Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Marine Management Organisation (Ray Quotas)
The Marine Management Organisation is urgently pursuing the possibility of quota swaps with other member states. If sufficient additional quota can be acquired through this means, a limited reopening of the fishery may be possible. If not, the fishery will reopen again on 1 January.
Last week the important fish processor in my constituency closed its doors, with the loss of many jobs. Many marine experts regard the monitoring and data processing of landing declarations by the MMO as a joke. Will the Minister hold an inquiry into the management of quota by the MMO? What is he to say to northern Devon fishermen and allied trades who have lost their jobs when, as a result of their pioneering conservation measures, fish stocks in the Bristol channel are abundant?
I am very sympathetic to the arguments my hon. and learned Friend makes. Indeed, when he raised it with me last week I asked the MMO to redouble its efforts to find additional quota. It has been a very good summer of fishing. We do not normally have this problem with skates and rays. It is something that took everyone by surprise, including producer organisations. However, I am keen that lessons are learned. That is why I will be having discussions with the MMO about how it manages the quota on this particular stock. We will also be looking to ensure that next year his constituents continue to have a quota to fish from 1 January.
Will my hon. Friend guarantee to the House today that he will do everything he can to seek additional quota in the negotiations next year to ensure that British fisherman can continue to fish for the whole year without this disastrous effect?
Yesterday, I was in Belfast for the meeting of a stakeholder group of fishing industry leaders. We discussed the approach to the December Council. The UK always takes a science-based approach. We have to recognise that it is in the long-term interests of the fishing industry that we fish our fisheries sustainably. That said, we will be looking at mixed fisheries analysis to ensure that we achieve maximum sustainable yield where possible next year and everywhere else by 2020.
Ofwat will announce its current price review in December. The draft determinations indicate that average water bills in England and Wales will fall by up to 5% in real terms from 2015 to 2020. This will mean lower bills for hard-working taxpayers as part of our long-term economic plan.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply, but is it not the case that the Government have allowed water companies to boost their profits by 12% while average households have lost 5% of income? When will the Government stand up to the fat cat water bosses?
If we look at how much water bills rose under Labour, we see that from 1999 to 2009 bills went up by 20%. Under the new tough regulation of Ofwat, we are seeing a potential reduction of up to 5%, meaning lower bills for consumers, more investment in the water industry, and cleaner rivers and beaches.
One way to reduce water bills is to reduce unnecessary water consumption, which occurs as more meters are rolled out. Another way to reduce costs is to cut leakage. What steps are being taken to encourage the water companies to increase the number of meters and to cut their leaks?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we make water usage more efficient. What we have seen since the industry was privatised 25 years ago is £116 billion of investment to upgrade infrastructure, reduce leakage, put in meters and make the industry more efficient.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the early price determinations under this Government were the result of the previous Government’s policy. The recent price determination that has happened on our watch is seeing a potential reduction in the draft determination of up to 5%. We have already seen water companies keep their bills low and stabilised in recent years.
Marine Protected Areas
We regularly receive correspondence about marine protected areas, including on the marine charter put forward by Link. I will be attending the marine charter parliamentary reception on 19 November.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, let me say how pleased I am that Dorset was included in the original 27 marine conservation zones. However, does the Minister agree that there is a long way to go before we can achieve a full network of marine protected areas by 2016, as set out in the Act, and can he say what level of commitment the Government are giving to achieve those important objectives?
Earlier this year we announced 37 candidate sites for the second tranche of marine conservation zones and we intend to publish a consultation on the second tranche in the new year. It is our intention to have a third tranche in 2016, so the work to take forward additional marine conservation zones is well under way.
But a lot of the work has already been done. For example, a huge amount of research was done on whether the 127 marine conservation zones were economically viable. When will the Minister actually start designating the zones that are needed if we are to have an ecologically coherent marine conservation network?
We have started designating them. The first 27 were designated a year ago and, as I said, we are consulting on the second tranche. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science is doing a huge amount of work—it did a lot of work this summer. We spent around £10 million on research to get the best evidence we can so that these decisions are informed by the scientific evidence. That work is going on, and we plan to do this in three tranches, as we have made clear all along.
I am sure the Minister will agree that marine protected areas are only part of the conservation measures we need in our seas. Does he agree that more conservation work needs to be done, for example on bass, stocks of which, so the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea informs us, are absolutely plummeting?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As Minister for the marine environment, he did a huge amount to take forward marine conservation zones. When it comes to bass, I can tell him that we expect to have an important breakthrough in December. We have always said that there should be technical measures. The stock has been fished unsustainably and there is a tentative proposal, which we expect to be raised at the December Council, that will look at both bag limits and catch limits, so that we can preserve this vital stock.
I wonder whether the Minister has ever been to the Isle of Wight, which is of course an island that people can get to only by using a ferry. There is concern on the island that marine protection areas could get in the way of ferries, which are the only regular way to get to the island. What is he going to do about that?
My hon. Friend has extended an invitation to me to visit the Isle of Wight. I look forward to a journey on the hovercraft—I think it is the last one we have operating in the UK—to meet his constituents. He has raised concerns about some of the proposed marine conservation zones around the Isle of Wight. I can assure him that socio-economic factors are taken into account when we assess MCZs, as set out in the 2009 Act. I hope to have the opportunity to visit the Isle of Wight in the months ahead.
The Government have committed around £560 million to support those affected by flooding last winter. That includes an extra £270 million to repair and maintain critical flood defences. We are helping households and businesses through the repair and renew grant and through council tax and rates relief. Farmers and fishermen are receiving funding for repairs through existing schemes and we are supporting businesses through a £10 million hardship fund.
After Eton flooded in February, the Prime Minister promised that money would be no object. However, for many Hull homes and businesses hit by the December tidal surge, that soon changed to “Out of sight, out of mind,” and they are still awaiting help. Can the Minister tell me what percentage of the promised assistance to flood-hit communities has actually gone to those affected?
As I set out to the hon. Lady, there are a number of schemes in place. Some are still paying out and will do so until the end of the financial year. If she has particular concerns about issues in her part of the world, I would be happy to meet her, as ever, to discuss them, but those schemes are available to all those affected by flooding during the period of extreme weather from early December last year through to the end of April.
More homes were flooded in 2012-13 across the Yorkshire region, so I hope the Minister might meet a delegation of Yorkshire MPs to consider how our roads and bridges might best be recovered. What progress has been made with the Treasury on having one fund—one budget—between capital expenditure and revenue expenditure for total expenditure on flood spending? That would help communities to recover more quickly and end the senseless rows about the size of the pump and which budget it should come from.
I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee for her question, raising issues to do with transport recovery, which have been well supported by the Department for Transport. I encourage my hon. Friend and other colleagues from Yorkshire to continue to discuss that with Ministers from that Department. On the distribution of the maintenance, revenue and capital money that we have invested in flood defences and coastal risk management—a record amount of money—we continue to discuss with the Treasury whether flexibilities might be helpful in this regard. The Select Committee’s work has been of great help.
The hon. Gentleman’s part of the world has seen investment in flood schemes to help protect communities and keep them safe, and I understand that that work is coming to a conclusion. On flood insurance, we continue to make progress, along with the Association of British Insurers, to set up Flood Re, a new organisation that will provide affordable flood insurance to those not provided for in the market. We are on track to implement that next year.
Like the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), I have constituents living in flood-risk areas who are struggling to get reasonably priced flood or household insurance. Is there a date by which the insurance companies will offer the new support for which we are looking, and, in the meantime, should they not be a little bit more flexible with constituents living in these areas?
I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend any specific issues he has on behalf of his constituency. The statement of principles, which exists with the insurance industry, is still in operation up until the implementation of Flood Re. We of course have regular discussions with the industry to ensure that people are being offered the flood insurance they need.
The answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), which the Minister failed to give, is £403,000 out of the £10 million that the Government promised—less than 5%. That applied at the beginning of the summer recess. Tomorrow is 31 October, the day on which the Government promised that all the 890 flood defences damaged last year and in need of urgent repair would have that work completed. Will the Minister assure us that the 49% of those repairs that had not been completed by last month will be finished by tomorrow, as promised? The people at risk from those 437 unfinished schemes would really like to know.
The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that work has continued since that reference point in September. The vast majority of those schemes will be completed by the end of the month, and temporary defences are in place to protect any communities where the work is still ongoing into November. The vast majority will be completed by the end of this month.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
TTIP could be worth up to £10 billion a year for the UK. It has the potential to deliver significant opportunities for UK agriculture, food and drink. We are working very closely with BIS to ensure that TTIP maximises the benefits for UK businesses and consumers.
The poultry industry, by which I mean the producers of poultry meat and eggs, have driven up animal welfare standards and hygiene in their businesses. Will the Minister assure that industry that that progress will not be compromised by unfair competition from US producers following lower standards?
I have met members of the poultry industry and the British Poultry Council to discuss their concerns. We managed to get a very successful free trade agreement with Canada. Sometimes it is possible to work through the sanitary and phytosanitary issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, as well as animal welfare issues, and to establish equivalent rather than identical measures. That is the spirit in which we should approach the negotiations.
I welcome the openness of a free trade agreement, but can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that there are no mechanisms included in it—such as an investor-state dispute settlement—that would enable powerful vested interests to bully future Governments into dropping legislation that would improve food standards? We have already seen that happen with the disgraceful action of the Philip Morris tobacco company against the Australian Government.
I know that some people have expressed concern about the use of ISDS. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom are very conscious of that, and we do not intend to allow such agreements to undermine our ability to set our own welfare and regulatory standards when it comes to animal health.
Given that this country has been a member of the European Union in its various guises for more than 40 years, does my hon. Friend not think that we could have made faster progress in negotiating the trade deal with the United States of America if we had been doing it on our own rather than relying on the European Union to do it for us?
My hon. Friend may be right. It might have been possible to reach some of these free trade agreements more quickly. Indeed, we do make certain changes bilaterally, when it is a question of breaking down some of the non-tariff barriers to trade. However, being part of a customs union in the EU is of significant importance to our food industry, which is the largest manufacturing industry in the country.
Bovine tuberculosis is a terrible disease which threatens the future of our beef and dairy industries. We are pursuing a comprehensive strategy which includes improved cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas, and culling badgers in areas where the disease is rife. We will publish all the data and the results of this year's culls once the quality assurance processes and the independent audit have been completed.
Let us remember the situation that we inherited in 2010, The last Government failed to take any action on this issue, and we ended up with the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe. Are Opposition Members proud of that record? Are they proud of the fact that the disease increased ninefold on their watch? As I have said, we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy which includes improved cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas, and culling where the disease is rife.
If we are concerned about all God’s creation, we ought to be just as concerned about cattle as we are about badgers. Is it not the case that the Republic of Ireland, whose beef cattle and dairy herds are similar to ours and which has had similar problems with TB, has followed exactly the same policies as this Government, and as a consequence has seen a 25% reduction in cattle TB infection?
My right hon. Friend has made an excellent point about Ireland. A similar policy has been pursued in New Zealand, where numbers have also been reduced; and Australia, whose comprehensive strategy involved culling in the wildlife population as well as improved movement controls, has eradicated bovine TB. It is vital to the future of our dairy and beef industries that we eradicate this terrible disease. We are the Government who are prepared to make difficult decisions, rather than repeating the outrageous failures of the last Government. They left us with the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe: that is the disgrace.
Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s bluster, it is a fact that, following the catastrophic failures in year one—last year’s failures were catastrophic—in year two the Secretary of State abolished the independent expert panel, which was too independent for the Government. The Government watered down the estimates of the badger populations, and threw out the Secretary of State’s own original guidance, which involved culling 70% of badgers within six weeks in year one. Why did the methodology used to calculate the number of badgers change from year one to year two, why does the methodology applying to Somerset differ from that applying to Gloucestershire, and why were the methodologies not subject to independent scientific review? Let us go on the evidence.
An independent audit of the culls is currently taking place. A review is also being undertaken by our chief veterinary officer, which is important. The British Veterinary Association fully supports our comprehensive strategy to deal with bovine TB, and it is about time the Opposition thought about how they would deal with this terrible disease rather than criticise our policy, which has been shown, using international evidence, to deliver.
Bearing down on this terrible disease in cattle must clearly involve evidence-based policy making rather than policy-based evidence selection. Further to the question on the scrapping of the independent expert panel, what will the Government do to ensure that the evidence collected from this year’s cull is presented to the whole of the scientific community that has expertise in this subject?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is important that we base our policies on science and evidence, and I am determined to do that. That is why we are independently auditing the results of this year’s culls, and why we had our chief veterinary officer and our chief scientist sign off the numbers for those culls. It is important to understand that this is part of a comprehensive strategy to deal with this issue. The strategy involves vaccination in the edge zones and cattle movement controls, as well as culls where the disease is rife. It has worked in Australia, and it is working in Ireland and New Zealand. Why will the Opposition not look at the evidence?
We are building the nation’s resilience to a changing climate primarily through the implementation of the first “National Adaptation Programme” report, which DEFRA published last July. This sets out more than 370 actions across key sectors involving Government, business, councils, civil society and academia. The Environment Agency’s Climate Ready Support Service also helps a wide range of organisations to adapt.
The position of the coalition Government on mitigation and adaptation has been consistent throughout. The hon. Gentleman asks for my view on opinions that might have been expressed by the former Secretary of State. It would seem that he took a different view on the anthropogenic nature of climate change. However, the Government’s position is clear and has remained clear throughout.
12. Our climate has changed and the risks to the UK have increased considerably, yet the Government have abandoned Labour’s climate change strategy. Will the Minister reverse his Government’s disastrous decision to tear up the consensus on the Climate Change Act 2008 and recommit to the recommendations of the Pitt review? (905752)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has played a leading role in European and international negotiations on carbon emissions, as have other ministerial colleagues. I pay tribute to him for doing that. In relation to adaptation and the implementation of the Pitt review, we are moving on that and we are now consulting on the implementation of the sustainable urban drainage systems—SUDS—regime, which forms part of the final few recommendations in the Pitt report. We are therefore making progress, and I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in what we are doing.
Flood Protection Schemes
Between April 2014 and March 2015, 54 major new flood and coastal defence schemes will be starting construction. Over the period of this Parliament, we are spending more than £3.2 billion, compared with £2.7 billion in the previous five years, to protect this country from floods. This is one of my key priorities as Secretary of State.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer, which I am sure the communities that will benefit from the schemes will welcome. Will she ensure that work starts next year on the Lowestoft flood alleviation scheme, which will not only protect the properties that were badly damaged in last December’s storm surge but attract new investment and jobs to the town?
I enjoyed walking along Lowestoft seafront with my hon. Friend. It was rather a blustery day, but it is a fine town. I look forward to hearing further representations from him on the subject. He is a champion of the people of Lowestoft and I will listen very carefully to his representations.
May we ask this quite new Secretary of State to start doing some joined-up thinking? Is it not about time she joined up the fact that the climate change and the flooding, which we are getting globally but which is making life very hard for people in the floodplains of this country, is linked to global warming? When will she be a big beast, as I hoped she was going to be, or even a little beast, and bang the table in the Cabinet to get us back on track on fighting global warming?
I completely agree that the erratic weather patterns are linked to climate change, which is why my Department is spending a huge amount on flood defences—we are also getting value for money. We are the first Government to put in place a six-year forward-looking programme on capital expenditure for flood defences, meaning that an additional 300,000 homes will be protected.
9. What steps she is taking to support local authorities tackling air pollution in urban areas. (905748)
Local authorities are key to achieving improvements in air quality. We are taking steps to support them, including enabling them to focus more on practical actions to reduce air pollution through plans to streamline reporting requirements. We have DEFRA’s £1 million air quality grant programme, and we are also funding local transport projects. For example, £560 million has been allocated from the Government’s local sustainable transport fund between 2011 and 2015.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but he will know that on 26 September DEFRA published a report on air pollution showing that there has been no improvement in the UK’s air quality over the past year and that 38 of the 43 zones exceed the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide. What is going wrong?
We are taking action locally, nationally and at the European level on the regulation of vehicle emissions, which is crucial to tackling this pollution. The Government are making progress on the issue, and we welcome what local authorities across the country are doing to engage with us on improving air quality locally and meeting our obligations.
Does the Secretary of State welcome the Mayor of London’s game-changing proposals for an ultra-low emissions zone by 2020, which would go a long way towards enabling London to meet existing agreed emissions standards? Will she ensure that London gets the support it needs from central Government to bridge the remaining compliance gap by 2020?
I welcome the fact that the Mayor of London has begun consultation on further proposals to improve air quality in London. I look forward to hearing more on the details of what he is proposing and of course remain very willing to discuss with him how we can support that action.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), given that many, if not most, of the roads breaching agreed European standards are in London, when was the last time the Minister met the Mayor of London and how confident is he that we will avoid the fines threatening the UK because of those breaches?
I have not met the Mayor of London recently, but of course our officials discuss things locally. I recently held a workshop with local authorities across the country, including those in cities in the north, which are working hard to tackle local aspects of air pollution. As I say, I welcome what the Mayor is doing—his consultation on further measures he might take—and when the Government see the details of those proposals we will be happy to discuss how we might support them.
Rivers and Beaches (Cleanliness)
We have made good progress in cleaning up our bathing waters and rivers. Our bathing waters are cleaner now than ever before, with 98% of them passing EU standards. Our rivers are in far better health. Pollution from sewage has gone down significantly. For example, phosphate pollution will fall by a fifth and ammonia by a sixth by 2015.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I believe she is already familiar with the majesty of the River Severn running through my constituency and with the extraordinary work done by the Environment Agency in keeping that river clear. But does she agree that smaller and less impressive rivers such as the River Stour, which also runs through Kidderminster, are just as important and need just as much attention?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I enjoyed walking down the Severn as a child when we briefly lived in Kidderminster—it is a lovely river. Those rivers are highly valued for their landscape, recreation, angling and drinking water supply, and we are involved in many projects to improve the fish stocks on the River Severn. Overall, this Government have cleaned up 10,000 miles of river during this Parliament, which is equivalent to the length of the Amazon and the Nile.
Food and farming are vital to the success of our economy. They generate £100 billion and employ one in eight people. We want to enable farmers to spend their time producing high quality British produce, which is why, by the end of this Parliament, we will have reduced the volume of DEFRA guidance by 80%.
I know that the Government have done more than the previous Labour Administration on tackling regulations on farmers, but there are still many outstanding issues to be addressed. Today, when I spoke to Mr Stuart Jones from Asterley in my constituency, he highlighted additional complications. Will the Secretary of State redouble her efforts to tackle the number of regulations faced by our farmers?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are making our inspection regime much more risk based, so that farmers who do the right thing and who are part of schemes such as Red Tractor or Pig and Poultry get fewer inspections, whereas those who mistreat animals or harm the environment get more of the Government’s attention.
The common agricultural policy payment scheme is being used to trial the Government’s new identity assurance scheme, Verify, but actual authentication is carried out by the private sector company, Experian. Farmers without a credit history are not being authenticated and are not getting their payments. Is getting into debt now a new regulation to be followed before farmers can be paid?
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. (905758)
The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are: leading the world in food and farming; protecting our country from floods and animal and plant diseases; improving the environment and championing the countryside; and improving rural services. Food and farming are core parts of our long-term economic plan, contributing nearly £100 billion to the economy and employing one in eight people. I am sure that the House will want to join me in celebrating the latest figures that show we are now exporting our world-class food and drink to a record number of markets. That includes more than 1 billion pints of great British beer being sold to 113 countries.
Will the Secretary of State help Britain’s hard-pressed dairy farmers by supporting fixed-price contracts and looking again at the product labelling regime and take some form of supply chain initiative with retailers and processers to dissuade them from, among other things, using liquid milk as a loss-leader?
I met the board of Dairy UK last week. I am keen to work to help our industry become competitive and deal with the increasing exposure to international markets. There are things that can be done on price volatility, and I have spoken to the supermarkets and the intermediaries on the matter.
T2. I share the concerns of the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) about the UK dairy industry, which is deeply depressed in many parts of the country, and is suffering very large losses. We have an opportunity to debate this matter next week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has secured a debate on it in Westminster Hall. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that she is meeting those concerns and is fully engaged with this problem, which threatens much of the dairy industry? (905759)
I am very much engaged with this matter, as is the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). On a positive note, dairy exports have risen by 50% since 2010. I was in Paris last week at the SIAL trade fair—the world’s largest trade fair—and I met representatives from White Farm Cheddar who are now selling their cheese in the Carrefour supermarket chain across France. We have good international prospects for our dairy industry, and we are working hard to open the markets for British producers.
As I have just said, food and farming is one of our largest industries. It contributes £100 billion to the economy. There are 250,000 hectares of commercial roofs where solar panels can be located, but I do not think it is right that we locate solar panels on productive agricultural land that could be contributing to our economy, and I am sure the hon. Lady would not want that to happen.
There we have it—the Secretary of State had no underpinning evidence, just an ideological prejudice. Does she not realise, as the National Farmers Union has said, that land can be multifunctional, yielding an agricultural benefit as well as producing energy? At a time when National Grid is having to prepare contingency plans to ration energy use this winter because spare generating capacity is at a seven-year low, does she really think her priority should be cutting Britain’s ability to generate clean electricity? Is not this just another example of the self-styled greenest Government ever now resorting, in the Prime Minister’s words, to getting rid of the “green crap”, regardless of the consequences for our energy security?
This Government have a very good record on the environment. We have seen carbon emissions and air pollution go down and our rivers and water are cleaner. The problem with the hon. Lady’s point is that she does not seem to understand how important food and farming is to the rural economy. Under her Government, she failed to deal with animal diseases and the problems in that industry. The reality is that under this Government, we are seeing production expanding and overseas markets opening, and food and farming is now a much bigger success.
T3. Handline mackerel is a superb, sustainably caught fish, and many fishermen from my constituency have been struggling to secure a realistic price during the summer. How are the Government helping Cornish mackerel fishermen, and mackerel and herring fishermen throughout the UK, to combat the Russian trade embargo? (905760)
As a Cornishman, I am well aware of the importance of the handlining mackerel industry in Cornwall. We have managed to secure agreement from the Commission to allow us to bank up to 25% of this year’s quota to next year, to remove some mackerel from the market if necessary. We have also been very successful at reopening the market in Nigeria, which has been a particularly important market for many of our mackerel producers.
T4. Last night, young people from Peru told MPs about the dire effects that climate change is having on their agricultural communities, and asked that Governments listen to what people in those communities need. Will the Minister give support to international and national initiatives to tackle climate change once and for all? (905761)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am rather pleased he is not here—nothing personal.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Humber flood risk strategy, which is a joint strategy supported by all Members of Parliament to get £880 million of investment into the Humber for our defences? The current system does not work for us. We need a specific solution for the Humber.
My hon. Friend and his colleagues across the House who represent areas in the Humber estuary rightly consistently raise the need to review flood defences there and make sure that we have adequate investment. We will be bringing forward a capital programme alongside the autumn statement, and I know that he and his colleagues are very much pushing the case for investment in his area.
T5. Investing in research is vital if we are to meet the challenges of climate adaptation. Will the Secretary of State be a champion for an increase in our science budget, so that we can encourage innovation in both the public and private sectors? (905764)
I am very keen on science. It is vital that we use it better across Government. I have had a number of discussions with our chief scientist about our science strategy, which we will be launching in due course. We need science not just for the environment, which is very important, but also for our food and farming industry, and that is why we are sponsoring agri-tech strategies on how to obtain better yields from our crops and use water more effectively. Through better use of science and technology we can see a real improvement to our environment.
T8. Although west bank residents of the River Severn in Bewdley have benefited from brilliant flood defences, those on the east bank live with the uncertainty of the Environment Agency’s final solution to local flooding. May I urge my right hon. Friend to seriously consider demountable flood barriers to protect the east bank residents of Beales Corner in Bewdley? (905767)
I am aware that there is a long-standing flooding issue at Beales Corner and that, as my hon. Friend says, the Environment Agency is trialling temporary flood defence barriers there. I understand that the trial is set to continue until 2017 while longer-term solutions are being considered and the agency, quite properly, consults the community, but if my hon. Friend has further concerns and would like to write to me, I would be happy to discuss those with him.
I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the vital role of the Food and Environment Research Agency in detecting and responding to threats to our natural environment and the food chain, particularly in the light of the UK signing up to the transatlantic trade and investment partnership agreement. Will the right hon. Lady think again about privatising this agency, given its vital role?
That is not what we are doing. We are creating a joint venture. I went to visit FERA in York last week. It is a world-class institution, researching all kinds of things from plant diseases to the security of our food chain, which is very important, so I fully support its efforts. I want to see it much better linked into all the work we do across Government so that we can have a truly science-based strategy.
T7. After that introduction, Mr Speaker, I hope I do not disappoint, but thank you for calling me, in any event. What steps are being taken to increase the planting of commercial forestry in this country so that we do not face again the problems of yesteryear, and businesses have the timber supply they need? (905766)
There is a huge opportunity to expand the market for high-quality British timber, and I am pleased to say that since Grown in Britain started last year, we have seen an 8% increase in the amount of domestic timber and British wood products that we are selling. I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has the very large Kielder forest in his constituency, and I look forward to its future success.
If the Secretary of State is so keen on science, why does she not start applying it to the issue of where the birdsongs have gone? Will she look at Caitlin Moran’s recent article on this? The birds are disappearing from our gardens and our countryside, and they have disappeared even faster in the past four years. What is she doing about that with science?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Some weeks ago I visited the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ farm, Hope farm, up in Cambridgeshire. When we announce our new agri-environment schemes, measures that will support the recovery of farmland birds will certainly be among them.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can the Secretary of State find out what has happened to the scheduling of payments for higher-level stewardship schemes for farmers in my environmentally sensitive part of Somerset? These have been contracted for a 10-year period but they seem to have been cut, delayed or changed without consultation or notice, and many farmers depend on them for their business.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. An important part of the agri-environment scheme in the next few years will be to fund higher-level stewardship schemes to conclusion. If she has particular concerns, I am happy to discuss those with her. There has been some alignment on the start dates of some of the schemes, but I am not aware of any problems with schemes discontinuing.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Foreign National Offenders
As the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission is overseas, I have been asked to reply. The Public Accounts Committee is taking evidence on the report next week on 5 November. The normal process would be for that to be followed by a report from the Committee, which the Government would respond to in due course in the form of a Treasury minute.
The Leader of the House will be aware that there are far too many foreign national offenders serving their sentences in our prisons who should be serving their sentences in prisons back in their own country. Will he ensure that the Committee has all the resources it needs to expedite its follow-up of this very important report, and that the Government’s response is as speedy as possible?
My hon. Friend knows how seriously the Government take this. Indeed, the NAO report states that the number of removals has increased by 12% over the past two years, the time taken to deport foreign national offenders is reducing and the number of failed removals is decreasing. The Home Secretary has indicated her determination on that. The pursuit of this is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, rather than the Public Accounts Commission, on whose behalf I am answering today. The Government will continue to take this very seriously.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Ordination of Women
The Church’s memorandum to the Ecclesiastical Committee gave a detailed assessment of that provision. I also refer the hon. Lady to the Lords Hansard report for 14 October, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury ably explained clause 2. I tried to explain it when I took the measure through the House but, given that she has tabled this question, clearly I lamentably failed.
I welcome the fact that we have recently had this long overdue Measure through Parliament, and the right hon. Gentleman will know that I have put in an early bid for the Bishop of Hull to be a woman. However, I am concerned about clause 2. Does he share my concern that this country’s established Church will not be governed by the laws of this land? I think that it is a very odd situation for the established Church to be in.
We are very much governed by the laws of this land, which is why the Measure had to go to the Ecclesiastical Committee, a statutory Committee of both Houses of Parliament, and then had to be approved by both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and last week you, Mr Speaker, announced that it had been granted Royal Assent. Had the hon. Lady had serious concerns about clause 2, she could have raised them in the debate—[Interruption.] Yes, she did raise them, but if I had not managed to assuage those concerns for her and the House sufficiently, she could have divided the House on the matter. Parliament has now agreed to the Measure and—this is the substantive point—the only reason it is here is to help ensure that the arrangements work; it is not putting the Church of England outside gender and equality legislation. Were it to do so, I have absolutely no doubt that the Government would have opposed it.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
I am about to give a surprising response, Mr Speaker. The number of postal votes received by returning officers after close of poll at the May 2014 European Parliament elections was 51,790, compared with just under 5 million postal votes returned before close of poll—around 1% of the total. Similar electoral data from all major elections since 2004 can be accessed on the commission’s website, and I will ask the commission to write to my hon. Friend and place a copy in the Library.
Bearing in mind the larger turnout we can expect at next year’s general election, that means that around 100,000 people are likely to return their votes, thinking that they have voted, but in fact they will never be counted. Is there anything the Electoral Commission can do to try to improve that state of affairs?
There is an onus on all of us to get the message to our constituents that anyone voting by post should ensure that they get their postal vote away in good time, especially if they are voting from overseas. All electoral registration officers can make an arrangement with the Royal Mail so that all postal votes in the sorting office on polling day are collected and taken to the returning officer. I think that it is important that all EROs enter into such arrangements.
In 2012 the law was changed to allow returning officers to write to people whose postal votes were rejected because of signature or date of birth errors. Surely it would make sense to allow them to write to those whose postal votes were returned late to notify them and help ensure that they do not do it again.
About 3.5 million Brits live overseas and are entitled to register to vote. I do not have the figure relating to my hon. Friend’s second question—that is shameful and disgraceful on my part, and I will certainly write to him about it. The good news is that overseas voters can now register to vote online. That has never happened before. We can get the message out to people in that category that they can register online, which will make the process a great deal easier and much more rapid.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church of England is taking a significant role in tackling extremism by supporting the work of the Government and by working through its own networks of local communities and the wider international Anglican communion.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the sentence of death by hanging announced last week on Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five young children who has already spent four years in jail in Pakistan under that country’s unacceptable blasphemy laws? Will my right hon. Friend join me and others in the House in sending out a clear message to the Government of Pakistan that they must review this case?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. This is a terrible, grim and desperate case. I fear that it is a stain on the reputation of Pakistan that this young woman should have been in prison for such a long time.
Far too often around the world, cases of apostasy and the way in which blasphemy laws are used in some cases, as in Pakistan, are a complete offence against the principles of the United Nations charter on freedom of religion. We all need to take every opportunity to express to the Pakistani high commissioner in London and the Government of Pakistan how desperate and sad the world is to see that Pakistan has not managed to resolve that case more swiftly.
Only the other day, the Archbishop of Canterbury commented that Christianity is at risk of being completely eliminated from the whole of the Levant. I know that he is in discussions with faith leaders from across the middle east to see how we can work together to try to ensure that some religious tolerance returns as swiftly as possible.
The situation is desperate: the world appears to be going backwards, away from the high principles of the United Nations charter of 1945 and towards a situation in which intolerance, rather than tolerance, is increasingly becoming the norm.
Between December and July, the Crown Nominations Commission is due to consider appointments to four vacant diocesan sees: Southwell and Nottingham, Gloucester, Oxford, and Newcastle. In addition, nine of the Church’s 68 suffragan sees are either vacant or due to become vacant over the coming months.
I do not suppose that the Church Commissioners can do anything to recognise the wonderful work by Huddersfield doctor Geraldine O’Hara. Many of us will have heard her diary from Sierra Leone. However, the House could recognise what she is doing. The Church Commissioners can recognise another woman, Catherine Ogle, the dean of Birmingham, who I believe should be an early candidate for bishop.
There are a number of very impressive senior women in the Church of England, including cathedral deans such as the one to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. There are also women archdeacons and others who I am sure will be in contention for early appointment as women bishops in the Church of England.
The investments of the Church Commissioners are the responsibility of the assets committee. They are guided by a professional investment team supported by external advisers and the advice of the Church of England ethical investment advisory group.
The Church Commissioners have investments of just over £6 billion. From that is generated an annual income of about £100 million, most of which is devoted to clergy pensions, and the rest to helping poorer dioceses across the country, such as Durham and Liverpool, and supporting their mission work. The Church Commissioners are advised by the Ethical Investment Advisory Group. I assure my hon. Friend, and the House, that we take considerable care to monitor any investment that might have an effect in these areas: tobacco, defence, non-military firearms, gambling, pornography, high interest rate lending, stem cell research, alcohol, and genetically modified organisms. For each and every one of those, the assets committee and the Ethical Investment Advisory Group spend hours and hours working to produce detailed policy to try and ensure not only that we do not invest inappropriately but that we use our investments to encourage companies to act responsibly.
I think that the Church of England believes in having partnerships of constructive engagement with the companies in which it invests. Therefore, will the Church Commissioners, first, call for SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration firm in which it has shares, to launch an independent investigation into the allegations of corruption and violence that it has attracted in its dealings with the Virunga national park in Democratic Republic of the Congo; and secondly, explain how this investment aligns with the Christian values of the Church?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Individual Voter Registration (Scotland)
Owing to the recent referendum, the transition to individual voter registration in Scotland started only on 19 September. The commission will report on initial progress of the transition in November, with similar information to be published on its recent analysis of progress made in England and Wales, where 87% of electors were matched and can be automatically transferred to the new register.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Unfortunately, I have wards in my constituency where fewer than 50% of people were successfully matched. Given that record numbers registered for and participated in last month’s referendum, including, particularly, 16 and 17-year-olds, what steps will be taken to ensure that young people are encouraged to do individual voter registration if they are not properly matched under the existing arrangements?
I can give an assurance to the hon. Lady. First, as I said earlier, it is now possible to register online, and for younger people, in particular, that is now very easy to do. Secondly, a public awareness campaign has been launched in Scotland, as I hope that many of her constituents are aware. Finally, and crucially, no one will come off the register between now and May 2015. If they are on the register today—or were on it a month or two months ago—they will be able to vote in May 2015. That is an important message.