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Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 31st January 2008.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland) 10:30 am, 31st January 2008

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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

The Department's responsibility is to help to enable us all to live within our environmental means. May I take this opportunity to report to the House the fact that Adair Turner has been appointed chair of the new Committee on Climate Change? As the House will know, the committee will play a vital role in helping us to move to a low-carbon economy, and I look forward to working with Lord Turner and the other members of the committee in helping to make that happen.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

For Environment Agency purposes, my constituency of Tewkesbury falls within the midlands. I was rather disturbed to see that the Government's flood defence grant in aid to the Environment Agency for the midlands is being reduced from £51.4 million last year to £45.5 million this year, and to £40 million next year. Can the Secretary of State give an explanation for that? The midlands is a large area, and he has been kind enough to visit Tewkesbury to see the devastation there, so can he guarantee that our flood defences will not suffer because of that budget change?

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

I know how much the hon. Gentleman's constituents have been affected. Although the flooding in Tewkesbury was mercifully not as bad as it was last summer, we were all waiting with bated breath to see what happened.

The main point about investment in flood defence and regional figures is that the figures may go up or down from year to year depending on the nature of the projects being funded. When a big capital investment project in a region in one year is finished and the money has been spent, the figure in the following year may not be as large. The trend line is clear, however. It is not possible to increase the budget, as we have, from £300 million to £600 million over a decade, and to be committed to increasing it to £800 million by 2010-11, without the trend line rising. There will be such ebbs and flows, but the overall trend is up, which means—as I said a moment ago—that we will be able to fund the additional flood defence works that we all want.

Photo of Mark Todd Mark Todd Labour, South Derbyshire

The Trent, Dove and Derwent rivers all cross parts of my constituency, and every time the waters rise villages along their banks look on with anxiety. What are the prospects of further investment to meet some of their needs? I am thinking particularly of communities in villages such as Hatton—which has benefited from spending of some substance so far—and Scropton, Egginton, Willington and Ambaston. All those villages are threatened by flooding, and experienced it in 2000.

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

The catchment flood management plan for the Trent has identified a low-to-medium risk of flooding in the lower River Dove catchment area, which includes Hatton, Scropton and Egginton. In response to that, the planners will think about what flood risk management measures will be possible over the next three years. They will deliver a plan for the lower Dove area specifically, to establish first what is technically possible and secondly what is best in economic terms, while recognising that ultimately the Environment Agency must prioritise the increasing amounts of money that we are providing in order to deliver the maximum possible protection.

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

According to information published by the National Audit Office this week, the estimated cost to all of us, as taxpayers, of cleaning up Britain's existing nuclear waste has risen by 18 per cent. over the past two years, to a staggering £73 billion. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the body responsible for decommissioning, which has had no chairman since the middle of last year and which last week lost a senior director, is fit for purpose? Does he not agree that whatever the low-carbon merits of nuclear—and goodness me, we need low-carbon technologies: the carbon figures announced by the Department today are depressing—going ahead with nuclear new build without having sorted out the toxic legacy of the past would be irresponsible?

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

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the decommissioning authority. It has a very important task, and I have confidence in the work that it is doing. As for nuclear, the choice is very plain. A number of people's views on nuclear have changed because of the threat of climate change. The one thing that is absolutely clear about it is that it is a low-carbon technology, producing—I speak from memory—7 g to 22 g of carbon per kWh. Gas produces about 380 g per kWh, and coal about 755 g. There really is no contest. Waste is an issue, but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we must deal with the legacy of waste from our existing nuclear programme anyway. It will be added to if new nuclear power stations are built in line with the policy that the Government have set out.

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

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I was going to change the subject to Natural England, which was established less than 18 months ago to be

"a powerful new champion of nature".

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Department is seeking cuts of more than 15 per cent. in its core budget? That will create huge problems for partner organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife International and the Wildlife Trust. Those bodies have no idea what key projects they will still be able to work on after the end of March. How will this shambolic situation help the Government to fulfil their commitment to halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2010? How confident is the Secretary of State that that promise will be kept?

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

This week I met the chair and chief executive of Natural England to review the organisation's performance since its establishment. As I told them, I think they have done a pretty darn good job. There has, for example, been real progress in getting sites of special scientific interest into the right condition, which is one of the targets that we set. I applaud the work done by Natural England, which has proved itself to be a powerful advocate of the cause of biodiversity and the natural environment.

On funding, we will make announcements about the budget in due course. The budget is tight because, although there is growth, a lot of that will go on increased investment in flood defences, so difficult decisions will have to be taken. When I have taken them, I will announce them.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz PPS (David Cairns, Minister of State), Scotland Office

Elsewhere in Parliament, the Department has an exhibition about the excellent work it is doing to promote public awareness of climate change. Why, however, are some of the Department's programmes promoting awareness restricted to England, or England and Wales? I urge my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to ensure that they apply throughout the UK, where appropriate—and, obviously, in association with the relevant devolved Administrations.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Climate Change, Biodiversity and Waste)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, not least for the advertisement for the "act on CO2 calculator", which is available in Portcullis House until 5 o'clock today for Members to test their carbon footprints.

As for making such material available, on the internet it is accessible to everybody. Therefore, constituents in Scotland will have had the opportunity to access it, and all Members could publicise it. Also, there is press advertising, which is of course seen in the devolved Administration areas. We have spoken to our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. This material is extremely important, as more than 40 per cent. of our emissions are down to our individual actions, and we have suggested that it may be made available for public engagement in the devolved areas. If the devolved Administrations are willing to contribute to, and participate in, these schemes, we would be delighted to co-operate with them and make our expertise available.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

In the light of the latest scientific evidence on the speed of climate change, what is Ministers' latest assessment of the adequacy, or otherwise, of a 60 per cent. CO2 reduction target?

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

The hon. Gentleman will have seen the speech that the Prime Minister made in November. The target of at least 60 per cent. was set in the light of royal commission advice, but the Prime Minister has acknowledged, as we all do, that the science is evolving—we read the reports—and that is why he said that it is now felt that the reduction might need to be increased to 80 per cent. That is also why we will ask the Committee on Climate Change, as one of its first tasks under its new chair, to advise on what the 2050 figure should be. On a point that relates to several issues to do with the Climate Change Bill, having established this important, authoritative and influential body, we should let it do its job and give us the advice, so that the Government can then take the final decision on what to do.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might be interested to know that I spent last Saturday at an event in Cardiff on giving opportunities to the public to participate in discussion about the idea of a carbon trading allowance, and on seeing what contribution that that could make, as an alternative to measures such as taxation, to encourage individual responsibility in reducing people's carbon footprint. Does the Department welcome that approach by the RSA—the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—and also by the Co-operative party, to encourage individuals to engage in the idea of creating carbon-neutral communities?

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Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Climate Change, Biodiversity and Waste)

My right hon. Friend raises a good point. The RSA is a valuable body in this respect and it is involved in work on personal carbon trading allowances. The Department is keen to receive the results of the RSA's work, and we are pioneering work to see whether there is cost-benefit in having personal carbon trading allowances and whether there would be public acceptability. This is all in its early stages, but in addition we are providing £8.5 million-worth of grants to local communities, and 83 community projects have been established, which are very much in line with what the RSA and the Co-operative party have advocated: that we should enable communities to take action to reduce emissions at community level.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, International Development

I hear what the Secretary of State says about increased resources to combat flooding. Given that flooding will be a more and more pressing issue in the years to come, what reassurance can he give my constituents in Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, who have been regularly blighted by flooding in recent years, that the resources allocated on a UK basis will be spent north of the border on such projects, so that Murrayfield is not flooded on Sunday when the French visit?

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

I wish the team every success in the match on Sunday. All Members of the House want to ensure that the increased investment in flood and flood defence is used as effectively as possible to provide the best protection possible. That puts a responsibility on those spending the money to use it as wisely and effectively as possible, so that protection is provided in recognition of the rising risk. The hon. Gentleman touches on a good example.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory Conservative, Wells

What is the Department doing to counter light pollution? If one flies over southern England at night, one finds the place ablaze with unnecessary lighting, which is not only very wasteful but prevents people from seeing properly dark skies. I say that as chairman of the all-party group on astronomy. What are Ministers doing to counter the threat—and, indeed the reality—of light pollution, because, after all, the skies are the largest part of the environment, for which the Department is responsible?

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Marine, Landscape and Rural Affairs) and Minister for the South East), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful for that question, and the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. On the one hand our constituents write to us saying that more street lights are needed in a particular area because they are concerned about antisocial behaviour and so on, but on the other hand, as he points out, we want to see clear skies. Thus, this is about the getting the balance right. If we can reduce the amount of light pollution, that will be good not only for astronomers but in terms of climate change.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

My mother will be a beneficiary of the splendid idea to award medals for Land Army girls. Now that the forms have been issued, will the Minister or the Secretary of State share with the House how vigorously the information will be interpreted, given that these ladies are of mature years and their sight, hearing and memory are not exactly what they were 60 years ago?

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

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman's mother will be one of the recipients of the badge. May I say that all of us, as Members of the House, have a part to play in ensuring that the information gets out? Here is a little advert: 08459 33 55 77 is the phone number people should call to get an application form—they can also get one from the website. I absolutely take the point that he raises, because I want to get the badge to all the surviving members of the women's Land Army, who did so much for the country. They fought in the fields and in the forests to ensure that we were capable of winning the war. We owe them a big debt of gratitude, and the badge will be a sign of a grateful nation.

M

I agree with the setiments expressed and as a Bevin Boy know the problems of accessing the initial contact to obtain that vital Application Form.
It would have been a great help if a contact phone number had been issued at the same time as the original announcement.
I am pleased to say that I have downloaded the form from "Defra" and helped a dear friend complete her application for the LAND ARMY BADGE.
M.W.P

Submitted by Morris Pearce

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Will the Secretary of State tell us what steps the Government will take to make a vaccine against bluetongue available for this year?

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

I can gladly tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have placed an order for 22.5 million such doses—indeed, we were the first of the northern European countries to place an order. We are working closely with the industry. I met the industry representatives last week to talk about preparations for the vaccination programme. Obviously, we are keen to get that going as soon as the vaccine is delivered by the company with which we have contracted, because, as he will know only too well, this is the way out of the problems that the industry is facing because of bluetongue's arrival.