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7. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): What progress her Department is making in making Britain's beaches cleaner. [55120]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We have made excellent progress in making Britain's beaches cleaner, with a record 95 per cent. of UK beaches complying with the European bathing water directive last year. Compliance in England is even better, with 98 per cent. of bathing waters complying in 2001. Further improvements to meet higher standards will include action to reduce diffuse pollution from agriculture.

Shona McIsaac: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Cleethorpes beach recently won a prestigious seaside award in recognition of its cleanliness? Will he extend his praise to all who worked so tirelessly to that end? I know that he visited Cleethorpes back in 1997; what plans has he to visit my wonderful beach again to see how effective his Department's investment has been in creating one of Britain's best beaches?

Hon. Members: Answer!

Mr. Meacher: That is a very difficult question. Obviously, I sincerely congratulate Cleethorpes and the other towns that have achieved those extremely pleasing results, which are the consequence of a great deal of work by a wide range of partnerships. I will try to arrange a visit to Cleethorpes.

The biggest cleanliness problem for the UK was Blackpool, and in a rather rash moment several years ago, I did say that when it passed on all counts, I would go up there, don my bathing trunks and plunge into the sea. I was rather alarmed to find out that, last year, that is exactly what happened, so this year I am looking forward to a bathe—at Blackpool, if not at Cleethorpes.

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The subject causes much mirth and merriment, but there is a serious point. By 2005, as a result of successive periodic reviews, we will have invested more than £5 billion in cleaning up rivers and beaches in this country. We should all be proud that the waters—seas, lakes and rivers—in this country are the cleanest since before the industrial revolution.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Minister aware that Hunstanton—or Hun'ston, as the locals call it—also has an extremely clean beach and, incidentally, that it is a much nicer place than Cleethorpes? I hope that he will find time to visit Hunstanton and to pay tribute to the local staff, who played a very important role in the beach's winning several awards. Does he agree that this country's beaches would be cleaner still if we made greater use of renewable energy? Does he also agree that, although the offshore wind farm applications for the Wash are good news, they must be balanced against the interests of fisheries?

Mr. Meacher: I am getting a little alarmed by the number of places that I am expected to visit in order to plunge into the sea, but the hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to a very successful effort in his constituency. On balancing the interests—a point that relates to an earlier question—I strongly support offshore wind farms and the principle of offshore development of renewable energy, so long as such wind farms are carefully sited and careful consideration is given to balancing the interests involved. Such development has a major contribution to make.

I think that the first application for a major offshore wind development was at Scroby bank—

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Sands.

Mr. Meacher: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend; it is always helpful to have present hon. Members from all over the country who can offer corrections. The development at Scroby sands was the first, but there will certainly be many others. They contribute to the increase in renewable energy that we want to see, but I doubt whether they have much effect on the quality of beach waters. The big issue that we must now deal with is agricultural diffuse pollution, and that is what we are doing.

Compost Heaps

8. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): If she will exempt domestic compost heaps from licensing requirements; and if she will make a statement. [55121]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The waste management licensing requirements under section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 do not apply to householders dealing with their own household waste, including domestic compost heaps, on their own property.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for that answer. I was going to suggest that he might care to make a ministerial visit to a compost heap, on top of all the coastal duties that he has to perform. It is obviously good news that hordes of local authority inspectors will not be

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wandering around looking at domestic compost heaps in an effort to define a compost heap, difficult though that would be. However, will my right hon. Friend encourage local authorities to give advice to householders on how to make compost heaps, because they are the best form of recycling of green waste? It is simple, easy to do and does not cost anything. Will he also see what his Department can do to encourage local authorities to provide composting bins free or at very low cost, so that food waste can be composted free of the danger of attracting vermin, which happens when people put food waste on a normal compost heap? If the Minister wishes to see a compost heap, I am sure that many hon. Members could assist him.

Mr. Meacher: I can assure my hon. Friend that I make a weekly, if not more frequent, visit to my own composting heap. He is right to say that composting is important. The whole thrust of the Government's waste management strategy is to have a major increase in recycling, reuse and recovery, and that certainly includes composting. It is a way to gain better value from biodegradable waste. It improves soil quality and replaces non-renewable products such as peat. I am keen that local authorities should understand the potential and provide advice and support to people. I am also keen that a standard should be agreed between the Waste and Resources Action Programme, the Environment Agency and the Composting Association, because that would create a real market for organic waste-derived products.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): If the Minister would care to join me on Sunday on my allotment he would see the importance of compost to Fylde allotment holders as a key ingredient to successful growing. However, he would also see in vivid terms the difficulty that Fylde and many other local authorities have in providing sufficient resources to sustain and develop the allotments of which they are the stewards. Will he review the support that is given to local authorities to ensure that our allotments remain attractive and not the subject of land sell-offs?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Meacher: I can feel widespread support for me to travel the country in my bathing trunks, carrying my gardening togs. I support the right hon. Gentleman's wish for allotments to be encouraged and, indeed, composting should take place on all well-kept allotments. If he is aware of particular problems, I would be glad to investigate them, because composting can play a major part in the Government's recycling and waste management strategy.

Tail Docking

9. Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): When she will bring forward legislation to outlaw the unnecessary docking of animals' tails. [55122]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): We have just completed a consultation exercise on animal welfare law and know that there is considerable concern

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about the practice of tail docking of dogs. We are now considering whether any changes need to be made to the law.

Mr. Bryant: I do not wish to hound the Minister on this point, but is not the practice of cutting dogs' tails off purely for cosmetic reasons unnecessary and barbaric? Is not it time that we acceded to the European convention on the protection of pet animals and gave dogs back their right to wag?

Alun Michael: I shall not refer to the dogged determination with which my hon. Friend pursues his point. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' code of professional conduct states that docking should not be carried out except for therapeutic reasons or to protect the dog from disease or injury. Given the prevalence of dogs with docked tails, it would appear that the royal college's guidance is not being followed uniformly by the profession, and that is one of the issues that we will consider as the outcome of the consultation is considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

10. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): If she will make a statement on the introduction of nitrate vulnerable zones. [55123]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): We are currently considering the responses made by individuals and organisations to our recent

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consultation paper, before taking a decision on how best to implement the nitrates directive in England. I hope to announce a decision shortly.

Paddy Tipping: I accept that the 1991 directive needs to be implemented more comprehensively and there are strong arguments for 100 per cent. coverage across England. Given that, however, will my right hon. Friend do what he can to help farmers and landowners by allowing them sufficient time to resolve the planning issues and to construct storage? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend maintain and extend the existing grants system?

Mr. Meacher: We certainly will do what we can to give assistance, and to allow as much time as possible. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the directive went through in 1991. We are subject to infraction proceedings if we do not implement it in full, and non-compliance fines could run as high as £135,000 a day.

Those constraints are unavoidable, and we have delayed implementation as long as possible over a period in which agriculture has been hit by foot and mouth, but we now risk fines and therefore have to act. However, the first closed period for spreading certain organic manures on vulnerable soils will not begin until the autumn of next year.

My hon. Friend asked about assistance. To assist farmers—especially intensive livestock and dairy farmers—we have put in place the farm waste grants scheme, which covers up to 40 per cent. of costs, to a maximum of £85,000. That will go a long way towards assisting farmers in this difficult situation.

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