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Topical Questions

Volume 582: debated on Thursday 12 June 2014

The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are growing the rural economy, improving the environment, safeguarding animal health and safeguarding plant health. This week we have announced, as part of the common agricultural policy, the criteria for the implementation of the EU’s rules on greening. While the latest round of CAP reform is disappointing, we remain determined to give our farmers sufficient flexibility to be free to do what they do best—producing food—while at the same time ensuring that we do not make the same mistakes as the last Government—designing a payments system that was so complicated that we saw £600 million being taken out of the rural economy in disallowance. Over the course of the next CAP, more than £3 billion will be spent on improving the environment.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In March of this year in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), stated that the Elliott report would be published in the spring, but we are now into June. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to when we might expect the report and a statement in this House so we can discuss the issue of the protection of consumers from food fraud, as was exposed by the horsemeat incident last year?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Professor Elliott produced a very interesting interim report, and I am pleased to say that some of its proposals have been acted on. I met him very recently and it is absolutely our intention that the report will be published soon.

T5. The national seed collection at Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are considered by many of us to be a national treasure. What are the Government doing to ensure the continuing vitality and viability of Kew Gardens? (904192)

The Government of course recognise Kew’s obligations to care for the national collections under the National Heritage Act 1983. Against the backdrop of the deficit, the Department has continued to offer relative protection to Kew. Overall, the annual average of the Government’s funding of Kew over this spending review period is greater than that of the last. We continue to work with Kew as it puts in place plans to raise revenue and we continue to invest in the excellent work it does.

DEFRA has just published “Making the most of our evidence”—I have a copy here—which makes the ludicrous claim that the Department is in favour of science-based policy making. I note that the foreword is by the Under-Secretary in the other place, Lord de Mauley, not by the Secretary of State, so will the Secretary of State confirm whether he has read it?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I read documents pertaining to my job as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

That is an interesting reply. Which of the unscientific policies insisted on by the Secretary of State makes the most of our evidence? Is it his denial of climate change? Is it his ineffective and inhumane badger culls? Is it his fantasy biodegradable plastic bags? Or is it his national air quality strategy, which would make air pollution worse? Does this not illustrate that in practice the Secretary of State, who appears to be allergic to science, routinely ignores evidence in favour of his own eccentric, ideological views?

The hon. Lady has had months and months to work out that splendid rhetorical blast—I get on with the day job. I was at the cereals show yesterday talking to real farmers who are producing food, and welcoming the first investment in this country by Bayer—following our agri-tech policy—bringing in wheat testing and leading on to the breeding of wheat. That is what an active Department does. [Laughter.]

T7. Have Ministers been able to complete an assessment of the Environment Agency’s proposals to strengthen flood defences to protect the port of Immingham and the villages of New Holland and Barrow Haven, on the south bank of the Humber, following the December tidal surge? When will they be able to make an announcement? (904195)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited the area with him during the flooding. Obviously, we will take advice from the Environment Agency and all the local bodies involved when coming up with plans to protect the area better. The Department for Transport will be included in that, given all the work it will be doing around the port of Immingham.

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) has recovered his composure. I was genuinely concerned that his sides might literally split.

T2. If the Secretary of State is so assiduous and so passionate, how come he got nothing in the Queen’s Speech on the environment—the only thing mentioned is shale gas and fracking? Has he heard the “Farming Today” programme recently, which described the common agricultural policy deal as a “greenwash” which will do nothing for wildlife in this country? (904189)

I listened to “Farming Today” yesterday and today, and I made it very clear that this is a disappointing CAP reform. The hon. Gentleman might wish to reflect on the fact that his previous leader, Mr Tony Blair, gave away a huge slug of our national rebate in return for CAP reform and totally failed to deliver. We are going to deliver £3.5 billion through our pillar 2 schemes for environmental work which he will approve of.

T8. Since May 2010, the Environment Agency has spent about £11.7 million in defending Crawley through improved flood defences, but during this wettest winter on record the area of Ifield Green was still affected. May I have assurances from the Department that it will press Crawley borough council to co-operate fully on further flood defence schemes? (904196)

I agree that that partnership working is crucial to finding solutions in flood risk management, and I strongly encourage all parties, including Crawley borough council, to continue to work closely and to co-operate on flood risk management in the Crawley area.

T3. I never thought it would be possible that in this day and age, in one of the richest countries in the world, I would see my local churches and charities going out collecting money for food banks. Will the Minister pay tribute to those kind and caring people? Is this not in stark contrast to this rotten Government, who shower gifts on the wealthy while they watch the poor go hungry? (904190)

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the great work that is done by the food banks. I regularly visit one in my own constituency that does very good work, and we should celebrate that. On the wider point about food prices, which the Department is responsible for looking at, it is important to note that in the year to the end of April, food price inflation was down to 0.5% and food prices have actually fallen in the past couple of months, so this is now significantly below average inflation in the economy.

The removal of notifiable disease status for contagious equine metritis and equine viral arteritis is causing much concern in the world-class blood stock industry in this country. Is the Minister aware that the export of horses from the UK to Hong Kong, India, Qatar, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries is likely to be hit because notifiable status is a prerequisite for horses in those countries?

I had the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, with a delegation from the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association. I understand the points they are making. Although those two diseases have a low impact and can be prevented through the application of the industry’s codes of practice, there could be some concerns about the impact on trade. That is why I have asked officials to look at the matter closely, to reassess the impacts on the trade, and to investigate alternative ways forward, such as burden sharing with the industry. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking at this closely and will take his views into account.

T4. More than 2 million households in England and Wales are spending more than 5% of their household income on water bills. Will the Secretary of State explain exactly what plans the Government have to give Ofwat more powers or to bring in measures that will require all water companies to tackle water bills for everybody, particularly for that 5% of households? (904191)

I thank the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to what is happening with water bills. As companies are coming up to the price review period, bills will be levelling off or dropping. It is therefore vital that we have a strong regulator, so extra powers are needed. It is a strong message from Government that we are supporting it in its work as a good independent regulator, and that will lead to better deals for consumers.

I know that the Secretary of State intends to drive a hard bargain with the insurance industry, so he will be shocked to learn that a business in Bradford-on-Avon that was devastated by the floods at Christmas has had its business rate relief deducted from the assessment of its losses by its insurer. Clearly, it is not the Government’s intention that business rate relief should be a sop to the insurance industry, so will he use his relationship with the industry to ensure that this practice ends?

I and Ministers from other Departments hold regular round-table meetings with the insurance industry, and I will be sure to raise the issue that my hon. Friend has mentioned this morning.

T6. With beef prices falling, beef farmers in my constituency are keen to ensure that the Department uses its good offices to increase public procurement of beef for the defence industry, national health service, schools and others. Will the Minister please look at that urgently? (904194)

I can confirm that Peter Bonfield is currently doing a piece of work for us on how we might improve the Government’s buying standard and have a more balanced approach to procurement so that price is not the only determinant. He is working on that and we expect to publish details of that plan later this year.

The collapse in beef prices is having a very damaging effect on the market. What steps can the Government take to ensure that where cheap imports from eastern Europe are for sale on supermarket shelves, shoppers know that they are cheap imports?

There is a requirement for country of origin labelling on all fresh meat. We are holding a summit later this summer to look at the problems experienced by the meat industry. It will consider those issues and how we might increase exports of beef.

T9. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) highlighted the importance of science-based policy making. Will the Minister tell the House how often the Marine Management Organisation’s scientific group has met since it was set up in 2010? (904197)

I am afraid that I do not have that information to hand, but I will get in touch with the hon. Lady and give her that information.