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Avian Flu

6. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Which Minister has responsibility for liaising with the civil contingencies secretariat on an outbreak of avian flu in the UK. [63732]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): DEFRA is the lead Department for animal diseases, and the level of ministerial liaison with the civil contingencies secretariat depends on the seriousness and nature of any outbreak.

I am sure that the House would like to thank all those involved in dealing with the recent H5N1 case in Cellardyke for their hard work and professionalism, and the British public for their vigilance and co-operation.

Patrick Mercer: I thank the Under-Secretary for his reply and pay tribute to the work of the civil contingencies secretariat. However, does not the answer pose the problem that the secretariat faces? It has to deal with the whole gamut of emergencies, from serious terrorist incidents through flooding to avian flu. Each time, it has to deal with a different Secretary of State or Minister. Before avian flu strikes this country, is it not time that the Government listened to the cries from not only Conservative Members but Labour Members, and appointed a single Minister, of Cabinet status, to deal with civil contingencies?

Mr. Bradshaw: That worked well in the United States in the context of hurricane Katrina—did it not?—when the President had to sack the official responsible. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. It does not make sense to expect a single Minister to have such expertise in a range of policies. The experience of the avian flu outbreak shows us that the current system works well.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I assume that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) tabled the question before the first incidence of avian flu in the UK. Given that it happened in Scotland—the Scottish Executive dealt with it well—it highlighted an interesting division of responsibility between the Scottish Executive and DEFRA. What plans are in place to ensure total co-operation north and south of the
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border and that any emergency measures, if required, are rolled out smoothly and consistently throughout the UK?

Mr. Bradshaw: I assure my hon. Friend that the co-operation was total and extremely good from the beginning. The Scottish Executive took part in the daily Cobra meetings by video link. I was in regular contact with Ross Finnie, my Scottish counterpart, and the Secretary of State was intimately involved at all times. The way in which the outbreak in Scotland was handled is a good example of our working together extremely well within the devolutionary settlement, despite the potential for some complication.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given that Shropshire primary care trust decided yesterday to refuse Herceptin to patients and constituents of mine, who would be responsible for purchasing and distributing Tamiflu—the Government or the overstretched primary care trusts?

Mr. Bradshaw: Those are matters for the Department of Health.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend find time in his busy schedule to read the report on the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in this country? Will he also find time to visit the marketplace to establish the price of fowl, so that if there is an outbreak of avian flu—which we all hope will not happen—the taxpayer will not be left picking up the bill to replace the many geese that, according to the industry, lay the golden egg?

Mr. Bradshaw: The implication of my hon. Friend's question is that it is important that we learn the lessons from the foot and mouth outbreak. As has been mentioned in relation to a question on bovine tuberculosis, we have already looked carefully at the compensation that we pay. It is right that poultry and egg producers should be entitled to compensation for birds that are slaughtered in the event of any outbreak, because that provides an important incentive for them to report any signs of disease at an early stage. Everyone knows that with avian flu, as with many other animal diseases, the most important thing is early identification and quick containment and eradication.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): May I draw to my hon. Friend's attention the article in last week's New Scientist that cast doubt on the methodology used to take samples and to deliver them with the avian influenza virus intact to the laboratory? Is he absolutely confident that his Department is receiving top quality scientific advice and that it is at the forefront of scientific research into aspects of this important disease, such as the detection of the virus in birds that have been vaccinated?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I did read that article, and I have asked my officials for further advice on it. The initial advice is that the group that carried out this type of testing in Sweden is not officially recognised under EU rules. However, I would like to take this opportunity to praise and congratulate the excellent work that is done at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge in
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Surrey. It is the world's most renowned testing centre and it tests for avian flu and animal diseases not only from this country, but from all over the world. Some of the criticisms that have been levelled at it during this outbreak have been unfair and unfounded.

Water Shortages

7. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): If she will make a statement on water shortages in London and the south-east. [63733]

8. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): If she will make a statement on water shortages in the south-east. [63734]

12. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): If she will make a statement on water shortages in the south-east of England. [63739]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): Both groundwater and some reservoir levels in the south-east are below average for this time of year, and public water supply will need careful management. Water companies are taking prudent measures to conserve supplies in accordance with their drought plans.

Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for that answer. He mentioned prudent measures. Is he aware that the hosepipe ban introduced by Thames Water on 3 April extends only to privately owned vehicles? Does he agree that the public sector also has a role to play here? It would appear, for example, that ministerial cars are exempt from the ban.

Mr. Morley: It is important to recognise that the hosepipe ban is implemented under the water companies' own measures, and they are restricted in regard to the conditions that they can apply. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that a hosepipe or sprinkler can use in one hour the total daily water consumption of a family of four, which can have a big impact. If the water companies wish to go further and apply the ban to companies, they can apply for a drought order, as some companies have done.

Richard Ottaway: But it does not stop with hosepipe bans. Will the Minister confirm the drastic nature of the "essential use only" orders that are about to be imposed, which will result in a ban not only on car washes but on the watering of bowling greens, golf courses, tennis courts, sports grounds such as Lord's, the Oval and Wimbledon, and the Royal Parks, including Kew Gardens? Far more importantly, however, this situation has arisen because we have just had our second dry winter in a row. What are the Minister's contingency plans in the event of a third dry winter? If he waits until then, it will be far too late.

Mr. Morley: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the drought started in November 2004. It is the worst drought in the south-east of England since 1976. There is a range of measures that people can take, and it is important to manage water supplies prudently. That includes taking drought orders if necessary. In the longer term, companies have obligations to have
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drought plans in place and to produce a 25-year forward programme that takes into account water supply and demand as well as issues such as climate change.

Mr. Evennett: Is the Minister aware of the anger of many pensioners in my constituency about the hosepipe ban? They feel that, together with the disabled, they are the most discriminated against, as they cannot walk with watering cans to save their plants. They are therefore looking to the Minister to engage in more action and discussion with the water companies to reduce hosepipe bans in future years, and are concerned about further housing developments in the south-east, which will use more water and possibly result in more shortages in future.

Mr. Morley: That is not necessarily the case, but we should not get away from the fact that we are facing a two-year drought—and the worst drought since 1976. Indeed, in some parts of the south-east it is the worst drought for 100 years. In that respect, it is not a lot to ask that people should face some restrictions on hosepipe bans in gardens. They can still use watering cans and recycled water. Future demand for water is being taken into account, both in the current five-year price round and 25-year forward plans.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): This problem is likely to be connected to climate change, which is here to stay, as people will not give up their cars and cheap flights. As a country, we must deal with the effects of climate change as well as discussing measures such as the climate change levy. Can the Minister say a little more about what his Department is doing to address the effects of climate change, to which he adverted earlier, with regard to water, coastal defences, plant research and so on?

Mr. Morley: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently launched our Department's climate change review, which outlines a range of measures that cut across all Departments, relating to fiscal policy, regulation, taxation and incentives designed to deal with climate change. It is easy to talk about tackling climate change, but not so easy to implement effective measures.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): In relation to the possibility of water shortages in the south-east, has my hon. Friend had any discussions with the water authorities in Scotland, which, as he will be aware, are still under public control? What discussions, if any, have there been about financial arrangements? I am sure that he will agree that it would be wrong to use public money to bail out private water companies.

Mr. Morley: The issue of water is a devolved matter for the Scottish Executive. Of course, there are interests of common concern, but policy and strategic decisions are devolved.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Further investment in water storage and improved infrastructure maintenance to cut out leaks will be fundamental to addressing this water shortage. I understand, however, that the Government are trialling
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compulsory metering in some areas. What further plans do the Government have for compulsory metering, and what protection would they put in place for poorer families to prevent them from suffering water poverty?

Mr. Morley: Water meters are but one tool, but they are an effective tool. Under legislation, water companies can make an application for the compulsory implementation of water meters if there is deemed to be water scarcity status. So far, only one company, Folkestone and Dover Water Services, has made that application, which has been granted. Other companies can make applications if they so choose. The vulnerable groups regulations are designed to protect the most vulnerable in relation to water charges, and we are trialling a pilot scheme in the south-west of England to examine what further measures can be taken to assist people on low incomes.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): We cannot really blame the Government for the weather, but we do hold them to account for their failure to tackle climate change. The worry is that the Government are in danger of making the water crisis, if it becomes that over the summer, even worse. Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee warned that significant areas of the south-east are already being supplied water by an unacceptable and unsustainable abstraction regime in both winter and summer months. We all know that more affordable homes are needed, but is not the Minister concerned that pushing ahead with a mass house building programme in an area of water shortage will only make the situation worse? Will he talk to the Deputy Prime Minister about his plans?

Mr. Morley: That assumes that the issue of water supply is not taken into account. In the current price round, periodic review 2004, finance is available to water companies in England and Wales to upgrade and connect up to 1 million additional homes. That is within the current programme. Within the future programme, water companies are consultees on regional planning. They must ensure that there is adequate provision in their 25-year forward plans. There are plans for considerable upgrading of existing reservoirs in the south-east and for the building of new reservoirs, along with further measures to make more water resources available.

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