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Jonathan Shaw: I have just said that we are going to have an increase—a modest increase of 11 per cent., based on the science—in the amount of cod that we can catch, because the cod stocks have recovered. We are all familiar with stories from Newfoundland about fishermen going out to sea but finding that there were no fish left. We must have in place a regime, based on
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the scientific evidence, ensuring that we have fish today and fish tomorrow, both for us to consume and for the industry. We are working hard with the Commission and in partnership with the industry to ensure that stocks are conserved and available for tomorrow. We are in the common fisheries policy and we are members of the European Union, and in order to improve the common fisheries policy, we have to be part of the discussions and part of the argument, as this country always is, whether on the common fisheries policy or the common agricultural policy.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Minister has led the House to believe that he is against discarding. He has used words such as “waste”, “detrimental” and others. In DEFRA’s 20-year plan, taking us to 2027, for marine fisheries—and, indeed, in the consultation response document—it is made perfectly clear that DEFRA has no intention to stop discarding. Despite his warm words, it looks like it is going to be a policy under this Government—the watchword for incompetence—for the next 20 years. When is the Minister going to stop discarding and stop leading people to believe that it can be stopped? When he uses words such as “immoral” and “heartbreaking” in The Daily Telegraph, is he talking about his Department or himself?

Jonathan Shaw: As I told the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride), we will always have discards because we have a mixed fishery. Does the hon. Gentleman understand that? Also, there is no market for some fish, so what do the fishermen do with it? They discard it. What I said was that having to throw away valuable stocks such as cod was immoral, and that we needed to find better answers.

It is not the case that we are against all discarding. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, if a fish is below the minimum landing size it must be discarded. In mixed fisheries they all swim together, so there will always be discards. In the case of valuable stocks such as cod we must find new ways of reducing the number of discards, such as real-time closures and better gear. That is what I said in The Daily Telegraph, and the hon. Gentleman knows it.

Food Producers

5. Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues and the competition authorities on the role of food producers in the grocery supply chain. [171734]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): The hon. Gentleman will know that the Competition Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the groceries market. My colleague Lord Rooker wrote to the Commission when it opened the inquiry, listing some questions that he thought should be considered, and his letter has been published on the Competition Commission website. However, in line with the general policy of Government, neither I nor other DEFRA Ministers have had discussions about the inquiry with Cabinet members, or indeed with the competition authorities.

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Andrew George: According to the provisional findings of the Competition Commission, published at the end of October, grocery retailers are transferring

Moreover, there is already a concentration in the grocery sector whereby four major retailers control 80 per cent. of the market. That concentration is likely to increase, and the trend among supermarkets to move from effective use to unacceptable abuse of their power is therefore likely to increase as well. Does the Minister not accept that this is a matter for her Department, which should get a grip on it, that she should start discussing it with her colleagues in the Cabinet, and that the Department should prepare plans to ensure that suppliers are properly protected in the grocery supply chain?

Joan Ruddock: I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I know that he has taken a keen interest in these matters, not least in his constituency. However, I am sorry to say that it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this stage, when the Competition Commission has published only its preliminary findings and when there is an opportunity for those who participated in the inquiry to comment on their initial findings. I understand that the commission will report early in the new year, and when it has done so Ministers will give an appropriate response if recommendations are made to the Government.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that part of the major problem we face is the power of the big four squeezing down farm gate prices and putting farmers out of business. That kind of competition needs to be examined closely, as should the power of supermarkets that hold land and prevent other companies from using sites because they will not sell them.

Joan Ruddock: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I can tell him that the Competition Commission has concluded that some retailer landholdings and practices such as restrictive covenants may indeed hinder competition.

The commission says that a variety of means could be applied, and we will consider them at the appropriate time. It suggests that grocery retailers might divest themselves of their landholdings; that they could be prohibited from using restrictive covenants that reduce the likelihood of land being used by a competitor; that changes could be made to the planning system that would provide more opportunities for developments on the edge of town centres while maintaining constraints on out-of-town developments; and that it might be possible to introduce a competition test allowing the local position of grocery retailers to be considered in the making of planning decisions. Those are all important initial findings, and as I said, we will take them into account if and when recommendations are made to the Government.

Sea Defences

6. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What steps he plans to take to strengthen the sea defences at Holland-on-Sea and Clacton-on-Sea. [171735]

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The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Tendring district council has developed proposals for investment in coastal defences. Those are being considered by the Environment Agency.

Mr. Carswell: It is likely that unless action is taken the sea wall at Holland-on-Sea will soon be lost. If that happens, it will put the roadway and housing at risk. In view of that, will the Minister make a commitment now to begin phase one of the work that we had been promised back in 2003?

Mr. Woolas: I have had a look at this specific case in response to the hon. Gentleman’s correspondence on behalf of his constituents. A grant of £400,000 was given in 2004 for the collapsed sea wall at Holland-on-Sea. The council itself spends some £550,000 per year recurrently on defences. It is not the case that an application was granted and then withdrawn; it is the case that the application that was subsequently submitted did not pass the new rules that had by then been put in place. However, as I have said, the Environment Agency is now looking at the future requirements in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Sustainable Farming

8. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What steps the Government have taken to encourage the farming industry to adopt sustainable farming practices. [171737]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Government want farming to thrive while reducing its environmental footprint. We are supporting that in a number of ways, including through cross-compliance linked to common agricultural policy payments and the rural development programme for England 2007-13, which will invest £3.9 billion in farming and rural areas. I am pleased to announce that this programme has now been approved by the European Union and we will proceed to full implementation as soon as possible.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he be more specific? What is he doing to make organic food both more available and cheaper for the consumer?

Hilary Benn: The organic industry is growing extremely fast. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have our own action plan that aims to encourage the industry to ensure that by 2010 the share of the organic market coming from home-grown produce is equivalent to the share of the overall market, which is about 70 per cent. We are trying to encourage locally produced food and better information for consumers. Sales through vegetable boxes, farmers’ markets and mail order increased by 9 per cent. last year, and it is estimated that there are 550 farmers’ markets with a turnover of £220 million. It is clear, therefore, that consumers have an increasing appetite for organic produce.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): But does the Secretary of State agree that one way to help British farmers—and Shropshire farmers in particular—is to
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have more transparently clear labelling not of where farm products were packaged, but of where they were sourced?

Hilary Benn: I agree. I am keen to pursue the fundamental principle that when we as consumers choose to purchase products, we have decent information about their origin. I am very happy to look at any proposals on that score.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I ask the Secretary of State to look at the sustainability of livestock markets? Frome market—one of the biggest in the south of England—is within yards of the Wiltshire border. Wiltshire is in the bluetongue surveillance zone; Somerset is not. That means that animals can graze almost up to the border of the market and a new market could be opened in the next field, and yet animals from the east of the market cannot be sold in Frome market. Midges do not understand county boundaries; does the Secretary of State?

Hilary Benn: I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s case, but the point about the control of bluetongue is that there has to be a line somewhere, and it is easier to follow county boundaries than to draw a circular line that cuts across them, because it is then harder for people to understand whether they are in or out of the zone. On the fundamental issue of bluetongue—we have previously discussed this in the House—in the end a balance must be struck on where to draw those lines. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have consulted closely with representatives of the industry, and the stakeholder group is of the view that currently we should have the boundaries where they are, rather than extend them to bring the whole of England into the bluetongue zone. Obviously, winter is arriving, and there will be less midge activity. We are working on— [Interruption.] Well, I understand that, but the lines have to be drawn somewhere. However, as I have previously said, if the industry were to come to me and say with one voice, “Actually, we think now is the time to change the boundaries” I would look at that request very seriously indeed.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): On food labelling, the Secretary of State could not do better than to examine the four Bills that the Government have blocked on that subject.

How can the farming industry be truly sustainable if it is to be treated differently from its competitors? For example, we rightly have strict geographical and movement controls, which ban the export of meat from parts of this country, whereas although the European Union’s Food and Veterinary Office has found serious problems with the traceability and compliance system in Brazil, we continue to import Brazilian beef. Is that fair and sustainable?

Hilary Benn: The EU has strict rules in relation to Brazil. Brazil is a big country, and foot and mouth is a problem in some parts of it, but not in others.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): But that is true here too.

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Hilary Benn: That is indeed the case here, but things are gradually returning to normal. I accept that the livestock industry has had an awful summer, and we have debated that at some length. The question is not whether Brazil should be looked at as one entity; the question is whether we have appropriate arrangements in place to ensure that imports come from areas where foot and mouth is not a problem.

Climate Change (China)

9. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the potential contribution of China to tackling climate change. [171738]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): China will soon become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. China’s own national assessment report highlights the potential impact of climate change on its security, growth and development. A stronger national programme is being developed with targets to reduce energy intensity and to increase the use of renewables. The UK continues to work with China on initiatives for a global low-carbon economy and an effective international framework to tackle climate change.

Mrs. Moon: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. China is opening two coal-fired power stations a week, and it has coal reserves of 1 trillion tonnes. When President Sarkozy signed an agreement to open nuclear power stations with China, he said that because of their partnership it was more important to avoid confrontation over intellectual property rights than to make progress on this issue. Is it not time for Britain to share its knowledge about clean-coal technology with China and develop a partnership arrangement so we can tackle CO2 emissions?

Mr. Speaker: Order. A supplementary must be shorter than that.

Hilary Benn: That is exactly what we are doing through the near-zero emissions coal project, which is a joint EU-China project to develop and then to deploy carbon capture and storage. The UK will put in £3.5 million-worth of funding in the first phase, and we are working with other EU member states. China’s annual coal production is set to double to a staggering 5 billion tonnes a year by 2030. We must develop carbon capture and storage if the world is to have any prospect of obtaining the reductions in carbon emissions that are required. That is why there will be a demonstration project in the UK on post-combustion technology and why we are playing an important role in promoting this scheme with China.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): China is seeking to move 400 million people from the country into cities over the next 30 years, and in that process it will build approximately half the new buildings in the world. Chinese homes are about three times less energy efficient than European ones. What are the British Government doing to facilitate the transfer of British expertise and technology to help the Chinese make those buildings as energy efficient as possible?

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Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. China is already an economic powerhouse and it will be the source of huge amounts of development over the next few years. The best thing that is happening is the growing awareness in China, on the part of the Government and the people, particularly the younger generation, that this process will create problems and challenges for China itself. China is coming to terms with the impact of pollution as a result of its industrialisation, and it is having to take action, including imposing tight controls on vehicle emissions.

My view is that intellectual property is not the problem when it comes to technology transfer; the problem is whether countries can afford the technology. China has undoubtedly been very successful in attracting investment from all around the world. As China’s understanding of climate change and what needs to be done develops—it will shortly publish its national climate change plan—we will continue to work with it to encourage it to take the necessary steps in China while trying to win its support for a new international deal.

Thames Estuary

10. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the risk of flooding in the Thames estuary following the recent alert; and if he will make a statement. [171739]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): London and the Thames estuary are protected to an extremely high standard. Current indications are that existing defences provide a better standard of protection than previously thought and are unlikely to require any major changes until after 2030.

Andrew Mackinlay: I thank the Minister for his reassurance on that point. Will he talk with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government and those dealing with the Thames Gateway to see whether an additional east London crossing, which might include rail and road, could also incorporate engineering works that would help to control flooding and tidal flows in the Thames estuary? That would give assurances not only to existing residents, but to people who wish to regenerate both sides of the estuary.

Mr. Woolas: I have already done so, and on my hon. Friend’s urging will certainly do so again. The long-term plans for flood protection for the Thames estuary and London are extremely important, which is why we pay particular attention to them, and co-ordinating those with the Thames Gateway policies—as the Prime Minister announced in his speech on 29 November to the Thames Gateway conference—is of course a central part of the strategy. That is why we are working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to look at regeneration and integrating the schemes. It is a point that the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) often misses.

Topical Questions

T1. [171755] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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