The Secretary of State was asked—
Chemical Spills (River Tamar)
We take the issue of chemical spills very seriously, particularly in the context of the Tamar. Such spills have caused significant damage to biodiversity and, specifically, to fish. We are analysing the pH levels and the dissolved solids to prevent future occurrences.
Legal proceedings were brought and the decision was made by Truro Crown court, under the hon. Judge Carr, to instead impose an enforcement order. Some £70,000 has been contributed by the company, but, much more importantly, five new lagoons have been put in place to deal with the incident and chemical processes are being used to prevent a recurrence.
Indeed, sir. Cornwall is well-known for its history of mineral extraction, whether it be china clay or Cornish tin. Cheshire is about to enter into mineral extraction as well through fracking. The Government have gone back on their pledges on monitoring and preventing chemical spills from fracking rigs. While the Minister is considering the potential pollution of the Tamar, will he also consider whether there is sufficient monitoring to prevent chemical leaks from fracking in the headwaters of the River Dee, like that in the headwaters of the Tamar?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for an ingenious connection, although the nature of the extraction in the two cases is quite different. The Environment Agency takes its responsibilities very seriously, whether in respect of quarrying or fracking. If there are particular concerns, I would be happy to sit down with him to discuss them in more detail.
Emissions Standards: Fines
In the wake of the Volkswagen engines scandal, it is extremely important both that we have monitoring in place to check the real levels of emissions of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants from engines, and that we have proper fines in place. This Department and the Department for Transport will look very carefully at the proposals that were put forward by the Commission last week.
I am grateful for that very positive response from the Minister. Does he agree that it is time to break the relationship between industry, testers and regulators, so that the process is truly independent and so that Government agencies, whether they be in his Department or the DFT, act wholly in the public interest?
As a matter of principle, it is incredibly important that regulators are entirely independent of the industry they regulate. This is essentially an issue for the DFT. The reason the Commission’s proposals are interesting to ourselves and the DFT is that they include both the commitment on spot checks, with a clear indication of the fines, and a separation, as the hon. Gentleman says, the regulator and the industry.
Car emissions are a main contributor to poor air quality in this country. Many of the former local authorities that covered my constituency were among the first to sign up to the Clean Air Act 1956, but much of that progress has gone backwards as a result of poor air quality in urban areas. Is it not time for a new clean air Act that is fit for the 21st century?
On the foot of the ongoing discussions with the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in relation to our inquiry into air quality, will the Minister hold the car manufacturers to account to ensure that car owners throughout Britain and Ireland who have been affected by the defeat devices are compensated?
This is a DFT lead, but the issue raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) about the Commission’s proposals addresses the relationship between the manufacturer, the vehicle owner, and the kind of fines that could be imposed. That is why member states will be looking closely at that Commission proposal.
Our commitment to the UN target of halving food waste is immensely important, and work on that is being taken forward by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—and the Courtauld 2025 agreement. It will aim to build on work that we have achieved since 2009, which has reduced household food waste by 17%.
The Minister is right to highlight the reduction in household food waste, but he will know that that is not being matched by the food industry. Will he explain why Government Whips objected to the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill, which was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) last Friday? Would it not be better to get the Bill into Committee, where its provisions and the positive course of action that it proposes could be properly considered, and we can take the opportunity to end the scandal of food waste?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has campaigned strongly on this issue for a long time. We have significant concerns about the targets set in that Bill, and we believe that its proposals include perverse incentives. Voluntary measures have increased by 70% the amount that retailers have managed to redistribute to charitable organisations, and the real key will be getting councils and retailers to work on a unified system.
While visiting the anaerobic digestion plant belonging to Severn Trent, which is near to my constituency, I was impressed by the energy recovery from food waste. However, does the Minister agree that too much edible food is still going into waste? How do the Government plan to intercept that food for redistribution while it is still edible?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, because at the moment the average household in the United Kingdom wastes more than £60 a month on food waste. We must ensure that food is not wasted in the first place on its way from the farm gate to the house, and if food cannot be consumed by humans, we must ensure that it is consumed by animals, and that it goes to anaerobic digesters only as a last resort.
The Soil Association estimates that between 20% to 40% of UK fruit and veg is rejected before it even reaches the shop—it is deemed as being a kind of “wonky veg” because it fails to meet the supermarket’s strict cosmetic requirements. Will the Minister ensure that supermarkets and manufacturers transparently publish their supply chain waste—I think Tesco is doing that with food waste hotspots? That is vital if we are to achieve a meaningful reduction in waste.
I absolutely agree that that is vital, and we recently held a round table with retailers on that issue. One solution, although not a total solution, is being pioneered by Tesco and Co-operative supermarkets, which are looking at individual varieties—for example, of potatoes—that result in much less food waste on the way from the farm gate to the shelf.
My constituents in Kettering, especially those from the wartime generation, are horrified about the amount of food that is wasted. How can we get back to the principle that we do not put more food on our plate than we can eat, and that we consume the food that is on our plate?
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to one of the central points of this issue, which is human behaviour and culture. Certain things can be done by the Government and others by retailers, but in the end a lot of responsibility rests on us all regarding how much food we buy, how we use it, and how much of it we throw away.
Flood Defence Programme
A total of 246 schemes will begin construction in 2016-17 as part of our first ever six-year programme of investment in flood defences. That £2.3 billion of investment represents a real-terms increase on the last Parliament, and will protect an additional 300,000 homes.
I congratulate the Minister on championing this cause. Does she agree that when it comes to investing in new flood defences and improving existing ones, getting the support of local authorities, drainage boards, and the private sector is incredibly important? Will she pay tribute to Mike McDonnell in my constituency, who has helped to set up a community interest company to invest in sea defences along the stretch of coast adjacent to Snettisham and Heacham in west Norfolk?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When internal drainage boards work with local businesses and local councils, we can get really good local solutions. The community interest company is a particularly interesting model, which is being pioneered by him and his constituents in North West Norfolk. It could potentially be used elsewhere.
Sheffield remains £20 million short of the investment it needs to protect our city. The Department is holding a teleconference with council leaders, but will the Secretary of State commit to visiting Sheffield to see the innovative flood defences we have planned that will protect the city from a potential £1 billion of economic damage?
As part of the national resilience review being led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Sheffield is one of the core cities that will be looked at in particular to make sure it is sufficiently resilient to flooding. I am sure that as part of that review there will be a visit to Sheffield to ensure that that very important city has the protection it needs.
Flood Re insurance will help many householders in Thirsk and Malton affected by recent floods, but it does not cover small businesses or leasehold properties with more than three units. In one such development in my constituency at Topcliffe Mill, residents of a two-bedroom flat now face a premium of £4,000 a year and an excess of £40,000. Will Ministers agree to meet me and representatives from the insurance industry to consider how we can provide a solution to this problem?
We have not ruled out an application to the EU solidarity fund. We have until the end of February to apply. We need to find out the total cost of the floods before a potential application is made. Our priority has been to make sure we get funding to affected homes and businesses as soon as possible. In fact, for the floods that took place on 26 December, funding was with local authorities on 29 December. Our priority has been making sure we make £200 million available to fix the damage and help communities to get back on their feet.
The devastating floods across the country are extremely well documented, as are the knock-on effects of the Government’s decision to postpone or cancel capital schemes—an estimated cost of £5 billion. Communities, families, individuals and businesses have suffered ruinous consequences. It is imperative that the Government do everything possible to maximise resources from all areas. The Secretary of State mentioned the EU solidarity fund. Time is running out, with only three or four weeks left for an application in relation to Cumbria. Will she just get on with the job and do it now, please?
This Government have invested more in flood defences than ever before: a real-terms increase on the previous Parliament, which was a real-terms increase on what was spent under Labour. The fact is that the Labour Government spent £1.5 billion and we are spending £2 billion in this Parliament. We have got money to affected communities as soon as possible—that is our priority.
9. What the role is of the Great British Food Unit in promoting British food (a) in the UK and (b) overseas. (903453)
We launched the Great British Food Unit in January. It brings together expertise from UK Trade & Investment and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to create a team of 40 people in London and teams around the world, including five people in China, to promote great British food. I am pleased to say that food and drink manufacturers have already agreed to expand their exports by a third by 2020.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am concerned that the Secretary of State is anti-European, because she is denying our European colleagues the opportunity to drink great British beer. Although we imported £418 million of beer last year, we exported only £494 million of beer. Given that we brew the best beer in the world, that figure should be much higher. What is she doing to promote the British beer industry and to encourage our European friends to sup up?
I know that beer is my hon. Friend’s passion, and I congratulate him on his role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on beer. Also, his constituency is home to some of the finest water in our country that produces some of the finest beer. In fact, Lord Bilimoria, one of the founders of Cobra, is one of our food pioneers helping to promote great British beer not just in Europe, but in India and China—we recently promoted great British beer at the Baker Street brew pub in Chongqing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are fantastic jobs to be had in the food industry, from farming to engineering and food technology. Food and drink is our largest manufacturing sector, and we need more apprentices in this vital sector. We have an ambition to triple the number of apprentices by 2020, and I will be holding a round table shortly with some of the leading figures from the industry to make sure they commit to that goal.
The Great British Food Unit and the enthusiastic Secretary of State will know that some of the greatest food on earth comes from the Gloucester Old Spot pig and from Gloucester cattle, including the single Gloucester cheese, which is famously used in the annual cheese rolling race. There is no better place to see these and 130 other great Gloucester producers than the Gloucester services on the M5, described by The Telegraph as probably the best service station in the UK. Were she to find herself near the M5 in the near future, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and I would give her a warm welcome and a Gloucester Old Spot sausage. [Laughter.]
To hit a more serious note, after that interesting and humorous exchange, may I say to the Secretary of State that to produce great British food, we need great British technology? The news yesterday that Syngenta, our leading European food innovator, which produces wonderful technology and innovation and has a large plant in my constituency, is to be taken over by ChemChina means that overnight the European capacity for innovation in food technology and much else will be wiped out. Should the House not debate that very seriously before it goes through?
We are investing in science and technology. Last year, the Prime Minister announced a food tech innovation network, and, in terms of DEFRA’s capital budget, we are doubling our spend on investment in science and animal health research precisely so that we can take advantage of these huge opportunities.
The Great British Food Unit depends on great British farmers producing the goods for the unit, but many farmers are still experiencing problems with the Rural Payments Agency. One of my constituency farmers was only told late on Sunday afternoon of the failure to issue his payment, and even then it was done by email. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure that farmers are properly supported by the RPA?
The hon. Lady is right: farmers are facing difficult cash flow at the moment. We are doing all we can to get those payments out as soon as possible. It is the most complicated common agricultural policy that has ever been introduced. We were still getting the final details of it in February last year, but up to 77% of farmers are now being paid, and £1 billion has gone out the door to farmers. We are working to make sure that the farmers get their money as soon as possible.
Scotch whisky is a great Scottish and UK success story, with exports totalling £4 billion annually. Does the Secretary of State agree that reducing the 76% tax burden on an average bottle of Scotch in the coming Budget would send an important message that the Government support the industry? Will she speak to her friend the Chancellor and ensure that such a reduction is included in his statement?
I am sure that the Chancellor and the Treasury team have heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say. I agree with him that Scotch whisky is our top international export. Other products such as Scotch gin, which I promoted recently with the Scottish gin trail, taking people from the golf clubs of St Andrews to the distilleries around the north of Scotland, can also play a massive part. We have fantastic products in Scotland and fantastic products right across the UK. The Great British Food Unit is all about promoting them around the world. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on that.
17. In supporting Dorset food and exports internally and across the world, will my right hon. Friend pay particular tribute to some notable producers in my constituency: Fudges, the Blackmore Vale dairy, Sixpenny Handley brewery and the Langham estate? Without wishing to outdo my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), I should also add to that list the manufacturer of Dorset knobs, which I am very happy to offer the Secretary of State. Will she also take into account in all that her Department does the burden of regulation and the impost of the living wage, because many of these producers are very small, so those burdens fall particularly heavily on them? (903462)
I would be delighted to visit some of the fantastic producers in Dorset that my hon. Friend mentions, such as the Blackmore Vale dairy, and to see what they have to offer as well as using the Great British Food Unit to promote them both here and overseas. We are working to reduce regulation on our food and farmers, and over the course of this Parliament we are looking to reduce the costs by £500 million, so that we can see more new businesses opening, more exporting and more selling their fantastic food here in Britain.
Flooding: Agriculture Industry
Farmers in many parts of the country have been affected by the winter flooding, notably in Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Scotland and, of course, areas of Northern Ireland. We identified 600 farmers in Cumbria alone who suffered flooding after Storm Desmond. Unlike the Somerset floods two years ago, the flooding events have been relatively short-lived. However, in their wake, considerable damage has been done to stone walls, hedges and tracks. In England, we have established a farm recovery fund to help farmers get back on their feet.
In Northern Ireland, there is a long-established relationship with the Republic of Ireland Government in relation to Lough Erne and its levels. The UK Government had a relationship, too, from 1950, when that deal was made. Have there been any discussions with the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development about reviewing the levels of Lough Erne to stop farmers from being flooded in the area?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, flooding is a devolved matter, but if there is a need for discussion with the Irish Republic and if the Northern Ireland Administration would like me to be involved in that, I would be happy to have that conversation with them.
Farmers in areas in the south of my constituency, around Methley and Mickletown, have had large areas of their land flooded to hold water in order to prevent flooding of housing, which the farmers themselves agree with. However, what they do not agree with is the Environment Agency saying that it could take up to six years for this water to drain off the land. One particular farmer in my constituency had 80% of his land covered. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Environment Agency to speed up the draining of the water from this land?
That is a good point. Natural flood plains play an important role in alleviating the risk of flooding in urban areas. We intend to use the countryside stewardship scheme to help us to deal with flood problems. As for my hon. Friend’s specific point about the length of time for which land has been flooded, I shall be happy to take it up with the Environment Agency and see what can be done.
I am still waiting to hear the date of the meeting with Members whose constituencies lie along the River Wharfe to discuss the flooded farmland in Pool-in-Wharfedale and Arthington, in my constituency. We particularly need to discuss what can be done upstream to prevent the water from coming down and threatening both farms and housing. When can we have that meeting?
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the floods Minister, has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and will be willing to meet him to discuss his concerns. My hon. Friend has already had many meetings with the many Members who have been affected by winter floods.
The Secretary of State says that DEFRA wants to be able to spend more on flood defences by reducing the millions paid in penalties to the EU every year. However, the National Audit Office says that the Rural Payments Agency fiasco could cost the country a whopping £180 million a year in penalties. Can the Minister confirm the most recent estimate of the amounts that are being paid to Brussels in fines, rather than being spent on British agriculture and dealing with flooding?
The “horizontal” regulation that governs the disallowance system has been changed, and the penalties that the Commission can charge, and their frequency, have increased. That is the issue of concern in this instance, rather than any particular issues involving the rural payments system. I repeat that we are spending £2.3 billion a year on flood defences, and have provided £200 million to help people to get back on their feet after the most recent episode.
Nature Improvement Areas
7. What assessment the Government have made of the contribution of nature improvement areas to habitat creation and wildlife conservation. (903451)
The nature improvement area report has been overwhelmingly positive, which is quite a rare feature of monitoring reports of this kind. I pay particular tribute to the Wild Purbeck nature improvement area, where there has been an extraordinary combination of activities: saving the ladybird spider, which has included 3,000 volunteer hours, and involving schools through the forest school learning initiative. These are great, great projects.
I thank my hon. Friend for our hedgehog summit on Monday. What measures does he propose, along with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to increase the number of hedgehogs, which, as he knows, has declined by between 30% and 50% over the last 15 years?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has become a doughty champion of the hedgehog. The most important thing for hedgehogs, which are a much-loved species, is their habitat, and we are dealing with that by means of our hedgerow schemes, as well as the woodland planting schemes that the Secretary of State is promoting, which include the planting of 11 million more trees over the next five years. The real challenge for all of us, however, is to see hedgehogs in a suburban context, and, in particular, to consider the possibility of providing them with access and corridors through garden fences.
The 12 nature improvement areas were the right response to the Lawton report, but they were supposed to create 1,000 hectares of new woodland, 1,000 hectares of new chalk grassland, and more than 1,500 hectares of new wetland. How many hectares of each of those have actually been created?
I am proud to say that Northern Ireland has eight areas of outstanding natural beauty, 47 national nature reserves, 43 special areas of conservation, and 10 special protection areas. The charities—especially the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—are working very hard in campaigning for support for wildlife in urban areas. What discussions has the Minister had with his Northern Ireland counterpart about preserving the countryside and ensuring that housing does not expand further from urban areas into rural locations, often encroaching on the wealth of wildlife in those locations?
We work closely with our Northern Ireland counterparts. Some of these issues are of course devolved, but we would love to work more closely on issues such as these, and if there are opportunities to do that, I personally would be delighted to engage more closely.
Flood Defences: Farmland
As a result of the Government’s £2.3 billion programme, more than 420,000 acres of farmland will be better protected by 2021. That means that over the course of the decade between 2010 and 2021, we will see 1 million acres of farmland being better protected from flooding.
I recently visited the River Steeping in my constituency with representatives of the Environment Agency and saw the huge amount of damage that badgers are doing to flood defences in that area—[Interruption.] Don’t worry. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Environment Agency’s preferred method of creating artificial setts to relocate badgers will have a meaningful effect on the riverbanks and secure the area for the future?
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of the local internal drainage boards to discuss flooding in his constituency, and I am pleased to hear that the Environment Agency has found a solution to this issue. I note that 100,000 acres of agricultural land in his constituency will be protected as part of our six-year programme.
While the Government are prevaricating, farms and businesses in the north of England and in Scotland are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the December floods. Can the Secretary of State explain why she needs to find out the total cost before applying to the EU solidarity fund, and will she be able to do this in time to meet the deadline?
The hon. Lady should be aware that we have made a farming recovery fund available, and that we have already paid out money to farmers worth up to £20,000 for each farmer. As soon as the floods took place, we looked on satellite mapping, identified the affected farmers and got on with paying them and sorting the issue out.
Access to fast reliable broadband is of course important for rural areas, as the hon. Lady well knows. There are two indicative measures that we have taken. One was to ensure that by the end of last year anyone who wished to have a 2 megabit service could access such a service. Perhaps more important is the universal service obligation, which will be in place with 10 megabits by 2020.
In 2012, when I criticised the Government for abandoning Labour’s universal broadband commitment, the then Secretary of State said:
“We have a plan and we are going to deliver it.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 1059.]
So was it part of the plan that, in 2016, farmers would still be unable to get the broadband access they need in order to fill out the forms that the Department makes it mandatory to complete online? What is the plan now?
As the hon. Lady is aware, farmers are able to make applications on paper. Also, she is even more aware than I am of the fact that this is an extremely difficult issue to deal with in rural areas. We have just carried out seven very interesting pilots with operations such as Cybermoor to look at different technological solutions, but the key indicator is the universal service obligation of 10 megabits by 2020.
The roll-out of superfast broadband in Devon and Somerset is being hampered by the poor performance of BT Openreach, which still has a virtual monopoly in the area. Is it not time that the Government did something to tackle that monopoly?
The Department for Communities and Local Government leads on this issue. The reason that the seven pilots have been interesting is that they are community-led pilots that have looked at different technological solutions ranging from satellite through to point-to-point wireless connections. We are going to need all those solutions and to involve all the different parties in order to deliver the difficult challenge of rural broadband.
Following the severe flooding in the north of England over Christmas, the Government are working to help communities to get back on their feet and to restore critical infrastructure. We are taking forward two important areas of work: the national flood resilience review to assess how the country can be better protected from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events and, in those areas affected by flooding, we are taking a catchment-based approach looking at what improvements are needed to flood defences and at upstream options for slowing the river flow.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I held a round table meeting, with not just supermarkets, but food manufacturers, because we need to address the issue of food waste right through the food chain. We are working on the next step of the Courtauld agreement—Courtauld 2025—which will have voluntary targets to get both supermarkets and the food manufacturers to a better level.
T6. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will reallocate fishing quota from those who hold it only as an investment to active, small-scale fishermen such as those who fish out of Lowestoft, who bring real benefits to their local community? (903480)
My hon. Friend will be aware that we had a manifesto commitment to rebalance quotas, and we have already commenced that this year, with the quota uplift that comes with the introduction of the landing obligation. We have made it clear that we will give the first 100 tonnes, and 10% thereafter, to the under-10 metres, and this year it will give them an extra 1,000 tonnes of fish.
T2. The recent Tesco case has shown the importance of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Does the Secretary of State share the view of the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales and many in the dairy sector that now is the time to consider extending the adjudicator’s remit right across the supply chain, from gate to plate, even if that requires legislative change? (903475)
I am aware of the representations made by the NFU and of the conclusions of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in this regard. I know that colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are about to commence a review of the role of the adjudicator so far, and it may well be that as part of that they look at how the code is implemented. There would be challenges involved in trying to regulate things that far up, with thousands and thousands of different relationships to police, but we hear what has been said and we will look at this matter.
T8. Cross-compliance rules prevent hedge cutting in August, yet the only bird that seems to be nesting at that time is the very prolific wood pigeon. The rules are preventing farmers from doing vital work, as they are unable to get on to that land during August. Will Ministers agree to look at this to see what can be done to change these rules? (903483)
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am always looking at the cross-compliance rules to see whether we can introduce proportionality. I do not agree with him that it is just the wood pigeon that is being protected; yellowhammers and other rare species that we are trying to encourage to recover also have second broods later in the year.
One less well-publicised deal the UK has been negotiating with our European partners recently is the circular economy package, which could not only bring about significant environmental benefits, but create jobs and growth. The Government, however, do not seem to have a strategy for achieving the ambitious waste targets set out there or for unlocking the economic opportunities that would come from greater resource efficiency. When are we going to have a proper waste resources strategy from the Secretary of State?
The circular economy package is absolutely central, and we are looking closely at it. We sat down with a number of different people last week specifically to address it. The key is in getting the right balance between preventing the resources from being wasted in the first place and the targets that the European Union is setting, but I absolutely agree that this is vital and I am very happy to include the shadow Secretary of State in these discussions going forward.
I thank the Minister for that response —I hope the Secretary of State can reply to the next question. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that the huge growth in plastics production means that by 2050 there could be more waste plastic in the sea than fish. Just 5% of plastics are recycled, 40% end up in landfill and a third end up polluting our ecosystems. What is the Secretary of State doing to combat plastics pollution? For starters, how about doing what President Obama has just done and ban microbeads in cosmetic products?
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the multimillion pound joint investment by the Environment Agency and my local authority in the work on the River Avon, which runs through my constituency, as it will help to reduce flooding for hundreds of homes and businesses across the constituency? Will she also look at further funding should the flood risk increase?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I congratulate the Environment Agency and his local authority on that work. What we are doing as part of the national resilience review is making sure that we are properly protected right across the country. We are investing a record amount in flood defences, and doing it in a way that is fair. Therefore, our flooding formula reflects the number of houses and businesses protected wherever people live in the country.
T3. I welcome the announcement of further marine conservation zones around our coast to protect our wildlife. However, back in November 2012, when the previous round of MCZs was announced, many in my constituency were very concerned that the zone to protect Hilbre Island was dropped at the eleventh hour, especially in the light of the licence for underground coal gasification that exists in the Dee. Why was Hilbre Island not included in this latest round? (903476)
We ruled out Hilbre Island, following assessments by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, because the simple truth was that the features that people said were there were not there sufficiently for us to designate those areas.
For farmers, farmgate prices are so low that the single farm payment is absolutely essential. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the Rural Payments Agency recognises that there are still too many farmers who have not received their payments, and that work is being done to ensure that, next year, we catch up so that we are not late in paying again?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. A number of farmers are facing cash-flow issues, which is why we are putting as much resource as possible into the RPA. We are now up to 77%, and we have paid out £1 billion. The cases that we are now dealing with are the more complicated ones, including those involving common land and cross-border land, which take extra time. As I have pointed out, we are dealing with a very complicated cap. One of my main efforts is to try to simplify that cap and enable farmers to make claims online this year so that the system will be faster next year.
T5. London breached annual pollution limits just days into 2016, repeating what happened in 2015. The Government were forced by the Supreme Court to publish plans on reducing air pollution. Does the Secretary of State think that her Department is doing enough to tackle air pollution? It is projected that there will be five years of this in London. (903479)
As the hon. Lady said, we published plans just before Christmas to ensure that we comply with those air pollution levels. The level of roadside nitrogen dioxide has fallen over the past five years. We have invested £2 billion in that already, but we do need to do more, which is why we issued the plans just before Christmas.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. The Great British Food Unit has not just outposts around the world, but regional teams to help local businesses, whether they are in Cleethorpes or elsewhere in the country, to promote their food both in the UK and overseas. Certainly, seafood is a huge part of that.
T7. Can the Secretary of State confirm that it was her signature on a letter last July promising to drive forward fracking in sites of special scientific interest and national parks, in complete contradiction to assurances previously given? May I respectfully suggest to her that, since she is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she should be standing up for the interests of the environment and rural areas, and not the interests of big globalised fracking companies that want to frack in rural Cheshire? (903482)
As the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering made clear in their report, shale gas extraction is safe and has minimal impact on the environment, provided that it is correctly regulated. I am absolutely confident that we have very strong protections in place through the Environment Agency to do that.
Has my hon. Friend thought through the impact of the introduction of marine conservation zones on the under-10-metre fleet? That could have an effect on smaller, non-nomadic boats, which might be banned from fishing in their own grounds.
I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that the interests of fishermen are taken into account when we make decisions on these designations. It is important to note that designation does not mean that we ban fishing; it may mean, for instance, limitations on the particular types of bottom-trawling gear that do most damage.