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House of Commons

Thursday 20 July 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Industry

1. Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): If he will make a statement on the environmental impact of supermarkets and the food industry. [86595]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): The food industry has a major impact on the environment, accounting for 14 per cent. of energy consumption by UK business and 7 million tonnes of carbon every year. The Government have implemented a number of measures under the food industry sustainability strategy to reduce negative impacts. I can tell the House that I am meeting the supermarkets today to discuss progress.

Mr. Leech: Tesco is trying to build an 88,000 sq ft supermarket just outside my constituency near to Chorlton town centre, which would lead to even more congestion and pollution in the area, as well as impact on the viability of local shops. Will the Secretary of State commit to urgent discussions with his ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government with a view to protecting our local centres from these environmentally damaging developments?

David Miliband: The way in which the hon. Gentleman poses the question suggests that he knows that planning policy is not something that falls to DEFRA, but I am happy to say that I will look into the case, consistent with the important principle that Ministers do not interfere with planning decisions.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will know that some supermarkets, including Tesco, are slowly moving towards a much more positive environmental stance. Will he encourage them to take that aspect much more seriously and to put some serious money into local communities to improve the quality of the environment? Supermarkets are good in one area, and that is transport logistics. If Tesco’s transport logistics expertise could be used, for example, in the waste
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industry—8 per cent. of truck movements in our country are waste being hauled on our motorways—we could quickly reap some serious economic and environmental benefits.

David Miliband: When I meet the supermarkets later today, I shall certainly ask Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s whether they agree that Tesco provides a model of good practice and see what reaction I get. I take my hon. Friend’s point about transport logistics and waste. I was surprised to find that the supermarkets are on track, following the EU packaging directive, to reduce packaging by between 55 and 80 per cent. It is also worth mentioning—other hon. Members may raise it—the commitment in the energy review to ensure that some 5,000 medium-sized public and private sector organisations are part of a UK emissions trading system to deliver 1.2 million tonnes of carbon reduction every year. That is a major step forward, which I hope will command support throughout the House.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Will the Secretary of State comment on the policy of supermarkets importing cheap food from other regions of the world, such as south America, particularly in respect of the impact on the environment in those regions?

David Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I think that I am right in saying that about 76 per cent. of food bought in the UK is domestically produced, though that is down by 5 or 6 per cent. over the last decade. Ensuring that local supply chains are strong and that local food producers are able to get their goods to market efficiently and effectively while securing a fair price for what they produce is critical. The hon. Gentleman also made the important point that global trade can benefit developing countries, or countries from which we import food, and be an important part of their standard of living. That can be done in either a more or less environmentally sensitive way. From our point of view, it is imperative that it is done in a more environmentally sensitive way.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The Isle of Wight is not entirely devoid of natural resources, but two Tesco-size lorries cross the Solent every year for every man, woman and child on the island to serve its supermarkets. At the same time, we produce a huge amount of agricultural produce ourselves. What can the Secretary of State do to reduce the food miles, to which the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) referred, that severely damage the environment?

David Miliband: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was about to say that he was one of the natural resources of the Isle of Wight, which would be a point of more contention than the need to reduce food miles. The most important thing is for the Isle of Wight to maximise its agricultural production in ways that local consumers want to buy. In the end, local food producers rather than the Government will be the key to the supply chain. Having said that, it is an important part of our strategy to help support local farmers to diversify and ensure that they are able to serve local markets in the most effective way.

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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is good to hear the Secretary of State saying those words, but I remind him that three years ago his predecessor launched the Government’s public sector procurement initiative, saying:

Three years later, his Department has said that it does not know how much publicly procured food is of British origin. Given that the Secretary of State is rightly seeking to atone for many of the failings of his predecessor, may we now expect him to get to grips with the whole issue of public procurement? There is £1.8 billion worth of publicly procured food bought in this country: surely that is the way for the Government to set an example to supermarkets and the food industry on how to reduce food miles.

David Miliband: I am trying to build on the successes of my predecessor in a range of important areas, including agriculture and the environment. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not mention the Sims report, because the issues of public procurement that he raises are very important. The report was published just two months ago and was an independent study by an experienced and respected business figure, who examined the whole £150 billion of public sector procurement and how it could be done more sustainably. I am also sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not refer to the commitments made not only by me, but by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to see the report and its recommendations through and deliver some of the gains that the hon. Gentleman wants to see.

Uncropped Field Margins

2. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Whether he has made an assessment of the environmental and economic implications of requiring 2 m uncropped field margins. [86597]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): Yes.

Mr. Goodwill: I thank the Minister for that short answer. I am sure that he would wish to enhance and augment the rural environment, but I am not sure that that is the best way to do it. It tends to penalise farmers who have retained their hedges and helps farmers who have bulldozed them. If the Minister took the opportunity to inspect some of those field margins, he would see that they are choked with pernicious weeds such as soft broom, sterile broom, wild oats and, in the east of the country, blackgrass. When the combine harvesters spread those around the fields, it results in the need for much higher levels of pesticide usage on arable farms. Can the Minister think of some more imaginative ways of utilising the same amount of land to stimulate farmers to do something to make a positive impact on the rural environment?

Barry Gardiner: It is interesting to be asked whether one has made an assessment and, when one says that one has, not then to be asked what it was before one
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gets the Opposition view. It is clear that cross-compliance measures impose a minimal burden on farmers, calculated to be of the order of only 2 per cent. of the single payment that they receive. That was for farmers who were not previously using what are generally accepted as good management practices. The fact is that most farmers did leave the 2 m margin, measured as it is from the centreline of the hedge. In respect of the environment and biodiversity considerations, the hon. Gentleman will know that as much as 70 per cent. of all the wildlife and biodiversity of a field is estimated to live in the hedgerow margin. Protecting them in that way is an essential part of delivering our 2010 targets.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): It is important that farmers should do their bit to promote biodiversity. Will my hon. Friend the Minister therefore do more and go further to encourage environmentally friendly stewardship of the land by farmers?

Barry Gardiner: We are looking at all sorts of ways to improve the management of our countryside and incentivise farmers to do so. There is a general consensus in the Chamber that cross-compliance and all the moves that have been made from pillar one to pillar two are ones that we would all support. We are moving in the right direction, which is paying farmers to provide public benefits, instead of the old system of paying for production, which disconnected farmers from their markets and was an inefficient way of doing things. However, it is essential that we have the flexibility to take into account the distinctive features of the English countryside, of which the hedgerow is one. I make no apology for protecting it.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that with 71 per cent. of British butterflies and 44 per cent. of British moths in decline, hedgerows and field margins are critical to ensuring diversity? Those creatures, which are important to the farmer for the fertilisation of his crops, should be protected.

Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend makes the important point that biodiversity should be seen in terms of the whole ecosystem. The pollination services provided by butterflies and other insects that inhabit hedgerows and the margins of fields are essential. Our 2010 biodiversity targets state that we must increase the number of farmland birds. There is a severe decline in the food that they depend on and that they feed to their chicks—butterflies, caterpillars and so forth—which is part of the problem. It is essential that we look at this issue as part of the whole environment, and that we address it in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

Ivory Trade

3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What Government policy on the ivory trade is expected to be at the meeting of the convention on international trade in endangered species standing committee in October; and if he will make a statement. [86598]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): The United Kingdom Government will not have a vote at the standing committee in October. The UK will be represented as part of the European region, but the UK’s position continues to be that we support the international ban on trade in ivory.

David Taylor: I welcome that answer. Any reopening of the ivory trade—by stockpile sales or more widely—would simply create a smokescreen and trigger further poaching of elephants for their ivory, especially in central and west Africa and Asia, where resources for enforcement of anti-poaching measures are at their thinnest. Will the Minister ensure that such points are vigorously made at the CITES conference, and will he involve the International Fund for Animal Welfare in tackling what is becoming a very serious problem?

Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those remarks. He highlighted stockpile sales, which is a critical issue to address. As he knows, there already is an international ban on the commercial trade in ivory, and the UK will not support any reopening of that trade. In 2002, the CITES parties drew a distinction between a general return to commercial ivory trade and one-off sales of legally acquired stockpiled ivory. The UK’s position is clear: we will not agree to the one-off sales going ahead unless all the conditions to prevent a damaging rise in elephant poaching and any increase in the illegal trade have been fully met. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have already met IFAW and discussed this subject. I have asked it to help me look at the statistics that will under-gird those decisions and to prepare a response for me. I look forward to receiving it.

Local Environment Quality

4. Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to improve local environment quality. [86599]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 has given local authorities and others important new tools to improve the quality of people’s local environment. Other measures will ensure that the quality of air and water—already better than at any time since the industrial revolution—will continue to improve.

Kali Mountford: I hope that both you, Mr. Speaker, and the Minister can at some point—perhaps over the summer—visit the beautiful constituency of Colne Valley and see how our environment has been enhanced by the hard work of community groups such as the Friends of Beaumont Park, which is trying to create an eco-park. Would it not therefore be a great pity if the 2005 Act was not used to its fullest extent by local authorities to ensure that the hard work of community groups is not undermined and that the area is not inundated with fly-tipping, litter and graffiti?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, and I will look at my diary to see whether I can fulfil my hon. Friend’s invitation during
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August, when I intend to spend quite a bit of time travelling the country extolling the benefits of the 2005 Act and encouraging local authorities—as she is rightly doing—to use the new powers that they have been given.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Minister accept that the quality of our countryside is critical to the environment of the United Kingdom? Will he further accept that if we are to maintain the quality of our rural areas and our countryside, farmers need to be able to make a profit from what they produce on the land, and land has to be farmed? Currently, farmers are under huge pressure—dairy farmers in particular—not least from the major superstores. Will the Government take steps to protect the rural environment to ensure that our farmers, who work hard seven days a week—particularly if they are livestock farmers—are able to make a proper living and can maintain the countryside for the people of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman refers to lots of very important issues to do with rural areas and agriculture that are not strictly related to local environment quality. However, if you will bear with me, Mr. Speaker, I shall do my best to answer.

I agree that it is important that agriculture is put on a profitable footing, and that is the aim of the Government’s sustainable food and farming strategy. It is also very important that farmers are rewarded for the public benefits that they provide, and we are changing the way that agriculture is supported in this country to ensure that that happens. We accept that problems in certain sectors, such as the dairy sector, are making life very difficult for people. I know that the hon. Gentleman represents a lot of dairy farmers, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take on board what he has said before speaking to the supermarkets later today.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): The Local Government Act 2003 provided that local authorities employing litter wardens to enforce the litter laws could use the proceeds from fixed-penalty fines to pay them. Some authorities use those powers with great success, but many—including my own—do not use them at all. As a result, streets remain dirtier than they need be, or council tax payers have to pay enormous amounts of money to get litter cleared away. Will my hon. Friend write to the authorities that are not using the powers and encourage them to do so?

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes, I shall be happy to do that, and to take the matter up with my hon. Friend’s local authority. It is a terrible shame when legislation that gains very strong support in this place, and which gives local authorities powers that they have asked for over many years, is not used. The powers in the 2003 Act enable authorities to deal with the sort of local environmental issues that really matter to people, but my hon. Friend is right to say that the fact that they are not used indirectly piles more costs on council tax payers as a whole.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the Minister look at the impact on the London
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environment of helicopter noise? It is probably the number one issue in my post bag at the moment. No one seems to know why there has been such a big increase in helicopter traffic over London, which does not appear to be monitored by any Government agency. The London assembly has conducted an inquiry, but it has barely scratched the surface. Will he speak to other Ministers about setting up a proper monitoring system for helicopter noise over London?

Mr. Bradshaw: I suspect that the Leader of the Opposition might be making some contribution to the increase in helicopter noise, given his penchant for helicopter travel. However, I shall be delighted to investigate the matter and get some answers to the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have a London flat, and I have noticed exactly the phenomenon that he has described, with helicopters disturbing our peace and quiet by hanging in the air for hours on end. I have no idea what they are doing, and I shall be delighted to find out for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Yesterday, the Secretary of State made a speech that began with a reference to the great stink—not the one that is increasingly emanating from this discredited and sleaze-ridden Government, but the one in 1858 that led to the creation of the London sewer system. What action is the Department taking to improve the local environmental quality of the Lea valley in east London, where hundreds of thousands of tonnes of raw sewage are pumped into the Thames basin every year? Two years ago, a former Environment Minister said that doing nothing about the scandal was not an option. What has been done since, and what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, bearing in mind the possible impact that that remnant of the great stink could have on the London Olympics?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am informed that my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who is sitting on my left, has had such a meeting recently, and also that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who is sitting on my right, has had a meeting with British Waterways on the matter. I am sure that both of my colleagues are determined to ensure, between them, that the development to which the hon. Gentleman refers is carried out in a sustainable way, and that the problems that the hon. Gentleman describes are addressed.

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