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Huw Irranca-Davies: I would counter that. I am aware of a perception in certain parts of the fleet and in certain harbours, where it is widely reported that there is a perception of being disconnected. The reality is that we have set up the sustainable access to inshore fisheries-SAIF-project, and we have a ministerial quadrilateral group on quota reform, in which we are engaged and reaching out to others. In all aspects of our work-including
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CFP reform, the recent launch of which by the Secretary of State was attended by under-10 metre and over-10 metre producer organisations-we will always reach out to the under-10 metre sector. It is a vital part of our communities and our economy.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The fishing industry in Northern Ireland is almost wholly reliant on prawn, and there is a proposal for a 30 per cent. cut in prawn fishing. Coming on top of further cuts in days at sea and cod quotas, that will have a devastating effect on the Northern Ireland fishing industry, which is already in a perilous state. Can the Minister assure us that he will take on board the very difficult situation in Northern Ireland in his discussions in Brussels?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, I can indeed. I give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that we are continuing to have close discussions with Northern Ireland stakeholders, Ministers and colleagues. Northern Ireland Ministers play a vital part in our negotiating team as well. I was also pleased recently to meet skippers in Portavogie. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as we determine the package of UK priorities, Northern Ireland will feature strongly in it.

Dairy Industry

10. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the economic prospects of the milk and dairy industry. [296309]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): We closely monitor the economic prospects of the sector, with an extensive review made on a six-monthly basis. I am also chairing the twice-yearly meeting of the Dairy Supply Chain Forum on 1 December. The forum regularly brings together all the key players in the dairy sector and has been doing so for several years.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Minister will know that the UK dairy industry accounts for around 18 per cent. of UK agricultural production by value, is the single largest agricultural sector and is worth £3.5 billion. It is essential to this country, and to my constituency. What assessment has he made of the European Union's proposal to set up a fund for dairy producers, aimed at assisting farmers under pressure from unacceptably low and unfair prices?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Only last week at the Agriculture Council, we raised our serious concerns about the fund that has been set up, which I am sure would meet the hon. Gentleman's concerns as well. We have been asking questions, and I also gave evidence on this item yesterday to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). It is not clear how the €280 million is going to be separated and broken down, or what the criteria are for claiming it. We have concerns about that and we are monitoring the situation closely at ministerial and official level.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Why does the Minister think that bottles of mineral water sell for more than bottles of milk?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: I suspect that it is because the retailers think that people will buy it.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): One of the problems with milk is that the supermarkets often sell it below cost price, which puts huge pressure on the producers. Will the Minister press his colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look into this as part of the remit of an ombudsman, if they come forward with such a proposal?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The Dairy Supply Chain Forum regularly looks at these issues, providing an opportunity for all sides of the dairy sector to come together. These matters are discussed there. The Competition Commission's recommendations are being discussed between Government Departments, and I know that this is a key aspect of those discussions. We will be announcing our conclusions in due course.

Bees (Pesticides)

11. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations he has received on the effect of pesticides on bees and other pollinators; and if he will make a statement. [296310]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): My Department has received a number of representations from Members of Parliament and members of the public concerned about the effect of pesticides on bees and other pollinators.

David Taylor: An American scientific report on Syngenta's neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamexotham, shows that it is deadly to honey bees. Does the Minister think that the Warwick university research into bee and pollinator morbidity, which is being funded by Syngenta, will have sufficiently wide terms of reference to assess any links that exist between neonicotinoids and the collapse of UK bee colonies?

Dan Norris: The Government take the health of Britain's bees very seriously and have pumped an extra £4.3 million into bee health. There is no evidence that authorised pesticides pose an unacceptable risk. However, I understand why my hon. Friend asks his question: where somebody is paying, one questions whether the research will be reflective of scientific rigour or not. We will, of course, consider all the research, including that commissioned by pesticide companies, into this important issue, but we will also ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained. I would also quickly say-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that we have probably got the gist of the Minister's answer, for which we are grateful. May I gently say to him that he must address the House and try to look in the direction of the Chair?

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given the international aspects and origin of some of the diseases that affect our bees, how much contact has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the National Bee Unit had with our counterparts abroad?

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Dan Norris: We are in constant liaison and discussions with a whole range of people on the serious issue of bee health. It appears that there is no one cause, so we are looking very carefully at all the possible explanations, which obviously means that we need clear communications with a range of people here and abroad.

Farm-gate Milk Prices

12. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with dairy farmers on farm-gate prices for milk. [296311]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): I have regular discussions with the National Farmers Union, as well as dairy farmers, about this and a range of other issues. I found that the dairy and livestock show in September provided me with a good opportunity to meet dairy farmers and hear first hand about the challenges they are facing.

Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but I would like to press him a little on the European emergency milk fund, which was mentioned earlier. If the problems that were mentioned are ironed out, would he in principle do something to support dairy farmers here, who are really struggling to survive?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Once the arrangements for the distribution of the €280 million are worked out, we would obviously want to ensure that our dairy farmers are not disadvantaged by the price and the cost of supporting farmers on the continent.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The British herd of dairy cows is down by more than a fifth since 1997, and the number of dairy farms has halved since 2000. Will the Minister explain why dairy farmers should believe that this Government remain committed to UK production?

Jim Fitzpatrick: By virtue, I hope, of our performance and, in particular, of our negotiating stance in Europe, which is about defending the British dairy industry; and by virtue of the contact and connections, and the support and advice that we give, here in the UK. The Dairy Supply Chain Forum, which I chair, is another indication that we are doing what we can to support our industry. Our industry has innovated and it is rationalised; it is in a better position than that of our European counterparts. We hope that it goes from strength to strength, and we will do all we can to support that.

British Waterways

13. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): What recent representations he has received on the activities of British Waterways in the Stoke-on-Trent area. [296312]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): No recent representations have been received on the activities of British Waterways in the Stoke-on-Trent area. However, I understand that British Waterways, the local regional development agency and other partners are working together on a variety of projects in the
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area, reflecting the importance of partnership in working to achieve our shared goals of getting the best from our waterways.

Joan Walley: In anticipation of the representations that the Minister will receive from the Burslem port project, may I welcome the investment in canals? However, will he give his active support in that partnership working to the plans to bring the arm of the Trent and Mersey canal back into use at Burslem port? We want to see the volunteer scheme, which is about to clear the site, matched by a firm commitment from British Waterways to find a way of getting a realistic and feasible business package for it.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am very happy to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's sterling role in advocating the canals that are so important to her area. In fact, I would be more than happy to meet her to discuss the issue further. Ultimately, it is a question of British Waterways and its partners getting on with the business on the ground, identifying the priorities and driving them forward. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further with my hon. Friend.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is the Minister aware that studies have shown that the existence of canals can increase economic activity by some 300 per cent. in the areas they serve? What help can he give to the Litchfield and Hatherton canal restoration trust, which will provide the much-needed link between canals in the east and the centre parts of the west midlands?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point. Through our work with British Waterways, the Broads Authority, the inlands waterways authorities and others we have made it clear that we recognise the wider public benefits of canals, not just in terms of recreational boating but, for instance, of health, education and awareness of nature. Again, I do not want to interfere in individual projects-it is important for them to take place on the ground-but I am always happy to meet Members who feel passionate about their own areas.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Does the Minister share my concern about the fact that Rudyard Sailability and its centre of excellence for disabled sailors at Rudyard lake is still being blocked from building the boat store that is essential to its survival, despite its victory in a public inquiry nine months ago? Will he urge British Waterways, which owns Rudyard lake, to promote talks to save a vital charity that transforms the lives of so many people and their families?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend does as a trustee of RYA Sailability, and we have corresponded on the issue she has raised. The organisation does sterling work in encouraging people of all abilities to participate in sailing activities. I understand that the matter is currently being discussed by the parties involved, and I hope that it will be resolved speedily. I gather that a local British Waterways manager is still helping to broker a solution and will keep my hon. Friend fully informed of the state of the negotiations, but I am happy to discuss the matter further with her.

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Flood Defences

14. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What resources are planned to be made available for the provision of flood defences in (a) west Oxford and (b) Abingdon. [296314]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): As well as continuing its annual programme of maintenance for the main rivers in Oxford, West and Abingdon to manage flood risk, the Environment Agency is nearing the completion of a £1.8 million programme of short-term measures for Oxford, and is developing the long-term Oxford flood risk management strategy, which is currently out for consultation. A study on the River Stert in Abingdon is also taking place to identify options to alleviate flooding.

Dr. Harris: As the Secretary of State will know, both west Oxford and Abingdon were badly affected. My constituents appreciated his visit during the floods, and I recognise the work that has been done, but will he agree to meet members of the flood action group and me, with the Environment Agency, so that those people can be reassured that progress will be made before the next flood-which will happen?

Hilary Benn: I should be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his group.

Topical Questions

T1. [296325] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I wish to inform the House that following routine inventory checks earlier this year, 38 Rural Payments Agency data back-up tapes and one compact disc were unaccounted for. Thirty-five have now been accounted for. Of the rest, one tape and the CD did not contain personal protected data, but the two remaining tapes potentially contained partial data in code. However, tapes of this sort can only be read with specialist equipment and detailed technical knowledge. Furthermore, one of the two tapes was known to be faulty and had been reported as such, since it could not be read.

I want to reassure farmers that there is no evidence that the tapes are in the public domain, that a forensic investigation was carried out in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines, and that officials concluded that there was only a low risk that any usable personal data had been lost. I will arrange for further information, including a copy of the investigation report, to be placed in the Library of the House.

Paul Rowen: At the Labour party conference, the Government announced that exemptions from the so-called rain tax would be introduced. Can the Minister confirm that they will involve all charities, and can he tell us when he expects them to be introduced?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I am pleased to be able to update the hon. Gentleman on discussions that we had as recently as the week
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before last, following the announcement made at the Labour party conference. There has been a very good response. We will introduce a concessionary scheme, subject to legislative opportunities and also to guidance. I think it important for us to get the details right, so that the right organisations benefit from the scheme. It will not be a simple top-down approach; we will be asking people for their thoughts as well.

T4. [296328] Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reinforce what he said in the earlier part of Question Time by gently saying to Lord Stern that, during British sausage week, we celebrate a varied diet and the value that it brings; that it should be a question of "all things in moderation"; and that if it is being suggested that vegetarianism will save the world, I am not sure that it is a world in which I want to live?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): I am happy to accept the prompts of my right hon. Friend and to ensure that we communicate her comments and our view-which is clearly the view of the House-to Sir Nicholas Stern.

One of the things that I ought to have mentioned earlier is that dealing with the waste of 30 to 40 per cent. of all the food that we buy from supermarkets is a far more crucial way of dealing with the problem of emissions. We should be focusing on that.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): The reason why the Secretary of State has suddenly announced another data loss by the Government is that Farmers Weekly obtained the information and will report it tomorrow. If the loss was discovered earlier this year and an investigation done, as the Secretary of State said, why have the public not been told until now? This looks like a cover-up. Will he accept responsibility for another foul-up by the Rural Payments Agency, which has already cost taxpayers £70 million in EU fines because of its bungling?

Hilary Benn: I of course accept responsibility. I was informed yesterday and I thought it important to take the first possible opportunity to inform the House, which is what I have done this morning. In accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines, a full investigation was done. As the data were in code that cannot be read, as I have indicated, a judgment was made in accordance with Cabinet Office guidelines that Ministers need not be informed. I wanted to reassure farmers today that the risk of this information getting out is very low, for the reason I have explained to the House at the first available opportunity.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The announcement about what the Scout Association called the rain tax was very welcome, especially in the north-west. However, in applying discretionary relief, will my hon. Friend take note of the plight of all political clubs? If the scheme is applied to such clubs, as originally intended, it might result in further closures. I do, of course, declare an interest in this question.

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