Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab):
The Minister will be aware of the hare-brained plan set out by the last but one Leader of the Opposition to abolish the anglers' rod licence, which was hinted at again this week by the current Leader of the Opposition in his Angling Times interview. Based on today's figure, that would mean stripping £24 million or 70 per cent. from the Environment Agency's fishery budget. This means no restocking,
dirtier rivers and a bleak future for Britain's 3 million anglers. Would the Minister confirm the Government's commitment to retaining the anglers' rod licence and its income for fisheries work?
Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend has put me on the spot somewhat, but I can give him a guarantee on the matter. The rod licence is one of our rare hypothecated levies, and the proceeds from it go directly back into river management. The guarantee that I give him is that, when this Government are returned, we will make sure that that continues, to the benefit of anglers and others.
T5.  Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Do Ministers realise the practical difficulties that sheep farmers face in implementing the ear tagging electronic reading scheme? Those difficulties have been added to by the abolition of the five-year rule, which means that farmers have to use the scheme even when moving sheep between their own nearby fields. Will he make sure that, at least in the first year, the authorities place the emphasis on helping, working with and supporting farmers, and not on rushing into prosecutions?
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that when the eID regime was introduced we fought right to the end at negotiations in Brussels to secure some late improvements and amendments, to the benefit of British farmers. We will continue to press for such changes, because we think that the scheme can be improved still further. We will do what we can to help the industry deal with the new regulations.
Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It is my swansong too, and I am grateful for your generosity. Has my hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1142? Does he accept that it ought to be a matter of concern to the Government that a decision at Warwick university, which I perfectly understand, is risking the applied science research base in agriculture and horticulture in the UK? It would be very helpful if Ministers could lead an impact assessment of that decision.
Jim Fitzpatrick: Strangely, Mr. Speaker, I have here a copy of the early-day motion put down by my right hon. Friend, who is a highly regarded parliamentary colleague and a distinguished former Minister in the Department. We recognise the concerns that she raises in her early-day motion. We will look at them and report back to her as soon as we can.
T6.  Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): The five rivers that flow into the Avon basin are being depleted by abstraction. Has the Secretary of State finished reflecting on last year's consultation on the abolition of Crown immunity from water abstraction licensing, particularly as it applies to the Ministry of Defence and its establishments on Salisbury plain?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for applying continuing pressure on this issue. He is right to do so, because the impact of abstraction can be
significant in the beautiful areas that he represents. As he knows, we consulted last summer about implementing the remaining water abstraction provisions of the Water Act 2003, including on the removal of exemptions for Crown bodies. He will be slightly disappointed to hear that we are still considering the responses to the consultation. They are complex, so I am unable to say when abstraction provisions will be introduced, but we are actively considering all the detailed issues.
Mr. Speaker: Order. My appetite for hearing colleagues' questions and Ministers' answers is almost unlimited. I would like to be able to satisfy that appetite, so short questions and short answers are required.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): My question is about local food sourcing by the public sector. Is my hon. Friend aware that Airedale general hospital in my constituency now gets all its meals trucked from Pembrokeshire by a company called Sodexo? I campaigned against that, with people from the local community, but to no avail. That is what is happening, and it is absolutely ludicrous.
Jim Fitzpatrick: As I said in response to an earlier question, I recently had a meeting with my ministerial colleague at the Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), when we discussed the question of procurement. I am disappointed to hear of my hon. Friend's experience with her local hospital. We are doing everything that we can to increase the amount of locally produced food procured by Government Departments.
T7.  Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Agricultural and horticultural shows, such as the one in Poynton in my constituency or the annual trials held by the Macclesfield and District Sheep Dog Trials Association, are getting increasingly costly. They are also getting more difficult to organise each year because of regulations, health and safety considerations, and so on. Is there anything that the Government can do to try and ensure that these wonderful countryside traditions can continue?
Jim Fitzpatrick: Some of the great memories that I will take from serving as Minister of State at DEFRA over the past 10 or so months are the visits to agricultural shows across the country. I certainly hope that I will be able to continue to visit shows after the election, but that is beyond my gift. The Government recognise the importance of the shows, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do what we can to help organisers make sure that they can continue.
T8.  Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) mentioned the Leader of the Opposition's comments in Angling Times, but what my right hon. Friend actually said was:
"What we can promise you is that we will have a proper conversation about the licence. If it works and it is genuinely hypothecated we will keep it."
Huw Irranca-Davies: I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has been giving many interviews lately. Let me tell him that there is no need for any conversation about the licence; it does work, and we are keeping it.
T9.  Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In the light of the report on the National Forest and its future by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what reassurance can the Minister give the body that its funding will be maintained, so that its long-term reafforestation work can continue?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman gives me the opportunity to raise the fact that we are increasing woodland coverage. In the UK, it is now 2.8 million hectares, up from 2.2 million hectares back in 1980, and it is continuing to increase. Of course, as part of our climate change commitments, we have an undertaking to increase woodland coverage, not least for the commercial conifer sector, which needs the wood to trade with.
T10.  Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): This week, the Select Committee's report on the failure of Dairy Farmers of Britain expressed regret that Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will not allow income tax relief to farmers who converted the debt owed to them by the co-operative into shares. Will the Secretary of State join the Select Committee in urging HMRC to reconsider its position?
Hilary Benn: We will, of course, look very carefully at the Select Committee report. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened, but I welcomed the Committee's kind words about the role that DEFRA played in trying to support Dairy Farmers of Britain through the difficult times that it experienced. I pay tribute to my colleagues who worked very hard on the issue.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I am indebted to your appetite, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State has already lost twice in the High Court to the Lymington river association. Can we avoid another expensive spat? Will the Minister show Natural England the rough end of a pineapple to encourage it to take seriously the evidence that the association is giving it?
The hon. Gentleman and I have had many conversations and a deal of correspondence on the issue. He has worked hard on behalf of his
constituents. There are lessons to be learned all round, not least by the ferry operators. Natural England will continue to do what it is doing. It is good at engagement on the ground with stakeholders, but there are lessons to be learned to help us to avoid such situations in future.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Will the Minister show the rough end of a pineapple, and give much stronger advice, to my local council, Castle Point borough council, to stop it planning to put a massive housing estate on our floodplain?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I will take up the hon. Gentleman's issue with the Environment Agency, but he will understand that we do not intervene in individual applications for housing developments. The review that we have undertaken of planning policy statement 25 on building on floodplains, and Sir Michael Pitt, have made it clear that local authorities have to be able to put forward a good case for building on floodplains occasionally; otherwise, towns such as Hull, and places such as the centre of Lowestoft, would be condemned to planning blight for ever.
On a serious point, may I challenge the Secretary of State on why this country still has 5,000 primates being kept as so-called pets? Is it not time to end that barbaric practice, rather than just licensing it?
Jim Fitzpatrick: We recognise the concerns raised by many people across the country on that area of policy. The regulations are there to give the protection that people expect, and obviously we keep them under review. There is growing concern about the keeping of primates or other species, particularly those that are endangered, and about animals in circuses, but we always maintain vigilance to make sure that policy reflects public opinion, and that the highest standards of animal welfare are maintained.
Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm the worrying rumour that this is her last business questions? Does she seriously believe that on Thursday 8 April the House will debate international development, important thought that subject is?
Yesterday, why did the Chancellor fail to explain that he was freezing all personal allowances below the level of inflation, leading to a £2.2 billion stealth tax on 30 million people? When the measure was announced in the pre-Budget report, inflation was negative; now it is 3.7 per cent. That will take almost £50 out of the pockets of the lowest paid. Is that what the Government call "A Future Fair for All"?
Next Tuesday, when a Treasury Minister winds up the last day of the Budget debate, will he take the opportunity to explain why the taxman is failing to pick up the telephone? Almost 45 million people failed to get through to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs last year-with many others stuck on hold. Does the right hon. and learned Lady think that that is acceptable?
Once again, will the right hon. and learned Lady correct the record for the Prime Minister? Last week she turned down my offer of an opportunity to apologise for the Prime Minister's inaccurate use of figures on defence spending. Now he has failed to come to the House to explain why he said on 17 March that 300,000 businesses had been supported through the recession by HMRC's deferred payment scheme-despite the real figure being cited in a parliamentary answer as 160,000.
Can we also have a statement on freedom of information requests? The Government have done everything in their power to prevent the publication of papers relating to the Prime Minister's decision to sell our gold reserves, as well as his disastrous raid on pensions. Yesterday, at Question Time, the Prime Minister said:
"It is a matter for the Information Commissioner".-[ Official Report, 24 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 240.]
But it is only a matter for the Information Commissioner because the Treasury has refused to make the papers available. If the Government are so relaxed, why do they not publish all that information today?
Can I press the right hon. and learned Lady again on her plans to implement the Wright Committee's recommendations on strengthening the House, and to do so before Dissolution? I note she has tabled the Standing Orders, but they do not make it clear that topical debates score as one quarter of a day, as Wright recommended. Will she re-table the Standing Order with that amendment? Will she also sketch out the details of her plan B, which she shared with the House last week? If amendments are tabled to her Standing Orders, as they have been to the other Standing Orders, when will we debate them before Dissolution?
Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady failed to assure the House that all written questions would be answered before Dissolution. According to the parliamentary information service, more than 2,000 questions are still outstanding. Will she make sure that all Ministers respond properly by the end of the Session?
Turning to next week's business, I note that when we agreed to adjourn next Tuesday after the Budget, we did not know that we would be debating the Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill after all the Budget votes. That Bill is an important piece of legislation, on which the Government suffered several humiliating defeats in the upper House. I note also that we will be sitting earlier that day, but would it not be better to delay the recess by one day and deal with the legislation properly on Wednesday? That would also give the House the opportunity to debate the Easter Adjournment, a debate that the right hon. and learned Lady has denied to Back Benchers, many of whom were hoping to use it as an opportunity for a valedictory speech. That extra day could also be used to debate the Standing Orders in respect of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, and of course we could have another round of Prime Minister's questions.
Finally, given that this may be the last opportunity to reflect on the high points of this Parliament, does the right hon. and learned Lady recall her victorious deputy leadership campaign? Apparently, this was not as well received as it might have been. According to an eye-witness-one of his aides-when the Prime Minister discovered the result, "his face fell", but
"he put his hands on my shoulders and said: 'It will be all right. We'll make it all right'."
Ms Harman: What I have done today is to announce the business for this week and the provisional business for the week after the recess, and that is the normal way we do things. I do not confirm anything beyond what I say in the business statement.