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House of Commons

Thursday 2 July 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Bottle Deposit Scheme

1. Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Whether he plans to introduce a bottle deposit scheme in England. [283376]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): Mr. Speaker, first, may I congratulate you on your election and wish you well in the years to come?

The Government believe that resources could be more effectively used in improving current systems than in developing a parallel system for deposits on drinks packaging. For example, improved household collections and developing the “Recycle on the Go” infrastructure are likely to be more cost-effective in increasing recycling and tackling litter.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for his answer. Many of us here can recall collecting bottles to gain extra pocket money, but the matter is very serious, given that the UK recycles only 35 per cent. of its plastic bottles. Other countries have much better records—Denmark, for example, has a recycling rate of 87 per cent., so the difference is staggering—and they have deposit schemes, so it cannot be impossible to operate such schemes alongside kerbside ones. I hope that he will concede that a deposit scheme could have an enormous impact on reducing litter and the damage to our countryside and to parts of our towns. I would like to ask him—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Lady is reaching a question mark.

Annette Brooke: I would like to ask the Minister whether he could re-examine the matter, undertaking a full cost-benefit analysis and considering what happens in other countries.

Dan Norris: First, I should point out to the hon. Lady that we have had great success in recycling packaging in the past 10 years. The figures that I have obtained show that our recycling increased from 28 to 61 per cent. between 1998 and 2008. That means that we have
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recycled three and a half times more aluminium, four times more plastic, three times more glass, six times more wood and half as much paper again.

I remember taking my Corona pop bottles to collect deposits when I was a child, but we must consider the evidence on deposit schemes. In December 2008, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs published a report that examined the features of packaging deposit systems and the role that such systems might play in increasing recovery and recycling of single-use drinks containers—those made of plastic, aluminium, glass and so on—in the UK. The report, commissioned in consultation with stakeholders, reviewed deposit systems in four other EU member states. The report provided evidence for and against deposit schemes, but overall it supported the view that resources could be better used in other ways to encourage recycling and to tackle litter—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the Minister that I am grateful to him for his generous remarks, but frankly we have made a very poor start today and we need to do a lot better?

Water Prices

2. Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with Ofwat on water prices; and if he will make a statement. [283377]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): Mr. Speaker, in line with your ruling, I shall say merely that I met Ofwat on 27 April to discuss its 2009 review of water price limits.

Mr. Breed: I thank the Minister for that brief response. I hope that he will be aware of the rising and continuing anger of South West Water charge payers who, even after 15 years, are still paying substantially more for their water than people in any other part of the country; that is particularly true of people in Cornwall, which is one of the poorest regions in Europe. The Government simply cannot stand by and leave everything to Ofwat. What are they going to do to address that total unfairness, which has gone on for far too long?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I will tell hon. Members not only what the Government will do, but what we have done. We commissioned Anna Walker to undertake a review to examine those very issues, not only in the south-west, but across the UK. For those hon. Members who are not aware of this, I should say that the review reported its interim findings this Monday. The Government will seek to respond to that review in full when the full report is published, but we have indicated that we are aware of the particular issues in the south-west and we have to find a way to address them. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will attend Anna Walker’s forthcoming roadshow in the south-west.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware that the word on the street is that Ofwat is weak and needs to be shaken up or changed, that the private equity owned water companies are
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getting away with blue murder and that consumers are getting a raw deal? When is he going to do something about Ofwat?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My goodness, I am having to deal with some challenges today, Mr. Speaker. I also hear the opinion that Ofwat is far too strong and rigorous sometimes. What I would say to reassure my hon. Friend is that this Government introduced clear, explicit social and environmental guidance and we expect that to guide what Ofwat does. It has to make its own decisions and it is an independent economic regulator, but we have to ensure that issues of social justice, affordability and so on are properly taken account of, too.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Only yesterday, I passed to Ofwat a letter from the treasurer of the 1st Droitwich Spa scout group expressing concern about a likely increase in its water charges from £50 to £1,000 because of run-off charges. That will force the group to choose between a much-needed new roof for the scout hut or an increase in subs for the 60 beavers, cubs and scouts, which they could ill afford. What comfort can I give the 1st Droitwich Spa scout group?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman can give it the comfort that this Minister has met both the regulator and United Utilities and will continue to put on the pressure. It is right that the dialogue between the independent economic regulator and the water companies is the way they define how they will take their regime forward. I am clear that there should not be disproportionate impacts on groups such as community hall groups, scout associations, churches and so on. The great thing is that United Utilities has applied a moratorium in order to examine that very issue in its area. I am looking forward to learning the outcome of that shortly, because I hope that it will guide the way for future decisions.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that a social tariff especially for large low-income households is essential if they are not to be clobbered by huge increases under water metering, and that Ofwat is unlikely to approve such tariffs without clear and firm guidance from the Government? Will the Government issue such guidance as a matter of urgency?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My right hon. Friend will know that that is the very reason that we set up Anna Walker’s review—to consider issues of affordability, social tariffs and how water metering can play a role not only in water efficiency, but in driving down costs, especially for low-income households, and measures to tackle water poverty. We need to look in the round at Anna Walker’s interim report and to respond in full to her final report to deal with the very issue that my right hon. Friend raises.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Mr. Speaker, may I add my personal congratulations?

Why has the Minister not put in the draft Flood and Water Management Bill his response to the Cave and Walker reviews, and why is he not giving a clear sense of direction to the water industry and a clear sense that the Government are on top of those issues?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Lady refers to the Cave review, as opposed to the Walker review, which has been out to full consultation. We said that we would respond to it in full. There is nothing that precludes the Government or the regulator from acting on what is in the Cave review: we do not have to wait for another pricing review. We have to ensure that whatever we propose in the Bill next Session deals with the important issues, including those that were raised by Pitt in his review—we said that we would act on those. We also need to deal with issues of flooding and so on, and we will get on with that.

Single Payment Scheme

3. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce the overall cost of the single payment scheme. [283378]

4. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of the single payment scheme. [283379]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Rural Payments Agency has made a year-on-year improvement in the timing of payments under the single payment scheme. For scheme year 2008, at 30 June it had paid out around £1.625 billion, representing more than 99.6 per cent. of the estimated total fund.

The agency has been working to reduce the administrative costs of the scheme, as well as to reduce the burden on farmers. A number of initiatives to improve the process of claiming payment have been introduced, including online applications and the issuing of claim forms that are part-completed. Those initiatives ensure that the overall process is easier and quicker.

Martin Linton: Yes, but given our commitment to further reform of the common agricultural policy, is it not time to cut back the escalating cost of the single payment scheme, which is £1.6 billion in this country and £25 billion across Europe, and is expected to hit a staggering £35 billion in 2012? As well as the cost to taxpayers and consumers, is it not against the interests of young farmers if landowners are paid £100 an acre whatever they grow? Does not that just increase the threshold to get into the profession?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to reforming the system. The health check has in recent years made the system less bureaucratic and fairer. We are continuing to press in Europe for a move from pillar 1 to pillar 2, which would make it less bureaucratic and easier for young people to come into farming.

Sandra Gidley: Single farm payments are supposed to allow farmers to cope with a market that is unfair, but each payment last year cost the taxpayer £742 to administer. Some 14,645 payments of less than £400 were made, including 636 of less than £50. Will the Minister consider introducing a minimum claim value of £250 to £300, which would reduce bureaucracy without damaging hard-working family farmers?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: As a result of the CAP health check, we are in the process of introducing new de minimis options. DEFRA is consulting on the new minimum of between one and five hectares. The Rural Payments Agency’s performance has improved dramatically in recent years, since the great difficulties of a few years ago. For 2009, for example, the target of paying 75 per cent. of claims by value by the end of January was met on 20 January; the target of 90 per cent. by value by the end of March was met on 10 March; and 104,000 farmers have been paid, with only 400 residual claims to be sorted.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Some years ago, my hon. Friend—as I shall call him—the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and I were both Members of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it was holding an inquiry into the disasters of the single farm payment. The process has improved considerably, but is the Minister aware of the problems with the rural land register, which is at the heart of the single farm payment? Some 120,000 farms in England have received their maps recently, but those maps are showing remarkable things, such as hedges and walls that were demolished or removed in the 1950s, neighbourhood land being attached to farmers’ holdings and so on. What confidence can we have that the single farm payment in 2010 will be based on accurate data?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I can reassure my hon. Friend and the farming community that the mapping procedures being conducted now will not affect this year’s payments. There are 28 days for farmers to respond to the maps that they have received. We have been in touch with the RPA already. I have a meeting with the RPA chief executive next week and the mapping arrangements are at the top of the agenda. I met National Farmers Union representatives at the royal Norfolk show yesterday, where they expressed their concerns about the matter— [ Interruption. ] As my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) says from a sedentary position, I am wearing a Norfolk Young Farmers Club tie to demonstrate my appreciation of their generosity yesterday.

In conclusion, there is concern about the mapping. We are aware of it, we are dealing with it and we will ensure that it will not cause problems such as those that we have seen before with the RPA.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.

I am sorry, but the Minister’s answer is just not good enough. At the heart of the single payment scheme is the RPA. The RPA is sending out the wrong maps, again, to farmers and is giving them just 28 days to respond at the busiest time of the year. That shows that the RPA is still an incompetent organisation. At his meeting with the chief executive next week, will the Minister intervene to stop that process and remind the RPA that there is something called a harvest, which means that farmers are at their busiest at this time of the year and that they have to be given longer to respond to the mess?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I assure the hon. Gentleman that that item will be at the top of the agenda next week. We are aware of the anxiety that it is causing. As I have said, it will not affect the payments for this year. A pilot
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exercise was conducted with 1,000 farms to try to ensure that the roll-out would be as efficient and accurate as possible. We need to update the maps because they are static maps and the situation is changing regularly. That process will allow us to put them online, which will make it easier for farmers in the future. We are hearing some concerns and some complaints, and the RPA is responding to the farmers who contact the agency. I will make sure that the matter is top of my agenda in the weeks ahead, because we need to ensure that we get it right.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The costs of running the single farm payment scheme are but one item in DEFRA’s budget. The Secretary of State has made it clear that, from 2011, his Department’s budget will be reduced. Will the Minister now outline what cuts in services to the customers of DEFRA the Secretary of State’s announcement entails?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Our Department, like all Government Departments, continuously reviews its budget and seeks to be as efficient as possible. There is no threat in the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We will continue to examine our budget and we shall ensure that the Department runs as efficiently as possible.

Rural Economy

5. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What his most recent assessment is of the effect of the recession on the rural economy. [283380]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): While the economic downturn affects both urban and rural areas, analysis of data from Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that there is no significant difference between urban and rural areas and that, if anything, there is slightly more success in urban communities.

Danny Alexander: The Minister will be aware that one sector that has been hit hard by both rising costs and falling demand is the hill sheep farming sector. That is reflected in the fact that in the highlands, for example, more and more farmers are taking their stock off the hills. That has a knock-on effect on one of the industries that could buck the economic trend, tourism, because of the work that hill farmers do to maintain and support the countryside as a whole. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that there is greater support for the hill sheep farming sector over the coming years of recession, to maintain the benefits that it brings to the wider community and the wider economy?

Dan Norris: The upland entry scheme that we are about to introduce has been widely welcomed, and I hope that, when he sees the details, the hon. Gentleman will find some comfort in that. However, we fully understand and recognise that it is a serious issue, and we continually redouble our efforts to make sure that such matters are addressed properly.

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Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): May I add my own congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker?

It appears that the recession is already taking its toll on DEFRA, which has had its budget cut by £200 million since the pre-Budget report. Will the Minister confirm to rural communities that DEFRA’s budget is frozen for the next three years—what the Prime Minister would call a “zero per cent. rise”—which means that it will be cut in real terms?

Dan Norris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the figures have been published and he is obviously capable of accessing and reading that information for himself.

Nick Herbert: Why does the Minister not at least have the courage to repeat what the Secretary of State admitted on “Any Questions?” last week, when he said that the DEFRA budget was “going to be less”? Rural communities are being hit hard in the recession and they want the truth about what lies ahead. Rising unemployment and debt interest mean that the Government’s own plans show spending cuts of at least 7 per cent. in every Department. Why will the Minister not be straight with rural people and admit that DEFRA is already making cuts and that, because of the Government’s mismanagement of the economy, spending will have to be cut even more?

Dan Norris: I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about this. Let us be clear: if the Conservatives were in the government now, they would be cutting the figures immediately. We are looking very carefully at efficiency, because it is very important that we deliver value for money. We must make sure that what we do is not just good quality, but cost-effective and bears in mind the council tax payer and taxpayers.

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