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Very readily. We published very recently the information about the baseline survey, and we found that 85 per cent. of farmers were aware of the campaign. That shows that it has had a huge impact in a short space of time. Fifty one per cent. of farmers had some
cultivable land out of production-that involved about 157,000 hectares-and a total of 174,000 hectares were managed under some form of voluntary environmental measure. That is really important, because it shows the huge amount of work that farmers are doing, and the purpose of the campaign is to encourage more farmers to do the same.
T6.  Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Department's title contains the word "Food", so what involvement, if any, does it have in promoting allotments? If, like me, the Secretary of State thinks that they have an important part to play in the life of the country, will he lead an interdepartmental conference to put allotments high up on the agenda for growing food in this country?
Hilary Benn: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. Obviously, the Department for Communities and Local Government has the lead responsibility on this matter, but all of us who care about food have an interest in getting more people to grow their own food. The demand for allotments is enormous. He will have seen in the food strategy published at the beginning of last month that one of the things we are working on is the production of the "meanwhile" leases, so that additional land that is not being used but could be used for growing food can, in the short term, pass to those who want to grow it. That would represent a big step forward.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Labelling is obviously important, because it is about choice and about people knowing what they are buying. What more can we do to support the Red Tractor logo, because it is about the best of British produce? What are the Government going to do to support that?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I fairly recently had a meeting with the Red Tractor officers. My hon. Friend correctly says that the logo is a very clear indication for consumers that the product that they are buying is of quality. The officers are very much looking to raise the profile of the Red Tractor logo, because the greater the awareness among consumers of what it stands for, the greater the likelihood of their buying products with that signal on them.
T7.  Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Why is the Department making energy-saving water heat exchange projects unviable by charging comparatively large amounts of money for licences for the extraction and discharge of water, given that there is no change in the volume or quality of the water and nothing is added or subtracted except heat?
Hilary Benn: We are not trying to make life difficult. If the extraction for heat exchangers is less than 20 cubic metres, no permit is required and, thus, there is no charge. I am advised that to apply there is a one-off payment of £135. The issue is simply about having confidence that what is taken out of the aquifer or river goes back in a form that does not affect the quality. I have looked into this matter and found that the Environment Agency is reviewing the arrangements, because we are keen to encourage the development of this kind of scheme. I know that a particular constituency case has given rise to this question, and the Environment Agency will do its best to respond in relation to that application.
Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Last week, I had one of my regular meetings with local farmers in North-East Derbyshire. One of the issues that comes up again and again is the cost of complying with legislation on nitrate vulnerable zones. Farmers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are compensated with grant packages. What more can Ministers do to ensure that English farmers are also compensated for the cost of complying with this legislation?
Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I understand that she has recently written to us about that, and I shall answer her in some detail when I respond. However, I think that she will recognise that NVZs are an important tool in our armoury to tackle environmental degradation, not least in respect of the earlier question on the state of our ponds. It is an important issue and perhaps I can offer to meet her to discuss this in further detail, so that she can take some positive messages back to her farmers.
T8.  Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State congratulate my borough, Bexley, which has consistently been among the top councils in greater London for recycling? What further measures does he plan to take to assist councils in endeavouring to improve recycling even further?
Hilary Benn: I am happy to welcome progress in every local authority in improving recycling rates, and we just heard about the rising figures overall. The landfill levy is a very effective policy for encouraging recycling. We will, indeed, respond to the consultation on landfill bands, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for what we have said for quite some time that we will do. That will provide an important further incentive by saying that there are certain products that it simply does not make sense to dump in landfill holes in the ground and that we should find other ways of dealing with them.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Wolverhampton was one of the first Fairtrade cities in the country, assisted by the Midcounties Co-operative and an excellent local group that works hard. We have Fairtrade fortnight coming up this month. Will the Government tell me what more they are doing to promote Fairtrade?
Hilary Benn: We have given quite a lot of support over the years to the Fairtrade Foundation. It is a really good example of a good idea that has taken off. It shows that consumers, when they buy food, want to ensure that the farmer at the other end of the transaction-even if they do not know them-gets a decent price for the good food that they produce. [Interruption.]
T9.  Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
Mr. Speaker, my Macclesfield constituency is renowned for its excellent dairy farms, but the dairy farmers are deeply worried about the continuing spread of bovine TB. Do the Secretary of State and the Government take seriously the view of the British
Veterinary Association, which has warmly welcomed the decision taken by the Welsh Assembly Government to have a pilot cull and stricter measures? This is important. Will he give a definitive response?
Hilary Benn: On culling, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard earlier, I gave the Government's response in the light of the trials that were conducted under the Krebs programme. The Independent Scientific Group's view was that it could not effectively contribute to the control of bovine TB. We will, of course, watch very carefully what happens elsewhere. I should just say one other thing. In the wake of my decision, we established the TB eradication group, which involved the industry coming together to recommend a range of measures, including tightening some of the controls. The group put its recommendations to me towards the end of last year and I have accepted every single one of them, because I am determined to work in partnership with the industry to try to beat this terrible disease.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the Minister realise that one of the sources of delay in single farm payments, certainly in my constituency, is that a large number of claims are held up at the Northallerton office while consideration is given to redesignating small pockets of land on each holding? After a very tough winter for farmers, can he get these payments speeded up?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything we can to assist the Rural Payments Agency in expediting all payments. As I said a moment ago, 88 per cent. of farmers have been paid and 84 per cent. of payments have been made. The agency is ahead of schedule-it is way ahead of even last year. I know that that does not satisfy those farmers who are still waiting, but I can give him every assurance that we are making our best endeavours to assist them. I know that the agency is working very hard and ought to be commended for its improved performance year on year on year since the difficulties in the mid-2000s.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As the Minister will know, in Somerset we have a lot of open-air festivals in the summer, particularly the Glastonbury festival. One thing that was very popular last year was setting off Chinese lanterns, which are absolutely beautiful when they go up into the night sky, but when they come down in farmland, the wires that are used to construct them get chopped up and added to hay and silage. They can cause terrible problems for livestock. Is there anything that the Minister can do to persuade the manufacturers or those who license imports to ensure that the construction is biodegradable and safe for livestock?
Jim Fitzpatrick: That is a very good question. I know that this matter has recently received publicity, and it is of genuine concern. Obviously, we do not have any power to prevent people from buying those things, but we hope that common sense will prevail, both in terms of consumers purchasing them and in respect of manufacturers. I understand that, as the hon. Gentleman has said, they can be bought without wire in them and that they can be biodegradable. We still want people to enjoy themselves, but in a sensible way that does not harm cattle or health.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Conservative and Liberal councils are delaying taking a decision on an incinerator in south-west London until after local elections. Bearing in mind that toxins and toxic materials will be issued into the atmosphere, do the Government feel that it is appropriate for such incinerators to be placed in urban areas such as south-west London?
Hilary Benn: It is, as the hon. Gentleman will know, for local authorities to decide how to deal with their waste. As was indicated earlier, there is a hierarchy. Clearly, efforts to reuse and recycle should come first, but one reason why we continue to send a lot of waste to landfill is because, in comparison with some other European countries, we produce less energy from waste here. Standards have improved enormously from past times, but it is for individual local authorities to take decisions in light of local circumstances.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the Government's apparent intention to breach the undertaking to Parliament about the time scale and process for opt-in decisions in relation to the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): As the House will be aware, on 30 November 2009, the European Union signed an interim agreement with the United States to permit the sharing of SWIFT data for the US terrorist finance tracking programme. As the European Scrutiny Committee noted in its response to the Government's explanatory memorandum on the subject, we believe that the programme is a valuable counter-terrorist tool. I have today written to the European Scrutiny Committee setting out that it has come to our attention that the agreement will be subject to an expedited conclusion, and that the European Council's intention is to conclude it once the European Parliament has voted on it. That will not permit Parliament the usual eight weeks to scrutinise the UK's decision to opt into the agreement. I deeply regret that, and can only stress to the House that that in no way represents a weakening of the Government's commitment- [ Interruption. ] Allow me to finish. It in no way represents a weakening of the Government's commitment to allow Parliament full scrutiny of any opt-ins in the field of justice and home affairs. I would like to explain the reasons behind the UK's decision to opt in.
First, the commitment given by Baroness Ashton during the passage of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 was based on the fact that the UK would have a period of three months in which to decide to opt into any justice and home affairs agreement. However, in this case, the conclusion of the agreement is subject to an expedited timetable. The European Parliament may vote on the conclusion of the agreement on 9 February, with the Council concluding it shortly thereafter. The expedition is necessary, as this agreement is crucial for global security. An interruption in the flow of SWIFT data would weaken the terrorist finance tracking programme, which would not be desirable.
Secondly, the agreement is only an interim agreement. It will last for 10 months, when it will, I hope, be replaced by a permanent agreement. The permanent agreement will be decided with the full participation of Parliament at every appropriate stage in the negotiation. Thirdly, the agreement was negotiated before the Lisbon treaty came into force and, as such, on the basis of unanimity rather than qualified majority voting, as is now the case with justice and home affairs dossiers. Lastly, the final text of the EU-US agreement was taken by the European Scrutiny Committee and cleared by it in advance of the agreement being signed.
I believe that it is crucial that the UK opts into the conclusion of the interim agreement, as the national security benefits are significant. However, I assure the House that the Government have made it clear to the European Union that this is an exceptional case in which there are compelling reasons for not having the full three months available to decide to opt in, and that the UK expects the full time in future arrangements.
Michael Connarty: I thank the Minister for her reply. I think that we both agree that an important undertaking was given to Parliament on this issue. During debate on the Lisbon treaty, when I defended our case to ratify it, I was assured by Ministers, right up to the Foreign Secretary-and also in the Liaison Committee by the Prime Minister-that the undertakings that there would be proper scrutiny of opt-in decisions would be adhered to. During the passage of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 through the House of Lords, a statement-printed in full in appendix 1 of the House of Lords European Union Committee's second report of Session 2008-09, HL 25-was circulated to peers debating the Bill. The relevant debate can be found at columns 374 to 377 of the House of Lords Hansard for 9 June 2008. In it, the then Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Ashton, gave a binding assurance that Parliament would have eight weeks to look at any proposed opt-ins.
Although the European Scrutiny Committee might find that the substance of the proposal was not contentious if it had a proper amount of time to scrutinise it, it is clearly in breach of the Government's undertaking to Parliament about the time scale and process for opt-in decisions. This is the first instance of the post-Lisbon treaty imminent opt-in decision, and the assurance given by the Government is on trial. This breach of that undertaking is therefore a very bad start to the new process.
The original document has been with the Government since November 2001, and the explanatory memorandum was cleared by the Committee on the basis that the opt-in conclusion, whatever it might be, would come to us with proper time for discussion. It is clear that someone is treating this Parliament with disdain and contempt.
The Minister said that the protocol regulating the opt-in "generally" permitted three months for the UK Government to be notified about a proposal, but I thought that it would always be permitted that amount of time. To say that the European Council is not required to give us three months is an abdication of the assurance that we were given. I think that Parliament is being treated with contempt, possibly by the Government. The European Council wants to sweep this issue aside, but surely the Government should say, "No. This is a cast-iron guarantee we have given to our Parliament. We will not sign up to this until Parliament has had the proper eight weeks for scrutiny."
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: First, I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend, as I did in my original response to his urgent question, that we deeply regret this situation. It is in no way intended as a slight to Parliament, but we have to look at what the effect of not opting into the agreement would be. We believe that not opting in would not be in the interests of this country. There are significant reasons why we should opt in. Because the agreement was reached under unanimity, it is implied that all states will opt in. In coming into effect, this agreement bridges the gap, so to speak, between the previous unanimous procedure and the new qualified majority voting procedure.
We have, of course, the option not to opt into the agreement and to go through another period of parliamentary scrutiny, but I believe that that would not be in our best interests. [Interruption.] We fought very hard for this agreement, so that we could get the information that we need to track terrorist financing. I do not- [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Speaker: Order. May I ask the Minister to resume her seat momentarily? I recognise that this issue has provoked real irritation, but what I say to Members who are wittering away from a sedentary position is that they will get their chance to question the Minister. I am giving them that chance, but they must contain themselves meanwhile.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: As I was saying, we believe that there are exceptional circumstances in this case. I point out to the House that Baroness Ashton's statement recognised that there could be cases or urgency, and we believe this to be one.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): But Parliament was assured by Baroness Ashton, who is now the EU's High Representative, that we would have eight weeks to scrutinise opt-in decisions. Will the Minister explain: given that SWIFT was signed in November, why was it not referred to the European Scrutiny Committee until just days before the Government decided to sign up to it? Why did the Treasury ignore the assurances given by Baroness Ashton in June 2008 that Scrutiny Committees would be given eight weeks to look at these decisions? What steps did she take to ensure that there was proper parliamentary scrutiny of the agreement?
Does the Minister accept that when assurances are given to Parliament about scrutiny they should be respected and Parliament should not be ignored? Does the Minister accept that this is a serious breach of an important undertaking by the Government and that it is vital to ensure proper scrutiny of decisions taken by the Government in this Parliament?
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