The hon. Gentleman does me a disservice by saying that I have not looked at the report. I gave evidence to the Committee and we are obviously very interested in the report's conclusions
and recommendations. We look forward to considering and responding to them in due course. An assessment based on 2008 data shows that air pollution is expected to reduce life expectancy by an average of six months and have an annual cost of £15 billion, compared with an average of seven to eight months and a cost of £20 billion based on 2005 data. This demonstrates that, even in that short period of time, we have made considerable progress. We are not in denial over this, however; it is a very important issue. We welcome the Committee's report and we will be proceeding with the recommendations as soon as we can.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will the Minister take his team to Bogotá in Colombia, a city of 7 million people, where, every Sunday, all vehicular traffic is banned and the city becomes a paradise for cyclists, walkers and joggers? Why cannot we shut down in London in that way for a day a week, or for an hour each morning to allow children to be taken to school and to allow me to bike or jog to Parliament without my lungs being clogged up by the filthy fumes of our city? Let us have an hour a day free of traffic in London- [ Interruption. ]
Jim Fitzpatrick: My right hon. Friend is obviously in good form this morning, as has been demonstrated by that question and by the sedentary comments that his suggestion has received. Since 1997, there have been significant reductions in road transport emissions-including of particulate matter 10 by 42 per cent., of oxides of nitrogen, NOx, by 48 per cent., and of sulphur dioxide, SO2, by 91 per cent.-in spite of traffic increasing by 13 per cent. The Mayor of London is due to publish the findings of a public consultation on a draft air quality strategy for London today, and we look forward to seeing what he recommends.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): First, may I echo the Secretary of State's tribute to Ashok Kumar? I worked with him on the issue of tuberculosis and its effects on developing countries, and I soon grew to appreciate his great decency and wisdom. Just as the Secretary of State will miss his supportive presence behind him, I will miss Ashok's reproachful gaze from across the Floor of the House.
Britain is exceeding pollution limits, and we are still waiting for a plan to clean up our act. Just as the Government were slow to act on landfill targets, they have dragged their feet on air quality and we now risk infraction proceedings from Brussels on air quality and on waste. They have had more than a decade to make Britain cleaner and greener; why have DEFRA Ministers failed to deliver?
Jim Fitzpatrick: This Government have introduced many significant measures to reduce air pollution. Additional measures announced in the excellent Budget speech by right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday include a reduced pollution certificate for heavy goods vehicles that achieve early compliance with the Euro 6 emissions standards, and a halving of company car tax for ultra-low carbon vehicles. Both those measures will help to improve air quality and support UK green jobs. We are working hard to avoid the risk of infraction, which can lead to fines; we are hopeful that we will be able to avoid them.
Nick Herbert: The Government's inability to produce a credible plan could result in infraction fines of up to £300 million. Their incompetence with the Rural Payments Agency has already resulted in fines of £75 million. Is it not a scandalous example of a waste of public money that they are raising taxes on the public to pay financial penalties to Brussels because of their failure to deliver?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ability to criticise the RPA during a question on air quality. That is very imaginative, but there is no relation between the two. I have just said that we hope to be able to avoid the risk of infraction leading to fines. For particulate matter, the risk is now very small. On nitrogen dioxide, meeting the limit values is more challenging, but we have additional time to prepare our case to the Commission; and, as I said in my original answer, the Mayor of London is responsible for improving air quality here, along with the London boroughs. Following a review of a public consultation, a draft air quality strategy for London is expected shortly. As I mentioned, we hope to see it today.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): Earlier this month I met Ministers from the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to discuss ways of improving the sustainability of food that is procured for those Departments. I have also written to Ministers in all relevant Government Departments to make sure that they are personally backing this agenda, which includes strong support for regional and local food.
Mr. Crabb: I thank the Minister for that reply. He knows that 2009 was another difficult year for many British farmers. Will he explain why Government procurement of British food actually fell during that year, and in particular, why NHS procurement dropped sharply? Why are the Government failing to back British farmers and British food at this time?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sorry; I do not recognise the statistics quoted by the hon. Gentleman to show that Government Departments across the board are moving backwards. We believe that we are making good progress on this subject. A recent report says that 13 out of 21 Departments have increased the amount of home-grown food that they serve as a percentage of all food supplied. Two have remained the same and three have gone down. For the others, there is no comparable data relating to the year before. We do not pretend that there is no room for improvement-of course there is-and we are working hard to address the issue in the meetings with ministerial colleagues that I mentioned and through the exchange of correspondence among Departments. The latest figures are a year behind and I believe that we will see further progress this year.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to get people to understand the importance of local sourcing, we have to educate children and families? Does he share my concern about a Natural England survey showing that the likelihood of a child visiting any green space has halved in a generation? Is it not about time that we opened up the countryside and showed children where food is grown?
Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are indeed working hard with the DCSF and other organisations to promote school visits into the countryside so that children can learn where their food comes from and be encouraged to grow some food on their school premises. More and more schools are engaging in that. Under the eco-schools project, about 1,000 green flag schools are finding out where food comes from and are growing their own as part of a holistic approach to the environment. My hon. Friend makes a very good point; we will continue to work hard on that agenda.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I am afraid that the Minister's attempt to spin these figures will fool no one. Only last month he told us that he hoped they would show improvement, but the reality is that the figures show that the Government are sourcing a declining proportion of British food-less British poultry, less British beef, less British lamb and less British pork. Some Departments are not buying a single rasher of British bacon. What kind of leadership and example does it show when this Government purchase a lower proportion of British food than the country as whole? Is it not time that we had a Government who cared about British farming and who bought food only to sustainable British standards?
Jim Fitzpatrick: We need the best of British producers to be able to tender for and win the big public and private sector contracts both at home and abroad. We are doing what we can to help promote the sustainability criteria and the animal welfare criteria and we will do everything we can to encourage Government Departments to procure British products.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies):
We have previously made clear our intention to consult on proposals for regulations to implement the transfer of private sewers before the summer, setting out the detailed arrangements for transfer. I am pleased to announce that we have made further progress and that we will be able to bring forward proposals for consultation on the regulations a little earlier-by the end of May.
Sir Patrick Cormack: That will be of some encouragement to my constituents in the village of Codsall who fear flooding every time there is torrential rain. Can the Minister give me an absolute guarantee that we will have action within the year?
Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): This will be my last appearance at DEFRA questions. Members will be pleased to learn that I shall not be asking about fish, otters or cormorants. The session has, however, been enhanced by the notion of Sunday walk-by shootings in Bogota.
The Minister will be aware of the 10-year campaign that I have waged on behalf of my constituents on the Haddocks estate in Tilehurst for the adoption of their drains by the water companies, as recommended by the excellent Pitt review. Can the Minister assure them that he has managed to secure cross-party agreement for that very necessary measure, so that whoever wins the next election, my constituents will not face the horror of a hike in their bills as a result of the failure to adopt their drains many years ago?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I commend my hon. Friend on his campaign on behalf of people living on the Haddocks estate and elsewhere. I also commend others who have campaigned long and hard. I think-I am now looking across at the Opposition Front Bench-that we have a consensus on the transfer of private sewers from 2011. That will be good for my hon. Friend's constituents, and for tens of thousands of people throughout the country. It will be good for Norman and Sheila Jewell of Pencoed, Mike Edwards of Sarn, Brian Whitmore of Brynna and many others. It will save them from the horror of facing bills for, in some instances, tens of thousands of pounds when their private or lateral drains collapse.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Government are committed to maintaining a thriving, competitive and sustainable agri-food sector in partnership with the supply chain, as part of our Food 2030 strategy. Reforming the common agricultural policy will improve the industry's ability to respond to consumer demand. We are providing £300 million between 2007 and 2013 to improve competitiveness in the agriculture and forestry sectors through the rural development programme for England, and over five years we are investing £80 million in research and development, of which £50 million is new money.
Mr. Baron: Whatever the Government may say, it remains a scandal that, according to both Farmers Weekly and Farmers Guardian, the latest European Union fines for late payments by the Rural Payments Agency amount to £90 million. Does the Minister not accept that the money would have been better spent on ensuring fair competition for our farmers, particularly when it comes to imports?
Jim Fitzpatrick: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, according to the latest figures relating to RPA payments under the single payment scheme, it met its two formal targets, which were to pay 75 per cent. by value by 31 January and 90 per cent. by value at the end of March, ahead of schedule. The latest figures show that, as of Tuesday 23 March, 93 per cent. of customers have been paid and 93 per cent. of the fund has been paid. The RPA's performance has improved year on year.
Bill Wiggin: The National Association of Cider Makers has led the way on responsible drinking. How has the Minister got the nerve to tell the House all those nice things about agriculture when yesterday, on the same spot, the Chancellor increased duty on cider by 10 per cent. over inflation? There are 600 businesses in Herefordshire alone producing this exclusively British drink. How will the Minister ever persuade anyone to take anything he says about British agriculture seriously again?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I recognise the hon. Gentleman's concern about the industry in his constituency. Historically, however, cider producers pay lower rates of duty than other producers, and the rate that they will now pay is about half that paid on beer. The smallest UK cider producers will remain exempt from the duty increase-they are subject to a small cider makers' exemption which applies to makers who produce fewer than 7,000 litres a year-and we estimate that, as a result, nearly 400 UK cider makers will not be affected by any of the changes announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): As has already been pointed out, the competitiveness of farming has been affected by the appalling record and performance of the Rural Payments Agency. There has been considerable investment in IT, but it has failed to remedy all the failures. What steps has the Minister taken to improve the efficiency of operations managers in the RPA, so that they can balance resources to meet their work loads and thence deliver improved performance for their customers?
The RPA is under extreme pressure to ensure that it makes efficiency savings, as is every Government Department and Government organisation. Online pre-populated application forms will be available this year, and drop-in centres will be opened for farmers so that they can speak face to face to RPA officers, because we want to make sure that we have an even smoother passage in terms of concluding the mapping this year and next year's payments. Clear improvements
have been made year on year since the debacle of the 2005-06 regime, and I hope this year's efficiencies will be apparent to all farmers. We are also having regular meetings with the RPA and stakeholders to try to make sure that everybody is aware of all the possible improvements.
Our farmers produce some £7 billion-worth of food, which, as the Secretary of State has said, supplies an £80 billion food processing sector. Farming also provides the basis for our £14 billion rural tourism industry, and, in total, is responsible for about 5 million jobs. Yet last week the Government stated in their skills document that not only agriculture, but the food sector too, are of low economic significance. Do they have any idea how damning that is after 13 years of a Labour Government?
Jim Fitzpatrick: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we recognise the significance and importance of the food-agri sector to the UK economy. I mentioned earlier the support we have put in place for it, such as through the rural development programme for England and our attempt to reform the common agricultural policy. The Dairy Supply Chain Forum, the Fruit and Vegetable Task Force and the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force also provide sector support, and we are also investing in both the skills agenda and research and development. As outlined earlier this month, we have reduced regulation by more than 20 per cent. as well. We are doing what we can, therefore, but we know there is more to do, and we will continue to try to do it.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Very good progress is being made toward meeting the 2010 target to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill. In 2008, significantly less of this waste was land-filled than the 2010 target requires, and there is every reason to believe that the amount of waste sent to landfill has continued to follow a downward path since.
"targets remain challenging and local authorities need to continue their good work to date."