Previous Section Index Home Page

We welcome the recent easing of movement restrictions and the promise of the resumption of exports, but the latest export arrangements, which were announced yesterday, have been greeted with considerable concern in the south-east. It is unfortunate, as I think the Secretary of State would acknowledge, that the announcement of those changes was made by press release rather than by written statements to this House.
8 Nov 2007 : Column 363
I am sure he will reflect on that, and on his promise to keep the House fully informed of all changes as they occur.

What really irks people, however, is that nobody seems willing to take responsibility for the leak of foot and mouth virus from a Government-regulated laboratory. That reinforces the opinion that this Government are all too quick to blame and punish others for errors and omissions, but are never willing to take responsibility for their own mistakes. The fact is that if DEFRA had been a farm or a food business, it would have been closed down.

The foot and mouth issue is symptomatic of a wider problem faced by the Secretary of State in his new job. Nobody trusts his Department any longer. In the year since the last Gracious Speech, rural businesses have suffered continuing difficulties as a result of the ongoing shambles at the Rural Payments Agency. In March the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a report on the way in which the single farm payment system had been implemented. It described it variously as


On top of the financial losses to farmers, totalling some £225 million, the taxpayer has had to foot the bill for cost overruns of £50 million and is faced with the prospect of EU fines amounting to £348 million. You can see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, why I suggest that DEFRA is a failing Department. As I said, if it were a business it would have been closed down.

Then there is bovine tuberculosis. There have been endless consultations over many years, and still we have not seen any action. Perhaps it is a recognition of the Department’s inability to run things properly that it spends so much money employing other people to do things instead. I suppose that we should welcome the fact that at least one sector of the business community is doing very well indeed out of DEFRA: the Department has managed to spend £1.1 billion on consultants in the last five years. Last year alone, it spent £290 million. It is probably worth observing that that is 23 times more than it has offered in compensation to farmers for its own release of foot and mouth into the environment. So while people in rural communities have been struggling with mounting levels of bureaucracy, the consequences of the Government’s incompetence, declining services, closing post offices and the rest of it, DEFRA has been making consultants very rich indeed.

DEFRA has overall responsibility for the Government’s efforts to tackle climate change, and we look forward to debating the Climate Change Bill, but it already has an Office of Climate Change, which was set up in September 2006. A DEFRA news release stated:

The Secretary of State’s predecessor is quoted as saying:

8 Nov 2007 : Column 364

Can the Secretary of State tell us whether the OCC has co-ordinated with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform over the efforts that its Secretary of State has been making to undermine the Government’s stated support for the EU initiative to generate 20 per cent. of energy from renewable sources by 2020—the point admirably raised by the hon. Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen)? Was the OCC co-ordinating with DBERR over the total shambles that has overtaken the system of grant support for micro-power installations? That shambles has resulted in a collapse in the number of grant applications in the past year.

Has the OCC been co-ordinating with the Department for Communities and Local Government over its attempts to weaken the Merton rule—an admirable local initiative that requires all new developments over a certain size to source at least 10 per cent. of their energy from renewable supplies? Some 140 councils have been following the Merton example. Only last June, the Minister for Housing, whom I see is no longer present, was enthusiastic and waxed lyrical about it. She said that it was “essential that all authorities” should follow the example of Merton. However, after lobbying by the ever-unambitious house-building sector, whose instinct is always to rush straight to the lowest common denominator, the latest draft climate change planning policy statement discourages councils from making the Merton rule a requirement at all.

Has the OCC been co-ordinating with the Department for Transport over the terms of the renewable transport fuel obligation? We are all in favour of sustainable biofuels, but the absence of any sustainable criteria attached to that new obligation is a recipe for disaster. Of course, the market will go straight to the cheapest source, which is likely to be imports, grown at the expense of the rain forest. To say that that is counter-productive is a serious understatement.

Has the OCC been co-ordinating and liaising with the Department for Transport over proposed changes to the planning system specifically designed to make it easier to build airports and expand airport capacity, at a time when aviation emissions are the fastest growing source of climate change gases?

Has the OCC been co-ordinating with the Treasury over the management of the £20 million allocated in last year’s Budget to

If it has, it has not had much influence. The budget has been allocated elsewhere and has now been cut because of financial difficulties at DEFRA, with which we are sadly all too familiar.

The Prime Minister says that he is all about change, but this Government programme simply gives us more of the same. It provides more top-down, bossy Government, more quangos and more central plans that will not work. He has brought a change in one respect, but it is not for the better. Whereas his predecessor at least got fired up by the threat of climate change, people are increasingly saying that the present Prime Minister just does not get it. Whether the Climate Change Bill will emerge as a true catalyst for change remains to be seen. We hope that it will.

8 Nov 2007 : Column 365

DEFRA seems no longer to be trusted by other Departments, and seems to have long ago lost the trust of the people whom it is there to serve. Restoring that trust is the biggest challenge that we face, and the biggest change that is needed—and in order to do that, we need to change the Government.

5.46 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall begin by making the House aware of potentially serious flooding in coastal areas of eastern England in the next 48 days. A tidal surge of up to 3 m is making its way down the North sea and could coincide with peak high tides. There is a risk of flood defences being overtopped on the coast and in tidal rivers, especially in East Anglia, particularly on the Norfolk broads and the coast south of Great Yarmouth, including Lowestoft, and areas south of that as far as the coast of Kent. In the area as a whole, six severe flood warnings, five flood warnings and 15 flood watches are in place. Several flood warnings and flood watches are also in place in Yorkshire.

Police incident commands have been set up in the areas most likely to be affected, especially Norfolk and Suffolk, to co-ordinate the emergency response to any flooding, including evacuation if that is necessary. They are advising residents about the situation as it develops and will continue to do so, and they will co-ordinate the emergency response, including the deployment of the fire and rescue services if required. The Environment Agency will close the Thames barrier if that is needed. We are keeping a close watch on the situation, and I shall keep the House informed of any significant developments.

Although the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is not in his place, may I say that I am sure that the whole House will wish to express its profound concern at the news of the shooting of a police officer in Northern Ireland today, and to send its condolences to the family of the young man who died as a result of drugs?

One of the glories, if I may use that word, of the Gracious Speech debates is the wide range of contributions. I fear that I may not be able to do justice to all those that we have heard today—I counted 27 in all, so this is the 28th—but I shall do my best. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government spoke eloquently about the contrast, not least in her constituency, between how life was in the 1980s and 1990s for many of our constituents and how it is today because of the practical politics of this Government, which this Gracious Speech demonstrates once again.

That change was echoed in contributions from, among others, my hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). I know that she had a long-standing charity event in her constituency to attend, and she offered her apologies for not being here for the close of
8 Nov 2007 : Column 366
the debate. She made a passionate speech, in which she reminded us of why she was on the Front Bench for 18 years, when she urged us to find ways of raising aspiration, increasing self-respect and trying to tackle child poverty.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) made an entertaining, if not altogether illuminating, speech. It was entertaining because I learnt of his Independent Labour party ancestry—my respect for him is even higher than before—and heard about Nikita Khrushchev, tractors and Soviet agriculture. All that was missing was a reference to Gosplan—but no doubt that will come in time.

However, the hon. Gentleman’s speech was not very illuminating, because it was not clear what he was in favour of. He raised the issue of waste—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead)—but there was a contradiction in the hon. Gentleman’s argument. On the one hand, he alleged that the Government’s policy was to go around telling local authorities what to do. As my hon. Friend made clear, although we have quadrupled recycling in the past 10 years or so, we need to go a lot further. Local authorities approached us and asked for a power to run incentive schemes. We consulted and 78 local authorities responded in favour, with nine against. Precisely because there are debates about how to make such schemes work—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the issues of fly-tipping and large families—and various schemes are in use in the rest of Europe, the sensible thing to do is to run some pilot schemes, and that is what we propose.

The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) did not dwell much on the proposals in the Gracious Speech. He rightly went over the previous debate that we had on foot and mouth. On the Rural Payments Agency, he knows that we are in the process of sorting out the difficulties, and I express regret again to the House for the problems that those have created for farmers. However, a Department that is capable of producing the Climate Change Bill, which has been so widely welcomed as a framework, can hardly or fairly be described as a failing Department.

We have heard many thoughtful speeches, especially from my hon. Friends the Members for Copeland (Mr. Reed), for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Eltham (Clive Efford) and from the hon. Members for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). Several themes have emerged in the debate, including the question of how we deal with the competing pressure on our land and how we ensure that all local voices are heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made that point very forcefully.

The second theme was the impact of demographic change, migration and immigration on rural areas—the issue raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh)—and on our towns and cities, a point made by the hon. Members for Brent, East (Sarah Teather), for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). I thought that the hon. Lady made a good point when she drew attention, in an intervention, to the contribution that those who have made this country their home make to our economic life. To reflect on my constituency, where that is certainly the case, if all the people who had come to Britain in the past 30 years decided not to
8 Nov 2007 : Column 367
come to work tomorrow morning, many a lecture would go undelivered at the two universities, many a bus would not run, operations would be cancelled, people would not be cared for and business would, in part, come to a halt. It is also true, however, that sometimes people find it difficult to deal with the pace of change. We should not be afraid to debate that point, or other aspects of our more interdependent and rapidly changing world.

Many hon. Members raised the issue of housing, including my hon. Friends the Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), for Sheffield, Attercliffe and for Eltham. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham paid tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing for the work that she is doing. I have seen a change in demand for housing in my constituency in the eight and a half years that I have had the privilege of being its Member of Parliament. When I arrived, good social housing, in the form of bricks and mortar, was still being demolished in parts of the constituency, not because there was anything wrong with it—if it had been picked up and put down in one of the constituencies represented by some hon. Members present, it would have increased in value 10, 20 or 30-fold—but because it was in areas where nobody wanted to live. Those areas are now experiencing increased demand for housing. Somehow we have to bring together the reservations that communities sometimes have—which have been reflected in speeches today—about applications to build more houses, and the concerns that many families have about how their children will be able to afford to buy or rent somewhere to live. We have to connect those two issues better. One very good way to do that is to provide more housing.

I turn now to the marine Bill, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and for Hazel Grove, as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and, a moment ago, by the hon. Member for East Surrey. I welcome their support, and reassure the House that the Government remain firmly committed to the Bill. We are in the process of drafting it, after consulting on its shape, and aim to publish the draft in the new year. I look forward to the comments when that draft appears. We need to provide for our seas, and the wonders that lie beneath them, the sort of protection that we have provided for our land over the years, as the seas are just as subject to competing pressures on their use.

I am very pleased by the welcome expressed on all sides of the House for the Climate Change Bill. It was referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Bedford (Patrick Hall), for Southampton, Test, for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen) and for Brighton, Kemptown, as well as by the hon. Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and for Cambridge (David Howarth). I hope that Members who have looked at the Command Paper will accept that the Government have listened. I am grateful for all the comments, observations, recommendations and advice that we have received, including from the three Committees that have examined the Bill. All that will make a good Bill better.

As for the 60 per cent. target for emissions reduction, the truth is that the science is changing. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in September that we would ask the climate change
8 Nov 2007 : Column 368
committee to review the target. It seems to me that that is entirely the right approach, as we have heard various different figures even during this afternoon’s debate. If the target is to be tougher than 60 per cent., there needs to be a mechanism to determine what it should be. I can tell the hon. Member for Cambridge that giving that responsibility to the climate change committee demonstrates that the Government are willing to trust another organisation. Whatever the Committee has to say will have a very powerful impact on our debates.

On annual targets, I am willing to take the risk of being heckled and say that the argument against them has been won. My problem with milestones is that they sound a bit like targets by another name. In any event, all emissions in the five-year period count, and, as hon. Members will have seen from the Command Paper, there will be annual reporting of emissions. Moreover, the climate change committee will report on progress and the Government will have to respond. Both report and response will be laid before Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) asked about smart metering. We are very keen on that, and the more quickly it can come in, the better. The hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) asked whether reductions in one part of the UK that exceed the target count towards the total, and I can tell him that they do. All contributions from all sources in all parts of the country are gratefully received.

As for international aviation, I can tell the House that we are trying to bring it into the EU emissions trading scheme. That is the sensible place to start, and the Command Paper makes it clear that, once we have succeeded in that respect, the climate change committee will be asked to look at the methodology involved in including aviation emissions in the UK targets. It will also be asked to look at what the impact would be.

As many hon. Members have pointed out, the Climate Change Bill is a framework. It is radical and groundbreaking, and one of the non-governmental organisation representatives at the launch of the Command Paper described it as historic, but we need the appropriate mechanisms to make sure that what it proposes happens. That is why we put in place the climate change levy—something that, I am sorry to say, the main Opposition party did not support—and why the Bill will make a commitment to reducing carbon emissions. It is why there will be zero-carbon homes, an energy efficiency committee and an increase in vehicle excise duty, and it is also why planning permission for the London array will be sought and a feasibility study for the Severn barrage carried out.

The Government remain absolutely committed to doing more on renewables, and to the target that we signed up to, but the truth is that Britain accounts for only 2 per cent. of the world’s emissions. We must persuade other countries to play their part. Some countries have not yet accepted that they have any sort of part to play, let alone that they must cut emissions by 60 or 80 per cent., yet all of us in the Chamber know that we will not be able to deal with the problem of climate change unless all countries—including developing countries as they develop—play their part. Meanwhile, the climate is changing in a way that impacts on the poorest people in the world already. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak was right to
8 Nov 2007 : Column 369
refer to the campaign to make poverty history. Now we need a campaign to make climate change history, too.

The debate has shown that the Government’s job is to listen as well as to lead. That is true whether we are acting on climate change, regenerating local communities, or trying to make sure that people have decent homes to live in or that we take the right decisions about how we deal with the pressures on our precious and beautiful land. The measures put forward in the Gracious Speech show that the Government have listened, and that we will continue to lead.

Debate adjourned.— [Mr. Watson.]

Debate to be resumed on Monday 12 November.

Next Section Index Home Page