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Economic Downturn (Rural Economy)

13. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the economic downturn on the rural economy. [305587]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): While the economic downturn is having an impact in both urban and rural areas, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs analysis of data from other Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that, when compared with the economy in urban areas, the picture in rural England so far has been more positive.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the Minister aware that some 200,000 people living in rural areas do not have bank accounts; that mainstream banking facilities in rural areas are closing; that pubs, post offices and schools are closing; and that in some areas, village halls are closing because they cannot be maintained? Will the Minister and his Department undertake a review of the position of rural areas as a result of what has been happening recently, not least the recession?

Dan Norris: That is a very important issue, as I know from my own constituency. In June 2009, the Department for Work and Pensions, which is the lead Department for financial inclusion, and the Commission for Rural Communities jointly published a report on financial inclusion in rural areas, "Rural Money Matters", which found that rural areas did not appear to fare worse than urban areas, although it suggested that analysis on a smaller scale would be likely to identify smaller pockets of significant hardship. I am certainly concerned to keep an eye on that.

Bovine Tuberculosis

14. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): How many cattle were slaughtered because of bovine tuberculosis precautions in the last three months. [305588]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): The most recent three-month report available is for the end of August 2009. Between 1 June and 31 August, 5,202 cattle were slaughtered in England for bovine TB control purposes. Figures are provisional and subject to change as more data become available.

Mr. Robathan: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the devastating impact that the slaughter of herds has not only on the farmer's business, but on the farmer and his or her family-it completely destroys their entire life. Furthermore, there are questions about the reliability of the TB tests. How much does the slaughter policy cost and what is the long-term policy, because we cannot just go on slaughtering more and more cattle when it obviously is not working?

Jim Fitzpatrick rose-

Mr. Speaker: Order. One answer will do.

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Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman is right. We are sensitive to the tragic impacts on farms, families, regions and areas when TB strikes. The Secretary of State set up the TB eradication group last November. It has met 19 times and has already produced a report that recommended a raft of initiatives to try to deal with this. The problem will only be eradicated in the medium to long term, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department is doing as much as it can to support the group.

Mushroom Composting (Emissions)

15. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What recent steps have been taken to reduce the level of noxious emissions from mushroom composting. [305589]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): Mushroom compost-making plants such as that in my hon. Friend's constituency require a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007 and local authorities are responsible for enforcing compliance. DEFRA also issues statutory guidance on best available techniques in order to minimise air emissions, including odour.

John Mann: As well as the loss of quality of life in the surrounding houses from the stink from mushroom composting, is the Minister aware of emerging evidence of problems with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a killer disease, caused by people breathing in the spores? Is it not time that action were taken to close down Tunnel Tech in my constituency?

Dan Norris: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his hard work and conscientiousness in bringing this issue to my and my predecessor's attention. The Health Protection Agency is, as of today, investigating the prevalence of COPD in the locality where he has identified concerns. Further, the agency will also investigate the potential for the composting operation to cause or exacerbate COPD. Those investigations will be in consultation with the local primary care trust and I understand that the local council has already made contact with the HPA.

Financial Inclusion

17. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of levels of financial inclusion in rural areas. [305591]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): DEFRA works hard across Government to ensure that all Departments take account of specific rural needs in their policies. Indeed, I met with my colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions only last month specifically to discuss rural issues.

Ann Winterton: Picking up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who has pinched yet another question of mine-the problem is that we both come from the same stable-may I reiterate that approximately 200,000 people living in rural England do not have access to broadband
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facilities? Would that not aid financial inclusion as it provides access to valuable information, online banking, credit union services and other such services?

Dan Norris: Perhaps the hon. Lady should have some more interesting pillow talk than it appears she is having- [Laughter.] She is right: digital communications are crucial in rural areas as well as in urban areas. They make a big difference not least in access to banking and other important services and facilities. We are working hard on that issue and putting extra resources into it, including moneys from heads for which I have specific responsibility.

Food Labelling

19. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on country of origin food labelling. [305593]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. I am delighted to see that we have been joined by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). We were a bit worried that since the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had promoted him to the Privy Council and shadow Secretary of State in its press release this week, he might have been banished by his colleagues.

Mr. Amess: Having heard the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and the Minister on this subject, I am confused about the Government's position. Will the Minister now clearly say that he supports the Which? campaign for country-of-origin food labelling and backs British food?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We do support the campaign for clearer country-of-origin labelling. We took a different position from Europe in respect of mandatory labelling for everything. That would have meant labels a foot long on pizzas identifying the source of every bit of pepperoni. We want clearer labelling so that we can have informed consumer choice and support British agriculture.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Given that meat production generates six times more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of fish, cheese or vegetables, should CO2 emissions related to food products not also be included in any future labelling system? Would that not be one of the most effective means of adapting to climate change?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I can tell my hon. Friend that agriculture is making great efforts to reduce the impact of the carbon that it produces. It is very supportive of every effort to increase sustainable production and is doing what it can to tackle climate change.

Single Payment Scheme (Mr. Peter Philpot)

20. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): What progress he has made in resolving the single payment scheme difficulties experienced by Mr. Peter Philpot. [305595]

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The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): Mr. Philpot's single payment scheme claims have been complicated by a number of factors, including both corrections to and transfers of entitlements. Progress has been made recently in resolving the underlying problems and the Rural Payments Agency is working to resolve the outstanding issues and to confirm the results to Mr. Philpot as soon as possible.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that, on 29 October in this place, I raised that issue with the Secretary of State, who kindly agreed to consider it if I sent the relevant paperwork. That was sent the same day, but since then neither my constituent nor my office have heard anything. Will Ministers consider the matter again as a matter of urgency? Otherwise, we can only draw the conclusion that the RPA is nothing more than a master-class in misadministration.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I outlined earlier the dramatically improving performance of the RPA, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some reassurance from that. I can only apologise that neither he nor Mr. Philpot have received an update of the position. My responses are obviously researched in preparation for questions, and I am told that progress has been made, but I will find out exactly when Mr. Philpot will be told and communicate that to the hon. Gentleman later today, if possible.

Flood Defences (York)

22. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What plans the Environment Agency has for flood defences for the Leeman road area of York. [305597]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I am pleased to say that the Environment Agency is developing a flood alleviation scheme for the Leeman Road-Water End area of York. The scheme will cost approximately £6.5 million and protect 550 properties.

Hugh Bayley: It is nine years since the worst flood on record in York. I remember clearly that night when hundreds of local citizens and soldiers built a mile-long wall of sandbags on top of the flood defences to protect 550 homes on Leeman road. We are still waiting for the flood defences to be improved. When will the Environment Agency consult the public on its plans, and when do we expect the improvements to be built?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I am pleased to confirm that the consultation will begin in early 2010 to help to select the best solution. Subject to funding, construction should begin in early 2012. It is important to get the flood defences in place as soon as possible, subject to consultation.

Topical Questions

T1. [305598] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): DEFRA's responsibility is to help us all to live within our environmental means.
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I wish to inform the House that about 100 farms in Cumbria have been severely affected by the recent flooding, in particular by large quantities of stones deposited on their land. I visited two farms affected last week, and I will shortly announce details of help through the rural development programme for England.

Michael Fabricant: I think that the whole House will agree with the Secretary of State and offer its condolences to farmers in Cumbria. However, on another matter, the United Kingdom-that means the British taxpayer-is currently facing a possible £300 million fine for breaching the air quality directive. London is doing something about it. What will DEFRA do to try to avoid the fine?

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): DEFRA is working carefully to ensure that we are within the scope of the directives. Only two weeks ago, we hosted an air quality summit with local authorities to look at best practice and to share it with many local authorities. We are in close contact with the Mayor of London, because most of the roads where there are problems are in the London area. We are working with him and his officials to try to ensure that together we can solve the problems in London and avoid the fines that might be coming our way.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Does the Minister share my relief that British Waterways will retain its property portfolio and the income from it? Does he consider that the third sector model that British Waterways is now pursuing will enable it to work more closely with local communities, such as that around Rudyard lake, which is concerned about sailability and is fighting for facilities for disabled people at the lake?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend and members of Rudyard Sailability recently to see the excellent work that they do. Everyone is concerned to ensure a satisfactory resolution as soon as possible, so that the work can continue. The Treasury has acknowledged that the mutual or third sector model is an interesting way forward and it is keen to explore it. I am sure that the Treasury will be seeking views from hon. Members and others on how the idea can be fleshed out, because it offers an exciting prospect for building on the good will that exists towards our waterways.

T3. [305601] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Every year Kettering borough council has to round up about 250 stray dogs from across the borough, most of which do not have collars or microchips. Given the Department's responsibilities for animal welfare, especially in the run-up to Christmas, what more can the Government do to promote responsible dog ownership?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should do everything that we can to achieve responsible dog ownership. I visited the Dogs Trust re-homing centre in Harefield to support its annual campaign, which raises awareness with the message that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas. There are dogs charities and dog organisations all over the UK trying to get the message home, and we want to do the same.
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Dog licensing did not work. Chipping is a more modern, technologically superior, less expensive and less bureaucratic system, and it may be something that we want to consider in future. Chipping is not under consideration at the moment, but one can never close the door entirely, particularly to improvements in the welfare of animals.

T2. [305599] Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): The Environment Agency is running an event today to raise awareness of flooding in my constituency. Although that is a welcome initiative, does the Minister agree that sustained and long-term investment in flood defences is what will really bring peace of mind to my constituents?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. I congratulate my hon. Friend on promoting the use of forestry and woodlands for a variety of purposes. We have come to recognise that forestries have not only an intrinsic value, but a value in respect of climate change, carbon and flood alleviation. Forestries also have a prominent role to play in many other respects. I applaud the work that she does to promote those ways forward.

T4. [305602] Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Today many Agriculture Ministers will be meeting in Paris to discuss the regulation of agricultural markets and the future of the common agricultural policy. I understand that Conservative shadow Ministers recently visited New Zealand to consider the future of farming without subsidies. Can the Secretary of State explain his position on the future of the common agricultural policy and whether it would include an element of co-funding or direct payment by nation states?

Hilary Benn: The UK will be represented at today's meeting in Paris, but no Ministers are there for the simple reason that Ministers are here in the Chamber answering questions. Our policy on reform of the common agricultural policy has been set out clearly in the past. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been a leading advocate of reform and a strong supporter of a shift in funding towards pillar two and agri-environment schemes, for the reasons that we have already covered in questions so far.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that windrow composting is now widespread, with more than 40 sites throughout the UK. However, it presents a danger: it is smelly and dirty, and it involves the release of Aspergillus fungus spores, which are a danger to health. What is he doing to encourage local authorities to join together to provide ways forward for other energy systems, such as the anaerobic digestion system? Is that something that he is working on?

Hilary Benn: It certainly is. I am aware of the close interest that my hon. Friend takes in the issue that he has raised. We doubled the incentives for anaerobic digestion under the renewables obligation system from 1 April this year. I am putting in about £10 million for demonstration projects, and when feed-in tariffs come in, they will add a further incentive. The House recognises that we are talking about a technology of the future. It is about to take off, and I encourage farmers and others who are responsible for green waste to look into it.

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