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Topical Questions

Volume 573: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

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.