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As I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), such issues were addressed way back when we considered the Communications Act 2003. It has always been the Governments approach that universal provision should be led by where the market can drive it forwardwe have seen success in thatand that the Government should then follow through with other partners to ensure that we fill in those areas where the market cannot provide. We will get therethe evidence shows that we are doing sobut as has been pointed out in other questions this morning,
we need to fill those gaps. Our approach in the UK proves that we are doing that above and beyond what some European partners are doing.
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I welcome the Minister to his new post. What the hon. Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said demonstrated, perhaps inadvertently, the reason why so many people in rural communities feel that they are seen as second class in the eyes of the Government. Never has that been more graphically demonstrated than in the way they have borne the brunt of the closure of 2,500 rural post offices this year. Will the Minister acknowledge that rural sub-postmasters are facing a 15 per cent. cut this year in their core tier paymenttheir basic salaryand, perhaps even this week, the loss of the Post Office card account? Will he acknowledge that these developments will further undermine the rural
Huw Irranca-Davies: I in no way share the analysis that rural areas are second class, and I say that as somebody with a family background of living in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman perhaps misses the point that the Government have invested £1.7 billion in sustaining the post office network. Also, there are good examples of projects that have worked in rural communities, such as Switch on Shropshire, Project Access, Cybermoor and Community Broadband Network. There have been good innovations in ensuring that we get into rural communities and other difficult areas, and we intend to continue driving that forward.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): We do not discuss prices offered by supermarkets, as we believe that they are for the market to determine within the constraints of competition law. I have, however, had a number of discussions with farmers and farmers representatives about a range of issues concerning them, including the importance of long-term sustainable relationships between suppliers and retailers.
Mark Hunter: Does the Minister not agree that the practices currently employed by some supermarkets, including Tesco, which are deliberately delaying payments to suppliers, are having a detrimental effect on UK food prices and availability? Furthermore, does she agree that there should be a full investigation so that we can ensure that we continue to have a sustainable UK-based supply chain?
Jane Kennedy: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met representatives of the supermarkets about three weeks ago, when he invited them to follow the Governments lead and ensure that they review and improve payments to small suppliers in order to address directly the point that the hon. Gentleman made. I can also confirm from discussions I have been having that exemplary practices are being developed in some areas, such as the dairy food supply chain, whereby organisations such as Tesco and Asda have regular and good communications with their suppliers, and farmers can come to local forums. That is the way forward to sustain the food supply chain right across the piece.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Over recent years, there has been an unaccountable reduction in the share of the retail price at the check-out that goes to farmers and growers. Notwithstanding farmers markets, which have been quite successful, would it not be a good idea for the farmers organisations to work much more closely with the super-retailers, in the French style? For example, Carrefour, Géante and Leclerc have permanent major retail promotions of local produce from a particular area at their larger superstores. Would that not be a way of giving farmers and growers a higher proportion of the money that we pay for their high quality food at the check-out?
Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend makes an excellent suggestion. Indeed, I should like to offer to accompany him on a fact-finding visit, if he would find that useful, to see what procedures are in place in France and to find out whether we could learn any lessons from them.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): One of the main conclusions of the report produced by the Competition Commission on the grocery trade was that, in order to protect consumers and producers, an ombudsman needed to be established for the trade to protect against uncompetitive practices. What progress have the Government made in establishing such an office?
Jane Kennedy: I acknowledge the concerns about the concentration of the buying power of supermarkets. I am awaiting the outcome of the discussions between the Competition Commission and the grocery retailers before seeing whether any further action needs to be taken.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Although my right hon. Friend is right not to want to intervene in regard to every single price in a supermarket, is there not a case for farmers joining together in co-operativesas my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) suggestedto give them a much greater ability to deal with the supermarkets? Also, is there not a case for a bit more joined-up government thinking in relation to healthy, local produce being made available in superstores, in the way in which my hon. Friend suggested, as a way of tackling issues such as obesity? Most supermarkets push high value-added foods, which are high in salt, fats and sugars. There is an opportunity here to make enormous progress, and the suggestion for appointing an ombudsman could be a way forward.
Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend has made a number of valuable points. I will be looking carefully at the recommendations that the Competition Commission has made, and I shall also want to look in detail at the suggestions that he has made this morning.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I personally welcome the Minister across the Dispatch Box, although I have already met her in her new role in Committee. On Monday, she and I were shown numerous examples of misleading and deceitful labelling, particularly of meat in our supermarkets. One example was Cumberland sausage that had been made with imported meat. On four occasions, however, the Government have blocked Bills to require country of origin labelling. On Tuesday, the Irish Minister said that he wanted an
unequivocal position requiring country of origin to be indicated on food.
Will the Minister now join him and the Opposition in demanding compulsory, honest country of origin labelling on all our food, to stop the deceit and to give consumers the real power to choose what they buy?
Jane Kennedy: I am very interested in the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. On his statement about our blocking certain Bills, I understand that we have been constrained on the position that we have been able to take independently, particularly given the detail that was being requested in those particular Bills. However, I hope that the House will be reassured to know that we are working very hard in Europe on a new directive that will give countries much more freedom to introduce the kind of labelling that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, including specifying on packaging not only the country of birth of the animal involved but where it has been reared and possibly even slaughtered. That will give consumers much more information about welfare standards, in particular, as I acknowledge that that is a real bone of contention for British farmers.
5. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): If he will request that Ofwat take into account the findings of the review of metering and charging when examining water companies proposals for customer charges for the period from 2010 to 2015. 
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): Final determinations for water price limits for 2010-2015 will be made by Ofwat in November 2009. I acknowledge that my hon. Friend has raised her concerns on behalf of customers in the South West Water area, and in the Plymouth, Sutton constituency in particular, many times. There is a very tight and difficult time scale involved in Ofwat being able to take the Walker review into account, but I am keeping in mind the need for Ofwat to be able to take some of its recommendations into account.
I thank the Minister for her response and hope that among her early briefings some will have outlined the fact that our region has by far the highest water bills in the country. We also have more than our fair share of people on low incomes, so this is a matter of very considerable concern to Members with constituencies in Devon and Cornwall and across the
political parties. Will she agree to meet a group of Members across the parties at an early and appropriate moment to discuss this important issue?
Jane Kennedy: I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and her constituents if she were to bring that opportunity forward. South West Water, the company that supplies water in my hon. Friends area, has adopted the findings of a pilot and recent review in that area. The fact that we understood the difficulties that water consumers faced in the south-west was precisely the reason why we chose that area for the pilot scheme. Much more work clearly needs to be done, but the Walker review will be significant in informing us how to take forward our policies on metering and charging, so we await Anna Walkers findings with interest.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Given that inflation is taken into account when setting price limits, is it right that United Utilities, which provides water in the north-west and to my constituency of Macclesfield, should be seeking to impose rises 2.7 per cent. above inflation for the 2010-2015 period? Is that fair to consumers?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman knows that the water companies have submitted outline business plans to the Department. They are being studied in detail not just by Ofwat but by the Consumer Council for Water, which I met a couple of weeks ago. I know that those organisations are very concerned indeed about price rises, particularly in the current economic environment, so they will scrutinise such proposals very carefully. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some reassurance from that.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be very aware that the Ofwat chief executive has taken the view that, because of the impact on customers, Sutton and East Surrey Water should not increase its prices. That is very reassuring. Year after year, however, the south-west has experienced very high rises, yet the area has extremely low wages and high levels of deprivationunlike, I suspect, in Sutton and east Surrey, although I stand to be corrected. The areas are different. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the chief executive to encourage Ofwat, as it looks into the price rises, to take into consideration demography and the impact of increases on people with low wage levels?
Jane Kennedy: I hope to meet the chief executive of Ofwat very soon. Ofwat has a role to play in determining companies price regimes. Those companies have to take into account the responsibilities we place on them to improve supply and the security of supply and, in many cases, to improve the environmental impact of water services. There is thus a wide range of responsibilities, which Ofwat has to balance with costs to customers. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the impact of high price rises on consumers, which is at the forefront of the Governments concerns in the current economic circumstances when families incomes are being squeezed from every quarter.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD):
I endorse the comments of the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport
(Alison Seabeck) about what is a key issue in the south-west. I urge the Minister to review the whole structure of paying for major works such as the Clean Sweep programme, which has left 3 per cent. of the populationthose living in the south-westpaying for cleaning up 30 per cent. of the nations beaches. Will the Minister correct the Conservative partys error under privatisation and allow the cost of those major works to be borne across the country, not just by people living in the south-west?
Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman raises an issue of which I am well aware. As I have said before, the burdens borne by water customers in the south-west relate, to some degree, to South West Waters responsibilities for exactly the improvements to which he refers. I shall not commit myself this morning to rewriting completely the arrangements for managing water supplies, but the forthcoming period of scrutiny of all water companies prices and business plans will be extremely important. That is why I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and her constituents to discuss the issue fully with them.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): We have recently taken a number of steps to increase the proportion of waste recycled, including an increase in the landfill tax escalator to £8 per tonne and the provision of funds for a range of support for businesses.
Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, but will she say, in general terms, what action she is taking to help businesses to improve their recycling rates, apart from the proposed landfill measure?
Jane Kennedy: We are simplifying the regulatory system, as a result of which businesses will be increasingly able to recycle materials that would previously have been sent to landfill. We estimate that that will encourage the recovery and reuse of 17 million tonnes of materials, potentially adding approximately £700 million to the economy.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The Minister will be aware that successful recycling depends on good markets for recyclable materials. She will also be aware that there has been a catastrophic fall in the prices of plastic bottles, paper and cans. What steps will the Government take to avoid the accumulation of mountains of those important materials in the coming weeks and months, and to ensure that they are properly stored and looked after until the markets recover?
Jane Kennedy: That is indeed a growing problem, and we shall want to take stock of the situation. We have established a waste strategy that sets out the direction of travel for the Government and the local authorities with which responsibility for general waste policy lies, but I acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): We have already taken a number of steps in response to Sir Michael Pitts findings, which I reported to the House on 25 June. We will publish a detailed response shortly, together with a prioritised action plan.
Lembit Öpik: My constituents continue to fear the implications of the Pitt report for the Severn plain in the context of deliberate flooding and the management of standing water. Villages such as Llandrinio, Crew Green, Meifod and Ardleen, along with many others, want to work in partnership on alternatives such as upstream flood mitigation and contained flood pools. Will the Secretary of State ask the authorities to ensure that residents and officials adopt a partnership approach, so that we can find solutions that work for everyone?
Hilary Benn: I can tell the hon. Gentlemanwho I know has taken a close interest in this matter on behalf of his constituentsthat the Environment Agency will develop the Severn catchment flood management plan in consultation with local communities, partner organisations and landowners. I know that there was some concern about the original wording of P6, but it has now been revised to make it clear that it is about taking action with others to store water or manage run-off in locations that provide overall flood risk reduction or environmental benefits, locally or elsewhere in the catchment area. I hope that that provides some reassurance.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I do not think it does provide reassurance. What concerns people is that embankments and other flood defences that have existed for a number of years will be allowed to crumble as a result of the programmescurrently up for consultationrelating to catchment flood management plans. Will the Secretary of State assure us that rural areas will not be allowed to be lost to vast tracts of water, resulting in the loss of productive farm land at a time of increasing concern about food security and the Governments failure to spend as much in rural areas as they are spending in urban areas?
Hilary Benn: The hon. Lady will know that 95 per cent. of defences are in fair condition or better, which is very important. The Government are putting in considerable additional fundingan extra £200 million over the next few yearsto enable the Environment Agency to look at the priorities and provide more protection for more communities in all parts of the country.
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