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House of Commons

Thursday 24 June 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Canterbury City Council Bill


Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members : Object.

To be considered on Monday 5 July at Seven o'clock.

City of Westminster Bill [ L ords]


Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Monday 5 July at Seven o'clock .

Nottingham City Council Bill


Motion made, and Question proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be considered on Monday 5 July at Seven o'clock .

24 Jun 2010 : Column 410

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked-

Broadband (Rural Areas)

1. Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of broadband to rural areas. [3937]

9. Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of broadband to rural areas. [3945]

11. Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the roll-out of broadband to rural areas. [3947]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): As I am sure the House is aware, a former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Walker, has passed away. I felt it right to record our gratitude for his services to agriculture, and our condolences to his family.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and have followed that up with conversations with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Business Innovation and Skills and for Culture, Media and Sport about this important issue. I have spoken to the latter-the Government lead on broadband-to express my support for the initiatives announced on 8 June to take broadband to rural communities.

Richard Drax: I welcome the Secretary of State to her post, and thank her very much for coming down to South Dorset during the election campaign. I also welcome the Government's plans to roll out broadband. Can she please confirm that there will be a rapid broadband legacy in rural South Dorset after the Olympics?

Mrs Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I have seen for myself that his constituency presents challenges in terms of broadband provision, especially given the high ground before the acute descent to the coast. He is, however, fortunate to have the opportunity provided by an Olympic facility that will leave a lasting legacy in his constituency.

I take the view that we should not try to reinvent the wheel. Where broadband infrastructure is already in place, of course we should seek to use it. However, I will use my good offices to speak to those at the DCMS and to ensure that the legacy is a good one.

Nadhim Zahawi: I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her post. Yesterday's Budget confirmation that the Government will fund three pilot schemes to bring super-fast broadband to hard-to-reach areas is crucial to my constituency. It is especially crucial for the 50 to
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80 age group-which, for various reasons, is one of the fastest-growing groups of internet users-and, obviously, for enterprises in the area. Can the Secretary of State tell us a little more about her discussions on those three pilot schemes?

Mrs Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the importance of super-fast broadband provision to all generations in our society, and to the social inclusivity it provides. The coalition Government have made a clear commitment to roll out super-fast broadband to ensure that those who live in rural communities are not disadvantaged. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that includes businesses, but it also includes children, who often need broadband to complete their homework. I assure him that this is a priority for the Department, and that the choice of location for the pilots will be decided shortly.

Matthew Hancock: I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to the Front Bench. I also welcome what she said about rural broadband. In counties such as Suffolk, it is an important part of our modern infrastructure. The people of Suffolk are enterprising and innovative, and I know that they too will warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has said. However, will she tell us more about the importance of community initiatives for improving broadband, and what she will do to support them?

Mrs Spelman: Obviously, broadband is very important to my hon. Friend's constituency, which contains many farmers. It is simply assumed that those farmers will have access to broadband in order to complete form-filling online.

As I said earlier, this is a community opportunity. There are some excellent examples of the big society at work in Northumberland and Rutland, where communities have come together to ensure that good broadband access is available to all.

Farming Regulation

2. Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): What plans her Department has to reduce the level of regulation on farmers; and if she will make a statement. [3938]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): As I announced at the cereals event on 9 June, bureaucratic burdens on the food and farming industry will be scrutinized by a new industry-led taskforce on food and farming regulation. The taskforce will identify ways to reduce regulatory burdens by trusting farmers to deliver the necessary outcomes, rather than telling them how to do so. It will also advise on how best to achieve a risk-based system of inspection in future.

Mark Menzies: I am sure that many farmers in Fylde will take comfort from the work that is being done. To what extent is the Minister's Department liaising with EU member states regarding further reducing the regulatory burden?

Mr Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to his first DEFRA questions. He is absolutely right: a huge amount of DEFRA regulations emanate
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from the European Union. Only yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met the Agriculture Commissioner and impressed upon him not only the measures I have announced, but the need for the whole EU to adopt a much more simplified approach to regulation and to concentrate on outcomes. I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that that message went down very well with the Commissioner, who entirely endorsed that approach.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): Will the Minister guarantee that this rush into deregulation will not be at the expense of the health and safety of people working in agriculture, farmers themselves, their employees and the wider public? Will he guarantee a place for the trade unions on his taskforce?

Mr Paice: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have absolutely no intention of reducing standards. We in this country-particularly under the last Government-seem to have become obsessed with the view that to maintain standards, we must have high levels of intervention in how people comply with regulations. We have become obsessed with process. I can assure the House that we have absolutely no intention of allowing our standards to fall, be they in health and safety, food safety, pollution or anything else. We are focusing on reducing the burden on businesses regarding how they comply with such regulations by concentrating on whether they do.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I welcome the Minister to his position. He will not be surprised to learn of my recent conversation with a farmer in South Westmorland who bought a bull from market to his farm and was then unable to move any sheep from a field two miles away because of the six-day movement rule. That made absolute sense during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, but is now an unnecessary burden on the farming industry. When will the Minister scrap it?

Mr Paice: I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I have visited; I have probably had the same farmer saying the same thing to me there, as well as farmers in many other places over the many years when I sat on the Opposition side of the House. I tend to share his doubts about the six-day rule, but the advice I have received so far is that there is a very sound reason for it. It will certainly be one of the issues considered by the taskforce and I hope that, along with other such provisions, it will recommend getting rid of the rule.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): May I associate this side of the House with the remarks of the Secretary of State about the late Peter Walker?

Regulation is very important in animal health, including in combating animal disease. Will the Minister therefore tell the House when a decision was taken that there would be a targeted cull of badgers in hotspot areas?

Mr Paice: As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the commitment appears in the coalition agreement, so, bearing in mind that we have a new Government, I suppose the answer to his question is that the decision was taken when that coalition agreement was drawn up. Until that point, there were measures being proposed
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by the Conservative party and by the Liberal Democrats. There is a great deal of science concerning bovine TB. We are looking at all of it and drawing up our proposals, which we will publish and put out for consultation. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, there is a valid case for addressing the reservoir in wildlife, including badgers, in this country, as has been done by every other country in the world.

Hilary Benn: If a decision has been taken that there will be a cull, which is what the Minister said at the Devon county show, why did he say in a written answer on 22 June that all the evidence would be considered "before taking a decision"? How will it help to deal with the disease when the two Ministers responsible appear to be saying completely different things?

Mr Paice: The former Secretary of State is desperately trying to create a division where none exists, because the situation is clear-in black and white, if I may use the phrase-in the coalition agreement. The considerations mentioned in the parliamentary answer to which he refers concern the details of how, where and who, along with all the other issues that have to be addressed in working out how to do a cull of badgers and how to integrate it with the badger vaccine deployment project.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): May I follow up an earlier question on the movement of animals? During the winter, a sheep farmer in Honiton had to fill in a form every time she moved her sheep in and out of a field for lambing because she did not own that field-it was not part of her holding. We have got to find ways of simplifying movement orders.

Mr Paice: I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and to DEFRA questions. I entirely agree with him: that is one of countless regulations that appear on the face of it to be nonsensical, and which the taskforce will consider.

Flood Defence (Chesterfield)

3. Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): What progress has been made on flood defence projects in the Chesterfield area since 2007; and if she will make a statement. [3939]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): The Environment Agency is currently taking forward a project that will provide protection from the River Rother to more than 150 homes and businesses in Chesterfield. Further schemes to provide protection in Chesterfield are being assessed.

Toby Perkins: I welcome the Secretary of State and her Front-Bench team to their positions. Flood defence work was one of the many areas on which the Conservative party when in opposition criticised the Labour Government for not spending more, rather than asking for cuts. Can Ministers please confirm that there will be no cuts to flood defence work, which is so important, particularly given the likely increase in flood risk due to climate change?

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Richard Benyon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He has a particularly interesting project in his constituency: the work on the River Rother. I am very interested in it because it involves local levy funding, which is a very good way forward in times of difficult financial circumstances. We have found some savings in the budget for this year, and that is simply because the Environment Agency was ahead of the game in its targets for this year. I cannot say to the hon. Gentleman that there will be no cuts in the flood defence budget, but if he looks at the coalition agreement he will see that flood protection is an absolute priority for this Government.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): May I congratulate the entire ministerial team and assure Ministers of a very warm welcome when they appear before the departmental Select Committee? May I press my hon. Friend on flood defences for Chesterfield and other more urban areas? Will he take this opportunity to review the way the points are skewed in favour of urban areas to the detriment of rural areas, and make sure we restore more funding to regular maintenance rather than, almost exclusively, capital expenditure projects?

Richard Benyon: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments, and it will be very interesting to take up these matters with her Select Committee; I know they will be of great interest to it. This is all about getting the balance right. There are circumstances in which rural communities can put together a very good financial case, particularly with a form of local levy funding, to which I have already referred. We also have to recognise, however, that spending must go to where it is most effective and can secure as many homes as possible from the risk of flooding. I cannot talk in specifics on such a general issue, but I can assure my hon. Friend that this is an absolute priority that we will take forward.

Campaign for the Farmed Environment

6. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What recent discussions she has had on the objectives of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment; and if she will make a statement. [3942]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): The Government are strongly committed to the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, which we consider to be an excellent example of the farming industry taking responsibility for its environmental impacts. The Secretary of State and I met a number of senior representatives of the campaign's partner organisations at the recent cereals event and discussed aspects of the campaign with them, and we look forward to receiving the progress report later this month.

Mr Jones: I thank the Minister for his response. He may be interested to know that I shall be attending an event to promote the Campaign for the Farmed Environment in my constituency this very evening. Can he say what the level of uptake has been for the campaign across the country?

Mr Paice: The latest statistics we have are from a survey done in February. As I have said, there will be a further report shortly, but the latest statistics show that
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25% of farmers had already taken measures under the campaign and that another 50% plan to do so in the near future.

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