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House of Commons

Thursday 19 July 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Local Food Production

1. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What assistance he is giving for the promotion of local food production. [150585]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): DEFRA launched a regional food strategy in December 2002. Since then we have helped to encourage a flourishing quality regional and local food sector and given £20 million of support.

Bob Russell: I thank the Under-Secretary for her reply and welcome her to her post. Britain should be growing more of its own food and importing less. Does she agree that it is not acceptable for supermarkets to describe as “local” food that may have been grown hundreds of miles away and transported through central processing and packaging points?

Joan Ruddock: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his kind words. I am disappointed that he has not raised the Colchester native oyster application, as he has done so often and on which I understand DEFRA is waiting for more information before sending to the EU.

Of course it is essential that labelling is accurate and that consumers are well informed about the produce that they purchase. However, there needs to be a life cycle analysis to determine which food is more or less environmentally friendly in its growing, production, packaging and dispatch. Food that comes from a distance does not always have more environmental impact than food grown locally with very high inputs. It is a complicated science. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point and we need to make sure that consumers are aware and can make appropriate choices.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my hon. Friend to her post; it is well deserved and I am sure that we look forward to working with each other for many years.

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Community agriculture is beginning to grow in various parts of the country, Stroud being a wonderful example. It involves people taking food production into their own hands, which it is necessary to support. One way in which that can be done is by making sure that community agriculture links in with the county farm estates, of which I have been a supporter for many years. I hope that my hon. Friend will look at that and ensure that we get local food for local people that is grown by local people.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and pay tribute to his interest in the environment, particularly local food and its quality. Food from Britain is a programme that has the support of DEFRA in which we are endeavouring to give assistance to farmers to improve their production, quality, labelling and marketing. This is very important to us and the Department will continue to give appropriate support to the food industry, including farmers.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): From her time on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Under-Secretary will recall the importance of the rural development programme. Is she aware that her Department is spending some £260 million on consultants but only £300 million of its own money to top up the rural development programme? In her new role, will she look at reducing expenditure on consultants and spending more on the rural development programme for the benefit of local food producers?

Joan Ruddock: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks and for his reference to my record. Consultants are an easy target for suggesting that they are not worth their money. I would judge each case on its own merits, and would want to know what the consultants were engaged to do and whether they helped the people they were advising to achieve their objectives. That is the way in which these judgments have to be made, but I am very happy to look at his specific points.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I formally welcome the Under-Secretary to what I think is her first paid Front-Bench position? I recall that she was one of the unpaid Ministers earlier in the Government’s lifetime. I congratulate her on her appointment.

The hon. Lady rightly mentioned food labelling in answer to the first question. Has she had time to realise just what a shambles we have in our food labelling legislation? It is very confusing. Why do we have a system where some food is required to be labelled with its country of origin but not others: beef, but not pork or lamb; chicken from Brazil, but not from Belgium; honey, but not jam; olive oil, but not sunflower oil? We have complete confusion about our labelling legislation. If she really wants to promote local food—I believe from her record that she does—will she get a grip of our labelling rules and change them as soon as possible?

Joan Ruddock: Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I agree that we need more transparency and clarity. The purpose of labelling is to put the consumer in the driving seat so that they can make appropriate choices and, where appropriate,
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put pressure on producers and suppliers. Like him, I am keen for there to be improvements; I take the matter he raises seriously, and I and my colleagues will do all we can to enhance the regime.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Does the Minister agree that increasing oil prices will push up the cost of buying produce from abroad? The Totnes pound, with which she might be familiar, offers a 5 per cent. discount on locally produced goods, and 70 local producers are offering it. Does not that initiative provide a good way of proceeding? There will be a stick and a local carrot; the stick will be rising oil prices and the local carrot will be an inducement to people to buy local goods. Is the Minister familiar with the Transition Town Totnes project?

Joan Ruddock: I think that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not yet being familiar with that project, but I intend to become familiar with it very soon. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it was grown and the circumstances of the people who produce it. It is good for both business and consumers if more local produce is made available, if it is appropriately described, and if, as is the case where there are markets, people can meet the producers. If the product is right, it is good for our health, too.

Sea Defences (East Coast)

2. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of sea defences on the east coast; and if he will make a statement. [150586]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): The level of protection provided by sea defences along the east coast of England varies, depending on the level of risk and the type of land use which would be affected by any flooding. However, the indicative standard of protection for urban areas against sea flooding, as set out in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs guidance, is typically to protect against a once in 200 years-type event. It is for the Environment Agency and other operating authorities to assess the risk and fully consider improvements to defences.

Mr. Whittingdale: Is the Minister aware that the Environment Agency map shows some 2,600 properties around Maldon alone to be at risk from flooding, not to mention the Secretary of State’s ancestral home? Does the Minister agree that the risk he describes is increasing, owing to rising sea levels, greater storm pressure and a subsiding land mass? Does he accept that much more money needs to be spent on sea defences and that if money is spent now the sums needed are likely to be far less than the catastrophic losses that would be incurred if a flood were to occur?

Mr. Woolas: It is of course recognised that there is a growing risk and threat, which is why the Government have provided extra resources for defences—I know that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we have done so. One cannot provide against all eventualities, but extra resources have been provided for his region and the area he represents.

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Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): I welcome the Minister’s comments and the fact that the Government have substantially increased the amount of money invested in coastal and flood defences. However, will the Minister consider providing compensation for home owners and businesses who might lose their properties as they are in areas where there will be a managed retreat because it is no longer affordable to defend the coastline?

Mr. Woolas: It is no coincidence that such questions have been raised by Members of both main parties representing constituencies in the eastern region. The Government are fully aware of the risks and the future decisions that will have to be taken. My hon. Friend’s request will certainly be considered, but he would not expect me to give any pledges today.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Will the new ministerial team urgently look at the need to strengthen or replace the Thames barrier at some point in the next decade, as current predictions are that its design-life probably will not extend beyond 2020 at the latest? Given the pressures from flooding risks and the Government’s worries about global warming, is there not an urgent need to manage the consequences of such developments, and could we not link a new barrier to reclaiming land from the estuary so that we create valuable land for building?

Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the defences, and that is being considered. All those issues are a question of balance. Judgments have to be made on the types of defences and where they should be. We should not confuse—I know that he is not doing so—the need to protect against floods and the various causes of floods and coastal erosion, which has already been mentioned as it affects the eastern region.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): After the events in Sheffield, Doncaster and Hull, the last of which was well protected against coastal flooding but not against surface water flooding, do the Government still agree with their response to the autumn 2004 “Making Space for Water” consultation, which said that

That was meant to happen by the end of 2006, according to the timeline at the back of the Government’s response. Will Ministers now tell the devastated householders of Hull, Sheffield and Doncaster when the Government will deliver on their promised flooding overview?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the strategy set out in “Making Space for Water”. I have to point out to the House that the floods, especially in the east Yorkshire and Hull area, were exceptional and would not have been prevented by an implementation of the policy that he raises. Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that that is the Government’s policy. Decisions and announcements in that area will be made by the Environment Agency, which is today publishing its consultation document on the specific aspects of the issue, and by the Government later in the year.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Will he join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in commiserating with the people of Filey, who suffered overnight from unprecedented rainfall, which led to major evacuations? The effect of the rainfall was compounded by recent development and inadequate drainage, but the clear message is that more has to be spent on flood defences. Is the Minister aware that the chairman of the Yorkshire and Humber region flood defence committee has written to him, calling his attention to the fact that flood spending in the region will fall next year from £15.2 million to only £11.7 million? That is not the right message to send to people who have lost their homes and possessions in those unprecedented floods.

Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I know that she has great expertise on these issues, not least because of her constituency experience in Vale of York. I am, of course, aware of the events in Filey, which were similar in cause to those at Boscastle a few years ago. Anyone who knows Filey will be shocked to learn of the floods there.

On the resources that have been made available, we have to caution against taking too specific a view, because we have to consider the trend which in flood defence spending has been one of significant increases over the years. The time scales for all capital projects, and especially flood defence spending, mean that the wrong impression can be given by taking a figure out of context. However, I will of course reply to the chairman in full detail.

Renewable Energy

3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Minister for Energy on the development of renewable energy. [150587]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Support for renewable energy is an essential part of the Government’s climate change programme and energy policy. I will continue to work closely with my ministerial colleagues to increase the share of UK electricity generated from renewables.

Ian Lucas: In Germany, 12 per cent. of energy is produced from renewable sources. Will my hon. Friend look closely at the success of the renewable energy Act in Germany and its proposals for revenue support, and will he discuss with the Energy Minister whether a similar system could be adopted in the UK, so that we can use the big house-building programme to advance renewable energy in this country?

Mr. Woolas: The answers to the questions are yes and yes. My hon. Friend has a strong record of campaigning on this matter, and his constituency shows the economic as well as environmental benefits that renewables can bring. On 9 March, the Council of Europe agreed a binding target of having 20 per cent. of the EU’s overall energy consumption coming from renewables by 2020. We are working towards that, but a step change is coming, not least because of the new homes being built and the campaigning work being done by my hon. Friend and others.

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Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree that wind turbines are such a good idea that we should have hundreds, not to say thousands, of them offshore? That would allow us to take advantage of the higher wind velocity of some of the world’s stormiest seas, achieve greater economies of scale and implement our leading-edge offshore technology. On top of that, we would not have to look at them, which would be preferable to spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money on subsidising the despoiling of south Norfolk’s gentle landscape with industrial wind turbines, each of which is taller than Norwich cathedral.

Mr. Woolas: I acknowledge the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but it would be wrong of me to give blanket approval for all such schemes, given the arguments from the shipping industry and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. On the whole, however, he makes a convincing case: our nation is blessed with offshore wind resources, and it would be wrong not to take advantage of them. Indeed, the Government’s energy and environment policy is pushing in the direction that he outlines.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): May I also congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to what may be one of the most important positions in the Government? Has he had a chance to read the “Draft Options Paper on Renewable Targets” that has been circulated to Ministers? It deals with the 20 per cent. renewables target for the EU agreed at the spring Council, and speaks rather approvingly of what it describes as “scenario 1”. However, by 2020 that would result in the UK delivering only 9 per cent. of renewable energy across all sectors, at a cost of £4 billion. That is less than half of the 20 per cent. by 2020 that the 2006 White Paper suggested was the Government’s aspiration, and less than half of the EU target for that date. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Energy Minister at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and put some backbone into what used to be known as the Department of Trade and Industry?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. He said that mine was one of the most important jobs, but another word for it would be “challenging”. I represent Oldham, where rainfall is significant, so I am clearly in a lose-lose situation in that regard, but I will look at the points that my hon. Friend makes. The “Draft Options Paper On Renewable Targets” is an important document: the two Departments responsible for energy and the environment work very closely together on Government policy, and it is important that we speak with one voice.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Given the impact on food prices of the diversion of production to ethanol, and the damage to the environment that the expansion of crops for ethanol can have in the developing world, will the Government consider drawing up a balance sheet of the pluses and minuses of biofuels? That will enable us to know clearly whether they will save the planet or damage it and cause undue suffering to its poorest inhabitants.

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