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6 Nov 2008 : Column 347

Topical Questions

T1. [233470] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Department’s responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that I have appointed Dame Suzi Leather as chair of the new council of food policy advisers. I am greatly looking forward to working with her to tackle the important food security challenges we face, and we will announce other members of the council shortly.

Philip Davies: The Environment Agency now has its own geomatics division, acting commercially by undertaking work it would otherwise have outsourced and competing against commercial players in the market. Is the Secretary of State happy that a Government agency is competing against companies in the private sector, or is this not another example of a Government agency sticking the boot into small and medium-sized businesses when they are suffering from a recession?

Hilary Benn: I do not share that characterisation of the EA’s work. As the previous question highlighted, it does a very good and important job in providing service to the public, including in improving flood defence.

T8. [233477] Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): Genetically modified foods were supposed to be a major leap forward, but instead there are concerns that they pose a serious threat to biodiversity and our health. Furthermore, we were told they would help feed the world’s poor, but the United Nations tells us that we are already producing more than enough for all. What assessments are being made from recent trials of GM crops’ effects on the environment, and what are the consequences of these crops for the third world?

Hilary Benn: The Government have to be able to answer two questions in relation to GM crops: first, is the product safe to eat? The evidence is clearly that it is. The second is, what is the impact on biodiversity? In order to get the information my hon. Friend refers to, we have to have carefully conducted trials, and it is a matter for regret when trials that are approved are trashed within about a month and a bit—a recent example was a trial to demonstrate potatoes’ resistance to nematode—because how can we answer such questions if we do not have the information? However, it is for those developing GM crops to demonstrate whether they bring the benefits that some have claimed. The Government then need to answer the two questions and, ultimately, it will be for consumers to decide whether they want to buy, supermarkets whether they want to stock and farmers whether they want to grow.

T2. [233471] Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): One of Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations was that the Government should establish a Cabinet committee dedicated to tackling the risk of flooding, bringing flooding in line with other major risks such as pandemic flu and terrorism. I took a careful look at the list of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet committees published this week and was surprised to see that such
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a dedicated Cabinet committee on flooding was not on the list. Will the Secretary of State update the House on when that recommendation from Sir Michael will be put into force?

Hilary Benn: As I said in answer to an earlier question, we will respond in full to Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations in the not too distant future, and we will address that question along with others. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I continue to talk very regularly with all my ministerial colleagues who have a shared responsibility for dealing with this serious problem.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Following on from the response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham), will my right hon. Friend look again at recycling? It is clear that the different recycling schemes that we have throughout this country are not working properly, because different local authorities are recycling different products. The problem is that the quality of the materials that are then presented to industry for recycling is simply not good enough—and in some cases is non-existent. My local authority, for example, has a kerbside collection of cardboard and paper, which it then composts and wastes, but in another part of the country that same cardboard and paper is worth £60 per tonne to the corrugated cardboard packaging manufacturers. Therefore, can we have some joined-up thinking on the different schemes that we have for recycling?

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I shall look at the example that my hon. Friend gives with some interest, but figures out today from the Office for National Statistics demonstrate that householders in England are now re-using, recycling or composting almost 35 per cent. of their household waste, which is tremendous progress. I acknowledge that there are difficulties in some areas and that because the system is local authority-led there are differences in the way in which recycling is carried out locally. That is right and proper and as it should be, but it is obviously of interest to local authorities such as my hon. Friend’s that they get the maximum and best value they can from the waste they collect, particularly when householders have gone to the trouble of separating the waste to be recycled.

T4. [233473] Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Will the Secretary of State make a commitment today that the marine Bill we be introduced in the next Session of Parliament?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are fully committed to this, and preparation of the marine Bill, on which there has been extensive and lengthy consultation, is well in hand. As he knows, it is well supported, as was shown by the lobbying that took place this week. We remain committed to introducing it at the earliest possible opportunity, and when we do so we hope that there will be genuine cross-party support for all aspects of it.

T5. [233474] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What are Ministers doing to protect the interests of English farmers in the current discussions on the future of the EU pesticides directive?

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Hilary Benn: I have been making very strong representations to Commissioner Vassiliou and to my fellow Agriculture and Environment Ministers, because the problem with the proposal is that we do not know what impact it will have. In particular, will we be able to continue to use triazoles, which safeguard against septoria, a disease that affects wheat? The pesticides safety directorate has performed a full impact assessment, which appears not to have been done elsewhere, which is why we have that information and knowledge. There is growing realisation that there is a bit of a problem with this proposal, which has not been fully thought through. The House can rest assured that I will continue to argue the case with the evidence that we have.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Given the high regard in which the Secretary of State is held throughout the House, will he assure us that, at the appropriate moment, he will give his Department’s assessment to Cabinet of whether the third runway at Heathrow will breach quality and pollution standards, so that Cabinet does not have to rely on the assessments of Departments with less environmental expertise?

Hilary Benn: As I have already said, it is DEFRA’s responsibility, and mine, to ensure that the air quality requirements—our obligations under the directive—are met. The Government made it very clear when the original consultation proposals were published that any decision to proceed would have to be subject to ensuring that the limits were met.

T6. [233475] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): The Secretary of State, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), referred to the impact on wheat of the EU pesticides directive, which the EU environment committee approved yesterday. He said—I was encouraged to hear him do so—that he will take steps to try to spread knowledge of the potential damage more widely in Europe. Will he please also encourage his Labour colleagues in the European Parliament to vote against the directive at the plenary session next month?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the vote in the European Parliament committee that has been scrutinising this legislation. I have been concerned, publicly, that the proposals that the European Parliament was trying to make in amending the directive would take us even further in the wrong direction. That is the problem, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to lobby all those who are part of the decision-making process—the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers—to try to get the best possible outcome. However, as he will be only too well aware, we require other member states to support us in that process.

T7. [233476] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), recently told the DEFRA Select Committee that the Ministry of Defence is an exemplar when it comes to its policy on public food procurement. If so, why is not a single rasher of bacon served under the MOD food contract produced in Britain?

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Jane Kennedy: What the hon. Gentleman describes is not what I understood the position to be. I will check the information, and, if what he says is true, I will examine the situation. I have acknowledged that the Government have more to do to give a lead; as a consumer and a significant purchaser, we must ensure that Departments and the public sector use their powers to discriminate in favour of food that is raised to the same high standards of welfare and hygiene used by British farmers.


The Solicitor-General was asked—


1. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): How many appeals against unduly lenient sentences there have been in the last 12 months; and how many have been successful. [233478]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): In 2007, the most recent year for which full statistics are available, the Attorney-General and I brought 106 offenders to the Court of Appeal for a review of their sentences. Permission to refer the sentence was given in 96 cases, the sentence was found to be unduly lenient in 86 cases and was increased in 75 cases.

Mr. Bone: A constituent of mine, 17-year-old Simon Englefield, was viciously attacked and, as a result, spent several nights in hospital and had three plates put in his jaw. The attacker was given a 36-month supervision order and was ordered to pay £100 compensation, to be taken from his benefits at £5 a week. The family wanted to appeal against that unduly lenient sentence, but they could not do so because he was sentenced in a youth court. Will the Solicitor-General consider extending the rules to the youth courts?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and we should reflect on it. That sentence sounds not to have been appropriate for what transpired, although it is, of course, difficult to comment on individual cases without knowing the ins and outs of what was before the judge at the time and why he exercised the discretion that he did. I shall carefully reflect on what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): At last night’s Livia awards, we heard moving stories about the responses of police officers, members of the public and victims in cases of driving offences that had caused death. Given that we have recently created some new offences relating to drivers who cause death, will the Attorney-General’s office be particularly alert over the coming months to cases where it thinks that low sentences have been imposed on drivers who have caused death?

The Solicitor-General: I regret not having been able to attend the awards last night, but I understand that, as ever on such occasions, some touching accounts were given. We refer quite a few cases of causing death by dangerous driving; indeed, I recall having done one
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within the past week. We can send such cases to have the sentence reviewed; we cannot do so for cases of causing death by careless driving, so a distinction has to be made. Although this depends on cases being drawn to our attention, I assure my hon. Friend that when that happens we have proper regard to the guidelines and we refer whenever it is appropriate to do so.

Human Trafficking

2. Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effect of Operation Pentameter 2 on numbers of prosecutions for human trafficking offences brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. [233480]

The Solicitor-General: The prosecutions produced by Operation Pentameter are still at different stages in the criminal justice system. An overall assessment is being undertaken by the UK Human Trafficking Centre and the Association of Chief Police Officers, and that will address the impact on the number of prosecutions that have come from Operation Pentameter 2.

My hon. Friend may have seen that earlier this week, on 3 November, six traffickers were successfully prosecuted for their treatment of a young Slovakian woman who was raped and made to work in brothels all over the east midlands. Of the six convicted, one was given a 14-year sentence, three received 11-year sentences, one got a three-year sentence and the other a two-and-a-half year sentence. The judge referred to their offences as “despicable”, and we agree.

Ms Barlow: I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend on those successful prosecutions. We must consider the victims of trafficking, and Citylight is an organisation that has been set up in Hove and Portslade, in my constituency, to offer welfare support to female victims. It has been set up in conjunction with Sussex police as part of Operation Pentameter 2. Will she tell me what plans she has to support such organisations in their fight against sex trafficking?

The Solicitor-General: I am pleased to hear about Citylight and its close work with Sussex police and the prosecuting authorities on Pentameter 2. We engage with such organisations in two ways: first, by providing welfare support and accommodation for victims. We decided recently that the reflection period to which victims are entitled, which is required to be only 30 days, will be 45 days. The POPPY project is the main source of that welfare support, but it has now contracted out some of that work to other third sector organisations. Secondly, a stakeholder group of third sector and voluntary groups has direct input into the inter-ministerial group on human trafficking, which means that organisations such as Citylight can have a say on policy development and our trafficking strategy.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Five hundred and twenty-eight criminals were arrested under Pentameter 2. Why were there so few prosecutions?

The Solicitor-General: I am not sure why the hon. Gentleman thinks that there have been so few prosecutions. Many prosecutions are ongoing, so it is too soon to reckon the final figure for Pentameter 2, but up to
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September 2008 we had prosecuted 125 people for sexual exploitation trafficking and five for non-sexual exploitation trafficking-related offences. Of course, we prosecute people for inciting prostitution for gain, money laundering, rape, kidnapping and false imprisonment, as well as for specific trafficking offences. As he knows—he takes a great interest in this matter—those prosecutions and convictions do not show on the trafficking statistics.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that only this week the Fawcett Society hosted a meeting in this House at which it was alleged that 40,000 enslaved and trafficked women are currently residing in the United Kingdom? I was astonished by that figure. Does she have a way of checking its accuracy? Will she talk to the Fawcett Society about the evidence given at that meeting?

The Solicitor-General: I cannot comment on that specific point. Figures have been bandied about by various campaigns—by “bandied”, I do not mean that they are calculated irresponsibly, but that some uncertain ways of counting are used. I was at that meeting and I talk to the Fawcett Society all the time.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): The scale of the problem of human trafficking is alarming: in the past year alone, some 4,000 women have been the miserable victims of trafficking in the UK. Do we not need to go further than one-off police investigations and operations by adopting an integrated approach, including ratifying the European convention on human trafficking and introducing a proper unified border police force?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that these are not one-off policing events but opportunities to galvanise what we have learned. Pentameter 2 is significantly better than Pentameter 1, but the process is ongoing. We are improving not only our intelligence on trafficking, but our mechanisms for, among other things, the early identification and treatment of victims. Through Pentameter and other such programmes, we are making those improvements. Again, as he knows, we will ratify the convention in December and implement it three months later.

Domestic Violence

3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions she and the Attorney General have had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the sentencing guidelines for domestic violence cases. [233481]

The Solicitor-General: In December 2006, the Sentencing Guidelines Council issued definitive guidelines for sentencing offences of domestic violence. It set out the principles that by law every court must have regard to when sentencing such an offence and, perhaps most importantly, it set out the principle that domestic violence must be treated as seriously as other forms of violence.

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