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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The overwhelming majority of countries continue to support the Kyoto protocol. The Government will continue to make every effort to promote a successful outcome at the next round of negotiations in Bonn in July. We will also continue to encourage the United States to re-engage with the Kyoto protocol.
Mr. Kidney: I am fortified in pursuing this question by the batch of letters that I received this week from Rising Brook high school, from 13 and 14-year-olds putting forward their concerns about global warming and their suggestions for meeting the challenge. On their behalf, as well as my own, I shall ask some specific questions. Will President Bush's decision to turn his back on the Kyoto protocol undermine the resolve of other signatories to ratify it? What line on global warming is my hon. Friend's Department taking in its relations with its American counterpart?
Mr. Morley: We very much regret the fact that President Bush has stated that the United States is not prepared to ratify the agreement. We believe that it is important to engage the Americans and to continue to try to persuade them that such an agreement is absolutely vital. I am very pleased to hear about the interest of young people in my hon. Friend's constituency, because the agreement is very much about the future of this country and, indeed, the future globally.
I am pleased to say that other countries are actively engaging in discussions. I should also make it clear that, if necessary, we will go ahead with the ratification of the Kyoto treaty without the Americans, but we would much prefer them to engage in the process, and we hope that they will reconsider their position.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the Minister agree that the Kyoto protocol is arguably the most important environmental issue that the world faces at the moment and that Britain could play a very constructive role in brokering a deal between the United States and the rest of the world; but does he also agree that that role is diminished by the fact that his Department is undertaking the preparatory negotiations, yet the Deputy Prime Minister is now in charge not only of the negotiations but of the Cabinet Office? Is that a tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister's forensic negotiating skills, or yet another example of unjoined-up government?
Mr. Morley: It seems to me that the contrary is true, because the Deputy Prime Minister has had a long involvement in the negotiations, and he will continue to do so, but the Government take the issue very seriously. That is why we have engaged in it at a number of levels, and of course it is a very important issue for my Department. The fact is that we think we are making very
Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Does my hon. Friend agree that the platform that we take on the world stage should be very much joined up with the platform we take not only on national policies but in the European Union? In my part of south Yorkshire, which he knows very well, we are seeking European protection for Thorne and Hatfield moors to end peat extraction on that land and to restore that very precious asset, not only for Britain but for Europe and the world. Will he support our proposal to make that land a candidate for special European protection when we seek to submit the names shortly?
Mr. Morley: It is important that we conserve all natural resources. Thorne and Hatfield moors are one of the best examples of raised peat bog in this country. My hon. Friend is right to say that I know it well. I am aware of the enormous amount of work that she and her colleagues in the area have put into conserving it. We certainly want to see progress made in the designation and protection of that important site.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): It is clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House are rightly exercised about the threat to Kyoto. Will the Minister focus on the Government's responsibilities? The House of Commons Library tells me that of the 84 signatories to the protocol, 34 have ratified it. That group does not include the United Kingdom. Why have the Government not ratified the protocol and when do they propose to do so? Will they concentrate a little less on lecturing others and a little more on doing something to move the Kyoto process forward?
Mr. Morley: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to have been following the progress of the negotiations. If he had, he would understand that it is better for us to ratify in conjunction with our European partners, in a block rather than individually. That is what we are moving towards. There is no delay. We want to ensure that the agreement is supported internationally, so we are preparing the ground for ratification together with our European and other partners.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): In my statement last week, I said that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs would review the powers of local authorities to impose a blanket ban on footpaths in an area. He has
Paddy Tipping: Has not the foot and mouth crisis and the consequent closure of the footpaths shown the economic value that walkers, climbers and birdwatchers contribute to the rural economy? Given that, is it not ill-conceived and short-sighted for councils such as those in Lincolnshire, the East Riding of Yorkshire and Hertfordshire to have made so little progress in opening footpaths? Will my right hon. Friend introduce proposals to get rid of the blanket ban as quickly as possible?
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. It has been a revelation to people in many areas of the countryside to realise the sheer value that walkers and hikers contribute to the local economy. It has been a surprise for people to find how much difference the lack of walkers has made. In the longer term, that can only be worth while.
I understand my hon. Friend's concern that some authorities have been particularly resistant to or ultra-cautious about opening footpaths. We wanted to wait and see how much progress could be made without revocation of the ban, but officials are now in discussion with local authority representatives, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State hopes to make a further announcement in about two weeks.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does not the issue illustrate the need for a proper public inquiry? Does the right hon. Lady accept that what should be of paramount concern is the safety and the future of British agriculture? That is all that matters at the end of the day. Cannot all those issues be properly examined only if there is a full public inquiry when the outbreak finally comes to an end?
Margaret Beckett: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in working into this question, a request for a full public inquiry, as there is no evidence that any walker or hiker has made contact with foot and mouth disease. As I have said on many occasions, and as my predecessors have said, the Government have every intention of holding an inquiry, but we do not wish to be bound to a specific legal form at this time as we want to find the most effective way of carrying one out.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I welcome the Government's decision to consider the blanket ban on footpaths. As we move towards the school holidays and the holiday season generally, does my right hon. Friend accept that it is most important that clear and accurate information is available across the country to people thinking of visiting the countryside about how many footpaths and how much access land will be available to them?
Margaret Beckett: I accept that, and I take my hon. Friend's point. We are doing everything that we can to make available information that is as up to date and accurate as possible. My hon. Friend will know that a code of conduct for users of rights of way is available on
David Burnside (South Antrim): Will the right hon. Lady seek a case study from the devolved Stormont Department responsible for agriculture and read it carefully to learn the lessons from the more effective, efficient and competent handling of the foot and mouth crisis evident in Northern Ireland? As someone who lives on a farm there and knows England, I think that there are many lessons to be learned.
Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. We keep in touch with the devolved Administrations and endeavour to learn what we can from each other. However, the sheer scale of the problems that were faced by the authorities in other parts of the United Kingdom were not quite matched by the problems in Northern Ireland.