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30 Jan 2003 : Column 993continued
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael): The responsibility for regulating air pollution, including odours from animal by-product rendering plants, lies with the local authority, in this case Lancaster City council, subject to appeal to the Secretary of State.
Mr. Dawson : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that the revolting stink at the fats and proteins plant at Nightingale Hall farm in Lancaster has blighted the lives of thousands of people in the city for decades? Will he accept my congratulations on being close to achieving the effective regulation, which eluded us in 18 years of Tory Government and the blighted 27 years of my Conservative predecessor? Will he comprehensively resist any weakening of the odour boundary condition that he has suggested that he is minded to impose to
Alun Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the manner of his further inquiry. Smells from rendering are known to be especially offensive and I appreciate that there has been a long-standing problem in his constituency.
On stringency, my hon. Friend knows that the Government issued revised guidance on air pollution standards for renderers in 2000, which toughened previous standards and specified that plants should operate without offensive smells exceeding the process boundary, except in limited circumstances. A "minded to" decision letter was sent on 17 January about the plant in my hon. Friend's constituency, and comments were requested by 14 February. We will issue the final decision as soon as possible after considering the comments.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We have pursued action in several different ways. Most importantly, the Government have set out proposals for strengthening the statutory regime for company reporting in our White Paper "Modernising Company Law".
Sue Doughty : I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he recall that in October 2000, the Prime Minister set a challenge to the top 350 companies to bring in environmental reporting by the end of December 2001, and yet a year later, only approximately a quarter are doing so? What is the Minister going to do to make that happen faster?
Mr. Meacher: I am very keen that that should happen faster, and I certainly have sympathy with the hon. Lady's point. However, between 60 and 70 per cent. of companies in the top FTSE 100 now provide environmental reporting, and some of them at considerable length. About 30 per cent. of the top FTSE 350 report on their activities, with another 40 per cent. making some form of public statement about their environmental engagement. Matters are progressing, and as I said, the White Paper "Modernising Company Law" requires that about 1,000 of the most economically significant companies in the country include information on environmental, social and community issues in a new operating and financial reviewwhich they will be asked to producewhere those matters are material to, or relevant to, the understanding of the business. After five years of exhorting industry, that is now the right way forward.
Mr. Meacher: I have already explained what we propose to do about environmental reporting. The wider issue of corporate social responsibility was on the agenda, and a decision was reached within the text of the WSSD. We are certainly keen to follow that up, and discussions are taking place within the Government as a basis for further, wider international discussions on how proper measures on corporate social responsibility can be implemented.
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Is it not time for the Government to set more of an example to the private sector in terms of corporate environmental reporting? Can the Minister confirm that every Government Department is obliged to prepare a sustainable development report to show how its policies and expenditure plans help to deliver the Government's environmental objectives? These reports are currently kept secret, and rather than lecturing the private sector about its responsibilities, will the Minister commit himself today to making those Government reports public, and thereby start to practise what he is so keen to preach?
Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman is not quite right. The Government Green Ministers Committee, which I chair, has published three annual reports that give detailed information on a whole range of indicators on the performance of all Government Departments. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but I suggest that he look at those reports. I am extremely keen that there be full transparency and publicising of the performance of Government Departmentsboth where we do well, as we generally do, and where we do not do so well. I should also point out that the Government's framework for sustainable development on the Government estate requires Departments to report publicly on environmental performance in respect of environmental management systems, travel arrangements for staff and their environmental impact, and water usage. We are considering taking those measures further.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): We are funding research into the welfare of the sow and her piglets from farrowing to weaning. We are not yet able to recommend alternatives, because of the adverse effect on piglets.
Ms Drown : I thank the Minister for that reply. Animal welfare groups take the view that farrowing crates are unnecessarily cruel, and look to the experience of other countries that look after farrowing pigs in
Mr. Morley: My hon. Friend raises a serious point. Of course we want to improve the welfare of farrowing sows, but I am sure that she will understand that farrowing crates are used because of the risk of sows rolling on piglets, and piglet mortality. We have been funding a range of research that has considered the points that she has mentioned. Unfortunately, although some of the prototype farrowing crates performed quite well in research conditions, in commercial conditions the mortality rate was nearly double the normal rate. We are funding research into the management of sow and litter in a free-farrowing environment, which includes early life programming, stress responses in the farrowing sow, and an epidemiological study of risk factors associated with pre-weaning mortality on commercial pig farms. All those studies are examining better ways of improving welfare, while recognising the commercial nature of the operation.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I hope that the Minister will take account of any new animal welfare measures in the pig industry in the context of the rest of the EU, and that we will not take any unilateral action. We are all concerned about animal welfare, but I hope that he will emulate the example set by the Conservative Government when I secured Europe-wide agreement on a timetable for the abolition of veal crates. It can be doneand if the Minister wants any tips I shall be happy to share some with him.
Mr. Morley: The hon. Lady will know that I too had some involvement in some of those campaigns at the time. She will also know that we have reached EU-wide agreement to phase out sow stalls and tethers across the EU, as has been done unilaterally in the UKalthough we are disappointed that the phase-out date is 2013; we would have preferred a much earlier date. We have made it a priority to advance animal welfare issues on an EU-wide basis, and also to include them in World Trade Organisation talks.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): I welcome the Government's general support for the new EU directive that requires the provision of straw and other natural products in pigs' enclosures to enhance their well-being. However, groups that campaign for animals are bitterly disappointed to hear that the Government are considering watering down the directive's requirements and substituting plastic footballs on chains for those natural products. Will my hon. Friend reconsider, and implement the whole EU directive without dilution?
Mr. Morley: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we have no intention of watering down the directive. Some of the press reports that he may have read have been somewhat inaccurate; it is always a mistake to believe everything that we see in the