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Topical Questions

Volume 575: debated on Thursday 13 February 2014

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.