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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman and I represent parts of a region that has the second highest risk of flooding in the country. The Minister for the Environment answered a written question informing me that our region has had its
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flood defence budget cut—I am talking about the contractual outreach defences, presumably in respect of the engineering works—by a third during a four year period in which the overall funding for England in this regard has trebled. Why are we not funding the area in which the Secretary of State and I have a vested interest and which is at the second highest risk of flooding? Why have his Government cut the funding by a third?

Hilary Benn: With respect, the Government have not cut —[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady would let me answer the question, I would tell her that the total funding of flood defence has risen from £300 million a decade ago to £600 million —[Interruption.] That is the point. In any one year in any one region, big schemes will be in the process of being completed and there will large spending. Such schemes will come to an end, and there will inevitably be an ebb and flow in the expenditure pattern region by region. What really matters is whether the Environment Agency has more resources. It will receive an increase—some of it will go to local authorities—in flood defence spending from £600 million to £800 million in 2010-11, precisely because we have recognised the need for that greater investment. It will mean that the Environment Agency has more money to spend on flood defence and it is also why we have tightened the planning policy guidance and given the Environment Agency the right to be consulted about planning applications.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I represent Sedgemore and the Levels. I do not know whether the Secretary of State is aware that the flood defence schemes there are being cut to a large extent and the money is being moved north. That perturbs us. The Environment Agency has a building in Bridgwater, but will be moving to Bristol, and we find that unacceptable. Will he explain what will be put in its place?

Hilary Benn: On the first point, we have just heard two contributions that offer a different view on which way the money is going. The fact is that there needs to be a system for prioritising flood defence investment. Rightly and properly we have given that responsibility to the Environment Agency. It has a system for scoring and assessing potential schemes. The best thing that we can do to assist it in that process is to ensure that it has more money to spend on flood defence, which is exactly what we have done over the past 10 years and what we will do over the next two years. Decisions about where the Environment Agency puts its head offices are a matter for the agency itself.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in celebrating the fact that Environment Agency funding for its fisheries work has risen from £30 million to £32 million, but of course most of that is due to the increase in rod licence sales. He will be aware that grant in aid from DEFRA has fallen from £6.3 million in 2005-06 to £5.9 million this year. Will he give Britain’s 3 million anglers a guarantee that the meagre amount of grant in aid will be protected when DEFRA grapples with the real budgetary problems that it has?

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Hilary Benn: It is tempting to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks, but as no final decisions about the budget for the first of the comprehensive spending review years have been taken, I hope that he will forgive me for resisting the temptation that he has put my way. I know that he is a strong friend of the angling community and is recognised as such.

Mr. Todd: May I urge my right hon. Friend to use a mechanism for making the increased flood defence resources go further? Many counties, including mine, are preparing aggregates plans. Aggregates are drawn from floodplains, by and large. Could it not be made clear that aggregates businesses seeking new extraction should be compelled to contribute to flood defences in the neighbouring areas? Such an approach would be welcomed by many communities in my constituency.

Hilary Benn: I shall reflect on the point that my hon. Friend has made.

On DEFRA’s budget and expenditure on what the hon. Member for East Surrey referred to as consultancy, may I, for the better information of the House, tell him a little about what the money is spent on? It is spent on buying services and employing outside experts, for example, the “Act on CO2” campaign—the hon. Gentleman may have seen the adverts—and the development of the carbon calculator, which has been used by 600,000 people. Those things are not quite what people would expect to be described by the word “consultancy”.

In this regard, I should also mention work on developing carbon markets and the EU emissions trading scheme; and research looking into the causes and consequences of climate change, including funding the world-renowned Hadley Centre—does he object to the funding of the Hadley Centre out of DEFRA’s budget? The money is also spent on research into animal health, including work on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot and mouth, bluetongue and avian flu. Does he object to the expenditure of money on such things? The money is also spent on the running of the Department’s IT system, in partnership with IBM. Those are perfectly proper and legitimate expenditures of money to ensure that DEFRA is able to do its job. As the House will be aware, DEFRA’s budget will rise from £3.5 billion to just under £4 billion by the end of the spending review period, and I shall say a little about how that will be spent.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Would the Secretary of State accept that there is something a little odd about spending a large additional amount on flood defences and then building many houses on floodplains, thus requiring further expenditure on flood defences?

Hilary Benn: The question is whether we have the right guidance for the planning authorities, and that is why we tightened the planning guidance and then tightened it again—the most recent form is PPS25. Secondly, we have ensured that the Environment Agency, which is the expert, has to be consulted on applications. Thirdly, Ministers have the right to call applications in. We are sitting on a floodplain as we have this debate, and 2 million homes are built on a
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floodplain. The question is whether appropriate steps can be taken to defend those properties. Ultimately, the answer lies with the planning authorities that choose to give or deny permission and the framework that we have put in place is clear about their responsibilities.

DEFRA does have extra resources and we are investing them in flood defences. Together with the Department for International Development, we will invest in the international environmental transformation fund, aimed at protecting the environment and the rain forest in the developing world.

The extra resources will also help to pay for the launch of the green homes service, which will help people improve the energy efficiency of their homes, and build on the 1.4 million households that have received money and other support since June 2000 to improve energy efficiency.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: While the Secretary of State is on the subject of spending money, can he tell us how much he is spending on early retirement for DEFRA staff?

Hilary Benn: I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the precise figure, because I would not want to get it wrong. We have a headcount target to meet, and we are determined to do so. I am determined that the budget will be managed properly and effectively, and a package is available across the civil service to enable us to reach those targets.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned the budget for spending on animal health and, in particular, foot and mouth disease viruses. Can he assure the House that there were no instructions from DEFRA for the development of a foot and mouth vaccine for the 1967 virus prior to the outbreak of the disease in August?

Hilary Benn: I am afraid that I do not understand the question—

Mr. Dunne: Did he order a vaccine for the 1967 virus before the outbreak emerged in August?

Hilary Benn: The answer has to be no, because the 1967 virus was not present in the country. We only put contingency plans in place to vaccinate should it prove necessary once the outbreak was confirmed. In the end, we decided not to vaccinate, because the triggers that we had set in the contingency plan were not met.

The support that we give to the Carbon Trust enables it to secure £2 of private sector capital for every £1 of public investment. The hon. Member for East Surrey also did not mention our work through the energy efficiency commitment—soon to be the carbon emissions reduction target—which will mean that £800 million will have been invested in improving the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock by 2008. Our deal with retailers and energy suppliers will see Victorian-technology light bulbs gone from our shelves by 2011. We are the only country to be supporting post-combustion capture on a coal-fired power station. That is a really important pilot project, because the rate at which China is building coal-fired power stations
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means that we need to demonstrate the technology and show that it can be fitted after the event. We now have cleaner rivers and beaches, purer water to drink, healthier air to breathe, and a countryside that all of us are free to enjoy—as a result of the decisions that this Government have taken.

We have established in the New Forest the first national park for nearly 50 years. There has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of sites of special scientific interest in a favourable or recovering condition. We have passed the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We have reduced BSE incidence from 37,000 cases a year in 1992 to about 60 in 2007. We have saved 28 million tonnes of carbon through the climate change levy, which was opposed by the Conservatives. We have quadrupled household recycling and placed 4 million hectares of farmland under environmental stewardship schemes, with the support of farmers. We much appreciate the contribution that they are making.

The marine Bill will provide protection for the wonders of our seas. We will legislate so that each of us has, for the first time in our history, the right to walk around our coastline. In eight years’ time, Britain will generate at least 15 per cent. of our electricity from renewables; nine years from now, every single new house built will be zero carbon; and the London array will generate enough electricity from wind power to supply one in four homes in Greater London. What is the Conservatives’ position on wind farms these days? Are they in favour or against? My Department is helping to change Britain and the world for the better. with a clear sense of direction and a clear sense of purpose.

Does the hon. Member for East Surrey agree that the most important issue facing humanity today is climate change, or does he agree with one of his colleagues who says that climate change is the “great global warming swindle”? The Conservatives’ confusion may explain why their manifesto at the last election had just three sentences on the subject and said nothing about a target or reducing CO2 emissions, whereas our manifesto mentioned a cut of at least 60 per cent. The House will also have noted the speech that the Prime Minister made recently.

The Government have helped to lead the world on climate change. We have broken the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. We were the first country to try out carbon emissions trading; the first to put climate change at the heart of our G8 presidency; and the first to call a debate on climate change in the UN Security Council, because it is a security as well as an environmental problem. Now we are the first country in the world to put forward a legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

Those proposals have received support from across the spectrum. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth called it

David Nussbaum of WWF said that it could be

The CBI called it “a big step forward”.

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Next week, I will be in Bali, with others, to try to get agreement to start negotiations on a new global deal on climate change. That will be European leadership, with Britain in the vanguard. DEFRA staff will work as lead negotiators for the whole of the European Union—recognised for their skill and expertise—and make their contribution.

I believe powerfully in the capacity of DEFRA and in the power of politics to make a difference to our world. I make a genuine offer to the hon. Gentleman. I would welcome an Opposition who set out ideas for how we could do things differently and better. When he has a good argument, I will listen and take it on board if it is better than mine. In the mean time, I hope that he will acknowledge on reflection that he did not paint a fair picture of DEFRA and its achievements. I commend the amendment to the House, and confirm that we intend to get on with the job in hand—preventing dangerous climate change, adapting to the change that is coming and protecting our natural environment, so that we can pass on to the next generation a better world.

8.8 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Unlike the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), I do not live in a world of cartoon goodies and baddies. DEFRA’s performance is good in parts, but it leaves much to be desired in others. DEFRA’s response to the summer floods was a case in point.

In Gloucestershire at least, emergency response systems worked well and Gold Command, under the direction of our chief constable, Tim Brain, proved an effective leadership team. I have to declare a personal interest as my wife, Dr. Shona Arora, was also a member of Gold Command. That meant that my contribution that week was often babysitting, and she felt that that accurately reflected the relative usefulness of doctors and politicians in a crisis.

As many hon. Members have said many times, emergency services, local authorities, the NHS, charities, volunteers, local communities and friends and neighbours all responded brilliantly. Liaison with Ministers seemed to be good, and I appreciated the personal interest in my constituency taken by the Secretary of State. Significant extra funds were made available quickly through the flood recovery grant, although that highlighted the weakness of the existing Bellwin scheme, which clearly was not up to the job. It is to the credit of Ministers that they realised that quickly. I also note that support may be forthcoming from the much-maligned European Union. If moneys are made available from the European solidarity fund, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in welcoming that. Perhaps Ministers will update the House on the progress of that application.

However, the bigger picture on flood defence still poses some very difficult questions. Many of my constituents, and many businesses in my constituency, are still counting the cost of the floods. I am worried that emergency response might be much more difficult, and people’s tolerance much lower, if flooding hits again on cold, dark winter nights. Climate change makes that much more likely, and planning permissions
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are still outstanding for areas such as the open land at Leckhampton in my constituency, which flooded in July.

The overall budget for flood defence is therefore critical, as it is what will prevent insurance premiums from spiralling and house prices from dropping. Indeed, it will prevent some new homes from being potentially uninsurable or even unsaleable. In Cheltenham, we already have a brand new flood defence scheme worth £23 million. June and July might have been much worse without it, but the Environment Agency staff who visited several sites in Cheltenham with me freely admit that more work needs to be done. What of the existing backlog of flood defence schemes? Will the Minister say how long it will take the Environment Agency to clear it, at the current rate of progress? The rumour is that it will take 10 years, which is a very worrying prospect. How many schemes have been put back by the Government’s decision last year to cut flood defence spending by £14 million?

Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman has pointed out that a lot of work remains to be done. Does he believe that all the money for flood defences must come from taxation, or should we find another source?

Martin Horwood: I believe that it would add insult to injury if all the money came from water bills, and I should be very concerned about that. I hope that the funds will come from the reprioritisation of broader Government spending. Perhaps we could save money in other sectors of government if we invaded fewer countries.

The Association of British Insurers has been pretty clear about what needs to be done. As well as backing the Liberal Democrat policy that we should clear up the tangle of responsibilities surrounding flood prevention, it has backed our call to increase spending faster. In October, it said:

Yet the Government are not really being so generous, even with their existing spending on floods. The overspend on flooding this year, along with unexpected spending on foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and avian flu, is going to mean budget cuts elsewhere in DEFRA. The Brown doctrine on departmental funds appears to be that a Department that gets hit by an unexpected overspend cannot expect money to be transferred from elsewhere in government.

That is a more important point than one put forward by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who characterised the approach as one of pure financial mismanagement. The Prime Minister’s callous approach brought the NHS into crisis last year, and now it seems to be DEFRA’s turn. Estimates of the amount likely to be cut from other programmes range up to £300 million, as we have already heard. Will the Minister share with us where those cuts are likely to be
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made? Where is the support going to be cut for action on climate change, the protection of our natural environment, or support for our hard pressed farmers? Will Natural England’s vital conservation work be reduced? It is already being asked by the Government to repay the £16 million spent on setting up the new agency structure, which was decided by the Government. Will the Minister at least confirm that the Environment Agency’s £51 million budget for new conservation work will be protected, or will the axe fall on recycling and action against waste?

I want to seize this opportunity to praise the Government’s initiative on the business resource efficiency and waste—BREW—programme, and applaud the real practical action against climate change being taken by Envirowise, the waste resources action programme, the Carbon Trust and the lesser known but equally impressive national industrial symbiosis programme. That alone has eliminated 300,000 tonnes of hazardous waste, prevented the use of 5 million tonnes of virgin material and saved 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Perhaps the Minister will make it clear that their budgets are all safe.

Is it even clear that the promised increases in flood defence spending will be protected? Or perhaps, and most astonishingly of all, is it animal disease control that will suffer? I find it quite breathtaking that DEFRA has requested local authorities to return funds for animal disease control—even in Surrey, where councils have been hit by both avian flu and bluetongue. I was surprised that the hon. Member for East Surrey did not find time to mention that. Devon county council has said that the cuts mean five of its eight posts may have to go as a result, and that

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