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House of Commons

Thursday 1 May 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By Order)

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords ] (By Order)

Nottingham City Council Bill (By Order)

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 8 May.

Oral Answers to Questions

environment, food and rural affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Flood Prevention

1. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What the Environment Agency's budget for flood prevention is for 2008-09. [202787]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): Total Government funding for England in 2008-09 is £650 million, of which £559 million is flood defence grant in aid disbursed by the Environment Agency and including local authority and internal drainage board capital projects. The Environment Agency flood defence budget includes a further £20.1 million funded from other sources, and there is a planned local levy programme of around £38 million.

Mr. Harper: As the Minister will know, those who ask for works to be carried out locally are always told that the budget is under pressure, but the Environment Agency is still able to find the funds to sponsor a flood impact study conducted by Cranfield university. My constituent Mr. Jeremy Chamberlayne put it well when he said:

What can the Minister tell us today to change my constituent’s mind?

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Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. I hear people express that sentiment, but it is based on a misunderstanding. The flood defence capital projects and maintenance projects have been enhanced month on month for eight or nine years. Of course the Environment Agency, as a responsible body, seeks to learn more about flood risk—particularly in the light of the lessons learned from surface as opposed to river flooding, which is one of the aspects recognised in the Pitt review.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks. Action certainly is being taken, and if he visits the Environment Agency I am sure that its representatives will show him the projects.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): While we are on the subject of misunderstandings and the Environment Agency, may I ask whether the Minister saw a letter in The Daily Telegraph on, I think, Monday or Tuesday from the agency’s chief executive, Lady Young? In that letter, she contradicted “Dod’s Parliamentary Companion” by saying that she was not a Labour peer, which according to “Dod’s” she has been for many years. Can the Minister clear that up for us?

Mr. Woolas: I hope you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, for not reading The Daily Telegraph on Monday, Tuesday or indeed any other day. I do the crossword—it runs in my family—and it is a fine newspaper, but I do not think that this is really a matter for me. I believe that you would pull me up if I answered the question, Mr. Speaker.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Last year, the Prime Minister said:

—the money allocated—

In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), and indeed in the whole of Gloucestershire, there is a £16 million black hole that must be filled by the council. Moreover, I have been informed by the leader of Gloucestershire county council that it has received no new money to reduce the risk of flooding in the county. Can the Minister tell us why the Secretary of State’s constituency and other urban constituencies receive money for flood defences, while all that rural constituencies such as mine and my hon. Friend’s are given is money for flood impact and feasibility studies?

Mr. Woolas: I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I do not accept that the Government, through either local authorities or the Environment Agency, do not spend money in rural areas. That is simply not the case.

The hon. Lady referred to Gloucestershire county council. I believe the constituency of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) is in Gloucestershire. The Environment Agency provides moneys for flood defences, and, as I think most local authorities recognise, the Bellwin scheme has worked very well. The Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend
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the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), has done a terrific job with that scheme, and with the solidarity fund.

I do not accept the idea that we give money to urban areas but not to rural areas. I suspect that there is a bit of 1 May behind that question, and I think it is unfair.

Renewable Electricity Generation

2. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the development of renewable forms of electricity generation. [202788]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I regularly discuss a range of issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, including the importance of renewable energy in reducing CO2 emissions.

John Barrett: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will be aware that the Government’s performance and innovation unit has said:

When will his and other Departments work together to make sure that renewables are given a fair chance?

Hilary Benn: In fairness, I think the hon. Gentleman would recognise that since the renewables obligation was introduced in 2002, renewable generation in this country has nearly trebled in size. That is a practical example of change taking place. We have recently consulted on the nature of the renewables obligation certificates, and we will introduce double ROCs, which will encourage some of the newer technologies. We are, of course, a leading country in the world for investment in offshore wind power, and the Government are very committed to a transformation in the investment in renewables. The simple reason why we are where we are is that we had North sea oil and gas. I think that the whole House recognises that, but we are committed to change, and the policies that we are putting in place will ensure that it happens.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am sure my right hon. Friend will be as concerned as I am at today’s news that Shell is pulling out of the London Array, which will be the UK’s biggest offshore wind farm. When it is ever suggested that there should be a windfall tax on the vast profits of energy companies, they say that they need the money to invest in new technologies. In view of Shell’s announcement today, should that policy be revisited by the Government?

Hilary Benn: I have to say that I would describe the news that Shell wishes to sell its stake as very disappointing, and that many people would want to understand why that was the case, especially in a week in which the company has announced record profits. What I would say on the Government’s part is that we have given, and will continue to give, full support to
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this important project, which, when completed, will produce enough electricity to power about one in four homes in Greater London.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that planning applications for wind turbines on industrial estates are beginning to show themselves. I know of one for a 147 m tower on an area containing 161 businesses and covering 8,000 sq ft. Clearly there must be some limit on the number of wind turbines on industrial estates —[Interruption.] Clearly there must be some limit. What is that limit? How does that impact on fair trading, given the recognition that we need to ensure that access to alternative power sources is available to all industry?

Hilary Benn: What I would say to the hon. Gentleman—I am comparing the two questions that we have just heard—is that we cannot have it both ways; there are choices to be made about how we generate our energy. It is for the planning authorities to take decisions about individual applications, but if we talk to renewable energy companies, including those involved in wind power, they will tell us that in the UK, the regulatory regime is not a big obstacle as far as financial incentive is concerned; they will tell us that the obstacle is the planning system. We need to examine carefully, in the end, the decisions made at local level on whether permission is given or not, because those decisions will have a huge impact on the speed with which we are able significantly to increase our renewable energy generation.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I suspect that the Secretary of State may share the disappointment felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Government felt it necessary yesterday to vote against new clause 4 of the Energy Bill, which would have paved the way for the introduction of renewable energy tariffs. Will he assure the House that he will hold discussions with ministerial colleagues to find alternative ways of ensuring that tariffs are introduced that will enable and encourage decentralised renewable energy generation?

Hilary Benn: I am very committed, as I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is, to doing precisely that. That is why the Minister for Energy announced a couple of months ago that, as part of the renewable energy strategy, one of the things on which we will consult in the summer, because we are determined to make progress, is, indeed, feed-in tariffs for microgeneration. One has only to look at a country such as Germany to see the impact that such a system has had. We will examine that as part of the strategy, and we will publish our proposals in due course.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I am listening to the Government describing us as leading on offshore wind power, yet Shell is pulling out of key offshore wind farm projects in this morning’s newspapers. When we look further at the Government’s biomass co-firing feedstocks, we find that a fifth of those are coming from palm oil products, which are causing deforestation and loss of habitat for the orang-utan. We know that things are not being sustainably sourced, and we know that we will not even be close to meeting the EU target
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of 20 per cent. by 2020 if we lose wind farms and Shell’s investment. I do not think that the Minister’s response that it is all very disappointing is good enough. Will he please see what he can do to try to meet these targets, which the whole House would support?

Hilary Benn: The Government are responsible for many things, but the decision that Shell has taken is not one of them. Shell made it clear in its statement that the regulatory framework that the Government have set is not the reason for its decision. I said in answer to the earlier question that many people would like to know the reason because Shell has spoken previously about its commitment to investment in renewables, and this is an important test. I hope that the project will be sustained.

On offshore wind, 3.3 GW already have permission. Round 2 should deliver another 7 GW. The Government want a further major expansion up to 25 GW, so we are serious about this.

On biofuels, Ed Gallagher is carrying out the review. As far as the climate is concerned, there are good biofuels and bad biofuels, and we have to be able to distinguish between the two. The review will be important, but we need to encourage the right kind of biofuels. We also need to encourage the second generation of biofuels, and we are determined to do that.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend meets the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, will he remind him that it is profoundly wrong for politicians or political parties who advocate renewable energy to then deny applications involving that technology? That is the case with the nimby Scottish National party Administration in Scotland.

Hilary Benn: I agree with my hon. Friend, and I made the same point a moment ago. We have a choice to make. It is instructive to compare and contrast the policies advocated from the Opposition Benches with the decisions taken by the representatives of those same political parties when it comes to individual planning applications. In the end, we have to be held to account for our decisions.

Global Food Prices

3. Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of the rise in global food prices. [202790]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With ministerial colleagues, I attended the food summit called by the Prime Minister on 22 April 2008. We discussed the causes and the consequences of the rise in food prices, especially for developing countries.

Kerry McCarthy: Much of the debate on this issue is focused on the impact of biofuels, but does my right hon. Friend accept that increased meat and dairy consumption, especially in countries such as China and India as they become more prosperous and adopt a western diet, is also a problem? Does he also agree that the introduction of ever more industrialised and intensive
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farming methods—trying to squeeze more meat or milk out of every animal and more animals into every acre—is not the answer?

Hilary Benn: There are several factors behind the recent rise in prices, such as the drought, especially in Australia, although it should produce much more wheat this year; the demand for meat and dairy products that is a result of growing prosperity in the developing world; the existing trade restrictions; and the growth in input prices. The rise in oil prices has a huge impact on fertiliser costs. First, the agricultural industry across the world, including in the UK, has to play its part in contributing to the reduction of carbon emissions. The second priority is to ensure that we protect those least able to deal with the consequence of rising food prices, both abroad and here in the UK.

The one bit of encouraging news is that if one looks at the price of wheat on the futures market for November 2008 and for 2009, the price quoted is around £140 a tonne, compared with about £170 currently. There has been a sharp spike, but the predictions are that we will see a decrease, although the price is unlikely to return to previous levels.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): A plentiful supply of food for this country and for the world is dependent on the work of bees. Much concern has recently been expressed about the health of bees, certainly in this country. To draw the sting from that argument, the Government have launched a consultation process on bee health. However, that will report after this year’s pollination has been completed. In order to safeguard those food supplies that are dependent on bees, what help will the Secretary of State give to beekeepers now to ensure that the work of bees is undertaken properly this season?

Hilary Benn: I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. That is why DEFRA is contributing £1.3 million to the bee health programme, the Welsh Assembly Government are making a contribution and there is an additional R and D budget.

The European countries are all concerned. We are looking with our European colleagues at what more might be done. The truth is that we do not fully understand the cause of some of the changes that we are seeing, in particular colony collapse disorder, of which reports have come from the United States of America. We are taking the matter seriously. We want to focus our money on research that will help us to find the answer so that we can deal with the problem.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The rise in food prices led to an almost hysterical attack on biofuels as part of the cause. It might be part of the cause. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about the other causes. Will he acknowledge the importance of not completely abandoning the research on sustainable biofuels in the future?

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