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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 2nd April 2009.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 10:30 am, 2nd April 2009

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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

DEFRA's responsibility is to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I wish to inform the House that, from yesterday, only timber from independently verified legal and sustainable sources, or from a licensed forest law enforcement, governance and trade partner, will be used on the Government estate. I have also launched a consultation on how to toughen the proposed European legislation on tackling illegal logging. We believe that there should be an EU-wide prohibition on placing illegally produced timber on the market. I am sure that the House will also want to welcome the establishment of the South Downs national park.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The Secretary of State said earlier that no one wanted to squander productive farmland. Why, then, is his Department pushing for compulsory set-aside? Is it because its only public service agreement deals with environmental matters? Is that why food and people never get a look-in at his Department when it comes to the policy crunch?

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

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fundamentally disagree with what he has just said. It is not the case that food and people do not get a look-in. The problem in relation to set-aside is that it was introduced as a production control measure, it brought environmental benefits, and it now needs to be updated. Going back to the question about butterflies raised by Anne Main, we need to examine how we can continue to derive those environmental benefits from the way in which the land is managed. As I said to the National Farmers Union conference, I do not have an ideological view on how we do that. I welcome the fact that the NFU and others are now looking at a voluntary scheme, and we are now consulting on that. I would encourage everyone to respond to the consultation.

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Photo of Jim Devine Jim Devine Labour, Livingston

My right hon. Friend recently visited Nairobi. Will he report to the House what he learned on that visit?

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

We discussed a number of the questions that we have been debating this morning, but the single most important outcome of the meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme Ministers in Nairobi was our agreement to negotiate a deal on tackling mercury. The problem of mercury pollution is felt in many parts of the world. Indeed, I learned at first hand that traces of mercury are now being recorded by the monitoring equipment in Antarctica. This is why we need organisations such as UNEP: if we come together as a world, we can negotiate agreements to deal with environmental problems.

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Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Secretary of State for International Development

In recent days, there have been some suggestions of introducing some flexibility into the new regulations on the electronic identification of sheep. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, and does he recognise that there is now an urgent crisis in the hill farms of the UK, which the regulations will make much worse?

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

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that I share the concern that he and many right hon. and hon. Members have expressed. He will also know that, as a result of our efforts, we have already made some progress on easing the impact of those regulations. I am glad to say that at the last Agriculture Council eight countries spoke up, including the UK, to express concern, whereas previously we were part of a smaller group, so the message is spreading. The visit that Commission officials paid to the UK was important, because the Agriculture Commissioner said at the recent Council meeting that he intended to consider what further steps might be taken to ease the impact of implementation. We are putting a number of suggestions to the Commission, so I hope that we can make further progress, because it is very important that we do.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

My right hon. Friend is proposing six trial areas for wildlife vaccination against bovine tuberculosis. It would be useful to know what criteria will be applied to those trials and when they will be published. Will my right hon. Friend take from me a commendation that in this regard, we are basing what we are doing on sound science—unlike some of the other proposals currently doing the rounds?

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. Clearly, we are looking to run the six demonstration projects in the areas with the highest incidence of bovine TB, a terrible disease that is having an awful effect. The fact that we have an injectable vaccine, which we hope will be available from next summer, provides us with some means to try and deal with the problem. On a visit to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency last week, I met the team working on developing the vaccine: those people are very committed and very expert. I welcome the positive response of the farming community to this announcement, because, all being well next year, we will have some means of dealing with the problem of infection in wildlife.

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Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

DEFRA now claims that the target to halt biodiversity loss by next year was never realistically achievable. In that case, why did Ministers agree to it? The concern now is that the Government will do what they always do when they miss their own targets—make an excuse and change them. Three hundred and eighty-six of the Government's sub-targets for biodiversity—that is nine out of 10—have been missed, so can the Secretary of State explain that dismal performance?

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

The setting of what was a very ambitious target was welcomed by very many bodies, including green non-governmental organisations, which recognised that although it was ambitious, it was the right thing to strive for. We now need to focus on the resetting of a target that is both ambitious and realistic, which is to be welcomed. In terms of biodiversity, we are taking relevant steps in all our six priorities. About 88 per cent. of sites of special scientific interest are in favourable or recovering conditions; the agri-environment schemes that I know are close to all our hearts are making good progress; we have introduced the Marine and Coastal Access Bill; and we have funded new international work of more than £8 million on the Darwin initiative. We are thus making good progress, but we know that there is more to do.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

To return to the Environment Agency's statement on water metering, does my right hon. Friend agree that the public's understanding of the need for water conservation is a long way behind their understanding of the need for energy conservation? Is there more work that the Government need to do on that? Secondly—

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment)

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is much more to do to ensure that companies and the public at large recognise the value of water. Everybody refers to it as a public asset that literally falls from the skies, but it has a value, and its value is relevant to some of our big objectives, including how we deal with climate change. We are all looking forward to the results of Anna Walker's review, which looks into issues of affordability, metering, tariffs and so forth. I think that it will help to guide proper evidence-based decision making. My hon. Friend thus raises a vital point.

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Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

Pursuant to the question of Mr. Drew, the announcement on the inoculation of badgers was silent about what would happen if diseased badgers—diseased with bovine TB—were found. What does the Secretary of State plan to do to ensure that those diseased animals are removed from wildlife?

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

Many people have raised that point, and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for pursuing it. However, it is not as easy as some people say to establish which badgers have TB and which do not. There is no reliable in-field test to answer that question, which is why the injectable demonstration project is so important. Every badger that is caught can be inoculated, and that will, over time, reduce the burden of the disease on those badgers. The animal welfare legislation makes clear what people should and should not do if any animal is obviously in a very distressed state.

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

We rightly have high animal welfare standards in this country, and I would not wish them to be lowered, but is it not rather unfair to our farmers that so much food is imported from countries outside the European Union whose animal welfare standards are far less stringent than ours? What can the Government do to redress that unfairness?

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

I think the House should welcome the fact that we have such high animal welfare standards. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes that view. We have, for example, the freedom food assurance scheme—sponsored by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—which goes beyond the legal requirements, and we have seen a rising demand for free-range eggs in recent years.

The World Trade Organisation's rules do not allow for discrimination on the basis of the system of production. I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's very important question is that we should ensure that the public have more information about the way in which the food is produced, so that they can support higher welfare standards through their choice of what to buy.

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J

I appreciate Hilary Benn's answer "The World Trade Organisation's rules do not allow for discrimination on the basis of the system of production." but it begs the question of infection and sub standards being allowed to override or infiltrate-to quote "the fact that we have such high animal welfare standards." Why are you not `naming and shaming' countries and governments in order, to quote "ensure that the public have more information about the way in which the food is...

Submitted by JOHN DUNCAN Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

Given the importance of upland hill farmers to our biodiversity in Britain, and given that 85 in 100 hill farmers across the United Kingdom have no likely successors, would Ministers be willing to meet colleagues from Scotland, Wales and England to discuss a hill farm apprenticeship scheme, so that we can not only preserve employment in the uplands but protect the biodiversity of this wonderful country?

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

I should be extremely happy to have such a meeting. In fact, when I leave the House today I shall go to a round-table meeting that I have convened to discuss the question of skills and the future of agriculture and horticulture, and I shall raise the hon. Gentleman's suggestion there.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the support that we are providing through the upland entry level scheme which will replace the hill farm allowance. We published the proposals recently after a good deal of consultation. I am grateful to all who contributed to that consultation. I am also grateful for the warm welcome that the announcement received, because it is a demonstration of the Government's commitment to look after the land and the people who work on it.

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