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House of Commons

Thursday 2 April 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to reduce the quantity of discarded fish. [268324]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): We are committed to ensuring more sustainable fisheries by tackling the important issue of reducing discards. The UK fisheries departments are therefore funding a range of work on discards in collaboration with the fishing industry. Ultimately, however, the solution to the problem will be found at European level, and the UK will play a leading role in agreeing an overarching EU policy on the issue later this year.

Tim Loughton: When I go down to Worthing beach to see the last vestiges of the Worthing fishing fleet, and to buy my fresh cod and have it freshly filleted in front of me, I am all too often told, “We haven’t got any, but you should have seen all the ones that we had to throw away.” Is it not time that we got rid of the obscenity that is fish discarding, and piloted a scheme that at least allows fishermen to land some of their by-catch and be rewarded for part of it? We should incentivise fishermen with more environmentally friendly policies, and get a fair deal for Britain’s fishermen, fish-eaters and fish.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman supports the Government’s commitment to tackling the issue of discards. Undoubtedly, as I have maintained, it has always been the people who fill up their trolleys in the supermarkets and fishermen themselves who most hate the idea of discards. We have some innovative ways to tackle discards, including real-time closures, the conservation credit scheme, avoidance of spawning grounds and the high grading ban, of which I am sure he is aware. We will continue to work in the European Union to make sure that we have overarching policies to tackle the issue.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the increasing anger in the fishing industry on both sides of the border about the way in which the effort control measures agreed at the December Fisheries Council operate in practice. In the Scottish fishing fleet, there are real fears for the viability of the industry. He will also be aware of the
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innovative and imaginative approach that the industry in Scotland has taken to the sustainability of the fleet. Is he taking the case to Europe, and what does he expect to achieve?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I applaud my hon. Friend for the way in which he has represented, and continues to represent, the issues relating to ensuring a viable fishing industry in his constituency and elsewhere. He is right to say that his local fishermen have led the way, through the conservation credits scheme, and by coming up with some of the most innovative ways to avoid discards and to tackle the issue of the sustainable, viable use of the seas. We continue to have dialogue on the issue with Joe Borg, the European Commissioner. We knew that it was a tough ask of our fishermen to get the balance right for the year ahead, but my hon. Friend and I, and the rest of the House, agree that we have to achieve a sustainable fishery not only for the 12 months ahead, but for the next 10 years and for the long term.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I hope that the Minister will, as invited, visit my constituency and talk to the fishing industry. When he does, he will recognise that, by value, west Cornwall is the most important fishing area in the country within his domain. When he talks to the industry, will he reassure it that the under-10 m fleet will be permitted to have the under-10 m regulations kept under review, particularly with regard to the impact that they have on the unintended by-catch of fish?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for writing to me on the issue, and for representing the interests of the fishing community in Cadgwith and in other places along the shoreline in his area. There are two clear priorities for me this year as regards the fishing industry. The first is to make sure that the commitments that we made in the European Union in the December negotiations are met, and that we work with the industry to meet them. The second is the under-10 m fleet, which is so important to our coast. I encourage the fishermen from Cadgwith, the hon. Gentleman and others to engage with the industry-led advisory panel that we are setting up, because we want to ensure that the under-10 m fleet not only perseveres and holds on along the coast line, but has a viable future. It is vital that fishermen engage with us and talk about the wide remit of how we put them on course for a sustainable, long-term future.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): When looking at innovative ways of conserving fish stocks, I hope that the Minister will look closely at what has been done in Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands, which have used an alternative way of conserving fish. In the meantime, I know that he has a visit to my constituency pencilled into his diary. Will he look at the whiting quota? My guys on the east coast have already caught their whiting quota, and they will continue to discard whiting if additional quota is not released for them to use this year.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am looking forward to visiting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the near future. He is certainly right that one of the challenges that we face in how we organise fisheries policy in the EU is getting the balance right, so that we can fish throughout
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the year. We are in danger of exhausting stocks in the spring, but we also want our fishermen to fish in the autumn and winter. There are difficult choices to make, not only about whiting but about cod and other fish. We always continue to keep the matter under review. Together with the Marine and Fisheries Agency and our scientists, we continue to look at how things are going month by month. However, we cannot escape the fact—no Government can—that we have difficult issues of sustainability on our seas. As I have said, we want to make sure that we are fishing not just this year, but in the next 10, 20 and 100 years and more.


2. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What estimate he has made of the recent decline in the bee population; and what assessment he has made of the effect on levels of pollination on that decline. [268325]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): There are no reliable estimates on the number of honey bees in the UK, although there is consensus that the numbers have declined since the arrival of varroa in the early 1990s. No assessment has been made of the effect of that decline on pollination. I recently announced additional funding of £4.3 million for bee health, and that includes £2 million for research.

Richard Ottaway: The Secretary of State will be well aware that the economic benefit that agriculture derives from the bee population represents more than £100 million a year. There is widespread concern, not only in agriculture but in suburbs such as Croydon. He has committed funds to the issue, but will he set out more detail? May we have a strategy and a timetable? May we have something that will give confidence to beekeepers? In short, can he get his Department buzzing with activity?

Hilary Benn: The Department has already published its strategy for bee health, and we are doing a number of practical things. The additional funding that I have announced will allow more research to be undertaken. We are bringing together all those who fund research into bees and the diseases that affect them—varroa, foulbrood and nosema. I have also been talking to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, because one of the things that we need to do is encourage new treatments to come on to the market. One of the practical things that the VMD has done to make that happen is to reduce the fee that it would normally charge those who apply for authorisation for medicines; it recognises the need to search for all the treatments and try to get them on to the market as quickly as possible.

The third part of the funding that I have announced will allow more inspections. National Bee Unit inspectors are warmly welcomed by beekeepers when they visit, and they provide an important source of information that can feed back into our plan for dealing with this important problem.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Last Saturday, I attended the Welsh beekeepers’ convention at the Royal Welsh showground in Llanelwedd, where I met Karl Showler, a well known and well respected beekeeper from my constituency. I was told that more hives have survived and come through the winter in a good state than previously, so there is an element of optimism. However, if we are to deal with varroa in the long term, we will need a bee-breeding programme to
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encourage resistance to the disease. What is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to encourage a bee-breeding programme?

Hilary Benn: I am glad to hear about the meeting that the hon. Gentleman attended. One of the problems faced by bee populations is the weather, which has been pretty bad in the past two years. When there is bad weather and the spring comes, there is an impact. The purpose of the funders’ forum is to identify where there may be gaps in the research programme and make sure that the funding from the extra resources that we are putting in, and the other work being done on bee health, is applied to the important priorities, so that the problem is dealt with. The whole House recognises the importance of bees to our economy and to wildlife.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Another crucial pollinator is the butterfly, as I am sure the Secretary of State accepts. Butterflies have been declining for 20 years; six species have become extinct and 54 are in massive decline. Butterfly World is an enormous project in St. Albans. Will the Minister visit it and consider giving a similar amount of investment to ensuring the future of butterflies? If he could flutter up to us, we would be delighted to see him.

Hilary Benn: That is a tempting invitation. The hon. Lady has raised an extremely important point. We are putting a huge amount of money into trying to support biodiversity in our countryside. For example, agri-environment schemes, which have just celebrated their 21st anniversary, are all about supporting farmers in providing the kind of habitats in which a range of wildlife, including butterflies, can prosper.

Pitt Report

3. Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): How many of the recommendations made by Sir Michael Pitt in his final report, “Learning Lessons from the 2007 Floods”, have been implemented. [268326]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Government’s response to Sir Michael Pitt’s review in December 2008 set out what recommendations had already been implemented and what further steps were required. The Government will report on implementation every six months, beginning in June this year.

Mr. Stuart: One of the key recommendations of the Pitt review was the establishment of a Cabinet Committee to oversee flood prevention plans and strategies, yet we learned last month that the Committee has never even met. Thousands of my constituents were driven from their homes in 2007; many of them are traumatised every time they hear the sound of heavy rain. All they ask is that their Government do everything possible to ensure that such a catastrophe is less likely to happen again. Will the Minister confirm whether that Committee has met and, if not, when it will do so? Why are the Government not acting with greater urgency, and when will they take a grip of this issue?

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Hilary Benn: We have taken a grip of the issue; and the Cabinet Committee will meet when it needs to. The question is whether we are getting on and doing what is required. I want to update the House: since the floods of 2007, we have completed 55 flood defence schemes that have protected 37,147 homes, which shows a Government who are getting on with it in order to protect people. I also inform the House that yesterday the flood forecasting centre, which was one of the recommendations of Michael Pitt’s report, started operation, bringing together the Met Office and the Environment Agency. We are on track to publish the draft floods and water Bill in the spring. We have signed the first six contracts for surface water management plans with Hull, Gloucestershire, Leeds, Warrington, Richmond upon Thames and West Berkshire. We have had 100 applications for the household flood protection grant scheme. We have agreed three demonstration projects that will look at how land management might be able to help us to manage flood risk. That record shows the Government taking the matter seriously, getting on, and making things happen.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Environment Agency in my constituency, which, following the floods of 2005, has done a magnificent job of building flood defences? Three quarters of the city is now protected, and it was done on time and on budget. However, coming back to the Pitt report, the really important thing is protecting public utilities—the electricity supply, the fresh water supply and the waste water supply. Is that work being done?

Hilary Benn: The short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes. A programme of work is under way. As I previously reported to the House, one example of that is the purchase by the national grid of moveable defences that can be taken to particular parts of the network that might be at risk. The flood forecasting centre is all about giving better warnings and greater accuracy about where there will be a problem, so that people are forewarned, prepared and can respond.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about the Environment Agency. I know that his constituents suffered grievously in the terrible floods. It is right and proper that, as well as recognising that we need to do more, the House wants to say thank you to the agency’s staff, because the 55 flood defence schemes and 37,000 homes that have been protected since the summer of 2007 are down to their hard work.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The question is about how many of the Pitt report’s recommendations have been implemented, so I hope that the Secretary of State will not be coy and will tell us. Following the question by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), will he also confirm that the programme of work that the Environment Agency has agreed with the water companies to protect the critical infrastructure from flooding this spring—before the publication of the Bill—will not be thwarted by any outside body?

Hilary Benn: I do not know what outside body the hon. Lady is referring to. I take very seriously the responsibility to ensure that critical infrastructure is properly protected, as do the water companies and the Environment Agency.

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As for progress on the implementation of Pitt’s recommendations, the hon. Lady will see what we published in December, and she will see the first progress report when it is published in June. [ Interruption. ] I am happy to write to her with further details, if that is what she wants. I have just provided an update on a range of things that have happened since I last reported to the House, and we will carry on implementing Sir Michael Pitt’s recommendations. As she will be only too well aware, he himself has expressed satisfaction at the progress that we are making.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Have all the householders affected by the 2007 flooding been able since then to get adequate insurance for their properties? Eight years ago, when some 200 households were affected by flooding in Keighley, people had real problems in getting renewed insurance. Because of the good work of the Environment Agency, that has all been put right, and they now have insurance.

Hilary Benn: I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend that that is the case. The circumstances of individual householders will depend on the case and the approach that insurance companies take, but the single most important thing that we did to ensure the continued availability of insurance was to renew the statement of principles with the Association of British Insurers representing the insurance industry. The deal is the continued provision of insurance in return for the increased investment that the Government are putting into flood defence. That is the single most important step that we can take, and that increased investment has allowed me to report that we have completed 55 new schemes since the summer of 2007.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): How many of the recommendations implemented will relieve the threat of flooding to farmland? Given that the 2007 floods saw 42,000 hectares of farmland flooded and therefore unusable for a significant period of time, and that demand for food across the world will double in the next 20 years, does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot allow productive agricultural land to be squandered in that way again?

Hilary Benn: Nobody wants to see productive agricultural land squandered, but in the end there has to be a system of prioritisation. This point has been the subject of debate, and indeed, I was expecting the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) to raise the matter, because we have discussed it. We need a scheme of prioritisation that balances the value of the assets that we seek to protect, the density or sparsity of population, the value of the agricultural land and the number of homes that can be protected. One can cut the prioritisation system a lot of different ways, but the most important thing that we can do to protect more property and, where possible, agricultural land is to increase investment, which is what we are doing.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I face the difficulty that the previous question almost got to the point that I want to make; let me press the Secretary of State. An important part of our consideration of the flooding of agricultural land is the hydraulic survey of the Humber basin, the Trent and the Tame, which will shortly be
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available. What is the Secretary of State doing to work with authorities that do not suffer flooding in their areas, but that must make preparations to absorb water before it goes down the river basin, flooding property and families further down the river? That is important; when will we get the details, and when will the Secretary of State give us the priorities for the work that needs to be done for future flooding areas?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the way in which we look at the problem. The whole purpose of the catchment flood management plans is to do precisely what he asks, which is to look at a catchment, see where water will come from and where it might flow, and understand what the consequences might be for flooding, so that we can bring everything together and take the right decisions on that basis. A number of plans are being developed involving the East Riding and the Humber, which I know is the subject of some controversy—the Environment Agency has said that it will consult further on the area represented by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness. But we have to look at the matter on a catchment area basis, so that we can work out where the water will go, how we can manage it and how we can protect as many homes as possible.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a curse of our modern times that while Sir Michael Pitt can warn us about the severe risk of dangerous, life-threatening flooding, the Government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, can also warn us about severe, dangerous, life-threatening droughts. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in trying to meet both those serious challenges, our reservoirs, our inland waterways and the terrific asset of our network of canals might be part of the solution for the future?

Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend is right. One of the tasks that we all face is preparing for a future in which, in some places and at some times, there is too much water and, in other places at other times, there is not enough. The warning of Professor Beddington is extremely timely, and it makes the point that in adapting to the changing climate, which is with us whatever happens while we try to avoid making the problem worse—that is why the meeting at Copenhagen at the end of this year is so important—we must use all means at our disposal to ensure that we conserve and use water as effectively as possible. We have taken it for granted for too long; we have to protect and conserve it much better in future.

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