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House of Commons

Thursday 19 April 2007

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—

Departmental Regulations

1. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): How many new regulations were introduced by his Department in (a) 2005 and (b) 2006. [132352]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): In 2005, the Department implemented 144 statutory instruments and the figure for 2006 was 150.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful for that answer. DEFRA says that it has a commitment to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens by 25 per cent. The Minister shakes his head, but I have a written answer to a parliamentary question in which it says, in terms, that DEFRA is committed to better regulation and reducing the burden of administration by 25 per cent. I will send it to the Minister if he has not seen it. What is the evidence that DEFRA is providing anything other than empty words and actually doing something to reduce regulatory burdens? On the basis of what the Minister has just said, the answer seems to be not a lot.

Barry Gardiner: It is always advisable, before saying something in the Chamber, to check one’s facts. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to the 2005 notice where we did commit ourselves to a 25 per cent. reduction. I am delighted to be able to tell him that last December I published our simplification plan, in which we exceeded our own target, and we have now produced a simplification plan for a 30 per cent. reduction of administrative burdens. That is approximately £159 million taken off business—over and above the baseline that was independently assessed in 2005, which I believe is the hon. Gentleman’s time scale.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I wonder whether any of those new regulations related to flood plains, where higher water tables could result in the flooding of new housing developments? Does he agree that there should be a regulation requiring those with responsibility for flooding to keep a public register, particularly when planning applications are granted, sometimes on appeal, to build houses on flood plains?

Barry Gardiner: I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman which one of the 150 statutory instruments would have
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dealt with the specific instance to which he refers. I understand that the hon. Gentleman raised this matter recently and it has been referred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Members often talk about regulations as if they bring only costs or burdens. They do not. They often create new frameworks for markets, new jobs and wealth. They often simplify a previous regime. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Environment Agency, which is indeed part of the DEFRA family, has responsibility for flood regulation, but in so far as the specifics to which he refers, it is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think as I do that that is a very strange question coming from an Opposition Member because prior to 1997, the general public were clamouring for regulation in the food safety area, which is why the Government set up the Food Standards Agency—and even today, the Conservative party’s own leader is clamouring for climate change regulation?

Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. If we simply add up the costs of regulation without then offsetting its benefits, what results may be convenient for a bit of parliamentary slapstick, but it does not provide the best picture of the true value of regulation. My hon. Friend referred to the position before 1997, which reminds me of a good example in the Animal By-Products Regulations 2005, which the present Government introduced. The impact assessment showed a total administrative cost of £7.58 million. I have no doubt that that was part of the reason why the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who tabled this question, did not pursue those regulations when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Actually—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister has already given a very full response.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): Surely what matters as much as the quantity of regulation is the quality, particularly where there is a potentially serious risk to human health. Given that we learned half an hour ago that, as with foot and mouth, the Government have failed to establish the cause of the outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk, is the Minister satisfied with the quality of the regulations dealing with importing poultry meat? Does he not agree that many people will be astonished—bearing in mind that there must have been a serious breach of biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant—that under existing regulations nobody will he held responsible and instead the company concerned will receive £589,356.89 in compensation, funded by the taxpayer? Is it not time to look again at the regulations concerning the importation of poultry meat?

Barry Gardiner: Obviously the hon. Gentleman does not take a great deal of notice of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is the local MP and who, only two weeks ago, praised the Government’s handling of the whole matter. The hon. Gentleman will note from the report of the Food Standards Agency two weeks ago that it did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute in this case. The Government have received many plaudits for the way in which the whole matter of avian flu has been handled, including from his colleagues.

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Fairtrade Farming

4. Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of the criteria attached to achieving Fairtrade status on the possible environmental benefits accruing from Fairtrade farming. [132357]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): The Government strongly support the principles of Fairtrade. The environmental standards required for Fairtrade accreditation are, of course, a key element of the scheme, complementing the better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world, which are sometimes better understood by consumers.

Mr. Khan: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I have been working with Fairtrade campaigners locally to try to make Tooting a Fairtrade zone. One of the criteria that must be fulfilled before an area can be a Fairtrade zone is for the local council to pass a resolution in support of Fairtrade. Unfortunately, the majority group on Wandsworth council refuses to pass such a resolution. Does the Minister agree that Fairtrade initiatives and zones can help the Government’s aim of tackling environmental degradation globally and what does he think about the stance of Wandsworth council, which is preventing Tooting from becoming a Fairtrade zone?

Barry Gardiner: I commend the extraordinary amount of work that my hon. Friend has done on this issue over a sustained period of time, galvanising the local community and really beginning to explain to people the benefits of Fairtrade and the importance of buying Fairtrade produce. It is nothing short of shameful that the Tory Wandsworth council is obstructing the move to make Tooting a Fairtrade zone. I wish him every success with the campaign. It is vital that these issues, which are not simply about justice and fairness, but which are, at their heart, about the environment as well, are taken seriously by all parties in the House.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Surely the Minister will have noticed that some supermarkets now sell only Fairtrade bananas because their customers have pressed for that. Surely it must be right that the good citizens of Tooting or Wandsworth, or wherever it might be, should seek to choose to buy Fairtrade and should not have it imposed upon them by the local council if they do not want that.

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Lady clearly does not understand that this is not a matter of banning other produce from the whole of Tooting or Wandsworth. Free choice still prevails. But there are sometimes important symbolic issues in relation to a mark such as the Fairtrade mark, and to galvanise the people of Tooting to understand that is a commendable purpose. The measure would do nothing to stop people choosing freely in their supermarkets.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that, while Fairtrade is a method of getting poor countries out of reliance on aid, when we are firming up those local economies, it is important to chime a note of caution to campaigners
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who campaign on food miles? Fairtrade economies are criticised for extending the use of food miles, and yet they are a way of creating sustainable communities in those areas.

Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. The argument that there are more food miles involved is often used against produce from overseas. In fact, often more food miles are used up by people driving to the supermarket than by bringing that produce to market. It is an essential part of Fairtrade that we look at the whole supply system and the way in which produce is grown. It is right that we take into account all the environmental factors, including the energy used to produce goods and transport them to market, but the issue must be looked at in the round. He is absolutely right to raise that point.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Part of my extended family comes from an area in Kenya around Nyeri. The people there who produced sugar got into deep problems—the sugar refinery had to close eventually—because of the production of sugar beet in the EU. I know that that will be phased out, as will the subsidy. What are we doing to support fairly-traded sugar in such places as Nyeri, instead of giving subsidies for sugar beet production in the EU?

Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that one of the real successes of the UK presidency of the EU last year was the reform of sugar subsidy and production. Many companies in this country have taken advantage of that. British Sugar maintains its quota and is looking to diversify into biofuels through that. There are many ways in which sugar farmers and companies can diversify their crops. The fundamental reforms were put in place during this Government’s presidency of the EU and they have brought about the prosperity in developing countries about which my hon. Friend talks.

Carbon Emissions

5. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on progress in reducing carbon emissions from the Government estate. [132362]

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): I am very glad to see the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber.

I, like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers, have held recent discussions with many colleagues from other Departments on the subject of reducing carbon emissions from the Government estate as part of wider discussions on combating climate change.

Stephen Hammond: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer—I am grateful to be here as well.

In June 2006, the Government said that their target was for the whole Government estate to go carbon neutral by 2012 and for emissions to be reduced by 30 per cent. by 2020. What progress have they made on achieving that?

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Ian Pearson: We are making progress, but I have to admit that we are not moving as quickly as we would like, or as quickly as we need to to achieve our targets. We will meet our commitment of making the Government estate carbon neutral by 2012. I believe that the revised sustainable operations targets for the Government estate that were launched in June 2006 are stretching. We are making progress on a whole range of areas, such as on schools, about which an announcement has been made this week. DEFRA, along with other Government Departments, is implementing carbon management programmes that will have a significant impact in future years.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about not only the estate and buildings, but the people who work in those buildings? May we have a more vigorous education programme to raise the environmental knowledge and expectations of the people who work in those buildings? Will he especially consider the old Metropole building, which is just a stone’s throw from this building? That massive, old Ministry of Agriculture building, which has fantastic architecture, has been boarded up for many years. If it were turned into a centre for small campaigning groups and environmental groups, the building would be brought to life and would represent a great use of the Government estate.

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend makes the good point that people’s use of energy in buildings is critical. That is one of the reasons why DEFRA is running a big switch campaign to encourage people to switch off lights and energy appliances when they are not being used, which can make a significant difference.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Metropole building and I will make inquiries into the situation. Over the past couple of years, DEFRA has been in a period of transition. We have moved into new buildings, refurbished buildings and vacated buildings that are still part of the DEFRA estate. That has not helped our carbon footprint, but we hope to make significant improvements in future years. I will examine the case to which my hon. Friend refers.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister accept that it is sometimes better not to penalise people for doing what they have done for a long time, but to create energy that is less polluting? Why do the Government not direct more of their attention to the development of biofuels and clean-coal technology—that is, not to beating people, but to developing energy that is less polluting, and that therefore emits less carbon into the environment? I am sick to death of people being penalised, rather than being encouraged to do what is right through the Government’s development of new forms of energy.

Ian Pearson: It is perfectly right to say that we need to encourage people to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles. That is one of the reasons why Labour announced earlier this week that it would provide free real-time displays that people can decide to put into their homes, and which will show them, in real time, the amount of energy use in their home. That can make significant difference. Evidence shows that people who take advantage of the displays save anything up to 15 per
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cent. on their normal energy bills by becoming more energy-conscious. It is right that we should focus on campaigns to encourage people to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. That is one of the reasons why the Government launched our act on CO2 campaign. A great deal can be done to raise people’s awareness of their carbon footprint, and to encourage them to do more about it.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Further to the Minister’s answer, what discussions has he had with the House authorities? The issue is not just about the Government estate. When we look at the contribution that individuals can make, we should remember that there is a vast contribution that Members of the House, and particularly their staff, could make in their offices. I am delighted to say that there has been a major behaviour change on the part of staff in my office, and I would recommend such changes to others. I hope that the Minister will help to ensure that lights, and particularly PCs, are switched off, and that there are more and improved recycling facilities in the House.

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is right: there is a lot that we can all do. MPs and people in our offices, both in the constituency and on the parliamentary estate, can all do more to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had discussions and has raised the matter with the House authorities. There are clearly some difficulties with historic buildings that will never be massively energy-efficient, but there are things that can be done, including on the parliamentary estate, and people from right across Government need to consider them.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Combined heat and power is a technology with great potential to reduce the amount of waste in our energy system. Will the Minister update the House on the progress that the Government have made on their target to deploy that technology across the public sector?

Ian Pearson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of combined heat and power. We are seeing progress with CHP, but again, perhaps that progress is not as fast as we would like. That is one of the issues that we have discussed following the publication of the energy review, and in the lead-up to the publication of the energy White Paper. We believe that combined heat and power, which results in additional energy efficiencies, needs to be made more widespread, not just among those who use energy on a large, industrial scale, although there is significant potential in that regard, but when it comes to CHP district and community heating systems. Those are areas in which we are trying to encourage CHP, through the development of energy service companies, or ESCOs.

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