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Bottled Water

4. Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the environmental effects of the bottled water industry; and if he will make a statement. [193654]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Evidence suggests that drinking tap water uses around 300 times less energy than drinking bottled water. The Government have therefore decided to phase out the use of bottled water for meetings throughout the Government estate. Of course, it is not for Government to dictate what people should drink; that is a matter of choice for consumers.

Gordon Banks: I share my hon. Friend’s aspirations, but may I draw his attention to the recent “Panorama” programme on bottled water—[Hon. Members: “He was in it!”]—and, indeed, to his own comments in it, which I hope were directed more towards imported product than UK-produced product? However, they have had an unwanted impact on companies such as Highland Spring, in my constituency. Will he respond positively to my written request that he visit Highland Spring, and should not the real issue be the environmental footprint of the product, not the product itself?

Mr. Woolas: I thank my hon. Friend for the representations he makes on behalf of his constituency. I can confirm that in addition to his correspondence, I have received a letter from the company concerned, and I shall do my best to respond positively to his request. The policy point he makes is, of course, correct—it is the carbon footprint that counts—and as we move towards the low-carbon world, we shall have to take such decisions on a range of products.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Does the Minister recall that at the time of water privatisation many parts of the green lobby jumped on the
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bandwagon of opposition on the grounds that drinking water was often unsafe to drink, and, as a result, many people bought foreign bottled water, which had to be brought over here at great expense and cost to the environment before the bottles were subsequently thrown away? Will he be careful about listening to the blandishments of the environmental lobby on this and many other issues, because they are often self-serving and short-term?

Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman obviously speaks from experience, and I recall that period well. There are always unintended consequences of policy decisions. I can assure him that in making my comments I was not driven by a policy of pandering to any particular point of view. We made a policy decision for environmental reasons and for cost reasons, on behalf of the taxpayer; given his experience, I know that he would support that motive too.


5. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. [193655]

6. Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations in Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report on flooding. [193656]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Sir Michael Pitt’s interim report contained 15 urgent recommendations for the Government, their agencies and others to take action. We accepted those recommendations and are implementing them. Sir Michael will report on progress in April and his final report will be published in the summer.

Mr. Bone: I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s response. The Government are planning to build 52,000 new homes in north Northamptonshire over the next few years, many of which will be on or close to floodplains. Is he a little concerned that the obsession with new housing is outweighing the Government’s duty to protect people from flooding?

Hilary Benn: With respect, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that there is an obsession with new housing: there is a need for new housing, and that is why the Government are acting. He raises an important question: given that about 10 per cent. of England is located in areas of flood risk, how do we guard against that risk as the new homes are built? That is why we tightened the guidance, not once but twice, most recently in the form of planning policy statement 25. As he will know, the Environment Agency, which is the expert on flooding, now has to be consulted on the matter. I can tell the House that the number of applications for building on floodplains agreed by local authorities contrary to the Environment Agency’s advice has fallen significantly in recent years, precisely because of the way in which we have tightened the guidance.

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Anne Milton: This is not just about the floodplain itself; it is also about the areas around it. Sir Michael’s report states:

I still do not understand how the Secretary of State can reconcile those comments with his responsibilities for flooding and these centrally imposed house-building targets, particularly in areas such as my constituency. Such areas are very constrained geographically and are significantly affected by flooding, so the effects are not felt only on the floodplains.

Hilary Benn: I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I know that there was some flooding in her constituency in January, and I am advised that it resulted from a combination of surface water and river. I gave the answer to her point in answer to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). This is about the guidance. The first issue is whether we can adequately defend an area. The second point to make is that it depends on how that is done.

One of the very practical changes that we made when we published the water strategy recently was to withdraw the present ability of house owners to pave over front gardens with impermeable paving without planning permission. In future, if people want to concrete over their gardens in a way that does not allow the water to soak away, they will have to seek planning permission, but if they use permeable paving they can decide for themselves.

Surface water flooding is a real problem, as the events of last summer brought home to all of us, not least in Hull and elsewhere. We have to bring together all the bodies that have responsibility for surface water flooding, and we are consulting on giving the Environment Agency an overview. Local authorities also have an important part to play. We need to think about how we develop in future so that we can build the homes that are needed and deal with the problem to which the hon. Lady draws attention.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Sir Michael Pitt’s report described the diverse group of organisations with overlapping responsibilities for flooding activities, such as local authorities, water companies, drainage boards and so on, and recommended that the Environment Agency be given the lead responsibility for all water management activity. Does the Secretary of State accept that recommendation? Will it require legislation to put it into effect and, if so, how quickly can that be done?

Hilary Benn: We are indeed consulting on that precise point. Depending on what arrangements we subsequently seek to put in place, legislation might be required, but—as I said in answer to the earlier question—we will in the end need to ensure that all the bodies with responsibility work together more effectively. Some of the functions may be given to local authorities, for example, because those tasks can best be undertaken by them. However, that will be within an overall framework in which someone will have responsibility for bringing together all the things that need to be done so that we can deal with the problem.

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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In a press release dated 4 February, the Department announced that it had put aside £34.5 million that it said might be needed to implement Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. When the Select Committee probed the Minister for the Environment on whether the Department had done a back-of-the-envelope costing on the total cost of the 72 recommendations, he looked a little uncomfortable. A month has passed since we asked that question: has the Department now costed those 72 proposals? Will more than £34 million be available should it be needed to implement Sir Michael’s recommendations fully?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend has never looked uncomfortable, so I find that hard to believe. This is a question of prudent planning. The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that we do not yet know what Sir Michael’s final recommendations will be. It would not be sensible to allocate all the increased money that we are putting into dealing with flooding and not leave anything to one side to respond to what Sir Michael has to say. We have made a judgment and announced the sum. We will consider what he has to say, and decide how we can use it most effectively.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Secretary of State still has some outstanding issues to deal with from the Pitt review, including who is responsible for drains, and what constitutes a drain. Can he clarify whether the £34.5 million is additional to the £800 million, and whether it will be spent on physical defences? How much of the money will be top-sliced by DEFRA before it reaches agencies such as the Environment Agency?

Hilary Benn: The sum of money is part of the increase that we are making available. We have put it on one side for the reasons that I set out in answering the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who chairs the Select Committee, and we will apply it when we have seen Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. Because we have put more money in through the comprehensive spending review, the Environment Agency has been allocated sums from that increased amount, which will allow it to get on with building more flood defences over the next three years.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into flooding, as the Secretary of State is aware. We have taken evidence from people such as Sir Michael Pitt. In his interim report, he referred particularly to the effects of surface water flooding, which were seen at their worst in Sheffield and parts of south Yorkshire last year. Does the Secretary of State agree with the recommendation that local authorities ought to have direct responsibility for tackling that, perhaps under the overall supervision of the Environment Agency? I have considerable reservations about the recommendation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that the Environment Agency should be the overall supremo responsible, because I do not think that it will be able to tackle the problem in that way.

Hilary Benn: It is for precisely the reason set out by my hon. Friend that we are consulting on the best way to ensure that an overall look is taken at the question of
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surface water flooding and to work out what the exact allocation of responsibility ought to be. I have already made it clear in answer to an earlier question that I think that local authorities have an important role to play. In the end, we have to come up with a mechanism to ensure that there is co-ordination and an overview, so that there is one plan that everyone will work on implementing together.


8. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to stop the spread of bluetongue. [193658]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): A number of EU member states have been affected by the current outbreak of bluetongue, but the UK was first to place an order for vaccine. Until the 22.5 million doses of vaccine begin to be delivered, probably in May, we will contain the disease as far as possible through movement controls. Those will be stricter when the vector-free period ends on 15 March.

Mr. Hollobone: With my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), I recently met the east Northamptonshire branch of the National Farmers Union at Weekley near Kettering. Its members were extremely concerned about the threat posed by the disease. What are the Secretary of State’s forecasts for the size and spread of the carrier female midge population now that the weather is warming up? Will he guarantee to this House that there will be enough vaccines in place in time to contain the spread of the disease?

Hilary Benn: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern, as will all right hon. and hon. Members whose constituents are affected by this terrible disease. It is for precisely that reason that I cannot, in all honesty, give him a forecast of the likely nature of the spread. All we need to do is to look at how bluetongue spread across northern Europe and arrived in the UK last summer. As of 7 March, the disease has been identified and confirmed on 101 premises. Vaccination is the only answer, because by definition we cannot do anything about the vector, and the fact is that we were the first northern European country to place the order for the vaccine and we have worked closely with stakeholders in the industry. I pay tribute to the contribution that they have made, and in particular to the NFU, which will lead a campaign to encourage farmers to take up the vaccine.

The vaccine will become available as soon as it can be produced and shown to be safe and efficacious, and then the supplies will arrive and the farmers can buy them and get on with the vaccination process. That is the way to do it. The fact that we have worked together in partnership thus far and will continue to do so in future is, I think, the best comfort that we can offer farmers about how seriously we are taking the problem, along with the practical steps that we have put in place to help them to beat it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): That is all very well, so far as it goes—I do not for a moment dispute the Secretary of State’s personal commitment—but I met farmers in Staffordshire last
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week and there is real concern about whether the vaccine will be on stream in sufficient quantities at the right time. The Secretary of State did not give the guarantee for which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) asked, so what can he do to give confidence to our farmers throughout the country who are faced with this dreadful disease?

Hilary Benn: The guarantee that I cannot give relates to the precise date at which supplies of the vaccine will become available, because that is down to the companies that are researching and manufacturing that vaccine. The House will be well aware of the way in which we have placed our order. I can offer the assurance that we will take all the necessary steps open to us to use our influence to ensure that the vaccine gets out as quickly as possible. That will depend on the science, the production capacity and the speed at which the supplier with which we placed the order can deliver. The ultimate demand, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, will depend on the take-up of the vaccine by farmers. The decision, rightly, will ultimately rest with them if they want to protect their animals.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The comprehensive spending review plans to cut £120 million a year from the animal health budget through cost-sharing for the control of bluetongue and other diseases, yet an answer yesterday from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), suggests the amount might be only a third of that. Given that disease control already costs the farming industry huge sums of money, can the Secretary of State explain how he has arrived at the figure to be obtained through cost-sharing? Does he agree that if farmers are to share the cost of disease control they should be confident that the Government will fulfil their obligations to keep disease out of our country and inside their own laboratories? Otherwise, as Professor Anderson showed on Tuesday, does it not simply look like farmers paying for DEFRA cock-ups?

Hilary Benn: In relation to bluetongue—the hon. Gentleman is not advancing that argument—we are working in partnership with the farming industry, including sharing responsibility for taking decisions about how we are to beat the disease. The farming industry said, “We want a voluntary approach to vaccination.” We said, “Okay, that’s what we’ll do if that’s what you want.” As for farmers paying for the vaccine, I think that is a fair sharing of the costs in the circumstances.

In relation to the Anderson report, as the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, that release should not have happened and I am determined that it shall not happen again. That is why we have taken steps since then, including changing the regulatory system applying to institutions such as Pirbright and getting on with investment to improve the facilities there, because as he acknowledges it is a world-class facility and we need its expert science to help us to beat the diseases that are in the country at present and those that may arrive in the future.

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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Given the nature of the bluetongue virus and its method of transmission, the problem will continue to face DEFRA and the livestock industry in years to come. The 22 million vaccine doses that the Government have ordered will not be sufficient for blanket vaccination in the time necessary. Will the Secretary of state take advice and make a risk assessment—an epidemiological assessment—to ensure that the vaccines are used in the places where they will best prevent the spread of the disease rather than on a first come, first served basis?

Hilary Benn: I certainly will. I have been taking advice on precisely that subject. The core group working on the issue is overseeing the strategy for getting the vaccination programme going. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question; it clearly makes sense to start the programme in the places where it should start first and then roll it out through the rest of the country, which is what we shall do.

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

9. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the costs to farmers arising from the nitrate vulnerable zones regime in England. [193659]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): If nitrate vulnerable zones were extended to cover 70 per cent. of England, the expected costs to industry could be up to £105 million per annum. However, actual costs could be lower depending on how the proposals are implemented.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does the Minister accept that 5,000 dairy farms may need to improve their slurry storage to comply with the NVZ action plan that DEFRA has proposed? What consideration is he giving to making the proposals much fairer by being more sensitive to individual farm circumstances and helping farmers comply through giving them a more realistic timetable to meet the regulations, easing planning restrictions and perhaps even providing some limited financial assistance?

Mr. Woolas: The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is lots and lots and lots. The proposals in the action plan are for consultation. We have received a large amount of correspondence from Members on both sides of the House and there has been a Select Committee inquiry. We are looking at the proposals to consider how we can both fulfil our obligation under the nitrates directive and ensure that we move forward positively, given the representations that have been made.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Weather conditions over the past week or so have shown how difficult it is to limit slurry spreading to a short period of the year. Can the Minister tell me whether he has got anywhere in his discussions with the European Union about a derogation for UK dairy farmers? That crucial question will ease the plight of many farmers in my constituency.

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