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14 Dec 2006 : Column 995

Barry Gardiner: I am delighted that for once the hon. Gentleman has recognised the vast amount of investment that this Government have put in to clear the safety backlog— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman says, “And our Government”, but I have the figures in front of me and that is not the case. In the last year of the Conservative Administration, the total revenue figure, on a like-for-like basis, was £98.7 million; this year, it is £189.4 million. That gives a good indication of the position.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a guarantee about his breaches. He has already received a specific, clear and accurate response on that matter from my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare in the debate that took place a couple of weeks ago, when he said that it is a matter for British Waterways to consider and prioritise as part of its managerial responsibilities. It would be completely inappropriate for any Minister to override the managerial responsibilities of British Waterways by giving guarantees of the kind that the hon. Gentleman requests.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend’s positive response to discussions with British Waterways. As he knows, the benefits that it delivers in terms of education, regeneration, transport and sport, among other things, are the responsibility of many Departments other than his own. In his discussions with ministerial colleagues, particularly those in the Treasury, will he redouble his efforts to ensure the delivery of a secure and sustainable funding regime for British Waterways that secures the future of these valuable national assets?

Barry Gardiner: I recognise the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done over a sustained period in his representation of the waterways. He speaks with great knowledge, particularly about the regeneration effect of waterways and canals. The Government’s record on that is second to none. A maintenance safety backlog was cleared to the tune of £42 million, and there was a maintenance backlog of £280 million that we have brought back down to £119 million. That is the extent of the investment that the Government have put in. There have been impacts on other Departments’ priorities—I mentioned the Olympics earlier. That will continue. I am confident that we will resource British Waterways in future to its satisfaction and that of other Departments as well as DEFRA, for which it delivers so much.

Mr. Speaker: I call Hywel Williams.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) has less hair than me.

British Waterways is an effective and efficient organisation, which makes good use of public money, provides benefits for tourism and biodiversity, and conserves important buildings from the time of the industrial revolution. However, it is bearing the brunt of DEFRA’s catastrophic mismanagement of the budget. The Under-Secretary prays in aid Treasury changes in the rules, but they happened three years ago, so why are the effects being felt only now? Does that mean severe on-going cuts for the much valued organisation?

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Barry Gardiner: I must correct the hon. Gentleman again. It is not the case that British Waterways has borne the brunt of the reallocation of £200 million in the Department. The in-year cut, which is only to the grant-in-aid, not the organisation’s total income, is 6.6 per cent. If he considers that as part of the total income, he will realise that the figure is just over 1.5 per cent. of the organisation’s budget. The reallocation was felt throughout DEFRA, and other organisations that do not have the same resources and capacity to attract external funding had in-year cuts of 10 per cent. and more. To say that British Waterways bore the brunt is wrong. I understand the tremendous support that British Waterways enjoys because of its regeneration work throughout the country. We have shown that we value it through our investment. I stress again that we have invested £524 million in it since we have been in office.

Single Farm Payments

4. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What progress has been made with the planned improvements to the system for making single farm payments; and if he will make a statement. [109018]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): The Rural Payments Agency has made several improvements to the way in which it operates and aims to build on them, taking account of the guidance from the National Audit Office and other inquiries. More than 99 per cent. of claimants and funds have been paid for the 2005 scheme year. The first step in improving the system for the future will be the consequences of my announcement on 7 November: when full payments are not possible, partial payments for the 2006 scheme for eligible claimants with claims of over €1,000 should begin in mid-February.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful for that response, but a recent meeting between Lord Rooker and several hon. Members, the Secretary of State’s statement on 7 November and the answer that he has just given provided no details about why the scheme will be better and why we can expect an improvement. It is bad enough that the 2005 payments were paid so late—thousands of pounds are still owed to farmers in my constituency, who have made environmental improvements to qualify for the payments. If I now go back to my farmers and say that I cannot tell them what the improvements will be and that the Secretary of State does not have any confidence about improvements— [Interruption.] He should read his recent statement—there is nothing in it that gives us confidence for the future—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must let the Secretary of State reply.

David Miliband: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman approaches the matter in that way. We have been clear about changes to the senior leadership team, changes in the corporate governance of the RPA, site heads for all the RPA’s offices throughout the country, better management information and whole-case working. The hon. Gentleman knows that Lord Rooker and the chief
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executive of the RPA hold a weekly meeting with the key representatives of the farming industry. I have been the first to say that the episode was damaging and that we will not get out of it in one leap. However, the statement that I made on 7 November was clear about the timetable for improvements and the way in which we would use the partial payment mechanism from mid-February for the cases that were not receiving full payments. The most important thing that he can say to his constituents is that the new chief executive of the RPA, about whom I expressed confidence in my statements in the summer, is getting a grip of the organisation, is determined to put it on track and, above all, is determined to make sure that we do not make promises that we cannot deliver. I believe that our promises will be delivered.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Would not two improvements to the RPA be to simplify its function by removing some of its marginal activities in which—although it is hard to argue that is skilled in anything much—it is even less skilled, and to consider its overall governance? The Secretary of State mentioned the governance of the RPA, so will he reflect on the proposal I made about four years ago that the organisation should be customer-led in its processing activity, as opposed to being part of a civil service function as it is now?

David Miliband: The Hunter review of the functions of the RPA is considering the points raised by my hon. Friend. While he is right that the organisation must be customer-focused, it is delivering within rules set by the European Union. Some of those rules have been put in place in quite a detailed way to ensure that, right around Europe, payments are only made on a satisfactory basis. There is a balance to be struck between the sort of regulations by which we want other countries to have to abide in making such payments, and our own confidence that light-touch regulation is needed here. I assure him, however, that all aspects of the issues that he raises are being considered by the Hunter review.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Secretary of State plans to cut the single farm payment next year through voluntary modulation, despite no other country in Europe wanting to do that and the regulation being defeated in the European Parliament by nearly 10:1, which included most of the Socialist group voting against it. I am sure that the Secretary of State knows, however, that neither the Commission nor the European Parliament can stop it, so he will get his voluntary modulation. In that light, and on the assumption that he knows by now how much money he will get from the Chancellor, can he explain why he has not yet submitted his rural development plan to the Commission? At least then the system could be approved, and once the legal regulation is achieved, he could commence the scheme.

David Miliband: Let me answer the two parts of that question directly. First, from what the hon. Gentleman has said, the House should be clear that Conservative Members of the European Parliament, with the support of their Front Bench, are blocking the early
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payment of rural development programme funding around England. That is a direct consequence of their support for a blocking measure that can have no other effect than delay. That delay hits hard-pressed communities around the country, and the hon. Gentleman should consider his own record. Secondly, our plans for the rural development programme can only be submitted when there are rules within which we can do so. That is what we are waiting for, and as soon as he unblocks the system, we will submit those plans.

Domestic Carbon Emissions

5. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the extent to which individual behaviour may contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions from homes. [109019]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): The Department is making a detailed assessment of the actions that people can take to help the environment, including reducing their carbon emissions. We will be publishing further proposals shortly.

Mr. Khabra: I thank the Minister for that answer. In his pre-Budget report, the Chancellor announced that householders’ income from installing micro-generation will not be subject to tax. In view of that statement, what further policies are the Government considering to encourage individuals to reduce carbon emissions from their homes?

Ian Pearson: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that individuals take action to reduce their carbon footprint. About 40 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions stem from actions taken by individuals. People in Britain understand the impact of climate change and want to do something about it. There is still a gap, however, between people’s values and their behaviour. Finding new and better ways to make it easier for people to reduce CO2 emissions is a high priority for the Government. My hon. Friend will be interested in the Energy Saving Trust’s “Save your 20 per cent.” campaign, which provides a number of useful tips on how people can reduce their carbon footprint.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I welcome what the Minister has to say, and he knows of my initiative to make Fylde the most energy-efficient council in the country. He will also accept the complexity of the issues involved in dealing with climate change, whether from a personal or governmental standpoint. Will he consider changing the energy White Paper that is due out in March 2007 to a climate change White Paper, enabling the whole range of issues influencing the subject, not just energy, to be dealt with in volume?

Ian Pearson: I was very pleased to meet the right hon. Gentleman recently to hear of his plans to make Fylde council the most energy-efficient in the country. As a Government, we are keen to stimulate competition between local authorities to take action to tackle climate change. Over 200 authorities have signed the Nottingham declaration on climate change and
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many are very advanced in terms of action plans to reduce their carbon footprints.

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the close co-operation that exists between our Department and the Department of Trade and Industry on the energy White Paper, just as we worked closely on the energy review that we published in July. Clearly climate change and energy security were key priorities and will remain so in the energy White Paper when it is published.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Public expectations have been raised greatly by the promise of a climate change Bill, but, of necessity, that Bill is going to be about committees, frameworks and processes. May I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the narrative that accompanies the Bill through the House involves the public and indicates ways in which they can make their contribution with, as he said, the Energy Saving Trust 10-point plan, which is so simple that I have been able to complete all stages? I trust every hon. Member would do so similarly.

Ian Pearson: I agree that engaging the public in tackling climate change is hugely important. We will pass landmark legislation for the UK and it is important that we do so, but we also want to generate a wide public debate about climate change and the actions that we can all take to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): As the Minister and others have said, the most effective agent for encouraging individuals to do their bit at home in tackling climate change has been the work of the Energy Saving Trust; indeed, its campaign to raise public awareness generally was singled out last month by the Prime Minister. So why have DEFRA Ministers appointed yet another advertising agency to run their own public awareness campaign around exactly the same issues and given the agency £5 million to spend on advertisements that duplicate the work of the Energy Saving Trust?

Ian Pearson: We are not duplicating the work of the Energy Saving Trust. We are looking at new and better ways to communicate the message on climate change and to give people some clear, practical advice on measures that they can take that will change their behaviour and help to reduce their carbon footprint. The Energy Saving Trust does extremely valuable work, but we also have the climate change communications initiative and we are looking at ways in which we can improve our websites and other mechanisms to get our message across. This is vital and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) said earlier, it is important that we have a big national debate about the actions that individuals can take. We need more communication, not less.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend talks about the carbon footprint, but is he aware that few people understand the term? The biggest contribution to that that families make is through heating, and nowadays no sensible household uses excess fuel or energy because of the rip-off prices that the gas and electricity industries charge them. When
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will we start taking this issue seriously—like we did with regard to North sea gas when we had a conversion programme that converted 13 million appliances—by telling households exactly how they can take steps, and by supporting them with capital investment if they need that? They do not understand the new factors, the insulation properties or the regulations. When are we going to get real about this issue and develop a national programme to meet every household’s needs?

Ian Pearson: Energy efficiency is extremely important for all households, and particularly for vulnerable households. This Government have spent a substantial sum on the Warm Front programme. We have also introduced warm zones, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the pre-Budget report that there will be extra funding for such zones. That will make a real difference, because it will join up action on the ground in a practical way to help people to insulate their homes and reduce their energy bills. There is an issue to do with future electricity and gas supplies. We need to address that as part of theenergy White Paper, and we are doing just that. Weare also encouraging microgeneration through the microgeneration strategy and, of course, we have the renewables obligation and the renewables targets that were set out for 2010 and 2020.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): On changing personal behaviour, would the Minister like to comment on the contrast between the measly £6.5 million allocated to the low-carbon buildings programme, which will yet again lead to household grants being exhausted before the year-end with serious implications for local supplier businesses, and the £12 million allocated to the communications initiative that he has just referred to, whose latest output is as follows:

Is that really the work of a Government who are serious about climate change?

Ian Pearson: It is important that the low-carbon buildings programme takes a range of action to help to reduce CO2 emissions from buildings. As a Government we have set the target of the Government office estate becoming carbon neutral by 2012, and we have ambitious, sustainable operation targets that go much wider. We do need to communicate, and although the hon. Gentleman might have one view about the effectiveness of what he has quoted as a communication I am sure that others will have different views.

Bottom Trawling

6. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What steps the UK Government are taking to end bottom trawling on the high seas; and if he will make a statement. [109020]

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The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Thanks to UK leadership, we now have in place an agreed international framework for phasing out destructive high-seas bottom fishing over the next two years. I am only sorry that an urgent and far-reaching deal was scuppered by Iceland—which is extraordinary given the damage that it has already done to its international reputation by resuming commercial whaling.

Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to be worried about not only the depletion of fish stocks, but the considerable damage that bottom trawlers do to habitats at the bottom of the oceans that have taken thousands of years to build up, including cold-water coral beds? Is it not time to consider having sites of special scientific interest at sea, as we have on land?

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The tragedy of such destruction is that in many cases valuable and vulnerable ecosystems that have built up over thousands of years are destroyed in a matter of seconds. We face a huge challenge in international waters where governance is often weak, if not non-existent, and where enforcement can also be completely absent. He is also right to say that that we need to take action in our own waters. We have been doing so by protecting areas such as the Darwin Mounds—we are the first European Union country to do such a thing. We are committed to having exactly the network of marine protected areas that my hon. Friend—and, I am sure, all Members—would like there to be.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister will not like my question. Is not the only way for the United Kingdom to preserve its marine habitat and fish stocks within its own territorial waters to restore to the United Kingdom total control of fishing within its own territorial waters?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that his own Front-Bench colleagues have, rightly, abandoned that policy. Even if the common fisheries policy did not exist, we would have to invent something like it. As someone who visits and takes a great interest in the marine environment, he knows that fish do not respect national borders.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend explain how the culturally and environmentally sensitive people of Iceland can continue this barbaric practice of whaling, while at the same time promoting, as part of their tourism, whale watching? Will he tell the President of Iceland—not the ambassador—that such a practice is absolutely despicable and we are not having it?

Mr. Bradshaw: I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, and we have lost no opportunity at the highest level to tell the Icelanders of our displeasure. Their decision was inexcusable and inexplicable. There was an unprecedented condemnation at the European Environment Council, led by Austria and supported by us, and we will continue to make our views known at every opportunity.

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