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Huw Irranca-Davies: Once again, I thank all hon. Members who have raised this issue, which is vital for their constituents and for small organisations, churches, sports clubs and so on in their areas. I hope that I have made it clear to the hon. Gentleman and others just
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how seriously we take this matter, and that we will examine what can be done. I cannot go further than that today, but we are actively considering it.

It is worth stating that Ofwat’s approach is that in principle, site area-based charging is overall the fairest means of charging for surface water drainage. However, the charge relates only to areas draining into a public sewer from impermeable surfaces such as the roofs of buildings or car parks. Grassy areas such as sports fields, burial grounds and so on will not be liable to charges. Ofwat is making that clear to companies, and I glad to restate it today.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): At the risk of repeating what the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, may I focus on the application of the new surface water charges to ancient cathedrals and churches with huge roof spaces? They will be adversely affected, and some are already struggling. I had better declare an interest: I am an honorary lay canon of Bradford cathedral.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend. I am more than happy, on the basis of the comments that have been made today and other representations that have been made, to examine individual cases. It is worth my saying also that if a customer is of the view that he or she has been charged for permeable areas, in the first instance they should raise the matter with the water company, bearing in mind the guidance that is on record and has been reiterated today. Failing that, they should raise it with the Consumer Council for Water. I reassure Members that we are taking concerns seriously and actively considering what can be done.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the Government rightly applaud the work of faith-based and other voluntary sector groups such as sports clubs, the guides and the scouts. The gross increase in charges that the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) pointed out could not come to such volunteer-based organisations at a worse time than this time of economic hardship. Will the Minister intervene and ask what economic and financial impact assessment has been done and whether it was done during or before the economic crisis? May we please have a moratorium on the charges until such an assessment has been carried out?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I cannot offer the hon. Lady a moratorium on the charges, but I can assure her that as part of our examination of what is currently going on and our undertaking to review how the charges are rolled out, we will take into consideration the factors that she has mentioned, including the economic impact.

This is an opportune moment to say that Ofwat is encouraging churches and other customers to double-check their chargeable area, to ensure that those who are entitled to a lower bill by virtue of a small permeable area are receiving one. I have been made aware of instances where that has not happened, so I thank the hon. Lady for raising the matter.

Air Quality

4. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What recent discussions his Department has had with the Environment Agency on the protection of air quality. [247631]

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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): My officials meet with the Environment Agency on a regular basis to discuss air quality and progress in meeting emission limits.

Ben Chapman: What comfort can my right hon. Friend give my constituents in Eastham, who are faced with the possible construction of a Biossence gasification plant and an Agri Energy tallow plant, that if those projects go ahead they will continue to enjoy clean and safe air, and that any installations will be appropriately monitored?

Hilary Benn: I understand that Biossence Ltd held pre-application discussions with the Environment Agency last March. It expressed the intention to apply for a permit under the environmental permitting regulations. If it does, there must be statutory consultation, and in the end the Environment Agency decides on applications, either granting the permit with conditions or refusing it. In making any application, an operator needs to cover various matters, including satisfactory environmental management of the installation, adequate monitoring and compliance with EU directives and other requirements. I hope that that offers him and his constituents some reassurance.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): How much harder will it be to achieve air quality objectives if the 222,000 extra flights a year which will result from the third runway at Heathrow go ahead? Will the Secretary of State outline the extent to which he wholeheartedly gives his passionate commitment and support to the third runway at Heathrow?

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman must be a little more patient because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will make a statement later today. To answer the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the Government have always made it clear that our air quality and noise targets must be met before any expansion can go ahead.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): In his discussions with the Environment Agency, will my right hon. Friend emphasise that the public need to know that all our decisions on air quality are based on good science? In the past, the Environment Agency has listened too much to Greenpeace and other campaigners about, for example, energy for waste. The air quality is perfectly good, EU regulations are fine and the debate requires science, not passion.

Hilary Benn: I am a great believer—I am sure all hon. Members are—in science, facts, information and effective monitoring so that we can make the right decisions. Science of course informs the limits that domestic and European legislation have put in place. We must recognise that there has been real progress in the past 30 years in improving air quality in the country. However, there is some way to go on some forms of pollution. It is a genuine problem because the pollution we still have reduces average life expectancy by about seven to eight months. That is why we must keep up the progress.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The Secretary of State has a reputation for being quietly effective, but he lives in west London so he understands the impact that a 46 per cent. increase in Heathrow
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capacity will have on the environment of my constituents and others across that area. On Heathrow expansion, has he been defending Londoners at the Cabinet table, or has his reputation for quietness extended to silence on this occasion?

Hilary Benn: I am not known for my silence, and I have made it clear that my responsibility as Environment Secretary is to ensure that the Government’s air quality and noise targets are met. When the hon. Gentleman has a chance to hear the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport later, he will find the answer to his question.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. Friend once again whether Government approval for the third runway at Heathrow would make it easier or harder to meet the air quality standards? The House will be interested in his views.

Hilary Benn: As I have already said in answer to the first question on the subject, the Government have made it clear that any decision on expansion must be subject to our meeting our targets for air quality and noise. That is essential. As I have said to other hon. Members, if my hon. Friend waits a little longer, he will learn from the announcement by the Secretary of State for Transport how that will be given effect.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): The Department has made something of a habit of wasting taxpayers’ money through paying expensive fines for failing to deliver its targets and for serial incompetence. The impending threat of further punishment from the EU for failing to meet air quality standards is only the latest example. The Olympic Delivery Authority in east London stands accused of doing little or nothing to fulfil its promises to cut air pollution from construction. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?

Hilary Benn: I know that those who are working on the construction of the Olympics are conscious of the need to try to ensure that it is done in the most environmentally friendly way. On the substance of the question, we are currently not meeting the targets for the two pollutants PM10 and nitrogen dioxide. However, we are not unique in that. If the hon. Gentleman considers the rest of the EU, he will find many other countries that do not meet the requirements. That is why provision was made in last year’s revision to the directive for member states to apply for more time to do so. As I have already said, it is likely that we will need to apply for more time to meet the requirements on PM10 and nitrogen dioxide.

Mr. Ainsworth: The answer, then, is not a lot. Let me join those over in west London who have already done this and ask the Secretary of State exactly how a third runway at Heathrow will help to cut air pollution. Will he confirm that, as a result of the statement that we will hear later today, the Government’s decision will cause millions of people to face blight, pollution, deteriorating air quality and noise, will massively affect the natural environment and affect people’s well-being? He is the Environment Secretary and we want to hear his view. It is no good hiding behind the latest statement. He has, to his credit, been notably silent in his enthusiasm for
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expanding Heathrow, but clearly he has little clout. Has he perhaps considered as a last resort joining Airplot, the organisation that is safeguarding land at the airport? That might be his only way of getting a share of the action.

Hilary Benn: I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment, and in response I simply say that I have said throughout that my responsibility is to ensure that if there is to be any expansion—he, like other hon. and right hon. Members, will have to be a bit more patient—it will be subject to the Government’s being able to demonstrate that we will meet the air quality and noise targets that we have set. If he just waits a little longer, he will see how the Government intend to ensure that we fulfil those promises.

Fishermen (Assistance with Aid Applications)

5. Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): What assistance is available for fishermen applying for European fisheries fund aid for new nets and modifications to existing gear necessary to meet the new conservation measures agreed at the European Fisheries Council. [247632]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): In response to my right hon. Friend’s question, I am pleased to confirm that funding is indeed available, under both axis 1 and axis 3 of the European fisheries fund, for vessel owners to change to more selective gear. Applicants should first make contact with the fisheries department in their operational area for direct advice on application procedures.

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I would also like to put on record my recognition of the robust leadership that he gave at the recent Fisheries Council, when some of the Commission’s more outrageous proposals, including the closure of the west coast fishing grounds, were challenged and changed. I only regret that his Scottish fisheries counterpart did not more generously recognise the role that he played. He has identified funding and he will be aware that the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation is looking to unlock funding for intelligent gear and nets. I hope he will co-operate with the Scottish Government to maximise such funding, because any trials piloted in Scotland will have a benefit across the whole of the UK fishing fleet.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my right hon. Friend for her warm words about what was a tough but good outcome from the fisheries negotiations. I am pleased that last year we launched the EFF, with £100 million for UK fisheries right across the UK to improve their sustainability. I will be working alongside others, including Scottish fisheries colleagues and the Scottish Executive, to ensure that there is good use of those funds to support the sustainable use of fisheries. To echo her comments, I am particularly pleased that as part of the negotiations we managed to save the livelihoods of people on the west coast of Scotland.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If ever there were an issue where good, effective working relations between the Minister and Richard Lochhead in Edinburgh were so important, this is surely it. May I urge the Minister to remain engaged with the fishing
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industry itself as the new technical measures are rolled out? He will be aware that serious concerns were expressed by those parts of the fleet that operated on the west of Scotland about the suitability of some of the early measures. Those concerns must not be forgotten now that the deal is done.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes absolutely the right points. I intend to continue close engagement, both with the Scottish Executive and with fishermen on the ground, because there is a level of local expertise and knowledge that has really helped us in the negotiations and which will have to help us, in what will be a challenging year, to deliver sustainable fisheries. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I will remain engaged at all levels, and I will, I hope, be visiting the west coast of Scotland in the near future.

Water Charges

6. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with Ofwat on water prices. [247633]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I met the chairman and chief executive of Ofwat on 16 December to discuss the 2009 review of water price limits, covering the period 2010 to 2015.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Secretary of State for that response, and I note the response about clubs that his Minister gave earlier. However, I would like to ask what the Government are doing to reduce the burden of water bills on domestic households by tackling other factors that affect the price of water, such as the non-payment of bills, which leads to those who do pay their bills subsidising those who do not.

Hilary Benn: That was one of the issues that I discussed in the meeting to which I referred. It is important that water companies are able to collect the payments that are due, recognising that in the current economic circumstances some people have genuine difficulty in paying their bills. I attach particular importance, as does Ofwat, in taking final decisions about the price review and its impact on bills between 2010 and 2015, to the question of affordability. Like many things in life, it is a question of balance, as it is also necessary to take further action on reducing leakage and improving some environmental problems, particularly those relating to the Thames area, United Utilities and some other parts of the country.

7. Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on the rate at which charges for water are applied to schools, churches and voluntary organisations; and if he will make a statement. [247634]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): The Secretary of State has received a range of representations from various groups regarding surface water drainage charges. As I said in response to an
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earlier question, the Government are aware of the issue of affordability raised by the switch to site area charging, and we are actively considering what can be done.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply—obviously, I heard the exchange on Question 3, asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). Strong representations are being made and it would be good to hear whether they are reaching the Minister’s door. The problem has been around for 10 years—I read a debate from 1999 in which the current Home Secretary raised the issue of the potential fallout from changes in water charges. Is it not about time that we told Ofwat that its proposals are wrong, and that organisations should be properly protected from such excessive increases?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend is right that the issue has been around for some time. I reiterated earlier the advice that the former Secretary of State gave in 2000, which is important to note. I reassure my hon. Friend that we will not leave the issue lying. We are aware of the concerns, and the Secretary of State and I are actively considering what can be done.

Topical Questions

T1. [247647] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): 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 inform the House that the Rural Payments Agency has now made full single payment scheme payments to 78 per cent. of farmers, which amounts to 67.4 per cent. of the estimated total fund. As the House will be aware, the RPA’s target is to make 75 per cent. of SPS 2008 payments by value by the end of this month, and 90 per cent. by the end of March.

Kerry McCarthy: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Earlier, we rightly discussed the importance of protecting consumers by ensuring adequate food safety standards in the meat industry, but it is equally important to protect animal welfare. Does my right hon. Friend support the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in its “Rooting for pigs” campaign to ensure better animal welfare standards within the pig industry?

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): Yes. A set of labelling definitions, such as “free range” or “barn grown”, agreed between the RSPCA and the UK pig industry, would be extremely powerful and command much public support. I prefer a voluntary agreement to the imposition of more legislation, and I welcome the good progress made so far. We are close to agreement between all the parties, including the supermarkets, on a set of assurance scheme criteria. All of us who enjoy pork and bacon will welcome such a labelling scheme. It will allow us to exercise an informed choice and to support our farmers, particularly in delivering higher standards of welfare.

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