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26 Oct 2010 : Column 42WH—continued

I want as far as possible not to get drawn into the broader macro-economic issues, because that would not be a good use of our time at this point, but I would not want the case to go by default. As a result of the
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spending pattern that this Government inherited from the previous Government, we have, during this debate, borrowed another £24 million, and will borrow an extra £150 billion by the end of the year. That is the background to the position in which we find ourselves, and which, of course, underpins the more local concerns of many who have spoken in the debate.

On 19 July, I was happy to respond to an Adjournment debate on precisely this topic. I say to the hon. Member for Wigan, whom I do not think was able to attend July's debate, that the Government, now as then, remain supportive of the continuing need for land-based remediation, strongly support the important community-led regeneration projects, and remain committed to helping people and communities to work together to tackle local problems and support local enterprise, particularly in the former coalfields.

That previous debate centred around, or at least took very much into consideration, the report of the Public Accounts Committee. I say this very gently, because I am extremely supportive of the points that hon. Members have made, but there have been problems delivering the programme. It is a little bit like the young man at the casino who sends a text message saying, "System working well. Send more money." We have heard that the output has not been the jobs that are needed, and we need to look hard at that. From that point of view, the review of coalfields regeneration by Michael Clapham is an outstandingly useful contribution to forming our view about what should happen next.

I have met Michael Clapham and other members of the all-party coalfield communities group since July's debate. We agreed to meet again in January next year, because then, knowing the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, we would be in a position to consider Michael Clapham's report and the allocation of departmental funding. I hope that we can proceed on that timetable.

I do not want to use up my time by rehearsing the report's contents, but it clearly identifies problems on the ground and issues to do with delivery and contains some recommendations for the way ahead. Hon. Members have mentioned different parts of the report.

Barbara Keeley: A great deal has been said in this debate, including by me, about the difficulties with funding from local authorities, and about the possible loss of voluntary organisations. We heard about the impact in Makerfield of the work of the citizens advice bureaux. Given the timetable that the Minister mentioned, will he say whether a watching brief can be kept to ensure that we do not, in the period till January, lose any of the vital voluntary and community organisations that underpin and hold together the work in coalfield communities?

Andrew Stunell: I would not want the January meeting to be regarded as the earliest time at which it is possible for us to make an announcement. I take account of what the hon. Lady says. I would share her concerns if delay in making an announcement led to problems that could otherwise be avoided. I hope that I may, in my last 30 seconds, add something that will help her in at least one respect.

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The Government welcome the Clapham report and agree that, often, local authorities working with local people know best what the particular needs are in their area. This Government's strong, consistent message is that it is the people in a locality or neighbourhood who most often appreciate what the problems are and what the potential solutions might be, rather than people located more remotely, particularly in Whitehall.

The Government are keen to drive forward coalfields regeneration. We believe that a bottom-up, community-focused approach should be central to the next phase of coalfields regeneration. We are carefully considering the recommendations and hope to respond formally in November. As agreed, the full published report is already on the Department for Communities and Local Government website. For some reason, there was serious concern in July that we would keep it secret. We have no intention of doing that.

Hon. Members know that the spending review has been challenging. Over the next four years, DCLG's overall resource will reduce by 33%, with capital spending reduced by 74%. Alongside this, we are devolving more than £7.6 billion directly to local government to set its own priorities. We are giving more flexibility to local government. We are delivering 150,000 new affordable homes and protecting the Supporting People programme, importing an extra £1 billion into it from the NHS. We are investing £1.7 billion in regeneration and local economic development over the next four years.

One or two hon. Members mentioned young people's capacity and ambition, and opportunities for them. The introduction of the pupil premium will be a significant step forward that will help young people in communities such as the ones that we are talking about.

Joan Walley: My concern, which I raised earlier, is that the coalfields programme is about more than the Coalfields Regeneration Trust; it is about the national coalfield programme per se, including the part delivered by the Homes and Communities Agency. Given what the Minister has just said about the pupil premium being used to help people in deprived areas to get more, is he considering cross-cutting these issues so that coalfield communities, which suffer worse and have most deprivation, can be prioritised in respect of funding from the education and DCLG budgets, and all the budgets that will be working towards creating jobs? If jobs are not created in coalfield communities, we will have no hope whatsoever for the future.

Andrew Stunell: I shall correct one detail: the pupil premium is intended to support disadvantaged children, whatever community they live in, rather than disadvantaged communities. In her main point, the hon. Lady describes exactly what the Government are doing. We are working hard to have community-based budgeting that draws together funding from all the different public sources and allows priorities to be set locally to deliver what is needed, without the necessity for everybody to operate in silos. I hope that the hon. Lady will see the benefits of that. We have established 16 pilot areas for this year and will be rolling that process forward rapidly over the next couple of years.

We have increased the regional growth fund from the original £1 billion that was announced to £1.4 billion, and have extended the life of the fund from two years to three years. I hope that that gives some comfort to those who are concerned about the issue.

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On the regional development agencies, two bids have been presented to the Government for local enterprise partnerships for the north-east. Announcements will be made in due course. There could have been only one local enterprise partnership covering the whole north-east, had those involved wished to do that. On the future of coalfields regeneration, I provided assurances during the debate in July that we had no plans to dismantle the programme. The Minister for Housing and Local Government has already said, in response to the report on the review of coalfields regeneration, that it is crucial that former mining areas continue to get the support that they need.

Barbara Keeley: Will the Minister say whether that support includes additional funding? That goes back to the question that I asked about whether areas will retain funding.

Andrew Stunell: We intend to provide the support needed to enable the contractually committed, physical regeneration projects in the Homes and Communities Agency national coalfields programme to come to fruition. However, the settlement has been challenging. Difficult choices still need to be made about the way ahead. We will consider the case for the continuation of dedicated funding for coalfield areas in light of the Clapham report, and we intend to make an announcement on that in the next month.

Ann Clwyd: Will the Minister investigate ways to ask Mick Clapham to do a similar review in Wales and Scotland? That would be valuable.

Andrew Stunell: I will pass the right hon. Lady's request on to the relevant person. However, DCLG deals only with England, so it is not within my competence to decide that.

I thank all hon. Members for the enthusiasm and passion with which they have brought this cause to my attention and the Government. I hope that we will be able to give them some satisfaction in the near future.

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Natural England

12.30 pm

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this short debate on Natural England. It is a timely debate, because we are in the final week of October when spirits walk and ghouls are said to come alive. I do not wish to terrify hon. Members; on the contrary, I want to put backbone into the Government's efforts to take the frightening, supernatural bits from the subject of this debate. There is nothing natural about Natural England. From the word go it was a cumbersome creature, cobbled together in haste after the foot and mouth disease crisis-a natural marriage of convenience between well-established organisations such as the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Commission and Natural England. Dr Frankenstein would have been proud of it.

Bodies that have been stitched together in a hurry tend to fall to pieces. With Natural England one does not have to look far to find the evidence. It attracts hostile headlines and real anger among many rural communities, including mine. Natural England has become the ultimate Hallowe'en monster. My hon. Friend the Minister will require a lot more than a pumpkin and a candle to show who is in charge of this lot.

Natural England now operates in a way that is deliberately designed to send shivers up the spine. Five years ago that zombie was let loose and allowed to take control of many sensitive environmental issues. Since then, it has trampled all over common sense. Natural England cares more about weeds than the welfare of country folk. It believes that butterflies and bats come before real live people. It is a feared organisation because it has been given enormous power without any proper control or accountability. I shall give three examples.

First, on Exmoor, which has been in the news this morning, there is an ancient stretch of common land at Withypool. Local farmers have spent generations learning to understand it and to look after it, but Natural England thinks it knows better. It always thinks it knows better, and it often has the last laugh, because the wretched quango also holds the purse strings. Did you know, Mr Dobbin, that Natural England is in charge of distributing around £400 million a year in European agriculture grants? At Withypool, the zombie is trying to blackmail my constituents. Natural England wants more cattle to graze on the common, and has put on the frighteners. To obtain higher level environmental stewardship scheme money, farmers have had to do precisely what Natural England wants. It wants 48 cows to graze a bit of land that would barely support half that number. For generations, Withypool common has been known as a sheep common, and in 1950, there were more than 2,000 sheep on the hill. What has Natural England got against sheep? Keeping sheep is about the only way for a young person to start in hill farming in my patch.

Why does Natural England not leave such decisions to farmers? It wants to dictate the precise dimensions for fence posts, which is bureaucracy gone mad. The purpose of the stewardship scheme is beyond question. We all want our precious land to be properly protected for future generations, but Natural England should not be allowed to roll into places such as Withypool and
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force farmers to adopt entirely pointless rules. It has become a Stalinist organisation, and uses scare tactics and threats to get its way.

My second example has a happier ending, but is also an object lesson about blinkered bullying. Natural England decided that it wanted to protect a supposedly rare species of butterfly on Grabbist hill, which overlooks Minehead. Do not get me wrong, Mr Dobbin. I like butterflies, as do the people of Minehead and the town council, but the whole town council began to see red when Natural England turned up and started throwing its weight around. It wanted the council to put up 9 miles of fencing and to put cows all over the area to churn it up. People in open-toed sandals and overdue haircuts arrived with a long list of absurd demands. The council took one look and told them, politely, to pack their butterfly nets and back off. Goose-stepping quangos in open-toed sandals do not win friends in my neck of the woods, nor will they ever.

That raises the question: what on earth is Natural England for? This is what it says it is for:

The trouble is that it does not just provide practical advice. It has got it into its head that it is in charge. It even makes policies and tries to implement them, but I thought that that was the Government's role. Natural England has a complete manifesto with 24 policy documents on everything, including access to the countryside, biotechnology, common agricultural policy reform, ports, transport, housing, wave power and wind energy. The list goes on, but I will not bore hon. Members.

Natural England is extremely partial to wind turbines. Dr Helen Phillips, Natural England's chief executive, believes that we should plonk them in our national parks. This is what she said:

I must apologise on behalf of all quango bosses, who suffer from a common problem. They are utterly unable to speak intelligible English, partly because most of them are detached from the real world. In Dr Helen Phillips's case that may also be because she is Welsh. I have nothing against the Welsh-I am a Scot-but after all these years, Dr Phillips has been playing Myfanwy to her favourite character from the valleys-Dai, Boyo Dai, Boyo Dai Versity. This year, 2010, is the year of Boyo Dai Versity, and everything that Dr Phillips and her quango do must be approved by Boyo's exacting standards. Her word is law, and what he says matters. I am sure, Mr Dobbin, that you were wondering how I would get round to this, but she has the only say in the village.

Biodiversity is a slippery word. In the dictionary it translates as "life on earth". None of us objects to that, but some scientists have reinterpreted the word. It has become a religion, a cause and an excuse for changing anything and everything in the name of preserving life. Dr Phillips has allowed it to mean whatever she wants it to mean. That is what can happen when quangos are let out. They lose a sense of proportion. In addition-if I dare say this in this world of austerity-they are paid
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over the odds. Dr Phillips receives £144,000 a year, and six of her senior management team receive more than £80,000 a year. They have offices all over the country and around 2,000 staff to boss about. No wonder they have fooled themselves into thinking that they rule the world. Natural England has become far too big for Dr Phillips's elegant, stiletto-heeled boots.

I promised the Chamber three examples of Natural England's muddle-headed actions. The third is all about flooding. Some of my constituency is on very low-lying land, which sometimes fills with water. Over the centuries, Somerset has learned to live with the problem and has discovered how to tame some of the incoming tides. But Natural England and its partner in crime, the Environment Agency, have a different agenda. They want to give a bit of my constituency back to the sea. Their argument goes like this: if it already floods, it is time to let it drown. Is that their policy? I do not know.

Our old friend Boyo Dai Versity must have been whispering in Dr Helen Phillips's ear again. Natural England would like the tide on the south side of Steart point in my constituency, at the mouth of the river Parrett, to come in once and for all. It dreams of a brand new habitat for feathered friends such as the buff-breasted sandpiper and the long-billed dowitcher. But the project is not completely green. Natural England would have to spend £28 million of our money-our money-digging out that habitat. That is the sort of money that this nation should not and must not afford. Unfortunately, it is the sort of silly money that Natural England regards as chicken feed.

Natural England has a reputation for operating like the mediaeval church. It threatens damnation and doom if things are not done in precisely its way. Two years ago, Natural England came up with a plan to wipe out six villages, hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of farmland in Norfolk. It wanted to allow the sea to breach 15 miles of the Norfolk coast and to flood low-lying land to create a new bay. That would have destroyed the villages of Eccles, Sea Palling, Waxham, Horsey, Hickling and Potter Heigham. That was just to satisfy a misinterpretation of the meaning of that wretched word biodiversity. No wonder Natural England is unpopular. In fact, the bosses were unpopular more or less from the day that they started.

An internal survey conducted one year after Natural England was formed condemned senior management for a lack of leadership. It is an organisation in which low morale has become the norm and where employees feel insecure and few seem to have any pride in what they do. That is hardly surprising because often what they do is upset people for no good reason.

Take fluffy rabbits. Cuddly? Yes, and they breed like crazy. They gobble their way through crops if they are not kept under control-as a farmer, my hon. Friend the Minister will know that more than most. Natural England has enraged landowners and farmers by helping to scrap legislation. Under the Agriculture Act 1947 and the Pests Act 1954, all landowners had a duty to keep down rabbit numbers on their property to protect crops, and rightly so. If their neighbour failed to do that, aggrieved farmers could apply to Natural England for a notice ordering a bunny hunt. Great. Natural England decided to get rid of that rule and, as one can imagine, rural organisations were furious. Who is in
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charge of that? Dr Phillips and her great friend, Mr Boyo Dai Versity, are now regarded as loony bunny huggers. That is not a great accolade.

Last year, the Public Accounts Committee produced a damning report on Natural England's management of sites of special scientific interest, and it was found guilty of using outdated information and keeping incomplete records. The Committee criticised the organisation for failing to take enforcement action and highlighted financial mismanagement. If those were one-off isolated cases, perhaps we could forgive them, but attacks on Natural England come from all quarters and are still coming.

Did Natural England-I say this advisedly-tell lies when Lyme bay was declared out of bounds for fishing? The marine protected areas fishing coalition believes that it did and that Natural England may have twisted the facts and used false science to justify its actions. That is a serious charge to lay against any organisation where a lot of the senior managers are trained scientists. However, something has been done about the situation. In future-I thank the Minister-Natural England will play no role in the design, implementation or enforcement of marine conservation zones. The fishing coalition also identified the real problem with Natural England, which is that sometimes it advises the Government, and sometimes it pretends that it is the Government.

As the election approached and the prospect of a new Government loomed, there were signs that Natural England was beginning to get the message. It was a bit late, but better late than never. Dr Phillips came up with a super-duper idea that she thought was new, original and ground-breaking thinking. Why not open Natural England's books and let its partners, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the national parks, tell her what was going wrong? In other words, Dr Phillips decided to listen. Hallelujah! It was not a particularly original idea, but I must commend her for doing so. However, I wonder whether it was necessary to hire a firm of expensive consultants to arrange all the meetings. All they did was sit together in a room and discuss how to co-operate. Apparently, it was the first time that they had ever done so.

It never occurred to Natural England to talk openly to its partners, and it came as a surprise to learn what its partners actually thought. It should have been an obvious thing to do, but it required an element of fear to get everybody around the same table. Natural England was scared of what a new Government might do-rightly so with my hon. Friend as the Minister. It decided to do what it should have done years ago and talked. It was simple. Natural England had been living in a bubble for far too long and it had begun to trust its own propaganda. It thought that it could walk on water like a former Prime Minister, but it cannot and should not. If it tried, I sincerely hope that the Minister would try and prevent it. Significant change is long overdue. We cannot afford another wasteful duplication of different agencies. We should not tolerate inefficiency, never mind pomposity. It is certainly not Natural England's job to preach-that is ours.

If Natural England is serious about getting its house in order, it must do certain things. First, it must dramatically reduce back-office costs. Secondly, it must work more closely and openly with all other partners and bodies. Thirdly, it must prove to the Government, hon. Members and the public that its thinking has changed. Fourthly,
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it must stop doing things that the Government do not need-let the Government govern, not Natural England. Above all, it must stop making policy and lobbying. That is not its job. It must carry out the policy of Government, not make it.

On 30 November, the chairman of Natural England is due to make a keynote speech about the future of land management at a special conference of the Royal Agricultural Society-the Minister may be there. I sincerely hope that by then the chairman will know what he is meant to be talking about, but I am afraid that we must ask: what if he does not know?

12.45 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about Natural England, and it is appropriate for us to have this debate a week after the public spending review. I welcome and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on obtaining this short debate; it has allowed him to practise his rhetoric, to which we are all well accustomed.

I would like to go back to the origins of Natural England and emphasise that its setting-up had full cross-party support. Unsurprisingly, I was Opposition spokesperson at the time, and I can recall the debates on the legislation in Committee. We did not support all the fine detail of the provisions, but the overall idea of setting up the body received cross-party support. The idea was to bring together a number of activities that were synonymous and complementary to a degree, and that carried a risk of duplication.

Let me elaborate a little on the role of Natural England. It is the Government's statutory adviser on landscape, biodiversity and the natural environment. Previously, that function was largely carried out by English Nature. Natural England will continue to carry out a range of important functions that support and contribute to all three key priorities outlined in the structural reform plan published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in July. Those are: to support British farming and encourage sustainable food production; to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life; and to support a strong and sustainable green economy that is resilient to climate change.

Natural England's role in delivering for DEFRA on the landscape, biodiversity and the natural environment includes, as my hon. Friend has said, managing the stewardship and green farming schemes that come under the rural development programme for England. It also includes reducing the decline of biodiversity and managing the licensing of protected species across England; designating national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty; and notifying sites of special scientific interest, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend.

The Government's response to the Public Accounts Committee report, to which my hon. Friend referred, stated clearly that a fair criticism had been made at the time, but that the world had moved on. Natural England had addressed those issues, and by the end of March 2009 it had successfully completed the programme to develop conservation objectives for all SSSIs. Criticism was fair at the time, but it is now out of date.

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Natural England also works for the Government in making recommendations to DEFRA on the designation of sites, such as special areas of conservation under the EU habitats directive, and special protection areas under the EU birds directive. It acts as a statutory consultee to competent authorities that are considering proposals for plans, projects or other developments that might affect biodiversity. It provides conservation advice on the selection of marine protected areas, and monitors progress towards the achievement of conservation objectives for those designated sites, thereby contributing to the development of proposals for marine conservation zones.

Natural England is required to work with farmers and land managers. One of the points on which the then Opposition challenged the Government during the stages of the Bill to set up Natural England was ensuring that the organisation worked with those who relied on the land for their living. The Government of the day did not really accept that, and I remember that some amendments we proposed were rejected. Nevertheless, we feel strongly that Natural England must work with farmers, land managers, business, industry, planners, developers and everybody involved in improving the environment. That is a bit of the history.

Let me now bring hon. Members up to speed with where we are under the new coalition Government. We are working with Natural England to implement a radical and comprehensive package of measures to transform it-I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome that-into a much leaner, more efficient delivery body, focused strongly on our ambitions for the natural environment. Significant changes across the organisation will create a new delivery model that is more effective and cost-efficient in delivering on those objectives. For a start, as my hon. Friend requested, Natural England will dramatically reduce its back-office costs, while keeping to a minimum any reduction in delivery. It will work much more closely with the other arm's length bodies to eliminate any duplication in work.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned a significant reduction in backroom costs. The total staff costs for this year for Natural England are £96,460,000. Can he give an assurance that there will be a dramatic reduction in that figure?

Mr Paice: Yes, I can. I cannot put a precise figure on it, because we are still working through the implications of last week's announcement for all our arm's length bodies, but we have made no secret of the fact that all of them will have to carry their fair share of the 33% reduction in DEFRA administration costs, which applies right across the DEFRA family. I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.

Natural England will be required to work much more closely with arm's length bodies to eliminate any duplication in work and to focus the collective resources available on delivering on the priorities. One matter on which we are working hard is ensuring that Natural England works much more closely not just with arm's length bodies, but with the many non-governmental organisations in the field of conservation and biodiversity, many of which have very competent advisers on the ground with the credibility and experience to work closely with
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farmers and land managers. We want Natural England to involve them much more in delivery. We also want to see the demonstrable culture change to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referred, and innovative ways of working that embrace the Government's objectives of localism, the big society and improved customer focus.

Natural England is considering the options for improving the management of our national nature reserves in a way that is more consistent with our big society ambitions while ensuring continued environmental protection, and the options for sharing sponsorship of areas of outstanding natural beauty with DEFRA, cementing the accountability with Ministers-an issue to which my hon. Friend also referred.

I can assure my hon. Friend that we have made it clear that there must be an end to any policy-making and lobbying activities. We cannot have the situation that we had in the last Parliament, in which Natural England was lobbying for amendments to legislation using taxpayers' money. That will stop.

We are working with Natural England to minimise any impact on the Government's natural environment objectives. Despite the pressures on public expenditure, Natural England will become much more effective in contributing to the biodiversity objectives, not only through its own functions but because it needs better to engage with and support the important contributions made by civil society bodies, local communities, businesses, farmers and so on.

As a result, Natural England is considering a number of ideas to involve civil society partners in all aspects of its work-delivery on nature reserves, volunteering, access and ensuring continued environmental protection. It is committed to developing a much stronger focus on integrating the engagement of civil society in the delivery of Natural England's duties and on looking for further opportunities. It already has a number of partnerships with big society organisations-for instance, in its work to co-ordinate the input of those bodies into the England biodiversity group on behalf of DEFRA-and it needs to do more.

My hon. Friend rightly paid attention to environmental stewardship. That plays a pivotal role in delivering on DEFRA's priority of enhancing the environment and biodiversity to improve the quality of life. Last week's spending announcement made that clear, with an increase in the money available for higher-level stewardship schemes. DEFRA and Natural England are already working with farming and environmental partners to improve the effectiveness of stewardship, including through such initiatives as the campaign for the farmed environment. That was launched under the previous Government, partly as a result of pressure from the then Opposition, because we made it clear that we would not support an increase in statutory set-aside; we wanted a voluntary approach. That is working very successfully, but more effort needs to be made. There is considerable scope for more work with various outside partners and, again, we are making that clear to Natural England.

Higher-level stewardship funding, which delivers significant benefits for biodiversity-everyone recognises that it is the most effective scheme-will increase by 83%, compared with this year, by 2013-14. I have to
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accept that the rate of growth is slightly slower than would otherwise have been the case. Nevertheless, it is growth, which should be welcomed.

Entry-level stewardship remains open to all farmers, but our aim must be to seek improvements wherever we can. We aim to improve the targeting and focus of entry-level stewardship agreements, because we want better outcomes and to concentrate a little of the effort on achieving specific outcomes. That will provide a large-scale uplift in their environmental value. Of course, we must take account of the Government response to the Lawton report as we do all this.

I am well aware of the criticisms of Natural England. My hon. Friend made a number of them. He has made them in the past, as have many others. Indeed, I have made them myself in the past, and will continue to do so if I do not believe that it is achieving its objectives. However, against the targets set by the previous Government, it has performed well. We can argue about whether the targets were right, but it did achieve what it was told to do. However, there is no doubt in my mind that under the previous Government and the previous leadership, Natural England allowed itself to expand and develop into areas that it should not have got into. My hon. Friend referred to the present chairman of Natural England, Poul Christensen, whom I believe is very cognisant of the fact that it needs to look again at what it is doing and to be reined back to its key functions. I am quite confident that he will do that.

Whatever Natural England has achieved, it cannot go on working in the same way because of all the pressures to which I have referred, and the concern about its direction. It must maximise its effectiveness against the background of a reducing budget-a fact to which I referred. Therefore, although we have decided that Natural England should be retained as a public body, neither the public nor Natural England should be complacent or rest on their laurels. It must be substantially reformed through a structural process and through cultural change to become a much more efficient and customer-focused organisation with clarified accountabilities.

By the time we publish next year's White Paper on the natural environment-probably in April or thereabouts-which will be an important step forward in the coalition's commitment to the environment, Natural England will be in a much better position and will have a better arrangement with which to deliver on the objectives that we set out in the White Paper. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to put on the record how we see Natural England developing over the next few months and the way in which it will continue to play a vital but, we hope, more focused and targeted role in delivering on the Government's objectives.

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Missing Persons

12.58 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Dobbin. Every year, an astonishing 250,000 people in the UK are reported missing to the police, and two thirds of those are under the age of 18. Occasionally, the country can be overwhelmed by public anxiety when faced with awful child abduction cases, such as that of Madeleine McCann, but we remain unaware of the vast majority of cases. I shall talk today about some of the key aspects of the missing persons phenomenon and the problems that families face when their loved ones go missing. I shall also highlight the current risk of closure to both the UK Missing Persons Bureau and the charity Missing People-two agencies that work hand in hand to help missing people and the devastated families they leave behind.

First, let us consider the scale of the challenge. Three quarters of the disappearances reported to the police are resolved in two days, but a significant minority-about 20,000-last longer than a week and 2,500 last in excess of a year. Adults are more likely to remain missing for longer periods than young people, and the National Policing Improvement Agency recently revealed that about 940 bodies found in the UK over the past 50 years remain unidentified. In the region of 10 new cases of unidentified bodies are registered with the Missing Persons Bureau each month.

About 100,000 children aged under 16 run away each year, and 20% will be at high risk of being hurt or harmed. They might sleep rough or stay with someone they have just met. Research suggests that they are at serious risk, exposed to violence, criminality, substance abuse, sexual exploitation and trafficking. Other missing people are adults fleeing dysfunctional relationships or experiencing problems at work, or who have become detached from their families through drug and alcohol use and mental health problems. A smaller proportion of disappearances-still a significant number-result from a person going missing unintentionally. Examples include dementia sufferers becoming lost, or people having accidents or becoming victims of abduction and serious crime.

It is estimated that more than 1,000 missing people, including about 50 children, are found dead each year. These include people who take their own lives, who have an accident, who become lost and die of exposure, and who are victims of crime. The problem is far more widespread than most people would ever imagine.

As a local MP and the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, I was interested in a recent exercise by Greater Manchester police. They tweeted every incident in which they were involved for 24 hours. In that short space of time, there were 127 calls relating to missing people, including five relating to missing children in my constituency of Stockport alone. That is a lot of people and a lot of anguish. The cases in my area included a 10-year-old boy, two 14-year-olds and one 15-year-old.

Families of missing people can suffer severe emotional problems, as well as significant financial, legal and practical difficulties. At the moment, the police, the Missing Persons Bureau and Missing People work closely together, dovetailing effectively to protect runaways and
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the devastated families left behind. Yet, as it stands, the very core of the front-line missing persons services is under threat. We face the prospect that, with a single blow, the entire national investment into missing persons could be ended.

As I speak, the closure of the National Policing Improvement Agency places the existence of the Missing Persons Bureau, which is the only UK agency focused exclusively on missing people, under the threat of total closure. The bureau alone possesses the national records for unidentified bodies and helps the police with missing persons investigations up and down the country. It is the UK national and international point of contact for all missing persons and unidentified body cases.

Also, the charity Missing People-which works closely with the police and the bureau, providing a unique service supporting families-is facing the total withdrawal from 1 April of its core Government funding of £500,000, made up of £150,000 from the Department for Education for a runaway helpline and £350,000 from the NPIA. Such a withdrawal will inevitably place the charity, which already works incredibly hard to raise 75% of its funding, at risk.

I want to argue that, instead of removing the missing persons infrastructure, we must maintain investment and underpin it with new legislation which supports existing services and does much-needed filling in of gaps. Britain lags behind the United States, and other European nations, regarding legislation. We simply do not have legislation to protect missing children and adults. At present, if someone's house is burgled they are automatically offered emotional, practical and legal support; however, if their child goes missing they may get nothing, although they are surely a victim.

To illustrate the scale of the problem and the damage that might be done if we remove the missing persons support provided by the bureau and Missing People, I want to outline the work they do in providing support to families. Each month, the bureau supports an average of 500 cases and conducts some 100 cross-matched searches, while receiving 800 records of missing people. At present, the remains of 940 people have still to be identified; yet that important cross-matching work might cease if non-crime-related services are cut. The vast majority of those bodies represent a devastated family waiting for closure and answers. The matching must continue, so that families no longer have to wait for years for news of their relatives, only to find that they were buried in an unmarked grave or were on the coroner's slab all along.

Last year, the charity Missing People took 114,000 desperate calls for help. In the past six months alone it has produced 275 of its iconic poster appeals to help bring some of those missing back home. In the same period it provided emotional support for more than 900 families-a service unique to Missing People. It was able to give some of those families the answers they were so desperate for, and to help close almost 340 missing persons cases. Sadly, nearly 1,000 cases are still open. It also provides ground-breaking research. The latest research, to be published shortly, highlights a frightening link between younger men being reported missing after a night out and their bodies later being
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found in water. We must ensure that young men are educated about that link, so that further deaths can be avoided.

The charity works with the police to provide valuable help in linking unidentified bodies to missing people. Fred and Rosemary West were convicted for killing at least 10 women and children. While the police worked tirelessly to identify the victims, at least half had not been reported missing. Only through the vital help of the then National Missing Persons Helpline-now called Missing People-were three of those anonymous victims finally indentified and their families able to lay them to rest. That is a further striking example of the fundamental importance of joint working between statutory and voluntary agencies.

We have come a long way since the West murders: there has been the 2005 Association of Chief Police Officers guidance on missing persons investigations, to help standardise best practice; the development of better computer systems in most constabularies across the country; and an increase in public awareness of the services provided by the charity Missing People. Despite that great progress, much work still needs to be done. By removing the missing persons infrastructure that our public and voluntary sectors have worked so hard to build up, we would not only deprive those whom it serves but also send a signal to perpetrators of evil crimes that we will not stand up to protect the most vulnerable.

The Government should take a number of steps: first, the vital one of developing a national missing persons database. I understand that a computer system already exists that could do the job, and that is inexpensive and in use by 24 police forces. If there was one system, one log of missing children and adult cases, and one location for the facts and faces of the missing, data-sharing would not be a problem or require expensive solutions.

There should be procedures for recording information and sharing it between the police, children's services, care homes, Ofsted and the voluntary sector. The information could be used to analyse patterns of running away from home or local authority care. I would also like to see the police working with local authorities to ensure that preventive and intensive support services are available in every area of the country to young people who run away. Currently, only 10% of local authorities have access to young-runaway services. There are only two emergency beds in the whole of the UK, and one in three police forces reports that young people have to stay overnight in police cells because there is no emergency accommodation. The work is currently carried out through local authority data collection for national indicator 71, which is now unfortunately being scrapped.

We need fresh statutory legislation, so that local authorities record how many children and young people are missing in their locality, and to ensure that a return interview is carried out. The police must also have a key role in working with local safeguarding children's boards to develop a set of multi-agency protocols and procedures for when a child goes missing.

I would also like the Government to consider a Green Paper on missing persons in order to protect missing adults and children. The first steps were set out in work by the Home Office, initiated by the missing persons taskforce, which I hope the Minister can confirm will continue. This need not be an added expense; indeed, in
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the spirit of the big society, we could use the Green Paper to explore using Missing People staff and volunteers further to support police and families. The charity believes that there is enormous potential to increase the role of individuals and organisations in the local community in resolving cases, safeguarding missing people, preventing disappearances and supporting families. Indeed, Missing People has already made substantial progress in creating networks of organisations to resolve cases more expeditiously, improving outcomes for missing people and their families and delivering cost savings at a local level.

We should require the Missing Persons Bureau to match every single body against every outstanding missing persons case. We should examine legislative opportunities to introduce a requirement in law-this happens for victims of crime-to ensure that every missing person's family is signposted to Missing People's free emotional, practical and legal support. We must use legislation to catch up with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations, who have already legislated for the presumption of death. In England and Wales, we have no guidance in cases where a missing person is presumed dead.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): My wife was a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross and saw slavers moving people in chains or ropes across south Sudan towards the Arabian peninsula. Does Missing People have any evidence that any of our children are being shipped abroad to become slaves?

Ann Coffey: I am not sure about that, but I think that Missing People will respond directly to the hon. Gentleman on that very good point. The events we are debating do not happen simply within national boundaries, but go further.

We should make it a duty for a coroner to co-operate with police inquiries into missing people and to provide DNA evidence. Coroners are currently not required to co-operate with missing persons investigations and in some cases fail to provide information that could lead to a body's being matched with an outstanding missing persons inquiry. I would also like the updated ACPO guidance on the investigation, management and recording of missing persons incidents to be published.

Our banks and insurance companies should have codes of practice to safeguard the families of missing people, who face the prospect of legal battles to safeguard their relative's estate and, for example, to continue paying a mortgage on a property owned by the missing person.

It is vital that the Government protect the budget for missing persons. Ministers announced a 7% cut to local authority budgets, including a 50% reduction in funding for services for children in care by 2012. Police funding will also be cut. There are few services to support young people who run away, and there is no statutory obligation on, or centralised funding for, local authorities to provide services. Nationally, projects were experiencing reduced funding even before the latest spending cuts.

For the families of the disappeared, every day is a painful place of hope and despair, as they hope for news, but worry that not everything is being done to find their loves ones. We must send them the signal that they will not be forgotten.

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1.13 pm

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing a debate on such an important and sensitive issue. In Medway, in Kent, 65 people were reported as missing, but that number was reduced to 15 through the excellent work of Kent police in partnership with the local authority in Medway.

Time is of the essence, so I will make my points brief. My first point relates to the community policing and case tracking system used first to report that a person is missing. Somebody who has been dealing with these issues for 30 years says of the system:

I ask the Minister to review the system, which is used by a number of constabularies and local authorities around the country.

My second point relates to the hon. Lady's point about having a national investigation system. Some would say that such a system should be aligned or compatible with murder investigation principles to meet the issue of investigation. At the moment, different constabularies use different systems, so having a national investigation system, as the hon. Lady suggested, would be a key point.

Finally, there is prevention. Local authorities, education services and housing and welfare services should intervene earlier to ensure that those who might go missing get support in the very beginning.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin. Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this Adjournment debate on the important subject of missing persons. I should also congratulate her on her appointment as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults. I know that she takes a close personal interest in this significant issue, and I very much welcome her contribution and the way in which she approached and highlighted it.

When we talk about missing persons, I am struck by the broader context. In many ways, that context was reflected in today's contributions. The debate may be linked, for example, to child sexual exploitation and honour-based violence. I very much appreciate that wider context and why we need to focus on dealing with this issue in a serious and measured way. I therefore thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I also thank her and other hon. Members for their contributions. They have taken a measured and considered approach to the issue.

Sadly, missing persons constitute an area of public protection that has, in many ways, not always been regarded as the priority that it should be; in some contexts, it has been regarded as more of a niche subject. However, as my initial comments highlighted,
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the Government take the issue very seriously, and the same is true of our responsibility to ensure that the response to missing persons is as effective as possible.

The hon. Lady's remarks were very interesting. Listening to the debate, I was further convinced that greater co-operation and collaboration between all the agencies involved will place us on a more solid platform and help to deliver improved services not only for those who go missing, but for the families and friends who are left behind. The hon. Lady spoke powerfully of the impact that someone's disappearance has on family and friends, who wonder what has happened to their loved one.

The previous Government looked at the issue, and that resulted in the missing persons task force, which the hon. Lady mentioned. The task force studied the landscape, exposed some of the shortcomings and made 22 recommendations in the appendix to its report, which it published earlier this year. One of my earliest tasks as Home Office Minister with responsibility for missing persons was to examine the task force report with a view to understanding where we are on the missing persons problem and to consider what could be done to improve the response. I was pleased to agree early action to ensure dissemination of existing good practice to police forces, to improve information sharing and to ensure police compliance on the code of practice.

We are in the process of taking that work forward. On good practice, I was pleased to see an ACPO toolkit launched on the police online knowledge area system just over a month ago. POLKA is a useful resource for police forces engaged in missing persons investigations. It includes toolkits governing good practice in identifying found people and a forensic examination toolkit. There are plans imminently to go live with a similar toolkit for forces on parental and familial child abductions. It is however clear to me that more can and should be done to improve the response and equally that real improvements can be achieved if existing structures, agencies and resources work better and more effectively together to ensure that those who go missing and their families are properly supported. I have asked my officials to conduct a review of the full set of task force recommendations by the end of the year to consider what, if any, further action we can take on this important issue, considering the changing landscape, and the way in which certain issues have moved on since the publication of the report.

More generally, it is my firm belief that in the meantime, there is some tangible work that can be done now to create the conditions needed for the kind of close engagement we think necessary.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): A lady called Mrs Nicki Durbin, of Hollesley in my constituency, wrote to me about the importance of the issue, in connection with her son, Luke Durbin, who disappeared four years ago. I hear what the Minister says about guidelines, and similar things, but how, in the present stricken times, will he prioritise ensuring that the issue of missing persons does not drop off our police forces' priority list?

James Brokenshire: I think that I can give my hon. Friend that assurance on the basis of the action that I have already taken, including the focus being brought
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to bear by examining the task force recommendations and ensuring that the issue is seen as important for Government. Work has already started, for example, to develop the role of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in relation to missing and abducted children. The centre has already brought its expertise to bear in the relevant area this year through, among other things, a cold case review and work to incorporate missing children elements into existing public and child safety training programmes. I believe that CEOP will bring a great deal of expertise in child protection to the table. I want it to build on its extensive experience of responding to incidents in which children and young people have been vulnerable to abuse.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for bringing to the attention of the House the issue of the future of the statutory and voluntary agencies. Missing children aside, I note from the debate the understandable concern and anxiety among some hon. Members about the future of the National Policing Improvement Agency Missing Persons Bureau. However, let me be clear that no decisions have yet been made on the future of the bureau, either about funding or where functions may sit in the future.

Hon. Members will of course be aware that we launched a policing consultation in the summer, which, among other things, sought views on our plan to create a national crime agency. The consultation has now closed and we will be publishing a summary of the responses and the Government's position soon. As part of that, work is continuing to determine the exact nature of the role of the NCA and indeed where the respective activities might sit within the new landscape-including those of CEOP and the Missing Persons Bureau, although at this stage no final decisions have been taken.

I note, too, the concerns raised about central Government funding to the Missing People charity. I understand the difficulties that it will cause, but I cannot today make commitments to resources, which as we all know are currently scarce; but I can give a commitment to listen to concerns and look for any opportunities to support the charity in other ways. I met representatives of Missing People in the summer and look forward to meeting them again to discuss the matter further.

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): I want to refer briefly to the excellent work of Missing People in support of one of my constituents, Dr Alan Smith, whose brother disappeared more than 22 years ago. Missing People did not exist when that happened, but since it has been established it has done excellent work and I urge the Minister to find ways to ensure that its good work can continue, particularly in relation to legal advice. My constituent found that few solicitors he turned to had any idea what advice to give.

James Brokenshire: I certainly recognise the contribution made by Missing People to the action plan, and the support that it has given. That is why I was keen to have a meeting soon after my appointment. I look forward to discussing some of the issues shortly.

I want to deal with some of the specific points made by the hon. Lady, although I am conscious that time is pressing. If I cannot get through them all in the time available, I shall write to her on any outstanding issues. She raised the matter of support to families when a loved one goes missing. I too feel that nothing could be
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more important than the need to trace the missing person, but in turn, it is just as critical that families who are left in limbo when their close relatives go missing for the long term should be supported, and that they should know where to turn for help. Ensuring that the families of the missing, and the missing themselves, receive the support they require and deserve is vital to our overall efforts at addressing the problem. Of course, we can never hope to prevent people from going missing if they are determined to do so, but we can ensure that proper mechanisms are put in place to provide the support that is needed.

As with all aspects of public protection, when people go missing, close collaboration between police forces and indeed between police and statutory and voluntary agencies is surely crucial to making an effective response, and ultimately a successful outcome and the resolution of cases, possible. However, those things take time to achieve, as organisations get used to working together towards a common goal. That approach also means a change of mindset and the will to improve, and I am determined that the Government should do what they can to facilitate that.

Ben Gummer (Ipswich) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

James Brokenshire: Very briefly, as there are several points to get through.

Ben Gummer: Ipswich was the place where Luke Durbin went missing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) mentioned. It was also the place where there were, sadly, serial murders of sex workers a few years ago. A critical point arising from the experience of trying to deal with the prostitution trade there is that very small local charities were instrumental in helping to clear up that terrible situation. Many of those concerned were themselves missing people. I want to impress on the Minister the role of very small local charities, many of which are suffering from tendering arrangements in Ipswich.

James Brokenshire: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the valuable and important role of charities and the voluntary sector. They are part of the landscape and the innovative and important work that is done. I appreciate that serious point.

As to body matching, a number of good examples of successful cross-matching already carried out by the bureau prove that the system works fairly well, but there
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is clearly always room to improve the way those cases are handled, and we will reflect on that further in relation to future work.

The matter of a single database and Compact was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), and we need to recognise that the Missing Persons Bureau and the charity Missing People both use a database of missing and found people, including bodies and body parts, called Hermes, which has undergone different modifications at different times in its different locations, resulting in a different complexion for essentially the same system. I am keen that some work should be done to determine the merits of a single database and that there should be better exchange of information on a regular basis between organisations. That should also include an examination of the future shape of Compact, the missing persons case management system, which is already in use in 22 police forces.

With regard to coroners, DNA evidence and a duty to co-operate, coroners already seek to establish the identity of unknown bodies that come into their custody, and that process includes DNA testing. Where a deceased person cannot be identified, the body must be disposed of by the responsible local authority in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, either by burial or cremation. Most coroners already co-operate fully with the police when they have a body in their custody that they cannot identify, and they are likely to respond positively to any local or national strategy, with associated protocols, that may be established. As part of planned changes to the coroner system, announced in a written statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), on 14 October at column 37WS, the Ministry of Justice will be taking forward work to establish improved guidance to coroners on the procedures that they follow in relation to every aspect of post-mortem and related examinations.

I do not pretend that there is not more to do, but I hope that my comments go some way to answering the questions posed by hon. Members and reassuring them that the Government are committed to the issue of missing persons and missing persons services. Early assistance to police forces is already in place through the toolkits, the role of CEOP in relation to missing children is being developed, and future activities by the Missing Persons Bureau are being considered in the light of the policing consultation. There is clearly more work to be done, but I look forward to updating and working with the key agencies to deliver improvements to this important area of safeguarding over the coming months.

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1.30 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I am pleased, Mr Dobbin, to address this subject under your chairmanship. It is a serious one for my constituents, and my focus today is on localism.

I appreciate the Minister making time to respond to the debate. I hope that he will clarify Government policy on incineration and say how it relates to empowering local communities to make decisions about their areas. I am delighted to see that he is to respond to the debate; he successfully held the same position in opposition for a number of years. I am particularly pleased that he visited Middlewich in my constituency when he was shadow Minister responsible for agriculture-I last raised this question with him then-so he knows the town of which I shall be speaking.

I hope that my contribution will be followed by one from my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Lorraine Fullbrook). An incinerator has been installed in her constituency, and I hope that what she says will serve to show what can happen to towns once an incinerator has been built.

I am holding a file 2 inches thick, which is full of correspondence from my constituents. They do not want an incinerator 500 metres from Middlewich town. I have received no letters of support for an incinerator there-not one. Most of the letters in this folder are individually written, including one from a seven-year-old boy who lives near where the planned incinerator would be built.

The local council refused planning permission for the incinerator earlier this year. Its decision is now being appealed. The final say lies with the Secretary of State, who will have to make a decision in the near future, so I understand that details of this case cannot be discussed by the Minister today. However, I believe that we should discuss the principles.

I hope that the Minister will agree that a local community should be able to decide on its identity. Middlewich is a friendly, small market town with a population of approximately 13,000, and it has tremendous community spirit. It has a rich past as a Roman settlement, and it is a former salt-mining community. It has a good selection of independent shops, pubs and cafés. The Trent and Mersey canal goes right through the town. The strong local community has worked hard to develop a vibrant tourist industry, including an annual boat and folk festival that attracts some 20,000 visitors.

Community life in Middlewich involves the whole community, as well as churches, schools and local organisations. For example, the British Legion and the rotary club, among others, will soon hold a weekend-long charity beer festival. Only two weeks ago, it seemed that the whole town had dressed up in period costume for a world war two event. The community of Middlewich remains strong in its ability to attract visitors, and it is a pleasant place to live, work and bring up a family.

Constituents have told me that more than 7,000 people signed a petition against the planned incinerator. That is more than half of the Middlewich population. I understand that no fewer than 3,300 letters of objection were sent to the council about the original planning
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application. When the planning committee refused the application earlier this year, hundreds of people from the Middlewich area attended at the civic hall. There was standing room only. I was glad to witness the fact that it was the unanimous decision of local councillors on the Cheshire East planning committee to reject the planning application.

In addition to the overwhelming desire of local people not to see the plan proceed, there are many other reasons why it was right that the planning application should have been rejected. The site is inappropriate. It is not identified as a preferred site in the Cheshire replacement waste local plan. At a public inquiry, only six sites in Cheshire were deemed suitable for thermal treatment, and Middlewich is not one of them. I understand that the nearest resident lives approximately 150 metres from the proposed site. As one resident has written, the site

Middlewich people work hard to make the town pleasant for visitors and residents, including through the various festivals that take place throughout the year, with people putting up bunting and flags and making their town attractive. All that would be dwarfed by the proposed construction of this enormous incinerator, which would have a smoke stack almost as tall as a football field is long. It would dominate the town and the surrounding countryside.

Traffic flow into and out of Middlewich is already bad. To feed the hunger of the planned incinerator, waste would have to be imported to the local area to be burned. That would affect local roads by increasing the already great congestion. The traffic flow through Middlewich is already heavy at daily peak times, and long tailbacks occur.

I am informed that the applicant's estimate of the number of trips that would be generated if the incinerator was built is another 156 or so two-way movements of heavy vehicles along the A54 each day. However, as the source of the waste processed has not yet been fully identified-most of it, if not all, will come from outside Middlewich-any definitive statement by the applicant about the impact of traffic must be unsound. One thing is for sure: it would considerably exacerbate already serious daily traffic problems. Hon. Members may recall film footage of the traffic gridlock that occurred last winter during the severe bad weather; then, lorries had to travel through and to Middlewich for additional salt from the nearby British Salt depot.

Building an incinerator near Middlewich town centre would also be detrimental to employment. Far from the new development being a positive contribution to increased local employment, the plans could prove highly unfavourable to local employment prospects. The planned plant might create up to 50 jobs, but it could jeopardise many more. Future employers could be deterred from locating their premises in the vicinity of a waste incinerator for a variety of reasons. That applies particularly to the retail, food, leisure and service sectors.

Such community matters are not the only important factors, however; just as important are the principles of environmental safety and sustainability. Cheshire has a cluster of planned incinerators. Two are still to be determined; one is at Lostock in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans)

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Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am a fellow Cheshire Member, and, as we all know, Cheshire is God's own county.

Four proposed incinerators surround my constituency. They are at Weston Point, Ince Marshes, Lostock and Middlewich. I wonder how we are going to feed them. At the height of production, the Weston Point incinerator will produce only 20% of the power required by INEOS Chlor, and that waste will come from Manchester. For some reason, although that incinerator is located on Merseyside, most of the Merseyside waste will not go to that incinerator but will have to go over the water to Ince Marshes in Cheshire. I am concerned about the logistics of that. I am also worried about viability. If Merseyside's and Manchester's waste are accounted for, where will the other incinerators get their waste from?

I have met with campaign groups such as the Cheshire Anti Incinerator Network and the Halton Action Group Against the Incinerator, as well as the applicants, Brunner Mond and INEOS Chlor, which are excellent local employers and part of the rich industrial heritage of the area. I have also met officials from the Environment Agency. From those discussions, it is clear that the most significant impact on the local communities will be the increase in traffic as the plants draw in waste from Cheshire and beyond.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): Order. This is a half-hour debate, and interventions should be short.

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend makes my points for me. If the four planned incinerators in Cheshire go ahead, there will be over-provision. There is no need for a further facility at Middlewich. That was confirmed in the original planning refusal, which stated that there would be an over-provision of waste facilities. It undermines the sustainability principle, which is that waste should be disposed of at an appropriate nearby location and should not be transported long distances.

My constituents are also concerned about the environmental and health implications of multiple incinerators in relatively close proximity to one another. Until a better scientific understanding is gained and the public can be reassured about such implications, my constituents feel that the precautionary principle should be applied.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I do not want to go into the details of the incineration in Middlewich, but it is important to understand why we incinerate or combust. This country continues to put more waste into landfill than any other country in Europe, which is a disgrace. There is a large landfill tip in Warrington that causes as much distress for residents as incinerators-I prefer to call them combined heat and power plants. Of course it is wrong to put such things in the wrong place, and we should be cognisant of local planning considerations. We also need to understand that landfill is, environmentally, the worst of all options, and it cannot be right that we continue to have more landfill than any other country in Europe.

Fiona Bruce: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Indeed, that is why the Middlewich residents are so offended; in November 2007, approval was given for a new landfill site, which is to be positioned less than half a mile away from the proposed new incinerator.

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Let me touch on a further problem relating to the Government's climate change and energy policy. Even if one recognises that waste management needs to be properly framed within a national strategy, there is a good argument to say that the planned incinerator in my constituency would fall foul of important efficiency criteria in the EU waste framework directive of 2008. I am not always fond of the EU, but the directive highlights the importance of efficiency in incineration for the purposes of creating energy and heat. It requires that incinerators be labelled as "recovering" energy from waste only if they have a burn and energy creation efficiency of some 65%. If they do not reach that criterion, they are to be considered a disposal facility. In other words, they would be on a par with landfills.

I am reliably informed that the normal efficiency of incinerators in the UK is about 25%, and that the efficiency of the one in Middlewich, according to the company that wants to build it, would be, at best, 26%. It is interesting to note that one of the original reasons for refusing the initial application was that the applicant had not shown that it had made adequate provision for

Let us not delude ourselves: in the waste hierarchy, a low efficiency rating is on a par with landfill. That is not sustainable and should not be considered environmentally friendly. The Sustainable Development Commission has recommended that only high-efficiency energy from waste plants-namely energy from plants that produce a 65% return on burning waste-should receive Government support, and I agree with it.

Furthermore, the principle that the Government are promoting, whereby local communities should decide how best to deal with their own waste, does not seem to apply either to the process of appealing to the national level, or to the logic of the use of large-scale imported incineration. In reference to an application made by Covanta in the Mid Bedfordshire constituency, the Prime Minister recently said that it is right that

There is clearly consensus on this issue in the coalition.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:

I emphasise the words

That is the principle to which we should adhere. Local people should decide about such matters. We can talk about national policies, but there is one overriding factor that distant decision-makers ignore at their peril: the people of Middlewich do not want the incinerator, and Middlewich is their home.

Several hon. Members rose-

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that this is a short debate, so please keep contributions brief.

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1.44 pm

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this very important debate on a subject that is exercising the mind of many of my constituents in Selby and Ainsty, and constituents from across the whole of North Yorkshire. Let me take this opportunity to remind my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) that there is only one county that can be called "God's own", and that is Yorkshire.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced that as part of the comprehensive spending review, it reviewed the amount of private finance initiative grant that the Government need to put into local government-funded waste-treatment infrastructure. It concluded that some projects will not go ahead. However, thousands of concerned North Yorkshire residents will be disappointed that the North Yorkshire and city of York waste PFI project at Allerton Park is one of the 11 projects that will retain its provisional allocation of PFI credits. Will the Minister be kind enough to let me know why the Allerton Park project is one of those schemes to escape the CSR axe and on what grounds the decisions on what scheme to keep or scrap were made? Furthermore, will the Minister tell me and my concerned constituents, thousands of whom have signed a petition against the proposal, whether he believes that North Yorkshire county council is using public money wisely by signing up the public purse to a 25 to 30-year PFI project, with an initial cost to the taxpayer of £65 million, especially during such straitened times?

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Let me add my concerns to the debate about Allerton Park. The financial case for the proposal at Allerton Park is deeply flawed. The proposed incinerator will require 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, yet the household waste generated across North Yorkshire will not reach that level. That means that the incinerator will have to take commercial waste; there is nothing wrong with that, but it means that the risk will be with the local taxpayer, and the gain will be with the incinerator operators.

Nigel Adams: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many local residents and I believe that the PFI project is flawed because it relies on forecasts of increasing waste volumes, low recycling and rising landfill tax over the next 25 to 30 years. To the best of my knowledge, the Minister's Department does not know what the level of landfill tax is likely to be in five years' time, let alone in 25 years' time. North Yorkshire's figures potentially overestimate domestic waste volumes and underestimate increases in recycling. The result is that the intended incinerator capacity is likely to be almost twice the necessary amount, so the project cost savings may very well not be realised, and that potentially means a bad deal for taxpayers.

1.48 pm

Lorraine Fullbrook (South Ribble) (Con): I support what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said about what happens after a waste site is built. I experienced such problems when I was a
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parliamentary candidate for Lancashire before the boundary changes. The Farington waste site was built in my constituency, which is now the Ribble Valley constituency. The cross-party South Ribble council unanimously voted the application down, but the Lancashire county council voted it through. The aftermath has been horrific. This is a massive waste site, which in some cases runs 18 metres from the ends of people's gardens. It has devastated the local wildlife and their habitats, and it has added one extra lorry movement every two minutes past long-established residential areas. It is taking rubbish from all over Lancashire, and is in danger of making South Ribble the dustbin of Lancashire. Simply put, this waste site has devastated people's lives. Those who voted for it to be built next to residential properties should hang their heads in shame.

Jim Dobbin (in the Chair): For the second time today, I call the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

1.49 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): Thank you, Mr Dobbin, and good afternoon to you.

I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing a debate on an issue that is important not only for her constituency but, as has been shown, for a number of my hon. Friends, whom I think have differing views about the issue of incinerators. However, it is a big issue and last week's comprehensive spending review announcements obviously impact on it.

My hon. Friend is probably aware that, despite her kind words at the beginning, this issue is not part of my portfolio. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), is at a Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg. Therefore, responding to this debate falls to me, but I will pass on to him the detail of what my hon. Friend has said.

Before I get into specifics, I want to make a few points that I hope will calm some concerns, even if they are not necessarily exactly what my hon. Friends want to hear. First, I want to give some facts about waste incinerators. We appreciate that there are huge concerns about incinerators, including their effect on air quality, the natural environment and the health of communities in the vicinity. My hon. Friend referred to the proximity of residences to incinerators in her area.

However, I must emphasize that all modern waste incinerators are subject to extremely stringent pollution controls. They have to comply with the waste incineration directive, which sets strict emission limits for pollutants. As my hon. Friend knows, the Environment Agency must grant the necessary permits for an incinerator to operate if a facility is not compliant with that directive. In other words, such a facility would have to get a permit, and I understand that the permit for the proposed Middlewich incinerator has not yet been granted; in fact, the Environment Agency is still considering the application. All of that means that emissions from waste incinerators are probably more heavily regulated than emissions from coal, gas and other forms of power generation from combustion.

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I also need to make it clear that studies have failed to establish any convincing link between the emissions from incinerators and adverse effects on public health. Only last year, the Health Protection Agency reviewed the existing evidence and concluded that any effect on people's health from incinerator emissions is likely be so small as to be undetectable. The agency also affirmed that adverse health effects from modern, well-regulated waste incinerators do not pose a significant threat to public health.

David Mowat: I hear what the Minister says about the level of pollution from incinerators, which is correct and broadly in accordance with reports produced, inter alia, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on this subject. However, it is not true of landfill sites, which sometimes cover many hundreds of acres and are regulated to a much worse standard, creating a much more significant public health issue. This is not a plea for incinerators to be built in the wrong place-the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton are very valid-but we need to understand that we are not comparing incineration with recycling but with landfill, and that is not acceptable either.

Mr Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is extremely important that we understand what we call the "hierarchy of waste disposal".

As my hon. Friends know, this Government are determined to be a green Government, and part of that involves moving towards a zero-waste economy. That does not mean having absolutely no waste-of course, that is nonsensical-but that resources are fully valued, and we recognise that one person's waste may be another person's raw material.

We are moving closer to zero landfill, and incidentally, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that the landfill tax is £48 a tonne at the moment and will rise by £8 a tonne for the next four years. So we do know what landfill tax will be in 2015, although I grant that we do not know what it will be in 25 years' time. Nevertheless, that point might be a little helpful.

We are carrying out a thorough review of waste policy, which we will publish next spring. I cannot pre-empt the findings, but recovery of energy from some waste through incineration and other technologies such as anaerobic digestion is extremely important. That process has a role to play as we move towards the zero-waste economy that I have talked about.

At one extreme of that zero-waste economy is precisely the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) referred to: getting rid of landfill. We cannot go on dumping material in the ground. Not only is it bad in all the ways he described; leaving waste as a legacy for the generations to come, who would have to dig it up, is a pretty impolite thing to do.

So we have a hierarchy of waste disposal, and the preferred option is obviously to prevent waste being created. The next most preferable options are reuse, recycling and recovery-either of the waste itself or energy from it. Landfill must be the very last resort and hopefully, it will be eliminated altogether. Clearly, that hierarchy can change for different individual waste types if it makes environmental sense. However, wherever possible we must set our face against landfill.

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In other countries, such as Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, recycling and the use of energy from waste operate in co-existence. In the Netherlands, recycling rates are around 65%, with 33% of energy coming from waste. The figures are similar in Scandinavia.

The waste hierarchy will shortly become UK law through the revised waste framework directive, under which we will have legal targets to meet. The Climate Change Act 2008 sets new targets for carbon budgets, and waste cannot be excepted from that process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton concentrated on local issues and it is entirely right that she did so. However, before I turn to them I cannot stress too much the fact that we can recover energy from waste not only through incineration but through other technologies. Nevertheless, incineration is a proven way of getting energy from waste, although nobody should pretend that it is some sort of "silver bullet".

My hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty and for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) raised the issue of the Allerton Park project. I am afraid that I cannot answer all their questions, but I will happily write to them about the details of that project or ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to do so. However, I point out that, as we said last week, we will publish the methodology through which the 11 remaining sites with projects were left in the private finance initiative allocation, and through which the others were taken out. I therefore think we will be able to answer most of my hon. Friends' concerns about the Allerton Park project.

I turn to the issue of the community. Of course, this Government make great play of the importance of decentralisation. It is an absolute commitment and we want to implement it as much as and wherever we possibly can. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton recognised in her speech, I cannot comment on the particulars of the Middlewich application, which will go to a planning appeal and ultimately, because it is affected by Government policy, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Nevertheless, the question of communities having their say and-if I understood my hon. Friend correctly-the planning authority's rejecting the application unanimously are important issues that will have to be taken into account in the inquiry.

We want to ensure that where such applications are made, there is a proper, informed and vigorous debate within the local community, so that it can make the right choices. I fully understand that there is a great deal of public concern about this issue. Concern about incinerators is probably exceeded only by concern about the proposed siting of a Travellers' camp next to people's homes-and that might be a marginal difference.

It is important that I stress what I said earlier: that there are no public health issues related to having an incinerator in the vicinity. There may be other planning matters, and that is why I cannot comment on detailed planning issues, but we need to have these debates based on the facts. The fact is that all communities produce waste, and responsibility must be taken for dealing with all that waste in a way that best balances the needs of the community and the environment, while allowing those best placed to take such decisions to take them in as balanced and informed a way as possible, with as little red tape as possible.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on securing this debate and on opening up what is an emotive and important issue for many local communities. I should have made it clear-although I think she is already well aware of this-that the PFI decisions made last week do not affect the Middlewich application because, as I understand it, it is not a PFI application so that aspect does not come into it. Nevertheless, I am sure that the my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will
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take note of what has been said today and will ensure that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is aware of all the facts when he makes his final decision, which will be based purely on the planning issues. As I have said, we are determined to be the greenest Government ever, which means that we must find a satisfactory alternative to landfill.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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