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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 13 February 2014

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Flood Amelioration (Hambledon)

May I begin by passing on the Secretary of State’s apologies for not being here this morning? He continues to recover from eye surgery and will be back soon. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him a speedy recovery.

As the country continues to experience the onslaught of stormy weather, I should like to express my deepest condolences to the friends and families of those who have lost their lives, and to put on record that our thoughts are with everyone who continues to experience the misery of flooding.

Hampshire county council is discussing a proposal with the Environment Agency, but the business case has not yet been submitted to the agency.

Yesterday marked the passing of 40 days and 40 nights of flooding in Hambledon since it was first flooded by groundwater, and no one yet has any idea when the floodwater will recede. Every night, the residents sleep in shifts to monitor their pumps, and every day they wake up wondering whether that will be the day on which their house will be flooded. The village has been cut off from the rest of the world for over a month now. An engineering solution that would avert most of this now almost bi-annual flooding has been drawn up and costed, but funding remains a sticking point. Will the Minister meet me and potential partner agencies to try to agree a deal and get this vital work done as soon as possible?

I very much applaud the tremendous efforts of the Hambledon community in its response to the groundwater flooding and the issues it is facing. I know that the Environment Agency is working closely with Hampshire county council to support the community in making the strongest case in its bid for flood defence grant in aid, and I would indeed welcome a meeting with my hon. Friend and any representatives he wishes to bring along to discuss the matter.

Order. The question started narrow and remains narrow; it does not extend beyond Hampshire. However, there will be other opportunities for colleagues to come in.

Climate Change

2. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of climate change on the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events and on the need for higher priority to be given to adaptation policy. (902560)

We recognise that, in line with the latest scientific understanding of our changing climate, the frequency and intensity of many extreme weather events are expected to increase. The UK’s first climate change risk assessment, published in 2012, assessed the trend and informed the national adaptation programme that we published last year. This sets out a wide range of actions by the Government, business, councils and civil society to address the most significant climate risks that we face as a country.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although concern is sometimes expressed about the cost of climate change mitigation, recent events are a stark warning that the cost of adaptation to climate change is also substantial, and is a bill that might have to be paid sooner rather than later?

I thank my hon. Friend for making that case. He has a long track record of speaking on climate change, and on mitigation and adaptation. I agree that we must continue to ensure that this country meets all the demands that will be made of us by the changing climate.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change recommended that the deficit of £500 million on flood defence spending needed to be urgently addressed? Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that there is a firm commitment from the Government in this spending review to providing that £500 million for flood defences, which is now urgently needed because of climate change?

I very much welcome the work that Lord Krebs and his sub-committee have done on these issues. We think that some of the information is based on older data that have been updated by the Environment Agency, so we do not entirely recognise the figures he gives. The Government have secured a £2.3 billion capital settlement in the next spending review period, which will mean we are spending more than ever before on flood defences.

Whatever the cause, we are seeing extreme weather events and we need to do more between floods. Will the Department consider restoring the balance between building new flood defences, repairing and making good the existing ones and maintaining watercourses? May I ask, in the presence of the Leader of the House of Commons, whether it would be a good idea to have a national statement on adaptation and on climate change generally for this purpose?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her Committee for all the work they have done on flood defences—

Yes, I suppose I should admit to that. Sadly, I am no longer a member.

The question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) about a statement is obviously a matter for the Leader of the House to consider, perhaps later this morning. On her questions on maintenance, given this year’s extreme weather events, the Government have made available a £130 million investment to ensure that we repair and maintain the existing flood defences, which of course will allow us to invest in new schemes in the coming year.

As I saw for myself in Somerset earlier this week, the severe floods are causing unimaginable distress for many people as they see their homes wrecked, farmland submerged and businesses suffer. As all the evidence suggests, and as the Minister has just accepted, climate change will lead to extreme weather events becoming more frequent, so will he explain why his Department has been forced to admit, thanks to a freedom of information request, that total spending on climate change mitigation and adaptation has been cut by more than 40% since last year?

I suspect that the hon. Lady is referring to the freedom of information request submitted on behalf of Lord Lawson. I can confirm that total Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs climate change spending on mitigation and adaptation was £34.8 million in 2011-12, £49.2 million in 2012-13 and £47.2 million in 2013-14, and we have resources yet to be allocated in the coming financial year.

The figures for the domestic spend were £24.7 million in 2011-12 and £29.1 million in 2012-13, but that has decreased this year to £17.2 million, which is a 40% cut. The decision to cut the climate change mitigation and adaptation budget by 40% was a serious error of judgment, one that the events of the past weeks must lead the Government to reconsider. The Minister will know that funding for flood protection remains £63.5 million below 2010 levels, even after the additional funding announced last week. Will he now agree to review the stringent cost-benefit ratio of eight to one applied by his Department to flood defence spending, which appears to have prevented so many vital schemes from going ahead?

As the hon. Lady also knows, in the first four years of this Government we have spent £2.4 billion on flood defences, which was more than the £2.2 billion spent in the last four years of the previous Government—so this Government continue to make tackling this a priority. Today, the focus remains on response and we will then move into recovery, but in the long term we have secured £2.3 billion on capital alone into the next spending review period.

Are movements in the jet stream not more closely and demonstrably linked to our current adverse weather event than climate change is? To what extent is the Environment Agency using movements in the jet stream as a predictive tool for flooding?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly spending a great deal of time studying these methods. Given the advice, which I respect, from scientists across government, all the signs point to the fact that the changes he is talking about are influenced by climate change. That is one reason why we have had more precipitation deposited in the country and had the rainiest January in a quarter of a millennium.

Food Aid

3. When he plans to publish his Department’s evidence review on food aid provision and access in the UK. (902561)

The Government know that some of the poorest families are struggling to afford to feed themselves. Although it is not the Government’s role to control the price of food, the impact of food price inflation is of real concern to the Government, which is why we have commissioned a report. All Government-funded social research reports are required to go through an appropriate review and quality assurance process before publication, and the report will be published once this review is complete.

May I ask the Minister to answer the question now? The House wants a date from him. It is now a year since the Government commissioned this report. Does that not suggest that trying to prevent more people from becoming hungry in this country is not a Government priority?

No, I do not agree with that. As I said, if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. That is why these reports, like all Government reports, must go through a quality assurance process. Once that is complete, we will publish a report—we have been clear about that. But it is important also to note that the development of food banks and the growth in their use is not unique to the UK. Canada now has more than 800 food banks and 850,000 people helped; Germany now has 1 million people helped; and France also has about 1 million people using food banks. So rather than being critical of this, we should celebrate the good work that civil society does with some of these projects.

As Ministers will understandably be preoccupied for a while with the floods and flood policy, would it not be sensible for the time being to pass responsibility for that policy to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, our hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), so he can engage with civil society? If that were to happen, the Church would be interested in setting up some regional meetings with bishops, senior clergy and people working at the sharp end in food banks to discuss the qualitative and quantitative research we are doing with organisations such as the Church Urban Fund and to make suggestions for how we move forward from food banks to make communities more resilient.

My right hon. Friend highlights an important point, which is that this issue around food banks touches on many different Government Departments. It is why, at the debate before Christmas, my hon. Friend in the Cabinet Office responded to that report. My right hon. Friend is right that a number of Government Departments have a role in this matter, but, focusing on the bit that is relevant to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it is important to recognise that food price inflation is now falling. It was 1.9% in December, and that was below the average level of inflation, and food is now 4.8% cheaper in the UK than in France, 14% cheaper than in Germany and 18% cheaper than in Ireland. On food prices, the UK is in a better position than most other European countries.

That is extraordinary complacency. In December, a group of doctors and leading academics from the Medical Research Council wrote to the British Medical Journal with concerns over the surge in the numbers of people requiring emergency food aid, the decrease in the calorific intake of families and the doubling of malnutrition cases presenting at English hospitals. The Government are presiding over a national scandal in public health as well as a failure of social economic policy. When will the Minister publish that delayed report on food aid? Publish and be damned!

Let us look at the facts on food price affordability. In 2008, the poorest 20% of households were spending 16.8% of household income on food. In 2012, they were spending 16.6%, so the truth is that the poorest households are spending roughly the same amount of their household income now as they were under the previous Government. The Government have a number of projects to help them. Through the healthy start scheme, the Government are providing a nutritional safety net in a way that encourages healthy eating, which has helped more than half a million pregnant women and children under four years old who are disadvantaged and come from households on very low incomes. We also have a number of other projects under way.

Cattle Vaccination: TB

In his letter of 14 January 2013 to the Secretary of State, Commissioner Tonio Borg said that in order to provide answers to the still open scientific questions on TB vaccination, substantial experimental research and large-scale, long-lasting field trials were needed. That experimental research is under way and we will commission the detailed design of the necessary field trials in the coming months.

In 2017, I hope that the Secretary of State and I will be campaigning to leave the European Union. When we succeed, the excuse that it is the EU that is preventing us from vaccinating our cattle will no longer be valid. Will he ensure that his Department is ready to vaccinate cattle when we leave?

I hope that we will be able to reform the European Union and make it fit for purpose in the 21st century and campaign to stay in. On the point my hon. Friend makes, the European Commission set out the steps that would be needed to be taken in order for it to make proposals for new EU rules allowing trade in vaccinated cattle. Its tentative time line suggests that that would not be before 2023. We may be in a position to commence field trials next year. The trials will take between two to five years, and there will be a further two to three years to agree for trade in cattle to take place in the European Union. In reality, it will most likely be 2023, which underlines the importance in the meantime of our using every tool open to us to bear down on this terrible disease.

With so many developments on this issue, an increasing number of us are of the view that the problem is not so much to do with the badgers as with the Government who are moving the goalposts. In a not very heavy parliamentary schedule, will the Government commit to time for debates on the vaccination and the badger cull on the Floor of the House?

I regularly debate the issue—a debate was held in Westminster Hall before the Christmas recess—and we are now waiting for the independent expert panel to produce its report. When that report is concluded, we will make further proposals and announcements about the next step.

Even if the independent expert panel concludes that the Government’s cull policy is effective, which is highly unlikely, does the Minister not accept that the Government must consider a plan B that includes the vaccination of badgers, which they must get behind, as well as moving forward as quickly as they can with cattle vaccination?

We published a draft TB eradication strategy at the end of last summer and we will shortly publish a final version of that strategy. It accepts that there is a range of measures we should pursue, including developing vaccines, and we are doing some work to develop an oral vaccine for badgers as well as on cattle vaccines. We are considering other measures such as contraception for badgers and increased cattle movement controls, so we are covering a range of issues as we try to solve this difficult problem.

Ancient Woodlands

5. What assessment he has made of the threat posed to ancient woodlands and their biodiversity by development in the area. (902563)

Local planning authorities assess any potential threat to ancient woodland case by case while applying the strict test set out in the national planning policy framework. That test stipulates that planning permission should be refused unless the need for, and benefit of, any development in that location clearly outweighs the loss of any ancient woodland.

That sounded like a civil servant’s brief. The fact is that the Secretary of State made a widely reported statement that suggested that we could have offsetting through a system in which ancient woodland was given up because other areas of the country would be planted with trees. In some people’s minds, that would be like introducing 100 rabbits for every badger shot. It is not good enough. This is precious habitat that must be defended in this country and in Africa, because wildlife depends on it.

I am not sure that I entirely follow the hon. Gentleman’s logic when it comes to British mammals, but there we go. The key principle is that ancient woodland must be protected and the national planning policy framework is totally clear about that. Offsetting potentially offers benefits for less irreplaceable biodiverse areas that we can explore when planning applications are made. That is what any policy will be based on. I hope that there will be support across the House for introducing those solutions, but ancient woodland should be protected and the planning policy framework does that.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our best wishes to the Secretary of State for a speedy recovery. He must find it frustrating not to be at the Dispatch Box at this very difficult time.

What is the Minister doing to respond formally to the environmental statement on HS2? The Woodland Trust estimates that 40 ancient woodlands will be totally destroyed and another 38 will be threatened by noise pollution, shading and dust. That is a disgraceful situation and people want DEFRA to respond in public to the environmental statement. Will he give me an undertaking that he will do so?

The right hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner on the route and proposals for High Speed 2. The issues with ancient woodland are of course of great concern and I have been looking at which areas of ancient woodland might be affected by the route. I would be happy to meet her to discuss that if she would like me to.

Flooding

6. What estimate his Department has made of the number of properties protected from flooding during the recent floods. (902564)

10. What estimate his Department has made of the number of properties protected from flooding during the recent floods. [R] (902568)

11. What estimate his Department has made of the number of properties protected from flooding during the recent floods. (902569)

We estimate that to date a total of more than 1.3 million properties have been protected from flooding during the flood events since the beginning of last December.

That answer will bring great satisfaction to those whose houses have been protected as a result of improved flood defences, but does the Minister accept that the critical issue now is to ensure that more houses are given that protection in future because of the terrible events going on in this country at present? What commitment do the Government have to continue the work of improving flood defences to protect people’s homes?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that, thanks to the efforts of the Environment Agency and all the money that has been invested, many homes have been protected, as I set out. It is crucial that we do more, however, which is why we are investing £2.3 billion in the next spending period and we announced £344 million last week for schemes that will go ahead in the next year. It is also why we are working hard on partnership funding and making the case locally to bring forward schemes that would otherwise not have been funded.

Will the Minister confirm that people whose properties have suffered flooding in the recent exceptional events will have insurance made available to them via Flood Re should their existing insurer decline to cover them owing to that flooding?

Until the implementation of Flood Re, which is planned for summer 2015, the insurance industry has voluntarily agreed to abide by its commitments under the 2008 statement of principles, which means that insurers will not decline to cover those who already hold flood insurance with them. In practice, that means that people who are already covered by an insurer will be able to continue to access flood insurance from that insurer until Flood Re comes in.

What progress are the Government making to meet their target of better protecting 145,000 homes by 2015? Experts predict that household insurance premiums might rise by about 5% after the floods, so what is being done to address that?

The crucial measure that we are taking forward is the implementation of Flood Re and the Water Bill, which is being debated in another place. On the first part of my hon. Friend’s question, we have investment plans to improve protection for at least 465,000 households by the end of the decade.

Yesterday the Prime Minister refused to say whether he would reverse the massive cuts in the number of staff working on flood prevention. Will the Minister give us an assurance today that those cuts will not go ahead?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, but there are no massive cuts in the number of people involved in flood protection. The Environment Agency, like all other agencies and Departments across government, is having to use resources more efficiently as we seek to sort out the financial mess that the previous Government left us. However, its chief executive has said that he is prioritising important front-line services, and I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to all the work that it did over December, Christmas and the new year, which it is continuing now, to protect people and keep them safe.

The Labour Welsh Government have also invested heavily in flood protection. In the light of the Prime Minister’s recent announcements about funding, will the Minister clarify whether it will involve Barnett consequentials for Wales?

The hon. Lady will be aware that colleagues in the Wales Office and the Treasury will lead on how the Barnett formula operates, but if she would like to write to me or other Ministers with specific questions, I am sure we will get back to her.

Does the Minister accept his Department’s climate change risk assessment that up to 1 million more properties, including 825,000 homes, are likely to be at risk of flooding by 2020? If he does, why is funding for flood protection £63.5 million less in the current year than in 2010, even after last week’s budget changes? What is the implication for the Government’s Flood Re insurance scheme, which the Committee on Climate Change has warned him does not factor in the impact of climate change at all?

The view of Lord Krebs’s sub-committee on Flood Re is being debated in another place. I have been ensuring that, as Flood Re goes forward, it takes account of extreme weather events and factors involving climate change. As I have set out, the Government will be investing more in flood defences than any previous Government, given our spending review deal on capital investment. In the first four years of this Parliament, we have spent more on flood defences than the previous Government did in their last four years in office.

Farmers and others in Burrowbridge to whom I spoke last night are extremely grateful for the generosity of those farmers from the other side of the country who have sent forage to help feed their animals, and also very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday of an extra fund for farming that will help them to redrill the land and get it back into a productive state. Does the Minister have any more details about that scheme, how it will be applied and what the process will be?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and colleagues in Somerset for all their work in representing their constituents, and I look forward to the next meeting of the action group, which I hope he will be able to attend. The farmers have suffered a great deal since their land has been inundated, and I echo what he said about charitable efforts to help them. The fund announced by the Prime Minister will set aside money to improve the land to bring it back to the condition that we would like to see it in, and details on how to apply for that will be published in due course.

Water Bills: Cost of Living

7. What steps he is taking to tackle the contribution of rising water bills to the cost of living. (902565)

Last year, the Secretary of State wrote to all water companies to stress the tough times that households are facing. In setting out their 2014-15 prices, several companies have decided not to take the full amount allowed in the 2009 price review. Ofwat estimates that the 2014 price review could reduce pressure on bills by between £120 million and £750 million annually from 2015.

While water bills are soaring, the water companies are making eye-watering profits. They are loading up their balance sheets with debt from tax havens abroad and are paying hardly any tax. Are not the public being ripped off in every possible way by these sharks in the water? Rather than those minor issues, why do not the Government really get a grip on the water companies and get them to serve the customer and the country?

That is a very good question from the Whips, but the answer is that the current price review period mechanism was put in place under the previous Government. As I have already set out, prices will be held at the first opportunity, and some companies are reducing them in what remains of this period. We will see savings in the next price review period compared with the prices forecast had we carried on with the price review left to us by Labour.

Two days ago, Southern Water announced its price rises for 2014-15 at a time when they are tankering in many parts of Romsey and villages throughout the Test valley to ensure that homes are safe from ingress of sewage. Please will the Minister assure me that he will work with Southern Water to ensure that this winter’s expenditure will not negatively impact bills in future?

Ofwat works with companies to consider what is a reasonable amount for them to charge, and it will take into account all the costs that companies face. The key thing is that as we continue to invest in flood defences and deal with some of the problems, the sorts of issues that we face at the moment should have less of an impact on the water companies. I pay tribute to water companies for doing what they are to continue to provide service in these extreme weather conditions. I visited a water treatment plant yesterday to see how it is being defended and it is working well and its staff are working incredibly hard.

Tree Disease

We have made rapid progress towards implementing the recommendations of the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce. We have produced a prioritised plant health risk register; undertaken work on contingency planning; and recruited a senior chief plant health officer. Later this spring, we will publish a strategy which will set out a new approach to biosecurity for our plants and trees and will incorporate our response to the taskforce’s remaining recommendations.

I am grateful to the Minister for that positive response. Does he agree that, particularly in view of the flooding, we must also ensure that we protect all our ancient woodlands, keep all our trees and hedgerows, and more than that, plant more trees in our countryside and in our urban areas?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has been a long-standing campaigner here and, I understand, even planted a tree at the Eden Project in Cornwall. I am pleased to be able to tell him that protection, improvement and expansion are the three key priorities in our forestry and woodlands policy statement. Ancient woodland remains strongly protected through the planning system, and refreshed advice on ancient woodland to aid planning authorities is being developed by Natural England and the Forestry Commission. We believe that in many landscapes, more trees will deliver increased social, environmental and economic benefits. Next year we will invest £30 million in woodlands, of which £6 million will fund 2,000 hectares of new woodland with about 4 million trees.

Food Exports

The 10 years to 2012 saw agri-food exports grow by 40% to £18.2 billion. Exports in the first 11 months of 2013 stood at £17.2 billion, compared with £16.6 billion at the same point in 2012. The Government and industry are working together to increase exports in the agri-food sector. We launched a refreshed action plan last October. It commits us to deliver £500 million of value to the UK economy by supporting 1,000 companies by October 2015.

I welcome the Minister’s answer. Ireland and France are currently our two largest export markets for food and non-alcoholic beverages. Which markets does he think will have the best growth prospects for producers in the United Kingdom, and indeed in my county of Staffordshire, in future?

Obviously the EU market will remain a very important one for UK producers. We work closely with the industry to identify key markets and prioritise negotiations, based on industry interest, projected value and achievability. Under the export action plan, our aim is to maintain access to existing markets and negotiate to open new priority markets for food and drink products in countries such as China, Russia, Brazil, the USA, Indonesia and India.

Tests in West Yorkshire found that more than a third of food samples were not what they claimed to be or had been mislabelled in some way, with ham on pizzas made with meat emulsion or meat slurry that had been dyed pink, cheese analogue used instead of cheese and additives used in flame retardants used in fruit juice. Does the Minister agree that such reports are incredibly damaging to our food exports and that we need to address the problem by having proper testing of food produced in this country?

I understand that the statistic the hon. Lady mentioned—that 30% of the samples were mislabelled—is a little misleading, because the samples looked at were based on intelligence and from areas where there was greater concern in the first place. Nevertheless, we take this very seriously, which is why we set up the review by Professor Chris Elliott. He has published his interim report, and we look forward to his final findings.

Topical Questions

With the country having experienced another night of torrential rain and hurricane-force winds, I would like to thank the emergency services, the military, the Environment Agency, local authorities and public utilities for their work to safeguard both life and property. Many of those people have been working through the night to reconnect properties, get our transport network back up and running and alert people to the risk of flooding. There is still much more to be done, but their efforts must not go unremarked upon. As more rain is on the way, I ask the public to continue to take heed of the Environment Agency’s warnings. The Prime Minister will chair the first meeting of the Cabinet Committee on flooding this morning.

On my way here I saw some elephants near St James’s park—men dressed as elephants, I should say—because representatives of more than 50 Governments are gathering in London today for a conference on the illegal wildlife trade, which the Secretary of State and his ministerial team have played a key role in bringing about. What steps are the Government taking to help combat international wildlife crime, including the poaching of elephants, rhinos and other animals?

As my hon. Friend points out, we are hosting a major international conference on international wildlife crime. It aims to secure the high-level political commitment needed to tackle successfully the scourge of illegal wildlife trade. It will address three interlinked issues: improving law enforcement, reducing demand and supporting sustainable livelihoods for affected communities. The Government have convened the conference, but it is for all the Governments represented to demonstrate collective will by agreeing ambitious actions that will make a real difference on the ground.

T8. When I visited Atherton food bank, I was told that 30% of the users were in work and that 60% went there because of benefit changes. The Opposition believe that it is disgraceful that in the world’s sixth richest country hundreds of thousands of people are dependent on food banks. Let me give the Minister one more chance to answer this question: when will we get the report on food banks—this month, next month, or next year? (902596)

I have answered that question several times. We will publish the report once the quality assurance process concludes. The hon. Lady highlights benefit changes, but I simply point out that 92% of benefits are now processed on time, which is six percentage points higher than it was in 2009. This Government have done a lot to address people’s problems with the cost of living. We have taken 2.4 million people out of tax altogether, increased the basic state pension by 2.5% and frozen planned fuel duty rises, which means petrol is now 13% cheaper than it would have been.

T2. With parts of the country experiencing the wettest January since records began, and sadly no let-up in sight at the moment, will the Minister clarify whether resources from the farming and forestry improvement scheme can be used to fund vital ditch-clearing and watercourse maintenance, which is absolutely essential for rural communities if they are to tackle flooding? (902589)

As I said earlier, the Government have announced a £10 million fund to help farmers with the cost of recovering from flooding. We can look at how the farming and forestry improvement scheme might impact on those affected by flooding, but its primary purpose is to promote the long-term competitiveness of farming.

T9. I welcome the Government’s action plan for tackling wildlife crime and the renewal of funding for the national wildlife crime unit until 2016, even though it needs to be much more long term than that. Will the Minister explain his view on making wildlife crime offences recordable and what discussions he has had with colleagues at the Home Office? (902597)

One of the principles that we are looking at in the conference is making sure that the sanctions are adequate for those who commit wildlife crime. Issues of sentencing are a matter for the Ministry of Justice. However, I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to update him on further progress on this, because there has been some suggestion that the Sentencing Council should look at it further.

T3. The Aldingbourne Rife is an ancient drainage river which historically protected the coastal plain in Bognor Regis from flooding. June 2012 saw 350 homes flooded in Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the decision to stop dredging the Aldingbourne Rife was a contributing factor to that flooding. Will the Minister urge the Environment Agency to reinstate the annual dredging that was mistakenly abandoned nearly 20 years ago? (902590)

The Environment Agency is working with local agencies to look at the best way of managing water in the Aldingbourne Rife. A study is being undertaken of whether dredging and other measures might be appropriate to protect the properties that experience this flooding, and that will report in the summer of this year. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend should he like me to.

Does the offer of an open cheque book and “money no object” extend to people in Morpeth—flood victims in my area—or is the money solely on offer to people in the south of the country?

The clear commitment that the Prime Minister has made is on ensuring that we have the facilities ready to respond to the incidents we are covering at the moment, no matter where they are in the country.

T4. Our thoughts have to be with the flood victims at this time. Will the Minister update the House on the audit of existing sustainable drainage systems with a view to establishing what role they play in flood alleviation; and what help is being given to fishermen who are unable to fish at sea during the time of this flood event? (902592)

My hon. Friend puts together two questions that cover areas for which both my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I are responsible. As she knows, I will table the regulations on introducing sustainable urban drainage later this year. I am happy to write to her about auditing existing provisions. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is visiting Newlyn soon to discuss with fishermen the problems they are facing.

I do not think the hon. Lady is the first person to wrap two questions into one, and I rather doubt that she will be the last.

In 2011-12, Britain received co-funding from the European Commission on a project to research the health of bees. As the Minister is aware, there is a growing awareness of the importance of bee health in the UK and concern about the use of pesticides. Yet in 2012-13, the Government withdrew from the project and did not take the funding that was offered by the European Commission. Why was that?

We are working on a national pollinator strategy. The Government take this very seriously and want to prioritise it. We have been very clear in all our consultations that we want measures in our common agricultural policy implementation that will promote bees.

T5. My hon. Friend the farming Minister will know that, though it may enrage Labour Members, it will be very popular with farmers when we amend legislation to allow more than two hounds to flush foxes to guns. When does he think that will happen? (902593)

The Government have had representations from a number of Welsh farmers about the problems of predation, and there has been a proposal that the legislation be amended to increase the number of dogs that can be used for flushing out. We are looking carefully at the issue, and we will let the House know when we reach any conclusions.

Last year the Secretary of State claimed that climate change could help the UK. He said:

“Remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer. It would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north into some of the colder areas”?

Does the Minister feel that those comments are a little unfortunate, given what has just happened?

The Government are clear that we are investing in adaptation and mitigation, and we are taking a lead in international negotiations on those issues.

T6. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the adequacy of flood defences for the Nene and Ouse rivers in Northamptonshire? Does he consider the predictions for water flow through those rivers to be historically accurate? (902594)

Northamptonshire county council and its flood and water management team in particular are working on that with the Environment Agency as the lead local flood authority. They are hoping to introduce schemes that will address the concerns that my hon. Friend raises, but if she would like to write to me on a particular local issue, I am happy to look into it.

I welcome the £5,000 that has been announced for households that are flooded, and I understand that it will be available to households that flooded in Hull during the tidal surge in December, but can the Minister explain to people in Hull why it has taken two months for that announcement to be made, and only after the playing fields of Eton flooded?

Ministers have been on the ground across the country at various events. I visited a community to talk about how it was affected during the east coast flooding. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also visited a number of communities. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the money that is available to help people will be there for all communities, no matter where they are in the country.

T7. The Minister will be aware of the Arpley landfill site in my constituency. He may also be aware that planning permission for continued use has now expired, yet neighbouring councils such as Merseyside, Halton and Cheshire West continue to use it for the waste that they will not recycle or incinerate. Will the Minister consider issuing guidance to those councils so that if they will not upgrade their disposal mechanisms, they will at least dump the waste somewhere that has planning permission? (902595)

Sites such as that in my hon. Friend’s constituency need an environmental permit from the Environment Agency and planning permission from the local authority. There is an environmental permit in place for that site. Any planning considerations would be a matter for the local authority.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) about the flushing of foxes, we know that there is a lot of support on the Government Benches for the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004. Will the Minister say what discussions have taken place inside DEFRA to promote amendment of the Act, specifically with regard to the flushing of foxes to guns?

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a range of views on the issue on both sides of the House. That is why the coalition agreement said that at some point we would have a free vote on the full repeal of the Hunting Act. I made it clear that we have had a submission from some Welsh farmers and we have said that we will look at that, and when we are ready to respond, we will do so.

Record rainfall has found the surface drainage infrastructure in historic towns such as Bradford on Avon severely lacking. Will the measures that the Government have announced extend to improving drainage in the built environment, or will responsibility for that fall entirely upon local councils?

My hon. Friend has already invited me to visit Bradford on Avon. I am happy to do that and to discuss with the local authority any concerns it has about the current situation.

In the light of the Department’s withdrawal of the funding for the EU programme on bee decline, how will the Department provide an evidenced response at the end of the two-year ban on neonicotinoids as pesticides?

We have a number of work streams looking at this issue, including one by the Food and Environment Research Agency, but I repeat that this Government take very seriously protecting habitats for bees and promoting pollinators. That is why it is a key part of our common agricultural policy aims.

Deep-sea bottom trawling is one of the most destructive practices affecting our marine ecosystem and its value to the fishing sector is negligible. The EU is in the process of rewriting the rules in relation to deep-sea fishing in the north-east Atlantic. Will the Minister confirm that the UK will support the phase-out of the most destructive gears?

We share some of the concerns about the deep-sea access regime, but we did not agree with the European Parliament’s proposals for an outright ban. We think there would be problems in enforcing it. Instead, we favour—we have argued this case with the European Commission—management measures such as no-fish zones and other steps to help deal with the problem.

We must draw to a close at this point, but there will, of course, be an urgent question later on transport-related matters, so perhaps Members who were unlucky on this occasion might want to come in on that.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Property (Community Use)

1. What plans the commissioners have to make their buildings and other Church property available for wider community use. (902578)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, before I answer this first question, it may be convenient to the House if I make a short comment on the progress made by the General Synod this week on the Church of England being able to consecrate women as bishops. On Tuesday, the General Synod completed the revision process for a new draft Measure to enable women to become bishops. The Synod also agreed to shorten the consultation period with the diocese to consider this new Measure, so the Measure is now likely to come for final approval at the July meeting of the General Synod. If the Measure is approved then, I would hope that the Ecclesiastical Committee would be able to give it early consideration and that both Houses would then separately consider it so that, if it is approved, the Synod might then be able to promulge the canon in November. That would mean that it would be possible for the first woman to be nominated as a bishop in the Church of England this year.

Turning to my hon. Friend’s question, the Church of England has changed legislation to make it much easier for church buildings to be used for a wide range of community and cultural uses. The Church of England encourages all parish churches to be open where possible for as long as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the congregation of volunteers at St Peter’s church in Broadstairs? He very kindly visited an award-winning tourism project called the St Peter’s village tour. Will he encourage other churches to use their facilities in order to open up to the community and develop tourism propositions?

I much enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. She is absolutely right. The church of St Peter’s in Broadstairs is an excellent example of a church that is a hub of the community, hosting local clubs and services to the elderly, as well as toddlers groups and young people’s clubs, and, as my hon. Friend says, organising popular tours of the village for visitors to Broadstairs. May I also draw the House’s attention to Holy Trinity Margate, which is another fantastic example of a church delivering almost 24/7 social action?

Flood Relief Fund

2. If the Church Commissioners will consider creating a Church of England relief fund for flood victims to which the public could contribute. (902579)

Last Friday the Bishop of Taunton wrote to all parishes in the Bath and Wells diocese, giving details of how parishioners could both provide and access much-needed financial and practical support. On the wider question of a relief fund for flood victims, I think my hon. Friend was present on Monday when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government told me that a number of charities were offering help for flood victims and promised that the Government would do more to signpost those voluntary organisations to help people in distress.

When we had severe flooding in 2000, the then Archbishop of York, Lord Hope, created a Church of England relief fund, through which we were very humbled to receive not just national donations, but donations from Mozambique, which is a very poor country, but it wished to show solidarity. I hope my right hon. Friend will use his good offices to create such a fund through the Church of England, to which both national and international donors will be able to contribute, if they wish to do so.

Every parish in flood-affected areas is, where possible and practical, giving help to those affected by the floods, including making churches available for people who have been evacuated, providing drop-in centres, visiting housebound people and delivering food parcels. On the question of an overall fund, there is a feeling that there are already a number of national funds available to help flood victims and that the Church setting up a further fund may confuse rather than help.

Credit Unions

3. What guidance the Church Commissioners are providing to church congregations on supporting local credit unions. (902580)

Substantial material on the Church of England’s website is publicly and readily available to church congregations to download to assist them in supporting local credit unions. The Archbishop of Canterbury has written to all clergy to encourage them and their parish churches to support the new resources, working with their local credit union and continuing to assist those in need.

The Dunstable deanery wants to set up a credit union, and the Money Matters credit union—I save with it myself—is working with Leighton-Linslade town council to set up a credit union in Leighton Buzzard. Churches can help there too. Do the Church Commissioners agree that we need more saving as well as more affordable lending?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Ever since the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated that the Church hopes over time to help compete payday lenders out of business, there has been considerable interest from parish churches right across the country about helping to support credit unions in their local areas and dioceses.

Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner take on board the fact that although many of us support credit unions, if we are to move with the times it is crowdfunding and crowdsourcing that are appropriate to local communities and congregations? That is being pioneered in some areas, so will he consider it?

As the last debate on this subject in the House demonstrated, there are a number of responsible ways to help people in difficulties to access credit, other than recourse to payday lenders.

Not just church congregations but individual members can use credit unions. Now that the law has been changed, organisations can set up community accounts. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that churches ought to look at investing their own funds in credit unions?

Yes. Indeed, many churches are already doing so. I can send the hon. Lady details of a number of diocesan-led initiatives that are doing exactly that.

Public Accounts Commission

The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

Bank of England

4. What recent discussions the Commission has had on extending the scope of the NAO’s auditing of the Bank of England and any consequent changes to the NAO’s budget. (902581)

There have been no recent discussions on extending the scope of the NAO’s role to auditing the Bank of England. As part of its wider discussions of the NAO’s budget in March 2012, the Commission considered the resource implications of the NAO’s new role in implementing the Financial Services Act 2012, in that it appointed the Comptroller and Auditor General to audit the Financial Conduct Authority. The Act did not change the audit arrangements for the Bank itself.

The National Audit Office can audit every single Government Department, the BBC and even the Queen. Why does my hon. Friend think that the Bank of England should be an exception?

I do not think that the Bank of England should be an exception. If the National Audit Office had audited the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England during the financial crisis of 2007, there may well have been a very different result. When I was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I campaigned long and hard for us—this Parliament—to audit the Bank of England, which we should do.

The House will be aware that the Governor of the Bank of England recently made some important comments on the currency issue if Scotland were to become independent, and it will be aware that other statements are to be made about that today. Would it not be a good idea for the National Audit Office to commission independent studies on the effects of currency decisions in relation to independence, which would certainly illuminate the debate both in Scotland and the rest of the UK?

I suspect that the National Audit Office would be very loth to be dragged into the debate on the future of Scotland. Clearly, if Scotland broke away, there would have to be completely different audit arrangements for the Financial Conduct Authority, which the House currently audits. Independence would indeed have implications for the National Audit Office.

Select Committees

5. What support the NAO gives to Select Committees and how the effectiveness of such support is monitored.

(902583)

In addition to the support it provides to the Public Accounts Committee, the NAO supports Select Committees with informal briefings, advice on selecting and designing inquiries, new research and evidence gathering in support of a Committee’s interest or inquiry, and in providing experts on short-term attachments. On monitoring the effectiveness of that support, the NAO monitors the Government’s responses to PAC reports to ensure that individual Departments have accepted and implemented PAC recommendations.

The NAO provides valuable help and support for the PAC and Select Committees. Importantly, it is independent of Government. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that it has adequate resources to carry out its work?

I am satisfied that the NAO has adequate resources, but the Commission has already imposed a 15% cut to its budget in real terms. If further cuts are demanded, the House will have to consider whether the NAO will be able to continue its excellent work to support the Committees of the House, including the Public Accounts Committee.

What proportion of the National Audit Office’s parliamentary work is taken up in servicing the Public Accounts Committee?

In 2012-13, the NAO’s support to the Public Accounts Committee cost £3 million and its support to other Select Committees cost £2.1 million. My hon. Friend will see that the majority of the funding supports the PAC, but the NAO does valuable work to help all our Select Committees.

Church Commissioners

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

Bishop of Bath and Wells: Residence

6. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had on further consultation on the decision to relocate the residence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. (902584)

At the invitation of my hon. Friend, I visited Wells on 25 January to attend a public meeting and listen to the views of local people. I promised that I would report those views to the governors of the Church Commissioners, which I shall do at their next meeting later this month. She also presented a petition at General Synod earlier this week. A number of questions on this matter were also asked and answered at General Synod.

Bearing in mind that there is unity between churchgoers and those who are not churchgoers, I will quote from a letter that I received last night, which said of the Church of England:

“It is most depressing to see it damaged by its own corporate actions…There are times when I look into the internal workings of the Church of England and despair.”

People understand that the investment arm can make a return on the latest asset of the Church Commissioners, the Old Rectory at Croscombe, by renting it out on the ordinary market. However, may I make a plea for a graceful and sensitive response to the thousands who have registered their disagreement with allowing the new bishop to move in, and for there to be real consultation?

My hon. Friend has made her views on this matter very clear. I have promised that I will report those views to the governors of the Church Commissioners later this month. I am sure that they will reflect carefully on all the representations that have been made on this matter.

The hon. Lady has not merely asked a question, but offered the House a treatise. Some might even judge it to have constituted a sermon.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Photo Voting Identification

7. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential effect on the number of young voters of its proposals to require photo identification for voters. (902585)

The Electoral Commission intends to carry out further consultation and analysis during 2014 to identify a proportionate and accessible scheme for verifying identity at polling stations in Great Britain. There will be consideration of the acceptable forms of photographic ID to be included in the scheme and the likely impact on different groups of electors, including young voters.

A written answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) on 8 January stated that since 2007, the number of driving licences that are issued to people under the age of 22 has declined by 12.2%. Given that the number of young people who have photographic driving licences is decreasing, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that requiring photo ID for voting would further reduce the number of young people who participate in democracy?

The experience in Northern Ireland is that the proposed photographic ID scheme is rather popular among young people, not least because it doubles up as proof of age so that they can access pubs. The Electoral Commission has advised the Government on this matter and it is for them to make the decision. However, the early evidence is that voter ID cards are popular with young people.

Church Commissioners

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

Archbishops of Canterbury and York: Visits

8. What reports he has received on the recent visits to South Sudan, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. (902586)

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have both been overseas in the past month. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent visit to South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were part of his programme of visits to all parts of the Anglican communion. He saw at first hand the devastating impact of conflict and the huge difficulties that are faced by the Church and the wider population in areas of conflict and instability, as well as the key role that is played by the Church and the urgent need for far-reaching efforts towards reconciliation.

The persecution of Christians and those of other faiths is increasing in the regions that have been visited by both archbishops. What work is the Church of England doing with churches on the ground to promote peace and stability in those areas?

It is difficult, in the time that is allowed, to encapsulate the seriousness of this issue. The churches are keen to help rebuild their countries by strengthening communities through reconciliation, healing and the overcoming of fear. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, reconciliation requires people to face reality and to tell the truth about the suffering that has been experienced and the harm that has been done. He said:

“When there is enough confidence to meet each other, then honest talking is possible.”

He also stressed the importance of caring for those who have suffered. In each of those war-torn and conflict-stricken countries, one hopes and intends that the Church will be present, helping to bring reconciliation.