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Does the Secretary of State agree that that reflects breathtaking complacency? In the dying days of this Parliament, will he produce a policy that has some zip and coherence and that people can respect?
Hilary Benn: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I must say that I profoundly disagree with what he has just said. In 1997, this Government inherited a household recycling rate of 8 per cent., but it is now 37 per cent., and I pay tribute to the work done over the past 13 years by local authorities and others to achieve that improvement. The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed that I recently launched a consultation on how we might make still further improvements, and there is even a suggestion that we should reach a point when, as a nation, we say that certain products will no longer be sent to landfill. I would hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that, if he is keen to get us as close as possible to achieving zero waste, which is my aim and that of the Opposition spokesmen.
In yesterday's Budget, the Government increased landfill tax, which we welcome because it will improve green disposal of waste, but how does the Secretary of State respond to the damning National Audit Office report and the finding that the Government have failed to set binding targets for business waste? There is six times more business waste than domestic waste, and the Government are failing to deal with it; they are completely missing their target.
Hilary Benn: I do not agree, because the rate for recycling commercial and industrial waste is higher than for household waste, not lower. When the last comprehensive survey was conducted in 2002, the recycling rate was approaching 50 per cent. There is no doubt in my mind that it is higher now, which is why we will undertake a further survey later this year. The hon. Lady will have seen the paper that we published on commercial and industrial waste. I have just launched a consultation on landfill bans, which are pretty darn ambitious and would apply to commercial and industrial waste, as they would to household waste.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): Although we have not made a specific assessment as requested by the hon. Gentleman, the financial viability of the agriculture sector is strong. Average farm business income across all farm types increased by 6 per cent. in 2008-09 and is expected to remain at similar levels for 2009-10. Although these are averages for all sizes, small and medium-sized farms would be expected to show the same year-to-year trends in income.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: My beautiful constituency of Macclesfield has many small and medium-sized family farms. Will the Government support the seven policy statements in the National Farmers Union manifesto, which I believe will bring about conditions in which family farms can improve both their production and their income and, thus, make a great contribution to the economy and food production in this country?
Jim Fitzpatrick: We recognise the invaluable contribution made to the rural economy by small and medium-sized farms, and we have already discussed the sector's importance this morning. We work closely with the NFU, and we are aware that it has produced this checklist of policies that it would expect political parties to consider in advance of the general election-obviously we will be doing just that.
Mr. Bain: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he share the concerns of constituents who have written to me to say that if the 2004 Act were repealed the only part of Britain that would have a ban on hunting foxes with hounds would be Scotland? Does he agree that this cruel and barbaric practice should be consigned to where it belongs-the scrap heap of history?
Hilary Benn: I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. I find it very hard to understand why it is the Opposition's policy to enable the repeal of the hunting ban, because that is not in line with public opinion. It would help in the process of understanding the policy being urged upon the Government if the Opposition could make it clear whether their policy also extends to allowing a return to stag hunting and hare coursing. I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition about this some time ago and I have not had the courtesy of a reply.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): Disposal of fallen stock by means of anaerobic digestion is not permitted under the EU Animal By-products Regulation 1774/2002. This is because of the animal and public health risk associated with such means of disposal.
Mr. Dunne: I thank the Minister for that reply. Last July, the Government set up an anaerobic digestion task group which, in conjunction with the Renewable Energy Association, recommended feed-in tariffs to encourage the use of anaerobic digestion for biogas electricity production. Those recommendations have been completely ignored by the Government. Instead of four bands, they have proposed two bands at a lower level. This will not provide sufficient encouragement-
Dan Norris: This is a new feed-in tariff, but capital allowances will deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises. May I take this opportunity, Mr. Speaker, to announce that today our implementation plan for anaerobic digestion will be published? The plan sets out how we will work with partners in the public and private sector to accelerate the uptake of anaerobic digestion in England. This will include things such as feed-in tariffs, anaerobic digestion programmes and other such elements.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Government are working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme-WRAP-to cut food waste through the "Love Food Hate Waste" campaign and the Courtauld commitment, and we are working with the Food Standards Agency to improve the understanding and use of guidance on food date labelling and storage.
Mr. Pelling: The pressure group Pig Business has highlighted that 4.1 million tonnes of food is wasted every year. In addition to the good work that the Government are doing, as listed by the Secretary of State, what work can be done with supermarkets to encourage a reduction in food waste?
Hilary Benn: A number of supermarkets are working very hard towards reducing that and towards sending no food waste to landfill. Indeed, I visited one of the nation's anaerobic digesters at the start of the week, and there were two great big piles of waste-one had come from supermarkets and stores and the other had come from households, principally in west London. That plant is generating about 2 MW of renewable energy, thereby turning a problem into an opportunity for the nation. That is why we need more of that, and the measures to which the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), has just referred will encourage a further increase in the number of anaerobic digester plants.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend next talks to food producers and packers, will he ask them to bear it in mind that an increasing number of us are living alone? It would be much easier to stop throwing food away if, for example, packets of bacon were reduced from eight rashers to just four rashers.
Hilary Benn: I agree completely with my hon. Friend. Another step that some supermarkets have taken is to move from "buy one get one free" offers to "buy one now, get one free later". That simple change gives the same benefit to the consumer and helps to reduce food waste, so I warmly encourage it.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): As this will be my last Question Time, may I thank the Secretary of State and his team of Ministers for the help that they have given to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? In that context, in our report on-
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): Rural economies are as diverse and, on average, as strong as their urban counterparts. All parts of Government are committed to supporting rural economies through mainstream departmental programmes. Those include £3.9 billion-worth of support to businesses and communities, from 2007 to 2013, from the rural development programme for England, as well as maintaining rural post offices through a £150 million annual network grant and providing £2.6 million in European recovery programme support for rural community broadband.
"the future viability of our rural communities is at risk if young people are unable to live and work"
Dan Norris: The rural advocate, who was, of course, appointed by the Prime Minister, was absolutely right to point out those concerns. I, too, represent a rural constituency, and it is clear to me that young people are being forced to move out because there is a lack of affordable homes in rural communities. Local authorities have to work with Government and other people within rural communities to provide that housing, but that simply is not happening.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): It is the Department's responsibility to enable us all to live within our environmental means. I am pleased to tell the House that I am today placing a copy of Sir John Lawton's progress report on his review of England's wildlife sites and ecological networks in the Library. The work is looking at all land, not just that which is currently designated, and will examine the opportunities to help land managers to restore and enrich England's natural environment using such things as biodiversity offsets, agri-environment schemes and other measures. I look forward to acting on Sir John's report when it is published in the summer.
Are Ministers a little disappointed that, out of the 43,000 miles of river in England and Wales,
fewer than 1,500 are open to canoeists, still? Given that the Welsh Assembly is thinking of following the Scottish model of opening access to the country's rivers completely, is there not a danger of England being left behind?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): First, may I commend my hon. Friend on his work to promote access for canoeists? We have had some useful meetings, and I can give him a commitment to bring together the various stakeholders-the Environment Agency, himself, the canoeing fraternity, anglers and others-to sit down and see what more we can do. We should approach this matter in partnership to make sure that we have biodiversity in our rivers, that our rivers are healthy and that there is good access to them.
Hilary Benn: We continue to work on effective means of diagnosis. The problem, as the hon. Lady will know, is that there is currently no reliable in-field test to identify it. On bovine TB, the House will, I am sure, want to know that the injectable badger vaccine has been approved by the veterinary medicines directorate. That means that the six demonstration projects on which I have previously reported to the House can now go ahead in the summer.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State join me in applauding the trail-blazing work of the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, whose methods for ensuring that business waste is used as a valued resource are now attracting attention from all over the world-and, indeed, exports? Will he ensure that the Treasury continues to enjoy the benefits of that input to the economy by not cutting that programme?
Hilary Benn: I echo everything that my hon. Friend has said about NISP. It is groundbreaking stuff. Any Member who wants to see just how good it is should look at its latest annual report, which is stuffed full of examples. For instance, under that programme, people with materials that they no longer need are brought together with those who want to make use of them. This really important work shows us the potential to make much more resource-efficient use of materials in the future. We will continue to support that.
T3.  Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This month, Natural England identified nearly 500 animals and plants that have become extinct in England in the past 200 years, including the gypsy moth and the great yellow bumblebee. Last week, at the international convention on endangered species, we failed to provide protection to the bluefin tuna. What advice does the Secretary of State give to his successors so that we can make more effective the protection of endangered species at home and abroad?
The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that we need to keep looking at the mechanisms on how we reach the right decisions for biodiversity, for the natural environment and for climate change, too, in
tackling those issues. I hope that he recognises that this Government have been at the forefront on not only the protection of bluefin tuna but other international welfare issues.
One of the encouraging things was that although Natural England's report, which the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights, showed the decline across a range of species, it also pinpointed our successes. It offered a note of optimism in that if we make the right decisions as a Government and collectively, we will make progress and will reverse the declines that we have seen in this country.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that DEFRA, when it is procuring advice and consultancy, should seriously consider the great work that is done by small charities such as Urban Mines, which I chair? Does he share my concern that the big commercial consultancies are often coming into that field, tendering and getting work for which they are much less well qualified?
Hilary Benn: In taking decisions about procurement for consultancy work-as we have already made clear, we will need to make savings on that-it is important that we take on the people who are best qualified to do the job of work.
T4.  Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has already raised the issue of biodiversity and the Government's approach to it. At the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission in June, it is feared that there will be a decision to reintroduce commercial whaling. If no consensus is reached by the European Union IWC members, all European member states will have to abstain. Can the Minister assure me that the UK will oppose the resumption of commercial whaling, even if it means breaking the informal European agreement to abstain, and vote against any proposal that would endorse any form of commercial whaling?
Huw Irranca-Davies: We are resolutely opposed to any form of commercial whaling-we always have been and always will be. Our position is clear: we oppose all forms of whaling other than limited whaling operations by indigenous people for clearly defined subsistence purposes. As we have reservations about the reform proposals, not least because there is no guarantee of a significant reduction in the number of whales killed and because they do not provide for a phasing out of either scientific or commercial whaling, I will be writing to and seeking a meeting urgently with the European Commission to ensure that any EU common position works in favour of whales rather than in favour of whalers.
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