By Joseph Willits
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In the spirit of accountability, speaking at Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs questions yesterday, Labour MP Tom Harris indulged other members with details of his own breakfast. Harris was welcoming the fact that 90% of food purchased by the House of Commons was British - 90% of which he had presumably enjoyed. After asking Caroline Spelman about jobs and growth in the food production industry, Harris asked what DEFRA's own percentage of British sourced food was:
"I think the whole House has a perfect right to know what I had for breakfast this morning. I started with sausages, bacon and egg—only one, of course, because I am on a health kick. In tucking in, I was reassured by the fact that 90% of all the food purchased by the House is sourced in the United Kingdom, encouraging British growth and British jobs. Will the Secretary of State tell the House not what she had for breakfast—too much information already—but what proportion of food purchased by her own Department is sourced in the United Kingdom?"
Spelman did not disclose her own breakfast to the House, and nor did she seem particulalry interested in Mr Harris', but she did reveal that only 18% of food purchased by her own department was sourced in the UK:
"World Trade Organisation rules mean that we can require purchasing to British standards in Government procurement, but we cannot require produce to be British. We adhere to those rules, and we actively promote Government buying standards involving all Departments sourcing food that is produced to British standards in order to promote those standards."
By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday afternoon, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, announced her Department's plans to control the badger population, through culling, in two pilot areas in the South West next summer, following a public consultation.
The Secretary of State explained why the plan is necessary: "Nearly 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2010 because of bovine TB, which cost the country £90 million last year. The problem is particularly bad in west and south-west England, where 23 per cent of cattle farms were unable to move stock off their premises at some point in 2010 due to being affected by the disease."
by Paul Goodman
Caroline Spelman was questioned in the Commons yesterday about the waste review. One of the main matters raised was weekly bin collections, and perhaps the best place to start is with two quotes.
The first is from my colleague Harry Phibbs yesterday, citing the Government's review of waste policy as follows:
"The Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, and to tackle measures which encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections"
The second is from an article by Eric Pickles, also published yesterday.
"For the first time, in a major change of government policy, Whitehall will start supporting – rather than opposing – frequent rubbish collections. We will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle. The Government understands that the public have a reasonable expectation that household waste collections services should be weekly, particularly for smelly waste which results in vermin, flies and odours."
The phrase "increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections" suggests that Pickles and Spelman are literally reading from the same page on weekly bin collections - while DEFRA officials work ceaselessly to rewrite the policy, against the wishes of their Secretary of State. This is the view that Harry took, and there is no hard evidence to the contrary.
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday morning saw Caroline Spelman and her team of ministers getting their four-weekly hour-long questioning by MPs.
Here's a small selection of the issues raised by Conservative MPs.
Peter Bone: The Prime Minister is keen on smaller and more efficient government. If the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills were to take back responsibility for energy, would the Secretary of State think it appropriate for her Department to take back the rest of the climate change responsibilities, because then we could get rid of a whole Department?
Caroline Spelman: If we are talking about efficiency, I can tell my hon. Friend that in my experience, reorganisation—including the attempted reorganisation of local government by the last Administration—is not always the most efficient thing to do.
The MP for the distinctly unrural Fulham and Chelsea, Greg Hands, asked about the extermination of urban foxes, to which the minister, James Paice, replied that "While the extermination of urban foxes, or indeed rural ones, is neither desirable nor possible, problem foxes do need to be controlled. In urban areas, that is the responsibility of the owner or occupier of the property, who can use legal methods to cull or remove foxes."
Their supplementary exchange went as follows:
Greg Hands: Last summer, a number of my constituents were attacked in their own homes by urban foxes, including Annie Bradwell, who lost part of her ear, and Natasha David, who was bitten twice as she slept in her bed. Will the Minister liaise with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see whether we can change the law so that urban foxes can be treated as vermin in the same way that rats and mice are?
James Paice: I am very happy to talk to the Communities Secretary about that, but I do not think that a change in the law is necessary to enable local authorities to take action. They are not required to do so, but it is perfectly within their remit to take action if they have the kind of problem with the fox population to which my hon. Friend refers.
Claire Perry: Does he agree that if we are to do what we say as a Government and help British farmers, we should put our money where our mouth is and encourage the public sector to buy British?
James Paice: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the Government will publish Government buying standards very shortly. They will require all of central Government to purchase food produced to British standards wherever that can be done without extra cost, which should not really come into it.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Caroline Spelman has just made a difficult statement to the Commons, making a full U-turn on the Government's proposals to sell off some state-owned forests. She announced
Mrs Spelman said that she takes "full responsibility" for the situation and in particular takes the message from this experience that people cherish the forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring. She concluded:
"I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listend to people's concerns."
Later on I will try and include some of the reaction from Tory backbenchers.
In the meantime, do read my post from last Friday: Lessons for the Government to learn from the forests fiasco.
Nick Watt from the Guardian has already blogged to commend Caroline Spelman's execution of the U-turn and to criticise Labour's spokesman, Mary Creagh, for a laboured and ineffective performance.
He rightly observes that Creagh managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by speakng for far too long and claiming that Labour was the party of the countryside, which prompted Tory MPs all the more to go into bat for Spelman and aid her in attacking Labour's hypocrisy on the issue of forests.
Here's a selection of the contributions from the Conservative backbenches in response to her statement:
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford): The Secretary of State has had the honesty and guts to come here to say that she presented ideas to the British public, but the British public did not much like them, so she said sorry and came up with a new approach. Is it not instructive that that is in such amazing contrast to the behaviour of that lot on the Opposition Benches who, no matter how many acres of woodland they sold and no matter how much gold they sold and at what price, nevertheless ran our economy into the ditch, from which we are trying to dig it out?
The Prime Minister recently insisted "I've been as open as I can, as transparent as I can" and that he has ended the culture of spin. This is of course satirical beyond description. It also chimes like a broken bell with a written answer to a question from Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Caroline Spelman:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if she will place in the Library a copy of the guidance in her Department's staff handbook on the declaration of gifts, hospitality and financial interests.
Mr. Khan: Our staff handbook has been developed as an interactive publication delivered through the Department's intranet. It is not held in a format which allows it to be easily exported and therefore could be provided only at a disproportionate cost."
The handbook could surely be printed off bit by bit and placed in the House of Commons Library. Or they could cut and paste it into a Word document. Or maybe it should have been produced in such a way that it could be "easily exported" - you know, in the interests of transparency and all that.
During the debate on MPs' expenses yesterday Derek Conway, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, made a noteworthy contribution. (He is listed as a Conservative in Hansard but is not on the Conservative Party website's list of MPs.)
He compared his own experience after being found to have paid his son for work that was not undertaken to that of the now Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Caroline Spelman. Mrs Spelman was recently cleared of deliberately breaching rules, but agreed to pay back expenses she had used to pay a nanny.
Mr Conway said:
"More than 200 close family members are employed by Members of Parliament. Many more employ lovers, who are not necessarily known to be related, and many more again employ in-laws because of the difference in their surnames. No doubt the total number of relatives employed by Members of the House is 250 rather than the lower estimate. Is that wrong? People will make their own judgments about my case, and they have done so. However, many Members of Parliament find it convenient to employ family members, not necessarily to supplement their income, because many MPs take a drop in salary when they come to this place—I halved my salary when I came back. Many Members employ family because of availability and reliability, and as many Members have experienced before me, family members are often employed for confidentiality and convenience. Is it just the money? I am not sure that that is the case, and it will be interesting to see how the Commission addresses the problems of central employment...
However, the standard of proof varies, and I say to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee that if his reports are contrasted, they will show that there is a difference in the standards applied, not only by the current Committee but by previous Committees, to the Members before them. The House will recall the treatment that led to the loss of Elizabeth Filkin’s services, in relation to the case of the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), and more recently the comparison between the investigation into my family and that into the employment arrangements of the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman)...
One wonders whether Committees of the House, as we know from experience, bend over backwards to try to protect Front Benchers if they possibly can."
Both Sir Patrick Cormack and Bernard Jenkin intervened on points of order to claim that as Mr Conway had accepted the findings of the House it was a bit rich to revisit the issue again.
One for the localists amongst you: there were oral questions on communities and local government yesterday.
Monmouth MP and pugilist David Davies asked about the Government's programme to tackle violent extremism, a topic which Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Paul Goodman has also been pursuing.
"David T.C. Davies: When I last raised this issue, I asked the Secretary of State for an assurance that not one penny of Government money was being given to extremists or to violent extremists. She was unable to give me that assurance at the time, but the Department has now had a year to look into the issue. Can we possibly be given an assurance today that not one penny of Government money is being given to extremists, and if not, why not?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that he has raised the issue before. I am delighted to be able to tell him about the range of work that has been done in the last 12 months. First, extensive guidance was published for all local authorities in June last year, setting out exactly the criteria on which groups should be funded. We fund groups that stand up to tackle violent extremism and uphold our shared values. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that following a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), I undertook to place in the Library of the House, by the end of April, full details—they are held in our Government offices—of the projects being funded."
That answer does not inspire confidence.
"Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): As the Secretary of State has answered this question herself, may I first say to her that we believe she had no alternative to the course that she took in suspending relations with the Muslim Council of Britain?
Let me now return to the question. The House will have noted that, for the second time, the Secretary of State was unable to give my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) the guarantee that he seeks that extremists have not got their hands on taxpayers’ money. As I know from correspondence with her, the reason is simple: no system exists to check who receives the cash before it is given. That is frankly scandalous. Can the Secretary of State at least guarantee that when she publishes information on where last year’s Preventing Violent Extremism money went—she has promised to do so—she will publish the details of who received the money, down to the very last penny?
Hazel Blears: The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that there is no system for checking the allocation of those funds to community groups. There is a system, for local authorities, the police and a range of other organisations, to ensure that the funds are allocated to groups that uphold our shared values and are committed to standing up to tackle extremism.
I have told the hon. Gentleman that this is not a ring-fenced grant, for the very reason that we want the work to be embedded as mainstream work for local authorities, and to draw in funding from other sources to ensure that it can be done in a proper, comprehensive fashion. I have also told him that we will place the information in the Library. We have told local authorities that the grant is not ring-fenced, but because of its exceptionally sensitive nature, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), has written to local authorities saying that we will continue to monitor it extremely carefully. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that if we want this work to be embedded as mainstream activity, we must be prepared to make sure we are working in proper, effective partnership with our local authorities."
Something has gone wrong here, and MPs are right to keep pressing until we find out what it is.
The Conservatives' new Communities and Local Government team debuted at oral questions yesterday.
Returning to a role she has occupied before, Shadow Secretary Caroline Spelman asked a question about business rates:
"I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), for his warm welcome, and may I say to colleagues how nice it is to be back? Business rates are set to rise by 5 per cent. in April, taking the average bill to £12,000 a year, yet today we heard that inflation has already fallen to 3.1 per cent., and the Government’s pre-Budget report predicts deflation, with the retail prices index inflation plummeting to minus 2.25 per cent. this year. How can the Secretary of State justify an inflation-busting business rate at a time when so many businesses are fighting for their very survival?
Hazel Blears: I welcome the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) to their posts. It is nice to see so many women on the Front Bench. I thoroughly enjoyed debating these issues with the hon. Lady’s predecessor—I cannot for the life of me think why, but I did—and I have no doubt that we will enjoy such exchanges, too.
The hon. Lady may have been away from her current brief for some time, but the non-domestic rates system has not changed. It has always been tied to the assessment of inflation at a particular time in the cycle. She knows that it is essential to try to maximise the take from non-domestic rates, as I said to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), in order to maintain the vital services that local government has to deliver to the communities out there. We all recognise that businesses and individuals are currently hard pressed, and we are doing everything that we can, including raising the reliefs on empty property taxes. The position on that has changed as a result of this Government’s decision since the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) previously had her current brief. We are flexible and willing to take whatever steps are necessary to help people through these times, which, as I have said, stands in marked contrast to the policy of the Opposition to do nothing.
Mrs. Spelman: I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree with me, however, that one of the saddest features of this recession is the increase in the number of empty premises on the high street. Will she therefore confirm that, even with the tiny relief in the pre-Budget report, the new empty property business rates are still set to raise £700 million this year? Does she accept that that additional tax could well make the difference between a business getting by and a business going to the wall?
Hazel Blears: I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that empty property in this country has been subject to taxes for 40 years or so. We are not talking about a new innovation. In fact, the extra reliefs that have been introduced as a result of the pre-Budget report will give relief amounting to £205 million to businesses that would otherwise have to pay those taxes. That is not an inconsiderable sum and is a result of a decision made by this Government. She talks about inflation, but she will know that local authorities had to cope with the spike in fuel and energy prices. Although inflation is now coming down, they have had to cope with real volatility in the system. Therefore, it is important that business rates make their proper contribution to local services. Again, we are bringing forward a raft of measures, ranging from skills support, training and help for apprentices to support for small businesses, the enterprise guarantee system and the working capital system. Those are all innovative steps taken by this Government in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives, who simply want to stand on the sidelines, wring their hands and do nothing to help people through this difficult period."