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Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015

The Government are delivering on their priorities of growing the economy and improving the environment. Since 2010, we have cut farm inspections by 34,000 a year. We have helped create 150,000 acres of priority habitats. We have planted more than 11 million trees. We have cleaned up more than 10,000 miles of river. We have reformed the common fisheries policy, invested £3.2 billion in our flood defences, providing protection to an additional 230,000 homes, and put in place a strategy to eradicate bovine TB. This is a record we can be proud of.

Will the Secretary of State join me in applauding the work of the Forestry Commission to secure a criminal conviction against those who illegally felled more than 500 trees in Basingstoke in a failed attempt to establish a Traveller site? Will she look at ways to encourage the courts to use the fining powers that are available to them to help stop this sort of appalling environmental vandalism?

I welcome the fact that the Forestry Commission’s enforcement action has been successful, and I applaud its exercise of these important powers. We take protection of our woodlands seriously, and no doubt the Commission will pursue the restocking requirements vigorously. It is for the courts to determine sentences, but I fully expect the restocking burden to act as a key deterrent.

If the Government’s record in tackling lethal air pollution is as good as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), claimed earlier, why is Britain facing unprecedented fines and legal action in the European courts for failing on every single air quality measure?

I am happy that the right hon. Gentleman is focusing attention on this. As he will no doubt be aware, one of the key factors is transport fuels, especially diesel, and the failure of vehicles to meet in real-world conditions what was shown by testing when they were approved for use. We must make improvements at the European level on vehicles standards and testing. We also make funds available to local authorities to help them take measures locally to deal with air quality. It is a crucial issue.

T3. Will the Secretary of State confirm that her Department is on course to have cut red tape for farmers by cutting guidance by 80% and by reducing the number of farm inspections by 34,000 during this Parliament? When she is returned after 7 May, will she ensure that cutting red tape includes making it easier and cheaper for my Nottinghamshire farmers and riparian owners to maintain the streams and rivers that protect the countryside? (908010)

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen a reduction of 34,000 farm inspections per year and an 80% reduction in red tape from DEFRA. That is vital for our £100 billion food and farming industry. A future Conservative Government would continue to bear down on red tape. We are considering pilots for landowners and farmers to manage water courses themselves, to get rid of a lot of bureaucracy.

T5. I hope that the Minister’s office passed on notice of my question; I appreciate that it is quite obscure. Musicians face anxiety when they travel to the United States because if their instruments contain even small amounts of ivory they fall foul of the convention on international trade in endangered species regulations. Will the Minister assure me that CITES certificates will be recognised by the US authorities and, in the longer term, may we perhaps look at an exemption for vintage instruments? I think that mother of pearl as well as ivory is an issue. (908013)

We are aware of these concerns and certainly want the US Government to recognise CITES musical instrument certificates, to ease the task of musicians travelling to the US with instruments that contain small amounts of legal ivory. Ultimately, these are matters for the US Government to determine. However, we intend to approach the European Commission and other EU member states to propose a joint approach to ask the US to clarify its position, with the aim of providing the reassurances the hon. Lady seeks.

T4. So much done, so much still to do. Will my right hon. Friend commit to giving statutory status as consultees to water companies for fracking, major developments and houses and roads? In the time available, what will she look back on and see as her Department’s major achievement over the past five years? (908012)

I certainly commit to my hon. Friend that we will ensure that there are proper environmental protections for water, as part of the Environment Agency’s work on protection for fracking areas. On the Department’s achievements, we have put food and farming at the heart of the long-term economic plan. We have seen food exports rise to £19 billion. That is vital for the one in eight people in this country who work in food and farming.

May I ask the Secretary of State not to be too complacent about our streams and rivers in this country? Has she seen recent research? I have registered interests as the initiator of Greenstreams, which cleans up the rivers in my part of the world, and in environmental waste. Does she know that the old landfills are leaching tonnes of ammonia into our rivers every year? If we do not do something about it, the 27.5 tonnes of ammonia that go into one Oxford river every year will continue to do so, and that will happen all over the country.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Since 2010, phosphates and sulphides in water have reduced. That is positive progress, but of course he is absolutely right: there is more to do. That is why we have just launched the water element of the countryside stewardship programme, which provides incentives to do just that.

T6. With so many large infrastructure projects in the pipeline, what input has the Secretary of State had in looking at the cumulative environmental impact of projects such as High Speed 2 and airport expansion? How many meetings has she had with the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd, and how regular are those meetings? (908015)

Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, have regular meetings throughout the year with Ministers from other Departments, and of course, at official level, we engage very strongly across Departments on such issues. Planning guidance on the need to protect our environment is absolutely clear.

The Minister will be aware of the current price war in the supermarkets with regard to the price of a loaf of bread. Sainsbury’s is selling Hovis at 75p a loaf. What can Ministers do to ensure that that does not adversely impact people working in the baking industry?

The supermarket adjudicator requires retailers to stick to the terms of contracts, not retrospectively to hit suppliers or unreasonably request them to take part in promotions. Through the groceries code and the adjudicator, we have measures in place to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman cites.

T7. Shoreham in my constituency has a flourishing houseboat community, which adds to the colour of our town. Alas, it also adds to the colour of the water flowing into Shoreham harbour until high tide washes it away, as few boats have sewage tanks or are linked to drainage on the shore. Do the Government have any plans to tighten up on pollution from boats used as homes? (908016)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight potential risks from sewage pollution in water. If the Environment Agency can demonstrate a problem, it can issue a notice within 3 nautical miles of an area of operation. Since 1994, all new recreational craft should be fitted with holding tanks that allow managed discharge. Larger vessels are covered by maritime conventions. If there are specific issues in his area and he would like to write to me about them, I will get him a more detailed answer from the agency.

We heard earlier of the broadband and other problems of those trying to access rural payments. I know personally the dire experience of broadband services across much of Northumberland, so three years after Labour’s universal broadband commitment would have come into force, will the Secretary of State admit that this Government have sacrificed the rural economy in order to subsidise a monopoly roll-out by BT of superfast broadband mainly in urban and semi-urban areas?

During this Parliament, we have seen superfast broadband coverage rise from 43% to 80%, and we are seeing connectivity improving in rural areas and the gap between rural and urban areas close in terms of productivity and earnings, as well as better road connections, such as the dualling of the A11.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s help for dairy farming through exports, public procurement and general support, but what talks has she had with the banks? I think milk prices will improve, but the banks need to support farmers in the meantime.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There will be short-term cash-flow pressures on farmers who are currently receiving low prices and in some cases have quite high costs. I have had a meeting already with the banks to discuss this and to encourage them to show forbearance. As the Secretary of State said earlier, we have also been encouraging HMRC to show forbearance to those farmers facing difficulties, and I will continue to monitor the issue closely.

May I urge the Government to reconsider their policy? Although they offer support for bovine TB badger vaccination projects in edge areas, they do not provide that same support in so-called hot-spot areas. I have been working with the Zoological Society of London on a project which has just been very successfully rolled out for its first pilot this year in Penwith. I urge the Government to look at that seriously, because projects in hot spots could make a telling and important contribution to bearing down on bovine TB.

I have met the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue. He is aware that we have made an offer at DEFRA to give some support to that project in his constituency, notably to provide it with free vaccines and some equipment. However, the edge area vaccination scheme is in the edge area for a very good reason: the vaccine does not cure badgers that already have the disease. There is logic to using the vaccine in the edge area, to create a buffer to prevent the spread of the disease, but less so in the high-risk areas.