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House of Commons

Thursday 22 June 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Production and Retail

1. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What assessment he has made of the environmental impact of the food production and retail chain. [79341]

9. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What assessment he has made of the environmental impact of the food retail and production industry. [79350]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The food industry has a major impact on the environment. The Government have implemented several measures to reduce negative impacts.

Lorely Burt: Given the power of the large supermarkets, which are driving down prices at the farm gate, what is the Minister doing to ensure that we get fair trade for farmers and producers at home as well as abroad?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Lady will be aware that the Competition Commission recently announced an inquiry into supermarkets. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the commission suggesting that it look into the issues that she raises as part of its inquiry—a move that has been welcomed by the Liberal Democrats.

Jo Swinson: Will the Minister join me in congratulating the National Federation of Women’s Institutes on this week’s national day of action against packaging? It is right to highlight the fact that we must get rid of excess packaging on food products and use recyclable or compostable materials where packaging is required. What actions are the Government taking to require food producers and retailers to minimise packaging?

Mr. Bradshaw: I warmly welcome the campaign by the women’s institute, and I have written to congratulate it. As the hon. Lady is probably aware, the Government have set statutory targets to reduce and recycle a certain amount of packaging by 2008. We have also entered into an agreement with all the major supermarkets to reduce the growth in packaging and to achieve an absolute reduction in packaging within the same time frame.

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Sustainable Communities Bill is the best way to signal the importance of local food chains and trying to restore local communities? It is currently a private Member’s Bill, but I hope that the Government will take it up. This issue is going round the country like wildfire, and people are attending meetings in their hundreds. I am addressing a meeting in Stroud tonight. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government support this wholeheartedly.

Mr. Bradshaw: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the numbers of people he can attract to public meetings; I wish that we could all have the same success. I have listened carefully to his comments about the Sustainable Communities Bill, as have my colleagues, and I am sure that we will take them very seriously.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Surely more can be done to assist local suppliers, as happens with a lot of farm shops, of which we have a large number in my constituency. Should not the larger supermarkets follow the lead of supermarkets such as Booth’s, which got involved very early on with the Bowland milk initiative, whereby they sourced a lot of their milk from local farm producers? It has now been extended to cheeses. That is something that supermarkets could be doing to help the environment and to help local suppliers by sourcing locally.

Mr. Bradshaw: I entirely agree. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that in the past few weeks the major supermarkets have been almost falling over themselves to compete with each other to introduce more and better sourcing of local food. It is gratifying that there is consensus across the House that seems finally to be sinking into the supermarket chain.

Ms Diana R. Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, North) (Lab): Does the Minister think that it is more environmentally friendly to buy English strawberries or foreign strawberries?

Mr. Bradshaw: There can be no doubt that it is far better for the environment and for local economies to eat British strawberries, as it reduces food miles and boosts incomes in rural areas. Polytunnels have been vital to the success of our strawberry growers in extending the growing season. It is extraordinary that the Conservatives have called for a boycott of British strawberries.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I understand that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) shouted, “A deliberate falsehood”. Perhaps he will withdraw the remark.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I withdraw the remark and apologise.

House Building

2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What discussions he plans to have with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the environmental impact of house building. [79342]

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3. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What assessment he has made of the new reservoirs, treatment plans and sewerage systems that will be required as a consequence of forecast new housing development. [79344]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): The Department is already working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the environmental impacts of house building. I recently met the Minister for Housing and Planning, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to discuss water supply and plans for new housing.

Water companies’ 25-year water resources plans identify the need for five new and three extended reservoirs. The need for additional capacity in sewerage infrastructure is one of the main issues that is considered in the growth point bids.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for his reply. When he next holds discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government on water supplies, will he support its view that 200,000 extra homes will lead to only a one in 1,000 increase in total water use, or that of Professor McDonald, as expressed in the eighth report of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, that the prediction of a minor increase in water demand is at odds with every other forecast?

Ian Pearson: The Government want to see new housing development and to give people the right to affordable housing in the south-east. However, that housing must be sustainable. That is why DEFRA, the Environment Agency and Natural England are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on its new growth point scheme. As part of that, we are closely considering water supplies, sewerage infrastructure, flood risk and biodiversity. It is right that any proposals must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability. We will not accept proposals that we believe would damage the environment or that did not provide for adequate water supplies.

Mr. Mackay: The Minister will recall that, during the statement in the House a couple of weeks ago, he bizarrely told me that my constituents and I were wrong and that the large number of houses being built in the south-east would have almost no impact on the current water crisis. He now knows that the Lords Science and Technology Committee—a Committee of experts—has reported and backed us up. Will he accept that he is wrong and they are right?

Ian Pearson: No, I do not accept that. We will respond to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report in due course. The key matter to stress is that work can be done to improve water efficiency. For example, Anglian Water has maintained water supplies of 1.2 billion litres a day—the same amount as in 1989—but it is supplying 20 per cent. more households today. That shows what can be done about water efficiency.

It is important that we ensure that water sustainability is built into the new growth point scheme. Any proposals must also go through the planning process. The
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Conservatives need to be clear about whether they want new homes to be built for young couples. Your leader says—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not have a leader.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Is not it time that we required the construction industry to design all new buildings, domestic or otherwise, to operate using only non-mains water, either recycled or collected on site, to flush toilets?

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are working on a new code for sustainable homes, and the Department for Communities and Local Government is leading that work. We believe that new homes should be built to the highest standards of water and energy efficiency. Grey water systems and sustainable housing are very much part of our thinking as a Government—we want to encourage that.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): I am interested in my hon. Friend’s comments about Anglian Water. Given Thames Water’s appalling water leakage rates, does he believe that there will be enough water to serve the new housing developments in London?

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is right to point out that Thames Water’s leakage levels are unacceptably high. It recently reported that it had failed again to meet its target. That is a matter for the regulator in the first instance. Ofwat has already said that it views the issue as serious and that it will scrutinise the company’s return before deciding on regulatory action. As my hon. Friend knows, Ofwat is responsible for setting leakage targets and has powers to deal with poor performance under the Water Act 2003, which Conservative Members voted against.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am grateful to the Minister for identifying the failure of Thames Water, the scale of which is staggering. Ofwat’s latest figures show that it is leaking 200 million litres of water a day more than it was at the beginning of the last five-year period. Ofwat described this significant failure yesterday as very serious and unacceptable. As the Minister pointed out, Ofwat has not said what it is going to do about it. What is he going to do about it?

Ian Pearson: It is Ofwat’s responsibility as the economic regulator to take action, and it has powers under law to do so. Those powers are contained in the Water Act 2003, which the Conservatives inexplicably voted against. We will not pre-empt Ofwat’s response, but we expect it thoroughly to examine the company’s return and to take the appropriate action.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Will the Minister assist my constituency, which has to have thousands of extra houses and their attendant cars and pollution, and which already has air quality management areas? Will he send a message to councils about how to deal with these air quality management issues? Will any extra funding or help be given to councils to deal with the existing issues?

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Ian Pearson: Air quality has certainly been better than it has been for decades. It is the responsibility of local authorities in the first instance to take these matters forward. Let us be clear that new houses are required in the south-east. If we are going to do the right thing by thousands upon thousands of young couples who want affordable homes in the south-east, we have to take action, and that is what the Government are doing. But we are taking action and taking care of the environment at the same time, which is why my Department, the Environment Agency and Natural England are all involved in the new proposals.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): The Minister talked about increasing water capacity, but is he aware that Northumbria Water, which owns a water company in Essex, has been trying to increase capacity by raising the banks of an existing reservoir by 10 ft? The company reckons that if it finally gets planning permission for this, it will have taken 18 years from the moment the scheme was first put into play to the time when the water is actually in the reservoir. Surely it is time for the planning processes relating to such schemes to be simplified.

Ian Pearson: I am not responsible for the planning processes. Water companies’ 25-year water resources plans often include schemes for building new reservoirs and for extending existing ones, and it is right that such schemes should go through a robust planning process, because people have to be consulted on these matters. However, the whole House will agree that planning processes should be as efficient as possible. The Government have done quite a lot to speed up such processes, but they should not be speeded up at the expense of individual rights.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): We all want affordable housing in the south-east—there is no question about that—but we also want the people who live in them to have access to water. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on achieving Royal Assent for his Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill? That will have a significant and positive impact on improving energy efficiency in new homes, and on promoting renewable energy. Is it not ironic, however, that the Bill fell under the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry? Is not this another example of how impotent DEFRA has become? The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) has just made a very sensible suggestion. What plans does DEFRA have to introduce its own legislation to ensure that house building is compatible with the natural resources of the country and the planet, and, in particular, that there are adequate water supplies to ensure that the new homes are worth living in?

Ian Pearson: I certainly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on his Bill receiving Royal Assent. However, there is a difference between us and the Conservatives on these issues. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) is on record as saying that the present level of house building is excessive, but the
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Government do not believe that to be the case. We believe that thousands of young couples should have the opportunity to have new houses, but that has to be achieved in a sustainable way. That is why we are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government on its growth point plans, so that, when the schemes come forward, those growth point areas will have been subjected to a rigorous analysis of the environmental impacts and benefits. That is the right way to do it. The Conservatives say that they want to see house building, yet they support early-day motions that oppose new house building. That strikes me as the activity of a party that is neither responsible nor in control.

Climate Change

4. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What progress has been made against the Government's carbon reduction targets; and if he will make a statement. [79345]

8. Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): What progress has been made with the climate change programme. [79349]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): In March the Government announced a climate change programme setting out measures that will affect all major sectors and sources of UK emissions. The review predicts that the measures will reduce the UK's carbon dioxide emissions to 15 to18 per cent. below 1990 levels and the emission of greenhouse gases to 23 to 25 per cent. below 1990 levels, which is double the Kyoto target. Progress will be monitored and assessed regularly and frequently by an inter-departmental board, and there will be an annual report to Parliament every year, starting next year.

Norman Baker: I hope that the Minister agrees that if any target is to be meaningful, it must include aviation, which, as he will know, presents a major threat. If that continues at the same rate, it will cancel out all the gains made in other sectors. Does the Minister accept that while emissions trading is a useful tool which represents a step forward, it is not enough in itself to halt the inexorable growth of aviation? Does he accept that when one of my constituents goes to Spain and back by air solely to buy fags and beer cheaply, the price of aviation must increase?

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