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3. Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): What representations she has received regarding shellfish extraction from rivers; and if she will make a statement. [37995]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): I have received no recent representations about extraction of riverine shellfish.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Ministry has received a number of representations over the years asking the UK to re-examine the way in which it interprets European Union legislation. In the past, the Government have neither listened nor taken the opportunity to talk to the industry. An EU mission will consider the issue in May. Will the Minister ensure that it is given the facilities and the ability to talk to the Environment Agency, the sea fisheries committee and, especially, representatives of the industry? Will he, in particular, ensure that the mission comes to Devon, where there is a crisis?

Mr. Morley: I am not aware of a crisis in Devon. There has certainly been an issue relating to the classification of the water quality of a number of estuaries, and we understand that that is a serious problem. Substantial investment is being made in relation to the waste water directive and other directives to improve the classification of estuaries, so that we meet at least a category B standard around our coasts. We will certainly co-operate with the mission, and we have close links with the various organisations involved with shellfish, because this is a matter of mutual concern. Our concern is to ensure that the water quality of our estuaries is improved, for the benefit not only of shellfish but of the estuary environment.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that proposals for dredging at Shellhaven in the Thames estuary could wipe out the shellfish stocks in the area, and that the proposals for repeat dredging would prevent the recovery of stocks? That would put my local fishermen out of work and severely damage biodiversity in the region. Will the Minister consider those proposals carefully, so that he can protect the interests of the fishermen of the Thames estuary?

Mr. Morley: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take into account the interests of the fishing industry when considering dredging proposals. There is a distinction

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between ongoing dredging management of existing river channels and new dredging proposals for new developments. In the case of new developments, we insist on an environmental impact assessment being carried out, in which we take into account the possible impact on sea fishing and the wider marine environment.

Waste Management

4. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What progress she has made in her plans for the management of radioactive waste. [37996]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The Government and the devolved Administrations published the consultation paper "Managing radioactive waste safely" on 12 September. We propose a programme of national debate and research, leading to scientifically sound decisions on the long-term management of radioactive waste that will inspire public confidence across the UK. The consultation period ends on 12 March.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he think that it would be appropriate for a new nuclear power station to be constructed before a solution had been identified to the problem of our existing stockpiles of radioactive waste? Will he confirm that Government policy would be to charge the full cost of waste disposal to any new operator? Does he think that the chief scientific adviser would have issued his statement this morning if a hijacked aircraft had flown into Sellafield rather than the World Trade Centre?

Mr. Meacher: On my hon. Friend's first point, it has already been stated that the PIU energy report does not foreclose on the nuclear option. It does not propose new nuclear build, but, equally, it does not foreclose on the nuclear option in the interests of the nation's security of supply. There is no presumption on the part of the Government either for or against nuclear power. Significantly, however, the White Paper states that even if no new nuclear plant were built, and even if reprocessing were to come to an end with the phasing out of the Magnox reactors, there would still be 500,000 tonnes of radioactive waste in this country that would have to be managed over the next 100 years.

My hon. Friend asked whether any consideration of nuclear build should involve the cost of disposal. The answer to that is, frankly, yes.

The exposure of nuclear plants is obviously a major security issue given the events of 11 September, and it is kept firmly under review by the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. Security measures have been tightened in the light of that event.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The Minister is right to talk about a major issue at Sellafield, because the amount of highly radioactive caesium 137s stored there in steel tanks that are almost 50 years old is approximately 100 times the quantity released at Chernobyl. Will he confirm that a passenger jet would take about 30 seconds to traverse the air exclusion zone around Sellafield and hit the tanks? Does he agree that, dependent on weather conditions, that would render all land within 400 miles of Sellafield uninhabitable? Will he

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recognise the urgent need for the imposition of new security measures, perhaps involving precautions as basic as barrage balloons, to deal with that threat until safer storage of fissile material is achieved?

Mr. Meacher: Even if what the hon. Gentleman said were correct—I certainly do not confirm that it is correct—it is extraordinary and pretty irresponsible for an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman to advertise in Parliament and draw attention to the exposure of a major nuclear plant. These matters have of course been the subject of intense discussion, and there has been intense examination of all the options. It is not my place to say publicly in Parliament exactly what precautionary measures we have put in place. I would expect such measures to be handled through the usual consultative channels, not openly broadcast. The hon. Gentleman can certainly be assured that the Government are acutely aware of the problems, and are doing everything possible to deal with them. However, I do not confirm the accuracy of what he said.

Youth Hostels (Foot and Mouth)

5. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): What progress her Department is making to help the Youth Hostels Association to recover from the effects of the foot and mouth epidemic. [37997]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): We promoted the re-opening of rights of way as soon as it was safe to do so, and 99.5 per cent. of England's rights of way are now open. We are giving strong support to the "your countryside, you're welcome" campaign. I recently announced the countryside access recovery fund for not-for profit organisations, such as the YHA, that promote access and understanding of the countryside.

To help recovery, the YHA has received £500,000 from the Countryside Agency, £200,000 from the business recovery fund and £300,000 from the National Assembly for Wales, as well as interest-free deferment of tax and other payments.

Mr. O'Brien: As the Minister will be well aware, like many rural businesses in my constituency the YHA has suffered £6 million of financial loss on just £30 million of annual turnover as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic, which might not have happened had the Government got a grip at the outset and paid heed to the lessons of the Northumberland report on the 1967 outbreak that devastated my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). Despite the warmly spun words of the Minister in a letter to me on 29 November last year, why have the Government decided to reject the request to match the money raised by members of the YHA in an emergency appeal, which is forcing the YHA to consider selling its hostels, many of which are historic buildings, given that to their eternal shame the Government were happy to spend £1 billion on the dome?

Alun Michael: That was a muddled contribution—not so much a question as a rant. I have had discussions with the YHA, especially when the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting and I met its representatives at St. Braviels hostel. It is accelerating a process that was

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already under way. It has recognised the challenges that it faces in modernising its network of hostels, which it is doing in partnership with the Government. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman the YHA's own newspaper, the front page of which described the act of the Secretary of State in re-opening Hartington hall, and the strong co-operation between the YHA and the Department in recent months.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State realise that, despite the problems with clearing the correspondence backlog, her Department has a one-man rapid response unit in her Department? Last Friday, I faxed my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs about the problems of the youth hostel in Teesdale. My right hon. Friend spoke in person to me about the matter on Monday, I spoke to the chief executive of the YHA on Wednesday, and a solution was proposed on Thursday. May I thank my right hon. Friend for his activity?

Alun Michael: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. His approach contrasts with that of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who asked the original question. My right hon. Friend looked for a solution to the challenge facing the hostel in his constituency. He engaged in discussion, and I am pleased that we were able to facilitate the constructive talks between my right hon. Friend and the YHA chief executive. That is the way forward—partnership, co-operation and action.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): If there is a rapid response unit at the Department, I hope that it will extend the same courtesy to Opposition Members. We have waited nine months for answers to letters.

When YHA members visit the glorious parish of Oakford in my constituency in Devon, they find that foot and mouth still leaves a huge scar on the landscape. The area looks like terminal 5, and the Minister will know that a holding pit was constructed there during the foot and mouth crisis. The Department did not obtain a proper, formal leasing agreement from the landowner, so there is no obvious sign of the restoration of the land to a greenfield site. I hope that the Minister will intervene personally to ensure that that restoration happens.

Alun Michael: I hear what the hon. Lady says. It has nothing to do with the question, but I shall pass on the points that she makes. The Department has certainly experienced a massive problem with correspondence, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has acknowledged. We discovered that thousands of letters were outstanding up to November, and we have been working hard to clear them.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) suggested that Government and Opposition Members are treated differently. The Department's ministerial team is trying to deal quickly with correspondence from hon. Members of all parties, but we face a challenge. For instance, I signed a letter to a right hon. Conservative Member this morning, the time scale of response for which is the same as that mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland

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(Mr. Foster). We are very fair: we are trying to accelerate response times and improve the quality available to hon. Members of all parties.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister has visited youth hostels, and stayed in them. With my children and nephews, I will visit four youth hostels over the Easter break. I encourage the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien)—and perhaps some of his family—to join me in contributing to that organisation. Will my right hon. Friend look at what further assistance might be given over the next year to the YHA? It is vital for rural areas, and for young people in inner cities, such as those in my constituency, who are at risk from drug abuse and other social evils. When youth workers take them to youth hostels, those young people can enhance the quality of their lives, and learn basic skills, such as cooking and independence.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right. I pay tribute to the way in which he has made representations on behalf of the YHA over recent months. I shall visit a youth hostel next week with the specific aim of discussing, examining and promoting the work undertaken with inner-city youngsters, some of whom are the most disadvantaged in society. We recognise that that is a vital part of the YHA's work, and that is why we are working with the association to ensure that it has as much success in the future as it has had in the past.

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