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18 May 2006 : Column 1129

Grocery Market

9. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Department of Trade and Industry regarding the Competition Commission investigation of the grocery market. [71669]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): There have been several discussions among Ministers and with the Office of Fair Trading about this matter. Now that an inquiry has been announced, we will write to the Competition Commission to suggest that its investigation should include the impact of supermarket buyer power on the long-term viability of suppliers and producers in the UK. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State has written today to the supermarkets inviting them for talks on how we can improve further the sustainability of the food chain.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and to hear that his Department is taking action to draw to the attention of the OFT and Competition Commission the many complaints that farmers have made about the way in which supermarkets deal with their suppliers. Will he also make clear in his representations the importance that Members of the House attach to the role of small shops in rural communities and in larger centres such as Inverness, where the increasing dominance of supermarkets is having such a dramatic impact? If the Competition Commission can take action to protect and enhance the position of consumers, farmers and small shops, it will do a great deal to boost the sustainability of rural communities.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for my remarks. He is right that the Competition Commission is free to consider the impact on small shops, and I think that it has already indicated that the concern that he expressed will form part of its inquiry.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that Tesco plans to build a second massive store in my constituency, which will destroy a local shopping area and create massive traffic congestion? When I expressed doubts about it, I was attacked by Tesco’s propaganda machine. Is not the reality that Tesco is changing from a giant into a monster?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sure that my hon. Friend is a big enough man to take on the Tesco propaganda machine. It would be improper for me to comment on an individual planning application, although I remind him that the Government have changed the planning guidance to make it more difficult to build out-of-town supermarkets of the type to which he refers. I was also pleased this week to see the major supermarkets, including Tesco, almost falling over each other in an attempt to prove their green credentials—not unrelated, I think, to the Government’s recent publication of our new sustainable food and farming policy.

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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I associate myself fully with the remarks about the late Eric Forth. He was truly formidable in the House and a great parliamentarian. I am sure that he will be missed throughout the House.

I also associate myself with those who have welcomed the forthcoming report. Will the OFT’s remit include thinking again about whether supermarkets should benefit from advantageous commercial rates? Currently they are favoured in comparison with those in the smaller sector in terms of the rate that they pay per sq ft.

Mr. Bradshaw: Those are issues for the Competition Commission. As I told the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), we in the Department have written to the commission expressing some of our concerns, but any Member or organisation is free to write to it suggesting matters that it should look into. It is important for the competition authorities to be independent and not part of Government.

Single Farm Payments

10. Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): What proportion of single farm payments to farmers in Essex have been paid. [71670]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): As I explained earlier, the single payment scheme is being administered nationally, so information is not collected on claims from farmers in particular counties.

For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, who was not present earlier, I can announce that by 15 May some 76 per cent. of the 120,000 claimants to the 2005 scheme had received just over 86 per cent. of the estimated available funds.

Mr. Newmark: I join others in paying tribute to Eric Forth. As a relatively new Member, I always appreciated Eric’s experience, advice and guidance.

My constituent Mr. Christopher Hill is one of 5,000 farmers who have been notified by the Rural Payments Agency that they will not receive an 80 per cent. payment to alleviate short-term cashflow problems. Why have some farmers received their part-payments while others have not?

David Miliband: I do not want to be too hard on the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that one piece of advice that Eric Forth would have given him would be to read written statements and attend the whole of Question Time. If he had read my written statement last week, he would have seen the explanation: there were 5,000 particularly complex cases in which partial payment was not possible, but we had given priority to ensuring that those cases were dealt with properly. If he had been here earlier, he would have heard me say that the number of cases is no longer 5,000, but is now 3,700. I am not sure whether Mr. Hill is among the remaining 1,300, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that sorting out those farmers’ problems is the RPA’s top priority.

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Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The Minister said earlier that he wished to draw conclusions from our recent problems.

David Miliband: Lessons.

Mr. Curry: Would an early lesson be that introducing the most complex scheme on offer in the shortest time on offer against a background of tens of thousands of new claimants, a reorganised administration and problems in the IT system represents a decision in search of a disaster? Will the Minister therefore undertake to establish a rule in his Department, now that he is in charge of it, ensuring that he will introduce no new scheme until he is absolutely certain that he is capable of delivering it and that the systems for that purpose have been tested and tried?

David Miliband: Since I have been a Minister I have had the good fortune to follow the right hon. Gentleman into a number of Departments. I believe that he has been a Minister in most of the Departments in which I have served, and he was a distinguished Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The lesson that he has drawn is one that we will consider, among others that are put to us, during our reflections on the difficulties of 2005.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

11. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce UK food miles and their contribution to carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. [71671]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): The food industry sustainability strategy, published last month, challenges the food industry to reduce the external costs associated with its domestic food transportation, including those arising from carbon emissions, by about 20 per cent. by 2012. An industry-led champions group, including other stakeholders, is being established to implement it.

David Tredinnick: That was a disappointing reply. Is it not a fact that the number of UK food miles has increased owing to the inexcusable chaos of single farm payments in the Department? Leicestershire farmers are struggling, at the mercy of their bank managers and unable even to pay for fertilisers to make their crops grow. Has that not increased the UK food miles problem? What is the Minister doing to help farmers to distribute UK food through farmers’ markets such as the one in Hinckley and the new one that is being set up in Market Bosworth? What is the Department doing to help our farmers?

Ian Pearson: It is stretching a point to breaking-point to say that the single farm payment is responsible for the increase in food miles. We are trying to work closely with the industry to improve resource efficiency, which will enable us to address the food miles problem. Clearly, one issue is people driving to supermarkets and shops to buy their goods, but we must also consider the carbon dioxide emissions produced by HGVs. The
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more that we can improve efficiency, the better will be the impact on the environment. That is why the champions group has been set up, which we hope will help us to achieve our target of a 20 per cent. reduction by 2012.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May I, too, take this opportunity to offer my condolences to the friends and family of Eric Forth? Although I am one of the newer Members, I did not have to be here long to appreciate his formidable skill as a parliamentarian.

Does the Minister agree that, just as consumers nowadays choose, if they wish, the food that they buy according to information on the label such as fat content and calorie content, there may well be a case for also including food miles, so that they can make an even more informed choice?

Ian Pearson: I am not sure whether including food miles on the label would be that beneficial. When one reads on a label that the produce’s country of origin is Kenya, and that produce is beans, one can draw one’s own conclusions. I am very attracted to the idea that we should buy more local produce, and farmers’ markets, to which reference has been made, are an extremely worthwhile initiative in that regard. The more that we can buy local and source local, the better will be the impact on the environment.

Single Farm Payments

12. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of the National Farmers Union to discuss single farm payments. [71672]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): During a visit to Hampshire last week, I met the president of the NFU and we discussed the single farm payment scheme, among other matters. The Minister with responsibility for sustainable farming and food, my noble Friend Lord Rooker—who will be an outstanding DEFRA Minister and a strong voice for the Department in the other place, as its Deputy Leader—will meet NFU representatives for the second time, on 24 May, as part of a regular series of meetings to discuss the single farm payment scheme.

Mr. Bellingham: I, too, would like to associate myself with the remarks about Eric Forth.

Is the Secretary of State aware that some of the returned addressed envelopes sent out by the RPA to various farmers had the wrong post office box number and postcode on them? Is he also aware that a batch of special delivery envelopes were delivered not to the RPA, but to a company called Intelligent Security Solutions? Come to think of it, it might have made a better job of sorting out the contents. Is he further aware that a rumour is going around that some of the RPA staff at Newcastle—

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Mr. Speaker: Order. There have been about three supplementary questions already.

David Miliband: I think that the hon. Gentleman was just getting on to coals to Newcastle, Mr. Speaker, so I am sorry that I missed that. I do not know about the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I will be very happy to look into it if he passes me the details.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I declare an interest in the single farm payment. The Secretary of State has given us updated figures today on the welcome progress that the RPA is finally achieving in making payments and part-payments. He has talked about those who have received nothing so far, but he has not mentioned the issue that the NFU is talking to me about: those who have received excess payments. I was told as recently as Tuesday of a farmer who was expecting to receive a cheque for £35,000, but who instead received one for £2.1 million. One can imagine his surprise and pleasure on opening his mail that day. Given this shambles, will the Secretary of State please update the House on the penalty regime? I know that the deadline has been extended and that farmers are now expected to get in next year’s application forms by 31 May, but will the Secretary of State please extend it further until the shambles has been sorted out?

David Miliband: At the meeting that I had yesterday, it was reported that, of the 63,000 claims that have been made, 19 have been overpaid.

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13. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is planning to take to increase recycling of waste. [71673]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): England’s revised waste strategy will put forward a range of measures to build on recent improvements in recycling.

Mr. Love: Recently, and without any consultation, my local Tory authority sold off one of its two recycling centres to make a quick buck. It then received a direction from Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, but has continued to try to evade its environmental responsibilities. Does not that call for stronger planning powers to ensure proper recycling and respect for the environment on behalf of local people in my area?

Mr. Bradshaw: It may well do. I am sorry that my hon. Friend’s local Conservative council has behaved in that way. The party pretends to be green, but it is hardly surprising that when it gets into office it is the old slash and burn Thatcherite Tory party, especially on waste and environmental issues. I will look at the matter he raises, and he is right to say that we need better strategic planning for waste infrastructure in London.

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Business of the House

11.30 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the coming week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Before announcing the business for the week ahead, I wish to express my sorrow at the sudden death of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The Conservative party has lost one of its stars and this House has lost a great parliamentarian. He brightened this place with his ties, his waistcoats and his love of country and western music, but above all with his personality. Eric served this Parliament with great distinction in many capacities, including on Committees, on the Speaker’s Panel, in the Chamber and holding court in the Tea Room, offering advice to all comers, including myself—and very sage advice it was. But the House will recall particularly with great warmth Eric’s weekly encounters with the late Robin Cook, when Robin was Leader of the House and Eric was the shadow Leader of the House. Each sharpened his wit on the other, to the great entertainment and elucidation of the rest of us. Our sympathies and prayers go to Eric’s wife, Carroll, his three children, his friends and all his constituents.

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 22 May—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

Tuesday 23 May—Progress on remaining stages of the Education and Inspections Bill.

Wednesday 24 May—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Education and Inspections Bill.

Thursday 25 May—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week after the Whitsun recess will include:

Monday 5 June—Second Reading of the NHS Redress Bill [ Lords].

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the coming week and I echo the sentiments he expressed about my late right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). It was with deep shock and sadness that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends learned this morning of Eric’s untimely death. Eric was a former shadow Leader of the House and his skirmishes each week with the late Robin Cook became legendary. Eric was above all a great parliamentarian, who loved this place and all it stood for. Never a man to pull his punches and not always beloved of the Whips or, dare I say it, Front Benchers, he was a great asset to this House. More than that, many in this House across all parties have lost not only a great colleague, but a friend. The life of this House will be the lesser for his passing. It was a mark of the man and his personality, to which the Leader of the House alluded, that the staff of the Tea Room expressed their tremendous sadness this morning, too. He had been a friend to them, not just to Members of Parliament. We have lost a great parliamentarian and
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we all mourn his loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Carroll, and his family, friends and constituents.

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware of the importance of a good conclusion to the Doha round of world trade talks, not only for this country, but for the whole developing world. May we have a debate on world trade so that we can explore the Government’s position and ensure that they are putting sufficient pressure for the right conclusion of this round of trade talks on the European Trade Commissioner?

This week, it has been announced that 573 jobs will be lost at NHS Direct, in addition to the thousands of jobs being lost in hospitals across the country. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Heath on the future of NHS Direct?

However, that is not the only part of the NHS that is suffering financial problems. For example, the Thames Valley strategic health authority already gets 21 per cent. less funding than the average, and it has admitted that that has resulted in fewer operations and less patient care. In a presentation to the board last week, the SHA’s chief executive revealed that introducing a national standard tariff across the NHS would mean that it would cost Thames Valley PCTs £70 million extra a year to provide the same services—there would be no gain in activity or in the services provided. That is just one example, so it is little wonder that people ask where all the money has gone. Therefore, may we also have a debate on the future funding of NHS trusts and the impact of the standard tariff?

That is the NHS that the Health Secretary said had had its best year ever—where on earth has she been? But that is not the only area where the Government are in denial. The head of the civil service has said of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate’s work on asylum that it has “been performing particularly well”, and the Prime Minster wrote to the incoming Home Secretary advising him to “continue and accelerate” the success of the Government’s immigration and asylum policies.

That is the same Home Office where only 16 per cent. of officials have confidence in senior management. The director of enforcement and renewals at the immigration and nationality directorate was asked by the Home Affairs Committee how many people were in Britain illegally. He said:

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