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18 May 2006 : Column 1115

House of Commons

Thursday 18 May 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

death of a member

Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of the right hon. Eric Forth, Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our sympathy to the right hon. Member’s family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

England Rural Development Programme

1. Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): What analysis his Department has undertaken in advance of setting out its preferred options for the England rural development programme 2007 to 2013; and if he will make a statement. [71660]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): The current consultation on the priorities for the next rural development programme for England has been informed by our extensive analysis of economic, environmental and social issues facing rural areas. We will use it to enhance the environment and countryside, to make agriculture and forestry more sustainable and to promote opportunities in rural areas for those who are disadvantaged. We will continue to develop the evidence base and work closely with all our partnership organisations to ensure that the new programme delivers on our priorities for the next seven years.

Mr. Drew: I add my condolences.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. He has already shown a good grasp of biodiversity. Is it not a shame that the Government are apparently examining only one measure of animal welfare, although if they were to follow the lead of our territorial Governments and Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, they would be looking at more measures? Is it not wrong that that is one aspect of the cuts in rural funding, although
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several of us made it clear that that was not the right way to go? I hope that my hon. Friend will give some good news—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Barry Gardiner: The Government recognise the importance of good animal health and welfare standards in the farming industry, but we are confident that farmers in England already achieve animal welfare standards that are in excess of the minimum legal requirements. That is a matter of good stock management and it makes sound business sense. We try to target scarce resources not towards existing good practice in that area, but to incentivise new ways of making agriculture more competitive and sustainable. We can use other measures in axis 1 to improve the skills base of people in the industry to ensure that we direct resources towards animal welfare.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): May I express my deep condolences to Carroll and sympathy to Eric’s family and friends, wherever they are?

The Minister’s Department shares membership with the Department of Trade and Industry and Post Office Ltd. of a tripartite committee on the development of the rural post office network. Does he agree that many other Government Departments are sadly undermining the future of the post office network by, for example, removing the TV licence, taking benefit payments out of the network and threatening the future of the Post Office card account, and are thus driving people on to the roads to go out of their villages and into towns to access essential services? I know that £450 million is being—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must cut down the questions. That question was far too long.

Barry Gardiner: The Government recognise that access to essential services through the post office network is critical for the countryside and people living in rural areas. However, we must recognise that the network is not being used as it once was by people in both urban and rural areas. Customers have voted with their feet. The loss to the network started long before 1993, the changes regarding the Post Office card account and the direct payment of benefits. If the Government are to act responsibly, they must ensure that they get the maximum benefit to people through services. However, they must examine new ways of delivering those services, such as through the internet, as the customer demands that we should. We need to meet customers’ needs in the way in which they want us to.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new role. I think that the closest that he has come to farming in the past is Farm road, which is a small lane in his constituency.

Has the Minister read pages 33 and 34 of the consultation, which propose that animal welfare payments are excluded from the new programme? Has his Department failed to understand that that money could be used to improve animal welfare, as well as to
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reduce the advantage of cheap imports from foreign countries that put a low value on animal welfare? Given that the programme in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will support animal welfare, why is England being left behind?

Barry Gardiner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome to my new duties. If one were to consider a Minister having a farming constituency a sufficient condition of all going well in the countryside, rural communities would never have suffered the outbreaks of BSE and of salmonella in poultry that they experienced under Tory grandees. Let Ministers be judged on their actions, not on their provenance.

The hon. Gentleman failed to listen to my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Far from excluding animal welfare from the rural development programme, we have specifically stated ways in which we can deliver on that agenda through training and access to skills under axis 1 and axis 3. After the Curry commission, the Government’s clear focus is, rightly, on establishing environmental standards and stewardship at the heart of our efforts. That is the future of farming and farmers in this country.

Greenhouse Gases

2. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): If he will set targets for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft and ships which are not included in Government figures on greenhouse gas emissions. [71661]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): Emissions from international aviation and maritime transport were not included in the 1997 Kyoto protocol. We are working at international level to limit or reduce those emissions. As part of that work, we want the aviation sector to be included in the European Union emissions trading scheme.

Mr. Allen: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the recent work done at Manchester university that shows that if international pollution from sources such as aviation and shipping is included in the calculation of emissions, the UK has made no reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. Will he commit to working with his European partners to establish an EU framework to reduce the emissions involved in international pollution? Does not that problem underline the fact that although all of us must do what we can as individuals to combat environmental pollution, ultimately the answer lies at international level and in global agreements?

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I am aware of the research conducted by Manchester university. The issue that he describes is the reason why the Government are so committed to taking action internationally. As I said, we want the aviation sector to be included in the EU ETS, and one of the achievements of the UK presidency last year was to get the Environment Council in December to agree that
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the Commission would make proposals this year on aviation’s inclusion in the scheme. We shall continue to press the Commission on that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), with a constituency company in the aerospace industry that is having problems with emissions. The company is Senior Aerospace and it is critical to the aerospace industry. Will the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment do me the courtesy of meeting me and my constituency company to discuss its future?

Ian Pearson: I shall be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. The aerospace industry is critical to the north-west and the region that he represents. I recently had the opportunity to go round the Airbus factory in Toulouse, where I saw the new A380, which is being flown into Heathrow today. It is an enormous piece of engineering and a tribute to British expertise—for example, the Rolls-Royce engines are far more environmentally friendly than their predecessors. It is something of which we can be proud.

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that the aviation industry is widely reported to support the establishment of an emissions trading scheme within the EU, but he will also know that there is no prospect of replacing aviation kerosene with a low or zero-carbon fuel. There is therefore a danger that, under an emissions trading scheme, the aviation industry will simply purchase credits from other sectors that have succeeded in making cuts, without doing so itself. Does he agree that much greater pressure must be brought to bear to boost scientific research into aviation fuels and engines, so that the industry itself can contribute to significant cuts in the future?

Ian Pearson: I know that my hon. Friend takes a deep interest in these matters. He is right to say that more research into improving fuel technologies is needed. That work is happening now, but that does not detract from the fact that we want aviation to be included in the EU ETS and, as a Government, we shall continue to press for that.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): May I first express my condolences to the family of Eric Forth? It is shocking that someone who made such a lively and vigorous contribution to the proceedings of the House should be struck down in such a way. I will miss sparring with him, not least on the issues that we are discussing today, such as climate change.

Does the Minister agree that an 8 per cent. fall in revenue in four years against a 35 per cent. rise in the number of air passengers makes a mockery of air passenger duty, and that it should be restructured so as to be based on emissions to encourage full flights? Will the hon. Gentleman undertake to raise this matter with his colleagues, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
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Does he agree that the issue is symptomatic of a failure properly to examine the potential environmental impact of green taxes across the board? Will he urge his Treasury colleagues to bring forward a comprehensive review of environmental tax incentives?

Ian Pearson: No, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman on green taxation policy. As a Government, we have made major improvements. We shall continue to review matters such as air passenger duty. We should not underestimate the achievements that have been made. The UK is one of the few countries that is on target to meet its Kyoto commitments. I am proud of that fact. The climate change programme that we published in March sets out a range of actions. We have set a direction of travel for the UK that is leading the world. We need now to continue to push internationally to get other countries to follow the same policies as those of the United Kingdom. That action is needed urgently if we are to tackle the greatest problem facing the planet in the long term.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): The whole House has been shocked by the news about Eric Forth. I join with those who have sent condolences to his wife and family. He was a formidable parliamentarian and he will be greatly missed.

May I further illustrate the scale of the challenge that is posed by aviation emissions? Everyone knows that the problem at present is quite small, but statistics show that emissions are growing by about 12 per cent. a year. Assuming that we meet the 60 per cent. total emission reduction target by 2050, and using figures based on public transport forecasts and those of the Treasury, aviation emissions are on track to represent about 60 per cent. of the UK total by 2050. That calculation is supported by the Environment Audit Committee and by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

So far, the Government’s position, first, has been to leave aviation emissions out of the calculations, which is clearly untenable. Secondly, they hope—we have heard about this again this morning—that aviation can be included in the troubled EU emissions trading scheme. If that proves impossible, is there a plan B?

Ian Pearson: I add my condolences to those expressed by the hon. Gentleman with respect to Eric Forth, who was widely respected in the House. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to say something about that shortly.

The hon. Gentleman is right that we want to see aviation fuel as part of an emissions trading scheme. We need to take action on aviation fuel. That is why, through the United Nations framework convention on climate change and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the United Kingdom is pushing to ensure that international action is taken. International industries need international solutions. That is why it is so important that we take this action. It is right that aviation fuel represents about only 5 per cent. of UK emissions, but the use of it is planned to increase. That is why we need to take urgent action. We need to commit ourselves internationally.

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Single Farm Payments

3. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What representations he has made to the EU on extending the period of time to make single farm payments to farmers. [71662]

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): How many officials have been moved from his Department as a consequence of problems with single farm payments. [71663]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to associate the entire ministerial team at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the shock and dismay expressed by Members on both sides of the House about the untimely death of Eric Forth. He was utterly committed not just to his constituency, but to the House of Commons, and he was an important example to us all.

Officials effectively applied for an extension for the payment deadline to the European Commission in April, but I am relieved to report to the House that, according to the latest figures, 87 per cent. of payments have now been disbursed to 76 per cent. of claimants. Four DEFRA Officials, including chief executive Mark Addison, have been temporarily loaned to the Rural Payments Agency for different periods to strengthen the agency’s capacity to deal with the current problems associated with the single payment scheme.

Tony Baldry: We welcome the Secretary of State to his new post, but I hope that he appreciates that farmers began to feel unloved when we had three farm Ministers in five days. Why were part-payments not made to farmers in January and will they receive any compensation for the interest on their debts and borrowings? There is another mystery to resolve. In April, officials wrote to the European Commission asking for an extension but, at the same time, the previous Secretary of State told the House that all was well. Those two facts are irreconcilable, but perhaps he can try to reconcile them.

David Miliband: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. There was no technical reason why partial payments could not have been made in January, but all the advice that Ministers received was that the scheme was on track. When it became clear that it was off track we had to take emergency measures. I hope that farmers in his constituency have received partial payments, as 31,000 have been made. By the middle of April, it was appropriate to approach the European Commission—officials have done so, and we await a reply. Our priority is obviously to make sure that the payments are made. There are about 3,700 large claims that are still waiting to be made—the figure is down from the 5,000 a week ago—and a remaining 20 per cent. payment must be made to the 31,000 farmers who have received partial payments. Finally, there is the question of small claims of less than €1,000. More than half of the claimants in that category—about 40,000 or so—have received payment, but we want to make sure that the rest of them do so.

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Mr. Robathan: As a farmer, I have dealings with the Rural Payments Agency and I can tell the new ministerial team that it is hopelessly bureaucratic, over-staffed and astonishingly inefficient. The debacle over the single farm payment has caused hardship for many farmers across the country, and they are in serious difficulty. The chief executive has been moved, my neighbour and friend, Lord Bach, has been sacked and, bizarrely, the previous Secretary of State was promoted. However, the whole organisation needs a shake-up. Will the new ministerial team look at the way in which the RPA functions and shake it up from top to bottom? As Ministers are new to the job, they have a good opportunity to make the agency work for the benefit of agriculture, the environment and the farming industry.

David Miliband: Given that our priority is to get the money out to farming communities, the last thing that we should do is give the organisation a great big shake. The priority is to get the money out properly, but it is right, as I said in my statement last week, to learn the lessons of the difficulties of 2005. I make no attempt to hide the difficulties that continue to challenge us in 2006, but I am determined, with the new chief executive, to ensure that we establish a dependable organisation with which farmers such as the hon. Gentleman can deal efficiently.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new post, and I wish him good fortune with his wide-ranging responsibilities.

Indebtedness in British agriculture now stands at £9.3 billion, which is an increase of £8 million on the figure 12 months ago. Increased borrowing involves increased costs in interest rates and arrangement fees, which the industry can ill afford. English farmers are a special case, because almost every other European nation managed to make the payment at the beginning of the payment window. Will the Secretary of State make arrangements to meet the EU Commissioner soon to work out a special compensation scheme so that English farmers do not bear the cost of the Government’s crass incompetence?

David Miliband: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I shall be attending my first Agriculture Council on Monday—a treat reserved for the lucky few. I gather that it is a process designed to convince those of us of strong pro-European credentials that we could not be more right, and that the European Union is the most perfect organisation to deal with. I will meet the Commissioner on Monday. It is important that we give out a message from our Department that we are proud of the work of British farmers, that the British food that they produce is top quality, and that we are determined to work with them to support the environment in which they live and to ensure not only that the farming payments are made, but that the diversification that they have led over the past few years continues. For me, farmers are at the front line of the fight against climate change and we must ensure that they are supported in their activities.

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