Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Opposition Day — [3rd allotted day] – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 4 December 2007.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 6:48, 4 December 2007

I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment standing in the name of the Prime Minister. I remind the Members that there will be a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 7:25, 4 December 2007

I beg to move,

That this House
deplores the performance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs;
regrets that it has been responsible for huge and avoidable costs to farmers and taxpayers;
notes with concern the significant cost overruns in the Department's programme and administration budgets;
and believes that planned budget cuts of £270 million will further undermine efforts to deliver policies which tackle climate change, promote the farming industry and enhance the natural environment.

Recent weeks have witnessed a series of events that have raised fundamental questions about the competence of the present Government—the handling of the Northern Rock crisis, the loss by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs of the personal details of millions of families, and now allegations of illegal fundraising. All those seem to be stark evidence that Labour has lost the plot. As anyone who has had half an eye open to issues affecting rural areas, farming and the environment will tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, one Government Department has for several years jostled with the Home Office for the honour of setting the pace in the incompetence stakes. The fact that others are catching up is no reason to let the present Secretary of State off the hook.

Throughout its relatively short and undistinguished life, the performance of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been, frankly, abysmal. In fact, the list of DEFRA failures is so extensive that this could end up being a very long speech. However, I am aware that a large number of hon. Members wish to contribute, so I will restrain myself.

DEFRA was cobbled together following the terrible mismanagement of the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. It was rumoured at the time that, as well as the political necessity of culling the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, one of the reasons for setting up the new Department was to give Margaret Beckett a job that met her aspirations. Almost immediately, it acquired two alternative nicknames—"Deafear" and "Deathrow", both of which turned out to be strangely appropriate!

Since its early days, beset by a catalogue of failures, the Department has lurched from one crisis to the next. At the heart of our agricultural industry and as custodians of our landscape, farmers should feel that DEFRA is fighting their corner, not letting them down. The Department's initial response to a growing awareness that something was wrong with the Rural Payments Agency was characteristic: it denied that there was a problem at all. I say it was characteristic because this is a Department that lives in a permanent state of denial about its own inadequacies.

Let us take today's amendment by the Prime Minister to our motion. It

"commends the Government on its swift and effective action to deal with...disease 2007", without, of course, mentioning that the foot and mouth outbreak was started because of faulty drains at a laboratory site licensed by DEFRA. It also omits to mention that the foot and mouth outbreak was declared over before it was. As we shall no doubt hear later in the debate, there were plenty of individual occasions when the Government's response to animal diseases this year was neither swift nor effective.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman refers to animal diseases, so may I take him back to mad cow disease and BSE and ask him how many humans died because of the incompetence of the Conservative Government?

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

You may well decide, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that has very little to do with DEFRA [Interruption.]

The Government's amendment even "congratulates the Government" on setting up the Department in the first place. I rather doubt that many who have had to contend with DEFRA over the years will share in the general air of back-slapping—certainly not the one third of farmers who live in poverty; certainly not those affected by movement restrictions and export bans during the recent foot and mouth outbreak; certainly not those who were driven to the brink of financial ruin as a result of DEFRA's bungled implementation of the single farm payment; and certainly not the insurance industry, which this week called for "improved national leadership" on flood defences.

It would be good to be able to say that the hardship caused by the incompetent handling of farm payments was now behind us, but it is not. Apart from the fact that the whole fiasco could end up with the taxpayer having to foot a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds in European Union fines, nearly £75,000 is still owed to farmers from 2005, and £1.7 million remains outstanding from last year.

It was the mess at the Rural Payments Agency that substantially kick-started the financial problems that have dogged the Department ever since. Last year DEFRA Ministers were forced to cut budgets by over £200 million, and this year we learn that further cuts of around £270 million are needed to balance the books. Of course Conservative Members are always keen to find sustainable ways of reducing unnecessary expenditure, but forced cuts brought about by financial mismanagement are a different matter altogether.

Let us take the impact on Natural England, which is being asked to cut its budget for next year by £12.5 million. Today it published a board paper that sets out the likely consequences and presents options that will impinge on measures to promote biodiversity, wildlife enhancement and nature reserves. The paper states:

"We are therefore once again"— that "once again" is quite telling, for this is not an isolated instance—

"fire fighting to secure a budget in the short term that allows Natural England to operate."

An organisation that is, I believe, less than two years old is already fighting a battle for its survival, and not for the first time.

Then there is the issue of bovine tuberculosis. We are still without an adequate policy to tackle bovine TB, which has so far cost the taxpayer more than £500 million. There is also the seemingly relentless rise in regulation. There is much talk of light-touch regulation, but the cost to business of DEFRA regulations is now put at about £530 million a year.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should raise that point. A significant number of regulatory reform orders with which my Select Committee has dealt in recent years have come from DEFRA. Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the Conservative party does not turn up at the Select Committee's meetings?

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I think that that is a rather pathetic question. The hon. Gentleman might like to tell us whether DEFRA is on target to fulfil its promise, set out in "Maximising outcomes, minimising burdens", which commits it to delivering a £158.8 million annual reduction in administrative burdens by 2010. Are the Government on target for that? I wonder. I think not.

This is not how it should be. Farmers should feel that the Government are there to serve them, not the other way round. Basic competence on the part of Government is an essential prerequisite for the important task of rebuilding trust. There should be a positive relationship between the farming industry and DEFRA's policy process.

More broadly, the rural community as a whole has been neglected. Those living in rural areas know only too well the problems that they face with declining services, problems over accommodation and a huge programme of post office closures. Without its own house being in order, it is small wonder that people have lost faith in DEFRA's ability to handle the big issues. It seems caught in a downward spiral, with high staff turnover, hundreds seeking early retirement, and rock-bottom morale. The fact that the Department has a part-time permanent secretary may or may not impinge on its performance; all I can say is that if I were the permanent secretary at DEFRA, I would probably want to be part-time as well.

To add insult to injury, we discovered recently that over the last five years DEFRA had spent more than £1 billion on consultancy fees. That is a staggering sum, and what is there to show for it? Does dependence on outside consultants reflect, in some way, a sense of insecurity within the Department itself?

It is not just rural areas that have been let down. This is the Department charged with leading the way on efforts to combat climate change. Tellingly, last year it quietly dropped its long-standing manifesto commitment to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. In fact carbon emissions have risen since 1997, and fell last year by only 0.1 per cent. Plans to encourage microgeneration in homes and offices have been half-hearted, with reduced grants— [Interruption.] Is Mr. Martlew blaming another Department?

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman should ask the leader of his party about the generation of wind.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We must hear the correct parliamentary language in interventions.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I take the hon. Gentleman's intervention at face value, and assure him that the Leader of the Opposition will have a great deal to say on that very subject in a few days' time.

Since DEFRA came into being with a remit to reduce household waste, the amount of household waste has risen by 9 per cent., and the commitment to require 2.5 per cent. of United Kingdom transport fuels to come from biofuels by 2008 has been made without the ensuring of safeguards for sustainable sourcing of fuel crops. In the aftermath of the summer floods, serious questions remain. The Government have pressed ahead with building on flood plains contrary to the advice of the Environment Agency, and among a variety—a plethora—of different agencies there are no clear lines of responsibility for surface water flooding.

On the question of climate change, it is vital that DEFRA is respected across Whitehall; but if it cannot manage its own affairs, why should anyone take it seriously? Only the other day we learned that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was seeking to water down the United Kingdom's commitment to increasing the amount of our energy coming from renewable sources. Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister himself delivered what was billed as a major speech on climate change; three days later the Department for Transport announced a third runway at Heathrow. There is no joined-up thinking at all.

Given the scale, complexity and urgency of the challenges being faced across rural communities and in the wider environment, now more than ever DEFRA needs to be up to the job. Instead, we have a Department that has presided over rising carbon dioxide emissions, increasing levels of household waste and plummeting farm incomes; a Department committed to raising green taxation as a percentage of total taxation, which has seen green taxes fall as a percentage of total taxation to the lowest level for 13 years; a Department which cuts the budgets of local animal health teams when they have rarely been in such demand, because it has lost track of how much money it originally allocated; a Department that runs up a projected overspend on administration of £50 million in only six months; a Department whose disastrous handling of farm payments could land the taxpayer with an EU fine of £400 million; and a Department whose negligent approach to biosecurity was responsible for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease that cost the farming industry and taxpayers further millions.

Ensuring the future of British farming, supporting the stewardship of our beautiful landscapes and providing a sustainable future for our children are vital tasks. We are in danger of paying a very heavy price for entrusting them to a Department that has become a byword for incompetence.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:38, 4 December 2007

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"commends the Government on its swift and effective action to deal with four different disease outbreaks in England in 2007;
welcomes the announcement on 8th October 2007 of an aid package to farmers worth £12.5 million through extra support to hill farmers, fallen stock collection, meat promotion and help for farming support charities;
congratulates the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on its effective emergency planning arrangements in conjunction with the emergency services and local authorities to warn those at risk from the recent tidal surge and initiate precautionary evacuation;
applauds the increase in spending on flood defences since 1997, a 30 per cent. increase in real terms to around £600 million, and the announcement that spending will rise to a maximum of £800 million by 2010-11; and further congratulates the Government for bringing together environment, rural affairs and food and farming under Defra to create a unified structure essential for the effective delivery of integrated Government policies across these issues.".

Let me tell Mr. Ainsworth and his hon. Friends that I genuinely welcome the opportunity he has given the Government to tell the House about DEFRA's work, although it is pretty obvious to me from the speech we just heard that he is unaware of much of what DEFRA is doing. I can tell him, for instance, that the permanent secretary is not part-time—but first I invite the House to join me in congratulating DEFRA's chief scientist Bob Watson and the other scientists at DEFRA on the contribution that they made to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been recognised in the award of this year's Nobel peace prize. It is not often that a Secretary of State is able to stand at the Dispatch Box and congratulate civil servants with whom he has the privilege of working on such recognition for, as the Norwegian Nobel committee stated,

"their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."

If we are going to talk about the Department and its staff—and I shall have more to say on this subject—we should recognise achievements, and that is quite an achievement.

I want to begin on a matter on which I can agree with the hon. Gentleman: when things go wrong we must be honest about that and put them right. I fully accept that in 2006 there were severe problems with single farm payments to farmers. That caused deep and genuine hardship across the country and I am very sorry for what happened. However, Departments should also be judged on what they do to try to deal with problems and, as the House knows, this year the Rural Payments Agency has managed to pay 98 per cent. of payments for the second scheme year before the end of the payment window of 30 June, exceeding the target we set as part of the recovery programme, and I expect performance to continue to improve—indeed, I am determined that it will do so.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Can the Secretary of State confirm that Scotland and Wales have already started making payments for this year, and that there will not be any payments to English farmers until at least the spring?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can indeed confirm that that is my understanding of what Scotland and Wales are doing, but I would just ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on what I said: I am determined that there should be continued improvements, and I intend to report to the House as and when those improvements are made. Before the hon. Gentleman waxes too lyrical, I would just like to point out that the Conservatives in their James review of 2004 proposed cutting £210 million from the RPA operating budget, and introducing a levy on subsidies paid—I am not entirely sure whether that would have been allowed. Heaven forbid that the Government might have accepted the advice at the time. For some reason, that was not mentioned in the opening speech from the Opposition.

I also agree that this summer has been one of real and severe hardship for the livestock industry, and the House has rightly debated foot and mouth and bluetongue, and there has also been the recent avian flu problem. On foot and mouth, there were problems with the Pirbright system and we have put them right: in the recent Merial incident, the system contained the failure. We will now see what further action is needed in the light of what happened, including more specific licence conditions.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his counterpart in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? I met the Tourism Alliance this morning, and it said that DEFRA is not doing enough to support tourism, particularly in rural areas. It needs more financial support following incidents such as foot and mouth and the flooding. I would be very interested to know what the Government are doing and what discussions the Secretary of State has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and he and other Ministers have been supporting the tourism industry during the outbreak. One of the most important messages that we were able to send out—as a House, indeed—during the outbreak was that the countryside was open for business, unlike what had happened previously.

Handling a disease outbreak is not easy, but the approach we have taken—which has been based on acting on a detailed contingency plan, using the best scientific advice and drawing upon the professionalism of the Animal Health agency—has been recognised to work. That is why The Guardian was able to say in a leader:

"Not only did DEFRA this year—in startling contrast to 2001—show signs of having a plan at the ready for dealing with foot and mouth; more importantly, it also showed that it understood how to implement it".

Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers Union, with whom we have worked so closely along with others in the industry to deal with the outbreak, said that

"the industry has cause to be grateful to DEFRA's animal health officials who have striven to carry out the contingency plan operations to bring the recent outbreaks of FMD, then bluetongue disease and now Avian influenza under control."

Let us contrast that with what the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for East Surrey, wrote in The Daily Telegraph in September about DEFRA and Animal Health staff. He is a decent man, but he accused them of the

"ignorance of petty clipboard people, and of a disregard for the welfare of animals arising from either callousness or stupidity."

I have met many of those people, and I think we should acknowledge that it was their skill, their professionalism, their care and their commitment that was responsible for the praise they have received, and I hope the hon. Gentleman is now embarrassed by what he wrote.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

I am not remotely embarrassed, because although I did not attribute those remarks in that article, they were a direct quote from a farmer I met in the affected area in Surrey.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Well, it is a bit late in the day for the hon. Gentleman now to say he was quoting somebody else, but he did not attribute it to somebody else and he must stand by those words. I genuinely regret that he passed on—if this is what he is now saying he did—a quote from a third party about staff. I have nothing but admiration for the colleagues—I call them colleagues—with whom I worked, along with my fellow Ministers, in dealing with this outbreak. Even though the hon. Gentleman has his views about how the outbreak occurred, which we have debated at length, I do not think it is acceptable to attack the reputation of hard-working professional civil servants for the job that they have done.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretary To the Leader of the Opposition

On bluetongue, has the Secretary of State given consideration to the French method of using pre-movement testing as a means of controlling the disease, because drawing a line on the map has an unfair—a differential—effect on those inside the zone, and midges will not take a great deal of cognisance of a line on the map?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am well aware of that point, and let me explain what I have said to the industry. I think the whole House will recognise that we have worked closely with representatives of the industry in dealing with all three of the outbreaks, and at present there is a view in the group we have been talking to that we should keep the lines where they are. The winter is now almost upon us, and that will reduce the midge activity. We are all waiting for the vaccine to arrive, and if there comes a point in the new year where the balance of advantage might tip the other way, I will listen very carefully to the arguments put, because I accept the point the hon. Gentleman makes: it is a balance of argument. I must also say that my experience of dealing with these disease outbreaks reinforces in me the view that we should in future share the responsibility for taking those decisions much more closely with the farming community, and that includes sharing the costs—which Iain Anderson recommended after the 2001 outbreak.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

My right hon. Friend will have been as surprised as I was at the brevity of the Opposition opening speech, which contained no policy whatever—and, as we are now hearing, it contained very little in the way of fact, even. At the last general election, the Opposition stood on a policy of cuts in public spending of between £20 billion and £30 billion. He has mentioned the RPA, but what effect would that policy have had on environmental spending?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It would have had a very detrimental effect. I share my hon. Friend's puzzlement at the brevity of the Opposition opening speech, and I apologise in advance to the House if I detain Members for a little longer than that as I have quite a bit to say about what DEFRA has done and achieved.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Does the Secretary of State think it was a good idea to announce, as he did a couple of weeks ago, that the farming industry—the livestock sector—which is reeling under the costs of these various epidemics, should start to pay a levy towards animal health? I can tell him that that went down like a lead balloon in my constituency.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I recognise that point, and I thought long and hard about this issue. There is always an argument for why we should not pick up a conversation about how the system needs to change. We could take the view, "Well, let's put it off until later." Iain Anderson recommended in 2001 that we should go down this road, and it is my experience based on having dealt with these outbreaks that has turned cost and responsibility from a policy issue that was on a long list of things that I had to deal with when I arrived in this job in June to something I can now see needs to change. I think the farming industry ought to play a much bigger role in deciding what controls are put in place and how they are dealt with, as ultimately it is the farming industry that has the greatest incentive to get those decisions right. Governments of whatever party do not always know what is best, and I want to restart the conversations we have already been having about how we can design a better system for the future in which responsibility for decision making is shared, which is what the farming community wants. In the process, discussion must also take place about how the cost will be shared.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

Does the Secretary of State regard that principle as also applying to bovine TB? Will he undertake to give the farming community a real say on the decision about whether the culling of badgers should be a policy instrument?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, this is an extremely difficult and complex issue, where there is no easy solution. If there were one, we would not be 10 years on from the establishment of the scientific study. A number of considerations must be taken into account, such as the effectiveness of culling as an approach. There are wider policy implications to the culling of badgers. [Interruption.] I hope that Miss McIntosh will let me answer the question. Society must weigh up the balance between the farming community's interest in protecting animals from bovine TB and the welfare of the badger populations—the badger is, of course, a protected species. I shall shortly start a series of meetings to discuss with all involved how we can find a way forward.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

My right hon. Friend has drawn attention to the partnership models between farmers and his Department. May I point to the example of the National Fallen Stock Company, which is led by my constituent, Michael Seals, as a model for how working together with farmers, establishing practices and buying services efficiently could be used more effectively by his Department? That model could also be applied in other ways to save some of his resources.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I readily acknowledge what my hon. Friend has to say about the operation of the National Fallen Stock Company. Its experience is an example that we should reflect upon as we try to take these matters forward.

The second major challenge that we have had to face this summer was the exceptional rainfall and the flooding in June and July, which the hon. Member for East Surrey mentioned. It was the wettest June on record, and I want to pay tribute to the efforts of all the people who worked so hard and with such calm purpose in dealing with the floods.

As a result of the increased expenditure on flood defence, new defences in Burton on Trent prevented about 7,300 properties from being flooded. In Malton in North Yorkshire, defences completed in 2003 prevented 300 properties from being flooded. On 9 November, we faced the biggest tidal surge to come down the east coast since the great storm of 1953, which claimed more than 300 lives in the UK and, I believe, about 2,000 lives in Holland. The flood defences, in combination with the way in which the surge and the high tides did not precisely coincide, helped to save thousands of homes, particularly in Great Yarmouth. As a result of the contingency plans that had been put in place, we ensured that people were warned in advance, that rest centres were set up and that Members of the House were kept informed. I think that the House will recognise that those who could have been affected gave genuine praise for the efficiency and effectiveness of our operation, which once again showed the benefits of the planning that we have put in place. May I also say that because of this summer's exceptional rainfall many homes did flood, and Sir Michael Pitt is looking at the lessons that we could learn?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman and I represent parts of a region that has the second highest risk of flooding in the country. The Minister for the Environment answered a written question informing me that our region has had its flood defence budget cut—I am talking about the contractual outreach defences, presumably in respect of the engineering works—by a third during a four year period in which the overall funding for England in this regard has trebled. Why are we not funding the area in which the Secretary of State and I have a vested interest and which is at the second highest risk of flooding? Why have his Government cut the funding by a third?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

With respect, the Government have not cut —[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady would let me answer the question, I would tell her that the total funding of flood defence has risen from £300 million a decade ago to £600 million —[Interruption.] That is the point. In any one year in any one region, big schemes will be in the process of being completed and there will large spending. Such schemes will come to an end, and there will inevitably be an ebb and flow in the expenditure pattern region by region. What really matters is whether the Environment Agency has more resources. It will receive an increase—some of it will go to local authorities—in flood defence spending from £600 million to £800 million in 2010-11, precisely because we have recognised the need for that greater investment. It will mean that the Environment Agency has more money to spend on flood defence and it is also why we have tightened the planning policy guidance and given the Environment Agency the right to be consulted about planning applications.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

I represent Sedgemore and the Levels. I do not know whether the Secretary of State is aware that the flood defence schemes there are being cut to a large extent and the money is being moved north. That perturbs us. The Environment Agency has a building in Bridgwater, but will be moving to Bristol, and we find that unacceptable. Will he explain what will be put in its place?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

On the first point, we have just heard two contributions that offer a different view on which way the money is going. The fact is that there needs to be a system for prioritising flood defence investment. Rightly and properly we have given that responsibility to the Environment Agency. It has a system for scoring and assessing potential schemes. The best thing that we can do to assist it in that process is to ensure that it has more money to spend on flood defence, which is exactly what we have done over the past 10 years and what we will do over the next two years. Decisions about where the Environment Agency puts its head offices are a matter for the agency itself.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in celebrating the fact that Environment Agency funding for its fisheries work has risen from £30 million to £32 million, but of course most of that is due to the increase in rod licence sales. He will be aware that grant in aid from DEFRA has fallen from £6.3 million in 2005-06 to £5.9 million this year. Will he give Britain's 3 million anglers a guarantee that the meagre amount of grant in aid will be protected when DEFRA grapples with the real budgetary problems that it has?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is tempting to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks, but as no final decisions about the budget for the first of the comprehensive spending review years have been taken, I hope that he will forgive me for resisting the temptation that he has put my way. I know that he is a strong friend of the angling community and is recognised as such.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

May I urge my right hon. Friend to use a mechanism for making the increased flood defence resources go further? Many counties, including mine, are preparing aggregates plans. Aggregates are drawn from floodplains, by and large. Could it not be made clear that aggregates businesses seeking new extraction should be compelled to contribute to flood defences in the neighbouring areas? Such an approach would be welcomed by many communities in my constituency.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall reflect on the point that my hon. Friend has made.

On DEFRA's budget and expenditure on what the hon. Member for East Surrey referred to as consultancy, may I, for the better information of the House, tell him a little about what the money is spent on? It is spent on buying services and employing outside experts, for example, the "Act on CO2" campaign—the hon. Gentleman may have seen the adverts—and the development of the carbon calculator, which has been used by 600,000 people. Those things are not quite what people would expect to be described by the word "consultancy".

In this regard, I should also mention work on developing carbon markets and the EU emissions trading scheme; and research looking into the causes and consequences of climate change, including funding the world-renowned Hadley Centre—does he object to the funding of the Hadley Centre out of DEFRA's budget? The money is also spent on research into animal health, including work on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot and mouth, bluetongue and avian flu. Does he object to the expenditure of money on such things? The money is also spent on the running of the Department's IT system, in partnership with IBM. Those are perfectly proper and legitimate expenditures of money to ensure that DEFRA is able to do its job. As the House will be aware, DEFRA's budget will rise from £3.5 billion to just under £4 billion by the end of the spending review period, and I shall say a little about how that will be spent.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Minister without Portfolio

Would the Secretary of State accept that there is something a little odd about spending a large additional amount on flood defences and then building many houses on floodplains, thus requiring further expenditure on flood defences?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The question is whether we have the right guidance for the planning authorities, and that is why we tightened the planning guidance and then tightened it again—the most recent form is PPS25. Secondly, we have ensured that the Environment Agency, which is the expert, has to be consulted on applications. Thirdly, Ministers have the right to call applications in. We are sitting on a floodplain as we have this debate, and 2 million homes are built on a floodplain. The question is whether appropriate steps can be taken to defend those properties. Ultimately, the answer lies with the planning authorities that choose to give or deny permission and the framework that we have put in place is clear about their responsibilities.

DEFRA does have extra resources and we are investing them in flood defences. Together with the Department for International Development, we will invest in the international environmental transformation fund, aimed at protecting the environment and the rain forest in the developing world.

The extra resources will also help to pay for the launch of the green homes service, which will help people improve the energy efficiency of their homes, and build on the 1.4 million households that have received money and other support since June 2000 to improve energy efficiency.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Shadow Secretary of State for Environment Food & Rural Affairs, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

While the Secretary of State is on the subject of spending money, can he tell us how much he is spending on early retirement for DEFRA staff?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the precise figure, because I would not want to get it wrong. We have a headcount target to meet, and we are determined to do so. I am determined that the budget will be managed properly and effectively, and a package is available across the civil service to enable us to reach those targets.

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

The Secretary of State mentioned the budget for spending on animal health and, in particular, foot and mouth disease viruses. Can he assure the House that there were no instructions from DEFRA for the development of a foot and mouth vaccine for the 1967 virus prior to the outbreak of the disease in August?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am afraid that I do not understand the question—

Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne Conservative, Ludlow

Did he order a vaccine for the 1967 virus before the outbreak emerged in August?

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The answer has to be no, because the 1967 virus was not present in the country. We only put contingency plans in place to vaccinate should it prove necessary once the outbreak was confirmed. In the end, we decided not to vaccinate, because the triggers that we had set in the contingency plan were not met.

The support that we give to the Carbon Trust enables it to secure £2 of private sector capital for every £1 of public investment. The hon. Member for East Surrey also did not mention our work through the energy efficiency commitment—soon to be the carbon emissions reduction target—which will mean that £800 million will have been invested in improving the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock by 2008. Our deal with retailers and energy suppliers will see Victorian-technology light bulbs gone from our shelves by 2011. We are the only country to be supporting post-combustion capture on a coal-fired power station. That is a really important pilot project, because the rate at which China is building coal-fired power stations means that we need to demonstrate the technology and show that it can be fitted after the event. We now have cleaner rivers and beaches, purer water to drink, healthier air to breathe, and a countryside that all of us are free to enjoy—as a result of the decisions that this Government have taken.

We have established in the New Forest the first national park for nearly 50 years. There has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of sites of special scientific interest in a favourable or recovering condition. We have passed the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We have reduced BSE incidence from 37,000 cases a year in 1992 to about 60 in 2007. We have saved 28 million tonnes of carbon through the climate change levy, which was opposed by the Conservatives. We have quadrupled household recycling and placed 4 million hectares of farmland under environmental stewardship schemes, with the support of farmers. We much appreciate the contribution that they are making.

The marine Bill will provide protection for the wonders of our seas. We will legislate so that each of us has, for the first time in our history, the right to walk around our coastline. In eight years' time, Britain will generate at least 15 per cent. of our electricity from renewables; nine years from now, every single new house built will be zero carbon; and the London array will generate enough electricity from wind power to supply one in four homes in Greater London. What is the Conservatives' position on wind farms these days? Are they in favour or against? My Department is helping to change Britain and the world for the better. with a clear sense of direction and a clear sense of purpose.

Does the hon. Member for East Surrey agree that the most important issue facing humanity today is climate change, or does he agree with one of his colleagues who says that climate change is the "great global warming swindle"? The Conservatives' confusion may explain why their manifesto at the last election had just three sentences on the subject and said nothing about a target or reducing CO2 emissions, whereas our manifesto mentioned a cut of at least 60 per cent. The House will also have noted the speech that the Prime Minister made recently.

The Government have helped to lead the world on climate change. We have broken the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions. We were the first country to try out carbon emissions trading; the first to put climate change at the heart of our G8 presidency; and the first to call a debate on climate change in the UN Security Council, because it is a security as well as an environmental problem. Now we are the first country in the world to put forward a legally binding commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

Those proposals have received support from across the spectrum. Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth called it

"a truly groundbreaking piece of legislation".

David Nussbaum of WWF said that it could be

"a shining example for the rest of the world to follow".

The CBI called it "a big step forward".

Next week, I will be in Bali, with others, to try to get agreement to start negotiations on a new global deal on climate change. That will be European leadership, with Britain in the vanguard. DEFRA staff will work as lead negotiators for the whole of the European Union—recognised for their skill and expertise—and make their contribution.

I believe powerfully in the capacity of DEFRA and in the power of politics to make a difference to our world. I make a genuine offer to the hon. Gentleman. I would welcome an Opposition who set out ideas for how we could do things differently and better. When he has a good argument, I will listen and take it on board if it is better than mine. In the mean time, I hope that he will acknowledge on reflection that he did not paint a fair picture of DEFRA and its achievements. I commend the amendment to the House, and confirm that we intend to get on with the job in hand—preventing dangerous climate change, adapting to the change that is coming and protecting our natural environment, so that we can pass on to the next generation a better world.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 8:08, 4 December 2007

Unlike Mr. Ainsworth, I do not live in a world of cartoon goodies and baddies. DEFRA's performance is good in parts, but it leaves much to be desired in others. DEFRA's response to the summer floods was a case in point.

In Gloucestershire at least, emergency response systems worked well and Gold Command, under the direction of our chief constable, Tim Brain, proved an effective leadership team. I have to declare a personal interest as my wife, Dr. Shona Arora, was also a member of Gold Command. That meant that my contribution that week was often babysitting, and she felt that that accurately reflected the relative usefulness of doctors and politicians in a crisis.

As many hon. Members have said many times, emergency services, local authorities, the NHS, charities, volunteers, local communities and friends and neighbours all responded brilliantly. Liaison with Ministers seemed to be good, and I appreciated the personal interest in my constituency taken by the Secretary of State. Significant extra funds were made available quickly through the flood recovery grant, although that highlighted the weakness of the existing Bellwin scheme, which clearly was not up to the job. It is to the credit of Ministers that they realised that quickly. I also note that support may be forthcoming from the much-maligned European Union. If moneys are made available from the European solidarity fund, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in welcoming that. Perhaps Ministers will update the House on the progress of that application.

However, the bigger picture on flood defence still poses some very difficult questions. Many of my constituents, and many businesses in my constituency, are still counting the cost of the floods. I am worried that emergency response might be much more difficult, and people's tolerance much lower, if flooding hits again on cold, dark winter nights. Climate change makes that much more likely, and planning permissions are still outstanding for areas such as the open land at Leckhampton in my constituency, which flooded in July.

The overall budget for flood defence is therefore critical, as it is what will prevent insurance premiums from spiralling and house prices from dropping. Indeed, it will prevent some new homes from being potentially uninsurable or even unsaleable. In Cheltenham, we already have a brand new flood defence scheme worth £23 million. June and July might have been much worse without it, but the Environment Agency staff who visited several sites in Cheltenham with me freely admit that more work needs to be done. What of the existing backlog of flood defence schemes? Will the Minister say how long it will take the Environment Agency to clear it, at the current rate of progress? The rumour is that it will take 10 years, which is a very worrying prospect. How many schemes have been put back by the Government's decision last year to cut flood defence spending by £14 million?

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

The hon. Gentleman has pointed out that a lot of work remains to be done. Does he believe that all the money for flood defences must come from taxation, or should we find another source?

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I believe that it would add insult to injury if all the money came from water bills, and I should be very concerned about that. I hope that the funds will come from the reprioritisation of broader Government spending. Perhaps we could save money in other sectors of government if we invaded fewer countries.

The Association of British Insurers has been pretty clear about what needs to be done. As well as backing the Liberal Democrat policy that we should clear up the tangle of responsibilities surrounding flood prevention, it has backed our call to increase spending faster. In October, it said:

"Government spending for the next three years is less than we were asking for even before the floods. It does not begin to address the major issues, including drainage, which were highlighted this summer. The Government will have to increase spending substantially, as needs are identified by the Pitt review team...the Government has completely failed to grasp the importance of improving Britain's flood defences in the wake of the devastating floods across the UK."

Yet the Government are not really being so generous, even with their existing spending on floods. The overspend on flooding this year, along with unexpected spending on foot and mouth disease, bluetongue and avian flu, is going to mean budget cuts elsewhere in DEFRA. The Brown doctrine on departmental funds appears to be that a Department that gets hit by an unexpected overspend cannot expect money to be transferred from elsewhere in government.

That is a more important point than one put forward by Mr. Ainsworth, who characterised the approach as one of pure financial mismanagement. The Prime Minister's callous approach brought the NHS into crisis last year, and now it seems to be DEFRA's turn. Estimates of the amount likely to be cut from other programmes range up to £300 million, as we have already heard. Will the Minister share with us where those cuts are likely to be made? Where is the support going to be cut for action on climate change, the protection of our natural environment, or support for our hard pressed farmers? Will Natural England's vital conservation work be reduced? It is already being asked by the Government to repay the £16 million spent on setting up the new agency structure, which was decided by the Government. Will the Minister at least confirm that the Environment Agency's £51 million budget for new conservation work will be protected, or will the axe fall on recycling and action against waste?

I want to seize this opportunity to praise the Government's initiative on the business resource efficiency and waste—BREW—programme, and applaud the real practical action against climate change being taken by Envirowise, the waste resources action programme, the Carbon Trust and the lesser known but equally impressive national industrial symbiosis programme. That alone has eliminated 300,000 tonnes of hazardous waste, prevented the use of 5 million tonnes of virgin material and saved 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. Perhaps the Minister will make it clear that their budgets are all safe.

Is it even clear that the promised increases in flood defence spending will be protected? Or perhaps, and most astonishingly of all, is it animal disease control that will suffer? I find it quite breathtaking that DEFRA has requested local authorities to return funds for animal disease control—even in Surrey, where councils have been hit by both avian flu and bluetongue. I was surprised that the hon. Member for East Surrey did not find time to mention that. Devon county council has said that the cuts mean five of its eight posts may have to go as a result, and that

"it will be catastrophic if an outbreak of disease happens."

At a time when climate change is opening the door to new diseases such as bluetongue, surely that is the last thing that we should be doing.

The Secretary of State made the intriguing announcement on 19 November that he believes current arrangements to be unsustainable. Was that driven by strategic thinking, or by the short-term financial crisis in which DEFRA seems to have found itself? Surely our farming industry has suffered enough, not just from the disease outbreaks themselves but from DEFRA's performance in the regulation and monitoring of the Pirbright laboratory and, most of all, the fiasco of single farm payments. I understand from my hon. Friend Mr. Williams that 25 per cent. of Welsh farmers still have not received their payments. I hope that the Minister will tell us the equivalent figure for England—although I fear that the figure will be much higher.

I turn now to DEFRA's role as climate change champion for the whole Government. Again, some praise is due, and I am happy to associate myself with the Secretary of State's congratulation of the chief scientist on his participation in the intergovernmental panel on climate change and its receipt of the Nobel prize. After all, DEFRA is bringing forward the Climate Change Bill, which will put carbon emission reductions on the statute book, following the Stern report and Friends of the Earth's very effective "Big Ask" campaign. That is an important achievement, although Ministers know that we on the Liberal Democrat Benches think that the targets contained in the Bill are inadequate, and I have teased them about the amount of time that it has taken us to get to this point.

The latest voices to be added to those calling for higher targets include last week's UN human development report, which called for cuts of at least 80 per cent. from the richer countries, and that of Sir Nicholas Stern himself. Speaking to the Royal Economic Society last Friday, Sir Nicholas said:

"For a 50 per cent. reduction in global emissions by 2050, the world average per capita must drop from 7 tonnes to 2-3 tonnes. An 80 per cent. target for rich countries would bring equality of only the flow of emissions around the 2-3 tonnes per capita level. In fact, they will have consumed the big majority of the 'available space in the atmosphere'."

In other words, if we are to achieve an equitable world agreement on carbon reductions, we have to commit to cuts of 80 per cent. or more, and that should be on the face of the Bill.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

If the hon. Gentleman wants his call for higher emission reductions to have credibility, why are Liberal Democrat councillors around the country campaigning against the very policies that would secure those reductions? Specifically, why are they in the forefront of campaigns against congestion charging in Greater Manchester, and why are they campaigning against wind farms on the edge of my constituency?

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's characterisation. All over the country Liberal Democrat councils have pioneered work on climate change. In Liberal Democrat constituencies I have stood under wind turbines that were fully supported by the local council and the local Liberal Democrat MP. My party is in favour of wind farms, but we would never concede that every application for every wind farm is always right.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sorry, I shall not give way again. I do not know the circumstances in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I am confident that Liberal Democrat campaigners in the area are doing the right thing.

There is more evidence that the Government are parting company with even the contents of the Stern report. In the Environmental Audit Committee this morning, we heard from Friends of the Earth and WWF that the economic cost of carbon emissions—the future cost of climate change—being used by the Government is dramatically lower than Sir Nicholas Stern recommended. He cites a figure for the social cost of carbon in 2000 of $85 per tonne of CO2 equivalent. Using DEFRA's exchange rate, Friends of the Earth calculated that that equates to £53 per tonne of CO2 equivalent, but DEFRA has introduced a new concept—the shadow cost of carbon—and puts the 2000 value of that at only £19, which is nearly three times lower.

What is the importance of that apparently technical detail? It affects all our lives—some more than others. It gives us a social cost of carbon emissions in the Heathrow consultation of just £4.8 billion. If DEFRA and the Department for Transport had stuck to Sir Nicholas Stern's figure, they would have put the cost at more than £13 billion. That would have stopped in its tracks the proposal for a third runway at Heathrow, but by miscalculating the future economic cost of climate change DEFRA has changed the outcome of the Heathrow runway consultation. Although carbon emissions are rising year on year—and have risen since the Government came to power—the Government have given the green light to one of the very projects that will stop them meeting their own targets. The cost to the environment and, as Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out, to the economy will be truly dreadful.

There is more. DEFRA's influence on other parts of Government is clearly weak. Why else would the Chancellor, too, take a significant step away from Stern? Again I give due credit to Friends of the Earth's brilliant economist Simon Bullock for spotting that. The Chancellor's October document, entitled—without a hint of irony—"Implementing Stern" says that the basis of the carbon price is

"to reflect the damage caused by emissions and to require Governments, businesses and individuals to meet the costs they impose on the environment".

The Stern report actually argues rather differently—that it is not the price of carbon that determines the cap, but exactly the opposite: the cap should determine the price. Stern says:

"A long-term stabilisation target should be used to establish a quantity ceiling to limit the total stock of carbon over time. Short-term policies (based on tax, trading or in some circumstances regulation) will then need to be consistent with this long-term stabilisation goal."

This time, it is the Treasury that seems to be weakening the foundations of our attack on climate change.

On 22 November, replying to me during a debate on climate change, the Minister for the Environment failed to say whether the British Government were taking active steps to persuade one of their friends not to veto a Bill that would put limits on the most significant carbon emissions of all—those of the United States of America. Will Ministers tell us whether DEFRA has asked the Foreign Office to ask George Bush not to veto the Lieberman-Warner Bill?

DEFRA's performance has been good in parts. In its emergency response, in introducing the Climate Change Bill and in its responsibility for the BREW programme, the Department deserves credit; but by failing farmers, failing to plan for future flooding and above all by failing to spread the message on climate change across the whole Government, it has delivered a very poor performance indeed. If Members do not believe me, they should believe members of Green Alliance, who are so stingy with their accolades that they gave the Liberal Democrats only three green points in their assessment of a range of all our environmental policies—"The Green Standard Report". It gave the Government just one point. The best that can be said about that is that at least the Government did better than the Conservative party, which was given no points at all.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I remind the House that the 10-minute rule on Back Benchers' speeches operates from now on. It may not allow everybody who wishes to participate to do so as much as the Chair originally understood, so perhaps Members could try to keep comfortably within their 10 minutes.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Labour, Scunthorpe 8:22, 4 December 2007

I was disappointed by the speech of Mr. Ainsworth. It seemed rather a bogus attack on DEFRA. Of course, the Rural Payments Agency situation needs to be highlighted, although there are good reasons for it. The Select Committee report made a fair assessment of the background.

I am one of the few Members to have served in both the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and DEFRA—in fact, I may be the only one—so I can tell the hon. Gentleman that DEFRA is a huge improvement on the MAFF structure. MAFF was a 1960s Department; it suffered from low status and low morale, and made the most appalling mistakes, especially over Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, which, as my hon. Friend Mr. Martlew rightly said, had consequences for human lives, let alone the costs of the debacle. That situation arose partly because the then Conservative Government were far too dominated by producer interests rather than by the wider needs of society. They did not recognise that a balance was needed.

The hon. Member for East Surrey criticised the handling of the 2001 outbreak, but I remember the Opposition congratulating the then Minister for Agriculture on his handling of the early stages of the outbreak. At that time nobody knew the scale of the outbreak; during the days before the disease was reported, it was being spread all over the country by the illegal and legal transport of animals. No country had ever found itself in that situation. The fact that that outbreak was contained and eradicated is a tremendous achievement for all concerned. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that, when playing political games, the hon. Gentleman should be careful not to trash the reputation of hard-working civil servants who showed the most incredible dedication when bringing that outbreak under control.

I also echo what was said about the 2005 Conservative party manifesto. I remember debating the matter on platforms with Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokespeople. The 2005 manifesto commitments to cuts in public expenditure would have devastated the then English Nature budget.

I was surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comments on waste. He seems to have forgotten that in 1997 the recycling rate was about 6 or 7 per cent. That has now risen to about 25 per cent. The amount of waste going to landfill has dropped, which is a considerable achievement compared with where we were 10 years ago. My local authority of North Lincolnshire has a recycling rate of 40 per cent. and is confident that it can hit rates of 50 per cent. It deserves a great many congratulations on what it has done. That has been brought about only because of support and grants from DEFRA, which is dedicated to reducing waste in this country. That is important.

I want to pick up on the point made by Martin Horwood. I welcomed the Green Alliance report. Like most people, I think that there were one or two areas where the Green Alliance could have been a bit more generous, particularly in relation to the Government's record on biodiversity. Nevertheless, it was a fair assessment. The hon. Member for East Surrey should note that it gave the Government a great deal of praise for the international lead that they have given on climate change.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelled out the areas in which this country has pioneered climate change policies. Not only that, but the expertise of DEFRA officials and scientists has been used in developing schemes all over the world and particularly in Europe. The software for the emissions trading registration scheme was developed in DEFRA and has been applied by, I think, the majority of European countries. I think DEFRA gets some income from that software development, and it deserves credit for that.

Of course there are always areas that can be improved. However, I have experienced the limitations of MAFF, and seen how DEFRA has been given a much higher status and has attracted a wide range of new people, who have come to work there because they support the concept of DEFRA. Moving to a Department that has land use policy strategies for water, air and land was the right decision. If my memory is correct, at the time the Conservatives supported, rather than criticised, the approach of having a more powerful environment Ministry to deal with all the issues.

I want to make five quick points to my right and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, for whom I have great deal of respect and who have done extremely well, particularly in handling the recent outbreaks. DEFRA has received a great deal of praise for the way in which it handled the bird flu and bluetongue outbreaks, and the recent foot and mouth outbreaks. It is using updated modern contingency plans. It faced a situation in which foot and mouth was not spread all over the country by a rogue farmer and the kind of movements that took place previously. The hon. Member for East Surrey should recognise that the situations are different.

I said I would make five quick points. The first is EU funding. If we are to recognise that climate change is the biggest environmental threat that we face this century—perhaps the biggest threat that we have ever faced—there are important matters to consider. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been arguing for shifting agricultural spending towards the rural development regulation. That is the right thing to do, but we need to go further. We need to harness the EU to combat climate change. An awful lot of spending in the EU could be used much more productively. However, that is a matter for a wider debate; I just wanted to draw the point to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Secondly, the Planning Bill will shortly go through Parliament. I know that my right hon. Friend does not have lead responsibility for the Bill, but streamlining planning is important. No one wants a better way of dealing with renewable energy and waste infrastructure more than I do, but there are issues to do with protecting biodiversity. It is important that biodiversity is not pushed to one side in the debate as a nuisance. My right hon. Friend's voice is important in that regard.

Thirdly, on bovine tuberculosis, I ask my colleagues please to follow the science. We want decisions to be science-based. The arguments are incredibly complicated, and it is wrong for anybody to think that there are simple solutions to the problem. There has been a tendency to try to rubbish the Bourne report, which was carried out with great thoroughness. It is a very respectable scientific study. I ask Ministers please to make sure that we take a science-based approach, not one based on anecdotes.

My fourth point, which has already been mentioned, concerns shared responsibility. It is hard to justify any industry that expects free insurance, paid for by the taxpayer. There has to be shared responsibility. Indeed, I would go further and say that it should be linked to biosecurity and how it is applied. For example, in the recent Bernard Matthews outbreak there were clear breaches of biosecurity. There is a strong suspicion that the outbreak was spread from operations in Hungary by movements within the factory. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money was paid in compensation. There has to be a better scheme.

My last point is small but important. Through the Animal Welfare Bill, the Government made a huge contribution to improving conditions for animals. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench are looking at the welfare codes at the moment; that is a real opportunity for giving clear guidance on improving the welfare of animals in our country. There are some difficult issues, such as that of performing animals in circuses, but I ask my colleagues not to go back on the assurances that former DEFRA Ministers gave the House; that is very important. I ask my colleagues to work closely with such groups as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which have been strong supporters of what the Government have done, and which want to work with them to make the codes effective.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire 8:32, 4 December 2007

In his speech, the Secretary of State admitted, in his inimitable and endearing style, that when the Government have failures, they should admit to them. Frankly, there have been many failures in his Department, although I am happy to admit that many of them occurred before he began his watch. There have been so many examples of incompetence and there has been such a waste of public money, that the only honest statement to make at the Dispatch Box is the one that a colleague of his had the courage to make at the Home Office some time ago—that is, to admit that the Department is not fit for purpose.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs works in the unpredictable spheres of plant and animal diseases, and the effects of global warming. It will always have to handle those difficult problems. We all agree that they present severe challenges, but the real issue is that too many of DEFRA's problems have arisen from the failings of the Department. My hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth gave an example at the Dispatch Box: when DEFRA chose the most complex method of common agricultural policy reform—the so-called dynamic hybrid—it set itself up for a fall. Administrative errors in handing out the single farm payments have cost the taxpayer £348 million, and many farmers in my constituency still do not have all the money to which they are entitled.

Perhaps more shocking than the destabilisation of the farming industry through the incompetent handling of the single farm payments was the revelation that DEFRA had rocked the industry further with the return of foot and mouth. The source of the outbreak was identified as the site of a Government-sponsored animal disease laboratory at Pirbright. Those errors on the part of DEFRA have swallowed its budget, cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money, and caused undue and unnecessary harm to farmers and people living in rural communities. Additional Treasury pressures to cut expenditure will simply exacerbate DEFRA's inability to deliver its remit.

The primary reason for the creation of DEFRA, we were told, was to bring interrelated areas of farming, food, environment and flood protection closer together under the one umbrella—in other words, to facilitate joined-up government. Unfortunately, that is far from the reality. So dislocated appear to be the internal parts of DEFRA that disjointed and incompetent management and administration are the norm.

Let me give the House three examples from my constituency that have happened in the past few weeks. The first case is that of Mr. Frank Harris, a beef farmer from Leverington common. On 30 October, Mr. Harris rang my office to say that he had 21 suckler cows in calf on the Whittlesey washes on the Nene river. We had telephone contact the same day from other farmers who confirmed that there were a further 200 suckler cows on the same washlands. The Whittlesey washes, like the Ouse washes further south, are a vital reservoir for excess water in the wetter winter months and, as such, play an integral and crucial part in the fens flood protection apparatus.

The washes were then placed in a bluetongue control area, with every likelihood that they would soon be flooded. Knowing that the land would be flooded, Mr. Harris asked whether we could intervene on his behalf and asked for his cattle to be blood tested so that they could be moved into a protection zone on his farm about 3 miles away, but outside the zone.

The same day we wrote on Mr. Harris's behalf to Lord Rooker's office asking for an exception or relaxation to be made on the grounds of animal welfare. We left messages at Lord Rooker's office again on 6 November. A week later on 12 November, we spoke to an official who said that he would chase the matter up, but we have never, to this day, received a response or even an acknowledgement from DEFRA.

Mr. Harris has repeatedly tried to obtain permission from the State Veterinary Service in Bury St. Edmunds to move his cattle, but to no avail. Since our inquiries, the land has flooded and some of the cattle, we are informed, have given birth. As far as DEFRA is concerned, there are 21 drowning cattle and their newborn calves.

My second example is Mr. Wiggington, who runs S&T Poultry near Wisbech. He breeds chicks for stock improvement for poultry farmers. He was trying to export more than 600 chicks to Jersey, which was happy to accept imports as long as the chicks had been reared outside avian flu designated areas. Mr. Wiggington applied for his licence at the Bury St. Edmunds DEFRA office. However, it took seven days for the information from the Jersey authorities to go from the DEFRA office in Page street to the Bury St. Edmunds office via, it seems, the Lincoln office. Despite repeated calls from both Mr. Wiggington and his potential customers, nothing seemed to be moving.

My office phoned and e-mailed DEFRA in Lincoln and within an hour that office had instructed the Bury St. Edmunds office that the licence would be signed. By this time, it was only a day before the chicks were scheduled to be shipped, so Mr. Wiggington had to take the morning off to drive to Bury St. Edmunds to collect the original licence in person, because DEFRA said that a photo or faxed copy was not acceptable for an export licence.

Had the paperwork not been cleared at the last minute, despite it being in the system for a week, Mr. Wiggington would have had to destroy a second batch of chicks in a month. He has also reported to me losses of more than £1,000 in value as a result of DEFRA mismanagement and poor administration in the past year. This includes an incident where DEFRA put a stamp on a letter that enclosed licences, instead of franking it. That meant that the letter did not arrive, and as the birds could not be shipped, they had to be destroyed. The next week Mr. Wiggington had to go and collect the documents himself from the post office and pay for the postage.

Because of poor instructions from DEFRA, Mr. Wiggington is still waiting for £2,500 worth of grant aid for going organic. He followed the instructions to the letter, only to be told subsequently that his application was unacceptable. Now he has been told that he will have to wait a minimum of six months for the payment as a result of an error that originated with DEFRA.

My final example involves Mr. Charles Horrell who farms at Pode Hole farm at Thorney near Peterborough. He runs a pedigree cattle and sheep farm. When he was placed in the bluetongue control zone around Peterborough, those pedigree cattle and sheep, which he would normally have sold for breeding for £50,000 in total, would have had to go to slaughter in a poor market situation and would have been worth only about £10,000. We phoned DEFRA on his behalf and asked what Mr. Horrell's options were, now that he was in the control zone. However, nobody at the DEFRA office knew, so we wrote to Lord Rooker. Finally, we got a response from him simply saying:

"DEFRA are encouraging farming businesses to review their contingency plans through farming organisations."

So we followed that up and phoned farming organisations, including the National Farmers Union, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Meat and Livestock Commission. Not one had any advice for farmers on creating contingency plans or new business strategies to counter the onset of disease. It appears that not only has DEFRA offloaded on to unions, charities and advisory groups the problems of responding at farm business level to bluetongue and foot and mouth, but it has not had the decency to tell them that it has done so.

Another natural hazard that has tested DEFRA in the past year is flooding. As the effects of global warming take hold on the environment and flood risk from tidal surges, higher sea levels and greater storms grows, DEFRA has abrogated its responsibility for flood protection by offloading those problems on to the Environment Agency. The increase in the money going towards flood protection seems to be a positive step, but it coincides with the addition of the expensive burden of coastal flooding to the Environment Agency's responsibilities. Those involved in flood protection in the fens have told me that they are concerned that the agency will be tempted to divert some of the extra funds to its own priorities—which, of course, include coastal flood prevention. If that is the case, the increase will not translate into extra security for people in Sheffield, Gloucester or Tewkesbury.

The culture of DEFRA has changed since the old MAFF days—certainly as far as agriculture is concerned. The Department's job was to support the farming industry and the rural community, but it has become one that seems to care little about rural issues and the rural economy and just wants to control and regulate that economy out of existence. Food prices are already increasing at a frightening rate. Do not look to the supermarkets to come to our aid; they are already paring farm-gate prices to the bone. It is time that the Government returned to their age-old primary responsibility of ensuring the security of our food supplies.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families 8:41, 4 December 2007

Mr. Moss defined DEFRA as a Department dealing with plant and animal diseases and climate change; I like to think that it is called the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because deep within it is the recognition, to which my right hon. Friend Mr. Morley referred, that without the balance of biodiversity within the natural environment there is no food for the world to eat, and there will be devastation for rural communities.

I believe in the TANSTAAFL principle, which stands for, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." It was created in the 1970s to recognise the impact of failing to protect and value our natural habitats and their biodiversity, and to place them in the only framework that we seem to understand—that of money.

The world is losing biodiversity at an increasing rate as a result of human activity. In the United Kingdom, 44 per cent. of moths and 71 per cent. of butterflies are declining, mirroring parallel declines in common bird species such as the ptarmigan, the skylark, the grey partridge and, in some areas, the common sparrow.

Across the world, changes in biodiversity due to human activity have happened more rapidly in the past 50 years than at any other time in human history. The many species of plants, insects and animals that live in a diverse range of habitats give us the sense of the place where we live, and act as an incentive to visit other areas, communities and habitats. Environmental tourism is the fastest-growing sector of tourism. Environmental protection bodies form a rapidly growing sector to which people are giving their time, energy and commitment. There is a recognition that biodiversity brings benefits to local communities; it benefits health, improves local economies, maintains environmental quality and ecosystem services and provides recreation and education resources for people of all ages.

Securing a healthy, resilient, productive and natural environment is a key DEFRA priority. It is enshrined in the Government's natural environment public service agreement to secure a healthy natural environment for today and the future. Biodiversity is an essential component of that.

There is a recognition among biodiversity and wildlife groups of the Labour Government's commitment to biodiversity, through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, the Commons Act 2006, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005—matters that the parties opposite neglected. Those measures demonstrate the Government's commitment to the natural environment.

There is concern that, in the bright heat of climate change recognition, the need to track and protect biodiversity is perhaps being put on the back burner and facing policy neglect and financial cuts, as the focus moves to energy conservation and generation rather than to monitoring adaptation and habitat loss. I urge DEFRA to give the latter greater protection and priority.

United Kingdom biodiversity action planning helps to co-ordinate work nationally and locally by identifying priorities for action and setting targets for the recovery of habitats and species. That critical planning measure is vital to ensure that species and habitat information is collected and collated. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 was introduced to protect, conserve and enhance the country's landscapes and support rural communities. The Act established Natural England, which is responsible for championing and integrating management of the environment, nature conservation, biodiversity, landscape, access and recreation.

There are concerns that funding cuts to Natural England will affect many big and small non-governmental organisations, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to wildlife trusts and bat, badger, moth and butterfly conservation bodies, which rely on seedcorn funding for their survival. Those organisations feed in the raw data from their army of volunteers throughout the UK, who track habitat and biodiversity loss. Without that information, the UK biodiversity action plan—BAP, which targets the recovery of some of our most threatened species and habitats in the terrestrial, freshwater and marine environments, with 10 to 15 year goals—will fail. I would welcome a commitment to ensuring that those organisations are supported and to recognising their importance.

Each of the four countries of the UK has produced country strategies for biodiversity. The 24 biodiversity partnerships in Wales have done an enormous amount of work to prepare and implement local plans that support the UK BAP. Local biodiversity action plans in Wales comprise a range of successful projects that inspire new partners to enter that vital aspect of planning. Partners include the tourism and business sectors. The projects contribute to progress and acknowledge everyone's responsibility for biodiversity and habitat protection, so that it is not perceived as a matter for only the farming community.

More than 72 per cent. of our sites of special scientific interest are now in a favourable condition, which represents a tremendous improvement in the past few years. That improvement was targeted and brought about by the Labour Government. The Government are on track to meet the 95 per cent. target by 2010.

I have arranged a moth recording night in the Palace in each of the past two years—this year, it is supported by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Joan Ruddock—to show that there is wildlife even in this most sterile of places. Butterflies are recognised as indicators of a healthy environment and should be recognised as indicators of the effectiveness of the Government's land-use policy. In October, DEFRA launched a new framework called "Conserving Biodiversity—The UK Approach", which provides a more holistic approach recognising the interconnectedness between living things, their environment and the services they provide.

It is easy to think that biodiversity is unimportant—that it has a low level of responsibility in improving the quality of life in this country—yet insect pollination of crops alone brings £172 million a year into this country. We neglect biodiversity and our habitat at our peril. If we want to eat and if we want to protect our rural communities, we have to tackle these issues. I am proud to be part of a Labour Government who are introducing a marine Bill; I am proud of the role that DEFRA has played in the International Whaling Commission.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that the hon. Lady may mean the draft marine Bill, as we did not have a Bill in the Queen's Speech this year despite the fact that it has had all-party support for two years.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon PPS (Jim Knight, Minister of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Let me just say that this Government have been committed to introducing a marine Bill, which no other Government have done, and I am particularly proud of that.

I recognise that there have been problems at DEFRA—no one would deny that. What disturbs me, however, is the total lack of recognition of how important a role it has played in protecting the natural habitats of this country and how important it has been in ensuring that the huge army of people involved in and committed to habitat and species protection receive the support that they need. Only this Labour Government have taken that on board and given their commitment to the founding of DEFRA, a Department with the word "Environment" first in its name.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham 8:51, 4 December 2007

It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Moon. She talked about free lunches. I seem to remember that on a recent Inter-Parliamentary Union trip to Albania she and I had a lot of very long free lunches, but I am not sure as yet what the payback has been. I share her concern about biodiversity, as surely we all do. The previous Conservative Government had an extremely good record in introducing legislation to help to protect this country's environment. My right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer played a leading part in that.

It is impossible to measure the effort that a Government make by the amount of legislation that they pass. This Government have passed a vast volume of legislation on the countryside that has placed considerable burdens on many in the farming community, as well as wasting a lot of time. Natural England, or English Nature as it was then, spent a great deal of time chasing the old socialist policy of right to roam and spent untold millions that could have been better invested in a proper footpath network than in covering the countryside with areas with the right to roam. That is certainly the case in my constituency, which has previously been roamed on quite happily by local people. All that we have had is a lot of gates put up with labels on them, and nobody much uses the facility anyway. That was a wasted opportunity.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the right to roam has been supported by many more people than socialists.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I take that point.

One cannot measure a Government's performance, or the performance of a Ministry such as DEFRA, simply on the volume of legislation—what is important is how effective it is. We must remember that 80 per cent. of our countryside is managed by British farmers.

I would like to lay to rest the impression given by the Secretary of State and by Mr. Morley that Conservative Members are somehow attacking the ordinary individual DEFRA official. [Hon. Members: "You are!"] We are not doing that. When my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth mentioned the matter, he was quoting a farmer. It must be understood that the interface between the Government—DEFRA—and the farming industry is the official on the ground, who unfortunately, as DEFRA's representative pitching up at the farm gate, takes on the chin the farmer's anger about over-regulation and disasters such as the Rural Payments Agency and the foot and mouth epidemic. They are only doing their master's bidding. The actual fiasco of the Rural Payments Agency was nothing to do with DEFRA officials; it went straight to the Secretary of State's predecessor, who decided, contrary to the advice of the European Union, most farming unions and others in this country, to opt for a system that mixed historic and land-based elements. In Wales and Scotland they opted for the historic one, which is why farmers in Wales and Scotland are receiving payments today.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Labour, Scunthorpe

I respect the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of agriculture, but he knows that a strong body of opinion in the farming community supported the system DEFRA put in place. How would he justify, for example, putting people who had always grown vegetables and crops that were unsupported, who never had subsidies, into a system that would lock them out of that for ever, while ensuring that people who always had such subsidies—in some cases, people who did not compete in the marketplace as other farmers did—had that advantage built in for ever? Would he have justified that?

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I take the point, and I respect the right hon. Gentleman because he was in the Department for a very long time. Of course, for many farmers there was an advantage in going to the land-based system, but the advice made it quite clear that it would be an administrative nightmare, and it was.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Well, for a start, as well as the system bringing in sections such as horticulture that had not been covered previously, which could have been anticipated, no one realised that all of a sudden, nearly 50,000 other so-called farmers would come on the scene who had never even registered for the integrated administration and control scheme.

People who had bought farmhouses when farms were broken up had five, six or 10 acres of land, and they thought, "Hey, this'll be rather good. We'll claim some single farm payment for our pony paddock." They then boasted in the local pub, "I received £54 in subsidy payment." The system was overwhelmed, which is why serious, professional farmers suffered so much. In future negotiations, I hope that there will be a minimum size or standard to ensure that such people are not liable to receive the single farm payment.

The serious result of the chaos over the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment was that for over two years it distracted farmers from sitting down and doing what they should have been doing. Because of the delays, farmers reached a point of desperation. They were borrowing money left, right and centre from banks and owed money to their suppliers. For the past two years, they have essentially concentrated on simply keeping their heads above water. They should have been doing what they had been advised to do: using the single farm payment to make their farming enterprises profitable, instead of relying on subsidy.

The idea was that a farming enterprise should run profitably on its activities, and that the single farm payment would be money for investment and possibly profit. Farmers have not been able to do that, and as a consequence many farms and farmers in the livestock sector are running at a loss. If they properly quantified their labour, which a lot of them do not do, they would find that their losses were quite substantial.

I got some figures recently—I do not know whether the Secretary of State has seen them—from the English Beef and Lamb Executive, which has been doing research into the cost of production of livestock. For example, the loss on the average England lowland suckler herd in 2005-06 was £351 per beast. In 2006-07, that figure went down to just under £300. Right through the beef industry, the losses are about the same. The losses in the sheep sector were equivalent—a loss of nearly £50 per ewe in 2005, and a £34 loss per ewe in 2006-07. The Secretary of State can see that there is a tremendous amount to do if we are to ensure that such farming enterprises are properly profitable. That is why we should encourage schemes such as the EBLEX better return scheme so that livestock farmers get a better result.

The disasters of foot and mouth and bluetongue came at the worst possible time, which is sad because 2007 was shaping up to be not a bad year for the livestock industry. That went down the pan immediately, particularly when the export of sheep stopped and there was a huge overhang on the market. However, the underlying trend is good because the quantities of beef and lamb being eaten in this country are up. It is a pity that farmers could not cash in on that by getting the better prices that they were anticipating at the start of the season. There is some reason to be optimistic, certainly in parts of the livestock sector. Cereal farmers are also not unhappy, but pig farmers, poultry farmers and game rearers are desperately unhappy about what has happened.

What the industry needs from DEFRA are some positive decisions on a number of hugely important outstanding issues. The first, which has been mentioned, is the issue of TB, which needs to be resolved. That is a matter of considerable urgency that has been around for at least 10 years—

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Indeed, longer than 10 years. Unfortunately, the chief scientific adviser supported a cull. A decision must now be taken. I appreciate that the decision is difficult, but it needs to be taken quite soon.

Perhaps more controversially, a proper decision must be taken on genetically modified crops. Possibly alone on this side of the Chamber, I favour the planting of GM crops in this country, because I see them as an important new development in agriculture that will go a long way towards feeding people throughout the world with better and healthier food. We have to make that decision. The threat if we do not make that decision is that the livestock industry will gradually migrate abroad, because GM feed prices will be much lower than feed prices in the UK. That will pose a threat to the viability of our livestock industry. We will increasingly import meat more cheaply across the tariff boundaries from South America and countries in other areas.

Those are the big issues that DEFRA needs to address. The British farming industry wants not a Ministry dogged with endless disasters, but a Ministry that can support farmers and stick up for them in an ever-changing world.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle 9:01, 4 December 2007

If I may paraphrase Mr. Atkinson, who spoke well, it appears he thinks that we should scrap the right to roam, cull the badgers and plant GM crops everywhere.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Labour, Scunthorpe

A good manifesto speech.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

Indeed. On the right to roam, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman use the word "socialist", which we do not hear often enough in the Chamber. In fact, many people roam through his constituency along Hadrian's wall, past my house, through the city and right on to Bowness. There is a value in people walking the countryside, and some of the rural pubs will be pleased with the Hadrian's wall path and the right to roam.

I want to come on to what is basically a constituency speech. The motion and the amendment talk about foot and mouth disease, and in 2001 my constituency was the epicentre of the disease in the north of the country. I had the first Adjournment debate about foot and mouth disease in this Chamber when it did not seem to be a major problem. However, it turned out to be one; indeed, it was horrendous. When I found out that there had been another outbreak in the south of England, I felt so sorry for the individuals involved.

However, it turned out that we had learned the lessons from 2001. The outbreak then was difficult, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Morley said. In 2001, we did not know that foot and mouth was around. The farmer concerned from Heddon-on-the-Wall had some terrible practices, but never reported the disease and in the end was prosecuted. That was the source of the outbreak in 2001. We argue about meat coming in from foreign countries, but if everybody had done what they should have done and if the biodiversity had been there, we would not have suffered the 2001 outbreak.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman says that if everybody had done what they should have done, we would not have experienced that outbreak. Does that include the DEFRA official who licensed the premises in Heddon-on-the-Wall, which should never have been licensed?

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

I do not know, but if that is the case, they should perhaps take the blame. The real answer, however, is that the pigswill should have been boiled, but that did not happen and that was the source, although we did not hear much criticism of the farming community or that individual from the Opposition then. However, we have learned the lessons of 2001. That is good and I am glad that the outbreak has been contained, because we do not want to go through that again. The big danger with foot and mouth is that in 10, 15 or 20 years' time when we have forgotten the lessons, it might happen again. I hope that at any such time we bring in vaccinations at a very early stage.

Another issue is the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment. My constituents work in a very large RPA area office in the centre of Carlisle and when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary came up, he was candid in saying that things had gone wrong, but that there was no blame to be laid on the work force. I am sorry that the Opposition seem to be blaming DEFRA civil servants. In the Rural Payments Agency in my constituency, they work two or three shifts. These are civil servants on shift work—something that I never thought I would see. They work very hard and very conscientiously, doing their best in very difficult circumstances. I hope that the Opposition spokesman who replies will acknowledge that. If we are to blame civil servants, let us blame those up near the top rather than individuals further down.

Flooding is another issue in our amendment. In 2005, my constituency suffered from the worst floods in an urban area of Britain for 50 years. It may have been worse since, but those were very serious floods. Unlike those we saw this year, they happened in the dead of winter in early January. We not only had floods; we had no electricity for many days. This was the first occasion for many years on which individuals drowned in floods in inland UK. Two old ladies drowned in their own homes in Warwick road in my constituency. It just so happens—it is a coincidence—that the Environment Agency announced today that the £12 million flood defences built in that area are now watertight. People living there will be able to sleep comfortably this winter. Unfortunately, in the part of the city where I live, the flood defences have not yet started, so I will not be able to sleep comfortably for another two years.

I would like to pay tribute at this stage to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe. That serious flooding happened on 5 January and my right hon. Friend arrived on the morning of 6 January, when it was still raining. He gave me a commitment on that occasion—in front of the cameras, which I felt was a rather brave thing to do—that money would be made available for flood defences in Carlisle. The £30-odd million that was needed for flood defences in the city has been made available. When they are completed, Carlisle will be the best defended city in England. I really want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that.

I would also like to pay a special tribute to the Environment Agency, which has done a magnificent job on the flood defences. I pay particular tribute to the lady who led the defences work, Kim Nicholson, who was there when the going was rough and made sure that the plans were delivered on time, but who tragically died this summer. It is the greatest tribute to her that her team has continued and that the flood defences are completed on budget and before time. That will be a fitting memorial for her.

Let me return to the point I raised earlier with Martin Horwood about the funding of this country's flood defences. I appreciate that the Government have gone along with increases from £600 million to £650 million and then £800 million, but I can tell the Secretary of State that that will not be enough. If we reflect on what happened this summer, it is clear that we will not be able to raise enough money through general taxation to pay for all the flood defences that we will need in the future. I do not believe that it is possible. Those who live in a flood plain who pay high insurance premiums and do not sleep easy at night should perhaps be asked to pay an extra contribution in future. I am not sure what the best mechanism is for achieving that. It may be through insurance premiums, but I am sure that people would like to pay more towards flood defences and less to the insurance companies. I think it was the hon. Member for Cheltenham who spoke of the inability to obtain insurance at all for some properties, the reduction in value of properties on flood plains and sky-high premiums. I suspect that if we could provide flood defences for those communities, they would be prepared to make a small contribution. The Secretary of State should consider that point.

Another aspect of floods is the aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe, who has seen many more skips than I have, will know that once the floods have happened the skips arrive, and are themselves flooded with rubbish that goes to landfill. In Carlisle we probably contributed to eight years of landfill in a fortnight. Where was the recycling process? I can accept what happened in Carlisle because that was the first of a series of events, but I cannot accept as the years go by that all the goods that are taken out of houses and put in skips should go to landfill. It is partly to do with the way in which the insurance companies work: it is old for new. If you have an old suite, you put it in the skip. It was amazing to see how much more was recycled by those who were not insured than by those of us who were well insured.

During the 2005 floods my car was flooded, but it was running. I ran it for a fortnight. Then the insurance people came along, and said that it was a write-off and would be crushed. My neighbour had a brand-new Porsche—

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

It is not posh, actually, but that is another story, for which I do not have time. Anyway, the Porsche was taken away and crushed as well. The Government must take the lead on recycling in the event of flooding, especially if it is to happen year after year.

I do not believe that the lessons of Carlisle were learned. I think we should have protected the water treatment establishments and the electricity sub-stations. Fortunately not many of those went out, but the whole country should be sent the message that water treatment and sewage plants and electricity sub-stations must be protected. Nevertheless, I think that the Government are doing a good job overall, and I will support them tonight.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 9:12, 4 December 2007

There are undoubtedly many challenges for DEFRA's animal health officials, who have been rightly praised today. They include the demand for successful contingency plans to bring the recent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease—once the virus had escaped from Pirbright—then bluetongue disease and now avian influenza under control. Those challenges, coupled with the increasing incidence of TB—about which we have also heard today—have stretched the successful work of DEFRA's animal health officials, so this would be a good time to ensure that they have all the resources that they require.

In August, September and October, outbreaks of foot and mouth and bluetongue disease meant that the agreed local delivery plan for Devon had to be adjusted, and contingency plans were invoked. DEFRA indicated that it expected any additional costs incurred to be kept within the overall Devon framework budget. Then it admitted that it had not done its sums. The cost agreed by local authorities and the regional divisional veterinary managers for animal disease control work amounted to £9.7 million for 2007-08, but DEFRA had allocated £8.5 million, and is seeking to claw back £1.2 million in the current financial year.

I was amazed to discover that Devon county council was notified of the situation, not by DEFRA but by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, on 17 September. It was not until 2 November than DEFRA formally instructed Devon to make cuts in this year's budget. Can the Secretary of State tell us why it took his Department so long to learn that it had oversubscribed its funds, and why it left it until so late to inform local authorities of the required cost savings? What discussions has he had on this, particularly in respect of the south-west, with his colleague, the Minister for the South West?

Devon has now to make £68,000 of savings by March. That represents 12 per cent. of its framework budget, but because it has to make the savings in this financial year it actually means that there will be a 48 per cent. cut in animal disease-control work. As there is merely four months to find £68,000, the only option for Devon county council is to fire five out of eight animal health officials or to pay for them itself. Those officials are in the front line against infectious diseases. If they are fired, I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that Devon will, in the words of a local official, have

"very little to no preventative disease control" and, as that official continued,

"Devon would be unable to maintain a presence at disease outbreak 'critical control points'".

The 2006 agricultural and horticultural survey shows that Devon has more cattle than any other local authority in England, the second largest number of sheep and the fifth and sixth largest numbers of pigs and poultry respectively. Farms in Devon employ 23,000 people, which is more than any other local authority, and Devon covers the largest geographical area of any local authority—approximately 1.6 million acres. The Secretary of State has given commitments in respect of "rural-proofing" so that policies take account of rural circumstances and needs. Is he therefore satisfied with his cuts, which would lead to one official per 550,000 acres, one official per 190,000 cattle, one official per 490,000 sheep and one official per 1,700,000 chickens? I think I am right in saying that the south-west produces twice as much food as Scotland and three times as much as Wales—that is a staggering set of statistics, and it leads to staggering thoughts. Given the importance of agriculture in Devon, will he enter into discussions on its funding requirements as a matter of urgency? How can the Secretary of State satisfy himself that these cuts would not impinge upon future disease prevention, containment and control? The House will remember—we have heard from Mr. Martlew—the heart-breaking scenes, such as across my county of Devon, of the last outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001, and Members will be aware of the vital importance of managing future outbreaks effectively.

By 2010, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must achieve a

"25 per cent. reduction in administrative burdens".

We have seen what happens—such as in the top-down cuts on courier services in Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, which have had devastating consequences—and I urge the Secretary of State to speak to all local authorities to ensure they have the right number of animal health officials so that we can react quickly to any potential outbreak of foot and mouth, bluetongue, avian influenza or TB.

I was concerned in reading the Secretary of State's speech at the Farming for the Future conference on 19 November that he said there should be a major shift of the cost and responsibility for animal health from Government to the industry, and he repeated that point this afternoon. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers took this opportunity to enlighten us on the framework for

"market-based ways of managing animal disease risks, including associated costs."

I note the Government have received a submission from representatives of the UK livestock sector which urged them to

"reconsider the proposed measures on cost sharing for animal diseases."

That is not surprising given that foot and mouth in 2001 has been estimated to have cost the economy £5 billion. The irony seems to have been lost on the Secretary of State given that he believes that the

"additional cost of disease outbreaks" is "unsustainable" yet the latest outbreak of foot and mouth was not caused by the industry but originated in a Government laboratory—which, I hope Ministers will agree, is unsustainable—and there was a second incident at Pirbright, which is shameful.

I know the industry would be happy to become more involved in policy and operational decisions. However, such decisions must not be driven by any political desire to offload from DEFRA a basic responsibility of Government just because it is difficult to manage and because DEFRA is under budgetary pressure. Given that beef, sheep and pig producers have been saddled with enormous additional costs—at least £100 million—as a result of the outbreak of foot and mouth this year, as well as steep increases in feed, energy and regulatory costs, does the Secretary of State agree that this is perhaps the worst time to increase further the burden on farmers? I am pleased that the Secretary of State will have time to consider those and other points when he goes to Bali with many of his officials shortly, but I hope that the officials he leaves behind will deal with an issue closer to home, and which relates closely to Devon: animal health and welfare.

I want briefly to discuss poultry welfare and labelling, and the continuing failure of DEFRA and its officials to deal with those issues. Is the Secretary of State aware of growing consumer concern about broiler chicken welfare? The supermarkets' heavy discounting has squeezed farmers' margins to the point where they are unable to make welfare improvements. Sadly, it is increasingly common for some producers to rear flocks of 40,000 birds, each living in an area smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.

Does the Secretary of State agree that consumer demand can stop that treatment, and that a requirement for improved labelling on poultry meat would enable consumers to make an informed choice about the chicken that they buy? If he does agree, or if he is tempted to do so, I hope that he will support the chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has recently moved his River Cottage business into my constituency, and conducted his "Chicken Out!" campaign in Axminster. That campaign is trying to change consumer habits by informing consumers of animal welfare. I hope that the Ministers and DEFRA officials will study the findings of that project, which will potentially have a huge impact on producers and consumers alike.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon 9:20, 4 December 2007

I must tell the Secretary of State that it would be a gross underestimate of reality to describe DEFRA's reputation in my constituency as poor. I ask him to accept that that is not because of any deep-rooted prejudice or unfairness. It is because of the daily experience of thousands of my constituents who pursue rural activities such as farming, not only at the hands of DEFRA officials, but as part of a culture that seems to have been born with DEFRA but has not yet successfully been altered.

That is not to say that many civil servants in DEFRA are not dedicated, able and committed. I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I have the privilege of listening to some of them give evidence. The sincere eagerness and urgency with which they regard the need to resolve many of the problems that affect my constituents and with which they are faced is quite apparent.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. and learned Gentleman is making excellent points about the good staff at DEFRA. Does he agree that there are issues to address about the extremely increased use of temporary staff in some of the agencies involved with DEFRA? Such an approach is undermining the performance of staff who have been there for much longer.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

I agree with that, but I shall not be distracted from my main point. There is a problem—the Secretary of State may say that it is a problem with perception—about how DEFRA is felt to act and operate in rural areas such as mine. I suspect that other hon. Members' constituents have told them of similar experiences. I have asked myself why that should be.

The Secretary of State made a brave defence of those who work under him, and its warmth was a credit to him—one would have expected that. The fact remains that whether it is because of how DEFRA was conceived or because of some institutional failure of leadership, DEFRA is regarded as a standing joke in the communities that I represent—often the joke is a grim and sardonic one, but it is a joke none the less. There is a complete want of trust and a constant feeling that DEFRA is not standing by the side of those rural communities. They feel that it is standing on their shoulders and driving them down. I ask the Secretary of State to accept that it is not impossible to understand why that should be. Brave though his defence of his Department was, the fact is that it has made a pathetic litany of error and incompetence, almost since the moment that it was brought into being.

The Secretary of State must recognise that it is unusual for a Select Committee in which his own side has a preponderance—I am sorry that Mr. Morley is not in his place—actually to call for the resignation of the then Secretary of State when dealing with a report. By then she had become Foreign Secretary, but that recommendation was not lightly made. It was made after careful and due deliberation. The Committee said—I hope that the Secretary of State has read the report—that there had been a clear failure of political leadership, not only in the initial decision to introduce a complex hybrid scheme, but in the subsequent follow-through. Indeed, the Minister of State said in evidence to the Committee that the Department did not follow it through. The decision was criticised on all sides as the wrong decision—it was not only the fault of the civil servants, and Ministers should not hide behind the human shield of civil servants who cannot answer for themselves—and it was a failure of political leadership. It was a criminal act of neglect. What should the people of the countryside think when they hear the Secretary of State say to the House today that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with his Department, even though the Select Committee—with a preponderance of Labour Members—told the then Secretary of State that she should consider her position and that there had been a failure of political leadership?

Let us consider other decisions, such as the Department's decision on bovine tuberculosis. In 2005, the strategic review of bovine TB called for a partnership between the farming community and DEFRA and everybody welcomed that. In 2005, I was told in the House by one of the Secretary of State's predecessors that the time for a decision on bovine TB was very near, but nothing has been done. In 2006, the Minister of State told me that the time was nigh and that, after a three-month consultation, the decision would soon be taken. He said that it was necessary to see whether the statistics, which seemed to suggest a fall in numbers in 2006, were borne out. Since 2006-07, of course, the incidence of bovine TB has risen by 22 per cent. There have been some 2,617 herd incidents. Nothing has been done.

It is not right or credible to say to the farming community that the Government want a partnership with it while they continue to load the cost of the disease through the introduction of tabular valuations, and fail to take the brave decision that is plainly needed to use culling as an instrument of policy. It should not be the sole instrument of policy, or even the main instrument of policy, but it must be an instrument available in the hotspot areas of dense infection, where the balance of risk favours it. But no decision has been taken.

The Secretary of State asks for time. He said as much to the Committee recently. But every Secretary of State before him has asked for the same thing. They have all said that the time for a decision was near, come to the very brink of that decision, and then pulled back. How can the country people whom I represent have confidence that this Secretary of State will listen and take a decision when the two previous Secretaries of State have failed to take that decision although they, too, said that the time was nigh?

I shall give an example. Mr. David Grigg in my constituency has a pedigree herd of the most beautiful and valuable Holstein cows. It has recently been placed under bovine TB restrictions and several of his prize breeding animals have been condemned. They have already been slaughtered.

I ask the Secretary of State to look into this case. One animal, a prize-winning cow worth £20,000, is still alive. Her half sister sold for 16,000 guineas just the other day, and she is a most superb example of this country's breeding stock. If DEFRA slaughters that animal, even though she is not even a conclusive reactor, Mr. Grigg will receive just £1,400 in compensation. Farmers have been told that they must be in partnership with the Government, but how would the Secretary of State feel if he owned an animal like that and then discovered that she was to be taken from him and slaughtered? That is neither fair nor equitable, and it is no wonder that people in the countryside consider DEFRA to be a sardonic joke.

The Pirbright saga is another example, and the Secretary of State and I have already had an exchange about it. To do him credit, he did not seriously deny that it was a clear failure in the system, although I believe that it was, in part at least, a failure of his Department. The drains at the Pirbright facility were known to be dilapidated and due for replacement, but even so the foot and mouth virus escaped. No one inquired whether the drains were able to cope with having live virus flushed down them, or whether the virus would leech into the outside environment.

That was an act of negligence, but the Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box to tell the country, and country people, that DEFRA has been acting well, even though at least part of the cost, stress and distress of the latest foot and mouth outbreak can be traced unerringly back to it. He should not feel surprised, therefore, by the suggestion by my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth that farmers have a grim and sardonic view of the Department.

However, what happened was not a failure by civil servants, for whom he so warmly and creditably stood up. The failure was caused by the political leadership of two successive Secretaries of State and, unless the right hon. Gentleman listens to what is being said in this debate, there is a danger that he will be the third one to be held responsible. The financial management of the Department has led to £50 million already being overdue—

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I almost feel sorry to be anticlimactic, but I call Mr. Richard Benyon.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:32, 4 December 2007

I feel entirely anticlimactic, Mr. Deputy Speaker, after the fantastic oratory of my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Cox. However, before I say any more, I must refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.

The Secretary of State recently wrote to every farmer in the country. I was very grateful to receive that letter and to hear of his commitment to British farming, but he will understand from what has been said in the debate by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, and by my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) and for East Devon (Mr. Swire), that many farmers will be looking to him for action rather than warm words.

The reality of British agriculture is represented not by barley barons driving Range Rovers, but by the ashen-faced people we saw every night on our televisions during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. They work an 80-hour week and take home less than the minimum wage, but at the time they were watching their life's work go up in flames. They have been beaten down by those who should have been helping them but who have too often placed the hand of regulation on their shoulders. That regulatory imposition has been backed up by incompetence and a lack of understanding.

During the latest outbreak, one of my constituents telephoned the DEFRA office to ask what he should do with the 1,400 lambs that he had to move that week. He was asked, "Well, haven't you got any hay for them?" That shows how little understanding there is in the Department of the dynamics of stock farming. If I have time, I shall return to that later in my contribution.

I want to move the debate slightly away from farming and talk about another of DEFRA's responsibilities—rural communities—to show the impact on them of the shambles in the Department's finances. I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the work of rural community councils, which are organised by counties and funded in part by DEFRA. They lobby local authorities on behalf of rural communities and support community organisations in rural areas. In my area, for example, RCCs assist with parish planning—a wonderful concept that has done much for local governance and widening its base.

The councils target help for disadvantaged people in rural areas. They support and promote social enterprises. In a small way, they help village halls become sustainable organisations by encouraging more involvement from local people. They ensure that there is sensible working between Government agencies, primary care trusts, fire authorities and other bodies; they act as the rural conscience of those organisations and make them work for rural as well as urban people. RCCs help with education, learning and skills training for people in rural areas. They run projects for disaffected young people, and assist in drug prevention schemes and other worthy initiatives.

DEFRA's funding for those organisations is being cut and, in many cases, axed. Today, I heard that a number of RCCs will not be able to continue in their entirety— [ Interruption. ] I shall be interested to hear what the Minister for the Environment says in the wind-ups. In Berkshire, the comparatively paltry sum of £117,000 will be axed next year. That money levers nearly £1 million into rural communities in constituencies such as mine.

Tomorrow, the Under-Secretary of State, Jonathan Shaw, will attend a 21st century village conference in Westminster. He will have to tell the RCCs that will be represented there why DEFRA is cutting funding for rural communities when they desperately need the help that I have just described. It is yet another example of how the problems of DEFRA's current financial status affect people in real life.

The Institute for Animal Health—the sister organisation to Pirbright—is in Compton in my constituency. We live in a world where we face avian influenza and foot and mouth disease. Bovine tuberculosis is a constant blight on the rural farming community and now we face the bluetongue virus. Those institutes are in the front line in the battle against those organisms.

I have talked to past and present scientists at Compton, and they express real anger because in some circles they are held up as the whipping boys for some of the problems—possibly the big problem—at Pirbright. For a long time, they have been telling the Government that their methodology for attacking those diseases is world renowned, yet the Government will not let them operate that methodology, which is to examine the entire biology of the pathogens. It is a complicated, expensive and lengthy process and too often the Government ask the scientists to narrow their field of investigation and look only at particular elements. The scientists say that the Government are asking them for a quick-fix solution, which it is impossible for them to provide.

At a time when diseases are affecting rural communities as never before, funding for those crucial organisations has been reduced from £7.5 million in 2001 to £3.9 million—by more than half in real terms. I hope that the Secretary of State can understand the real anger of some scientists.

I conclude by making an impassioned plea. I cannot speak with the vigour and eloquence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, but I shall speak up to the best of my ability for mixed farming and stock farming in Britain. I have the honour and privilege to represent one of the most beautiful parts of the south of England: the Berkshire downs. I have known the Berkshire downs for all of my 47 years and I still find them hauntingly beautiful.

We have heard excellent contributions from Members talking about biodiversity. My worry is that, although the Berkshire downs may still be beautiful, they are no longer a centre of mixed farming, as they were just a few years ago. I can count the number of pig farmers in the Berkshire downs on the fingers of one hand. When it comes to the number of stock and dairy farmers, I am one of the few that remain in that part of Berkshire. The effect of that is being felt when it comes to biodiversity and the whole rural community. That is not something that can be reversed. In the central south of England, and many other parts of the country, we are losing the infrastructure that supports stock farming. We are losing marts. I am running out of time, but I hope that the Minister will address those points when he winds up.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:40, 4 December 2007

One thing that this debate has achieved is to remind us of the great breadth of DEFRA's responsibilities: the environment, food and rural affairs. Unfortunately, farming is not mentioned in the title, and yet it is essential to so many of the Department's activities. In that context, I remind the House of the interest I have declared in the register.

I want to start by referring to some of the Secretary of State's remarks. There is no contradiction between recognising—rightly—the expertise, knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment of individual members of his staff, and our overall concerns about the lack of co-ordination, direction and management that have given rise to the perception, which so many of my hon. Friends have referred to, that the Department is, as my hon. Friend Mr. Moss said, not fit for purpose.

I thought at one stage in the Secretary of State's litany of what he claimed as successes that he was going to claim credit for the non-flooding of eastern England, following the surge that did not quite happen a few weeks ago. I can just remember the 1953 floods—I was a very small child living on the Suffolk coast—and they were horrendous. However, we should not do anything other than thank goodness that they were not repeated. The Department cannot take the credit—or criticism—because thankfully the defences and the plans were not properly tested.

I also want to refer briefly to foot and mouth. We have already had an Opposition day debate on that subject so I do not intend to spend a great deal of time on it. In response to Mr. Martlew, in that debate I said that of course the Government had learned the lessons of 2001. God forbid that they had not, because, as he and others have said, it is almost impossible to imagine the situation being any worse than it was at that time.

The Secretary of State made no reference to the £50 million overspend on administration, which the permanent secretary described to the Select Committee a week or so ago. When it comes to cutting the number of staff, the Secretary of State referred to meeting the head-count targets, but said nothing to explain why those staff were taken on in the first place if they are supernumerary to requirements. If they are required, why are we getting rid of them? Most importantly, having to make in-year cuts demonstrates the incompetence of management. Invariably, those cuts can be met only by cutting expenditure at the front line, not letting contracts that have not yet been let, and not carrying out front-line functions, because we all know that cutting staff does not save money in the year that one does it, because of all the associated costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and my hon. and learned Friend Mr. Cox made it absolutely clear that the perception of DEFRA on the ground in farming is very different from that which the Secretary of State described to the House. They both described cases in their constituencies where incompetence and bureaucracy got in the way of the farmers going about their business.

Mrs. Moon, for whom I have a lot of respect when it comes to environmental issues, rightly talked about the importance of biodiversity; I agree with a great deal of what she said. I thought that she had to scrape the barrel to find a criticism to make of the previous Conservative Government. It was that Government who introduced the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981—a major trail-blazing piece of legislation on which much legislation has recently been based. That Government also introduced environmentally sensitive areas, and the pilot environmental stewardship schemes on which Mr. Morley built when he took up ministerial responsibilities.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges that. I noticed that the hon. Member for Bridgend made some pretty subtle criticisms of funding cuts and their impact on biodiversity.

Hon. Members raised the issue of tuberculosis. We could spend a whole debate on that subject. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon said, we have had 10 years of virtually no progress. More than £500 million has been spent and some 160,000 cattle have been slaughtered, yet there was no strategy. There have been lots of reviews and discussions, and a series of piecemeal measures.

The right hon. Member for Scunthorpe and others said that we must be guided by science. Of course we must, but it is hard to be guided by science when the scientists cannot agree. He knows full well when he supports Professor Bourne that Professor King said something completely different. Sometimes Ministers have to grasp the nettle and make a tough decision. They have to decide what scientific evidence they accept and go with it. They need to have the courage of their convictions.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No, I am sorry. I cannot give way because I do not have any overspill time, unless the Minister for the Environment plans to give it to me.

The issue of the single farm payment has been widely discussed. The Secretary of State apologised, but ignored the damning report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The problems largely arose because the then Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, completely ignored the warning, given by people across the industry and in the House, that the scheme was destined for disaster. As my hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson reminded us, the problem was partly caused by extending subsidy to many people who had not previously received it, which seems a funny way of setting about weaning people off subsidy.

Members including the Secretary of State talked about cost-sharing. The Government propose saving £120 million in three years through cost-sharing. That starts next April, but the consultation on how that will work has not even taken place yet. Let us get a few things clear: Ministers have agreed with the National Farmers Union and others that the current foot and mouth outbreak and bluetongue have cost the industry more than £100 million—and the figure is rising. So far the industry has been given £12.5 million in a Government package. According to the permanent secretary, the problems have cost the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs £32 million. They have cost the industry more than twice what they have cost DEFRA, so there already is cost-sharing when it comes to disease control. Is that not true cost-sharing? How can the industry find another £40 million, as the Government require?

More importantly, the Government need to put their house in order. We have heard about Pirbright and the causes of the outbreak of foot and mouth. What about illegal meat imports to this country, which are estimated at 12,000 tonnes a year? According to the latest figures, only one in every 7,400 seizures results in prosecution. That is an open door to smugglers, and it is another reason why the industry cannot be expected to share the costs until the Government get to grips with their responsibilities.

There is also the issue of the burden of regulation. Last year, DEFRA put forward more regulations than in any year since its inception. Tonight we are being asked to congratulate it. Should we congratulate it on the ever increasing number of regulations that it produces? In the past six months, it has consulted on 37 new regulations. On 25 October, the Secretary of State said in the House, on climate change, that he was entering a "genuine consultation", which prompts the question: how many of the other 37 were not genuine?

In the countryside, as others have said, DEFRA has become a byword for incompetence. In 2005, the Government said that food security was not a policy objective. The Department has presided over an industry in collapse. It has done nothing but trot out warm words. Even the Minister of State, Lord Rooker, whose candour initially won the hearts of the farmers, has failed to achieve change. The whole Department seems to have lost sight of the need to help or encourage the industry, but instead wants to control and regulate it, as others have said.

The Government need to understand that regulation is the enemy of enterprise. When will they understand that if the industry continues to contract, it will not be there when it is needed? If shortages continue as a result of climate change, population growth and prosperity, we will need that food. This debate, and especially the Government amendment, have highlighted the utter indifference and complacency that DEFRA shows to rural areas. However many Secretaries of State, however many future Foreign Secretaries, the chaos under them is the same. None has ever run a business; nobody seems prepared to take responsibility; nobody cares. If DEFRA were a company, it would have long since folded. It is time for a change. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:50, 4 December 2007

I repeat the opening remark of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I am as delighted as he was that the Opposition have given us the opportunity to put the record straight and to put to bed some of the producer-led nonsense that we have heard tonight, as if the past of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries was a proud record, and as if we had not made progress on the big questions of the environment.

I respect the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House representing farming interests. They make a great mistake when they assume that no farming interests are represented on the Government Benches. The picture painted by the Opposition bears no resemblance to reality. I recognise the importance of farming, but it is noticeable that no solutions to the alleged problems have been put forward.

I reject the central accusation in the Opposition motion this evening—that the Department is cutting its expenditure. [Interruption.] With respect, that is what the Opposition motion says. I suggest that hon. Gentlemen read their motion. I doubt that many of them have done so. I repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. The expenditure of DEFRA is to increase from £3.5 billion this year to just under £4 billion by the end of the comprehensive spending review period. It is because of the macro-economic policies of the Government, opposed by the Conservatives, that we can increase expenditure in these areas, including, for example, the £121 million investment in the Pirbright laboratories that have been criticised today.

What cheered me up tonight was that the Conservatives have shown that they have not shed their oppositionalism and their mindset—their attitude of mind that condemns them to permanent opposition, because they will not put forward policy ideas that accept the responsibility that all Governments have—that is, to balance budgets. They describe the efforts of my right hon. Friend and his team to balance our budget as cuts. That is not an economic policy. It is the folly of opposition.

The speech from Mr. Ainsworth was rather disappointing. I was looking forward to it, but it was short on substance and full of knee-jerk press release language. My right hon. Friend will lead the United Kingdom delegation to the United Nations framework convention on climate change this weekend as one of the most respected internationalists and environmentalists in the world, a man of incredible integrity and intelligence, with a grasp of the detail of the brief, as we have seen tonight, that leaves Opposition Members wallowing in his wake. Above all else, despite all the criticism and the pressures that he has faced since he took office, he has remained his father's son, and shows a politeness that is a commendable quality in a leading politician. Contrast that with the points made by the Opposition.

Tonight's wisest comment came from my right hon. Friend Mr. Morley. He reminded us that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries was a throwback to the 1960s—although I would say the 1930s. Despite 18 years of government, the Conservatives never got rid of it. I have done my research, and should like to refer to the memoirs of the last Cabinet member for MAFF under the Conservative Government. The book, of course, relates to the rosy days of MAFF under the Tories. This is what Gillian Shephard wrote, "It was regarded by smart political commentators as dull and by other Departments as incomprehensible. The Minister was left alone for the most part. MAFF's budget is so small that it is hardly worth fighting over." She went on, "Much as I love the work of MAFF, its best friend could not claim that its policy issues were anything other than impenetrable, especially when they were being discussed in a crowded, steamed-up car on the way to Heathrow early in the morning." She gives us other insights.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No—the hon. Gentleman will especially like this bit. "Of course," Mrs. Shephard wrote, "relations between lobby groups and professional organisations did not always run smoothly. Many Ministers bear the scars of encounters with their enraged customers. Michael Jack"—Mr. Jack—"was my talented Minister of State. He had his fair share of upsets with the fishing community. He decided to meet the fishermen beforehand at Brixham and he arrived to find a huge and noisy demonstration. Flowers and eggs were thrown at him and he was covered with a pancake mixture. Nicholas Soames, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at MAFF, ran into difficulties with the badger conservation lobby."

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Environment), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Mr. Speaker, thank you for pulling me up. I commend the book to the House as a damning record of MAFF under the Conservative Government.

I contrast that book with the 2007 DEFRA national statistics book "The Environment in your Pocket", which is produced by independent statisticians—the very civil servants whom Conservative Members have condemned tonight. On every page, there is a record of success. Recycling in 1996-97 is compared with that in 2007, and it has increased from 51 to 88 per cent. Glass recycling has increased from 47 to 80 per cent. The recycling of tins and cans has increased from 34 to 68 per cent. Let us turn over the page to consider the impact of our climate change policy. Despite the Opposition's warnings, we are one of the few countries in the world that is on target to fulfil its Kyoto objectives. That is hardly the action of a Department that is unfit for purpose, as the Opposition claim. Other pages cover the wider environment, such as coastal and marine waters, which sustain our fish. In 1996, only 5 per cent. of fishing stocks were sustainably harvested. The figure has increased sevenfold under the Department's successful policies. On every page—


So it is admitted then that only 35% of fishing stocks are sustainable harvested. - Hardly good news for the future fishing stocks !

Submitted by Paul Dore

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Opposition Chief Whip (Commons)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 186, Noes 275.

Division number 21 Opposition Day — [3rd allotted day] — Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Aye: 187 MPs

No: 274 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 272, Noes 187.

Division number 22 Opposition Day — [3rd allotted day] — Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Aye: 272 MPs

No: 188 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House commends the Government on its swift and effective action to deal with four different disease outbreaks in England in 2007; welcomes the announcement on 8th October 2007 of an aid package to farmers worth £12.5 million through extra support to hill farmers, fallen stock collection, meat promotion and help for farming support charities; congratulates the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on its effective emergency planning arrangements in conjunction with the emergency services and local authorities to warn those at risk from the recent tidal surge and initiate precautionary evacuation; applauds the increase in spending on flood defences since 1997, a 30 per cent. increase in real terms to around £600 million, and the announcement that spending will rise to a maximum of £800 million by 2010-11; and further congratulates the Government for bringing together environment, rural affairs and food and farming under Defra to create a unified structure essential for the effective delivery of integrated Government policies across these issues.