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House of Commons

Thursday 6 November 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private Business

London Local Authorities (Shopping Bags) 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 13 November.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Quality (Greater London)

1. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent steps his Department has taken to improve air quality in Greater London. [233450]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, may I take this opportunity to welcome to the DEFRA ministerial team my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath in the other place?

Responsibility for meeting air quality limits in Greater London rests with the Government, but the Mayor is responsible for taking steps to meet DEFRA air quality objectives in London. Among the steps we have taken are cleaner vehicle standards for cars, lorries and buses and tighter standards for industrial emissions.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I welcome the improvements that there have been in air quality in Greater London. However, does he share the concerns of my constituents that increased flights from Heathrow and City airports could harm the environment and air quality?

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Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the significant improvements that there have been in air quality in London. The incidence of nitrogen dioxide has reduced from an annual average of 74 micrograms per cubic metre in 1987 to 39 micrograms per cubic metre in 2007. That shows the progress that we have made.

The Government have completed a consultation on Heathrow. We are considering the responses, but we have been very clear throughout about the environmental conditions that would have to be met if permission for development were to be given.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): That is exactly the point that I wanted to raise. In December 2006, the Department for Transport White Paper said explicitly that we would put in place

Can the Secretary of State assure me that that commitment will be sustained, whatever happens in the future development of Heathrow?

Hilary Benn: Indeed it will have to be sustained, because of the requirements of the air quality directive. As the House will be aware, in some parts of the country, including London, we are not meeting the limits relating to PM10—particulates—and nitrogen dioxide. That is why we are likely to have to apply for further time in order to meet them, as the latest directive that has been agreed provides. I should point out that we are not the only member state that is facing this difficulty.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that last year Conservative-controlled Croydon was awarded beacon status for its management of air quality controls, with pioneering developments in technology and the introduction of idling vehicle enforcement patrols and air quality text messages to people with respiratory problems. However, I am sure he will realise that that service does not come for nothing. It is labour-intensive, and unless local authorities are given the funding to provide it, it will be difficult to maintain the standards that he and the country expect.

Hilary Benn: I greatly welcome the steps that Croydon and several other local authorities have taken, particularly for those who suffer from asthma. The text messaging service is in addition to the information that we provide—it is available on a website and there is a telephone number that people can call. It is very important to give people the advice and information that they need. The Government fund local authorities generally for the range of responsibilities that they have. I hope that other local authorities will follow the lead that has been given, because that service really benefits the public.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I, too, welcome the two new Ministers to the DEFRA brief, which they will no doubt find challenging, just as all their predecessors did.

A memorandum from the Department for Transport obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 concerning the expansion of Heathrow states:

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It goes on to say that the Department for Transport has


How does the Secretary of State square that with what he told the House in May—that his attempt to delay the implementation of new EU rules on nitrogen oxide had nothing to do with decisions about airport capacity?

Hilary Benn: The simple reason why we are likely to have to apply for derogation under the new directive that gives member states the ability to apply for additional time is the existing problem that we have with PM10 and nitrogen dioxide, which, by definition, is nothing to do with any decision that may yet be taken about the expansion of Heathrow. That is a problem we have now. Therefore, the answer that I gave in May was completely accurate.

Mr. Ainsworth: But surely expanding Heathrow can only make the situation worse. The Environment Agency has warned that pollution from a third runway at Heathrow could “increase morbidity and mortality”—in other words, it will mean that more people will die earlier. Does the Secretary of State agree with its analysis, and why does he not spend more time protecting the environment and less time conniving with the Department for Transport on a massive increase in pollution around London? Is it because he lacks the will, or because he lacks the influence?

Hilary Benn: I think that that is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman. First, the fact that different Departments talk to each other should not come as a great surprise to him. Secondly, as I said, the Government have made it clear that any decision about the expansion of Heathrow will have to be subject to the environmental conditions set down. That is a requirement of the directive. When we apply, the Commission has to decide whether to give us more time, and those extensions can only be until 2011 for PM10 and until 2015 for nitrogen dioxide. At that point, the UK, along with other member states, will have to meet the requirements.

Environmental Awareness

2. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What measures his Department has considered to increase public understanding of the environmental effects of everyday activity; and if he will make a statement. [233451]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Department is supporting a number of campaigns including Act on CO2, Love Food Hate Waste, and Recycle Now, which all aim to raise awareness and understanding of the link between what we do and the challenges of tackling climate change and using resources sustainably.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that just under 50 per cent. of emissions come from individuals. Campaigns are all
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very well, but does he agree that it is time that energy bills—and the point of source—give details on how to look after the environment, perhaps in the form of an environmental warning like the health warnings on cigarettes?

Hilary Benn: One thing that the Government have done, working with energy supply companies and following the Prime Minister’s announcement in September about action on insulation and help with bills, is provide more information with bills on ways in which people can save energy. Providing practical advice, places where people can go and assistance is exactly what is required to deal with the environmental challenges that we face.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Yesterday, Westminster was swarming with beekeepers worried about the decline in bee numbers and the huge environmental effects on everyday life. What will the Secretary of State do to address those concerns and to encourage scientific research in that area?

Hilary Benn: The beekeepers have raised a serious issue, and I have met Tim Lovett, the head of the British Beekeepers Association. We are spending about £200,000 a year on research already, and we have put an additional £120,000 into looking into the problem this year, along with the Welsh Assembly Government. The National Audit Office is looking at our expenditure on bee health research. We are working with the veterinary medicines directorate to get medicines on the market more quickly in order to help beekeepers. We give a lot of advice through the beekeeping inspectorate, and once we have the benefit of the NAO advice, I intend to respond on what else we might be able to do.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend have any advice in the pipeline that would help to encourage parents to walk or to use public transport when taking their children to school? That would have an enormous impact on areas around schools.

Hilary Benn: That is a really worthwhile thing to do, and a number of local authorities are promoting schemes to encourage parents and children to walk to school. For example, the introduction of 20 mph zones in many residential areas changes the balance between the car and the pedestrian, and we ought to take as many steps as possible— [ Interruption. ] That was not an intended pun. We ought to take as many steps as possible to encourage more people to walk and to use their cars less.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the National Market Traders Federation on consistently showing commitment to contributing to a greener environment? Its latest initiative has been a campaign called “How green is your market?”, which involves looking for the greenest market in the UK and the greenest trader. Does he agree that markets uphold the values that DEFRA holds dear? They provide cheap local food, they cut down on food miles and they cut down on excess packaging.

Hilary Benn: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. I think that the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree
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(Jane Kennedy), is coming to talk to the all-party group that my hon. Friend chairs. One has only to consider the figures that show the increase in markets to realise that there is growing public interest, and I hope that the trend will continue.

Broadband (Rural Areas)

3. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): When he last met the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to discuss the provision of broadband in rural areas. [233452]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I have not yet had the opportunity to meet the new Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to discuss rural broadband, though I will do so in addition to meeting other ministerial colleagues, because it is clearly important for rural areas. Department officials will also continue to work closely with DBERR on the matter.

Michael Fabricant: As he represents a Welsh constituency, the Minister will know that the Welsh Assembly is trying to identify what it calls “not-spots”—areas that are not served by broadband. He also knows that farmers need to be able to get on to the DEFRA website, especially for epidemiological information about bluetongue, foot and mouth and other diseases. The availability of broadband is very important for the rural community. What steps will be taken in England to replicate what is happening in Wales to ensure that the large tranches of the United Kingdom that are not served by broadband will be?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He and I served together in debates on the Communications Bill some time ago, when those issues were raised with the original roll-out of broadband. I assure him that not-spots, which are a problem in Wales and England, are being tackled, not least by the Department for Communities and Local Government and DEFRA research. What I tend to call the “ciao” review, but is the Caio review, is examining how we extend the service. The service is market driven, but the review considers ways to remedy market failures, and thus what the Government can do. We are also considering what regional development agencies and local authorities can do. The problem needs to be addressed and I am committed to doing that.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): One of the difficulties is that many consumers in rural areas rely on BT’s word about whether they have appropriate broadband access. Regrettably, that advice is often neither objective nor accurate. Is there some basis on which we can get an independent picture of access? In large parts of Derbyshire, access rates are either extraordinarily slow or even non-existent.

Huw Irranca-Davies: That is another important point, which shows the concern in all parties to ensure that we have such access. One reassuring point is that, in the parts of the UK where take-up of broadband has been large, rural areas have outstripped other areas in the past 10 months: take-up there has increased to 59 per
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cent., compared with 57 per cent. as a whole. However, my hon. Friend makes a valid point—we need to keep an eye on the research and the statistics for the way in which broadband is rolling out, and ensure that we fill the gaps as time goes by. It is vital to his constituents and others.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Will the Under-Secretary abandon the term “not-spots”? It is bandied about by, for example, BT as if it were an explanation or even an excuse for not providing a proper service to places such as Rhiwlas in my constituency, where people want to use broadband for domestic purposes but also for rural businesses and professions.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am happy to abandon phrases such as “not-spots” if the hon. Gentleman wants me to, but the way we tackle the possibly 1 per cent. of areas that cannot get access under current technology is crucial. We look to technological innovations, such as the Avanti satellite, as well as other methods, to ensure that we deliver. As has been said, that is important for farmers and for rural businesses. We need to ensure some parity of access throughout the UK—Wales and England.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): On a more upbeat note, will my hon. Friend congratulate BT and Advantage West Midlands on achieving the complete broadband enablement of the west midlands region? What is the Government’s role in helping people to take up commercial opportunities to use broadband? Is there a role for DEFRA in marketing?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I join in my hon. Friend’s congratulations on the work that has gone on, which is a success story. It reflects the fact that the UK, with 99 per cent. uptake of broadband, is leading in this field. Certainly DEFRA has a role in working with others to encourage, promote and advocate take-up. There is also a place for localisation in RDAs, local authorities and others. There has to be a partnership approach. That is not to abrogate responsibility; we simply recognise that some local issues are best tackled with genuine local input.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Minister will be aware of the European Commission’s policy on such matters, in pushing for a universal service obligation by 2010. When he meets the Business Secretary, will he make the case strongly that we should be pushing for that universal service obligation? A particularly strong case needs to be put to BT and other companies in rolling the service out to rural areas where, as he has highlighted, the frustrations are real.

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