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It is not just rural areas that have been let down. This is the Department charged with leading the way on efforts to combat climate change. Tellingly, last year it quietly dropped its long-standing manifesto commitment to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. In fact
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carbon emissions have risen since 1997, and fell last year by only 0.1 per cent. Plans to encourage microgeneration in homes and offices have been half-hearted, with reduced grants— [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) blaming another Department?

Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman should ask the leader of his party about the generation of wind.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must hear the correct parliamentary language in interventions.

Mr. Ainsworth: I take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention at face value, and assure him that the Leader of the Opposition will have a great deal to say on that very subject in a few days’ time.

Since DEFRA came into being with a remit to reduce household waste, the amount of household waste has risen by 9 per cent., and the commitment to require 2.5 per cent. of United Kingdom transport fuels to come from biofuels by 2008 has been made without the ensuring of safeguards for sustainable sourcing of fuel crops. In the aftermath of the summer floods, serious questions remain. The Government have pressed ahead with building on flood plains contrary to the advice of the Environment Agency, and among a variety—a plethora—of different agencies there are no clear lines of responsibility for surface water flooding.

On the question of climate change, it is vital that DEFRA is respected across Whitehall; but if it cannot manage its own affairs, why should anyone take it seriously? Only the other day we learned that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was seeking to water down the United Kingdom’s commitment to increasing the amount of our energy coming from renewable sources. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister himself delivered what was billed as a major speech on climate change; three days later the Department for Transport announced a third runway at Heathrow. There is no joined-up thinking at all.

Given the scale, complexity and urgency of the challenges being faced across rural communities and in the wider environment, now more than ever DEFRA needs to be up to the job. Instead, we have a Department that has presided over rising carbon dioxide emissions, increasing levels of household waste and plummeting farm incomes; a Department committed to raising green taxation as a percentage of total taxation, which has seen green taxes fall as a percentage of total taxation to the lowest level for 13 years; a Department which cuts the budgets of local animal health teams when they have rarely been in such demand, because it has lost track of how much money it originally allocated; a Department that runs up a projected overspend on administration of £50 million in only six months; a Department whose disastrous handling of farm payments could land the taxpayer with an EU fine of £400 million; and a Department whose negligent approach to biosecurity was responsible for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease that cost the farming industry and taxpayers further millions.

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Ensuring the future of British farming, supporting the stewardship of our beautiful landscapes and providing a sustainable future for our children are vital tasks. We are in danger of paying a very heavy price for entrusting them to a Department that has become a byword for incompetence.

7.38 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

Let me tell the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and his hon. Friends that I genuinely welcome the opportunity he has given the Government to tell the House about DEFRA’s work, although it is pretty obvious to me from the speech we just heard that he is unaware of much of what DEFRA is doing. I can tell him, for instance, that the permanent secretary is not part-time—but first I invite the House to join me in congratulating DEFRA’s chief scientist Bob Watson and the other scientists at DEFRA on the contribution that they made to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been recognised in the award of this year’s Nobel peace prize. It is not often that a Secretary of State is able to stand at the Dispatch Box and congratulate civil servants with whom he has the privilege of working on such recognition for, as the Norwegian Nobel committee stated,

If we are going to talk about the Department and its staff—and I shall have more to say on this subject—we should recognise achievements, and that is quite an achievement.

I want to begin on a matter on which I can agree with the hon. Gentleman: when things go wrong we must be honest about that and put them right. I fully accept that in 2006 there were severe problems with single farm payments to farmers. That caused deep and genuine hardship across the country and I am very sorry for what happened. However, Departments should also be judged on what they do to try to deal with problems and, as the House knows, this year the Rural Payments Agency has managed to pay 98 per cent. of payments for the second scheme year before the end of the payment window of 30 June, exceeding
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the target we set as part of the recovery programme, and I expect performance to continue to improve—indeed, I am determined that it will do so.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that Scotland and Wales have already started making payments for this year, and that there will not be any payments to English farmers until at least the spring?

Hilary Benn: I can indeed confirm that that is my understanding of what Scotland and Wales are doing, but I would just ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on what I said: I am determined that there should be continued improvements, and I intend to report to the House as and when those improvements are made. Before the hon. Gentleman waxes too lyrical, I would just like to point out that the Conservatives in their James review of 2004 proposed cutting £210 million from the RPA operating budget, and introducing a levy on subsidies paid—I am not entirely sure whether that would have been allowed. Heaven forbid that the Government might have accepted the advice at the time. For some reason, that was not mentioned in the opening speech from the Opposition.

I also agree that this summer has been one of real and severe hardship for the livestock industry, and the House has rightly debated foot and mouth and bluetongue, and there has also been the recent avian flu problem. On foot and mouth, there were problems with the Pirbright system and we have put them right: in the recent Merial incident, the system contained the failure. We will now see what further action is needed in the light of what happened, including more specific licence conditions.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his counterpart in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? I met the Tourism Alliance this morning, and it said that DEFRA is not doing enough to support tourism, particularly in rural areas. It needs more financial support following incidents such as foot and mouth and the flooding. I would be very interested to know what the Government are doing and what discussions the Secretary of State has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Hilary Benn: I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and he and other Ministers have been supporting the tourism industry during the outbreak. One of the most important messages that we were able to send out—as a House, indeed—during the outbreak was that the countryside was open for business, unlike what had happened previously.

Handling a disease outbreak is not easy, but the approach we have taken—which has been based on acting on a detailed contingency plan, using the best scientific advice and drawing upon the professionalism of the Animal Health agency—has been recognised to work. That is why The Guardian was able to say in a leader:

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Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, with whom we have worked so closely along with others in the industry to deal with the outbreak, said that

Let us contrast that with what the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey, wrote in The Daily Telegraph in September about DEFRA and Animal Health staff. He is a decent man, but he accused them of the

I have met many of those people, and I think we should acknowledge that it was their skill, their professionalism, their care and their commitment that was responsible for the praise they have received, and I hope the hon. Gentleman is now embarrassed by what he wrote.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I am not remotely embarrassed, because although I did not attribute those remarks in that article, they were a direct quote from a farmer I met in the affected area in Surrey.

Hilary Benn: Well, it is a bit late in the day for the hon. Gentleman now to say he was quoting somebody else, but he did not attribute it to somebody else and he must stand by those words. I genuinely regret that he passed on—if this is what he is now saying he did—a quote from a third party about staff. I have nothing but admiration for the colleagues—I call them colleagues—with whom I worked, along with my fellow Ministers, in dealing with this outbreak. Even though the hon. Gentleman has his views about how the outbreak occurred, which we have debated at length, I do not think it is acceptable to attack the reputation of hard-working professional civil servants for the job that they have done.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): On bluetongue, has the Secretary of State given consideration to the French method of using pre-movement testing as a means of controlling the disease, because drawing a line on the map has an unfair—a differential—effect on those inside the zone, and midges will not take a great deal of cognisance of a line on the map?

Hilary Benn: I am well aware of that point, and let me explain what I have said to the industry. I think the whole House will recognise that we have worked closely with representatives of the industry in dealing with all three of the outbreaks, and at present there is a view in the group we have been talking to that we should keep the lines where they are. The winter is now almost upon us, and that will reduce the midge activity. We are all waiting for the vaccine to arrive, and if there comes a point in the new year where the balance of advantage might tip the other way, I will listen very carefully to the arguments put, because I accept the point the hon. Gentleman makes: it is a balance of argument. I must also say that my experience of dealing with these
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disease outbreaks reinforces in me the view that we should in future share the responsibility for taking those decisions much more closely with the farming community, and that includes sharing the costs—which Iain Anderson recommended after the 2001 outbreak.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will have been as surprised as I was at the brevity of the Opposition opening speech, which contained no policy whatever—and, as we are now hearing, it contained very little in the way of fact, even. At the last general election, the Opposition stood on a policy of cuts in public spending of between £20 billion and £30 billion. He has mentioned the RPA, but what effect would that policy have had on environmental spending?

Hilary Benn: It would have had a very detrimental effect. I share my hon. Friend’s puzzlement at the brevity of the Opposition opening speech, and I apologise in advance to the House if I detain Members for a little longer than that as I have quite a bit to say about what DEFRA has done and achieved.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): Does the Secretary of State think it was a good idea to announce, as he did a couple of weeks ago, that the farming industry—the livestock sector—which is reeling under the costs of these various epidemics, should start to pay a levy towards animal health? I can tell him that that went down like a lead balloon in my constituency.

Hilary Benn: I recognise that point, and I thought long and hard about this issue. There is always an argument for why we should not pick up a conversation about how the system needs to change. We could take the view, “Well, let’s put it off until later.” Iain Anderson recommended in 2001 that we should go down this road, and it is my experience based on having dealt with these outbreaks that has turned cost and responsibility from a policy issue that was on a long list of things that I had to deal with when I arrived in this job in June to something I can now see needs to change. I think the farming industry ought to play a much bigger role in deciding what controls are put in place and how they are dealt with, as ultimately it is the farming industry that has the greatest incentive to get those decisions right. Governments of whatever party do not always know what is best, and I want to restart the conversations we have already been having about how we can design a better system for the future in which responsibility for decision making is shared, which is what the farming community wants. In the process, discussion must also take place about how the cost will be shared.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State regard that principle as also applying to bovine TB? Will he undertake to give the farming community a real say on the decision about whether the culling of badgers should be a policy instrument?

Hilary Benn: As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, this is an extremely difficult and complex issue, where there is no easy solution. If there were one, we would not be 10 years on from the establishment of the
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scientific study. A number of considerations must be taken into account, such as the effectiveness of culling as an approach. There are wider policy implications to the culling of badgers. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) will let me answer the question. Society must weigh up the balance between the farming community’s interest in protecting animals from bovine TB and the welfare of the badger populations—the badger is, of course, a protected species. I shall shortly start a series of meetings to discuss with all involved how we can find a way forward.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has drawn attention to the partnership models between farmers and his Department. May I point to the example of the National Fallen Stock Company, which is led by my constituent, Michael Seals, as a model for how working together with farmers, establishing practices and buying services efficiently could be used more effectively by his Department? That model could also be applied in other ways to save some of his resources.

Hilary Benn: I readily acknowledge what my hon. Friend has to say about the operation of the National Fallen Stock Company. Its experience is an example that we should reflect upon as we try to take these matters forward.

The second major challenge that we have had to face this summer was the exceptional rainfall and the flooding in June and July, which the hon. Member for East Surrey mentioned. It was the wettest June on record, and I want to pay tribute to the efforts of all the people who worked so hard and with such calm purpose in dealing with the floods.

As a result of the increased expenditure on flood defence, new defences in Burton on Trent prevented about 7,300 properties from being flooded. In Malton in North Yorkshire, defences completed in 2003 prevented 300 properties from being flooded. On 9 November, we faced the biggest tidal surge to come down the east coast since the great storm of 1953, which claimed more than 300 lives in the UK and, I believe, about 2,000 lives in Holland. The flood defences, in combination with the way in which the surge and the high tides did not precisely coincide, helped to save thousands of homes, particularly in Great Yarmouth. As a result of the contingency plans that had been put in place, we ensured that people were warned in advance, that rest centres were set up and that Members of the House were kept informed. I think that the House will recognise that those who could have been affected gave genuine praise for the efficiency and effectiveness of our operation, which once again showed the benefits of the planning that we have put in place. May I also say that because of this summer’s exceptional rainfall many homes did flood, and Sir Michael Pitt is looking at the lessons that we could learn?

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