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House of Commons

Thursday 15 January 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Thursday 22 January.

Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made , and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Thursday 22 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Marine Environmental Protection

1. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to improve the protection of the marine environment. [247627]

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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Government want a marine environment that is clean, safe, productive and biologically diverse. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill will play a significant part in achieving this, along with other steps that we are taking, including action on sustainable fisheries management and on achieving good environmental status for our seas under the marine strategy framework directive.

Anne Moffat: With reference to the progress of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which represents a sea change, is my right hon. Friend aware of the wonderful coastline in my constituency, starting with a five-star, award-winning seabird centre in North Berwick, which is educational and protective and does all the things that the Government want to do to look after the marine life in the River Forth?

Hilary Benn: I am very pleased to hear from my hon. Friend about the centre that she mentioned. The Bill has started its passage in the other place and we look forward to its coming here. There will be much to discuss and debate, but there is widespread support for the legislation. It is groundbreaking, it is important, and we need to get it on the statute book and get on with the work.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of marine sustainability. Does he acknowledge the concerns expressed by many environmental groups and local fishermen about the extent to which licences are being issued for industrial scallop dredging, and the damaging effect that that has both on the seabed and on future fish stocks, not least in my area, in Cardigan bay, which is protected as a special area of conservation? Does he regard the arrangements in the Bill as robust enough to meet the challenges brought to us in our constituencies?

Hilary Benn: I am indeed aware of those concerns. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the action that we have taken in relation to scallop dredging in the Fal and Helford special area of conservation, and of the decision taken last year in respect of Lyme bay, which was very significant. That illustrates the Government’s determination to take the right decisions to provide conservation where it is needed, and the Bill provides the framework to do that. In the end, all these things must be balanced, but one of the purposes of introducing the Bill is to allow for the designation of marine conservation zones. The two steps that we have already taken with regard to scallop dredging will give comfort to those who are concerned about the Government’s willingness, in the right circumstances, to act.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend may remember that a few weeks ago he visited my constituency. During that visit, I had arranged a meeting with a number of leading Scottish environmental non-governmental organisations. They are very pleased with the way he listened to their concerns and has come up with a sensible division of responsibilities for nature conservation between the UK and Scottish Governments. What steps will the Department
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take to ensure that there continues to be effective co-ordination between the Scottish and UK Government responsibilities in this area?

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for saying that. I recollect saying to his environmental groups on that occasion that we would listen to what was said as a result of the consultation. They will have seen how we amended the draft Bill when it was published and introduced into Parliament. I am absolutely determined that we continue to build on the arrangements that we have put in place to ensure partnership between the different parts of the devolved system. One of the things that came across clearly in the consultation was the desire for one coherent framework. The discussions that we have had with the devolved Administrations have allowed us to put in place a structure which I think will work, and I am committed to it.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Further to the important point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), the Minister will know that the destruction caused by scallop dredging may last for 10, 12 or 14 years. It is nothing short of vandalism. Will he contrast the needs of those fishermen with the crofting that goes on both in Scotland and in north Wales on the Llyn peninsula, where farmers supplement their income by sustainable fishing methods? Will he ensure that their interests are catered for in the interests of good, sustainable fisheries for the future?

Hilary Benn: It is important that there should be local discussion and local input. In the end, it is about balancing all these things. However, as I said in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), we must have a framework that allows us to take such decisions; obviously, the Welsh Assembly Government would have responsibilities in this particular case. A balance has to be struck. The Marine and Coastal Access Bill and the support of the devolved Administrations provide the framework within which we can try to deal better with the problems, and that is why there is such widespread support for the Bill.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that one thing that will not improve the marine environment is EU Commission regulation article 47, which relates to EU monitoring of recreational fisheries? It seeks to take away precious quota from our professional fishermen and heap a horrendous bureaucratic burden on the 1.5 million sea anglers, who contribute £1 billion to the economy. Will the Secretary of State join me and the newly formed Angling Trust and use every ounce of his strength to reject that ridiculous proposal?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will meet representatives of the Angling Trust shortly to discuss the matter. In the end, it is important that we strike a balance, on that issue and others. We are determined to ensure that there are opportunities for sustainable fisheries and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s achievement in the fisheries negotiations just before Christmas. Such things are difficult to balance, but we achieved a reasonable outcome.

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Animal Diseases/Contaminated Feed

2. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): What steps his Department plans to take to ensure that cattle in England are protected from animal diseases and contaminated feed in 2009. [247628]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): The Government are funding scanning surveillance to detect the emergence of new or exotic diseases in cattle. The diagnosis and disease investigation service is subsidised and offered to farmers through their private vets, and the analysis of samples is delivered by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. There are also projects targeted at specific diseases. DEFRA collaborates with the Food Standards Agency, Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to manage contaminated animal feed incidents.

Mr. Jack: The Minister’s answer contains some reassurance, but she will be aware of the devastating effect of the feed contamination in Ireland just before Christmas on the whole of that country’s pork meat industry—large amounts of product had to be destroyed. What specific steps have been taken to minimise the risk of such an event in the United Kingdom, and does the Minister agree that what happened emphasises the importance of better product labelling to enable us to enhance traceability if such an incident were to occur here?

Jane Kennedy: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I am in active dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for public health. We need to learn the lessons from that recent incident to make sure that our procedures are as robust as we believe they are. However, the assurance scheme that protects British-produced pork—bacon, ham and other pig products—has really proved its worth in the past month. Consumers can be assured that when they purchase pork, bacon or ham that bears the British quality standard mark agreed with the British Pig Executive and which applies throughout the whole food chain, they are buying a product derived from animals that have been fed, reared and processed to the highest standards of animal welfare and food safety.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): This is not just an issue about the protection of livestock in England; it applies right across the UK. Will the Minister assure the House that she regularly discusses issues such as animal disease and contaminated feed with her colleagues in the devolved Administrations?

Jane Kennedy: Yes, indeed. As my hon. Friend would expect, I am very interested in working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations. The recent report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has made recommendations on the pork industry, referring to the Scottish taskforce for pig products. I want to learn from the Scottish experience, and I will be in touch with ministerial colleagues in the other authorities.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): Given that the Government were essentially responsible for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2007, surely they have an even greater responsibility to farmers,
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consumers and farmers’ livestock to protect against other animal diseases, including bluetongue? There is a vaccine against bluetongue strain 8, but not against other strains of the disease. Serotype 1 of the disease was discovered in Blackpool less than two months ago and is present elsewhere in western Europe. Given the devastating impact of an outbreak of bluetongue, not only on animal welfare but on farm incomes, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that we are protected against other strains of the disease?

Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Gentleman would expect, we are monitoring the situation very closely. Our veterinary and animal health authorities conduct very strict surveillance. I am not aware of any circulating bluetongue disease found in the UK in 2008. The vaccination uptake previously was high in the south and the east of England, and the Pirbright experts believe that this was effective in controlling the BTV8 outbreak. We are not complacent, however—we know that we must keep all this work under very close review. We are conducting post-import tests for all bluetongue stereotypes. Every type of bluetongue can be detected through routine testing. We are urging the industry to consider the risks and to check the health and vaccination status of animals when sourcing any animals from within the UK or, indeed, from abroad.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Animal feed is one very important part of the food chain, but the focus and function of animals and farms in passing on manure to allotment holders is another vital part of the food chain. I have been contacted by allotment holders in Wakefield who have had farmers selling them manure that is not pure but has been contaminated with chemicals. What has my right hon. Friend’s Department been doing to ensure the minimisation of that and to ensure that people who want to grow their own do not end up with distorted carrots and parsnips?

Jane Kennedy: I am very interested in the case that my hon. Friend has brought to the House, and I would want to have the opportunity to look into it in detail. The Environment Agency will be closely at work on the detail of this matter, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also following it closely. We are aware that a particular product has been withdrawn. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend, or if she would care to write to me with the details of the representations that she has received, I will be happy to look into them.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): The people at the forefront in combating disease in our animals are the institutes of animal health. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the scientists and other staff who work at the Institute for Animal Health at Compton in my constituency and give them some assurance that the future of the institute in that location will be confirmed?

Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Gentleman will know, no decisions have yet been taken regarding the institute and the other organisations with which it works. I am more than happy to join Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to the work of those people in his constituency, who do extremely important work. I hope to visit their organisation in the near future to learn about their work.

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Surface Water Drainage Charges

3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects of the new surface water drainage charges on sports and social clubs; and if he will make a statement. [247629]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): My hon. Friend will know that it is for Ofwat, as the independent economic regulator of the water industry, to approve water companies’ charging schemes. However, to give him some reassurance, I can say that we are very aware of the problem of affordability faced by some customers as a result of the switch to site area charging for surface water drainage, and we are actively looking at what can be done.

Dr. Iddon: I am grateful for that answer. Throughout the north-west, sports and social clubs are receiving from United Utilities water rate bills that include a new surface area water drainage charge that is resulting in an increase of about 400 per cent. in the three-year transitional period. In discussing this matter with Ofwat, will my hon. Friend remind it of the guidance that was given following the passage of the Water Industry Act 1999? It said:

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is worth reiterating the advice issued by the then Secretary of State in 2000, which said of that guidance:

for non-household customers

and playing fields—

It is worth reiterating that advice on the guidance. As I say, we are actively considering what may be done.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I fully support every word uttered by the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Will the Minister go further than he so far has in dealing with this grotesquely unfair charge, which could put a number of social clubs, sporting clubs and—yes, I shall mention them—churches in grave financial difficulty? I hope he will indicate that he will approach Ofwat and ask it to review the whole basis of the charge. It is a licence for the water companies, particularly United Utilities, to print money, and we want to stop it. It is unfair. Will he give a firmer assurance about the action that the Government will take?

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