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10 Dec 2009 : Column 483

House of Commons

Thursday 10 December 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 7 January.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 7 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked-

Nuclear Power Station (Bradwell)

1. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): What representations he has received from English Nature on the environmental effects of proposals for a new nuclear power station at Bradwell, Essex. [305573]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): The Government requested and received comments from Natural England-formerly English Nature-on the appraisal of sustainability and habitats regulations assessment reports on the site at Bradwell, which was nominated in the Government's strategic siting assessment process.

Mr. Jenkin: I thank the Minister for his response but, even though I am an enthusiast for new nuclear power stations, may I draw his attention to the serious concern expressed to me, particularly by local fishermen and oystermen, that the volume of the outfall from a new power station is likely to be four times greater than that from the previous power station, thus causing serious continuing damage to the ecology of the Blackwater estuary? Can he assure me that that will be addressed, perhaps by ensuring that the intake and outfalls will be sufficiently far away?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in representing the interests of local fishermen and people who are concerned about the impacts on the environment. I can confirm that Natural England's response suggested that there was insufficient evidence that a development at Bradwell could have no adverse impacts on the Natura 2000 sites and associated features. The Government took that on board during the assessment, and the conclusions in the habitats regulations assessment reflect that. Natural England has suggested that further assessment is needed, not least in relation to climate change and rising sea levels, of which he will be aware. I can assure him that I will keep a close eye on the matter, as will Natural England, to ensure that the pertinent factors he raises are taken into account.

Climate Change (Forestry)

2. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): When he expects to respond to the recent report of the Forestry Commission on forestry and climate change. [305574]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Government welcome the Read report, which sets out clearly how forestry in the UK can contribute to tackling climate change. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Forestry Commission are considering the report in detail and we will use its findings to develop our policy. We will outline next steps in DEFRA's climate change plan in the spring.

Mr. Cunningham: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to increase tree planting in this country by 40 per cent., given the climatic change problems facing us? What consultations will he engage in with various organisations before reaching a decision on the matter?

Hilary Benn: The Read report has only just been published. I spoke at an event for its launch, where many of the people who would express a view on the subject were present. I agree that we should seek to achieve the objective that my hon. Friend mentions, not least because the Read report points out that if we managed to achieve it, that would contribute a significant proportion of the reduction in CO2 emissions that this nation needs to achieve by 2050.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): North Wiltshire and Wiltshire more widely boast some of the most ancient and natural woodlands anywhere in England, in Bradon forest, Savernake and elsewhere. However, large parts of our oak population are threatened by oak decline syndrome, and a number of similar pathogens threaten our ancient woodlands. What does the Secretary of State intend to do about that?

Hilary Benn: We have a research programme that is examining a number of the diseases that have emerged, including the one to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Their emergence may indeed be a consequence of climate change. We have a very big programme examining phytophthora and I was able to see some of that work in a visit to the south-west in August. I am happy to write to him to provide more information about the specific issue that he has raised.

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Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): The report is very welcome. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Welsh Assembly Government about what Wales could contribute to increasing woodland cover to 16 per cent.?

Hilary Benn: I will certainly have discussions with all those who could contribute to ensuring that we achieve that objective. I should point out to the House that, in the 90 years since the establishment of the Forestry Commission, there has been a significant increase in forest and woodland cover in the country, after our having got to the point where we had chopped down almost all the trees that we had.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): The Forestry Commission report states that, in the next 10 years, the capacity of the UK's forests to absorb carbon could be reduced by up to 70 per cent. Will the Secretary of State therefore look to the capacity of Britain's uplands as a complementary source of carbon sequestration? Given that the average hill farm income last year was just £5,000, does he acknowledge that he must act quickly to restructure farm payments, to ensure that the upland stewards of our carbon sinks are fairly rewarded and are kept in business?

Hilary Benn: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have changed the system. We will introduce the uplands entry level scheme, which we consulted on widely and which was welcomed at the time. The truth is that those who farm and those who manage the land have a real opportunity here not only to contribute to sustainability and to the management of the landscape, but to reduce carbon emissions both through peat bogs-the national parks want to play a role in that-and by planting trees where we can to soak up carbon.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I accept that the report is just out, but does my right hon. Friend agree that forestry has the potential to make a highly significant contribution to our emissions reduction targets? Indeed, with an increase of 4 per cent. in woodland cover over the next 40 years, we could, by the 2050s, achieve a reduction equivalent to 10 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions.

Hilary Benn: I do indeed agree with my right hon. Friend. Trees are wonderful carbon-eating machines.

Carbon Footprint (Copenhagen Summit)

4. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What estimate he has made of the average carbon footprint generated by his Department's representatives in attending the Copenhagen climate change summit. [305576]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I and three officials from DEFRA will attend the Copenhagen climate change summit, where we will push for an ambitious agreement on forests and the protection of our oceans. The CO2 footprint of these flights will be 1.54 tonnes. We will offset that by buying certified emission reduction credits, as we do for all flights.

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Mr. Bone: Trees are very good "carbon-eating machines". Does the Secretary of State agree with me that 202,500 trees will have to be planted just to cover the CO2 emissions of the Copenhagen jamboree?

Hilary Benn: I do not regard the Copenhagen summit as a jamboree. I am sorry that some Opposition Members seem to think that there is not a problem with climate change. I suspect that that is an embarrassment to those on their Front Bench. Frankly, I cannot think of a more important meeting, because the consequence of failing to get an agreement would be very serious for our planet, for our climate and for biodiversity.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Given the importance of getting a deal on carbon emissions at Copenhagen, DEFRA should be leading from the front. Eighteen months ago, the Government announced a new body, the centre of expertise in sustainable procurement-a quango within a quango-to assist, among other things, in cutting emissions from the Government's own estate. We now know that the Government estate will miss its 2010-11 carbon targets by some margin. Is the Secretary of State, who leads on sustainability issues in the Government, embarrassed by that fact, and if so, what is he going to do about it?

Hilary Benn: In 2007-08, across the Government office estate, we achieved a 6.3 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions. In the DEFRA office estate, we have already achieved the 2010-11 target of a 12.5 per cent. reduction against the 1999-2000 figures.

Roadside Litter

5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent progress his Department has made on initiatives designed to reduce the amount of roadside litter. [305577]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): This summer, DEFRA's grant-aided delivery partner, Keep Britain Tidy, carried out a major vehicle litter awareness campaign that resulted in a 25 per cent. reduction in litter in locations monitored by local authorities throughout England. DEFRA continues to work alongside the Highways Agency and local authorities in keeping the roads under their responsibility clear of litter.

David Taylor: The most recent local environmental quality survey states that litter on verges and landscaping alongside rural roads is now a significant problem. When does the Minister intend to introduce measures to give local authorities greater powers to fine registered vehicle keepers or other responsible people when litter is thrown from vehicles, especially fast-food detritus, which is particularly obnoxious?

Dan Norris: Those who litter from vehicles are subject to the same laws that apply to anybody else on the street. Although it can be difficult to identify an offender, especially in a vehicle moving at speed, 65 fixed penalty notices were issued during a recent vehicle litter campaign. The Government are examining the matter very closely and if a compelling case can be made, legislation might be forthcoming. We will certainly give that serious consideration.

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Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In the light of the fact that surveys done in my own city, Belfast, show that the people who are responsible for most littering are those who eat fast food, smokers, the 18-to-35 age group and those who chew gum, is there a need to target initiatives to reach people who are particularly culpable?

Dan Norris: The most important challenge is changing behaviour. DEFRA provides a grant funding of £25 million a year to Keep Britain Tidy, and about £1.2 million each year goes specifically towards behaviour-changing campaigns, which are clearly targeted, as appropriate. That has raised awareness of traffic litter, resulting in a 25 per cent. reduction in litter from vehicles.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): A significant amount of the litter on our streets, especially that thrown from cars, is cigarette material, particularly butts. What is the Department doing to get tough on the cigarette manufacturers? It is about time that they put something forward for clearing up the mess to which they contribute.

Dan Norris: Obviously, we have discussions with a wide range of people who manufacture items that contribute to litter. In truth, it comes back to behaviour change. Education, above all else, is what changes behaviour, and behaviour change is needed to deal with litter.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): There does not seem to be much evidence of behaviour change. Will the Minister applaud the work on that aspect of Bill Bryson and the Campaign to Protect Rural England? Roadside and pavement litter especially are made up of cigarette butts and chewing gum, but as there is little evidence of behaviour change, what more can the Government do? What is the take-up of the Minister's grants?

Dan Norris: There is keen take-up of the grants. A number of local authorities have taken up various offers of grants to work towards reducing litter. The Government have made important powers available to local authorities, if they wish to use them. When those powers are applied, they have a good record of working effectively.

Food Labelling

6. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on country of origin food labelling. [305578]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): This is a very popular question this morning. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Food Standards Agency to ensure that we have tighter, clearer and more accurate origin labelling.

Andrew Selous: Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose are all backing our honest food campaign to stop imported food, which is often produced under lower welfare standards than our own, from being passed off as British food. Why cannot the Government do more to help British consumers and farmers in that regard?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: The Government have been working on this for some time. We welcome the Opposition's honest food campaign-it would be churlish not to say that it is a good initiative. The Food Standards Agency issued new guidance in 2008. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), started a campaign in October last year with, I believe, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. We are working in Europe to try to ensure that food information regulations are as tight as possible, although they will not come in for perhaps another two or three years. We are supporting supermarkets that are labelling food more clearly, so that consumers can buy with greater confidence.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that many of us have been campaigning on this issue for many years? Will he help us on veal, especially? Veal is a very good thing to eat-the animals are incinerated if they are not eaten-but we must ensure that people eat English or British veal, rather than imported veal, which comes from animals that have much poorer lives than our own animals.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who points out that the Government have been working on this for some time. Veal is one of the products whose labelling ought to be clearer under regulations. I hope that he and the whole House are aware that the EU protected food celebration takes place this afternoon at New Covent Garden; we will be launching Cornish sardines as the 40th UK food to achieve that status. I hope that Opposition Front Benchers will join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and me at the celebration this afternoon, because those products are 40 of the best in Britain and are getting worldwide acclaim because of the protected name status, which we support vigorously.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Does the Minister accept that clear, honest food labelling is important not just for reasons of being straight with consumers, but because accurate information allows consumers to send a clear message to food producers about what they want to buy and what those producers should produce, which could allow his Department to reduce some of the burden of red tape and regulation on food producers?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are encouraging retailers to mark and label countries of origin more clearly. I chaired the latest meeting of the pig meat taskforce earlier this week. We have reached a collective agreement-it ought to be finalised by 1 February-on pig meat, which has suffered because many foreign goods that are imported are claimed to be British bacon or British pork pies. I have no doubt that the agreement and new regulations will be launched on 1 February.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): Following my Adjournment debate last week about the labelling of goods from Israeli settlements in the west bank, has the Minister finalised the voluntary guidance that is due to be published for British retailers?

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