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House of Commons

Thursday 7 July 2005

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

10.34 am

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will be aware that there have been a number of very serious incidents across London this morning. The relevant Ministers are currently meeting to assess and clarify the situation. A statement will be made at the earliest opportunity, but obviously it is important that they should have the opportunity of identifying precisely what has happened before they come to the House.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are grateful for that statement from the Leader of the House. Of course we understand that it will not be possible to make a statement at the moment, but we will be pleased to co-operate whenever the Government can do so.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Single Farm Payments

1. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What plans she has for the disbursement of single farm payments. [10106]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): As announced in February 2005, the Rural Payments Agency expects to start making payments under the new single payments scheme in February 2006.

Andrew George: At the NFU conference in February this year, the Secretary of State made it clear that the Government were minded to make interim payments to farmers under the single farm payments scheme to help the many thousands of farmers who will inevitably suffer cash flow problems, provided that they are within European rules, which has yet to be checked. Will the Under-Secretary confirm that such two-stage payments are permissible within European rules?

Jim Knight: We have not ruled out making an advance payment but it would need new EU legislation, something we are discussing actively with the Commission.
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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I can assure my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that the measure is very important to farmers all over country. The farmers in Chorley to whom I have spoken are very worried that the February cheques may not arrive and they need that cash flow. Will my hon. Friend ensure that if it looks like there will be a hiccup or that the cheques will not get there, there will be interim payments, without which those farmers will struggle during a bad time, coming up to Christmas?

Jim Knight: It remains our priority to ensure that we meet the target date of February of next year. That is what Ministers are actively focused on. Advance payment carries a considerable risk with changes to the new IT system, which have been the cause of some of the teething troubles. We are also in discussion with banks on the cash flow implications for their farming customers of implementing a new scheme.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I also support the demand for interim payments. The Under-Secretary may not be aware that, in the past few days, the price of fat stock has collapsed by 10 per cent. If that continues until the big sales in the autumn, livestock farmers, particularly upland ones, will have a serious cash flow problem. If there is a delay in the single farm payment cheques, farmers will have serious problems.

Jim Knight: There is not much else I can add for the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, I take seriously what he says about his constituents, and hill farmers in particular, but we are focused on achieving the February target that we have set. We are also mindful of the difficulties that farmers are facing and we are having the discussions I talked about earlier.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): It is good to hear my hon. Friend say that this matter is being given the correct priority. At my rural issues task force meeting on Friday, this was the most important issue to be discussed. A representative of the banks was there and indicated that the Government were asking whether the banks might lend money to farmers free of interest. That is a novel idea that we could examine in other fields, but as long as we can get the message out to those farmers that we will make those payments, a lot of the fears will be assuaged.

Jim Knight: As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to his work in liaising with farmers in his rural constituency and in keeping the House up to date with these matters.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Minister comment on the recent attacks on single farm payments by the Government and will he assure us that that will not hinder any of the payments?

Jim Knight: If I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, he was suggesting that the Government were attacking the single farm payments scheme. We are not. Obviously we are discussing CAP reform in the wider context of the European finance settlement and we are doing that in the interests of the country, of farmers and of European citizens.
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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Minister referred to the February target date. He will be aware that the Government's target is to start paying in February, but to pay 96 per cent. by the end of March. Does he accept that most farmers therefore assume that they are looking at March at the earliest, rather than February? Is he aware that some of the single farm payment money has been hived off, or modulated off, to pay for the entry level scheme, and that that scheme, too, is in absolute chaos? Farmers who asked for help six months ago still cannot make their applications. Not only are they facing a delay in their substantive single farm payment, their access to the other money—they see that money as theirs by right because it was originally modulated off—is being delayed even further into the distance. How much longer do we have to wait before the Government make a decision stemming from the remarks that the Secretary of State made at the NFU conference six months ago?

Jim Knight: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made no secret of her anger and frustration at some of the delays. As and when we have something to announce with certainty, we will do so. However, as things stand for both the entry-level scheme and the single payments scheme, we remain committed to the February payment.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Like many MPs with rural constituencies, I frequently meet National Farmers Union representatives over a quarterly cycle. Could the Minister clarify for those who raised the point with me at our last meeting whether it will be possible to buy or sell land or entitlements after the single payments scheme has started?

Jim Knight: I might have to get back to my hon. Friend on that question. Some of the complex aspects of the single payments scheme leave me a little perplexed at times, and that is possibly one of them.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EU)

2. Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): If she will make a statement on greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. [10107]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Latest figures show that the original 15 EU members had reduced their greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 by 1.7 per cent. compared with the Kyoto base year and are on track to meet their combined Kyoto target of an 8 per cent. reduction through planned policies and measures and use of the Kyoto mechanisms. The enlarged EU had reduced its emissions in 2003 by 5.5 per cent. compared with 1990.

Mr. Hunt: Does the Secretary of State agree, given the relatively slow progress being made by the EU towards meeting its Kyoto targets, given that yesterday President Bush once again affirmed that he would not be prepared to accept compulsory emissions targets for the United States, and given that the developing world has consistently said that it will prioritise economic growth
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over environmental targets, today's discussions at Gleneagles are more about rhetoric than reality? Does she accept that when it comes to securing a global consensus on emissions targets we are going backwards, not forwards, instead of going "Forward, not back"?

Margaret Beckett: No, I do not agree. What is more, I am surprised that the tone of the hon. Gentleman's voice suggests that he would take pleasure from such an outcome. It is definitely not in the interests of the world either for there to be discouragement of attempts to reach agreement to move things forward at Gleneagles or for there to be anything other than a warm welcome if we are able to achieve such movements. It is certainly recognised outside the United Kingdom—whether or not it is recognised here—that already in this G8 year this country has done an enormous amount to put the issue of climate change much more prominently on the agenda of leaders across the world and to engage, for example, the Chinese, Indian and South African Governments and others much more fully in discussions about what the global community can do to tackle those problems than has ever been the case before. I think that the whole House will welcome that: it certainly should.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): The EU is definitely taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and I am sure that the EU states at Gleneagles will argue for a strong post-Kyoto regime as a way forward on the issue. We all want the US to sign up to such a regime. However, I suspect that the choice will be between a coalition of the willing, excluding the US, signing a strong agreement to tackle climate change, and an agreement watered down so far—so that the US can sign up to it—that it is almost meaningless. Which would she prefer?

Margaret Beckett: What I would prefer is for the G8 to reach a consensus at Gleneagles on something that is strong enough. That will not, of course, satisfy those who have set high and ambitious goals—in some cases, perhaps, deliberately and in others through lack of understanding—that there is no prospect of the G8 talks securing. We are anxious to achieve three goals. First, we want an acceptance—whatever the precise wording or exact phrases people are prepared to sign up to—of the direction of travel and that this is a major and significant problem that requires urgent action. Secondly, we would like a plan of action to cut emissions, not just to set targets for cutting emissions, on which the G8 could agree. Thirdly, we would particularly like to achieve an agreement to have a forward dialogue about what we do after the first Kyoto commitment period, in which so far no one in the developed or developing world has yet been prepared to engage.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Most of us who want action on tackling climate change hope that agreement will be reached at Gleneagles, and recognise the work that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done to put the issue on the agenda of that meeting. Whatever happens at Gleneagles, Britain clearly has the opportunity to set the tone for the EU for the next six months and beyond. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it remains the
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British Government's view that environmental sustainability goes hand in hand with economic reform as one of the top priorities for the next six months, and there is no way that we should be required to choose between them when setting the direction of EU policy for our presidency and beyond?

Margaret Beckett: I strongly share that view, as do the Government. That is a point of view and a track record that we strongly commend to the rest of the world. Whether we like it or not, many countries have significant energy needs and could have a significant impact on climate change, but they might be less prepared—or not prepared at all—to act if they thought that they would have to sacrifice the opportunity of developing or, indeed, of feeding their populations. We have to make it plain to them that they do not face that invidious choice, because they can do both.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I recognise that the Government have had considerable success in moving this matter up the political agenda. The right hon. Lady will acknowledge that there is a gulf between those who agree that the planet is warming because of mankind's actions, and those who do not. Has she considered setting up some form of research, possibly jointly with the G8 or the EU, to get the world's finest scientists to try to nail down whether mankind is causing global warming? If there were such research, it would carry the authority to enable the Secretary of State to make progress on the matter.

Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the goals that the Government have set. I take his point, but in many ways that was what we sought to do through the conference that was convened in Exeter in February—which perhaps did not receive as much publicity as it should have done, because there was rather a lot of publicity about some potential elections. There is no doubt that the conference advanced our understanding that the threat is more substantial and more immediate than previously imagined, and that it will cost less to tackle it than we had previously thought if we begin early enough. That is both an encouraging and a discouraging message. Only a few days ago, the national academies of science of every G8 country and China, India and Brazil produced a strong joint statement about their belief that climate change is happening and is man made. Through our G8 and EU presidencies, I hope that we will be able to take action to tackle it.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I share the Secretary of State's hope that the discussions at Gleneagles today will produce a way forward that leads to a process, at least, that leads in turn to agreement on action by China, India, Brazil and perhaps the US, as well as the EU. However, the Secretary of State will recognise that the EU also needs to be seen to play its part. While she is undoubtedly right that there has been some slight progress, she will also recognise that the EU has not made great progress. I hope that she also agrees that the UK needs to play its part if it is to take a leading role. Does she accept that at the moment the UK is not
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reducing carbon dioxide emissions at anything like a satisfactory rate and that more Government action will be required in the coming years?

Margaret Beckett: Of course, we all want the EU to meet its targets and commitments. Indeed, one of the things that we will do during our EU presidency is try to focus attention on the degree to which that is happening.

The signs are more encouraging than the right hon. Gentleman suggested, however. About 15 member states, including the United Kingdom, are expected to either meet or exceed their individual Kyoto targets, without taking into account the impact of the EU emissions trading scheme, which we cannot yet quantify. Indeed, in the wider EU, another nine countries are on track to meet their Kyoto targets. The United Kingdom has already met its Kyoto target for greenhouse gas emissions—something that is often overlooked—several years ahead of time. We are on track, even in present circumstances, to exceed our Kyoto target to the degree that the latest predictions are that our greenhouse gas emissions will be down by 20 per cent., not 12.5 per cent., by 2010.

None the less, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, although we have done better on other greenhouse gases, we have a continuing problem with CO 2 . That is why we are having a review of our climate change programme at the present time to get us back on track. I hope that we will able to show the House that we can do so and that we will have the support of the whole House in that.

Mr. Letwin: The Secretary of State will certainly have the support of the Opposition in taking measures to address the CO 2 problem, which I am glad she acknowledges. Does she also acknowledge, however, that her Department needs to play its role in a coherent fashion? If she does, can she explain why the Warm Front programme, which her Department sponsors and pays for and which is doing excellent work in relieving fuel poverty and insulating houses, is also subsidising the introduction of oil-fired central heating? At the same time, the clear skies programme is funding a joint venture involving the same organisation that runs Warm Front to institute photovoltaics. Why is the Department sponsoring at the same time something that increases CO 2 and also something that reduces it, rather than melding the two?

Margaret Beckett: Although the right hon. Gentleman is right to identify that my Department funds the Warm Front programme, we do not run it ourselves; we run it through companies and agencies. Without knowing the precise circumstances to which he alludes, I cannot know whether there were specific and valid reasons why oil-fired central heating might have been pursued in a particular case, although I can certainly say, for example, that I have lived in a place where there was no gas supply and very few other options.

I cannot comment on a specific case without knowing the circumstances, but it is certainly the case that through the Warm Front programme, and in any other respect, we attempt to be consistent and to ensure that we meet our own goals.
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