where there has been an 80% shift of planning applications away from fragile environments. Used properly, therefore, biodiversity offsetting could be a tremendous tool to protect those ancient woodlands which she and I value. As someone who has planted an arboretum over recent years, the idea that I am going to trash ancient woodlands is an absolute outrage to me personally.

Following the damage caused by the tidal surges in the Kent estuary on more than one occasion last week, will the Minister confirm that draft flood defence schemes along the whole of the River Kent will now be prioritised?

My hon. Friend knows that, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Government are making investment in flood protection schemes a key priority. We have secured record investment in the next spending review period to do that. If my hon. Friend would like to write to me about those specific schemes, I would be happy to hear more.

The remit of the independent expert panel was originally restricted to the planned six-week badger cull period and my understanding is that that remit was not extended when the badger culls were themselves extended. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House today that the independent expert panel’s scope and report will cover the whole of the culling period and not just the first six weeks, because it is really important that his decisions are informed by wider experience of the whole cull?

The consultation on abstraction reform has just started. Can my hon. Friend assure me that there will be consultation events, particularly in areas where there is water stress, like Suffolk Coastal?

That is part of our programme, which includes the Water Bill, and, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, the abstraction reform consultation opened before Christmas. There will be opportunities for everybody to contribute to that process and of course if my hon. Friend would like to take up some specific constituency issues with me, I will be happy to hear them.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Payments to Candidates (Speaking Engagements)

1. If the commission will take steps to ensure that political parties are fully accountable to the commission when receiving payment made to candidates for speaking engagements. (901873)

The Electoral Commission informs me that political parties have to report to it every three months regarding all donations they receive above a certain value, which would include any donation to a candidate that is then passed on to that candidate’s party. The law sets out clearly how political parties and individual politicians are responsible for reporting the political donations they receive, and the Electoral Commission is not aware of any issues that would require a change to the current system.

There is a scam that we all know has been going on for some time and it runs like this: a politician has a book ghosted for them—a biography or whatever—and it is then published, and that person is invited to go on a highly paid tour of the United Kingdom talking about the book that was ghost-written by somebody else, and the money flows either to leading candidates of the party or to the party itself. It is a scam. We know it goes on, but what is the hon. Gentleman doing to stamp it out?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the purpose of his question. I must confess that I am not aware that that is a matter for the Electoral Commission at the moment, but if he would like to write to me setting out his concerns in more detail, I will ensure that the commission investigates the matter thoroughly and responds to him.

Church Commissioners

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

Pilling Report

2. What assessment the Commissioners have made of the Pilling report, published by the House of Bishops working group on human sexuality in November 2013; and if he will make a statement. (901874)

The report was discussed by the House of Bishops in December and its recommendations will be considered by the College of Bishops later this month.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the report’s recommendation that parishes should be allowed to offer same-sex couples some sort of blessing would in effect simply formalise what already happens in practice in many Anglican parishes? Does he agree that the vast majority of Anglicans in this country would welcome a more generous approach to long-term, faithful, same-sex relationships?

I agree with the principle that everyone should be welcome at the communion rail. The working group did not recommend a new authorised liturgy, but a majority of its members did recommend that vicars should, with the consent of parochial church councils, be able to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service. I am sure that that is one of the issues that the House of Bishops will be considering very seriously in the context of its consideration of the Pilling report’s recommendations.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

National Voter Registration Day

The Electoral Commission supports any initiative to encourage voter registration, particularly among under-registered groups, and it provides resources to help others to do this, in addition to its own public awareness campaigns. The commission has provided such resources to Bite the Ballot, which has organised national voter registration day, and it will also be informing electoral registration officers about the initiative so that those who are able to support it will do so.

What assessment has been made of the commission’s proposals to require people to provide photo identification in order to vote by 2019? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there could be a reduction in the number of young people voting as well as registering to vote in the first place?

Those hard-to-reach groups are certainly a matter of concern to the Electoral Commission. There will be a significant public awareness campaign between now and this year’s elections, and it will be reviewed to determine how successful it has been. I think the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to learn that, in the transition to individual electoral registration, those who are already on the register will automatically be transferred to the register for the next general election.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of expatriate United Kingdom citizens who—like Harry Shindler, 93, who received an MBE in the new year’s honours list—are disfranchised because of the 15-year rule, there are also tens of thousands of expat citizens who could vote but who are not registered. What is the commission doing to ensure that they can be registered to vote?

My hon. Friend raises an important question; this is a matter of concern across the House. A recent meeting was held between the Electoral Commission and representatives of the political parties and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and attempts are being made to increase awareness among expats that they have the opportunity to register to vote in the next election. There will be a significant public awareness campaign in overseas literature and online to try to encourage more voter registration, and there will also be an expat voter day in February this year. The success of that event will be reviewed after the May elections.

Given that the franchise for the Scottish independence referendum will extend to 16 and 17-year-olds, will the Electoral Commission make a major effort on national voter registration day and at similar events to ensure that as many of that group as possible are registered to vote in the referendum later this year?

The Electoral Commission is keen to ensure that young people who are legally entitled to vote should register and take part in any elections. Let us not forget the vital role of the electoral registration officers in every local authority throughout the United Kingdom. They have a duty to promote voter registration in their locality, and each of us has the opportunity to go to our own local authorities and ask what they are doing in this regard, and to make an assessment of whether they are doing it well enough.

Will the Electoral Commission encourage the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate all Government Departments to ensure that every time a member of the public comes into contact with a Department, a check is made to ascertain whether they are on the electoral register and, if they are not, that they are helped to fill out an application form there and then?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting idea, which I will certainly take back to the Electoral Commission. This is perhaps more a matter for the Cabinet Office than for the commission, but my hon. Friend has raised it in this forum and it is worth investigating further.

I was a little disconcerted by one thing the hon. Gentleman said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), which was that electoral registration officers will be informed of what is happening on 5 February. EROs are operating in local authorities, which are pressed for cash, and if they do not already know about this important day, the opportunity to increase electoral registration, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where there are many hard-to-reach voters, will be lost. What is the hon. Gentleman doing about that?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. She may be interested to know that the Electoral Commission has only just been officially notified of the national voter registration day, which is why it is now in the process of informing EROs. Obviously, until the Electoral Commission knows about something, it cannot pass the news on to the people to whom it is responsible.

Church Commissioners

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

Homelessness

4. What steps the Church of England has taken in Lancashire to support the homeless and people in poverty over the Christmas period. (901876)

A lot happened in the diocese of Blackburn over the Christmas period. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Colne and Villages parish held a Christmas café, and many parishioners also worked with local businesses and schools to support food banks. I am told that one local business in Pendle donated more than 60 hampers of food, toys and clothes, which were then distributed by the local ecumenical Church network.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have in the past mentioned the work of St Philip’s church in Nelson and its food bank. Does he agree that although food banks are particularly important over the Christmas period, they do not tackle the root causes of food poverty? Will he say more about the Church Commissioners’ work to rebalance the Church’s activities towards addressing the underlying problems and finding long-term solutions to food poverty?

The Church urban fund would acknowledge that food banks do not tackle the causes of food poverty. We need to know more about why people use food banks, which is why the Church urban fund is undertaking detailed research on this matter. The report was published in September.

Church Treasures

The 100 Church treasures campaign seeks to protect 100 of the unparalleled array of artworks, including monuments, wall paintings, stained glass, textiles and mediaeval timberwork, which are at risk in our parish churches, in order to keep our buildings open, and our national and local heritage on public display for years to come.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. It is remarkable that for only £3 million 100 Church treasures can be preserved. Obviously, I am particularly interested in what is happening to those in the Durham diocese: the William Morris carpet at Monkwearmouth; the Church masonry at St Hilda’s church in Hartlepool; and the painting in Holy Trinity church in Darlington. Some of those communities will find it difficult to raise the money. What more might we do to support them?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: for quite modest sums, really important pieces of national heritage can be protected. Let me deal with just one of the examples she mentioned. Holy Trinity church in Darlington needs just £16,000 to restore a painting by the wartime artist John Duncan. The whole point of this campaign is to try to lever in funds from other donors, trusts and individuals who might not normally give money to supporting Church heritage but who would be minded to give money specifically to support a particular piece of artwork or heritage in this way. The campaign is already having some success.

Violent Attacks on Clergy

6. What discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Ministers on recent trends in the number of violent attacks on clergy. (901878)

Figures on these cases are not held centrally, and supporting clergy who have suffered attacks is the responsibility of the individual diocesan bishops.

I think we all recognise the excellent work that the clergy do in our local communities. Unfortunately, at times, they do put themselves in harm’s way. Would the right hon. Gentleman support a Government review of these attacks, and is it time to look at designating them as religious hate crimes?

As the hon. Lady says, clergy are often on the front line in supporting the most vulnerable in the community and, sadly, that sometimes results in their being attacked. I wonder whether she would mind if I discussed this matter with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to see whether they feel that such a review is necessary in these circumstances.

Homelessness

7. What recent steps the Church of England has taken in the St Albans diocese to support the homeless and people in poverty. (901879)

The diocese of St Albans has supported a number of projects, particularly those working with homeless people in Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Stevenage, Bedford, Luton and Watford. The annual December sleep-out, which was supported by my hon. Friend, has managed to raise nearly £1 million over the past 20 years to support homeless people in the diocese of St Albans by making funding grants available, encouraging volunteers and helping to raise further money.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the staff of the diocese, the volunteer organisers, security guards and the Women’s Institute, which provided hot soup all night for all of us on the sleep-out? The money raised has helped a lot of local homeless charities, not least Linton-Linslade Homeless Service, which does such good work in my area.

Indeed. Churches throughout the country support a whole number of initiatives that encourage large numbers of volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend is patron of the Linton-Linslade Homeless Service, which offers short-term emergency shelter, supplies and support to people who are homeless or about to become homeless and does invaluable work in the area.

Grade I Listed Churches

The most significant funder of repairs for grade I listed churches is the Heritage Lottery Fund, under the grants for places of worship scheme. The Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Veneziana Fund also provide funding in some circumstances.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the incredibly diverse array of grade I listed churches in the Bassetlaw constituency. Would he be prepared to use his good offices to ensure that the Church Commissioners can better advise the volunteers running those churches on how to access the funds and that the north of England and the more deprived communities get a fair crack of the whip?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. He is fortunate in having 26 fantastic listed churches in his constituency. Some, such as All Saints, go back to the 10th century. I entirely agree that it is very important that parochial church councils and others know how to access funds such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, and I will discuss with the churches and cathedrals division at Church House how we can better promulgate the way that that advice can be obtained.

Religious Tolerance

9. What discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Departments on the promotion of religious tolerance. (901881)

I think everyone in this House would wish to see religious tolerance supported. After all, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford is a daily reminder of those who were burned at the stake for their beliefs. It was not far away from here, at Tyburn, that people were hanged, drawn and quartered for their religious beliefs. Indeed, one has only to see the plaque in Westminster Hall to remember where Sir Thomas More was put on trial in part for his beliefs. In this country, we have learned through the Reformation and the counter-Reformation and beyond the essential need for religious tolerance in our nation.

As well as discussing religious intolerance with Government Departments, will my right hon. Friend discuss it with St James’ church, which has held a shockingly anti-Israel exhibition over the past couple of weeks? Far from promoting religious tolerance, it did much to undermine it.

My hon. Friend raises a conundrum: to what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant? The demonstration at St James’ Piccadilly was not against Judaism or Jews but against the illegal occupation under international law in the west bank and some of the settlements. In this House, we must be careful about what is seen as religious tolerance and about not tolerating intolerance or breaches of international law.

The right hon. Gentleman may choose to prepare a detailed paper on the matter and to lodge it in the Library of the House where I feel confident it will be a well-thumbed tome.

On the subject of religious tolerance, what discussions has the Commissioner had with media outlets such as TV and radio with regard to Christian programming? Does he agree that it is important to retain a level of programming that reflects the Christian status of this nation? What can be done to promote such programming?

To be honest, I do not think that Christians do too badly. If one gets up early enough, one finds a perfectly good programme between 7 and 8 o’clock on BBC Radio 4 every Sunday. I do not think we can feel that we are in some way discriminated against by the broadcasters.

Christian Celebration of Christmas

10. What recent assessment the Commissioners have made of difficulties faced by Christians in celebrating Christmas in certain parts of the world. (901882)

The House will, I am sure, have noticed that the Archbishop of Canterbury used his first Christmas day sermon to condemn the treatment of Christian communities in the middle east. Archbishop Justin said that the persecution of Christian minorities represented injustice and observed that Christians

“are driven into exile from a region in which their presence has always been essential”.

Sadly, Christians are attacked and massacred, and we have seen terrible news from South Sudan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, where political ambitions have led to ethnic conflict.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In the light of the escalation in religious persecution in many countries across the world, will he kindly arrange a meeting with the appropriate Minister and bishop responsible for foreign affairs and international development to highlight the need for the Department for International Development to form a policy to address such issues and that of freedom of religion as a fundamental human right?

I should be happy to do so, but taking human rights violations into account when aid decisions are made does not necessarily mean refusing to give aid to countries in which such violations take place. It may be in precisely these difficult contexts that we need to be engaging with aid, as religious persecution is often linked to problems in education, economic development and conflicts over natural resources where aid can and does make a huge difference. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point that is worth pursuing with ministerial colleagues in DFID.