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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 599: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Hedgehogs

The hedgehog is a priority species. As such, it is protected under the terrestrial biodiversity group, but fundamentally we rely on the countryside stewardship scheme to protect the habitat on which this iconic relative of the shrew depends.

What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the damage that badgers do to hedgehogs? Will he join my campaign to try to protect the hedgehog?

Badgers have been identified as one of a range of factors that can have an impact on the hedgehog population which, as Members will know, has declined from about 30 million to about 1.5 million over the past 50 years. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on hedgehogs and to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.

I hope the Minister is aware that there is some black propaganda being put around about badgers and hedgehogs. In respect of the badger cull, I have always believed that we should use science and good research methods to find out what is going on. There has been a dramatic fall in the population of a much-loved species which is very important to our countryside. May we have the science on this, not some black propaganda blaming badgers?

A national hedgehog survey is currently being conducted, looking at exactly this issue. As the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, in relation to hedgehogs badgers are not a black-and-white issue.

Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian and he will know from the exchanges so far that the range of four-footed animals to which reference can legitimately be made in this question has now been expanded, albeit only by one.

It is a pretty miserable life being a hedgehog—they are covered in fleas, they are asleep for most of the year, when they do wake up, they are splattered on the road, and they are the favourite food of badgers. Will the Minister use his good offices with the hedgehog society and its national survey to ensure that alongside the badger cull there is a detailed survey of the impact of the increase in the hedgehog population in those parts of the country where badgers are being culled?

This is a scientific issue that is the responsibility of Natural England. We will look very carefully at the conclusions of the national hedgehog survey.

Broadband (Rural Areas)

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on ensuring broadband roll-out in rural areas. (901267)

I spoke to the Culture Secretary earlier this week. He confirmed that we have now rolled out superfast broadband to 83% of properties. Earlier this summer with the Chancellor, I launched the rural productivity plan, which is all about making sure that rural people have the same access to connectivity and opportunities as those in urban areas.

That is all very well, but the Minister must understand what is happening in places such as Cumbria, where people are being told on the one hand that their properties do not meet the commercial criteria for BT to go in, and on the other hand that Connecting Cumbria, the body set up to roll out rural broadband, does not have the funds available. These people do not care where their fast broadband is to come from, but they want to know that the Government are going to get a grip, so will the right hon. Lady work with the Culture Secretary to address this problem urgently and give some hope to my constituents?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is vital that we have superfast broadband across rural areas, including Cumbria, and I note that in Barrow-in-Furness it should be available to 96% of properties by early 2018. The Government’s digital taskforce, of which I am a member, is looking at how we connect those final properties and ensure that everyone has access to this vital service.

The Churches are keen to offer their buildings to help address better rural broadband provision. Would the Secretary of State be willing to convene a roundtable of interested dioceses and suppliers to share the findings of the rural superfast broadband pilots?

I would be extremely keen to discuss that with my right hon. Friend. In fact, I recently visited a church in Feltwell in my constituency that has linked up to superfast broadband and offers services to the local community in the church, which I think is a fantastic model.

My question is along the same lines as the previous question. Has the Secretary of State thought about working with rural schools as hubs to ensure that superfast broadband is concentrated there, where it is incredibly important?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are looking at all possible options, including schools. We already have broadband connections through the transport networks, and we are looking at what more we can do, such as having smaller boxes to access more remote properties and using satellite connectivity. We are looking at all those options and further announcements will be made in the autumn statement.

9. Residents in the rural parts of my constituency, such as Affetside and Holcolme, which after all are just a few miles from Manchester city centre, are 100% unconnected to superfast broadband. Some of them are trying to run small businesses, and for them it is cold comfort to know that nearly everyone else has a good internet connection. I urge my right hon. Friend to ask her colleagues across Government to ensure that superfast broadband is rolled out to rural areas, especially those near big cities. (901278)

I note that in Bury North superfast broadband should be available to 99% of premises by 2017, and I will be working very hard to ensure that the 1% also have access to high-speed services.

A recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute has shown a growing gap in broadband access between urban and rural communities, with 1.3 million people in rural Britain being excluded from high-speed broadband and a further 9.2 million having a poor connection. Will the Secretary of State tell the House by what date superfast broadband coverage will be universal?

I point out to the hon. Lady that in 2010 only 45% of properties were connected to superfast broadband. We are now up to 83%, and we have a commitment to get to 95% by 2017. By the end of this year, we will have universal access to broadband of 2 megabits per second. We will be making further announcements on the issue, because it is vital that rural areas have that connectivity.

I do not think that is good enough. The Secretary of State is letting the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and BT get away with a super-slow broadband roll-out in our remote rural areas. It seems she is too busy trying to bring back foxhunting, letting down our dairy farmers and allowing culling and pesticides to destroy our wildlife to do her job of championing rural areas across Government. When will she start punching her weight across the Cabinet table and get an end date for the superfast broadband roll-out? Until she does, remote rural areas will increasingly be put at a great economic disadvantage.

Frankly, I think Conservative Members will treat that statement with some derision, given the previous Labour Government’s failure to deliver for rural areas over many years. This summer we launched a rural productivity plan, which is all about ensuring that rural areas get good connectivity, good transport links and affordable housing. Under this Government we have seen the gap in productivity between rural and urban areas closing for the first time in years.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested, it is often in the last 5% that we find some of the most enterprising people, although at the moment they live in areas that are inaccessible to rural broadband. Will my right hon. Friend consider a survey of such areas to see just how many small businesses there do not yet have broadband access?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I recently opened a new cabinet in Mundford, a village in my constituency where I found a textbook publisher who works internationally, a software company, and a company that produces databases internationally. We have some of the most amazing businesses in rural areas. In fact, two of the fastest growing sorts of businesses are consultancy and IT. That is why getting superfast broadband roll-out is a real priority for this Government, and that is why we have set up the digital taskforce.

Food and Farming (Use of Data and Technology)

3. What assessment she has made of the contribution of data and technology to maximising the potential of the food and farming industry. (901268)

We have some of the most innovative farmers in the world using technology to improve yields and reduce inputs such as water and fertiliser. DEFRA is committed to helping them by opening up 8,000 rich datasets that will help to give farmers the information they need to improve their businesses.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am also very pleased that she has accepted an invitation to come to Shropshire next year, to the Minsterley show or the Shropshire county show. I hope that when she comes she will spend time speaking to Salopian farmers about the tremendous opportunities for using data and technology in farming, because, as she knows, we are at the cutting edge of farming in Shropshire.

I am very much looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend and some of those innovative farmers in Shropshire. Shropshire is home to Harper Adams University, the National Centre for Precision Farming, and the mechanical engineering centre, which is a global centre for excellence in modernising farming techniques.

Dairy Farming

I understand that our farmers, particularly in the dairy sector, are facing serious issues with low prices and cash-flow problems. That is why I am pressing the European Union to relax controls so that we can pay farmers promptly as well as working to build the British dairy industry of the future.

Given that many consumers pay a premium on Fairtrade goods to support farmers across the world, would the Secretary of State support regional and national source labelling on milk, cheese and other farm products, and perhaps a fair trade scheme here to support our farmers?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about better labelling. I want better labelling in our supermarkets so that consumers know what they are buying. We are working with supermarkets on that at the moment. I am pleased to say that some supermarkets are now moving to cost-price contracts not only for milk but for products such as cheese, yogurt and butter.

Usually it is the dairy industry that is doing the milking, but not when it comes to selling its products to supermarkets and some wholesalers. A pound for four pints sounds wonderful for hard-pressed families, but dairy farmers should not be part of the welfare system. We have introduced a supermarket supremo who is supposed to ensure that dairy farmers are getting a fair price. Can we ensure that she gets into action as a matter of urgency before more dairy farmers go to the wall?

Earlier this year, we announced that she will have fining powers, which is giving her the teeth she needs. We have also announced a working group looking at contracts, through AHDB Dairy, which will talk about how we share risk better along the supply chain so that it is not just farmers who are facing the consequences of low prices in the global markets.

16 . Will the Minister support calls from the Scottish Government for retailers and food services to buy, and therefore support, local dairy produce? (901285)

We are working on that with the supermarkets, and I recently met my Scottish counterpart to discuss it. It is an important issue. It is also important that the public sector shows leadership so that we show where we source from and give transparency to new contracts that come up in order that local farmers can bid to supply these public sector contracts.

I very much welcome the improvements to food labelling that the Secretary of State has promoted so that consumers can have confidence that they are buying British, but clearly we need to encourage consumers to be equally discerning. What plans do the Government have to promote the importance of supporting our farmers by buying British?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a fantastic “GREAT” brand, which we use very successfully to promote British products overseas. I would like us to use that more in Britain, both in the public sector and in organisations such as supermarkets, so that consumers know when they are buying British products. Although most of the milk we buy is British, we import the majority of yoghurt, cheese and butter, and I think that is where the real opportunities are for our dairy farmers.

As the pricing crisis in not only milk but other sectors continues to get worse, will the Government make specific proposals to increase the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator so that she can look at the whole supply chain and our farmers can get a fair price for a quality product?

I agree that this is a serious situation. I have been pushing for a groceries code adjudicator across the European Union, because many of the dairy companies that operate in the UK do not just operate here. I want better transparency across the supply chain across the EU.

Flood Defence Programme

12. How many flood defences the Government plan to build under their six-year flood defence programme. (901281)

The Government plan to invest in 1,500 schemes over the next six years. This £2.3 billion investment will provide extra protection to an additional 300,000 households.

All my colleagues in Lincolnshire and I have been working closely on this issue. Will the Minister commit to protecting not only the excellent Boston barrier scheme, which will protect Boston, but the agricultural areas of Lincolnshire, and to working with the Environment Agency, Natural England and the drainage boards, to make sure we get the best possible result for the county?

I absolutely give that assurance. In addition to the Boston barrier, which is a £97 million programme, Lincshore is protecting 30 km of the Lincolnshire coast, with £7 million a year over 20 years providing additional protection to 16,000 homes, as well as to the farmland my hon. Friend has mentioned.

The future of flood management on the Somerset levels—Taunton Deane covers quite a lot of the Somerset levels—depends largely on the establishment of the new Somerset Rivers Authority. Will the Minister provide an update on progress and give assurances that there will be adequate funding to ensure flood protection and management in the future?

Somerset has been a serious priority for the Government. More than £1 million has been invested in setting up the Somerset Rivers Authority. We have committed more than £15 million over the next six years to Somerset exactly to achieve the objectives laid out by my hon. Friend.

Despite the completion only a couple of weeks ago of a first-class, Rolls-Royce flood alleviation scheme in my constituency, the residents are still terribly anxious about insurance. Will the Minister update the House on where we are regarding insurance premiums for flood alleviation schemes?

Flood Re was established in May and will become operational in May next year. The House will have an opportunity to debate the regulations with me next week.

Will my hon. Friend reassure me that, as well as the hard engineered projects that will be funded by the large sum of money he has mentioned, there will be soft engineered projects that build on the experience in Pickering, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), which uses natural features such as woodland and coastland wetland areas, which protect coastal communities from flooding? Such schemes can be cheaper and more effective in certain circumstances.

My hon. Friend has an enormous amount of experience in this area. We can do much more to help on flooding, including restoration of peatland, woodland and wetland areas, which not only benefits flood alleviation, but considerably benefits habitats and the biodiversity that depends on them.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the Lincshore scheme, which is vital to protecting the Lincolnshire coast, and he will know that the deadline to ensure next year’s use of the scheme is this November. Will he meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) before November to discuss the final funding details for the scheme?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the final details of the Lincshore scheme, to which the Environment Agency is committed. The work, particularly the movement of sand, has taken the level of protection from one in 50 years to one in 200 years. That is something of which the House should be very proud.

Food Waste

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her extraordinary work on this matter, and for her private Member’s Bill, which she introduced yesterday. As she is aware, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, through Courtauld 2025, is taking considerable steps towards the achievement of that target.

I thank the Minister for the interest he has so far shown in my ten-minute rule Bill. Under previous Courtauld commitments—the first three phases—80% of the reduction in food waste has come from households. There is still the real problem that more than half of food waste is in the supply chain. Does the Minister agree that we should leave it not to the voluntary action of food companies, but place a legal requirement on them to help us meet the target of halving food waste?

I am happy to sit down with the hon. Lady and look closely at the details of the Bill. Certain retailers, such as Tesco, are beginning to make huge progress, as she knows. Recently, there have been studies on, for example, bananas in the supply chain, and an app has been launched with FareShare to enable charities to get food from supermarkets. That is a good example of progress, but I am happy to learn more.

I am encouraged to hear that more than 90% of the food retail and manufacturing market have already signed up to the code voluntarily. Does the Minister agree that that is the best way to get the whole industry on board?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. Courtauld has been very impressive. This has been a cross-party activity, led by the extraordinary achievement of the Labour Government in bringing in the landfill tax. With 90% of retailers signed up, the significant reduction in food waste is genuinely impressive.

Scottish Government: Discussions

7. When she last had discussions with her counterpart in the Scottish Government and what the subject was of those discussions. (901273)

I spoke to my Scottish counterpart on Monday at the European Union Council. We have met several times since the election. I work very closely with him, as well as with my counterparts in the other devolved Administrations.

I acknowledge the constructive approach taken by the Scottish and UK Governments, with the help of Kent police, in establishing a fast track at the height of the Calais disruption. Will the Secretary of State continue to work with colleagues in the Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that future disruption is avoided?

We should absolutely continue to work together. I know that there has been a number of issues, particularly with exports. We are committed to increasing exports from Britain and to ensuring that they are minimally affected.

Badger Cull

10. What consultation she undertook before her recent announcement on extending the badger cull. (901279)

We are committed to implementing our 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB. The strategy has been the subject of extensive consultation. The issuing of a licence to Dorset is a measured approach to extending this policy, building on experience from previous years. There was a local consultation and an opportunity-to-comment procedure at the beginning of the licensing process.

This folly has now cost the taxpayer £17 million, and it is so far not proving as effective as the approach taken by the Assembly in Wales. Will the Minister give a commitment not to extend the cull beyond Dorset until there has been a proper evaluation of what is happening in Wales and of the folly of spending £17 million to date on something that is totally ineffective?

If we were to do nothing to tackle this disease, it would cost us about £1 billion over the next decade. The reality is that no country in the world has successfully eradicated TB without also dealing with the issue in the wildlife population. That is why a cull will continue to be part of our balanced strategy, alongside tighter cattle-movement controls and other measures, such as vaccination.

The hard-pressed dairy farmers of south Devon, which is a bovine TB hotspot, are keen for the cull to be extended into our part of the world. Can the Minister give any hope in respect of when such a cull might come our way?

We decided this year to have a cautious roll-out by adding one cull area in Dorset. In the light of that cull, we will review things again. There were applications and expressions of interest from north Devon and Herefordshire this year, and there are many other interested parties that I am sure will be considered in future years.

Has the Minister taken cognisance of the ongoing trials in a specific area of Northern Ireland? Has he had any discussions with the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland about those trials?

I regularly discuss this issue with Northern Ireland. It is trialling an alternative approach called “test and vaccinate or remove”, whereby badgers that are not believed to have the disease are vaccinated and those that are believed to have it are culled. There are limitations on that because of the limitations of the diagnostic tests. However, we liaise closely with all the relevant devolved Administrations.

In a written parliamentary answer that was published on Monday, the Minister stated:

“Natural England has authorised badger culling in Dorset this year in addition to Somerset and Gloucestershire.”

Will he explain to the House whether the new Dorset culling area is part of a roll-out of culling or another pilot area? If Dorset constitutes the start of a national roll-out, how can that be justified on the performance of the pilot culls? If it is another pilot area, what monitoring and evaluation will be put in place by his Department?

The extension to Dorset, as I explained earlier, is part of a cautious roll-out of the policy. We piloted the culls in the first year in Somerset and Gloucestershire. Our experience last year demonstrated that a cull along the lines that we are pursuing could be successful. It was successful and that is why we are continuing.

Promotion of British Food and Drink

We are committed to expanding exports and promoting British food and drink, which is a £100 billion-a-year industry. We want to make better use of the GREAT brand and will be running trade missions this autumn to Germany and China.

The Secretary of State saw on her visit to Matthew Walker in Heanor the importance of exports to delivering growth, as well as the great attraction that great British products have overseas. What more can her Department do by working with UK Trade & Investment to help small businesses start to export their food products?

I thank my hon. Friend both for his question and for the excellent puddings that we enjoyed at the Matthew Walker factory. We certainly filled our boots that day! I was amazed to hear that that company supplies 96% of the UK’s Christmas puddings, and ships puddings all the way to Australia. I want to champion fantastic businesses such as that through trade missions and the Great British Food Unit, as well as integrating more closely with what UKTI does.

In view of the need for further promotion of food and drink, and in light of the volatility in milk prices, what further markets will be explored by the Secretary of State and her ministerial team, as Northern Ireland exports some 85% of its milk products?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that Northern Ireland has a great record in exporting. On my last visit to China, I had Northern Irish representatives with me to promote its products. There is more that we can do, particularly on dairy, to get products into the Chinese market and across the world.

Fruit farmers in mid-Kent support the living wage, but they expect it to increase production costs. Has my right hon. Friend had any discussions with supermarkets about their willingness to pay more for British fruit or talked to colleagues at the Treasury about the impact of the living wage on fruit farmers?

The farming Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has discussed that matter with the industry. Of course, to help firms with the increased cost, the employment allowance will increase from £2,000 to £3,000 in April 2016, which means that a farmer will be able to employ four people full time on the national living wage and pay no national insurance contributions.

New Zealand lamb producers are in direct competition with Welsh and British farmers in this season. New Zealand lamb is sold as fresh alongside Welsh lamb in supermarkets, despite undergoing a 17,000-mile sea voyage in refrigerated containers, which means that the meat can take up to three months to reach the supermarket shelf. What steps are the Government taking to allow consumers to make an informed choice about the freshness of lamb meat, at a time when Welsh sheep farmers are selling their animals at market at a loss?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I have discussed this matter with my Welsh counterpart, and we are working on how we can better use the GREAT brand with supermarkets and work with them to ensure we are promoting our British produce.

EU Exit (Potential Effects)

13. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on her Department of a vote to leave the European Union in the forthcoming referendum. (901282)

The Government believe that our relationship with the European Union needs to change. That is why we will negotiate a new settlement with the EU and put it to the people in a referendum. In the meantime, DEFRA will continue to press for reform and simplification of the common agricultural policy to ease the burden of regulation on our farmers.

The question explicitly asked what assessment had been made of the potential impact of leaving the European Union. We can only assume from the Minister’s lack of answer that the answer to that question is: none whatever. The Minister will be aware that, thanks to our links with Europe, the world-class food and drink industry in Scotland—some of our products are almost as healthy as Walker’s Christmas puddings, I may add—is well on track to reach a seemingly impossible target, set by the Scottish Government, of a £1.65 billion contribution to our economy by 2017. Will the Minister give an assurance that he personally, and his ministerial colleagues, will campaign vigorously for Scotland and the UK to remain in the European Union?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We have some fantastically successful Scottish exports, not least Scotch whisky. Increasingly, Scottish salmon is doing well in international markets. We have a very informative debate to look forward to. There will be two sides of the debate once that negotiation is concluded. I am sure all Members will be rigorously involved in those debates.

Farm Inspections

I want to see farmers farming, not form-filling. That is why, by June 2016, we will have a single, co-ordinated farm inspection force and a single point of contact for farmers.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that assurance. At the North Devon Show at Umberleigh in my constituency last month, I met a delegation of farmers. There is still concern about the burdensome nature of some of the inspection regime. Does she agree that a balance needs to be struck between the importance of those inspections and making sure that farmers are not distracted by the time they take up from running their businesses?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are working to make our inspections more efficient and to use technology better, such as satellite imagery and light detection and ranging data, so that we do not have to go traipsing around farms. We are looking at things we can do online. Over the previous Parliament, we cut guidance by 80% and we reduced farm inspections by 34,000 every year, but we want to do more in this Parliament.

Farm Produce (Fair Pricing)

15. What steps she is taking to ensure farmers receive a fair price for their produce from retailers. (901284)

We introduced the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that there are fair contract arrangements between supermarkets and their suppliers. That will be reviewed next year and we continue to work with retailers and farmers to ensure we can help them through the current difficulties

I am sure the Minister will join me in welcoming new figures showing record turnover for sales of Scottish food and drink surpassing £14 billion for the first time in 2013. Will he work with the Scottish Government to make sure that producers feel the benefit of those sales and take up the call from the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment to introduce a fairer framework for all those involved in the supply chain?

Yes, I can. I am a huge supporter of our Scottish exports. They do incredibly well. I discuss this regularly with Richard Lochhead, my opposite number in Scotland. We work with some of the lead Scottish agencies, such as Scottish Food and Drink and Quality Meat Scotland, to help to promote Scottish exports.

Topical Questions

The Department’s priorities are a cleaner, healthier environment, a world-leading food and farming industry, a thriving rural economy, and a nation well protected against natural threats and hazards. Over the summer, we published our first ever rural productivity plan to unleash the potential of the countryside by investing in education and skills, improving infrastructure and connectivity, and simplifying planning laws for rural businesses and communities.

Over the summer, we have all been depressed by the refugee crisis across north Africa and the middle east. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given, along with her EU counterparts, to using surplus food stocks, or possibly even increasing food production, to feed those who are starving having fled violence?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have given £1 billion of aid to the region, and 18 million food parcels.

In the infrastructure debate, the Government promised they would safeguard our groundwater and sites of special scientific interest from the dangers of fracking. These promises have now been abandoned. The Government now permit fracking in SSSIs, and four out of five of the old water protection zones are no longer frack-free under the new water protection areas. Was the Secretary of State consulted by her Cabinet colleagues about this U-turn on fracking in protected areas, and if so, why did she agree to downgrade these important protections?

We are clear that we have one of the best environmental protection regimes in the world, through the Environment Agency, which makes sure that groundwater sources are protected. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the study produced by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering—both independent bodies—he will see that it is perfectly possible to frack safely and in an environmentally friendly way.

T2. I welcome the work done by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on food exports and dealing with retailers, but there is a huge crisis in farm gate prices for milk, beef, lamb and all other sectors. It will be important this year that we get the single farm payment out early or at least on time. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the Rural Payments Agency is capable of making those early payments? (901247)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we hold regular discussions with Mark Grimshaw to ensure that we keep our commitment to the majority of farmers being paid by the end of December and the vast majority by the end of January. I am also pushing the European Commission to relax some of the inspection controls to make sure we can pay farmers properly. We need to do that to make it happen, otherwise we will be subject to fines.

T7. We are all aware of the challenges affecting the farming industry. In 2013, the EU gave the UK a convergence dividend of £230 million, largely as a result of Scotland’s low payments per hectare. Despite being required by article 23 of EU regulation 1307/2013 to use objective and non-discriminatory criteria, the UK Government chose to spread the dividend across all four parts of the UK, meaning that Scotland got just 16.3% of the funding. This was funding meant primarily for Scotland but which we are not getting. In the spirit of fairness, will the Minister instigate an immediate review and ensure that Scotland does not get ripped off but gets its fair share? (901254)

The hon. Gentleman will understand if I say we are now fully informed. We are grateful to him both for his quick reflexes and for his full information.

We do not accept that the allocation was done unfairly. Scotland gets slightly less per hectare, but because the average holding size is much larger, the average per farm is the highest in the UK. Nevertheless, we have committed to review the allocation in 2016-17 and have made it clear that part of that review will compare land types among the constituent parts of the UK.

T3. I welcome DEFRA’s focus on connectivity in the rural productivity plan. This week, Rural Action Yorkshire said it was nigh on impossible for a rural business to be in business without decent broadband and mobile phone coverage. The final 5% and the “not spots” will require innovation and investment. What comfort can the Secretary of State give to businesses trading in those areas? (901249)

This is an absolute priority for the digital taskforce. We will get to 90% geographical coverage for voice and text by 2017, and we are currently consulting on taller mobile phone masts to enable better coverage for things such as 4G in rural areas as well.

The Minister will be well aware that the Labour Welsh Government have introduced regulation to improve conditions in dog breeding. Does he have any plans to introduce similar legislation in England to tackle some of the horrific conditions that back-street dog breeding gives rise to?

Yes, we have looked at this, because there was a misunderstanding on the part of some local authorities that a licence to breed dogs was not required provided that people were breeding fewer than five litters a year. We clarified that last year with local authorities because anyone in the business of breeding puppies requires a licence, but we continue to keep this under review.

T4. When on 9 August two cattle visited a supermarket in my constituency, they will have been disappointed to note that the only lactose-free milk was imported from Denmark. There is no such product made in the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is an opportunity for import substitution, to use British milk, and an export opportunity? (901250)

My hon. Friend is right: there are new products where British producers could certainly innovate and also huge opportunities for import substitution of many existing products such as butter and cheese, the majority of which we import at the moment. One thing we want to do is to get supermarkets labelling things more clearly, so that consumers know whether a product is British.

Given the volatility in Northern Ireland’s milk market—the price is the lowest across the United Kingdom—and its dependence on the export market, will the Secretary of State give urgent consideration to treating Northern Ireland as a special case when it comes to the targeted aid scheme that the EU will be talking about tomorrow?

The details of the €500 million scheme have yet to be decided, but I am clear that it has to go to immediate help for farmers. We know that many farmers are struggling to pay bills and have serious cash-flow issues, so as well as long-term measures such as getting a futures market for dairy to give more confidence and promoting exports, we need to help with cash flow, which I am clear is a real issue in Northern Ireland.

T5. May I thank the Secretary of State and her team for the efforts they made to help to eliminate the cryptosporidium virus that affected households across Lancashire for up to five weeks, leaving them without clean drinking water? Will she look into the levels of compensation, which I believe are currently completely inadequate, being offered by United Utilities to the homes and businesses affected? (901251)

I welcome the fact that the final boil notices were lifted on 6 September and that compensation has been offered, but I understand that for many businesses this really was a difficult period in which they incurred many additional costs. I would be happy to discuss the issue further with my hon. Friend.

What benefit can my constituents in the dairy sector in west Wales expect from the €500 million emergency fund brokered in Brussels this week and, critically, what share of that funding could the Welsh Assembly Government and other devolved Administrations reasonably expect?

The answer is that we have yet to find out the details of that fund. We are pushing for details, because I am clear that we need to make it immediate so that we can help with the cash-flow issues that farmers are facing. We shall obviously have discussions across the UK about how it is distributed. I also want to see action from the European Union on things such as inspections to make sure that we can get BPS payments out as early as possible, and we have not heard the details on that either.

T6. I met a delegation of local dairy farmers during the summer regarding the problems in their industry. One of their suggestions was that the Government do more to market dairy products as part of a healthy diet. Will my hon. Friend take that suggestion on board and perhaps resurrect some of the “Drink milk” television commercials that I fondly remember from my childhood? (901253)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The dairy part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board does some promotion of milk already and will continue to do so, and we should also note that the Department of Health spends around £63 million a year buying milk for infants.

The dairy industry in Cheshire is one of the great drivers of the rural economy in my county, which is why I was pleased to support dairy farmers in the actions they were taking to defend their livelihoods. Did the Minister also support those protests?

I am about making sure that we have practical solutions that actually deliver for dairy farmers who are facing cash-flow issues, while also ensuring that we have a viable national industry for the future. We do not want to lose really important dairy capacity when we know that there are lots of long-term opportunities—huge opportunities for import substitution, for example. My focus is on practical solutions that can help to achieve that.

T8. With the crisis in the price of liquid milk, one way to help our farmers increase their income is through products—dairy, cheese and additional products. I understand what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says about labelling, but what specific initiatives do the Government have for developing these products and developing new markets? (901255)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the long term, we want to develop processing capacity so that we can export some of our fantastic cheeses more widely around the world. That is why we are investigating the potential to use the European Investment Bank and rural development funds to support the development of that processing capacity.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues who wish to speak, but we must now move on.

Church Commissioners

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

Climate Change

1. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to support the Church of England’s international efforts to tackle climate change. (901256)

The Church of England, along with the wider Anglican Communion, is actively tacking climate change in four ways: assessing its investment strategy and, where necessary, divesting in the context of our climate change policy; actively engaging with public policy; attending the forthcoming Paris conference; and encouraging its parishes to reduce their carbon footprint and their parishioners to do the same.

I thank the right hon. Lady for that response. As she mentions, the Church has made some progress and is divesting £12 million from highly polluting coal and tar sands investment, but there is still quite a significant degree of investment in companies such as Shell, in respect of which there are still concerns about involvement in fossil fuels and the exploration of the Arctic, for example. Does the right hon. Lady feel that the Church could go further?

I would encourage the hon. Lady to come to a reception with the Church Commissioners that I have organised for Members to discuss the ethical investment strategy that now applies to Church investment. She is right that divestment of investment in thermal coal and tar sands has occurred, and there are no direct investments in any company of which more than 10% of its revenues are derived from the extraction of thermal coal or from tar sands.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Church should be spending its time looking at ways to increase the size of church congregations rather than trying to control the world’s climate?

Our commitment to climate change in no way detracts from the central mission of the Church, which is to encourage people to faith. As part of our faith, however, we have to demonstrate environmental stewardship. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the Anglican Communion has an unrivalled network through which to encourage laggards in the quest to tackle climate change and to play a positive role at the conference in Paris.

My right hon. Friend rightly refers to the Anglican Communion. What discussions and consultations does the Church of England have with the worldwide Anglican Communion to listen to them about the impact of climate change in their own countries?

The Church of England devoted a whole day of its General Synod in York to a debate on climate change, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and I spoke, outlining the ability of our worldwide network to help the nations that are worst affected by climate change. Sadly, they are the poorest nations in the world. That is why the Government’s commitment to an ambitious outcome in Paris is so important.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Number of MPs (Proposed Reduction)

2. What assessment he has made of the effect of the proposed reduction in the number of Members of Parliament on the scrutiny of Government. (901257)

The next review of UK parliamentary constituencies—a subject of interest to one or two Members—will be based on a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600, and it will be undertaken by the UK’s various boundary commissions, and not the Electoral Commission. As such, neither the Speaker’s Committee nor the Electoral Commission has made any assessment of its potential impact.

Of course, one of the advantages of reducing the number of MPs is that fewer Whips will be required, but the first job of a Member of Parliament, who is not part of the Government, is to scrutinise the Government. By taking 50 out of these Members, the Government will not be scrutinised so well. Does my hon. Friend have a view on whether the size of the Government should be reduced proportionately to the reduction in the number of MPs?

My hon. Friend speaks powerfully and with a modicum of common sense, as always. He may well have half a point, but this is not a matter for the Electoral Commission and it is not a matter for me.

As I have indicated, it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission, but from my next-door knowledge of the Boundary Commission I am confident that this will be in place. I am sure that will be of great encouragement to my hon. Friend.

Church Commissioners

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

Use of Church Buildings

3. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to encourage churches to use their buildings to offer more services to the community beyond worship. (901258)

The Church of England’s Cathedral and Church Buildings Division developed the open and sustainable churches initiative five years ago, and now 80% of churches provide a function beyond purely worship, with 54% of Anglican parishes running at least one organised activity to address social need.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. What is the Church of England doing in ethnically diverse areas, where large numbers of people are not of the Anglican faith, to open up the buildings so that they are used regularly by the whole community, rather than just by those of that faith?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are opening up churches to the social needs of the community and using them for a wide range of purposes. For example, churches are being used as citizens advice bureaux, post offices, shops, night shelters and food banks. Let me give the example of two churches in his area of Harrow: St Paul’s has a job club open to people of all backgrounds; and All Saints’ Harrow Weald provides not only an art exhibition facility but a forest school. These facilities are open to all.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is precisely the sort of issue where local leadership in the Church can make a difference? She might therefore understand the confusion in the Oxford diocese, where it has been many months since we had a bishop and it could be a year before one begins his or her new role.

I am aware of the circumstances in the Oxford diocese. The Crown Nominations Commission did convene on 11 and 12 May but was unable to discern who the right candidate for the Bishop of Oxford should be. A number of bishop appointments need to take place in sequence, so the next time the commission convenes will be on 4 February. We all hope that in short order the right candidate will be found, but Bishop Colin, the acting bishop, is doing a splendid job and he is confident, as are his senior staff, that the needs of the diocese will be fully met.

My right hon. Friend made a good point about the use of churches for community activities. Last Friday, I helped launch one such activity that was taking place at St Simon’s, and I would be grateful if she would come to Plymouth to see for herself how very good that is—perhaps she would come to a breakfast meeting.

What a splendid invitation—how could I refuse? The example that my hon. Friend gives might prompt all Members here to look at the Church’s website, where there is a toolkit to help any church wishing to broaden its use in the ways we have described to find out how that can be done and to share best practice.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Individual Electoral Registration

6. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential effect of individual electoral registration on preventing fraudulent electoral registration. (901265)

The Electoral Commission recommended in 2003 that individual electoral registration should be introduced in Great Britain. Requiring all electoral registration applications to be verified makes it harder to create false register entries, and helps to prevent electoral and other types of fraud.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As he said, the Electoral Commission recommended the adoption of IER in 2003. Does he agree that it is long overdue and that the ability to register online will make it much easier for many people to engage with the democratic process?

As usual, my hon. Friend is right: IER has been a long time coming, but it has been carefully and successfully introduced in the past 12 months. We must pay tribute to all the electoral registration officers all over the country for their hard work. As a champion of youth engagement in democracy in his constituency, he makes an important point about online registration. There is no question but that a lot of young people have exercised their ability to register online, so making sure that our register is as full as possible.

What is the Electoral Commission’s view of the Government’s attempt to bring forward the date of the full implementation of IER to December 2015?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. The Electoral Commission recommended that the original date of December 2016 be maintained. The Government disagreed with that, and have now decided that December 2015 is the appropriate date. Ultimately, however, it is a matter for the House to decide, and the Electoral Commission has not changed its mind.