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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 17 December 2015

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bovine TB

1. What progress her Department is making on implementing its strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England. (902773)

Our strategy to eradicate bovine TB is working. I am pleased to report that all three badger control areas—Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset—hit their targets this year. The Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear that the strategy is delivering disease control benefits, and that it will help us to eradicate this terrible disease.

I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging that bovine TB is a serious issue, but it is a particularly serious issue for farmers in my constituency. Will she agree to meet me to discuss rolling out a badger vaccination programme in the high-risk areas of Sussex, which would enable us to control the disease while also avoiding a badger cull?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s efforts to promote the vaccination of badgers, but unfortunately there is a worldwide shortage of the BCG vaccine, and I have therefore decided to suspend the sourcing of the vaccine for badgers in England in order to prioritise human health. The Welsh Government recently announced the same decision. However, I shall continue to listen to what my hon. Friend and her local farmers say about this important issue.

I wish both you and the Secretary of State a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.

Not only are badgers responsible—as I understand it—for the spread of bovine TB, but they are no friend of the hedgehog. On Monday, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government rejected my call, and that of The Times, for a hedgehog superhighway through back gardens. Would my right hon. Friend be willing to meet me, and members of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, for a hedgehog summit?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his fantastic campaign, and I congratulate The Times on raising this vital issue. I, too, want hedgehogs to have a very happy Christmas, and I am very willing to meet my hon. Friend and members of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to discuss what we can do to ensure that we have a good population of hedgehogs in the future.

I am afraid I cannot follow that, Mr Speaker.

Given that £20 million has been spent on the badger cull so far, and that hundreds, possibly thousands, of badgers have been killed, will the Secretary of State tell the House how many of those that have been killed had been tested for bovine TB?

If we do not get a grip on this terrible disease, we shall end up spending £1 billion on dealing with it over the next 10 years. The fact is that it was the Labour party, in 2010, that left us with the worst levels of the disease in Europe. That is why we are having to deal with it now, and I am following the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, who says that culling is an important part of dealing with it. Why do Labour Members not congratulate the hard-working farmers in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset who have delivered this year, and who are helping us to deal with this terrible disease?

It is very important for us in Northern Ireland to learn from what the Department has done on the mainland, and to benefit from the information, the experience and the lessons of that action. In Northern Ireland, 6% of cattle herds have been affected by bovine TB, and it is on the rise. It has cost the taxpayer £30 million a year, and 17% of the badgers that have been tested have TB. What can the Department do to help us in Northern Ireland to take on the disease, and defeat it?

We will continue to work closely with Northern Ireland to tackle the disease throughout the United Kingdom.

I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), and wish the Secretary of State and everyone else a happy Christmas.

In Gloucestershire and Somerset, there has been a very beneficial reduction in the number of cattle suffering from TB in the badger culling areas. When will the Secretary of State be able to release the figures that will show what is happening?

My hon. Friend is right, and I am pleased to say that, thanks to our strategy, more than half the country is on track to be officially free of the disease by the end of the current Parliament. The Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear that licensing of future areas is needed to realise the disease control benefits, and I am determined to pursue that recommendation.

Technology in Farming

2. What assessment she has made of the potential contribution of data and technology to maximising the potential of British food and farming. (902774)

Data and technology have a central role to play in maximising the potential of British food and farming. There are huge numbers of datasets in existence relating to issues such as crop yields and disease. In October we launched the first of our centres of excellence under the agri-tech strategy. The AgriMetrics Centre will use £12 million of Government funding to develop computer models to enable us to harness these data.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and will he join me in welcoming the Eastern AgriGate Research Hub, which opened last month in Soham and is developing pioneering technologies to reduce crop waste and food waste and boost production? Does he agree that we need to invest further in agri-tech to grow our industries, such as those in Cambridgeshire?

My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, and I welcome the Eastern AgriGate Research Hub which she opened recently. Improving productivity and reducing waste requires innovation that works on a commercial scale, and the new hub will develop these solutions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that technology has a role to play in reducing waste and improving our use of resources.

First, may I wish the whole of the British countryside, and even the Secretary of State, a very happy Christmas? You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that even though I am the MP for Huddersfield I am not a Luddite. I am absolutely in favour of good management in the rural environment and in our agriculture, and using data and technology, but the other side of that is that much of our countryside is being destroyed for wildlife by industrial farming. That is the truth of the matter. Indeed, even in Cambridgeshire there are whole swathes of the countryside with nothing living to be seen. We must get the balance right between protecting the environment and using technology in agriculture.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to get the balance right, but I disagree with his view that we are not getting it right. We have for many years now had very successful countryside stewardship schemes with billions of pounds invested in creating new habitats for wildlife so that we can see a recovery in farmland bird populations and an improvement in, for instance, the number of pollinators.

May I also wish you, Mr Speaker, and the Deputy Speakers and those in the Department a merry Christmas, and indeed a peaceful new year, even sometimes in this place? I want to emphasise the issue of online services in the Department. While they are very useful and helpful, not every farming community has good rural broadband and they do not always replace the face-to-face contact that is required by farmers.

We recognise that, which is why we will in future be ensuring that farmers who want to submit their basic payment scheme applications on paper will be able to do so, but the Government are also investing hundreds of millions of pounds to bring broadband to areas that do not currently have it.

Air Pollution

Today we have laid out how we plan to tackle air pollution hotspots in our towns and cities while minimising the impact on businesses and families.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer, but she may be aware of the GB freight route scheme, a proposal to build a dedicated freight railway line linking the channel tunnel with all the major economic regions of Britain and with a gauge capable of transporting full-size lorry trailers on trains. The route could take over 5 million lorry journeys off our roads each year and save thousands of tonnes of polluting emissions. The Department for Transport is taking an interest in the scheme. Will the Secretary of State use her good offices to encourage her colleagues in the Department for Transport to support this scheme?

I am certainly very happy to look at that, and today I have launched plans for clean air zones in five cities outside London to make sure we are in compliance with air quality limits.

One reason why emissions are so high in this country is the systematic fitting of defeat devices—the cheating software—by Volkswagen. Enforcement action is under way in the United States. Can the Secretary of State update the House on what action the British Government— her Department, the Environment Agency or the Department for Transport—are taking in this area?

The hon. Lady is right to say that the American authorities are taking action. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is looking carefully at this, as well as ensuring that vehicles are appropriately tested. We have reached agreement at European level to ensure that what is being emitted from cars are the real emissions. That will help us to deal with our air quality issues.

The Secretary of State will know that many people regard the legal limits for maritime cruise ships berthing in cities as inadequate. Regulations in cities such as Gothenburg, and others in the European Union, place higher requirements on vessels, including a requirement for ship-to-shore energy supplies. Why cannot we have that for London?

We are certainly looking at the issue that the hon. Gentleman identifies. We are determined to fulfil our environmental obligations, and we will be bringing the whole of the UK into compliance.

Wine Production

English sparkling wine is a growing industry worth almost £100 million. I note that two sparkling wines—including Nyetimber, which is produced in my right hon. Friend’s constituency—recently beat champagne in a wine critics’ blind tasting competition. We are promoting the industry through the Great British Food campaign.

There has been a remarkable increase in wine production in my constituency in West Sussex, and I believe that I now have more wine producers than any other constituency. Is this not the time for a co-ordinated strategy to promote these excellent wines, which beat others from around the world in wine tastings? Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that English sparkling wine is served at Government events, and that prosecco, cava, champagne and other inferior brands are consigned to the cellars?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his sparkling point. I will be holding a round-table in the new year with representatives of the sparkling wine industry to talk about how we can encourage the industry to grow. I recently held an event in Shanghai, China, with English sparkling wine producers, and I am encouraging all my colleagues right across Government to use English sparkling wine as their drink of choice.

I thank the Secretary of State for her support for the English wine industry and for her recent visit to Sussex, the premier area for the production of English sparkling wine. I hope that Breaky Bottom will be her Christmas lunch tipple. May I remind her that 60% of the price of an average bottle of wine in the UK goes on tax, as against 21% in France, for example? How are her discussions going with the Chancellor on getting a better deal for English wine producers?

As my hon. Friend will know, excise duty is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but I had a very enjoyable morning in Sussex recently—we started the tour at 9 am, and it was one of my best days in the job.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Taittinger and Hatch Mansfield’s new venture to produce sparkling wine in my constituency, and will she take steps to ensure that policy across Government supports the growth of the English sparkling wine industry?

It is no surprise that even the French want to get in on the action in the English sparkling wine industry. Using DEFRA’s data, we have identified an additional 75,000 acres across the country that are suitable for producing sparkling wine. That is the equivalent of the champagne region, so I am sure that the industry will go from strength to strength.

Flood Defence Schemes

I hope the Minister will join me in thanking the emergency workers in my constituency who went to assist during the flooding in St Michael’s on Wyre over the past fortnight. He will also be aware of the great relief in my constituency at the news of the £60 million investment in coastal defences along the Fylde coast, but will he look at the one gap in the armour—namely, the coastal defences at Rossall beach, which are not being renewed? When his Department reviews the frequency of adverse weather events, will it look again at the adequacy of Rossall beach’s defences to determine whether they should be included in this scheme?

Let me join in paying tribute to the members of the teams in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I was in St Michael’s on Wyre, where I saw some of the wonderful work they and other volunteers were doing. I am pleased that he is paying tribute to the work along the Fylde coast, which is an investment of almost £80 million in total, and I would be delighted to look in particular at the missing section on Rossall beach.

Has the Minister explained to his Back Benchers that the 300,000 properties he is talking about have been those at low risk and the lowest risk, and not, substantially, those of residents living in areas at the highest risk, as the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management has pointed out? In other words, the money is going to fund those least at risk of flooding, not those most at risk.

We disagree strongly on this. I am happy to sit down to talk about it in detail, but along the Fylde coast, the Humber, the Lincolnshire coast and the Thames these defences will have a serious impact on houses that are at serious risk of flooding.

May I compliment my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the way in which the tragedy for people in the north-west has been dealt with? Some people have a simplistic view about flooding, seeing it as a binary issue and, for example, saying that dredging works in all cases—we know it does not. There are circumstances where capital schemes such as the Minister has outlined are the solution, but in other cases a more nuanced approach is required. Will her team continue to make the point that every different flood event requires a specific solution?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished floods Minister and is right in what he says. We need to look also at upstream mitigation, which means the planting of trees, the restoration of poached soils, and examining peat bogs and river movement. This is not only about hard defences, and the work that we will be doing over the next few months will focus exactly on those natural measures.

The devastation of the communities in Keswick, Carlisle and Cockermouth hit by the floods was clear for all to see, but it does not tell the full story. I spent part of my visit to Cumbria meeting people in smaller communities, including Barepot and Hall Park View, near Workington, as well as Flimby and Dearham. Many people were just getting on with the job of clearing up, but they told me that they felt abandoned yet again, with no hope of any schemes to protect their homes, even though most of these schemes would be small and inexpensive. What plans does the Minister have to pay more attention to smaller communities also devastated by floods and to commit to the small schemes, which could make a big difference?

First, I pay tribute to the shadow Minister for his visit, which was very much appreciated. It is true that many people feel that the media attention has been on Carlisle and that the number of small villages affected have been ignored. As he says, we can see many communities like that across Cumbria and they will be having a horrifying time. They will have a very difficult winter. We are working to bundle schemes together. One particular example, which I would be very happy to discuss with him, is what is happening at Stockdalewath, where we have an upstream alleviation programme for a small hamlet. We need to extend that to other areas, too.

I send my condolences to those in Cumbria, because in Somerset, where I come from, we, too, experienced terrible flooding in 2013. I applaud the Government’s commitment and all the projects that have been put in place. Will the Minister outline the progress being made on future funding for the wider catchment work on trees, river basins and perhaps even ancient trees?

My hon. Friend is very interested in the role that ancient woodland can play in flood alleviation. We are looking at that as part of the upstream alleviation programme. Three main initiatives are being undertaken: one by Cumbria County Council; one led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; and one, which I am chairing, through the Cumbria partnership.

Flood Risks

The work done on flood forecasting is carried out by the Flood Forecasting Centre, which involves collaboration between the Environment Agency and the Met Office. It provides daily forecasts, which are communicated to the public through the web and through telephones, providing flood warnings and flood alerts on a real-time basis.

May I send Chester’s best wishes to the Minister and his constituents, whom I know are overcoming the damage from the flooding so far? Long-term assessments of flooding demonstrate that the risk is becoming greater, and the Government have introduced an insurance scheme to support people in their homes who are affected by insurance issues. Am I right in thinking that the scheme does not include small businesses? In the light of the recent flooding in Cumbria, will the Minister rethink that policy?

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has recognised the work of the Flood Re scheme, which will make a considerable difference, particularly to lower income households. He is correct that small businesses are not currently included. The Association of British Insurers believes that there is no systematic problem in providing insurance for small businesses, but should we discover that that is not the case, I am happy to sit down with him and the ABI to resolve the matter.

The Minister has mentioned low-lying Lincolnshire, yet more and more housing schemes—huge housing schemes—are being forced on us to meet a rising population. Will the Minister responsible for defending the people from flooding remind those in the EU, the Home Office and the Treasury that in one of the most rain-sodden, flood-prone countries in Europe there is a cost to the 300,000 net migration to this country every year? Even if we could afford it, we should not be building houses in the wrong places.

I do not wish to be drawn into a debate on migration, but I absolutely agree that we should not be building houses on floodplains. The Environment Agency guidance on that is increasingly strict, and we are pushing hard to ensure that councils acknowledge and respect that guidance.

In considering flood risk, has the Minister assessed the risk of profiteering in relation to services that are required in the clean-up after flooding? I understand that the cost of skip hire and of estate agent services has rocketed in areas affected by flooding.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is a serious risk of profiteering and there is even a risk of criminal activity. Unscrupulous people will turn out and push for far more work to be done in a house than actually needs to be done. The police in Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland are focused on that issue. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, in moments of crisis, we should absolutely condemn anybody who attempts to exploit misery for gain.

My hon. Friend will know that, over a year ago, there was a tidal surge in the North sea that brought flooding to a lot of the east coast, particularly to Norfolk. I understand that there is a tidal surge forecast for Christmas day and Boxing day. Will he update the House on the measures his Department and the Environment Agency are taking in the event of such a surge taking place?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are facing very high spring tides at the moment—some of the highest for 18 years—but we need to take into account the fact that the level of the tides themselves is not the determining factor. The low pressure systems and the wind will also have an impact. We focus very hard on this matter, specifically on that tide on Christmas day. The Flood Forecasting Centre ensures that the forecasts are as accurate as possible, and we have the measures in place to respond.

Flood risk on the Humber remains high following the tidal surge two years ago. With local authorities, the Environment Agency was involved in putting together proposals that it now advises Ministers should be reassessed. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is committed to strengthening flood defences along the Humber, and that, in the forthcoming meeting with Humber MPs, he will have alternative proposals?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for the work that he does for his constituents in arguing for more funding on the Humber. Considerable investment is going to flood defences in the Humber region. Nearly £80 million is going into the Humber—£40 million to the north side of the Humber and £40 million to the south side. Yes, we are looking forward to a round table, where we will discuss every one of those schemes from Grimsby to Hull.

Poultry Sheds

Decisions on the location of agricultural buildings are a matter for the relevant local authority, which will assess each application on its merits taking into account its local plan. In addition to planning permission, an environmental permit is required for intensive poultry farms, and the Environment Agency will consider impacts such as noise and odour. However, through our food enterprise zones, which we are currently piloting, we are seeking to remove some of the barriers and make it easier for food enterprises to co-locate in the same geographic areas.

I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive answer. He will of course be aware that the Animal Welfare (Transport) (England) Order 2006 requires operators to minimise the journey time for animals—rightly so—and his departmental guidance reflects that. Does he agree that that should be a material consideration in planning terms to ensure that, in modern animal husbandry, we minimise the distance that animals have to travel to abattoirs?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. As he pointed out, there are robust regulations in place at both a European and a UK level, which specify, for instance, minimum journey times and rest times, and set-down requirements for the lorries carrying out that transport. It is not always possible to co-locate factories close to where poultry are because often the investment requires a large number of poultry farms supplying one abattoir.

EU Recycling Targets

Recycling is local authority-led. National Government can work through measures such as the landfill tax and harmonisation of the Waste and Resources Action Programme. We are pleased to say that recycling is now at the highest level ever, up in the region of 44%.

It looks as though we are going to miss our household recycling targets, and there is a question mark over the municipal recycling target as well. Is it not time for a proper waste strategy for this country to enable us to meet our requirements?

I believe we are on track, and the thing that will keep us on track is more harmonisation. One of the problems in England particularly—this is not a problem in Wales or Scotland—is that we have over 300 different types of recycling system, so we are working hard on a voluntary basis with local councils to harmonise that. If we can reduce it to four or five systems, we will drive up recycling rates and reduce costs for councils and ratepayers.

On the first anniversary of WRAP’s creation as a charity, will the Minister join me in encouraging people to recycle their Christmas cards and gift wrap? Apparently, we recycle enough card to wrap the Elizabeth Tower 260,000 times.

I confirm my right hon. Friend’s comments. I pay tribute to WRAP, which Members on both sides of the House are proud of and which was an initiative led by the Labour Government. It has done an enormous amount of work on harmonisation and particularly the Courtauld agreement.

Colleagues will all wish to be on the right hon. Lady’s Trivial Pursuit team, I feel sure.

I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Will the Minister congratulate Kettering Borough Council on becoming the best performer in the Association for Public Service Excellence awards for having the best recycling and refuse service in the country, following the introduction of its enhanced blue bin recycling service?

I pay tribute to Kettering, and I invite Kettering please to join us in a taskforce to communicate that best practice to other councils. There is a great deal we can all learn from Kettering.

CAP Delivery Programme

The National Audit Office recently completed an early review of the common agricultural policy delivery programme. Despite difficulties, the programme is on course to realise a positive net present value of £197.7 million over the next eight years. The CAP has been the most complex ever, but despite that the core of the system is working. The Rural Payments Agency has already paid over 40% of farmers their basic payment scheme payment for this year and we are on course to pay the vast majority by the end of January.

The National Farmers Union reports that many flood-hit farmers in the north-west have received a double whammy, having been informed by the Rural Payments Agency that they will not receive their payments until February at the earliest. All the Secretary of State could say on Tuesday was that the Government are seeing what they can do. Perhaps the Minister can now outline exactly what they are doing to ensure that those farmers receive payments before Christmas.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are very conscious of the plight of farmers in Cumbria. In respect of those with common land, although we had previously said that we would have difficulty paying them before February owing to the complexity of that system, we have identified the 600 affected farms in Cumbria and we will be prioritising them.

A merry Christmas and a happy new year, Mr Speaker, to you and your staff.

Last week the NFU Scotland confirmed that most farms in Scotland rely on the CAP payments to survive. Without ducking the issue, will the Minister confirm that in the event of Britain leaving the EU, the UK Government will guarantee the same level of payments to farms so that they can survive?

I would simply say that in terms of the current year’s BPS, it is a matter for the Scottish Government to ensure that Scottish farmers get their payments on time. We all have a debate to look forward to about Britain’s membership of the European Union.

I call Mr Alan Brown. Does the hon. Gentleman want to ask a second question? Am I mistaken in that surmise?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I understood that I had only one question.

If Britain votes to leave the European Union, will the UK Government guarantee the same level of CAP payments to Scottish farmers? Will the Minister please answer this time?

The Government’s position is very clear: we want to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union and see some powers come back to the UK. We will put that to the British public in a referendum and they will decide. Should the UK decide to leave the European Union, at that point the Government would obviously set a national agricultural policy.

DEFRA’s mismanagement of the CAP delivery programme saw very senior managers embroiled in childish squabbling. This flagship IT project then spiralled £60 million over budget. It was so useless that farmers were forced to switch back to pen and paper. With the NAO predicting millions in penalties as a result, why did the Minister not intervene to save farmers and taxpayers from this IT disaster?

I simply point out that we did intervene. We acted in March, once we realised there was going to be difficulty, to ensure that all farmers could get their applications in on time on a paper-based system, and we have worked very hard since then to ensure that we enter it on the core of the system, which has worked well.

Dairy Industry

11. What steps her Department is taking to make the dairy industry more resilient to the volatility of world milk prices. (902785)

We understand the pressures facing dairy farmers and have taken action to ease their cash-flow problems. The £26.2 million aid package we secured from the European Commission will provide some immediate relief. In addition to that short-term support, we are introducing a fairer tax system for farmers, pushing for clearer labelling of British dairy products and developing a futures market for dairy.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but may I press him a little harder on this subject, rather as happened with the Sussex wine? What help is his Department able to offer milk processers so that they can add more value to milk products, enhancing the opportunities to export them around the world?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. DEFRA has previously supported investment in processing, for instance at Davidstow in Cornwall, through the rural development programme. We are investigating the potential to use funds through the European Investment Bank to make loan capital available to invest in new processing capacity.

Topical Questions

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing our sympathies to all those affected by the recent flooding in the north of England. I would like to express our gratitude to the emergency services, the military, the Environment Agency and volunteers who have worked around the clock to protect people and property. Earlier this week I visited Appleby, Threlkeld and Carlisle to meet local residents and farmers and see the recovery efforts for myself. The Government are doing all we can to ensure that every resource is available to help those areas get back on their feet.

I share the Secretary of State’s sentiments with regard to the flooding. British shoppers want to support British dairy farmers, but the current labelling of dairy products is often too complicated to make that a reality. Does my right hon. Friend support the excellent new campaign by the Yorkshire Post for clearer and unambiguous labelling of dairy products so that this Christmas we can all buy British with confidence?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion of Yorkshire farmers, and the Yorkshire Post is running a great campaign. I want to see British labelling on British dairy products right across the country. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Wensleydale Creamery in his constituency, in the newly expanded Yorkshire Dales national park, and I have been eating their Yorkshire yoghurt ever since.

Happy Christmas to you, Mr Speaker.

This week the Paris talks and the devastating floods in the north reminded us of the importance of DEFRA’s climate change adaptation work. Also this week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee raised serious concerns about the impact of further departmental budget cuts. Will the Secretary of State tell us her top three policies for making our country safer and more resilient to climate change?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Climate Change Secretary for the fantastic work she did in achieving the deal in Paris. I work very closely with her to make sure that we are adapting to climate change. Of course, the No. 1 issue on DEFRA’s agenda is making sure that we have the flood defences in place. That is why we have seen a real-terms increase in flood defence spending in this Parliament. We are spending £2.3 billion over six years compared with £1.7 billion in the previous Parliament. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that we were protecting flood maintenance spending as well.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but I did ask for three policies, and it is a shame that she could only talk about one. It is little wonder, though, when her Department’s climate change unit has been slashed from 38 to six and expert advice is routinely ignored. The Select Committee warned this week:

“Successful delivery of vital environmental, agricultural and rural services will not be possible without strong leadership and a sharp focus on priority areas.”

When will we get that leadership and that sharp focus from the Secretary of State?

The key point is that we bake climate change into everything we do across DEFRA. Whether it is our programme to plant 11 million trees, our flood defence programme, which we are increasing in real terms, or our activity to make sure that biodiversity is taken into account for climate change, every single team in DEFRA has that as part of its plans.

T2. Northney ice cream, produced on Hayling Island in my constituency, is popular across the Solent region. Will the Secretary of State continue to promote local and regional British food plans and encourage our catering trade and supermarkets to do the same? (902764)

I am delighted to be visiting Northney in January to taste the ice cream with my hon. Friend. That might seem unseasonal, but I am sure it will be very nice. I am pleased to say that supermarkets are responding to the massive demand for British dairy. Marks and Spencer is moving from 80% to 100% of its cheddar being British, and Tesco has made a commitment that from early next year 100% of its own-brand yogurt will be sourced in Britain.

T3. In 2012, the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change stated that in addition to the environmental benefit, the UK Government expected carbon capture and storage expertise and products to be worth £6.5 billion to the UK economy by the end of the next decade. What economic analysis has been made of the effect of abandoning the carbon capture and storage competition? (902765)

This is clearly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. She has a very clear plan to deliver carbon reductions, economic growth and lower bills for bill payers, and she is on track to do that. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) should not chunter from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of an answer that he had no right to expect in any case. It is principally a matter for DECC, so he ought to be saying thank you to the Secretary of State for proffering some sort of response. In a seasonal spirit, I am sure that that is what he will now do.

T6. I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on the promotion of British food here and around the world. When I try to buy lactose-free milk, I notice that it all comes from Denmark. Will she ensure that the British dairy industry gets a grip on this and starts to produce lactose-free milk for what is probably the biggest market in Europe? (902769)

I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. There are also huge opportunities in producing UHT milk here and overseas, which I know the dairy industry is looking at. In January we will establish the Great British food unit, which brings together UK Trade & Investment expertise and DEFRA expertise so that we have a one-stop shop for businesses that want to export their fantastic products.

T4. The Forster family in Moss Bank in my constituency have farmed in St Helens for 125 years. In recent years they have opened a shop at their farm selling their own produce. What are the Government doing to help farmers like the Forsters to develop small business potential which not only showcases the best local produce but encourages people to buy local and eat local? (902766)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Through our rural development programme, we are supporting farm businesses that want to diversify and start retailing their own produce.

T8. Trees are a vital and precious feature of our natural environment, nowhere more so than in areas like Cheltenham, where they act as the town’s green lungs. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how many trees the Government plan to plant over the course of this Parliament? (902771)

The Government have committed to planting 11 million more trees over the course of this Parliament. We hope we may even be able to exceed that target. We are particularly proud of a scheme we are developing with the Woodland Trust to plant trees and to educate primary schoolchildren about them.

T5. Given the challenges of adapting to climate change, how will the Department work towards mitigation and emission reductions that match the Paris agreement ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C? (902768)

I am working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Change Secretary to make sure that we hit our carbon budget, including in areas such as agriculture, biodiversity and tree planting.

I am appalled that the Secretary of State has announced today that she is stopping the vaccination in the edge areas, because it is exceptionally important, particularly when the number of cattle slaughtered has increased by 25% in Wales and by 6% in England. I understand the reasons why she has made that announcement, but will she look at DEFRA test SE3289, which is 95.5% sensitive and 98% specific, so that we can identify TB in infected badger setts?

The reality is that there is a global shortage of the BCG vaccine. Clearly, human health is the priority and we need to ensure that humans are protected against TB. Believe me, as soon as that vaccine becomes available, we want to restart vaccination in the edge areas.

T7. In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority found that neonicotinoids posed a “high acute risk” to honey bees. The e-petition against the use of neonicotinoid pesticides has so far gained more than 90,000 signatures, so what representations will the Government make to the European Commission’s review of its control of neonicotinoids? (902770)

We had a comprehensive debate on this issue following that petition last week. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is doing a comprehensive piece of research fieldwork on the impact of neonicotinoids on bees. We will ensure that that evidence is put to EFSA before it reaches its conclusions on the interim review next summer.

To carry on the Christmas spirit, since the Prime Minister was pictured enjoying a pint of Greene King with President Xi, the export of that fine beer from my constituency of Bury St Edmunds has gone up from 3,000 to 50,000 cases. It and other rural exporting businesses in the constituency are keen to learn what work the Department is doing, with the help of UK Trade & Investment, to help fund and organise trade shows and development visits in order to secure such important trade.

I was in China a few weeks ago, and one of the things we promoted was Greene King in Chongqing. We were accompanied on our visit by the biggest ever delegation of food companies—there were more than 80 companies with us. With the launch of the Great British food unit, which brings together UKTI and DEFRA expertise, I expect us to have even more in the future.

Value for money and efficiency in delivering help is important, but the Government also need to be flexible enough to respond to unforeseen events. Will the Secretary of State look urgently at helping the farmers severely hit by the recent flooding, by making at least partial payments from the basic payment scheme?

I met farmers in Cumbria earlier this week. We are identifying the 600 farmers and making sure that we get the basic payments out to them as soon as possible. We have also put in place a farming recovery fund, to which farmers will be able to apply from tomorrow, to give them the extra funding needed to get their farms back to normal.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voting for 16 and 17-year-olds

1. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential merits of widening the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. (902793)

The commission has made clear in its briefings on recent legislation that a change to the franchise is a matter for Parliament, and does not take a view on the merits of widening the franchise to 16 or 17-year-olds. During the passage of the European Union Referendum Bill, the commission advised Parliament on the practical implications of any such change, including the activity that would be required to be carried out by electoral registration officers, central Government and the commission itself.

Following the incredible engagement of young people in the Scottish referendum, Scottish National party Members suggested that they should be given the vote in the EU referendum. Although many Conservative Members did not agree with that specific proposal, they expressed support for extending the franchise in the long term. With turnout falling, would not registration and education while young people are still at school increase political engagement in the future?

The hon. Lady brings relevant experience to this issue. This is ultimately a matter for the House to decide—the debate continues to rage—and not one for the Electoral Commission. I have no doubt that we will hear much more about this issue over the next two or three years.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that we should concentrate on increasing turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds before we start on 16 and 17-year-olds?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. As I understand it, less than 40% of 18 to 24-year-olds vote in general elections. It would be very healthy indeed for that number to increase. It is for all of us to inspire the young people in our constituencies to turn out and vote.

Does the hon. Gentleman know of any political party—SNP, Labour or anyone else—that has looked at the damage we do to the protection of children by making them adults at the age of 16? Has there been any thorough research on how damaging that is for our society and for the protection of our children?

I am not aware that the Electoral Commission has carried out any such research. The debate on this important issue will rumble on because there are very strongly opposing views.

Church Commissioners

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

Fossil Fuel: Investments

The Church Commissioners published a comprehensive ethical investment strategy in May 2015. They do not invest in fossil fuel companies that derive more than 10% of their revenues from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from oil sands.

I wonder whether the Church Commissioners might reconsider given the enormous exponential increase in living standards during the past 200 years as a result of our exploitation of fossil fuels. Does my right hon. Friend not think that the Church should sometimes put aside the Greenpeace manuals and look at Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents?

My hon. Friend may not agree with me about the underlying causes of climate change, but I think he has to accept that, with the collapse in the oil price and the volatility of oil as a commodity, it makes eminent good sense for the Church Commissioners to diversify their portfolio, particularly away from the extraction of materials that may be detrimental to the environment.

In people’s minds, fossil fuels are obviously a cornerstone of the Paris accord. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the involvement of faith groups was absolutely vital in getting that agreement? Everyone from the Pope to Christian Aid, and many other organisations, was fundamental in making sure that the moral case for tackling climate change was heard.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The engagement of faith leaders in securing a successful agreement in Paris last weekend was very important. I want to commend the work of the Bishop of Salisbury, who led an initiative in which 200 pilgrims from the Church of England walked 200 miles to Paris to show their commitment to reaching an agreement.


3. If the Church Commissioners will provide guidance to dioceses on ensuring that church property is hedgehog-friendly. (902796)

My hon. Friend has pricked all our consciences with his campaign for the protection of the hedgehog. The Church of England recognises that its churchyards are important not only as places of burial and quiet reflection, but for their characteristic habitats and as refuges for wildlife and plants. The conservation movement Caring for God’s Acre recognises the hedgehog as a flagship species in need of protection.

The Church of England is one of the largest landowners in the country, so do the dioceses across the country have ecology strategies for the protection of animals and wildlife throughout their churchyards?

The dioceses give proper weight to the conservation of natural heritage. I refer my hon. Friend to the ChurchCare website, which provides guidance on managing churchyards for wildlife, including by carrying out surveys and managing grassland. The aforementioned initiative, Caring for God’s Acre, encourages all of us as MPs to talk to our local churches about leaving some sections of their churchyards in a state that is conducive to the protection of species that are endangered, such as the hedgehog.


I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, which focuses on providing support for people in Syria. International aid agencies, many of which are Christian in origin, always stress that it is important to provide for refugees in situ, so that they can subsequently help with the rebuilding of their country. The Church is working with the Department for International Development to get the aid committed by the UK Government to those in need and is assisting those who remain in the camps with clothing, health and hygiene kits, shelter and education.

York Minster is playing a pivotal role in welcoming refugees to our city. However, Christians in Syria remain at risk and many do not feel safe to go to the UNHCR camps. What steps is the Church taking to ensure that Syrian Christians and other minority groups can find a place of sanctuary?

That excellent point was raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he pointed out that the percentage of Christians in the camps is below the percentage of Christians in the population of Syria before the start of the conflict. Through the ecumenical networks, we are trying to help the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees to reach Syrian Christians who may be fearful of presenting themselves in the camps.

I am sure that many hon. Members have received generous offers of accommodation for Syrian refugees. Many of those have come from members of church groups, which are able to offer the support structures that are so necessary to look after refugees when they come to this country. Has my right hon. Friend had any conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, because all the offers of accommodation are currently going through local authorities and churches have a real role to play?

I spoke to the Minister as recently as this week, because the Church has made a number of offers of accommodation. The Christian charity, Home for Good, has 8,000 families who are willing to offer accommodation to an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. He reassured me that he is speaking to faith groups and that 50 local authorities across the length and breadth of the land are taking the offers from the Church very seriously indeed.

While it is important that we look after the people in Syria, it is also important that we look after the Syrian refugees. Just this week, Northern Ireland has taken in its first Syrian refugees, who have arrived in Belfast and Londonderry. Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner outline the ways in which the commissioners can assist Northern Ireland to settle these first Syrian refugees?

It is true that the first Syrian refugees are coming to our country. I believe that the Prime Minister said yesterday that 1,000 will have arrived before the end of the year. There are many ways in which churches can help. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees has asked the Church for volunteers to help with learning English and with welcoming the refugees. Many dioceses are preparing themselves to make the refugees feel welcome in our midst.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Postal Votes

5. What guidance the Electoral Commission issues on the handling of completed and sealed postal votes by political activists. (902799)

The Electoral Commission has developed a code of conduct for campaigners, which makes it clear that:

“Campaigners should never handle or take any completed ballot paper or postal ballot packs from voters.”

The code of conduct is non-statutory, but it applies to all campaigners at elections and referendums in Great Britain.

I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Kettering was one of the first authorities in the country to get all local activists to sign up to the code of conduct, which I am pleased to see the Electoral Commission has adopted. Will the Electoral Commission apply the code of conduct to by-elections, because in the recent by-election there were disturbing reports that activists were handling other people’s postal votes?

Where Kettering leads, other parts of the country will surely follow. My hon. Friend is right to say that this matter is now embraced in the national code produced by the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission spoke to members of UKIP recently and, as I understand it, they have still made no formal complaint. Perhaps a lesson for all of us is that if we make allegations, we should back them up and refer matters to the police.

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Electoral Commission is of the view that electoral fraud cases are few and far between?

That is certainly the case, and we are fortunate in this country that there are very few cases of electoral fraud. Of course there are allegations, and the police now have special officers to investigate them, but mercifully at the moment, electoral fraud does not trouble us greatly.

Church Commissioners

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


Within the diocese of Europe, the Anglican chaplaincy of Athens and the chaplaincy to Southern Italy are supporting migrants and refugees by providing spiritual and psychological support, clothing and healthcare. Local churches across the diocese of Europe are also acting as a messaging service to try to bring families back together if they have been disunited.

I am grateful for that answer. Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), many churches and other local groups have contacted me in my constituency and the wider county of Dorset, offering help with accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend set out how those offers can be logged, assessed and, where appropriate, taken up?

That is an important point that the Minister responsible will want the House to take on board. We need social landlords who are willing to offer accommodation to refugees, so that if possible we do not add to housing waiting lists and cause cohesion issues in our society. Within the Church of England we are looking for Christian social landlords who will provide accommodation for refugees which the Government will pay for.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration Rates

The Electoral Commission provided guidance and resources, and set performance standards for electoral registration officers to improve registration in their local area during the recent autumn canvass. The commission also ran a major public awareness campaign ahead of the May 2015 polls. The campaign resulted in more than 1.5 million additions to the register, which was more than three times the amount achieved during a similar period before the 2010 general election.

Against the explicit advice of the Electoral Commission, the Government rushed through by a year the individual electoral registration on which the new boundaries will be based. HOPE not hate predicted that 1.9 million people will fall off the register. The hon. Gentleman has said that there has been an increase in registration, but I would like to know the net figures. It is predicted that those who will fall off the register will typically be the young, those in houses of multiple occupation, and students. What was the net result at the end of all this? It sounds like a cynical attempt to make my electors disappear.

The decision that the hon. Lady mentions was a matter for the Government and was taken, as she rightly says, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. I will have to write to her about net impact of that decision. The reality is that we must all do whatever we can to encourage our local electoral registration officers to contact as many people as possible, particularly in groups that are hard to reach. I am sure that the public awareness campaign in early 2016 will have great success, as it did in 2015.