6 Dec 2007 : Column 941

6 Dec 2007 : Column 941

House of Commons

Thursday 6 December 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—

Climate Change (Flooding)

1. Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to ensure that measures are put in place to deal with the likely effects of climate change, with particular reference to flooding. [171730]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Department has always encouraged operating authorities to take account of climate change in their planning of flood management measures. Our guidance was last updated in October 2006. It recommends a precautionary approach, but it is of course kept under review and will be further updated as the science develops.

Ms Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I want to remind the House of the terrible damage suffered by my constituents in the June floods. I contend that the scale of the flooding would have been significantly reduced if the upland catchment area adjacent to my constituency had been in a sufficient condition to hold the water as nature intended. Will he commit the Department to extending programmes designed to restore upland blanket bogs so that they can fulfil their proper role as an important part of our natural flood defence system?

Mr. Woolas: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know very well the part of the world to which she refers. I can go further than she asks. Together with the Environment Agency, as part of our “Making space for water” policy, we are researching the impact of moorland gripping—the name given to the draining of moorland peat bogs by digging ditches alongside them, as part of the wider land management agenda and consideration of its effect on flood risk. Early indications show that it can help, but not always. It is not quite as straightforward as that.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Minister will understand that resources are to be a key element in the delivery of the Government’s flood prevention policies. Taking into account Sir John Bourn’s critical appraisal
6 Dec 2007 : Column 942
of the Department’s financial management structure and the £270 million of internal savings that it will have to make, as well as the fact that its administrative budget is £50 million overspent and that there is a £300 million disallowance fine hanging over it, what guarantees can the Minister give the House that the money that is designed to increase expenditure on flood protection will be delivered over the next three years?

Mr. Woolas: I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and recognise the work that he does for the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I can give him those reassurances. Of course, we have to balance our books, as he would want us to. That is the proper thing to do. I can assure him that despite the need to balance our books we can deliver the increases in flood defence expenditure, both capital and revenue. Importantly—this is something else for which he has called—we will do so with a long-term framework, as that is critical to the protection of the public.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): In Germany, in four of the main Länder that are prone to flooding, local authorities have the powers to insist that planning applications will not even be looked at unless they contain flood protection provision. The Netherlands, a country with the highest level of flood protection anywhere, is now talking about surrendering 1 million acres of land back to the sea and having buildings that must be flood compatible. In each case, developers are made liable for the flood damage to which their buildings are prone. Is the Minister seeking to deliver any similar powers to local authorities in the forthcoming Planning Bill?

Mr. Woolas: I thank my hon. Friend for the question, and recognise and commend the work that he is doing. We have talked about that work and I look forward very much to its production. The answer to the question is that we have planning policy statement 25, which gives powers to the Environment Agency to look at plans. We are monitoring the local authorities’ performance in that area to see whether it is sufficient. Clearly, there is a lot more to do and we will bear in mind his point about the lessons from Germany and the Netherlands.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Minister also knows my constituency, having made a few sneaked visits to it. He knows that it contains many small villages with brooks and rivers. Some of them have drainage systems that are antiquated to say the least and some have suffered flooding in the past. Will he ensure that all the agencies, especially local authorities, which are responsible for cleaning up brooks and smaller rivers in rural areas, always allocate sufficient funds to proper cleaning so that unnecessary flooding does not happen when there is heavy rain?

Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do, indeed, know his beautiful constituency—I know Byrne and Sons well.

There are different operating authorities, depending on the circumstances. For example, they could be water companies, drainage boards, local authorities or the Environment Agency. As part of the Pitt review, we have asked Sir Michael to make recommendations on
6 Dec 2007 : Column 943
how we can better co-ordinate matters to ensure that the policies are carried out and that drains are maintained for flood protection and the benefit of biodiversity, which is, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, among the most beautiful in the United Kingdom.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Yesterday, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Lyon to examine the approach taken there to sustainable urban drainage. It was a useful visit—it is good to see the Chairman in his place this morning. We were impressed most by the comprehensiveness of the approach to tackling flooding, and the research money invested in finding preventive measures. Can we learn something from Lyon? What are the Government doing to ensure that we take the best from international examples?

Mr. Woolas: I look forward to reading the lessons from the Select Committee. My hon. Friend’s account shows the value of Select Committees’ work. Indeed, his point was made yesterday at the meeting of the all-party group on water, especially by representatives of UK Water Industry Research. Of course, we can learn lessons; that is part of the review. I remind the House that the Government were consulted on such matters before the floods, in case anyone suggests that there has been a knee-jerk reaction—that would be completely unfair and uncharacteristic.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): My constituency experience shows that, when flood protection systems are rightly put in place to protect our towns and cities, farmers consequently find that their land floods more frequently. Do the Government have any plans to introduce procedures whereby farmers are compensated for that to cover the obvious economic impact?

Mr. Woolas: We are, of course, familiar with that issue. The use of meadows and fields, low lying and upland, in a co-ordinated flood management programme is part of our strategy, and it raises difficult questions about economic impact. Our policy is to use such land as part of a co-ordinated plan. Such usage is normally, although not always—I know of some instances to the contrary in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—part of an agreed plan, where the land floods in any event.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Is not one of the most significant issues to arise from this summer’s flooding the inability of urban sewers to deal with flash flooding? What steps are being considered to deal with that problem, bearing in mind that the financial costs will be significant over a long period?

Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend, as ever, raises the most important point. There are two answers to the question. First, I am sure that the House agrees that we must not lose sight of the cause of the problem, which, in the long run, is climate change. That is why the Bali road map is so important for our country. Secondly, if the question was simply maintenance of drains, it would be straightforward; the task would be expensive and difficult, but straightforward. However, the capacity of drainage is also a problem. That is why the Government’s approach is to ensure, first, increased funding and, secondly, a long-term framework to effect a generational improvement in infrastructure.

6 Dec 2007 : Column 944

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): Given that millions of people are at risk from surface water drainage, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) pointed out, what progress has the Department made on its previously announced policy, in response to “Making space for water”, to put the Environment Agency in an overarching strategic role over all flood risks?

Considering the £3 billion of losses that we now know occurred during the summer as a result of the flooding, are Ministers confident that the increase in the budget that has been announced fulfils requirements? For example, are the costs of the repairs to flood defences being met from the new budget or will there be a separate allowance? Is it the case that flood defence projects—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I count about four supplementaries, and there should be only one.

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman raises some important points. We took the decision to delay the publication of our water strategy document until after Sir Michael had reported. That was a dilemma, I confess, but we thought it the right thing to do, so that we could take the lessons on board.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the estimated cost of the floods is £3 billion—I think that that is the domestic impact, not including the business impact. Again, that shows the need for climate change mitigation. As Sir Nicholas Stern reported, it is more expensive not to act than to act. Whether the level we chose is the right level, I do not know—my crystal ball is cloudy on that point. We do not know what the level of floods will be. However, I am aware that the £800 million that we allocated is even more than the figure of £750 million that Association of British Insurers suggested before the summer floods. However, all Governments would always want to spend more, because such decisions are difficult.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The whole House will sympathise with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) on the damage suffered in her constituency and with people up and down the country. The Minister has said that funding will be increased, but is he saying that it will be increased everywhere except Yorkshire and the Humber? In his reply to me of 20 November, he admitted that there had been a cut in construction industry contracts of more than £8 billion over a four-year period. When he decides to visit the internal drainage board area, will he take the opportunity to go to the Bentley Ings, which takes the water from Sheffield and was instrumental in this summer’s massive floods at Toll Bar? Those river defences are cracking. They have had emergency repairs, but they need full repairs. Does he accept that the issue is to do with physical infrastructure as well as water retention, and will he ensure that there is a commitment to Yorkshire and the Humber, as well as other parts of the country?

Mr. Woolas: I read the Yorkshire Post regularly—Saddleworth being in Yorkshire—and I saw the hon. Lady’s report. The serious answer to her question, however, is that she missed two crucial points in the parliamentary answer that she cited, which I signed off
6 Dec 2007 : Column 945
in the full knowledge that it would result in a press release to the Yorkshire Post. First, the amounts given refer to contracted expenditure, not direct expenditure by the Environment Agency. Secondly, she missed out the fact that the figure was a lot higher the year before and that over the years it has increased significantly. Expenditure did indeed contract in the years that she mentioned, but that is in the nature of engineering schemes of that sort. They cannot be turned on and off, and the budget has been increased.

Fish Discards

2. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): If he will make a statement on Government policy on fish discards [171731]

3. Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): If he will make a statement on Government policy on fish discards [171732]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): Discarding is a waste of a valuable natural resource, which has a detrimental impact upon the sustainability of fish stocks, and has significant social and economic consequences for the long-term viability of the fishing industry. We are working with the UK industry and with the Commission and other member states to tackle this effectively, reflecting the circumstances of individual fisheries.

Richard Ottaway: Although this will not endear me to the fishing industry, may I ask whether the Minister recognises that there is widespread concern among consumers in my constituency about the conservation of fish stocks? The latest revelation about fish discards has hardly helped the matter. Can he explain why the 2002 EU community action plan to end discarding by 2006 failed and why we did not start that initiative when we held the presidency in 2005?

Jonathan Shaw: There will always be discarding. The nature of our fisheries is mixed. Indeed, there are about 36 varieties of fish in the south-west, and fishermen discard those for which there is no market. We are working with the industry on this, and looking at trials of new nets that would allow certain species to escape. We have also introduced a number of measures, including, for example, the consideration of real-time closures, and we are working with the industry to ensure that it identifies juvenile stocks so that they can mature before they are caught. We are working with the Commission and looking at action plans. We want to reduce discarding. Consumers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and throughout the country want to see reductions in discards. Importantly, however, discards in the North sea are an unintended consequence of an increase in stocks. We must also not forget the conservation element involved. Our decisions are taken on the basis of science.

Miss Kirkbride: I was heartened by the Minister’s original answer that he takes discards seriously. He will be aware that European fish stocks are worryingly low. It is an obscenity that, of all the fish that are caught, 17 lb are thrown back for every 1 lb that is brought
6 Dec 2007 : Column 946
back into port. While I welcome some of the measures that he has just mentioned, will he assure the House that, if they prove effective, our European counterparts in France, Spain and Portugal will have to abide by them as well?

Jonathan Shaw: The hon. Lady has mentioned a number of member states that have overfished. The Commission has come down very hard on them and fined them. We welcome that, particularly in relation to the overfishing of blue fin tuna. The Commission takes discards seriously; the Commissioner has gone on record on this, and we are supporting him in this process. However, there will always be discards, because of the mixed nature of our fisheries. There are some fish for which there simply is not a market, and others will be below the minimum landing size. It is unacceptable, however, to discard high-value stocks such as cod—hon. Members will have seen pictures of such discarding on television—and we need to work harder to ensure that that does not happen. That involves a partnership between ourselves and the industry, and working with other member states.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): It is obvious that the present level of fish discards represents bad economics, but it is also very bad in an environmental sense, in that it is bad for the ecosystem of the sea. My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that many types of fish are not usable at the moment. That does not mean, however, that they can never be usable. Should not we make a real effort to educate our consumers to use the types of fish that, historically, have been rejected? That would make a major difference to the practice of discarding.

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is quite right, and we are now seeing a change in what the consumer is buying. We are grateful to the celebrity chefs who have promoted fish such as red gurnard, for example. It is caught in the south-west and was once discarded but is now fetching a high price. Indeed, an official told me this morning that he had had red gurnard on the Eurostar when he went to Brussels, so it is not just being served in specialist areas; it is also reaching the mainstream. People can now eat red gurnard as they pass through the glorious Kent countryside in my constituency.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister has said that there will always be discarding, but why should that be the case? Instead of being compelled to dump fish, should not fishermen be compelled to land everything that they catch? Should it not be an offence to discard undersized or out-of-quota fish? Such a land-all policy would give scientists a much better picture of what fish were being caught, and where. That would enable them to devise more accurate conservation and recovery plans. Is not that the way ahead?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to get a better picture of the total discards, and we have been working on that programme since 2002. It is important that we bring in measures to reduce the level of discards. All the European countries in the common fisheries policy have to discard fish, perhaps
6 Dec 2007 : Column 947
because they do not have quotas or because there is no market for some of the fish. What does one do with such fish? Either they are disposed of at sea, or an inshore infrastructure has to be put in place to dispose of them. This is a difficult issue, and we take it very seriously. As I have said, the Commissioner also takes it seriously. We need to improve, and that involves working with the industry and bringing fishermen and scientists together, as we have done under the fisheries science partnership over the past five years. I hope that we will see a continued reduction. It is important to remember that the discards are an unintended consequence of quotas. We are not taking as many fish out of the sea as we once did. In 1987, 187,000 tonnes of cod were taken out of the sea; this year, the amount was less than 20,000.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I assure the Minister and, indeed, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) that the outrage at the phenomenon of discards is nowhere felt more greatly than in the fishing industry and fishing communities themselves, because discards are a consequence of setting quotas that do not accurately reflect the mix of fish to be found in the sea? May I suggest that if the Minister and his ministerial colleagues want to see a real reduction in discards in the coming 12 months, the best thing he can do is win an increase in the cod quota for our white fish fleet and, more importantly, ensure that sufficient days at sea are available to that fleet to catch the quota that he gets?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that question. I have been to Peterhead and met fishermen there, so the hon. Gentleman’s point is understood. As to the cod increase, on the basis of the scientific evidence from both our scientists and those of the Commission, we have negotiated with Norway in the EU-Norway negotiations an 11 per cent. increase in cod total allowable catch. That is allowable within the cod recovery programme, and we hope for a reduction in the amount of discards of that valuable species. There is often a direct correlation between increasing the TAC and reducing days at sea, so we have agreed a UK position on bringing into play a more sophisticated approach, including real-time closures—a voluntary agreement operating in the Scottish industry—and looking at the development of new nets, which will be trialled in the North sea later next year.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the Fishermen’s Association Ltd has indicated that its members are throwing back into the sea six to seven-year-old cod, which were in existence before the cod recovery plan? Not only does that pollute the marine environment, but it is the most appalling waste. Does not that reinforce the special report of the European Court of Auditors, which said that the common fisheries policy was a complete failure?

Next Section Index Home Page