COMMONS

Today's House of Commons debates - Thursday 29 January 2015

Version: Uncorrected | Updated 19:16

House of Commons

Thursday 29 January 2015

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rivers and Waterways

1.

What steps she has taken to improve the cleanliness of Britain's rivers and waterways.[907282]

11.

What steps she has taken to improve the cleanliness of Britain's rivers and waterways.[907297]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss):

We have made good progress and cleaned up more than 10,000 miles of our rivers. Pollution from sewage has gone down significantly. During this Parliament, phosphate pollution will fall by a fifth and ammonia by a sixth. This shows that a healthy environment goes hand in hand with a healthy economy.

Sir Tony Baldry:

The River Cherwell and the Oxford canal will soon appear proudly on Cherwell district council’s new coat of arms as being two of the most valued and precious amenities in the district. Am I right in thinking that the total of rivers whose water quality has improved under this Government now exceeds the length of the Amazon and the Nile combined? What more can be done to ensure that our rivers and canals continue to become cleaner?

Elizabeth Truss:

My right hon. Friend mentions two fine rivers, and I have been on the River Cherwell, a very fine river. He is absolutely right. We have cleaned more than 10,000 miles of river and we will shortly put in place our new countryside stewardship scheme, which will enable farmers to get grants to improve water quality even further.

Stephen Metcalfe:

The Thames is not only England’s longest river, but east of here and down to my constituency it is also the most populated. What steps are the Government taking to clean up the river, while balancing the needs of the users and flora and fauna?

Elizabeth Truss:

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the River Thames. It is vital not only for London but for our whole country, and it is unacceptable that at present raw sewage is regularly pumped into the Thames. That is why we are taking action, through projects such as the Thames tideway tunnel, to reduce that vastly.

Pork Exports

2.

What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on promoting pork exports.[907285]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss):

I discussed this issue early this week with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. Since 2010, we have opened 600 new overseas markets and UK pork exports reached £309 million in 2013, up 26% from 2010. I am committed to boosting this even further and we made major progress on my recent visit to China.

Stephen Phillips:

As my right hon. Friend rightly says, and as regular watchers of “Have I Got News for You” know, she has recently been to China. Lincolnshire has first-class pig farmers. Will she update the House on her discussions in China to open up that market to my pig farmers?

Elizabeth Truss:

It was fantastic to have representatives from major pork companies, such as Tulip, which has a plant in my hon. and learned Friend’s constituency, and from Cranswick, which sells great Norfolk pork, on my visit to China. We made progress on inward inspections—getting items such as trotters approved, which will open up more produce in this country—and we were also able to announce the appointment of our first ever food and agriculture counsellor, based in Beijing, Karen Morgan, which will help to drive further business. This is vitally important, because China will be the biggest importer of food by 2018.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):

According to the Soil Association, which is based in Bristol, in the past four years Dutch farmers have reduced antibiotic use by 58%, which means that British pig farmers now use more than three times more antibiotics than their Dutch counterparts. Would it not make our exports more attractive to overseas markets if we were to follow the Dutch example and set a similar 50% target for reducing UK farm antibiotic use?

Elizabeth Truss:

I know that British farmers are working on that. This country has very competitive pork producers, who are expanding markets overseas, and it is vital for the health of our agriculture industry.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con):

I applaud the efforts of the Secretary of State to boost the sale of pigs trotters from Karro at the Malton bacon factory. Will she use her recent visit to China to expand dairy exports to help boost dairy production in this country?

Elizabeth Truss:

My hon. Friend is right; there are huge opportunities for dairy in China. Chinese consumers currently consume a third of the dairy products that we consume in Europe, but that is expanding rapidly and the present generation of Chinese children are eating a lot of dairy products. UK products are particularly well respected and I took representatives of dairy companies, including Somerdale cheese, out with me. I want to see more companies out there and we are doing all we can to help the industry get its products into the Chinese markets.

Mr Speaker:

The Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has ingeniously invented the concept of dairy pork. We are grateful to her for doing so.

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con):

Pork exports have shown the way to opening new markets—cheese being a good example of that too. We could do more still at home with public procurement, which would help pork producers and especially our milk producers.

Elizabeth Truss:

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work she did in this area when she was Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We launched the Bonfield report last summer, which is all about making it easier for our schools and hospitals to buy British. It opens up £400 million-worth of new markets for our farmers, and by 2017 all Government Departments are committed to sourcing locally. Of course, DEFRA has led the way: we now serve British bacon in our canteen, rather than the Danish bacon that used to be served.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD):

In her discussions with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, was the right hon. Lady able to raise the issue of the supermarket adjudicator and her need to have powers to impose fines, and to extend her remit throughout the entire length of the food chain, rather than just between the last producer and the supermarket?

Elizabeth Truss:

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I work closely with BIS on this issue, and I am pleased to say that last night we laid the statutory instrument that will give the Groceries Code Adjudicator the power to fine companies.

Tree Planting

3.

What estimate she has made of the number of trees planted during the present Parliament.[907286]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson):

Although figures are not yet available for the current planting season, we estimate that since 2010 our rural development programme will have supported the planting of over 10 million trees through new woodland creation. At the same time, our Big Tree Plant project is set to meet its target of planting 1 million new trees in England’s urban areas.

Andrew Jones:

Trees and woodland are a hugely important part of our landscape in Yorkshire, and I congratulate the Government on their work nationally to support tree planting. Locally too, many community groups in Harrogate and Knaresborough have planted thousands and thousands of trees. What steps are the Government taking to safeguard the health of trees from the threat of disease?

Dan Rogerson:

In April 2014 we published a tree health management plan alongside our plant biosecurity strategy, and we are implementing those, working closely with stakeholders. We take a risk-based approach to plant health and we have created a prioritised risk register to inform appropriate action against pests and diseases. For example, we have introduced movement restrictions or notification requirements for certain tree species, and we appointed a senior chief bio-health officer, Professor Nicola Spence.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):

Planting trees has been one of the great success stories over the past few years, but simply planting trees is not enough. We must manage our woodland, find commercial uses for wood products, and make sure that our forests are available for a wide range of uses. Can the Minister reassure me that the report of the independent panel on forestry and the subsequent strategy developed within the Department are very much ongoing business, and that we will see many of those ideas put into practice over the coming years?

Dan Rogerson:

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he did in this area as Minister. Yesterday I met our stakeholder forum, which involves people from the commercial sector right the way through to local charity and voluntary groups. We can do much better on managing woodland in this country and we are taking the steps that will enable us to do that so that it can be more productive, better for biodiversity and better for local economies too, through initiatives such as Grown in Britain.

Badger Vaccination: Cheshire

4.

What assessment she has made of the benefits and costs of extending the Cheshire badger vaccination programme to include the borough of Stockport.[907288]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):

The deadline for applications for the badger edge vaccination scheme, which supports privately-led vaccination in the edge areas of England, which includes much of Cheshire, is 27 February. Decisions will be based on published criteria such as the size of the area, the location, value for money and operational readiness.

Sir Andrew Stunell:

Sadly, I must report an outbreak of bovine TB in Stockport in my constituency that is just north of the Cheshire area for which bids can be accepted. May I press the Minister to extend the area from which valid bids will be accepted, to take account of the northern spread of this pernicious disease?

George Eustice:

We are aware that there is a particular problem in Cheshire, and that is why we have introduced six-monthly surveillance testing. The boundaries of the so-called edge area are reviewed regularly on epidemiological grounds. The TB advisory group last considered this issue at the end of last year and decided that there was not a case for increasing testing at that stage. The matter will be considered again later this year.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab):

The Government keep on saying that there is no alternative to badger culling, yet the trials in Wales based on stringent cattle measures combined with vaccination show that there is a viable alternative to the Government’s mass slaughter of badgers. However, Ministers are obviously allergic to science-based policy and deaf to alternative approaches. Will there be an announcement on the further roll-out of the mass culling of badgers before the Dissolution of Parliament? The country needs to know.

George Eustice:

I think the hon. Lady is reading too much into what has happened in Wales. The vaccinated area is a little more than 1.5% of the total area. There has been a reduction in the incidence of TB, as there has been in the UK, predominantly through the introduction of cattle movement controls. We have always been very clear that there is no example anywhere in the world of a country that has tackled TB without also dealing with the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. We will stick to our 25-year strategy.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con):

The Minister will be aware that there is hearsay about the number of herd breakdowns within the pilot cull areas. When are we going to have some facts and figures?

George Eustice:

It is too early to give those figures. My hon. Friend is right, though, that anecdotally there are examples of farms that have gone clear since the badger cull commenced. The farm of James Griffiths, which I visited last year, had been under restriction for 12 years, and I understand that he went clear earlier this year. However, these are currently anecdotal reports and it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions.

Wind Power

5.

What discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on the environmental case for supporting the development of onshore and offshore wind power.[907289]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson):

The Secretary of State has been working with ministerial colleagues to implement the electricity market reform programme. This will deliver the greener energy and reliable supplies that the UK needs while minimising costs for consumers in the long term. Government planning guidance makes it clear that the need for renewable energy should not automatically override concerns about local impacts. When applications for wind turbines are determined, the impacts on matters such as ecology, noise, landscape, heritage and amenity are considered.

Mr Sheerman:

That is all very well, but 57% of applications for wind farms are rejected and a very large number are called in by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I note that Government Members are saying “Hear, hear.” None of us wants wind farms in the wrong place, but surely that is a vital question, because we need renewable energy in this country. It is about time the Minister worked with his colleagues to get a sensible way forward so that we can have alternative energy sources.

Dan Rogerson:

I am delighted to work alongside my DECC colleagues on this issue. We have seen a dramatic increase in renewables such onshore and offshore wind. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that development has to be in the right place. It is only right and proper that local issues are considered, and we have to be very clear about the way it is done. He is welcome to come to my constituency and see that there has been an increase in onshore wind. However, this has to be taken forward through the proper planning procedure.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con):

If the Minister wants good will towards these hideous and useless items of industrial furniture, then he really does need to have another word with his planning inspectors. There is no way, had he done so, that they would have overturned the decision of the local authority against three wind turbines in the village of Langho that are incredibly unpleasant. The whole community and all the councillors were against them, but now the community has to put up with them. Will he have another word with his inspectors?

Dan Rogerson:

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will have heard his message.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

Offshore wind has the potential not just to create green energy but to generate jobs, exports and research. Yet the support for offshore wind available through the current round of contracts for difference will not create the incentives needed for future investment. Frankly, this places in jeopardy the future of a fledgling industry. Will the Minister send a strong signal that the Government remain committed to offshore renewable energy?

Dan Rogerson:

We are having a fascinating discussion on an issue that is not at the core of what our Department does. However, I am happy to reassure the hon. Lady that this Department is committed to working with others to take forward the decarbonisation of our economy. Through the investments in local growth deals and so on, we have shown how we are working with people right across the United Kingdom to create jobs and to deliver the green growth that will help us to restore our economy and work towards a far more positive future.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con):

In the case of the proposed extension to the Scout Moor wind farm near my constituency, my constituents are genuinely concerned that insufficient weight is being given to environmental considerations, such as landscape value, in the planning process. Does the Minister agree that, in considering such applications, sufficient weight must be given to the wishes and views of local constituents rather than to power and other matters?

Dan Rogerson:

As I said to other hon. Members earlier, it is important that such local factors are taken into consideration. That is why some developments are approved, and others are not. Such decisions have to be based on important planning considerations, including those raised by my hon. Friend.

Water Companies: Social Tariff

6.

How many water companies offer a social tariff.[907290]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson):

Eight water companies across England and Wales already offer a social tariff on top of the national, mandated WaterSure scheme, and we expect six more to introduce a tariff from April.

Grahame M. Morris:

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I am sure that he would join me in welcoming the announcement by Northumbrian Water in my area. After consultation with customers, it has introduced a social tariff, and it is working with debt charities to support vulnerable people in my area. However, only 25,000 people nationally benefit from social tariffs, so what practical steps is the Minister taking to encourage the scope and availability of social tariffs for vulnerable people?

Dan Rogerson:

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this matter. I share his views on what is being achieved to help bill payers in his part of the country. As a Government, we have worked with the industry to look at ways to ensure that bills are affordable for people. The regulator, Ofwat, which has the key lead on this issue, has of course now taken action, and its price review has led to a very good deal for customers. More companies are taking advantage of the option of social tariffs. There will be more this year and more the year after, which will deliver a deal for vulnerable people who need help with their bills.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con):

Is not the big difficulty with water and sewerage bills separating those who cannot pay and need assistance from those who will not pay and need to be pursued? Is not the best way to reduce family water and sewerage bills to increase the spread of metering so that the volume of water consumed is less and the bill total is reduced?

Dan Rogerson:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In areas where there is higher metering, people have perhaps focused more on what they can do to reduce their water usage. We have not seen a case made for compulsory water metering across the country. However, people have the option of talking to their water company about water metering to help to reduce their usage and their bills.

Emergency Food Aid

7.

What estimate she has made of the number of people who used emergency food aid in the last 12 months; and what steps the Government are taking to address food poverty.[907291]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):

The provision of food aid ranges from small, local provision to regional and national schemes. Some keep records, some do not, but we do not want to create new regulations or reporting burdens for volunteers and charity groups providing food aid. The best way to address poverty is to help people off benefits and into work, and we have created 1.7 million jobs since 2010. Schemes such as free school meals will also help. Last week, the Secretary of State met retailers to encourage them to do more to redistribute surplus food to local charities.

Chi Onwurah:

According to the Trussell Trust, the food bank in the west end of Newcastle is the busiest in the country, feeding thousands every month. I hope that the Minister is not going to pretend that these people are just attracted to free food or that they do not know how to cook, because I have seen the tears in the eyes of my constituents at the shame they feel when forced to go to this food bank by this Government’s cruel and unfair policies. So what is he going to do about it?

George Eustice:

We have reduced taxes for 25 million people, and we have taken 3 million of the lowest earners out of tax altogether. In the past year, food prices have fallen by 1.7%, which is the first time that food prices have fallen since 2002.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con):

Instead of harping on about what the Government might or might not be doing—and we are doing much to get people out of food poverty—I urge colleagues to do as I have done and visit their local food bank. I know that many colleagues have already done so. They should also emphasise to their constituents that what food banks require is not fresh food, but pasta, sugar and other goods that can be stored for some time.

George Eustice:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I visited the food bank in Camborne in my constituency just before Christmas to support the work that it does. It is better for food banks to have predominantly non-perishable goods to support the great work that they do.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab):

There is no shortage of food in this country, yet more than 1 million people are going hungry and relying on emergency food aid. There is no shortage of compassion from food bank volunteers, but there is a hunger of compassion in a Government who are taking us back to the 1930s in spending and to Victorian times in attitudes to the poor. The Secretary of State sat out the last debate on food banks. Will the Minister apologise for the Government’s staggering complacency in the face of a food crisis in which an advanced nation cannot feed its working poor and its vulnerable, or will he join again the collective chorus of denial in the dying days of this Government?

George Eustice:

The Government have got 1.7 million people back into work and taken 3 million of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether. If the Labour party had had its way, it would have frozen energy prices at the top of the market, but we have seen energy prices continue to fall. Food prices have fallen for the first time since 2002 and are continuing to do so.

Habitats Directive (Bats and Newts)

8.

If she will review the measures put in place to protect bats and newts under the EU habitats directive.[907293]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):

DEFRA completed a review of the national implementation of the habitats directive in 2012. Although the review found that implementation was largely working well, it identified measures to improve things further, which have largely been delivered. In addition, the European Commission has started its own evaluation of the directive, which is due to conclude in the spring of 2016.

Mr Robathan:

Before I receive any hate mail, may I say that I am a keen conservationist and that I like bats and newts? However, as my hon. Friend intimated, there are problems with the implementation of the EU habitats directive that are costing the taxpayer and private citizens huge amounts of money—millions and millions of pounds. I say gently to him that, during the review, Natural England and other agencies gold-plated the EU habitats directive to a great extent. Just to give an example, when I bought my semi-derelict house, there were 24 great crested newts in the cellar. If, heaven forfend, I had picked them all up and taken them outside, I would have been liable to spend 12 years in jail and pay a fine of £120,000.

Mr Speaker:

I think we have got the gravamen of the right hon. Gentleman’s inquiry.

George Eustice:

My right hon. Friend is right. The Conservative party has a proud history of conservation. Indeed, we introduced the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I point out to him that since our 2012 review, the changes to Natural England’s licensing procedures have saved applicants an estimated £535,000 and 678 weeks of delay. DEFRA has assisted the Church of England to produce guidance to simplify the consideration of bats in churches and has funded research into bat deterrence. DEFRA will continue to work with stakeholders to address the problems that he has identified.

Food and Drink Exports

9.

What assessment she has made of successful strategies by UK food and drink businesses to export their products in the last 12 months.[907295]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss):

Food and drink is our largest manufacturing industry. The chain contributes more than £100 billion to the economy every year. Since 2010, we have supported 2,500 firms to get their produce into supermarkets, restaurants and pubs across the world. We now trade with more than 150 countries, selling wine and cheese to France, tea to China and chillies to Pakistan.

Jason McCartney:

I am proud to have a meat producer in my constituency that makes chorizo sausage that it sells to Spain. Will the Secretary of State and the Department continue to work closely with all local food producers to get their products into supermarkets and new markets around the world?

Elizabeth Truss:

I am delighted to hear about the chorizo. I look forward to coming to my hon. Friend’s constituency to sample it. I want people to buy and sell more British food here in Britain and overseas. That is why we produced the Bonfield report about public sector procurement. I have talked to the supermarkets about ensuring that they have good British labelling, so that we get British products into our supermarkets where possible. Strawberries are a huge success, with two-thirds of the strawberries sold in supermarkets being British. We are doing more to promote food and drink overseas through our food and drink export plan.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab):

May I commend the Department and our embassies abroad for their work in expanding our exports? We also need to ensure that there is continuing access to markets abroad. What steps are being taken to ensure that the South African authorities accept regionalisation in the export health certificate for poultry, so that exports can resume following the outbreak of avian influenza in Nafferton?

Elizabeth Truss:

Some exports were affected by the avian flu outbreak. We took action as swiftly as possible, and we had a Government vet on the premises on the day to ensure that we dealt with the situation. We are working with countries such as South Africa to open those markets as rapidly as possible.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):

The Secretary of State will be aware that there are now some 448 commercial vineyards in the United Kingdom, producing 4.5 million bottles of excellent wine a year, with méthode champenoise in particular renowned around the world. Is she aware that the UK pays two thirds of all the duty paid on wine in the EU—an average of £2.05 a bottle? Given the additional costs of producing wine in the UK, will she speak to the Chancellor about achieving a fairer tax treatment of this great British refresher?

Elizabeth Truss:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our exports of wine have now exceeded £100 million for the first time, and we are exporting to France and Australia. I will certainly discuss the issue with the Chancellor.

Dog Microchipping

10.

What steps she has taken to ensure that people are aware that by 2016 it will be a legal requirement to microchip their dog.[907296]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):

The draft Microchipping of Dogs (England) Regulations 2015 have recently been debated in both Houses and will come into force shortly. The regulations require that all keepers of dogs must, by April 2016, have their dogs microchipped. Welfare groups and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have already taken steps to raise awareness of that requirement, and DEFRA will continue to work closely with vets and charities to highlight the new requirement.

Douglas Carswell:

In a number of western countries where microchipping has been compulsory, fewer dogs are microchipped than in the UK where it has been voluntary. What is the maximum penalty that will be imposed on anyone who fails to comply?

George Eustice:

The first thing to note is that about 70% of dogs in this country are already microchipped under the voluntary scheme. Our judgment is that we now need to make it compulsory to get to the remaining 30%. We will take a proportionate approach to penalties. In the first instance, somebody will be given an enforcement notice, not a penalty, and 21 days to comply.

Charities are doing a great deal to raise awareness. Officials pointed out to me this morning that a recent edition of The Beano included a storyline put there by the Dogs Trust in which Gnasher had a microchip installed.

Mr Speaker:

That is useful to all of us, and in particular to the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell), who would not otherwise have known of it.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con):

You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that I raised with the Prime Minister last week the plight of Murphy, a dog who had been stolen in Bradford—one of a spate of dog thefts in the local area. Does the Minister think microchipping will help to reduce the number of dog thefts, and what other steps is his Department taking to ensure that we see fewer of these terrible instances?

George Eustice:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is very distressing for families when they have a loved pet stolen. Compulsory microchipping of all dogs will make it far easier to detect such crimes, and we will issue guidance to vets and others that if they suspect a dog might have been stolen, they should report that to the relevant authorities.

Flood and Water Management

12.

When she plans to implement schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.[907298]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson):

Following significant discussions with local government and others and a formal consultation, the statement on 18 December by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government set out a simple way to clarify maintenance responsibilities for sustainable drainage systems, in response to Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendation. That comes into effect in April, but we will keep it under review. Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 remains available for implementation.

Natascha Engel:

Many people in North East Derbyshire who are moving into newly built homes are finding themselves knee-deep in sewage every time it rains, because the drains cannot cope with the extra capacity. That is a direct result of the sustainable drainage systems part of the 2010 Act still not having been implemented. When does the Minister plan to implement it, and what has been the delay?

Dan Rogerson:

It is being implemented, and the provision to do so has been taken forward in collaboration with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. We think it will make a real difference. If the hon. Lady has particular issues that she would like to raise with me about the situation in her area, I would be happy to hear from her.

Common Agricultural Policy Funds

14.

When she plans to review the allocation of common agricultural policy funds between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.[907301]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):

The review of allocations of common agricultural policy funds between UK Administrations will take place during 2016 and 2017. DEFRA will first work with the devolved Administrations to decide on the data needed to facilitate a comparison of payments across the UK. I have made it clear that one area that will be examined in the review is a comparison of land types and payment areas. That task will be easier once all UK Administrations have made the transition to area-based payments.

Mr Reid:

I thank the Minister for that answer. If the review shows that farmers in any one part of the UK are being unfairly treated by the current allocation formula, it is obviously important that the outcome of the review is implemented straight away. I hope that the Minister will commit to supporting a speedy implementation.

George Eustice:

We will consider implementation as part of the review. We have always made it clear that changing allocations before 2020—within the current programme—would have some legal difficulties, as well as practical difficulties for other Administrations. At the very latest, the changes will take effect from 2020.

Topical Questions

T1.[907307]

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Elizabeth Truss):

DEFRA’s priorities are leading the world in food and farming; protecting our country from floods and animal and plant diseases; improving the environment; championing the countryside; and rural services. The British dairy industry is world leading, and we are doing all we can to make sure that our hard-working farmers are able to get through this tough period. That is why we are working with the banks and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to help farmers with any cash-flow problems and ensuring that payments to dairy farmers are prioritised by the Rural Payments Agency. We want to see more British dairy products being sold here and overseas and that is why I have been pushing for better country of origin labelling, why we launched the Bonfield report to get the public sector buying British and why we continue to promote exports, which are now at record levels.

Mr Hollobone:

Northamptonshire Action with Communities in Rural England does a fantastic job in support of local parish councils and other village communities in the borough of Kettering and across the county. What confidence can the Secretary of State give Northamptonshire ACRE and parish councils that the future funding for ACRE will be secure?

Elizabeth Truss:

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the vital work ACRE does and that is why, despite the fact that we live in tough economic times, we have been able to confirm the budget for 2015-16, so that it can carry on doing that valuable work.

Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab):

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), said on Monday in the House that the severely redacted report on the impacts of shale gas on the rural economy was prepared by a junior member in another Department

“and it was not appropriate for them to have done so”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2015; Vol. 591, c. 594.]

In view of those comments, will the Secretary of State tell us why it was done and which one of her Ministers was responsible for overseeing the production of the report? Or is that information to be redacted too?

Elizabeth Truss:

The paper in question was not analytically robust and it was not signed off by Ministers. The responsibility for the economic impacts of fracking is a matter for the Department of Energy and Climate Change and it is looking at the issue. I am clear that fracking has a huge potential to provide jobs and growth and lower our energy costs. That is why it is so important that we proceed with this vital technology.

Maria Eagle:

Ministers have responsibility for what is done in their Department. The report has been so heavily redacted that even the name of its author has been removed. Given that the Government have now caved in to Labour’s demand for extensive and robust regulation, without which there can be no fracking for shale gas, why does the Secretary of State not now publish the report, unredacted, in the interests of full transparency? Does she understand that refusing to publish it merely fuels suspicion that the Government have something more to hide than her junior Minister’s embarrassment at being asleep on the job?

Elizabeth Truss:

The majority of the proposals the Government accepted were already Government policy and were being carried out voluntarily by the industry, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive. We have agreed to accept the proposals to provide reassurance in law to give the industry the best chance of success in this important technology.

T3.[907310]

Many of my constituents are concerned about the levels of sea bass stocks and measures taken to support them. Will the Minister indicate what action the Government are taking to tackle this important problem?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice):

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In December Council, the UK pressed hard for a commitment to protect bass stocks. We got a statement from the Commission and subsequently wrote to it. I can confirm that it has now implemented emergency measures to protect bass during the spawning season and ban the very damaging practice of pair trawling, which is a major step forward.

T2.[907308]

My constituents who run rural businesses were very disappointed that the north Pennines LEADER bid for support was turned down. They think mistakes were made in the assessment. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the bid is re-examined?

George Eustice:

There is an appeals process and a number of bids were not successful. This was a competitive process. The LEADER group to which the hon. Lady refers is welcome to submit an appeal for consideration.

T4.[907311]

The Secretary of State is already the toast of the people of Southwell after she gave them the flood grants they had so dearly asked for, but she could cement her reputation in this part of Nottinghamshire by helping us to export our greatest gift to the world’s tables: the bramley apple. As everyone knows, the bramley apple was created by Miss Brailsford of Southwell, although the name was ruthlessly taken by the local butcher, Mr Bramley. The bramley apple is of course ubiquitous in this country, but is virtually unexportable because it is not known in the rest of the world. Can the Secretary of State reassure us that, with the staff and expertise she is building in new markets, she is developing expertise in branding so that we can create great British brands, which is the key to export?

Elizabeth Truss:

I am a huge fan of the bramley apple and I eat them on a regular basis. As well as exporting more bramleys abroad, I would like more to be sold here in Britain. Currently, we import two thirds of our apples, so there is a huge opportunity here in the UK. I completely agree with my hon. Friend on branding, which is why we are working with the GREAT Britain campaign to ensure we have clear British branding on our products, and that all our small and other suppliers across the UK have access to those opportunities.

T5.[907312]

Supermarkets are putting huge financial pressures on suppliers in the food industry. That is not benefiting the consumer, and it is driving wages and terms and conditions down for people who work in the industry. Is it not high time the Government considered regulating supermarkets?

Elizabeth Truss:

As I mentioned earlier, last night we laid regulations to enable the Groceries Code Adjudicator to have the power to fine supermarkets. I have regular meetings with supermarkets. [Interruption.] It will be able to fine up to 1%, which is a significant sum.

T6.[907313]

I very much welcome the Government laying the statutory instrument to enable the Groceries Code Adjudicator to issue fines. Dairy farmers in my constituency across the Blackdown hills and Exmoor are now producing milk well below the cost of production. Many big retailers are paying a good price for milk, but are keeping cheese prices artificially low, especially processed cheese. Will Ministers and the Secretary of State put real pressure on retailers to be fair to farmers? At the moment, they are using dairy products as loss leaders and driving the price down.

Elizabeth Truss:

I understand that dairy farmers are in a very difficult position. We have very low prices. We expect prices to improve, but clearly there are severe issues for our dairy industry. We are doing all we can, working with HMRC and the RPA on cash-flow issues, to help in the short term. He is absolutely right: there is a big opportunity with our supermarkets. We meet the supermarkets regularly to discuss these issues and to ensure that we have proper British labelling. It is really important that, when consumers go into supermarkets, they can see whether a product is from Britain and is sourced from British milk.

T7.[907314]

I am sure that, like me, the Secretary of State raised a toast this week to Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, with Scotland’s national drink. Exports of Scotch whisky are rising, with 1.3 billion bottles exported around the world in 2013, but will she talk to her colleagues in the Treasury ahead of the Budget about excise duty to ensure that the Scotch whisky industry is not penalised at home compared with other UK alcohol products?

Elizabeth Truss:

I completely agree with the hon. Lady on whisky, and I was also pleased to celebrate Burns night with a Macsween haggis. We have seen fantastic exports of haggis, which are up; we exported £5 million-worth to 28 countries. It is a fantastic night to celebrate, and we are working with the whisky industry, and all other industries, to promote Scottish products.

T9.[907316]

I thank the Secretary of State for her response on dairy farmers, but may I impress on her the damage that fluctuating and falling prices are doing to the industry and farmers in my constituency? Can she absolutely reassure us that she is treating this problem with the seriousness it deserves?

Elizabeth Truss:

We are taking this issue very seriously and are working hard on it. We have just made the announcement about the groceries code adjudicator; we are working closely with HMRC and the Rural Payments Agency; and we are also working on our new countryside productivity scheme, which will be open to dairy farmers to help improve productivity and bring in the capital investment these farms need. We are working hard on this issue, because we know how difficult it is. I myself have met dairy farmers in Cornwall, Nottinghamshire and Norfolk to discuss it.

T8.[907315]

Between April and September last year, nearly 500,000 people were referred to a Trussell Trust food bank—a rise of 38% on the year before. When will the Secretary of State, as the Minister responsible for food poverty, say to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor that it is targets for benefits sanctions and the failure properly to raise the minimum wage that are responsible for this dreadful situation?

George Eustice:

The evidence does not bear out what the hon. Gentleman says. On delays to payments, benefit payments are now made more quickly—93% are paid on time—and hardship payments are now available alongside sanctions.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD):

What percentage reduction in badger numbers did the two pilot culls achieve, and would it be inaccurate to say it was far more likely than not that both culls failed to meet the target of a 70% reduction?

Elizabeth Truss:

The chief veterinary officer was clear that the cull in Somerset showed that culling helped to reduce disease. There were issues in Gloucestershire with criminal activity and sabotage.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP):

On a successful trade mission recently, the Secretary of State saw at first hand the needs of the Northern Ireland agricultural industry in terms of export licensing. I invite her to visit Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity, meet those businesses and recognise that, in order to grow our most successful industry, we need more exports.

Elizabeth Truss:

I was pleased to take a delegation to China that included Northern Ireland representatives, and we should shortly see inspections of Northern Irish plants taking place. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation. I recognise that Northern Ireland has been a huge exports success story, and we need to support that.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

General Election Count

1.

On what authority and for what reason it is a requirement that the count for the general election must be started within four hours of the close of poll.[907273]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon):

Provisions to ensure that returning officers begin counting at UK parliamentary elections within four hours after close of poll were introduced under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The Act requires returning officers for constituencies where counting did not begin within this time scale to publish a statement explaining the delay. They must send a copy of the statement to the Electoral Commission within 30 days of the declaration of the result, and the commission must publish details of those constituencies in its statutory election report.

Mr Hollobone:

It is really important that the number of ballot papers issued is reconciled with the number of ballot papers received before counting takes place. In constituencies where there are also local elections at district, borough, town and parish council levels on the same day as the general election, the four-hour time limit is going to put huge pressure even on the very best electoral returning officers. Where local candidates and agents are in agreement with a more relaxed time frame, should they not be allowed to proceed on that basis?

Mr Streeter:

As usual, my hon. Friend raises an important question. He represents an area that has a strong reputation for delivering an efficient and timely count. In the end, it is for the returning officer to consider this matter carefully and to decide whether starting the count within four hours can be done. If it is decided in advance that that cannot be done, the matter should be discussed with local politicians and broadcasters and a statement should be issued, as was done by 45 constituencies in the 2010 general election.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op):

The question of the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) underlines the complexity of our current polling system. I was proud to be a member of your Commission on Digital Democracy, Mr Speaker, which recommended a move towards online voting. That, of course, would obviate the need for the counts. Will the Electoral Commission spokesman tell us its views on how fast we can move towards delivering on that?

Mr Streeter:

It is a very important issue, but there are of course concerns about security in connection with online voting. These matters will have to be properly considered and looked at over the next few years; I do not think there is going to be any rush towards online voting in the UK.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con):

It is always frustrating to me that the count in my constituency rarely comes before the sun rises, yet other constituencies are able to report within an hour or two. Why does he think that there is that differential? In this day and age, should we not be producing these results in a much more timely and efficient manner?

Mr Streeter:

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The British public are certainly very keen on their election night drama and are not keen on having too many constituencies counting on Friday. It is a matter for returning officers in every constituency to sort out their own procedures, to discuss them with local campaigners and to deliver and accurate an efficient account. The most important thing is that the count attracts public confidence and that it is returned accurately.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):

In most things, I want to move with the times, so I am in favour of the Commission on Digital Democracy recommendations. There is a long tradition in this country, however, that we count on the night of the poll. Increasingly, because of local government cuts, up and down the country, returning officers and chief executives—very often the same people—are deciding to count the vote the next day to save money. That is a retrograde step; what is the hon. Gentleman going to do about it?

Mr Streeter:

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, cutting-edge, but he is five years out of date in relation to the point he has just raised. Just before the last election, Parliament attended to this matter. More and more constituencies are now counting on Thursday nights, and we are going to deliver to the great British public the election night drama—with a great outcome at the end, I am sure—that they demand.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Economy

2.

What assessment he has made of the implications for the Commissioners’ policies of the Church of England report, “On Rock or Sand”, published on 21 January 2015.[907274]

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry):

The central argument of “On Rock or Sand” is that we should seek to enhance the well-being, and the personal and communal flourishing, of all in society, and to seek the common good—or the “common profit”, as the book calls it—and that no one should be left behind. These are principles entirely in accord with the objectives of the Church Commissioners.

Miss McIntosh:

I am sure the whole House would wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend on being made a lay canon of Christ Church cathedral, Oxford, this weekend. This is only the first or second occasion on which a Second Church Commissioner’s work has been recognised in this way. I heartily congratulate my right hon. Friend. May I ask him to turn his big gun on my question? [Laughter.] Does he agree that when money rules, we remember the price of things but forget their value, and that while retail therapy has a role to play, everything should be done in moderation?

Mr Speaker:

In congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on his new elevation, I can say only that the House is in a state of eager anticipation to witness his big gun.

Sir Tony Baldry:

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, but we have heard quite enough weightist comments. I note that Quentin Letts described me yesterday as some sort of human shield for Prime Minister’s questions.

This is an excellent book. I commend it to every colleague as Lenten reading, and I shall put a copy in the House of Commons Library. I think that colleagues should read it because many of the commentaries were written by people who had not read the book, but were simply commenting on what other commentators had said. That started with one journalist quoting from it selectively. I think that everyone in the House wants no one to be left behind, and that the essays in this book are well worth all of us reflecting on.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab):

I certainly hope to avoid the right hon. Gentleman’s big gun when he answers my question. I know that he referred to selective quoting, but the archbishops said in the book that Britain had been “dominated” by “rampant consumerism and individualism” since the Thatcher era, and described our economy as

“a tale of two cities”.

The latter comment is certainly true of Bristol, where we still see huge economic divides. What work is the Church of England doing with politicians to try to rectify that?

Sir Tony Baldry:

The Church of England is working hard to develop the common good in every community, including the diocese of Bristol. I think that we all owe it to ourselves, our families and the communities in which we find ourselves to promote the common good, and that that is a responsibility for all of us. However, if the hon. Lady thinks that the book argues in favour of a larger welfare state and more state dependency, I must tell her that it most certainly does not. That is why I suggest that every colleague read it properly and in full.

Investment: Pharmaceutical Companies

3.

What ethical investment policies the Church of England applies when investing in pharmaceutical companies or other medical organisations.[907275]

Sir Tony Baldry:

The Church Commissioners’ ethical investment policy prevents investment in pharmaceutical companies when more than 10% of their main business involves human or embryonic cloning. No such companies have been identified to date.

Fiona Bruce:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be a better understanding of the implications of the proposed mitochondrial donation regulations, and that the outstanding experiments relating to their safety should be completed and reviewed—as has been recommended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—before they are approved by the House?

Sir Tony Baldry:

I think that, in due course, the House will have to consider some quite difficult issues relating to both the start and the end of life. The Church of England accepts that embryo research is permissible if it is undertaken to alleviate human suffering, but there are, I agree with my hon. Friend, concerns that there has been insufficient scientific study of, and informed consultation on, the ethics of mitochondrial transfer, not least in respect of the role that mitochondria play in the transfer of hereditary characteristics.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab):

It is extremely important for people to understand investment. The Church has made great progress in setting up credit unions, but what is being done to encourage young people and children to develop a betting understanding of the importance of saving?

Sir Tony Baldry:

We seem to have skipped the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), and to have skipped the hon. Lady’s preliminary question, so I shall reply to her question as if it were a supplementary.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on responsible credit and savings has received £150,000 funding from the Treasury for a trial of savings clubs known as “life savers” in six schools located in various parts of the country. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s point about the importance of financial education. If the trial works, the Church of England intends to extend the programme to more than 100 Church of England schools over a four-year period, which will benefit more than 30,000 children.

Anglican Communion Tour

4.

What discussions the Commissioners have had with the Archbishop of Canterbury on lessons learnt for the Church from his year-long tour of the Anglican Communion.[907276]

Sir Tony Baldry:

The Archbishop of Canterbury visited 36 of his fellow archbishops during his pilgrimage around the Anglican Communion. In his presidential address to the General Synod in November, he reported that it was a

“flourishing…but also a divided Communion.”

Mr Nuttall:

The Archbishop of Canterbury will have encountered widespread concern in the Church of England about the difficulties faced by Christians in other parts of the world. What is the Church doing to help those in other countries, particularly in the middle east, who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs?

Sir Tony Baldry:

My hon. Friend raises a very serious issue which I am sure the House will treat seriously. The Archbishop of Canterbury has observed:

“Not a day goes by without something which should break one’s heart at the courage and the difficulties involved”

for such people. I think the fact is that the hostility Christians are facing is now on a far more serious level and we are reaching the point where the word “persecution” no longer adequately describes the treatment of Christians in many parts of the world. Religious cleansing and a type of cultural genocide—which is a crime against humanity—is a more accurate description, and we are now seeing that in Iraq, Syria, parts of Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan. The goal of Islamic extremists such as ISIS is total Islamicisation, and this has nearly been achieved in Iraq, for example, which a decade ago was home to one of the four most robust Christian communities in the Arab world. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

First Female Bishop

6.

What responsibilities have been allocated to the Right Rev. Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport; and if he will make a statement.[907279]

Sir Tony Baldry:

The Bishop of Stockport was consecrated at York Minster on 26 January and she has commenced her role as assistant bishop in the diocese of Chester.

Michael Fabricant:

I think it will not just be cutting-edge MPs like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) who will welcome this, but the whole House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in four or five years’ time we will—rather like with women newsreaders—take the appointment of a woman bishop as a matter of course?

Sir Tony Baldry:

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It was fantastic seeing 100 bishops at the consecration of the Bishop of Stockport earlier this week, but I am quite sure that within two or three years it will be commonplace and, quite rightly, unremarkable when a woman is consecrated as a suffragan or diocesan bishop, and I think everyone will soon start to wonder what all the fuss was about as we get excellent women bishops in the Church of England ministering in dioceses across the country.

Bats

7.

What steps have been taken in co-ordination with Natural England to exclude bats from churches where they are causing significant damage to the fabric of church buildings.[907280]

Sir Tony Baldry:

We are working hard with Natural England to seek to ensure an appropriate licensing regime and to develop equipment that can cost-effectively deter bats from roosting in churches where they may cause damage.

Mr Robathan:

I know that my right hon. Friend is very concerned about this as well. Those of us who like bats also know they should not be desecrating our extremely valuable architectural heritage, as they are doing, as he knows, in a church on the edge of my constituency, St Nicholas’s in Stanford on Avon.

Sir Tony Baldry:

I think the sensible thing to do is for me to ask the chair of Natural England if he will come with me to visit St Nicholas’s in Stanford on Avon, because it is obviously a church with many difficulties. When I stand down from this House in March, at the request and invitation of the archbishops I am going to take on the role of chair of the Church Buildings Council, and I hope that then I can add my substantial weight to trying to ensure that the problem of bats at St Nicholas’s in Stanford on Avon is resolved.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Fraud

8.

What steps are being taken to tackle electoral fraud at the forthcoming general election.[907281]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon):

The Electoral Commission has worked with the College of Policing to publish detailed guidance to police forces on preventing and detecting electoral fraud. Additional measures are also being put in place by returning officers and police forces in areas where there have been allegations of electoral fraud at previous elections. The Electoral Commission has worked with political parties to agree a code of conduct for campaigners and is developing a simple guide for voters about how to protect their vote and report electoral fraud.

Philip Davies:

I commend the Electoral Commission on asking the universities of Manchester and Leeds to produce a report on electoral fraud in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in this country in particular. We have had problems with that in the Bradford district in the past, I am afraid to say. One of the recommendations was that some kind of identification be taken into the polling stations when people vote. I think that that would be a massive step forward. Is this something the Electoral Commission will progress?

Mr Streeter:

My hon. Friend is right to draw the House’s attention to the important report released by the Electoral Commission this week, which is the first of its kind. The Electoral Commission has separately recommended that additional identification be taken by every voter into the polling stations, but that is a matter now for this House and for Government to decide, and it is therefore perhaps something to come back to after the 2015 election.