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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 578: debated on Thursday 27 March 2014

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Water Bills

Thank you very much for your welcome, Mr Speaker. May I quickly thank all hon. Members from across the House who have kindly sent me good wishes?

In November, I wrote to water companies stressing the tough times that households are facing and the vital role the industry can play to help reduce costs. Companies have responded positively. Most are holding bills down in 2014-15, with flat or declining bills proposed from 2015. The Government encourage water companies to introduce social tariffs for vulnerable consumers. Three companies now have them in place, with at least nine more expected by 2015.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but two weeks ago his officials told the Public Accounts Committee that his Department did not actually have a target or a measure of what “affordable” means, so when he says that water companies are acting to bring bills down, does he even know what target they are aiming for?

We believe this is an issue that should be decided locally by local companies consulting local consumers, and I am very pleased at the progress being made by companies in the current review.

The WaterSure scheme helps vulnerable households to pay their water bills, so will the Minister explain why he did not support Labour’s amendments to the Water Bill, which would have made information about WaterSure prominent on customers’ bills?

We are absolutely clear that this issue should be decided locally by local companies. There is already a huge amount of information on bills, and there is a limit to the amount that can be given on one particular document.

Of course, the cost of water is relative to that of other utilities. Unlike the energy industry, the water industry has social tariffs, and the Government have stepped in to help 70,000 households. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those schemes help people to pay something towards the cost of the water they use, which is better than defaulting?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be a contribution, but in some cases it should be reduced. There is no free lunch. Every time there is a reduced rate for some, it has to be covered by all other hard-working consumers paying their bills.

In Devon and Cornwall, water bills have traditionally been high, but they have been reduced this year by 7%, thanks in no small measure to the Government’s support for hard-pressed households. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate South West Water, which has listened to local people and has just submitted a five-year plan showing that water bills may well fall by 13% in real terms over the next five years, even though it is increasing capital investment by 19%? Is that not an example of what progressive water companies can do if they listen to their local people?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating South West Water on what it has done. A reduction in bills is in marked contrast to what happened under the previous Government, when bills went up by 20%.

We welcome the Secretary of State back to his place after his recent appointments.

On Tuesday, Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers blocked Labour’s proposals to help households that are facing growing water bills at a time when their incomes are being squeezed more and more. As we have already heard, one in 10 households are now paying more than 5% of their income to the water companies, yet as the Secretary of State has admitted, the Government are refusing to lift a finger to help them. Will he tell us the specific reasons why this Government have opposed Labour’s proposals for a national affordability scheme?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.

We are continuing the policy left by the previous Government that this should be voluntary—that is how they legislated as recently as 2010. We are clear that this is an issue that should be decided locally, because if there is a reduction for some customers, it has to be paid for by the remaining customers in that area. We are very pleased that we are seeing progress. We now have a robust Ofwat, unlike under the previous Government, and we are going to see significant changes in prices. We must also remember that we have to keep investment coming in from domestic and foreign sources, because every 1% increase in interest adds £20 to a water bill—there is a balance here.

One of my rural constituents in Kettering has just received a £7,000 water bill, owing to Travellers and Gypsies illegally tapping into the water supply. Anglian Water says that it can do nothing; the police are um-ing and ah-ing; and there have been threats of intimidation against the constituent concerned. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister with responsibility for water kindly agree to meet me and my constituent so that we can resolve this dreadful situation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that local issue. He should immediately get in touch with the water Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). We will take it up and see how we can help.

Bovine TB

We published our draft strategy for achieving officially bovine tuberculosis-free status for England in July 2013 for consultation. The final version, which we will publish shortly, will outline our comprehensive plan for tackling the scourge of bovine TB in England.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees with me that if the report confirms that a significant number of badgers—well above the recommended 5% limit—took more than five minutes to die, that would be a very serious matter because it would prove that the cull was inhumane. In that circumstance, would he not think it vital to reconsider the policy and to abandon absolutely any plans for rolling out culling later in the year?

I received the panel’s report only recently. I am considering it, and I will come back to the House in due course, when it has been fully considered.

16. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the badger cull may have played a part in tackling bovine TB in other countries, in the UK it has proved more difficult to achieve our desired result? Will he therefore agree to look at all other options, and accept that if one course of action fails, it is time to look for another? (903347)

My hon. Friend mentions other badger culls. The most obvious nearby country that has had one is the Republic of Ireland, where the number of cases went down from 44,903 in 1999 to only 15,612 last year. There are clear lessons to be learned from other countries—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—but the circumstances here are not entirely the same. That is why our strategy encompasses a whole range of other activities involving the vaccination of badgers, the vaccination of cattle and a strict cattle movement regime, which has been a key to success in other countries.

The scourge of bovine TB, as the Secretary of State rightly calls it, is unfortunately increasing in Northern Ireland. With that in mind, and given that we have only a catch, test and release scheme and would love to have a scheme that actually dealt with the badger, will he consider calling his counterpart in Northern Ireland and setting up a national conference, which he could chair, to address the removal of this plague from our land?

I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so the hon. Gentleman knows that I respect the protocols of devolution. We have regular discussions at ministerial and official level on matters agricultural. He is absolutely right, however, to raise the contrast between what has happened in Northern Ireland, where diseased badgers have not been removed, and the dramatic reduction in southern Ireland.

I raised the issue with Commissioner Borg on my first day back, a week last Monday. We are pressing on with the development of a cattle vaccine but, sadly, it will take some years: we have to develop a vaccine that is valid and works; we have to develop a DIVA test to differentiate between vaccinated cattle and diseased cattle; and we then have to get a legal process. I am afraid that that is going to take at least 10 years.

I genuinely welcome the Secretary of State back after his operation. It is good to see him back.

When the Government’s approach to TB was resoundingly rejected by Parliament two weeks ago, the Secretary of State was on a chocolate factory visit. He had previously stormed out of a debate before another Government defeat on badger culls, muttering, “I’ve had enough of this.” If he has really had enough of this, as more and more Government Members have, will he at least have the courage of his convictions and give Parliament a vote in Government time before proceeding with any more of these failed badger culls?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.

I do not recollect storming out of anywhere. We have been punctilious in keeping Parliament informed through regular statements, and the issue comes up regularly at questions. The last vote, with a majority of 61, very clearly endorsed our strategy, which is very wide and encompasses other actions. [Interruption.] The last vote on a substantive motion showed considerable support, with a majority of 61, for our strategy. The hon. Gentleman has got to get beyond the issue of culls. Our strategy encompasses vaccination of both species, significant changes to our cattle movement regime and tighter biosecurity. He should concentrate on the whole strategy, which was endorsed in Parliament by 61 votes.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s using all means at his disposal to control the disease. One of those is the polymerase chain reaction test, which will be able to identify infected live badgers and the setts in which they live. Will he ensure that all the available resources go into promoting that test, which could have a role in controlling bovine TB?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it would be a huge change if we could use PCR to analyse diseased badgers on the spot. That would change the whole debate and would be an enormous help in disease reduction. We have been working closely with the university of Warwick and are bringing in other agencies to see whether we can accelerate that work. Sadly, PCR is not yet reliable enough. If we can get a greater than 50% chance of identification, it will cause a sea change on this issue.

Environment Agency Staff

3. What steps he is taking to prevent redundancies among staff working on flood protection at the Environment Agency. (903332)

The chief executive of the Environment Agency has been clear that the planned reduction in posts, which is necessary to ensure that the agency has an affordable business structure, will not affect its ability to respond to flooding. The Environment Agency will prioritise the resilience that is needed to manage flood incidents and recovery. The additional £130 million of funding that was announced in February and the £140 million that was announced in the Budget for the repair and maintenance of vital flood and coastal defences will mean that there is no reduction in the Environment Agency’s flood and coastal risk management job numbers.

The Prime Minister promised that the reported plans for 550 redundancies among flood protection staff at the Environment Agency would not be put in place. Will the Minister confirm how many flood protection staff the EA plans to make redundant over the next two years?

As I set out in my original reply to the hon. Gentleman, the agency prioritises flood and coastal defence work. The extra money that we have put in place to support that work means that it can look again at how it is managing jobs across the agency. Of course, like all other Government Departments and agencies, the Environment Agency has to respond to the need to tackle the deficit. However, we are putting money in place to ensure that our flood and coastal defences are run and maintained properly.

Does my hon. Friend agree that making more use of internal drainage boards and local farmers is a cost-effective way of making the flood protection repairs that are needed?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have excellent internal drainage boards that are doing work across the country. There are proposals to set up new internal drainage boards in a number of areas to build on those successes and to make use of local knowledge. We will support that approach where it is appropriate and where a model can be found to bring it in.

11. I hear what the Minister says about the country’s resilience and about flood defences. We were flooded badly in Chesterfield in 2007, so my heart goes out to everyone who has suffered so badly this winter. Does he not think that the many people in the Environment Agency who have worked so tirelessly will be feeling pretty disgruntled that after all the work they have done and at a time when all of us are worried about flooding, they are seeing huge numbers of job cuts? (903342)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to the devastating impact that floods have had in the past. Some of his constituents will still be feeling the effects of what they went through at that time. Environment Agency staff work very hard—those who are directly involved in flood and coastal risk management and those from other areas in the agency who came in to support them during the recent extreme weather events. I have visited many of them in areas of the country that have been affected. As the chief executive takes forward the proposals to ensure that the agency meets the challenges of the future, I know that he will take account of all the skills and the expertise that it has and preserve them to ensure that we build on the work that has been done and keep everybody safe.

Waste Fires

I have had three meetings with the Environment Agency on waste fires in the last six months, including a discussion on Tuesday this week with the noble Lord Smith of Finsbury, when we spoke about the fire at the waste site in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. The two previous occasions were a meeting on 30 October 2013, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Dr Paul Leinster, and a meeting on 27 November 2013 with the noble Lord Smith and Dr Leinster.

Bearing in mind that the Environment Agency failed to deal effectively with persistent and massive breaches of licensing conditions by Blackwater (North East) Ltd, leading to the Thrunton fire, surely the agency owes it to my constituents to remove the potentially polluting waste and charge the cost to Blackwater or its insurers, rather than the burden falling on the landowner who has done so much to help?

My right hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising all the matters connected with that awful fire and the mismanagement of the site by the company. His constituents have been very lucky to have had him acting on their behalf. In my discussions with the agency, I have made it clear that we will do all we can to support all those who have been on the right side of this, but we need to consider carefully the correct method of making sure that the polluter pays in this instance.

Does the Minister not realise that the Environment Agency has been haemorrhaging good staff? It is very important that we curb the cowboys and poor operators in the waste sector who do so much damage to our environment, but we just have not got the people or the resources in the Environment Agency to do that properly now.

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman and in the past we have both been members of the all-party group on this issue. The fact is that we have excellent staff in the Environment Agency working very hard on these issues, and in the recent Budget we secured an extra £5 million to tackle waste crime. It is a priority for the Government, and we should ensure that the businesses that operate effectively, fairly and safely are protected from those that act unscrupulously. That is why we are investing extra money in tackling this issue.

Social Tariffs (Water Bills)

5. What steps his Department is taking to encourage water companies to introduce social tariffs; and if he will make a statement. (903334)

The Government published social tariff guidance for water companies in June 2012, enabling the introduction of social tariffs from April 2013. Three water companies now have social tariffs in place, with a further three set to introduce them this year. Another six companies have plans to introduce social tariffs from 2015, while others are consulting with their customers.

Ofwat says that profit margins are exceptionally high in this industry. What will the Government do to bring prices down, given the cost of living crisis in this country?

Unlike the last Government, we will have a robust Ofwat. Under the last Government, bills went up by 20%. We are seeing a robust Ofwat now working on the new price programme, and that will see a reduction or held prices and increased investment. A balance must be struck because we have to keep the confidence of domestic and foreign investors. A 1% increase in interest means £20 on a water bill.

Food Supply Networks

6. What progress has been made on the implementation of the recommendations of the Elliott review of assurance of food supply networks. (903335)

They were interim recommendations; Professor Elliott’s final report is expected later this spring. We are discussing the interim report with interested parties, and we will carefully consider the supporting analysis in his final report before making a formal response.

People need to be confident that what is on the packet is what is in the packet. The Prime Minister’s machinery of government changes in 2010 created confusion of responsibility between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Prime Minister’s short-sighted changes weakened consumer protection and were misguided?

No, I do not agree with that. It was right to separate policy making from enforcement. The issue we had with horsemeat was not a failure of policy: it was a failure of enforcement. Since then, we have increased funding to £2.2 million to help to support local authorities to deliver the national co-ordinated food sampling programme. The Food Standards Agency is also developing a new intelligence hub to improve its capability in identifying and preventing threats, and to co-ordinate action across Government.

Professor Elliott confirmed the findings of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that we have a severe shortage of public analysts and laboratories. He further found a gap in checks on cold-slab meats in cold storage and transportation. Can the Government act now, before the final Elliott report, to make good the testing by public analysts and public laboratories, and to address the other issues that Professor Elliott identified?

We will look carefully at the recommendation in Elliott’s final report, but the Food Standards Agency is working with industry and the European Commission to identify further targeted sampling programmes that could be carried out. As I said, we have increased the budget from £1.6 million to £2.2 million to help support local authorities. We have also introduced unannounced inspections of meat-cutting plants, and there have been more than 1,450 of those since 2013.

Some recommendations of the Elliott report refer to devolved matters and others to matters that are reserved across the UK. It is important that the UK Government, the Scottish Government, and other Administrations work closely together. When did the Minister last meet Scottish Ministers to discuss how we can ensure a co-operative approach across the UK on this important issue?

I meet Ministers from the devolved Assembly regularly. Most recently, I met last Monday the Scottish Minister responsible for farming and fisheries. We did not discuss this particular issue, but when the final report is published we will discuss its findings. We have had some discussions about the interim findings, and further discussions are taking place at official level.

Does my hon. Friend recognise the potential threat to our domestic food supply presented by changes to the common agricultural policy, particularly with regard to food produced in the uplands? If so, what plans do he and our Government have to protect, or ensure that there is a decent successor to, the upland entry level scheme?

We are in the process of concluding our implementation of the common agricultural policy, and we have made it clear that we will align the upland rate of the single farm payment with the lowland rate. We will shortly make an announcement on the moorland rate, which I know will interest the hon. Gentleman.

Answers to recent questions that I tabled show a massive drop in food testing under this Government: tests on food composition are down by 48%, and those on food labelling and presentation by 53%. Does the Minister share Professor Chris Elliott’s concern that cuts to food testing and inspection could compromise the safety of the food that people eat to such an extent that “people start to die”?

I am not sure I share that analysis. Since this crisis erupted more than 45,000 tests of beef products have been reported, and there have been no new positives since the reported incident of horsemeat last year. As I pointed out, we have also introduced unannounced inspections of meat-cutting plants, and there have been almost 1,500 of those since last year.

Plastic Bags

8. Whether he has considered the recommendation of the Environmental Audit Committee in its eleventh report, Plastic Bags, HC 861, that the Government should remove the exemption of biodegradable bags from their proposed levy on single-use carrier bags; and if he will make a statement. (903337)

The Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on plastic bags is due by 7 April, and we are currently considering the Committee’s recommendations.

Is the Minister aware of the likely damage to the UK plastics recycling industry if this exemption goes ahead, and will he meet representatives of the sector to discuss their concerns?

I understand the sector’s concerns based on products that have been described as biodegradable in the past, but we are talking about the opportunity for new products to come forward. That is why we have offered money to those who can come up with techniques for separating different forms of bag. We are directing this initiative at the 7.1 billion single-use carrier bags—the figure comes from 2012. We want to tackle that and it is a popular policy that people support. We also want to provide opportunities for new more appropriate products to come forward.

My hon. Friend will know that there is a 5p tariff on plastic bags in Wales, and I would not say that it is so popular there. However, there is a big difference between bio-undegradable and biodegradable bags. Will the Minister speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and make it very clear that it would be unwelcome in England to have a 5p tariff on plastic bags if they are biodegradable?

Building on my reply to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), we are considering the issues raised by the Environmental Audit Committee, as well as the representations we have received as we take the policy forward. Evidence from retailers and members of the public shows that they want us to do something to tackle single-use carrier bags.

In his deliberations will the Minister take account of similar legislation that is going through the Northern Ireland Assembly?

As the Secretary of State said in answer to an earlier question, we are interested in what has already happened in Wales, and what is being considered in Scotland and in Northern Ireland.

Would the Minister or Secretary of State care to visit a factory in my constituency that deals with plastic recycling to see at first hand what damage to that industry could be done if biodegradable material accidentally gets into the waste stream?

I am clear that we want to build on the good work in plastic recycling. If the hon. Gentleman gives me more details, I am sure we can discuss whether we can go on that visit to match his request.

Climate Change Adaptation

9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of his Department’s domestic funding and policies on climate change adaptation; and if he will make a statement. (903338)

The Government set out a wide range of actions and policies to address urgent climate risks in the national adaptation programme report, published in July last year. Spending on core climate adaptation work is consistent with the fluctuations in activity required by the five-year cycle set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. Spending also reflects the embedding of adaptation in wider Government work.

In the light of the current Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change report on the impact of climate change, will the Secretary of State advise us on whether he has finally had a briefing from the chief scientist on climate change?

All Ministers in the Department regularly discuss climate change. I am delighted that the hon. Lady has raised those issues, which are crucial. That is why we are embedding policies to deal with mitigation and adaptation across the Government.

Social Tariffs (Water Bills)

12. What steps his Department is taking to encourage water companies to introduce social tariffs; and if he will make a statement. (903343)

The Government published social tariff guidance for water companies in June 2012, enabling the introduction of social tariffs from April 2013. Three water companies now have social tariffs in place, with a further three set to introduce them this year. Another six companies have plans to introduce social tariffs from 2015, while others are consulting their customers.

With fewer than 25,000 people eligible for social tariffs, which are provided by just three water companies, does the Secretary of State believe that the voluntary approach is sufficient to help people who are struggling with water bills?

As I have said in answer to previous questions, we believe that that should be left to local companies. We are pleased that there has been progress—a number of companies have signed up—as will be clear in the next price round. As under the previous Government, who passed legislation in 2010, the regime is voluntary. We believe it is right for local companies to work with local consumers, because other consumers pay for those cheaper tariffs.

Bees

Bees and other pollinators are vital for the environment and our food production. We want to ensure they survive and thrive. The national pollinator strategy was drafted with the help of many interested organisations and is out to consultation. It refreshes our commitment to safeguarding bees and building on our long-established policies to support pollinators, including habitat and species conservation.

In Leighton Buzzard and Linslade, Leighton-Linslade town council, Central Bedfordshire council and South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth have done excellent work in encouraging bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of grass uncut. That has made a huge difference—a lot of volunteers are onside. Will the Minister agree to come to see that work to see whether it can be replicated elsewhere? Perhaps at least one of his officials could come.

Yes, the initiative in Leighton Buzzard my hon. Friend describes is an excellent example of good practice in action. I will be delighted to visit his constituency in Leighton Buzzard—[Laughter]—and see the project myself.

Fishermen

We have made financial support available under the European fisheries fund to reimburse up to 60% of the cost of replacing lost or damaged gear. The Government will continue to pay lighthouse dues for another year, saving the industry up to £140,000. Various other support is available for businesses, including the option to apply to their local authority to get business rate relief for three months.

I congratulate the Minister on the recent announcement on helping very hard-pressed fishermen, who have been the unsung victims of recent floods. I am awaiting a reply from him to my letter—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] It was written only recently and a holding reply has been received, so I am not complaining. While the help for the replacement of lobster pots and other gear is welcome in Shoreham, many of my fishermen have heavily mortgaged boats and cannot afford to pay their mooring fees and other such overheads. Can some assistance be given as a stop-gap to ensure they do not lose their moorings?

I will follow up with a response to my hon. Friend’s letter. The Department for Transport is looking at what support may be made available to help with ports. We are considering whether fishermen will be able to receive additional help from the business support fund, which, as I said, is being administered by local authorities, but I am happy to look into the individual cases he raises.

Welcome as the package is, I seek further reassurance from the Minister. Fishermen are having difficulty engaging with the scheme. If they have purchased the replacement pots already, they cannot receive any recompense, and the pots also have to have been lost on land.

On the latter point, I do not think that that is the case, but the Marine Management Organisation might want to see some evidence that the pots have been damaged or lost. In many cases, the MMO accepts a straightforward statement signed by a fisherman. There is an issue with retrospective payment, as the European Fisheries Fund does not allow for retrospectivity and we have had some discussions with the Commission. We are trying to get a better handle on how many fishermen are affected—we think it may be somewhere between 15 and 20 fishermen—so we are looking into this issue, and I had a meeting with officials on it just yesterday.

Fishermen in my constituency have been affected by the storms and by the dumping of dredged oil in Whitsand bay. Will my hon. Friend inform me of the cost of carrying out a survey on a recently identified alternative more suitable site, and join me in discussions with the dredging company?

I am aware that this is a very important issue to my hon. Friend. I visited her constituency and met some of her constituents who had concerns about the dredging. As she will know, the MMO makes licensing decisions of this sort in isolation from Ministers—it is separate. However, I can tell her that I have asked for an assessment of the cost of the environmental impact assessments necessary to designate a new site. I am advised that it would be approximately £130,000. I am, of course, happy to meet her and the chief executive of the dredging company to see whether we can identify a way forward.

Topical Questions

The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are growing the rural economy, improving the environment, and safeguarding animal and plant health. With flood prevention and management central to both the rural economy and the environment, last week’s Budget included a further £140 million for the repair and maintenance of flood defences, defences that in recent months protected more than 1.4 million properties and 2,500 sq km of farmland. This money is on top of the extra £130 million announced in February. Somerset was one of the areas hit hardest by the winter flooding. I spoke to the leader of Somerset council yesterday. He told me that, as part of the Somerset levels action plan, the intention is to start the initial dredge on Monday.

If I could make a brief comment on my return, Mr Speaker, I would like to send our congratulations to our colleagues in the US Congress, who on Tuesday erected a statue in the Capitol on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Borlaug. His new advanced farming techniques, known as the “green revolution”, have, according to some estimates, saved 1 billion lives.

In North West Leicestershire, the new national forest continues to go from strength to strength, having a transformative effect not only on the environment but the quality of lives of local residents. Will the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to promote tree planting across the country in the next 12 months?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work of the National Forest Company in his constituency and across the 200 square miles of the national forest. Across the country, 2,000 hectares of new woodland will be created through the planting of 4 million trees, as part of £30 million of Government investment in the next financial year.

I welcome the Secretary of State back to the Dispatch Box after his eye operation.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who said in a letter to a constituent that

“the Hunting Act is not under threat by the coalition government,”

and that it

“is not the Coalition Government’s policy…to amend the ban”?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind comments on my return. As she knows, we received an interesting report from a number of Welsh farmers, which presented a reasonable view that there is an increased problem of fox predation on lands since the Hunting Act 2004 came into force, but as the Prime Minister made very clear yesterday, sadly there is no agreement between the coalition parties, which is needed for an amendment to be brought before the House.

Following that answer and the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday, The Daily Telegraph is reporting today that Downing street has confirmed that there will be no vote on the full repeal of the hunting ban in this Parliament, contrary to the coalition agreement. Can the Secretary of State be clear with the House: will there be a vote in this House to repeal the hunting ban in this Parliament or not?

I think we have made it very clear. The commitment in the coalition agreement still stands and I have made it clear that a vote will come forward at an appropriate time.

T2. Partnership funding for projects such as the Pickering pilot “Slowing the flow” scheme is being attracted from public sector bodies and, to a lesser extent, internal drainage boards. Will the Minister tell us what private sector partnership funding there has been and why the major review of partnership funding, which was expected to be published in October, has been delayed? (903349)

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is absolutely right to point out the important contribution that partnership funding is making. We anticipate £148 million coming forward across this spending review period, which will enable schemes that otherwise could not have gone forward. The question of private sector funding is important and it has come forward in a number of schemes around the country, but if local authorities or other public sector bodies want to make a contribution too, that is an equally valid way of bringing forward schemes that are important to keeping local people safe. However, I am happy to write to her and discuss how the review of partnership funding is progressing.

T3. The Minister was kindly in his place yesterday when I moved the ten-minute rule motion to introduce a Bill on dog smuggling. Does he think this is an issue or does he think that those who are concerned about it are being over-alarmist? Would he be kind enough to meet me, along with one or two of the Bill’s co-sponsors and the dog charities involved, to discuss whatever his view and that of his officials happens to be? (903352)

I very much enjoyed attending the hon. Gentleman’s ten-minute rule Bill debate yesterday, as well as following his many questions on the issue since the new year. I have met officials on a number of occasions to review our approach and check that we have the right safeguards in place to prevent rabies coming in. There were some changes to the pet travel scheme, but we still think it is very stringent, in that all dogs coming in must be vaccinated and go through a period of three weeks before they can be moved. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the issue. I can also say that the European Commission is giving some consideration to rescue dogs coming from Romania. There was a little bit of concern last week about an incident where a dog with suspected rabies came from Romania to the Netherlands, even though that was subsequently ruled out.

T4. I know that the Secretary of State likes visiting chocolate factories, so may I urge him to come and visit the Thorntons factory in my constituency and join me in praising it for the 10% increase in exports it enjoyed last year? That increase was part of the overall growth in exports by the food and drink manufacturing industry, which is a great way of taking this country’s economy forward. (903353)

I would be more than happy to come and visit a Thorntons factory. Thorntons is a fabulous chocolate manufacturer and a great success story in the UK. My hon. Friend is right: the food and drink industry is our biggest manufacturing industry in the UK. There is great potential for export opportunities, which is why the Government have an export plan and why we have prioritised exports and done a huge amount of work to open new markets.

Following on from the earlier question from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), 18 months ago there was a fire at a JL Sorting site in my constituency that took weeks to put out, but since then nothing has been done to remove the many tonnes of debris on the site and that is causing great concern as it is an eyesore and might lead to health problems. Will the Minister look again at how he can bring about change through the Environment Agency to ensure quicker enforcement to get rid of such debris more quickly?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Things have not always been done as we should have liked in the past, and we are therefore investing an extra £5 million in tackling waste crime. I have asked the chief executive of the Environment Agency and Lord Smith to come back to me—as they are doing—with proposals for improving the position by toughening up regulation. The hon. Gentleman may wish to write to me about specific issues relating to the case that he has raised.

T5. The Minister will be aware of the importance of recreational sea angling around the coast of west Wales. Have the Government conducted any economic study of its importance to jobs, and what they can do to protect them? (903354)

Last November I attended the launch of Sea Angling 2012, which did just that. It found that, in 2012, English anglers had spent £831 million on the sport. When indirect and induced effects are accounted for, that could support a total of more than £2 billion of spending. The report is available on the Marine Management Organisation’s website.

Will the Government please have another look at the exclusion of 70,000 leaseholders from their new flood insurance scheme? Most of those people are on modest or low incomes, and a number of them live in my constituency. As a result of their exclusion from the scheme, they either face massively increased premiums or cannot obtain insurance at all.

We are examining the various leasehold options with the aim of ensuring that Flood Re deals with the problems of the least commercial leaseholders. Some large commercial landlords have leasehold properties, and we want to make certain that flood relief is focused on domestic policies. Of course, it will be possible for the contents insurance policies of leaseholders of all types to be ceded to Flood Re should that be necessary.

T6. Does my hon. Friend agree that the practice of puppy farming is a disgrace, and will he do all that he possibly can to discourage pet shops from selling kittens and puppies? (903356)

My hon. Friend is a long-standing champion of this cause. I agree with him that irresponsible breeding and selling of dogs is unacceptable, and we think that the relevant authorities should clamp down on it. Anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs must have a valid licence from the local authority, and must also abide by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Many pet shops have already stopped selling kittens and puppies, but we are more concerned about internet sales of puppies, to which animal welfare charities have drawn our attention.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of 14-year-old Jade Lomas-Anderson after being attacked by four dogs in my constituency. The new legislation is welcome, but it does not solve the problem of dangerous dogs. What further plans does the Minister have to protect our communities, educate children and dog owners, tackle puppy farming, and prevent dogs from becoming dangerous in the first place?

Unless dogs are bred properly and socialised properly, they may become violent in adulthood. That is a big challenge for us, but we have increased sentences for those responsible for attacks on people by dogs, and we have changed the law so that prosecutions can be brought even when an attack takes place on private property.

T7. Given the Secretary of State’s popular and correct decision to cancel the private finance initiative credit given to the Kingsland incinerator, and given that incineration is near the bottom of the waste hierarchy, does the Minister agree that the green investment bank should be investing in green technologies higher up the hierarchy, and that that does not include flawed incineration projects? (903357)

Although energy from waste has its place, the Department fulfils its duty to ensure that any money that is invested through support from the Treasury goes to where capacity is needed. The hon. Gentleman has made a good point about the importance of driving resources up the hierarchy, but I think we should welcome the fact that the green investment bank is supporting innovators and new entrants to the sector.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Individual Voter Registration

1. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the recent data-matching exercise in the movement towards individual voter registration. (903289)

The dry-run exercise to prepare for the introduction of individual elector registration involved matching all entries on the electoral registers against the database of the Department for Work and Pensions. The Commission’s report on progress stated that, although there was still a great deal of work to be done, sufficient progress had been made for us to press ahead with the historic change to IER, which will take place in June 2014. It will enhance individual voter responsibility and the security of, and confidence in, the electoral registration system, and—this is extremely important—it means that for the first time those who are eligible to join the electoral register will be able to do so online.

What my constituents want is reassurance that the introduction of IER will bring about that greater security when a person enters the register, and that it will bring down electoral fraud and bring up confidence in the electoral system.

I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. IER will certainly increase the robustness of our democratic system, because a national insurance number and date of birth must be given before anyone can enter the register. For many people it will be easier to get on to our register because it can be done online. Particularly for younger people, who are a hard-to-reach group, the ability to enter the register online, with the necessary information, is a very good thing.

I have recently visited the Huddersfield electoral registration office in Kirklees, where the staff are doing a very good job during this transformative stage. They are worried that some of the technology is showing real glitches, however. Is the hon. Gentleman really sure that the scheme will be ready on time, and are we going to get more people voting at the next election?

The assurances I have received from the Electoral Commission are that the technology will work and that this scheme is ready to run on time. The hon. Gentleman has been a trailblazer, because it is very important that all of us visit our electoral registration offices to discuss with them the plan they have to get people on to the register. He has done that. We should all follow his example.

Church Commissioners

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

Cathedrals

2. What the current estimated cost is of necessary repairs to cathedrals in England; and what steps are being taken to ensure that cathedrals remain open to the public. (903290)

The current estimated shortfall in the cost of repairs to cathedrals is £87 million over the next five years, over and above what the cathedrals are currently spending on repairs annually.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he recognise the importance of keeping our cathedrals open, as they are a magnet for tourism and bring benefits to the wider community and the tourist trade in particular? Will he ensure that the Church maintains a close working relationship with other parts of the tourist industry?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Cathedrals are incredibly important in terms of heritage. Lincoln cathedral, which is in my hon. Friend’s constituency in the diocese of Lincoln, needed repairs to its stonework, and I am very grateful, as I am sure is the whole House, for the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget of £20 million to help cathedrals. I hope that some of that money will be able to find its way to Lincoln cathedral.

9. My right hon. Friend will know that Lichfield cathedral urgently requires rewiring, but it will be unable to access funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Will it be able to access money from the generous grant made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that we can repair the wiring, if not the roof, while the sun is shining? (903297)

There is clearly an urgent need to rewire Lichfield cathedral; indeed, if it is not done, there is a real risk that the cathedral might close. It was exactly for that sort of purpose—repairing guttering, rewiring—that the Chancellor very generously included provision for £20 million in his Budget. I look forward to visiting Lichfield at some point when the rewiring is done.

Same-sex Marriage (Priests)

3. What the Church of England’s policy is on priests entering a same-sex marriage; and what guidance has been given on what would happen to a priest who did so. (903291)

Clergy and ordinands remain free to enter into civil partnerships. The House of Bishops in its pastoral guidance distributed on 15 February said that it was not willing for those in same-sex marriages to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry—deacon, clergy or bishops—and that

“it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives”.

As with any alleged instance of misconduct, each case would have to be considered individually by the local diocesan bishop.

In light of the recent Pilling report, does the right hon. Gentleman believe it would be sensible if a hard-working, popular priest got married with the full support of his or her parish and congregation and was then disciplined, sacked or defrocked?

The situation is clear. The Church of England’s understanding of marriage remains unchanged: marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, and under the canons of the Church of England marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. The canons of the Church of England retain their legal status as part of the law of England and I would hope that no priest who has taken an oath of canonical obedience would wish to challenge canon law and the law of England.

Investments

4. What the anticipated return is on the Church Commissioners’ investments for the current financial year. (903292)

The Church Commissioners are finalising their asset valuations and anticipate the total return for 2013 to be about 15% to 16%. The continued steady return will enable the Church Commissioners to continue the level of support that they give the ministry of the Church of England.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. In the light of it, can he say what support the Church Commissioners might be able to make available to fund local community projects to encourage growth in the Church at parish level?

I hope that during the course of this coming year the Church Commissioners will be able to make about £90 million available to support local community projects—projects in the diocese of Manchester and throughout the country—and to help serve the whole community of the country, making it clear that the Church of England is a national Church.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Church Commissioners’ investments might be being added to by the increasing trend for high charges for access to cathedrals and important Church establishments, led by Westminster abbey, which people need to take out a mortgage to access these days? Does he agree that the practice of other countries’ giving a discounted rate to local people or seasonal rates for access so that local people can access their churches would be appropriate?

My hon. Friend will find that in other countries the system is different. For example, in Germany the state supports all the cathedrals and churches, whereas the Church of England has to fund all our cathedrals and all our churches itself. We have the stewardship of more grade I listed buildings than any other entity. If my hon. Friend wants to go to worship in the cathedral, he can always do that for free, but I do not think anyone would object to tourists who want to see the heritage of a cathedral having to pay a modest amount to see that and support it.

Diocesan Support

5. How much money the Church Commissioners anticipate they will be able to distribute to dioceses across England to support their mission in 2014. (903293)

The Church Commissioners support the mission of each diocese depending on its need. Each diocese generally receives between £1 million and over £3 million, but that covers only a small proportion of the cost of running the Church. We must never underestimate the importance of the generous giving of church congregations, which accounts for most of the rest.

The village church is at the heart of rural life, and I am delighted to say that the Bishop of Knaresborough is joining us for a celebration of the countryside on Saturday. What is the split between rural and urban pay from the diocesan contribution? I ask because the costs of running rural parishes are extremely high.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the parish church is invariably at the heart of English village life. It is difficult distinguishing between urban and rural dioceses, as many dioceses are very mixed. Her diocese of York receives between £2.5 million and £3 million each year. The dioceses with the greatest deprivation, Durham and Manchester, receive more than £3 million. We are trying to ensure that adequate financial support is provided by the Church Commissioners and the Church as a whole both to parishes in inner-city areas and to rural parishes serving important villages in her constituency, because the Church of England is a national Church which must reach every part of England.

Church Growth Research Programme

6. What steps are being taken to help dioceses and parishes engage and take action with reference to the Church growth research programme. (903294)

The findings from the Church growth research programme have been disseminated widely within the Church, and are informing diocesan strategies and practices at parish level. Further practical online resources are being developed and events are being planned to help dioceses and parishes to engage with the research and take action.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many examples of good practice are available, where church congregations have increased significantly, often through using the Alpha course or courses such as Christianity Explored? Does he also agree that church planting could be looked at, too?

My hon. Friend will know that the most significant growth in the Church of England has been identified in fresh expressions of church, church planting and midweek attendance at cathedrals. I am sure he will be pleased to know that only this week the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired the first meeting of an evangelism task group, because growing the Church of England is, obviously, an extremely important challenge for the Church of England.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Scythian Ltd

7. When the Electoral Commission will reply to the letter from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland of 6 March 2014 regarding donations from Scythian Ltd. (903295)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. I have now seen the reply from the Electoral Commission. I raised the matter because Scythian is owned by a person who worked for Dmitry Firtash who has just been arrested in Vienna, and that raised questions about the money. The Electoral Commission seems to be relying on the recipient of the money to do the checks. Does he agree that that is an incredibly weak situation for the Electoral Commission to put itself into?

It is the system set up by this Parliament, and the matter has been thoroughly investigated, under the existing rules, by the Electoral Commission, which found that the participants had complied fully with all the rules.

Electoral Registration

8. If the Electoral Commission will take steps with relevant Government Departments and other public bodies to ensure that whenever a citizen comes into contact with a public agency for an administrative reason a check is made to see if they are registered on their local electoral roll. (903296)

The Electoral Commission will carefully consider, with the Cabinet Office, any such proposals for improving the efficiency of electoral registration processes, as it is to monitor the implementation of individual electoral registration during 2014 and 2015. If such a process appears to be viable, the commission will recommend that the Government bring forward any necessary measures to allow it to take place.

When a constituent gets in touch with me, I always check to see whether they are on the electoral register. If they are not, I give them advice on how to get registered. Will my hon. Friend, who I am sure does exactly the same thing, urge the Electoral Commission to drive the Cabinet Office to introduce that sensible proposal?

This is a good idea and it is something that the Electoral Commission will certainly consider over the next 12 months. As my hon. Friend suggests in his question, it will ultimately be a matter for the Cabinet Office and for this House to change the rules, but I personally strongly support the initiative that he is taking.