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12 Dec 2002 : Column 417—continued

Margaret Beckett: I am aware of the comments by the Scottish BMA, but I do not wholly share its view. To be fair, I have only seen reports of those comments and I may not have the full picture of the concerns expressed. What seems to have been overlooked, however, is that safety trials have been carried out. I was talking about the wider issue of genetic modification. The hon. Gentleman is talking specifically about the crop trials that are under way. Extensive safety trials were carried out before we got to the stage of growing trial crops on

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the present scale. The Government would not have allowed the trials to continue without that safety evaluation. The trials have a specific and restricted remit, which is to look more closely at the environmental effects on a farm-scale basis.

I was slightly surprised to learn that the Scottish BMA made that observation. Science is about trying things out. If we do not, how will we ever carry out the assessments? We need to make those comparisons and to have a mature judgment of the issues while retaining proper respect for people's genuine concerns.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Does the right hon. Lady agree that the issues relating to GM food must be put in the context of the fact that there is less land for growing food, as the deserts expand and urban growth takes place, and that the world's population is expected to increase from 6 billion to 10 billion over the next 50 years?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am concerned that the general dialogue in the news media in recent months and years has almost omitted to mention the impact that the technology could have on the developing world. That has not been a major factor in the public dialogue hitherto, although I am not, of course, talking about the process that we have just begun. In areas with desertification and salination, there is great potential for the use of that tool, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development shares that view.

There is yet another area where technological innovation is much needed. There is widespread recognition of the need to tackle the growing waste mountain that we produce. We need to put downward pressure on the levels of waste that we produce and to stimulate investment in new technology that can help us to tackle the problems in the future, whether they be waste minimisation or waste handling.

In the Chancellor of the Exchequer's pre-Budget statement, he reflected a cross-Government commitment to sustainability, including the sustainable handling of waste. He signalled, in particular, proposals in the longer term to increase landfill tax from its present rate of #13 a tonne to #35 a tonne. He also signalled the first steps on that road. He committed himself to reform the landfill tax credit scheme, to reduce the duty on bioethanol and to pursue a series of initiatives to promote more environmentally friendly transport, as well as looking further at fixed incentives to promote household energy efficiency.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Will the Secretary of State take up some of the issues on the landfill tax credit scheme that were put to her right hon. Friend at a recent House of Commons meeting? It was apparent that the restructuring of the credit scheme will reduce the amount of money available to fund further sustainable waste schemes and other work on the environment because the money that went to the private sector is to become public money, so reducing funding substantially.

Margaret Beckett: All those issues will have to be examined and taken into account as we consider the

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reform of the landfill tax credit scheme. Although we recognise that some good things have been done through the scheme, the right hon. Gentleman will know that there has also been a great deal of criticism about some of the work and much concern about whether the money was being used most effectively. It is right for the Government to consider reform in those circumstances. I know that the Select Committee will take a keen interest in those matters and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is mindful of the benefits received from the existing scheme. We will want to do everything we can to preserve the benefits and to do better with other resources.

Sue Doughty (Guildford): We welcome increases in landfill tax, although the tax may not be increasing rapidly enough to make a real environmental difference and to get us closer to sustainable waste. Had a tax on waste going to incineration been announced at the same time, we would be able take the maximum opportunity to invest in recycling rather than in landfill or incineration.

Margaret Beckett: I understand the validity of the hon. Lady's point, but we are trying to ensure that we give the right signals to stimulate the changes in behaviour that we all want to see. We also hope to encourage further investment in, for example, innovative waste treatment. However, we must give people proper time to consider the issues and to make the investment and preparation necessary. We are not in the business of punishing people for doing something; we are trying to encourage them to find ways to change their behaviour.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does the right hon. Lady agree that with respect to at least one element of the waste mountain—disposable nappies—there is a perfectly good old technology for dealing with the problem? It is simply a question of educating the public about that.

Margaret Beckett: Not only do I accept that, but I have some rather revolting experience of it, although I am happy to say that it was many years ago. We need to do a range of things to stimulate behavioural change. One of them is to minimise waste production as well as its handling.

In general, an enormous amount has been achieved over the 18 months of the Department's life.

Matthew Green (Ludlow) rose—

Margaret Beckett: With respect, I think that I should finish.

Internally, substantial work is continuing to reform the way in which the Department works and to deliver the policies and proposals to which we are committed. I said at the outset that sustainable development is the Department's core purpose, and it is the principles of sustainable development that we seek to apply throughout our policy areas and portfolios, and to see applied across the Government as a whole and internationally.

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Since the foundation of the Department, the times have, indeed, been interesting. They have been challenging, but also enormously fulfilling. Much has already been achieved, but it is a giant task that our Department has been set. I am fortunate in tackling that task, both in my officials and in the strength of my ministerial team. We will continue to strive, first, to identify the policies this country needs to pursue, and then to deliver those policies as effectively as we can. We know how much more we need to do. I hope that we will have the support of the House in that endeavour.

1.49 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I beg to move, To leave out from XHouse" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Many of the Government's policy objectives described by the Secretary of State are indeed admirable and, I am sure, command the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, I found the self-congratulatory tone of the Government motion shocking. The sunny picture that it and the Secretary of State paint of the Government's achievements is utterly at odds with the experience of people in our rural communities and the conclusions of successive Select Committee reports. Even when the Government get their policies right, the Department over which the right hon. Lady presides is often incapable of delivering the outcome that Ministers want to achieve.

I shall start with what the Secretary of State described as her Department's overriding purpose—sustainable development. The Department's public service agreement defines DEFRA's overarching aim as promoting sustainable development. It is at the top of the Department's published lists of objectives and performance targets, and the Department's duty is

Last month, however, the report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded:

I am sure that the right hon. Lady does not need to be reminded that the Select Committee has a Labour majority and that 11 Government Members serve on it. It reached that conclusion after listening carefully to the

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evidence of key non-governmental organisations that do not have a partisan axe to grind but deal daily with the Department. The Wildlife Trust commented that

The Council for the Protection of Rural England detected a

The National Trust said:

That failure to deliver in Whitehall means that DEFRA is failing to deliver its wider environmental objectives, admirable as they are.

I shall illustrate that with the example of timber—in many ways, a symbolic issue in the environmental debate. On 28 July 2000, the Minister for the Environment—I openly acknowledge his personal commitment to good environmental policies—announced at column 947W that the previous voluntary guidance would become binding on all Government Departments and their agencies, and they should

This year, however, the Environmental Audit Committee, on which nine Labour Members serve and which has a Labour majority, reported:

The latest evidence appears on the Department's website. Paragraph 4.6.10 of the report XSustainable Development in Government", published just a few days ago, records a big increase in the last financial year in the Government's timber procurement, but a reduction of 16 per cent. in the proportion of timber bought from certified sustainable sources. Individual Departments are failing to comply with DEFRA's policy—the Department for Work and Pensions said that it cannot provide any information at all about its procurement, and the Ministry of Defence told DEFRA that it cannot provide figures until 2004.

It is hardly surprising that the Select Committee concluded:

The Government trumpeted rural-proofing as a key aspect of their policy, but their own quango, the Countryside Agency, concluded that

The rural advocate, Mr. Cameron, said:

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He continued:

Worse still, the Select Committee said that the record of DEFRA—the key Department—on proofing its own policies Xis not impressive".

I am afraid that we must conclude that the Secretary of State presides over a dysfunctional Department. There is evidence of discontent in No. 10's decision to bring in the strategy unit to rescue a failing waste policy and, more recently, in the decision to appoint Lord Haskins as a temporary tsar over the Government's rural policy. Members of Parliament and, more importantly, our constituents see daily evidence of DEFRA's failure to deliver the services for which it is responsible. Every Member representing a significant agricultural constituency will have received representations from farmers and others concerned with the chaos and sheer incompetence of the Rural Payments Agency.

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