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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015

DEFRA’s priorities are a cleaner, healthier environment, a world-leading food and farm industry, a thriving rural economy, and a nation that is well defended against natural threats and hazards. As a one-nation Government, we will ensure that people in rural areas have access to the same opportunities and technologies as those in towns and cities. We want to unleash the potential of our fantastic countryside.

All sectors of the livestock industry, which is hugely important in Montgomeryshire, are struggling with low prices, and that includes milk producers. The Minister said earlier that he saw a positive long-term outlook, but many dairy farmers will not survive in the long term. What steps are the Government taking to help to ensure that all livestock farmers can compete internationally on a level playing field?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. The dairy industry is vital to the future of food and farming. I was delighted when the Chancellor announced in the Budget that farmers would be able to “tax average” over five years, which will help to manage the current volatility. We are also seeing exciting developments in the dairy sector: for example, the producer organisation launched by Dairy Crest will improve farmers’ bargaining powers when they are selling their products.

In a message to all the people of the world, Pope Francis will say that climate change is mainly caused by human activity, and threatens unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem. Does the Secretary of State agree with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), her predecessor as Environment Secretary and a well-known climate change denier, or does she agree with the Pope?

I agree with the Pope. The Government are absolutely committed to tackling climate change. The Paris summit is coming up, and we have taken the lead in securing a deal to limit temperature rises to 2°, which is an important priority. Our Department is clearly responsible for adaptation to climate change, and we take that into account in everything that we do, whether it relates to agriculture, flood defences or protecting nature.

I am glad to hear it. The right hon. Lady has accepted the second-largest percentage cut of any Department—an £83 million decrease—in this year’s budgets demanded by the Chancellor. Can she assure the House that she will not repeat the mistakes of her predecessor in 2010, who is in her place, and who cut £100 million a year from the flood protection budget, only for the Department to have to put some of it back after the winter floods caused devastation in 2013?

Over the previous Parliament, we succeeded as a Department in reducing our budget at the same time as protecting frontline flood defences; we actually saw a real-terms increase in flood defence spending over that of the previous Government. At the same time we also protected our animal-disease response capability, so that we had the same number of vets working in our Department in 2010 as we did in 2015, and I will—

Order. These exchanges are too long. Ministers and shadow Ministers are going to have get used to the fact that I want to hear Back Benchers. That is the way it is going to be.

T2. Bovine TB is an incredibly serious disease, with over 26,000 cattle slaughtered last year alone. My constituency of Lewes falls in a high-risk area. What steps are being taken to roll out pilot vaccination programmes and other measures to help support farmers in the south-east? (900386)

It is part of our 25-year strategy to roll out additional cull areas in high-risk areas and to roll out vaccinations in edge areas. The hon. Lady’s constituency, in East Sussex, is part of a high-risk area and has an edge area, and we would be happy to consider any application that came forward.

T3. With a Greek exit from the eurozone a looming possibility this week, and given the inevitable downward pressure that will put on the exchange rate between sterling and the euro, has the Minister made any contingency plans to deal with the disastrous impact that that exchange rate change will have on the real value of farm support payments in the UK? (900387)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we do face risks and difficult economic times. What we are committed to doing is helping British producers sell their products—we have seen exports rise to £19 billion. Also, when we had the issue with the Russian trade embargo last year, we were able to find new markets for products—for example, we found a new market for mackerel in Nigeria—and we will continue with that work.

T4. Wales is home to some of our country’s finest food and drinks: Welsh lamb, Brains beer and Penderyn whisky, to name a few. What role does the Secretary of State think protected food names have to play in adding value to and boosting Welsh exports? (900388)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I enjoyed some of those fantastic products at the Royal Welsh show last year. There are great protected food names, like Welsh lamb. We have 63 protected food names in this country, and they command a market premium at home and overseas. I want to see us get up to the level of the French, who have over 200, and I encourage companies across our country to apply.

T6. In the Minister’s written answer to me yesterday, he refused to publish the National Farmers Union application for an exemption on the ban on using neonicotinoid pesticides. Does he agree that on this vital subject and this major threat to bees and pollinators the public should know what is going on behind closed doors? If so, will he publish that information, even if he redacts the names of the farmers? (900390)

The hon. Lady knows that that information is commercially sensitive, but what I can say is that two applications are being considered by the Health and Safety Executive, and before any decision is taken we would take the advice of our expert committee on pesticides.

T5. The black country’s canal network is an important part of our industrial heritage, supports a variety of wildlife and hosts many leisure facilities. Will the Minister update the House on what is being done to clean up our inland waterways? (900389)

I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend on the importance of waterways. Nearly 10,000 miles of rivers and internal waterways have been cleaned up; phosphate pollution is down by one fifth and ammonia down by one sixth; and water companies will be investing £3.5 billion over the next five years in improving our water quality.

T7. Up to 4,000 properties are at risk of flooding in my constituency, so the Government’s announcement of an extra £7.5 million for flood defences in Great Grimsby was welcome. However, that figure includes a £5 million black hole of unallocated funding and my constituents are worried that their homes may be flooded again this year. Will the Secretary of State meet me so that we can get this funding shortfall sorted out and start protecting people from the risk of flooding? (900391)

I am delighted that the hon. Lady is pleased about the investment in flood defences in her constituency. During the last Parliament, we raised £140 million in additional funding, which is 10 times that raised by the previous Government. We are already up to £250 million—more than 40% of our target—within two months of our six-year programme, and we are going to help deliver that.

T8. Page 73 of the Conservative party manifesto said:“We will press for…further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy”.What specific reforms does my right hon. Friend expect to be agreed prior to the referendum? (900392)

We are working on this all the time. One of the most complicated common agricultural policies in history has just been introduced, and we are already in discussions with Commissioner Hogan about simplifying that and making it easier for farmers to apply it. The next round of CAP negotiations are coming up and we want a much simpler policy.

T10. Many of my constituents in rural areas desperately need faster broadband speeds to run their businesses and create jobs in an area where unemployment is 50% higher than the average. The Under-Secretary referred earlier to planned investment, but rather than have my constituents wait years under current plans will he meet the providers again and tell them to get a move on? (900394)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the progress on superfast broadband has been pretty remarkable; we have gone from 40% to 80%, and we will be at 95% by 2017. If there are specific issues related to his constituency, I would, again, be very happy to sit down to discuss them in detail.

T9. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. British beer is the best in the world, and our beer sales at home and abroad are booming. That is good for British brewers and for British farmers, connecting grain to glass to the lips of beer lovers across the world. What can we do to encourage more beer exports? (900393)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; we are now exporting 1 billion pints of beer around the world. I have had the opportunity to visit the Ilkley brewery and taste its fantastic produce, as well as Fuller’s in London. I have not yet visited Burton—I am still waiting for the invitation. Perhaps it is in the post, so that I will be able to promote it, too.