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31 Jan 2008 : Column 447

House of Commons

Thursday 31 January 2008

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—

Low-Energy Light Bulbs

1. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What assessment his Department has made of local authority arrangements for the disposal of low-energy light bulbs. [178855]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is responsible for approving facilities for the disposal of electrical equipment, including low-energy light bulbs. No assessment has been made.

Dr. Pugh: I thank the Minister for that answer. In my council area, half the waste centres have no collection point for bulbs, retailers do not take them and the council advice is to stick them in the bin. Is that not the real picture nationwide? Can the Minister enlighten us further?

Joan Ruddock: I can certainly enlighten the hon. Gentleman. That is not the picture with which I am familiar. I took the trouble to inquire about local facilities for his constituents. I understand that Merseyside waste disposal authority has 14 designated collection points, five of which have separate collections, and that Sefton has two collection points, of which one, at Sefton Meadows, is separate. I rang Sefton Meadows, and the staff there performed well; they were able to answer my question about how to dispose of a low-energy light bulb properly.

More information needs to be given to the public. That is the duty of local authorities, all of which have sites where such light bulbs can be taken, and of retailers, who have a responsibility when selling them to say where they can be disposed of. A few retailers will take them back.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): A constituent has raised an issue with me about his four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, who suffers from eczema. She suffers great discomfort under standard low-energy
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bulbs—he cites as examples those in Boots and Mothercare— but when she is under standard fluorescent lighting or near household low-energy bulbs, she does not suffer. Can my hon. Friend throw any light on that problem for my constituents?

Joan Ruddock: That certainly must be a serious problem for a child with eczema. Since the phase-out of domestic high-energy light bulbs was announced and has become better known, we have received anecdotal evidence that some people with certain skin conditions may be affected by low-energy bulbs. Working with the Department of Health, we are looking seriously at the matter. I have agreed a meeting with Lupus UK, and if others wish to join us at that meeting, I would be pleased to see them. There is a difference between domestic lighting and some other forms of fluorescent lighting still used in shops and offices. Domestic lighting has improved so much that we anticipate that the problem will be overcome.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is the Minister aware that if one accidentally breaks a low-energy light bulb, the dust inside is mercury? Inhaling mercury can be very dangerous. In the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer mentioned additional funds being made available to encourage people to make their homes energy-efficient. Will that budget extend to clear guidance and better packaging to ensure that such bulbs are not broken, and clear instructions about what to do if they are?

Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because that issue has been mentioned a lot in the press, and we need to make it clear what the problem is. Low-energy bulbs contain about 5 mg of mercury now, compared with 100 mg when they first came out. The amount is constantly being reduced, and low-mercury bulbs are now available. If a bulb should be broken—although the chances of one breaking are extremely low, lower than for the old-fashioned incandescent bulbs—

Michael Fabricant: It might be dropped.

Joan Ruddock: If it were to be dropped it might not break, but if it did, the amount of mercury in a new bulb is perhaps enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. However, mercury is dangerous and care must therefore be taken. The simple thing to do is what any sensible person would do with a dangerous chemical: open the window, leave the room for 10 to 15 minutes and then sweep up the broken bulb, seal it in a bag and dispose of it in the way that I described. However, people should not be nervous of the bulbs; no mercury escapes when they are in use.

Chewing Gum

2. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): If he will seek discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on tax incentives for manufacturers of chewing gum to create a biodegradable product; and if he will make a statement. [178856]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): As my hon. Friend knows, there are always discussions between Departments and the Treasury on a range of issues. Any announcement on taxation is in the gift of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Allen: The Minister will know that disposal of chewing gum disfigures our city centres, gets on wheelchair users’ wheelchairs, in the hair of children and so on. On the basis that the polluter should pay, will my hon. Friend ask the manufacturers to come to the Department to have a serious discussion with him about how we can undo some of that pollution? If they do not come up with some answers—there are biodegradable alternatives—will he consider making representations to the Treasury?

Jonathan Shaw: My hon. Friend and I recently had an Adjournment debate about the matter in Westminster Hall. The manufacturers are investing in research and development to provide a biodegradable product that is also non-sticky. Clearly, it is essential for the manufacturers that it tastes good and that it sells. That is obviously a commercial issue for them. The Department, along with a number of partners, meets the industry, and at future meetings I will discuss with manufacturers the point made by my hon. Friend. On taxation, I refer him to my earlier reply.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Minister admit that this farce has been running for at least a quarter century? Is it not time to recognise that the civilised world has lost the battle against chewing gum, and that where people can spit chewing gum out, they will? In addition to the good work of the chewing gum action group, would it not be better to concentrate on encouraging research into technology that can clean up the mess more quickly and more cheaply than is now possible?

Jonathan Shaw: There has been a series of schemes throughout the country whereby councils have tried to educate the local community. Oxford council saw the biggest reduction in the amount of litter from chewing gum. It is the case that we need to increase the clean-up capability, and councils are doing their level best, and it costs a fortune. Also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, a biodegradable non-sticky gum should be developed. He is right. The problem of chewing gum plagues every shopping precinct up and down the land. Councils are doing their best, but the key thing—if the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) does not mind my saying that—in the message to members of the public is, “Don’t spit it out. Put it in the flipping bin.”

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): May I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to take the route suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)? Chewing gum is a plague on all our communities, whether they be big or small, and a disproportionate cost is paid by society—not only by local authorities using council tax to clean up the mess, but by the people affected when it sticks to their clothing or is walked into their homes. I would not advocate going down the Singapore route by
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banning chewing gum completely, but every piece of chewing gum sold in this country should be biodegradable and non-sticky.

Jonathan Shaw: There are two manufacturers, with whom we are working closely. They are looking to develop a product that will be tasty and will sell. Let us hope that in future the type of chewing gum that now disfigures our pavements becomes a thing of the past. That requires a great deal of work. I know that the manufacturers are undertaking that and I am sure they have heard the voices from colleagues in the House today, which reflect wider public opinion.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Let us not let Wrigley’s wriggle out of this one. [Interruption.] Well, it is as bad as the joke from the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) about light bulbs. The industry probably makes hundreds of millions of pounds from chewing gum and it should be investing much of that in research and development to produce biodegradable chewing gum. While we are waiting for that to happen, will the Minister have a word with the Home Office about enforcement, so that far more of those who spit chewing gum out on to the streets—a disgusting habit—face fines?

Jonathan Shaw: On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, it is illegal to drop gum. The Cleaner Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 gave councils the power to issue fixed penalty notices to people who do so, and councils are increasingly using that power.

Energy Efficiency

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on increasing energy efficiency in the poorest households. [178857]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Improving energy efficiency in the poorest households is very important in tackling fuel poverty. Our latest annual progress report sets out the action that we are taking across Government, including through the Warm Front programme and the energy efficiency commitment.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I know that he thinks climate change is as important as I do. In that respect, the Warm Front and Warm Deal schemes, both introduced by the Labour party, have provided financial support and help for efficiency improvements in well over 1 million households in this country.

However, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the calls from the Government-sponsored Fuel Poverty Advisory Group for an extra £500 million to improve the Warm Front scheme? Will he ensure that the knock-on effect will get to the people on the Warm Deal programme in Scotland, and will not go into the Scottish Executive budget to be hidden away, as happened in respect of disabled children?

Hilary Benn: Funding for the Warm Deal programme is a matter for the Scottish Executive. As for funding in England targeted at those on low incomes, if we take
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together the investment that we will make in Warm Front and what will come from the new carbon emissions reduction target—which is double the energy efficiency commitment, or EEC—we will, over the next three years, invest £2.3 billion in dealing with the problem raised by my hon. Friend. That is an increase of £680 million compared with the previous spending review period.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The Secretary of State may be aware of many Members’ concern that the prices quoted for schemes under the grants administered by the Energy Action Grants Agency, or EAGA, are far higher than those that a local contractor would deliver for the same scheme. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that issue and its impact on the overall budgets to deliver the objectives?

Hilary Benn: I am aware of those concerns. The scheme is audited and assessed to make sure that we get value for money. Having looked at some of the cases in a bit of detail, I think that we have to consider whether we are comparing like with like. Under the Warm Front programme, there is a follow-up service and so on, which may not apply in the case of local contractors bidding to do similar work. It is important that we compare like with like, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that we get every penny of value from the money we put in.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Warm Front programme is available only to pensioners and disabled people; many other people in poverty do not have access to Warm Front grants. The grants are available for central heating boilers only when they have failed; they are not available to replace old and inefficient boilers. Surely it is in the best interests of poorer people, the economy as a whole and tackling climate change that inefficient boilers in all the homes of those on the lowest incomes should be available for grant aid.

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the need to improve the energy efficiency of home heating. In addition to the Warm Front scheme and the help that it provides, we are increasing, through the carbon emissions reduction target, the requirement on energy companies to encourage and support home owners to improve their energy efficiency.

The issue raises a fundamental point about what more we can do to ensure that energy efficiency and therefore carbon emissions from domestic households improve. Although from 2016 we will deal with new houses through the zero-carbon homes policy, we have an existing stock of about 25 million or 26 million homes for which a lot more could be done. The launch of the green homes service in April this year will provide a lot more advice for householders on the steps that they can take.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): People are not worried only about the value for money of EAGA’s contracts: is the Secretary of State aware that the agency has been charging low-income households up to £800 to access the Government grants? Having
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paid that money last autumn, some low-income households have been told that they will not get their new heating until later this year, after the winter. Is the Secretary of State aware of that, and if so, what is he doing about it?

Hilary Benn: When the hon. Gentleman says that people are being charged to access the grant, is he referring to the fact that the grant is available up to a certain amount and that any work that is then required above and beyond that has to be contributed to by the household? If so, we have always known that that is the case, because the grant provides support up to a certain level. If he is talking about something else and has particular cases in mind, will he bring them to my attention so that I can look at them?

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): May I turn my right hon. Friend’s attention to electrical efficiency within the domestic scene and, again, to low-energy light bulbs, which the Government wish to introduce? Has he had any discussions with the Society of Light and Lighting about the power factor of low-energy light bulbs, which has to be at a level of 0.9 in order to make them effective? Any power factor in excess of that level—some bulbs on sale now have a factor of three times that—means that the bulb is burning power at three times the rating at which it is sold. For example, if it is 10 W, it will burn power at the rate of 30 to 40 W and is therefore not a low-energy light bulb at all. Will my right hon. Friend discuss those issues with the society?

Hilary Benn: The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who just answered the question about low-energy light bulbs, is in contact with that organisation, and I have no doubt that she will pursue the point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Food Pricing

4. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What consideration he has given to the regulation of farm to retail price spreads, with particular reference to supermarkets; and if he will make a statement. [178858]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): The Government believe that prices are for the market to determine and do not get involved, provided that competition rules are respected. As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, the Competition Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into the groceries market as a whole.

John Barrett: Figures show that while the average farm-gate price for a litre of milk is 18p, it costs 21p to produce it, and it is then sold for 60p in the supermarket. What is the Minister going to do to give a fair deal to farmers, who are being held to ransom by the big supermarkets?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that question. Gate prices have increased considerably. That is partly to do with changing markets, with China and India increasingly wanting dairy products. We had the interim report from the commission in October, and we
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expect a report in the first half of this year. Some of the issues that it will consider include tightening up the code, perhaps to include some of the other supermarkets. It is vital that we have transparency from farmer to producer to supermarket so that we can answer these questions, which people have been concerned about for a long time.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The wages and conditions of workers have an impact on the farm to retail prices in our supermarkets. Is my hon. Friend aware of Unite’s campaign to highlight the plight of migrant workers supplying food to major supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer? Does he agree that the terms and conditions of those migrant workers should not be exploited in order to produce cheap food for the supermarkets?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He has a proud track record in introducing the Bill that became the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004. The authority is prosecuting where migrant and mobile workers are being exploited. We have the legislation and a series of safeguards, but if hon. Members are aware of any cases, they should bring them to the authority’s attention. I have met its representatives, who have prosecuted where they have found such cases and will continue to do so.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): But does the Minister accept that the low prices in the livestock sector recently were not the fault of the supermarkets, which actually behaved very responsibly, but of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which provoked the foot and mouth crisis that caused such a problem? Interestingly, in comparison with Scotland, where farmers have been compensated for collateral damage, English farmers have been left to shoulder the entire responsibility for losses on their own.

Jonathan Shaw: We know that prices for livestock have fallen. That is partly to do with the considerable increase in the price of feed, and the prices have not worked their way through the system. We are aware of that, but the situation is not DEFRA’s fault, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Feed prices have gone up across the world; all member states are concerned about those increases, and they are impacting on livestock farmers.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is he surprised, as I am, at how few suppliers have chosen to give evidence to the Competition Commission inquiry? Does he have a theory as to why so few have given evidence, and how might he encourage them to give evidence to that important inquiry?

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