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15 Jan 2009 : Column 335

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be aware of bids by water companies outside Wales to supply customers inside Wales, particularly in a development in his constituency known as Valleywood. Will he meet me to discuss the important issues raised by that attempt?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): As the hon. Gentleman knows, elements of water policy in Wales are devolved, but the regulatory regime remains with Westminster. On that basis, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the matter at the earliest opportunity.

T6. [247652] Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): In November I welcomed the announcement of spending on the Prescott lock in my constituency, but rumours abound that the Olympic legacy of usage, leisure and working of the Bow back waters is currently under threat. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss this issue, which is important to my constituents?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, not least because she has been a tireless advocate of regeneration in relation to the Olympics and her own communities.

I visited Prescott lock recently. We were fortunate enough to be in a position to allocate £2 million to its development, and to ensure—this is relevant to an earlier question—that construction materials for the site were delivered on our canal network, in which the Government are investing.

As I have said, I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend, because I think that we have a good news story to tell.

T3. [247649] Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Does the Minister concur with the recent finding of the Advertising Standards Authority that biofuels should not be described as sustainable?

Hilary Benn: I know that the authority reached that decision recently, and I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman in further detail. Obviously the judgment on advertising is one for the authority to make. As for the Government’s policy, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the review conducted by Ed Gallagher last year, which examined precisely this question. What the Government have said throughout is that we need to be sure that biofuels are sustainable. We need to consider both the direct impact, in connection with which a comparison can be made with the petrol and diesel that they might replace, and the more complicated issue of the indirect effect. The British Government have been pressing strongly in Europe for sustainability standards that can give the public confidence that biofuels are indeed sustainable.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Does this week’s vote on pesticides in the European Parliament mean that the United Kingdom Government have lost the argument on control of existing pesticides, or will there still be the possibility of insisting on a full impact assessment before any change in established practices is
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forced on British farmers? Should we not make decisions about such changes on the basis of the best possible evidence?

Hilary Benn: I entirely agree, and I have been making the same point for a very long time. Indeed, I have asked the European Commission for a full impact assessment, but none has been forthcoming. As I have said publicly, this is not a very good basis on which to make decisions. If you are asked to sign up to something, it kind of helps if you know what it is that you are signing up to.

I must be frank with the House. I regret that there do not appear to be enough other member states that share the concern that we have expressed so forcefully. We will of course use the possibility that exists in the final shape of the proposals to seek derogations where they are necessary, but there is a fundamental principle here. A balance must be struck. We take the protection of public health extremely seriously, but we must also enable farmers to protect their crops so that we can grow the food that we need. We must make decisions on the basis of good evidence and sound science, and I am sorry that that has not been done on this occasion.

T4. [247650] Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Will the Secretary of State agree to hold an urgent meeting with United Kingdom paper manufacturers to listen to their suggestions for reviving the international waste paper recycling market, the state of which is threatening many local authority schemes that are very important to our sustainability profile?

Jane Kennedy: I am very happy to offer the meeting that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. I acknowledge the concerns that exist in the paper recycling industry, and I am more than happy to keep the door open for him and any constituents whom he may wish to bring.

T5. [247651] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Today’s report on deer, and the fact that we now have a second reservoir of bovine TB, emphasise the importance of further action. Can the Minister explain why, by the end of October last year, 4,500 tests remained to be carried out? What steps is she taking to remedy the situation, in light of the continuing and growing concerns over this cattle disease?

Jane Kennedy: I acknowledge that bovine TB is our biggest endemic animal health issue. Working to eradicate this terrible disease is at the top of my agenda, given the devastating impact that it has.

We have a zero tolerance policy on overdue tests. We have pre-movement tests for cattle moving from high-risk herds, and extended use of the gamma interferon test. We are also actively pursuing the future use of vaccination. However, we need to consider further measures with the industry, and that is exactly the aim of the new bovine TB eradication group.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): On air quality, although concern is currently understandably focused on Heathrow and London, will the Secretary of State look into air quality in Greater Manchester? Following the failure of the transport referendum, there is now a big vacuum in public transport policy in Greater Manchester and there are huge issues in relation to
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worsening air quality. Will the Secretary of State discuss this with his counterpart at the Department for Transport and with the Environment Agency?

Hilary Benn: Yes, I certainly will, because as my hon. Friend rightly points out, air quality limits are currently being exceeded in several parts of the country. The principal problem is road traffic, and we set out the steps we propose to take in the air quality strategy published last year. I have already pointed out to the House that we will very probably have to apply to the Commission for further time to meet the targets; if it is to grant us further time, we will have to set out to its satisfaction in those applications the further steps we intend to take to meet the targets. This is a responsibility of the Government, and I take it very seriously, but it is also a responsibility of those who can influence questions of traffic management in our big towns and cities across the country.

T7. [247653] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Light-emitting diode—or LED—lighting technology is super-efficient: it generates just 5 per cent. of the wattage of a normal bulb, generates very little heat and has no mercury. Will the Secretary of State discuss with the Carbon Trust whether it can promote that technology, rather than the intermediate energy-efficient technology it is currently promoting?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to take up that suggestion, and I will do so. That is an important technology, which is still in a state of evolution. In the fight against climate change and the effort to reduce carbon emissions, we need all the technological assistance we can get. I would not, however, have a go at what the hon. Gentleman describes as the intermediate technology, because low-energy light bulbs certainly do save consumers money—even taking account, in some cases, of the additional costs—because of the longer life of the bulbs and the reduced energy consumption involved, but technology needs to continue to evolve to help us in this task of reducing our emissions.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Secretary of State is known for not being swayed by passion, and for being an open-minded man who is happy to rely on science and his advisers. The Environment Agency has said that the third Heathrow runway would exceed EU pollution limits because of unsafe nitrogen dioxide levels. How is it right—or how would it be right, to use the correct tense—for such advice to be discarded in a cavalier and cursory fashion?

Hilary Benn: I am certainly not in favour of discarding any advice in a cavalier fashion. I say once again to the House—I am sure my hon. Friend will listen very carefully to this—that the Government are determined that we will meet the air quality and noise targets that we have set. That would be a condition on any expansion of Heathrow. People will be able to make a judgment about whether they think that condition has been met when they hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport says shortly.

T8. [247654] Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): The Secretary of State will acknowledge that even in its current configuration Heathrow exceeds
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the pollution limits in the aforementioned EU air quality directive. Has he applied yet for the derogation that he says he will be seeking from that directive? If so, in terms of the road map he would have to outline for reaching eventual compliance with the directive, can he tell us how 220,000 additional flights each year would help in achieving that?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that, in relation to nitrogen dioxide and Heathrow, the principal problem is road traffic, not aircraft movements. Therefore, what happens on the M4 and other roads in that area has a significant impact. We have not yet applied for that derogation. We are likely to do so first in relation to PM10, because we should have achieved the targets by 2005—many other member states have not—and it is possible to allow for extra time until 2011. In relation to nitrogen dioxide, the date for achieving the target is 2010; we are not going to do so, for the reasons I have set out, and the derogation would extend that to 2015. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Government will have to set out to the satisfaction of the Commission that we have a credible plan for dealing with that. We will have to do so in relation to all the sites where there is a problem, including Heathrow, but as I hope he is aware, Heathrow does not present the biggest problem, because those limits are exceeded by a greater margin in other locations around the country.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Mortgage Fraud

1. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps the Serious Fraud Office plans to take to protect people against mortgage fraud. [247655]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): In November, the National Fraud Strategic Authority published an action plan to bring together public and private efforts to target mortgage fraud, and it intends to review the plan in a year. In support of that programme, about a tenth of the Serious Fraud Office’s current caseload is about mortgage fraud.

Mr. Bailey: I thank the Solicitor-General for her reply. My constituents, like those in other areas, are having difficulty in obtaining mortgage finance for the purchase of homes in the current economic climate. Given the difficulties in obtaining funds, can she assure me that she will do everything she can, working with the legal profession, to ensure that the funds that are available are used for legitimate house purchases and not by profiteering fraudsters?

The Solicitor-General: As ever, my hon. Friend has the interests of his constituents closely in mind. The SFO has recently produced best practice guidance both for lenders and for lawyers who deal with mortgages. The intention of that is, in part, to make it crystal clear when something odd is beginning to happen in a mortgage transaction so that a broader range of people than has
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been the case historically are able to spot it before things go too wrong. An important part of the whole fraud strategy is turning resources towards protection and prevention and, as the Director of Public Prosecutions said recently, as one would expect the prosecution and investigation authorities are taking on board what is happening in the economy and assessing its impact on crime patterns. I hope that gives my hon. Friend some of the reassurance that he seeks.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The SFO and the Financial Services Authority seem to have been asleep at the wheel in recent years in respect of mortgage fraud and near-fraud, which appears to have been carried out by some financial services companies themselves. Can the Solicitor-General tell me what steps she proposes to take, with her ministerial colleagues, to improve the rather poor performance of the SFO and FSA in recent years?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend’s point is unarguable really, although it was not all bad in the SFO and there were some very commendable results. He will know that a review of its functioning was carried out by Jessica de Grazia, which reported in 2008, and that a fresh director, Richard Alderman, was appointed around the same time. He has instituted quite a large number of the changes that Ms de Grazia proposed and some further ones; they are designed primarily to strengthen the leadership team, improve staff training and shorten the time that it takes to get cases to court. Quite a sizeable transformation programme is in process, and I shall send my hon. Friend more detail of that if he so wishes.

National Fraud Strategic Authority

2. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): By what means the new National Fraud Strategic Authority is intended to improve protection for businesses and the public against fraud. [247656]

The Solicitor-General: The NFSA is developing its first national fraud strategy, which follows an extensive consultation with public and private sector bodies. The strategy is intended to bring together Government, enforcement and private sector activity to tackle and prevent fraud. The strategy will be published in the next few months.

Anne Moffat: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer and commend her for coming in when she is obviously quite poorly—I hope that she will soon be on the mend. The formation of the NFSA is welcome, but will its role include fraud prevention? If the NFSA is to be at all strategic, its role surely must include fraud prevention.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend has got exactly to the point identified by the review: although agencies are in place to prosecute, to sentence and to seize assets, a focus must be on spotting fraud early so that the public can be protected from it before it starts, and it can be prevented and disrupted. It was with that aim in mind that the NFSA was set up to co-ordinate and fill in the gaps of our national effort against fraud. The NFSA is working closely with Lothian and Borders
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police in particular in leading the development of a comprehensive Scottish fraud strategy to match this one.

Serious Fraud Office

3. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): If she will review the effectiveness and efficiency of the Serious Fraud Office. [247657]

The Solicitor-General: Once again, this is about the Serious Fraud Office and our efforts to combat fraud. Since publication of the de Grazia report, to which I have referred, the director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, has made many changes to the leadership team, improved staff training, and introduced measures to shorten the time taken to get SFO cases to court. He has reorganised the operational divisions and introduced a case management reform programme. The hon. Gentleman has probably read that a new general counsel, Vivian Robinson QC, with whom I am acquainted from my practice and who is an excellent choice, was recently appointed to sharpen up that end of the SFO’s work.

Mr. Holloway: That is a more detailed explanation, but is the Attorney-General confident that the recent number of failed cases will be turned round by that?

The Solicitor-General: I am sure that my noble and learned Friend the Attorney-General will be as confident as I am of what I am about to say. There have been early successes, bearing in mind that Mr. Alderman has been in post less than a year. In October, the SFO obtained its first ever civil recovery order under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 in a case in which Balfour Beatty was required to return £2.25 million of resources that it had progressed with. There are currently six specific mortgage fraud cases on the SFO’s stocks, and much has been done to sharpen its procedures up front so that it spots and evaluates more quickly which cases it should pursue and which it should leave. I hope that its conviction rate will follow that of the American models that the de Grazia review used.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will the Solicitor-General agree to meet me and the former director of Excel Engineering, which was involved in one of those cases and had the largest number of people prosecuted for fraud? The company, which was the main victim of that fraud, has not been properly compensated, although other complainants who were involved in the fraud have been.

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend has previously raised that matter with me in general. I am not sufficiently apprised of the details to comment, but I will gladly meet her as soon as practicable.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): May I suggest that the Government are too complacent in their approach? We have correctly identified that the de Grazia report showed a significantly poor SFO performance, relative to US prosecutors, in cost per case, staffing per case and conviction rates. One third of the SFO’s management then left the service, and on top of that, only two days ago, the Solicitor-General made a written statement requesting an extra £15 million, but
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giving no reason whatever. Is it not increasingly looking as though the SFO is an organisation in crisis? The Solicitor-General needs to explain urgently what is going on with the SFO’s management.

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman could not be wronger— [ Interruption. ] Well, he tries hard, but he could not be wronger. It is not unexpected that when reports such as de Grazia’s are produced and a new head comes into the SFO with different ideas about how it should be run, there is movement in the senior management. Richard Alderman seems to me from his presentations to be confident that the new people in post are likely to improve matters enormously. There is absolutely nothing odd, strange or overly demanding about the funding that has recently been given to the SFO. The hon. Gentleman should not be led astray by a Liberal Democrat piece of nonsense that was fed to the press. The Daily Mail reported that a spokesman for the SFO had said:

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