Previous Section Index Home Page

18 May 2006 : Column 1122

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In welcoming the Secretary of State to his new and ever-challenging post, may I remind him that the permanent secretary of his Department on Monday said about what happened in February with the Rural Payments Agency that when they came to press the button to pay the cheques, there was “a spurt” and then the system had “gummed up.” Has the new Secretary of State asked why the system gummed up? If he has had an answer, can he share it with the House?

David Miliband: “Gummed up” is one of the more technical terms that I shall have to get used to in my briefings. The post-mortem on the difficulties will take place. The Hunter review is going through. We are determined to learn the lessons, but in the two meetings that I have had so far, my priority has been to make sure, first, that the partial payments go out to provide relief, and secondly, that we have a clear sense of priorities to tackle the outstanding claims. The fact that those 5,000 complex cases that I reported last week are now down to about 3,700 is a sign of progress made by the staff of the agency.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): On a more general philosophical point of good and efficient governance, why is no civil servant, with the rarest of rare exceptions, ever dismissed for incompetence?

David Miliband: The senior civil servant at the Rural Payments Agency did lose his job in this case.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Has he gone?

David Miliband: He certainly has gone. His replacement has done an excellent job and I look forward to putting the RPA on to a settled basis.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for kind remarks about Eric Forth. Those of us who served with him in government understood his ability in that context and as a parliamentarian.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new responsibility. He takes over at a time when the distrust of the Government by farmers is probably at its lowest ebb since 1947— [Interruption.] I am delighted that hon. Members take such pleasure in the distrust of the Government by farmers. The partial payments are welcome, though long overdue, and the Minister has just said that the 5,000-odd complex cases have been reduced to 3,700, which I am glad to hear, but those—they are all large farmers—have received nothing. Also, as the Secretary of State will know, by last Monday farmers were required to claim this year’s for payment on their entitlements, even though the vast majority have not had their entitlements validated, so their difficulty in filling in an accurate form is obvious. As he has asked for the extension to the payment window, why does he not also ask for an extension to this year’s claim date, as Poland has already done, so that those claims can be based on validated entitlements, otherwise he will face thousands of individual disputes next year about why claims have
18 May 2006 : Column 1123
been incorrectly submitted, based on false evidence and false information from the Rural Payments Agency?

David Miliband: I am sorry that there is confusion about the matter. Working with the National Farmers Union, among others, the deadline for submitting forms for 2006 has been extended to 31 May.

Mr. Paice: Not long enough.

David Miliband: The National Farmers Union—the hon. Gentleman can visit its website—said that that was an excellent development and is working with us to ensure that every farmer gets their form in. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can come back for a second question, and I will give him a good answer.

Climate Change

5. Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Whether he expects the UK to meet the deadline of 2 June to respond to the consultation by working group 1 of the fourth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [71665]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): Yes.

Martin Horwood: I share in the expressions of sympathy for the family of Eric Forth. Those of us who would argue with his politics on many occasions could never argue with the wit and intellect with which he put them forward.

I am pleased by the Minister’s response and glad that he is going to meet that deadline. Given that we would probably be in sympathy with much of the content of our submission on the science of climate change, what pressure is he putting on the American Government to ensure that their submission will finally accept the consensus of scientific opinion on climate change?

David Miliband: I think that people way above my pay grade are putting the right sort of discussions on the table with the American Government. Our responsibility is to ensure that our contribution to the IPCC report, which gains its authority from the fact that it represents an international consensus on climate change, continues to establish an intellectual basis for the changes that we need to make. I have not read the report but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that all the indications that I have had from the IPCC suggest that the degree of alarm that we should feel about climate change is well justified.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is correct. The alarm that the report will cause should galvanise us all in this country, but without international action much of what we can achieve could be minimal. Only this week, I read that China is building another 48 airports. Taking that into account, together with the Americans not coming on board, it is clear that whatever we do will have minimal effect. Will he ensure that what comes out of this is a genuine commitment on the part
18 May 2006 : Column 1124
of those other countries to make their contribution to tackling climate change? Otherwise, we will all be struggling with this concept, and the poorest in the world will feel the consequences first.

David Miliband: I know that my hon. Friend takes an interest in these issues. I hope that he will agree that a year or 18 months ago, people around the world, notably in the United States, were still debating whether climate change is happening. As a result, due in significant part to the leadership of the Government in the G8 and the EU presidency, we are moving from a debate about whether climate change is happening to what we do about it. I include the United States in that—notably many of the states of the US, which are keen to participate in international action. That is significant. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that it is clear from all the reading that I have done so far that there is an effort right across Government—not only from the top, with the Prime Minister and the new Foreign Secretary, but from my Department—to ensure that the international agenda remains absolutely central to what we do while not neglecting the fact that our domestic performance and international clout are linked.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I welcome the new Secretary of State to his post and wish him well. He joins the Department at an exciting and challenging time. I very much hope that we will be able to forge a constructive relationship. He will know that I think it important that we work together as much as possible in facing the threat of climate change.

May I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that his first task should be to restore confidence in his own Department? There have been too many missed targets and too many arguments lost with other Departments. When it should be at the centre of our efforts to tackle climate change, DEFRA has found itself marginalised on the energy review and on the environmental impact of house building, undermined on the impacts of aviation and undermined by the Department of Trade and Industry in European discussions on carbon reduction. He says that there are people above his pay grade. Let him not be daunted by those people. Let him speak up for the things that DEFRA is charged with looking after and let him restore confidence in the Department. How is he going to set about doing that?

David Miliband: I am happy to respond to the challenge. I will speak up as necessary, both inside and outside Government. If we can forge a consensus and if the new model Conservative party wants to see the light, I welcome it to the consensus table.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): We are there.

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that they are there. Coming from a party that has been outside the mainstream of politics for the past 15 years, I think that he has got a bit to learn.

18 May 2006 : Column 1125


6. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on Government policy on the use of biomass to meet the UK’s energy needs. [71666]

8. Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to encourage the development of energy from biomass. [71668]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): The Government acknowledge that biomass is an important contributor to renewable energy, with potential applications in heat, electricity, combined heat and power and transport. The Government’s response to the biomass taskforce report was published on 27 April and sets out a range of actions to help realise optimum use of biomass as a resource.

Mr. Bone: I understand that a biomass plant needs between 40 and 50 large lorries to go in and out of the site each day with the raw material required to produce the biomass energy. Has the Minister made an assessment of the advantage to the environment of biomass as against the clear disadvantage of those lorry movements?

Ian Pearson: As the hon. Gentleman would expect, the Government regularly look at these issues, making cost-benefit analyses and evaluating different policy proposals. Biomass can play an important part in reaching our renewables targets. The biomass taskforce estimates it has the potential to supply 6 per cent. of our electricity needs by 2020. Only last week, I went round Talbott’s in Stafford, which is a world leader in producing biomass power plant. A lot can be done with these resources, and it is important to look at the whole environmental picture, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, and I welcome the Government’s positive response to Sir Ben Gill’s biomass taskforce. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s recent speech apparently embracing a new generation of nuclear power stations reinforces the vital need for DEFRA to address the widespread ignorance, both inside and outside the Government, of the potential of biomass to offer significant energy and carbon savings? Does he also acknowledge the need for his Department to demonstrate to colleagues in Government that biomass and other renewable sources, taken together, can provide a viable alternative to new nuclear power stations?

Ian Pearson: First, let us be clear about the Prime Minister’s comments. He was referring to the fact that, if present policy remains unchanged, we shall become heavily dependent on imported gas, moving from being 80 to 90 per cent. self-reliant to being 80 to 90 per cent. dependent. He said that that meant that the replacement of nuclear power stations, along with a big push towards renewables and a step change in energy efficiency, engaging businesses and consumers, were all back on the agenda. The energy review is looking at all
18 May 2006 : Column 1126
those issues and it will come up with a balanced result. Biomass can be part of the overall picture. Sir Ben Gill’s report says that it has the potential to provide 6 per cent. of our energy needs by 2020, and that is very much to be welcomed. The figure is only 1 per cent. at the moment, so we have a long way to go if we are to achieve that, but important developments are taking place with biomass and biofuels that give us optimism for the future.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): May I, on behalf of my colleagues, associate myself with the sympathies that have been expressed on the passing of Eric Forth? He was a colourful character in more ways than one, and he will be sadly missed.

A few weeks ago, the energy and environment fund was established in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister think that it would be a good idea if a percentage of that fund, and of similar funds that might be established across the United Kingdom, were used to support and promote the development of biomass energy?

Ian Pearson: I know that the situation is different in Northern Ireland and that a lot of work has been done there on the production of short rotation coppice willow, for example. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that John Gilliland, a valued member of the Sustainable Development Commission, has pioneered this work on his farm in Derry. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that funding is available in Northern Ireland, as it is in England, Wales and Scotland, and it is right that the Government should give this new technology every encouragement. I am sure that, as biomass becomes more established, the market for it will grow and welcome improvements in cost-efficiency will help the renewable energy market to prosper.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): May I also associate myself with the remarks of other hon. Members about Eric Forth?

My hon. Friend the Minister makes all the right noises about biomass, but the complete opposite is happening on the ground. Hon. Members might have seen the hysterical scare stories I yesterday’s newspapers about the amount of carbon dioxide being released from Drax power station. Up to April, however, the power station was co-firing coal with biomass up to a rate of 25 per cent. However, the regulations that were imposed from 1 April this year have reduced the biomass element of the co-firing to 15 per cent. Will my hon. Friend look again at those regulations, to see whether we can increase the levels permitted in co-firing, or move to complete biomass firing?

Ian Pearson: The Government have looked at co-firing recently, but as part of my new brief I am more than happy to look at it again. I pay tribute to the hard work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who I know is widely respected on both sides of the House for the work that he has done in this area.

The important point to make about biomass is that energy crops have enormous benefits not just for
18 May 2006 : Column 1127
biomass projects for co-firing power stations and for biomass combined heat and power plant, but in terms of biofuels. A lot more can be done in that area. The renewable transport fuel obligation will be an important driver in encouraging the growth of bioenergy crops.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the level of biomass in the residual waste stream in industry and in the domestic sector. In addition to investigating rules on the level of biomass that may be engaged in co-firing, what investigation has he undertaken into the potential for existing power stations to co-fire biomass-rich material from the residual waste stream after it has been processed as a suitable fuel?

Ian Pearson: I take my hon. Friend’s point. I understand that that was considered as part of the biomass taskforce report, but I will certainly look into his point; perhaps I may write to him on it.

Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that another by-product of biomass is the opportunity for high-energy-consuming industries to give themselves a longer-term future by considering biomass as an alternative energy source? That is the case in my constituency of Glenrothes, where Tullis Russell is trying to process such ideas. One of the main difficulties is gaining access to the national grid, which takes an extraordinary amount of time compared with the time it takes to get the initiative developed. Therefore, a gap exists, which is unhealthy and discouraging to the initiative taking place. Will he consider those points in due course?

Ian Pearson: There are a number of points about grid access and access charges that are important and which we are looking at as part of our future policy on biomass, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that there is a growing industry here and growing interest in biomass. There is also an interest from growers in growing energy crops, whether it be Miscanthus or short rotation coppice willow. We need to ensure that we can help to drive the market in those renewable energy projects. The introduction of new building regulations from April this year, as well as new procedures and tougher standards as part of that, can be helpful in getting more companies and public sector organisations to consider biomass energy part of their energy solutions.


7. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What proportion of the waste collected under local authority recycling schemes was exported in the latest period for which figures are available. [71667]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): As a former Deputy Leader of the House, I associate myself with the warm tributes paid to Eric Forth. The exchanges at business questions between
18 May 2006 : Column 1128
Eric and my late friend and colleague Robin Cook were among the most memorable since I have been a Member of the House.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) that the figures she seeks are not available centrally. However, all exported waste must be of high quality and must be recycled at its destination. Those rules are strictly enforced by the Environment Agency.

Ann Winterton: Putting aside the issue of plastic waste and what the United Kingdom will do if the high demands made by China and the high prices paid change, as well as whether we will be able to cope with that, is the Minister not aware that the Environment Agency has reported that about half the 8 million tonnes of green-bin waste collected each year in the UK has been exported and that 500 tonnes have been shipped unsorted to Indonesia, which will be dumped in that country because it does not have adequate recycling facilities of its own? What will he do about that scandal and to reassure those of us in the UK who are keen on recycling?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the challenge posed by plastics. As a country, however, we are increasing our domestic capacity to recycle plastics. Two big companies, Coca-Cola and Marks & Spencer, have recently introduced recycled plastics into their bottles and other packaging. On the export of waste, her figures are not quite right. The 50 per cent. figure that she quotes is an Environment Agency estimate relating to paper. She is right that there is a big foreign market for paper and plastics, which should not be derided—it is good that there are markets for recycled products, because it is better to use those than virgin products. The Environment Agency takes its responsibilities seriously and, as she probably also knows, is bringing several prosecutions on the issue to which she refers.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I also pay tribute to the former right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who was a master of this House of Commons. If anyone deserves to be remembered as a true parliamentarian, it is Eric.

We still recycle far less than most other major European countries. In every year since Labour took office, the amount of waste produced by the nation has continued to grow. We have had endless short-term waste initiatives, but we still seem not to be making the substantial progress that we need. The Minister has recently taken over responsibility for this issue. Can he tell us something that we have not heard before about it?

Mr. Bradshaw: I can tell the hon. Gentleman something that I have said on several occasions that he obviously has not heard: recycling has trebled since this Government took over from the previous Government. The previous Government’s figures were appalling. Our new waste strategy envisages a further doubling of recycling to 50 per cent. by 2020. That is a far better record than the Conservatives ever had.

Next Section Index Home Page