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House of Commons

Thursday 17 July 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) Bill (By O rder)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 9 October.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order read for resumed adjourned debate on Second Reading (12 June).

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 9 October.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Canterbury City Council Bill (By Order)

Leeds City Council Bill (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 9 October.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Labelling

1. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the effectiveness of food labelling regulations in informing consumers of food content. [219287]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I have had no recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on food labelling regulations, but I have met the chair of the Food Standards Agency to discuss the EU Commission’s proposals.

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Mrs. Riordan: There are no legal terms to define “vegetarian” or “vegan” in this country or the EU. What plans are there to define those terms in law, and how will they work with the FSA so that labelling complies with them, taking into account the fact one in 10 people are vegetarian?

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): He’s a veggie Wedgie!

Hilary Benn: Yes, I suppose that I should declare an interest. As far as I am aware, there are no plans to define those two terms, certainly not as far as the Commission’s proposals are concerned. The Commission’s proposals will enable us—I am sure the whole House will welcome this—to deal with the problem that we face, which is that certain types of meat products can be described as British meat although the meat does not come from the UK.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): One of the lessons of the food labelling that the Department of Health oversaw is that Tesco, which thinks it runs the country, did one thing, while other supermarkets and manufacturers did another. Is there a lesson in that when it comes to carbon labelling? Will DEFRA ensure that carbon labelling is done consistently across all products and not let one supermarket do its own thing?

Hilary Benn: There is of course a lively debate taking place about the traffic light system, which the FSA favours, and the guideline daily amounts. We have just completed a consultation on that, to which my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will respond in due course, and the EU is proposing a framework that would allow national systems to be in place. On the other point that the hon. Gentleman raised, about consistency in carbon labelling, we certainly should aspire to achieve that.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): What further discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the food industry on the labelling of trans fats and artificial fat products in food on sale both in supermarkets and other food outlets?

Hilary Benn: I have not discussed those issues directly, because they fall within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Non-native Species

2. Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking against non-native invasive species. [219288]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): On 28 May, DEFRA launched the invasive non-native species framework strategy for Great Britain, jointly with the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Government. The strategy contains measures to tackle invasive species, improve the effectiveness of legislation, integrate activities and programmes, and better focus research.

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Sir Peter Soulsby: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. I raise the issue on behalf of the tens of thousands up and down the land who weekly do battle with invasive non-native species. In my case, it is the Japanese knotweed, which until three years ago I would not even have recognised, but which has been identified as the species crowding out the other plants and wildlife at the bottom of our chapel garden. I am aware that getting rid of it is probably a five-year mission—in fact, the Japanese knotweed has been described to me as plant life, but not plant life as we know it. I urge the Minister to recognise that most people are totally unaware, as I was, of what non-native species look like or how to combat them. I urge her to redouble her efforts with the Environment Agency to raise public awareness of non-native species and how to deal with them and eradicate them.

Joan Ruddock: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. He is absolutely right to say that the public need to be much more aware. That is of course one of the reasons why we have launched the strategy. As he said, Japanese knotweed is a very troublesome invasive species. Not only is it a problem for gardeners, but, more critically, it damages biodiversity. It has to be cleared from all construction sites, because it can grow through tarmac, and causes major difficulties on river banks, creating flood risk. We are doing a great deal on that, but we need to do much more. We have tasked a working group on media and communications with developing a clear plan, including consideration of how the Government can work with stakeholders to target audiences more effectively. There is information available on the website of the non-native species secretariat, and DEFRA makes available fact sheets

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am grateful to my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), for raising this issue. I am sure the whole House will remember the Eradication of Mink Bill in 1995—or possibly not. The point is that mink destroy any good work done for water voles through the biodiversity action plan, because they eat them. Will the Government take action to eradicate mink, which are doing huge damage to wildlife across the country?

Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I recently visited a site that was conserving water voles; indeed, the Department is doing a considerable amount of work in that respect. Some measures for dealing with mink are already in place. I will look further into what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I do not believe that an eradication programme is likely to be successful.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): As the RSPB survey published today demonstrates, one is more likely to see green parakeets and hear cuckoos in the Thames valley nowadays, largely on account of habitat measures—protecting woodland, hay meadows and other valuable sites of special scientific interest such as Otmoor. That is one reason why—I want to flag this up to DEFRA Ministers—the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire wildlife trust is so opposed to Department for Communities and Local Government proposals for a so-called eco-town at western Otmoor. There are
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some real biodiversity issues there, so given that the machinery of government is based in Whitehall, I hope that DEFRA Ministers will be consulted on them.

Joan Ruddock: I commend the work of the hon. Gentleman’s local trust; as a Department, we greatly value what it is doing. However, when it comes to eco-towns, a proper procedure is in place whereby all biodiversity and sustainable development issues have to be considered in the development plans. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that they will be.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the hon. Lady aware that the best way of dealing with the plague of mink that afflicts this country is to hunt them? Will she go and talk to Baroness Golding, our former revered colleague, who will tell her exactly how to set about doing that? As a preliminary, will the Minister say that she will repeal the ridiculous anti-hunting Bill?

Joan Ruddock: What a temptation is presented to me! I assure the House that there is absolutely no question of any repeal of the Hunting Act 2004, which was sought by the public and was supported by all the animal welfare charities. None the less, I am more than happy to look again at the issue of mink.

I might have said in response to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) who mentioned parakeets, that we are very concerned about a small colony that has established itself in north London. In some cases, eradication is the right way forward, as, indeed, with the action we are taking to deal with the ruddy duck.

Farm Security

3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What guidance his Department has issued to farmers and landowners on farm security. [219289]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): As the hon. Gentleman will know, criminal activity that targets farmers is clearly a matter for the Home Office and the local police. My Department has, however, been in contact with the Association of Chief Police Officers because we were concerned that criminal activity targeting farmers was on the increase, and we wanted to ensure that there was good liaison between the National Farmers Union and the police. We have been assured that there is.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I thank the Minister for that reply, but given that the figures show a substantial increase in thefts of low-cost red diesel from farmers across the country as well as of household oil of domestic dwellers in rural areas, and given that the cost of farm equipment theft rose by some 16.5 per cent. last year in the UK, what particular detailed discussions is the Department having with the Home Office and the police in order to put a stop to this very considerable cost to rural dwellers?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue. As he said, red diesel is being stolen, along with valuable farm equipment and other materials that can be recycled and sold around the world. It is a sad phenomenon that globalisation is
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demanding more of the world’s resources and that criminal activity is targeted at rural areas. We are in close contact with the Home Office, and, indeed, with ACPO. As I said, we want to make sure that there is good liaison between such organisations as the NFU and the police. We sympathise with farmers and many others who have been the victims of crime—there have even been deaths.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I sympathise with those landowners and farmers who have been affected, but surely one of the best ways to ensure that our countryside is secure is to allow appropriate development, particularly where there are redundant buildings, so that we get a living and working countryside and one that is more secure. I hope that DEFRA will talk to the Department for Communities and Local Government about how that will be possible in future.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who gives me an opportunity to advise the House of our minimum target of 10,300 new affordable rural dwellings, for which we have put in considerable resources. DEFRA and the DCLG are working closely together. We want families who are from the countryside to be able to remain in the countryside, and that is why we included the target for communities of fewer than 3,000 dwellings.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): There are fewer crimes in the countryside than in our towns, but is it not the case that if a bicycle is stolen from a town centre it is recorded as one crime, while a combine harvester stolen from a field is also recorded as one crime? What can the Minister do with his colleagues in the Home Office to try to emphasise the disproportionate impact of the theft of agricultural equipment?

Jonathan Shaw: I am advised that we publish figures by value. The investment that farmers must make in agricultural equipment is considerable, and if a farmer cannot take their stock to slaughter or harvest their crops, the impact is not only on the farmer but on all of us. With less food, the prices will rise. As I said, we are in touch with other Departments, and good liaison between the local police, NFU and farmers is vital. We will do what we can to ensure a reduction in such crime. As a consequence of the phenomenon of globalisation, there is a pull on resources, but we must remain ever vigilant—not just farmers but everyone, whether rural, suburban or urban.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Obviously, the isolation of farms makes them vulnerable to crime in the first place. With high diesel prices and metal prices around the world, they have become more vulnerable to crime. A college in my constituency trains police officers around the country in specialist countryside crime issues, and my hon. Friend’s Department already supports specialist wildlife crime issues. Will he work more closely with the police and farmers on adopting farm watch schemes, as we have neighbourhood watch and shop watch schemes, with his Department as the co-ordinator rather than the Home Office?

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points. I assure the House that we take the issue extremely seriously, for all the reasons that I have set out. We want to work with the farming and
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rural communities so that the increase in recent months, and in the last year or so, does not continue. We will do what we can, and I will take back his suggestion of what more we could do. I will write to him with our conclusions.

Pollution (London)

4. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Mayor of London on noise and air pollution in London. [219290]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I have had no recent discussions with the Mayor of London—[Hon. Members: “Shame!”] He is a very busy man. The good news, however, is that my officials have been in discussions with their counterparts in the Greater London authority on the issue of air quality and pollution, and we will continue to have regular meetings at an official level.

Mr. Hands: Why does the Minister not support Boris’s campaign against a sixth terminal and a third runway at Heathrow? The Government’s own Environment Agency points to the risk of an increase in morbidity and mortality in densely populated areas of west London such as mine if that huge expansion goes ahead. When will the environmental voice be heard at the Cabinet table in discussion on Heathrow?

Jonathan Shaw: I would be delighted to meet the Mayor of London and I will ensure that my diary is available to him, but, as I say, he is a busy man. On Heathrow, the hon. Gentleman rightly brings forward the concerns of his constituents. The Secretary of State for Transport set out to the House on 8 July what we intend to do in terms of the consultation on Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman mentions the report from the Environment Agency. Obviously, all reports that are submitted in relation to the proposed expansion of Heathrow will be taken into account, as has been set out by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): The A406 North Circular road passes right through the middle of my constituency and 60,000 vehicles go in each direction every day, causing enormous noise and air pollution. Will my hon. Friend make it a priority to speak to the Mayor about air quality in particular? It is deteriorating daily and something needs to be done.

Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who sets out the concerns of his constituents in Edmonton about air quality. We have an air quality strategy, which sets out its purpose in London and the responsibilities of the Mayor. As I have said, I am more than happy to meet the Mayor to discuss how he, the Greater London authority and the Government can work best to reduce air pollution in London. My hon. Friend will know that London is a heavily polluted city, and that that pollution is principally brought about by traffic. What would life be like without the congestion charge in those parts of London? Pollution would be considerably higher.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Every mile of car travel emits 12 times as much pollution as a mile of rail travel. In his discussions with the Mayor of
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London, will the Minister consider commissioning a survey of the methods of reducing passenger and freight movements into and out of the capital and shifting them to rail? If we shifted the subsidies to non-road transport rather than the motorist, that would massively improve the quality of air in the capital.

Jonathan Shaw: This is going to be a long meeting! My hon. Friend will be aware that transport and trains are the responsibility of the Department for Transport. On freight, I can tell him that British Waterways is making a considerable contribution towards ensuring that aggregates being brought to the Olympic site will not be brought in lorries but by barges on canals. That is to be welcomed. Where we can do those things, we are, and the overall structure for ensuring that we keep pollution levels as low as possible for the development of the Olympics is, again, in the gift of the Mayor.

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