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House of Commons

Thursday 25 March 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

London Local Authorities Bill [ lords] (By Order)

Second Reading opposed (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked-

Food Industry

1. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to assist the food industry in the current economic climate. [324046]

12. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to assist the food industry in the current economic climate. [324060]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Mr. Speaker, it would not be right to let this moment pass without remembering our good friend and colleague, Ashok Kumar, who died so suddenly last week. He was my Parliamentary Private Secretary for seven years, so I find it hard to believe that when I turn my head I will not see him sitting behind me. He was a gentle man, a pioneer and extremely proud of his Indian heritage. He was a scientist and, above all, he was a magnificent fighter for his constituents. I know that the whole House will mourn his passing.

The Government are taking a number of steps to support the UK food industry, which is our biggest manufacturing sector, including the Food 2030 strategy; more investment in research and development; consulting on a supermarket ombudsman; the agri-skills plan; and the work of the task forces to assist the pig sector and to encourage more production and consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Hugh Bayley: Like my right hon. Friend, I mourn and miss Ashok Kumar greatly. I knew him very well; he was a close personal friend and constituency neighbour.

I welcome the Food 2030 document that the Secretary of State has produced, but will the Government make additional funding available for research to enable food manufacturers and farmers to produce food with a lower carbon footprint and less impact on the environment?

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Hilary Benn: We have responded to the call for even more investment in research in the food and farming sector, particularly with the additional funding of £50 million announced by the Technology Strategy Board last year. The board was set up to look at opportunities for the future for industry in the UK, so the fact that it has recognised the sector is warmly welcomed, and it will support a wide range of research. My hon. Friend is right: we will have to produce more food in a way that reduces our carbon emissions.

Nia Griffith: My right hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has introduced a Bill to establish a grocery ombudsman. Will my right hon. Friend do everything in his power to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book, so that an ombudsman can be established?

Hilary Benn: As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government-having carefully considered the Competition Commission's recommendation-have accepted the need for a means to enforce the new grocery supply code of practice. We are in the middle of a consultation on the most effective enforcement mechanism, and clearly a person or persons will need to undertake that job. I hope that everyone will contribute to that consultation so that we can get on with this as soon as possible.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): According to the Food and Drink Federation, this sector is the only manufacturing sector to record an increase in production throughout January 2010. What lessons will the Minister take from that?

Hilary Benn: Well, it shows the resilience and strength of the sector despite the difficult economic circumstances that we have been going through. It is a tribute to the skill and professionalism of those who work in the sector and it is further evidence that over the months and years ahead we will see increased demand for food, food production and food products. We will need farmers and those working in the food sector to produce that food. The fact that it is our largest manufacturing sector, employing some 3.6 million people, is a sign of its strength and importance.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): May I add my words of regret at the passing of Ashok Kumar, whom I first met in 1991 on the streets during the Langbaurgh by-election? It is always confounding to meet an opponent who turns out to be full of warmth, integrity and decency. He will be very sadly missed.

One way to assist the food industry would be to ensure that British food producers stay in business. My survey of food producers in Lancashire and Cumbria shows that more than 80 per cent. are still waiting for their single farm payment and face business collapse as a consequence. Will the Secretary of State intervene directly to ensure immediate interim payments to keep our farmers and food producers in business?

Hilary Benn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about Ashok Kumar.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, 93 per cent. of the payments have been made and the Rural Payments Agency has once again exceeded the targets that we set, so its recovery is continuing. As he will know, interim payments create some difficulties, but we have always
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made it very clear that if farmers are genuinely in dire circumstances they should contact the RPA and we will see what we can do.

Dangerous Dogs

2. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What steps he is taking to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. [324047]

10. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What steps he is taking to tackle the problem of dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. [324057]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): We have launched a wide-ranging consultation on the problem of dangerous dogs, and I recently met with welfare groups and enforcement agencies to discuss this. We have also produced new guidance for the public, enforcers of the law and magistrates, as well as provided the Association of Chief Police Officers with funding to help train police officers.

Tony Baldry: It seems to me that the 9 March consultation document does not deal with a crucial issue, which is people actually breeding dogs to be weapons and the increase in the breeding of pit bull terriers. A microchipped pit bull terrier is still a pit bull terrier, and there needs to be discussion with the Kennel Club, vets and others about how one can limit the breeding of dogs that are intended to be weapons.

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, that was one of the points raised at the meeting with stakeholders to which I referred in my answer. The consultation paper ranges quite widely, but given that there is a bit of history on legislation passed in haste and repented at some leisure and cost to many people, it is important that we get this right. I encourage all those with an interest to express a view. There was agreement on some points in the meeting: there is pretty broad support, I think, for extending the legislation to private property and for the idea of dog control orders, which would, it seemed to many people at the meeting, provide a pretty targeted way of trying to deal with particular owners, and the dogs they own, who are causing the bulk of the problem.

Michael Fabricant: Although I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to say quite clearly that there is one hell of a difference between a pit bull terrier and a Staffordshire terrier, which has a very different temperament indeed?

Hilary Benn: Of course, many people in the country own Staffordshire terriers, and they are much loved family pets. The lesson, which the Home Secretary and I saw when we visited the RSPCA hospital in Seven Sisters a couple of weeks ago, is that other breeds are now being trained as fighting dogs, status dogs, weapon dogs-or whatever phrase one uses to describe them-and the question is how we target effort and energy on those who are doing it. Let us be honest: there is a very lively debate about breed versus deed. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 specified four breeds, but in the consultation meeting that I held, the majority of those who expressed a view were sceptical about a breed approach, and thought that we should focus more on deed.

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Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): In the horrific case of John Paul Massey in my constituency, a focus on the breed disrupted and undermined the partnership that needs to work between a housing association and the police when the public report concerns about the behaviour of dogs. Chipping dogs and encouraging owners to be trained in ownership, not focusing on the breed, is the way forward.

Hilary Benn: There is a great deal of sense in the comments of my right hon. Friend, who sadly has experience of this matter, through the constituency case to which she referred. In the end my concern, and I think that of the House, is that we come up with a set of proposals that will help to deal with the remaining problem. Certainly, some people argue that spending time looking at the features of a particular dog to determine whether it falls within the four categories in the original legislation might not necessarily be the most sensible approach. That is one of the questions that we have raised in the consultation paper.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I wish to follow the comments by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about the Staffordshire bull terrier. Anyone who owns a Staffordshire bull terrier knows what lovely, warm animals they are, but they were demonised in our national media through ignorance and a misunderstanding of what a dangerous dog is. The very title "dangerous dog" is misleading in the campaign to control the ownership of a dog-it is a privilege and not to be given out lightly. What are we going to do to stop the people who own these dogs?

Hilary Benn: I take my hon. Friend's point that demonisation will not help anybody to deal with the problem. This debate is about what further steps we can take, building on existing legislation, and amending it if that is sensible, to put in place effective measures to deal with the problem of the small number of owners-the vast majority of dog owners are responsible and as concerned about this as anybody else-who through breeding, training or incitement allow their dogs to do the kind of things that we have seen.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): On Monday the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), said,

Ministers know the problems with bull breeds in certain communities and they know about their effects on people living in those communities, so what do this Government do? They use a sledgehammer to miss a nut. They have had 13 years to get this issue right and now, in the run-up to an election, they produce measures, immediately withdraw them and then partially reintroduce them again. Do they actually talk to their Home Office colleagues? What confidence can we have that this Government will bring in measures that will deal with a serious and urgent problem?

Hilary Benn: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I say that I am pretty reluctant to take lectures on effective legislation from the party responsible
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for the original, 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which had to be amended in 1997. He should be slightly cautious on that subject. That is the first point.

The second point- [ Interruption. ] I was not in the House at the time; I will take credit for what I have done. The second point is that third-party insurance could be useful to particular dog owners. For example, it could be part of a dog control order. Third-party insurance was included in the consultation paper because some who have been party to the debate suggested it. The Dogs Trust, for example, is in favour of the proposal and thinks that it would be sensible to have compulsory third-party insurance. However, I am afraid to say that the Opposition decided to go around suggesting that the Government had already made up their mind to introduce compulsory third-party insurance for everybody. That is not our position, and that is why I made it clear that we do not intend to proceed with that proposal.

Mr. Speaker: Progress is a little slow this morning. We do need to speed up.


3. Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to encourage the recycling of household waste; and if he will make a statement. [324048]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): Local authorities are best placed to make decisions on waste management. We strongly encourage recycling through a range of measures, from targeted funding to help to set up recycling and composting facilities, to the landfill tax and the landfill allowance trading scheme. Direct support is also provided to local authorities through the Waste and Resources Action Programme.

Mr. Betts: Will my hon. Friend join me in expressing regret at Lib Dem-controlled Sheffield city council, which is proposing to take away the very popular blue bins for paper and green bins for garden waste, and replace them with green sacks, which are potentially dangerous, and small blue boxes for paper, which are heavy for pensioners to lift? Will he use his influence to persuade the council not to go down that route, because there is widespread public opposition and it could actually reduce recycling?

Dan Norris: I fully appreciate that my hon. Friend is concerned that his constituents have great concerns about the issue. Indeed, I have been reading about it in the Sheffield Star, in which there have been some strong editorials. However, at the end of the day, it is a matter for local authorities to decide how they manage waste, although we would obviously encourage them to listen carefully to the communities that they serve, to ensure that they take into account their specific needs.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): UK households generate enough waste in one year to power a town the size of Kendal for 65 years if that waste is recycled properly. It is vital that we recycle and reduce our waste, but it is also vital that we make good use-and
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green use-of the waste produced, so will the Minister tell us why, when Germany has 2,500 anaerobic digesters, the UK has merely 38?

Dan Norris: The truth is that we are investing significantly in anaerobic digestion. We are very keen on it: it is an important technology, which we should be using much more effectively than we have done historically. I accept completely that other countries are ahead of us at the moment, but we are learning from their experience, so that we are not reinventing the wheel. I am confident that we will make significant progress through a range of incentives that we have created for that important process.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): But will my hon. Friend look again at how private finance initiative credits can crowd out recycling, which can mean that we end up with what some of us do not want, namely the encouragement of incineration? That is happening in Gloucestershire, and it is about time that it was stopped.

Dan Norris: I am not sure that I would accept my hon. Friend's analysis of the situation. In fact, we have a good record on recycling. It has quadrupled in the past 10 years. I accept his point about crowding out, in the sense that we would not want to encourage anything to do with landfill or incineration if there are other options, but reducing, re-using and recycling are essential, and that is the thrust of everything that we say and do.

Air Quality

4. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of progress towards meeting European air quality standards; and if he will make a statement. [324049]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): As a result of improvements over many years, EU limits for air quality are met across most of the UK. Limits for particulate matter are yet to be achieved on only a small number of roads in central London. For nitrogen dioxide, limits are exceeded on less than one third of major roads in urban areas across the UK. The Government are working with delivery partners to achieve the limits as soon as possible.

Simon Hughes: The Minister's answer suggests that he has not read the report that was published this Monday by the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, which states:

The Committee, which has nine Labour members, concluded unanimously that

Why have the Labour Government not got their act together after 13 years?

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