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.
The texts below are extracts from the two new MPs' first speeches to the Commons.
Neil Parish MP: "I should probably declare an interest as a farmer, and hon. Members would expect me to talk a bit in the rural affairs debate about agriculture, food production and the need for food production. My view is that the rising world population means that we need food. We need food in areas where we can produce it. In Devon, we have the rolling hills, the beautiful water and the right climate to grow excellent grass and produce good milk, good beef and good lamb. We should make sure that the whole country eats it, not just Devon, because it is among the best and healthiest that can be found. We have to promote our food more. I look forward to the Government introducing a food ombudsman, because farmers have to get a fair price for their food. It is not just about the subsidy that might or might not come from the common agricultural policy and the European Union, but about farmers being able to make a decent living from what they produce and to look after the countryside at the same time. Farmers are not the problem for the countryside and the environment, but the solution. That is something that I am determined to speak up about in this House. In the west country, we have a particularly virulent disease at the moment, which is tuberculosis in cattle. I look forward to this Government ensuring that we not only have healthy cattle but healthy wildlife."
John Glen MP: "I am delighted by the new Government's commitment to providing accurate information on food labelling, so that when something is labelled "Produced in Britain", that is actually true. It should not mean that the product was cut up, washed, prepared and repackaged in Britain. I also welcome the Government's promise that food procured by Government Departments, and eventually the whole public sector, will meet British standards of production wherever that can be achieved. I hope that Whitehall will be able to source more of its food from British suppliers, as that would be a key way in which to help farmers in Britain and, hopefully, those in my constituency. At a time when less than 1% of bacon served to United Kingdom armed forces is British, I thoroughly recommend a good helping of locally produced Wiltshire ham as a reliable alternative. I also hope that the Government will get rid of the Agricultural Wages Board, which has become an unnecessary bureaucracy that achieves little for farmers or their workers. I hope that they will be able to act in the best interests of our farmers, who need less intervention, more trust and greater freedom at every point. I believe that what is required more than anything else at this challenging economic time for rural Britain is a recognition that rural poverty needs to be addressed directly and urgently. We often forget that many of the lowest-paid members of our society are part of the rural economy and rely on a vibrant food-producing sector to survive."
In his maiden speech, Zac Goldsmith, the new MP for Richmond Park, argued that conservatism has always been green:
"The environment is the defining challenge of our era. It goes without saying—I hope—that without a healthy environment, we have no economy or future. It is the defining, underlying issue, and the basic maths tell us that we are heading in a dangerous direction: a growing population combined with an increasing hunger for resources means that the cost of living will at some point go up. If we take that to its logical conclusion, we will reach a point when conflict is almost inevitable.
We need only look at the facts. We can argue about climate change and our exact contribution to it, although I will not do that now, because other people have already done so today. The world’s bread baskets are being eroded. That is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. There is the destruction of the world’s forests, the loss of species and habitats and the collapse of the world’s great fisheries. These are real issues, and they are not subject to debate; they are matters of fact. They are not niche problems, but fundamental problems. I hope it also goes without saying that as we undermine the natural world and natural systems, we eventually undermine the basis of our own existence.
The cause of many of those problems is also, fortunately, the solution: the market. But if the market is blind to the value of valuable of things, if it is blind to the value of natural systems, and if it fails to put a cost on those things that should have a cost, economic growth can only be an engine of environmental destruction and a process that effectively means cashing in on the natural world until there is nothing left. Nevertheless, the market is the most powerful force for change that we know, other than nature itself. It is a tool, and if we allow the natural world to be plundered, it is simply because we have failed to understand how to use that tool. We need to put a price on pollution, waste and the use of scarce resources, and we need to invest the proceeds in alternatives. I do not think that green taxes should ever be retrospective—we have seen too much of that—and I do not think that the green agenda should ever become an excuse for raising stealth taxes. We have seen too much of that as well. However, whatever we do introduce must be real, not synthetic. We need rapid change.
Shadow DEFRA Secretary Nick Herbert has accused the Government of failing to stand up for British farmers in Europe. He had an exchange with the Secretary of State, Hilary Benn, in the House of Commons during oral questions yesterday:
"What confidence can we have in the Government’s ability to fight Britain’s corner on CAP reform? Why did not Britain fight harder against the absurd and costly proposals for electronic sheep tagging? The Secretary of State left it to Hungary to put the issue on the agenda at a recent Agriculture Council. He says that the current labelling rules on food are nonsense and need to change, but he will not introduce a compulsory scheme to stop British consumers being misled and our farmers being let down. When will the Government stand up for Britain’s interests in Europe?
Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman should look back at what has happened on the electronic identification of sheep. We were the first country to raise the matter in the Council—I did it. He refers to the subsequent discussion in the Agriculture Council, at which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was present. I am glad to say that we showed leadership in arguing that the cost of what was agreed in 2003 outweighs the benefits, which now flow. The UK has led the way in trying to get changes in the scheme’s implementation because I recognise the burden that it will place on sheep farmers. If it had not been for our efforts, we would be in an even more difficult position. As the hon. Gentlemen knows only too well, to change the regulation, we need sufficient member states to share the view that the British Government have expressed for some time.
Nick Herbert: Frankly, Britain’s farmers will be dismayed that the Secretary of State thinks that he got a good deal for them on sheep tagging. The proposal is absurd, costly and unnecessary. He said earlier that the CAP health check was a useful step forward, but at the time he said that it was a missed opportunity. He certainly missed an opportunity by failing to send a Minister to a crucial summit when the proposals were first discussed. French and German Ministers were there, but not ours. He complains about the pesticides directive now, but when it was voted through Britain abstained. Ministerial hand wringing does nothing to help British farmers. If he cannot do better to defend British interests, is not it time to stand aside and make way for a Government who will?
Hilary Benn: That has been a rather familiar theme this week. The hon. Gentleman raises the pesticides directive, but no European Union country has done more to argue against it than the United Kingdom. We did the impact assessment, through the pesticides safety directorate. We have been leading the fight against the pesticides directive. In the end, it went to the European Parliament, because although there are bits of the directive that we agree with, the bit that we do not agree with is the total uncertainty about what pesticides will be available to treat, for example, diseases that affect wheat. There are bits that represent progress and bits that do not. The Government’s view on the bits that do not represent progress has been clear: we will not vote for that part of the directive, because we should not be asked to sign up to proposals in Europe when, frankly, nobody can say what they will mean in practice for farmers who are using pesticides to try to grow more food."
Mr Herbert later issued a press release:
"From absurd plans to electronically tag sheep to country of origin food labelling the Government has failed to stand up for British interests in Europe. Our farmers and consumers need Ministers to fight the British corner in Brussels but recent years have been a tale of feebleness and missed opportunities."
At DEFRA questions yesterday Macclesfield's Sir Nicholas Winterton was rightly troubled about the infrequent collection of rubbish:
"I am concerned about the service that local authorities give to residents. Increasingly, under councils of every political colour, there is anger and criticism about how local authorities are operating refuse collection, not least regarding the move from a once-a-week to a fortnightly collection. In many cases, the size of wheelie bins has been reduced. When will local authorities take account of the interests of those paying them their wages rather than seek to meet—I say this although I do support recycling—some unacceptable regulations, many of which come from Europe?
Jane Kennedy: It is obviously a matter for local authorities to determine how local household waste is managed, how it is collected and how much recycling is performed. I have already described the improvements across England in respect of the proportion of household waste recycled. If the hon. Gentleman’s local authority is behaving in a way that he disapproves of, let me tell him that in my experience, because of the importance to every household of dealing with waste, this is one of the most highly political issues. It is therefore very important for local authorities to be aware of what their communities are saying."
I agree with Sir Nicholas wholeheartedly. Recycling can be a very good thing, but some waste has to be disposed of differently, and it is not hygenic for rubbish to sit in a bin for nearly two weeks. There are times when I wonder what I pay my council tax for. I wouldn't be sorry to see a central directive that bins had to be collected on a weekly basis.
Nick Herbert, the new Shadow Secretary of State, pressed the Government on landfill:
"The Minister told me this week that in all but two English regions, landfill capacity would run out in less than seven years’ time. We urgently need a better strategy to increase recycling rates further and develop markets to use waste as a resource for materials and energy in particular. Last month, however, the National Audit Office said that DEFRA had responded too slowly to the landfill directive, with the result that waste infrastructure projects were being delayed. Can the Minister explain why a Department that is meant to be leading on environmental protection takes years to act?
Jane Kennedy: As I said earlier, the recycling rate in England was 7.5 per cent. in 1997 and is now 34.5 per cent. A huge amount of work has been done. We expect the combined impact of our policies in the waste strategy that I described earlier to be a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of at least 9.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2020 as a result of waste management. What would be the impact on targets of that nature of the cuts that the hon. Gentleman would be forced to make in any departmental programme of this kind? When in government one makes decisions that have a big impact, and the decisions that we have made have brought about a sea change in household attitudes to recycling."
What would you do to improve the disposal of rubbish? (No jokes about getting rid of the Government!)
Yesterday Baroness Byford, a Shadow DEFRA minister who has considerable experience in the field of agriculture*, asked about the overpayment of hill farm allowance in 2006.
"To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many farmers are affected by the overpayment of the hill farm allowance in 2006; and what is the scale of that overpayment.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, final figures for 2006 will not be known until work to confirm the existence and level of debt has been completed. However, it is expected that the exercise will affect between 1,000 and 2,000 farmers, with an overpayment value of between £1 million and £2 million.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, that really is a very unsatisfactory position. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the RPA payments system is appalling and its continuing incompetence is unacceptable. Has the RPA sent out letters to all farmers who were overpaid, and what information was given to those farmers about what overpayments were due?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the noble Baroness is aware of the problems that the RPA has had, which led in the first place to what might be described as interim payments being made in relation to the hill farm allowance. Work is still being undertaken. I understand that stakeholders were notified last November that the overpayment process would begin. Work is now being undertaken and I understand that it will be completed in the next two months. Letters are likely to be sent out in March."
Might it not be best just to write it off?!
*Pun acknowledged, and apologised for.
A written question from the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Peter Ainsworth MP, reminds us of an extraordinary fact about illegal timber imports:
"Mr. Peter Ainsworth: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how many seizures of illegal timber imports have been made in each year since 1997. 
Huw Irranca-Davies: Under current UK law it is not illegal to import timber which was illegally felled, processed or transported in another country provided the actual importation is legal. The UK Government cannot institute legal proceedings in the UK relating to a breach or breaches of sovereign laws in another country, with one exception.
The exception is CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. As a CITES signatory, the UK Government have the legal powers to seize timber or timber products containing a CITES—listed species imported without the correct CITES paperwork. Information on any such seizures is not held by core-DEFRA and should be obtained from HMRC as the relevant central Government Department.
Various environmental groups have criticised the Government's refusal to ban illegal timber imports into the UK. In January last year, WWF said that Britain was the world's third largest importer of illegal timber.
Back in January 2006, Mr Ainsworth said:
"The trade in illegally logged timber is not only environmentally destructive, it is also unfair to responsible producers who find their products undercut in the market.
It is extraordinary that the EU has yet to ban imports of illegal timber and the UK should be pressing for it to do so.
We should also, as a matter of urgency, consider UK legislation to make it unlawful to possess or market illegal timber products."
What hope for the preservation of trees as long as it is not necessarily illegal to import timber that has been felled illegally?!
Declaration of interest: Tom Greeves, who wrote this post, used to work for Peter Ainsworth.
Shadow DEFRA minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach has asked an intriguing question about bees:
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): Reports of significant colony losses are being investigated as a high priority. To facilitate this, additional funds of £120,000 (£90,000 from Defra and £30,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government) have been allocated to the National Bee Unit. These funds will be used to expand the investigations the National Bee Unit started last year under a horizon scanning project into significant losses and to meet the demand for increased inspections of bee imports consequential to the colony losses."
I had no idea that bees were in decline, but apparently it's a real problem. The British Bee Keepers Association calculates that the UK's bee population fell by 30 per cent between 2007 and 2008. It's an issue elsewhere in Europe too.
According to the BBC (aka the BeeBeeC):
"Scientists think something called the varroa mite is partly responsible for the bee emergency. They suck the blood of infected insects, weakening their immune systems.
But it is thought there may be other pressures on bees, including some pesticides and the prolonged spells of wet weather which have been seen during the last two European summers.
The situation is so bad there is even a name for it: Colony Collapse Disorder, and the lack of information is one of the things that so concern MEPs.
They are calling on the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, to spend more money on research into what is causing the bees to die out.
MEPs also want the creation of special recovery zones on arable land, full of nectar-rich plants. It is thought such areas could help bee populations to recover.
The beekeeping industry is welcoming the attention from European politicians, but the commission will take time to act, and time is something bees lack."
Save the bee!
Yesterday the House of Commons held its annual fisheries debate. The Government was led by a junior minister - Huw Irranca-Davies, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Without casting aspersions about his ability, it seems odd that the debate was not led by Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State.
Mr Irranca-Davies's shadow is Bill Wiggin. He made an impressive contribution:
"The Minister has just returned from negotiations in Brussels. I recognise that the parliamentary time available for this important debate is limited, but it would have been helpful to Members to have had a little more time in which to digest the decisions that have been made in the past couple of days and to consider the decisions that will be made next week in the second round of the EU-Norway negotiations.
The revisions of the cod recovery plan that were decided yesterday are an encouraging step in the right direction. Shifting the focus away from Brussels and towards local solutions to reduce cod mortality by 25 per cent. is good for the industry and the environment. We have seen in Scotland the progress that can be made by taking a more flexible approach that rewards fishermen. I urge the Minister, when he returns to Brussels in four weeks’ time, to set the 2009 quotas for our fishing fleet and to press for more flexibility in the common fisheries policy and for quota levels and days at sea that reflect that.
There are so many conflicts between the Commission’s proposals, the views of the scientists it relies upon and the experiences and views of our fishermen on the stocks that they see. These will remain unresolved until some progress is made on understanding what is in our seas. The Commission is calling for a 25 per cent. cut to cod quota, but over the past three years, vast quantities of cod have been discarded. According to the Government’s own figures, between 2005 and 2007 almost 5 million cod were discarded by English and Welsh vessels in the North sea and a further 10 million from Scottish vessels. Annual discard rates have ranged from 40.6 per cent. to 83.6 per cent.—that is over four times more fish thrown back dead than landed."
Would anyone care to defend the Common Fisheries Policy?
Anne McIntosh, Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is interested in landfill, as evidenced by the following written answer:
"Miss McIntosh: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what progress he has made to meeting the target to complete the process of closing all landfills by 2009 that will not meet the Landfill Directive requirements. 
Jane Kennedy: Implementation of the landfill directive has so far resulted in a reduction in the number of permitted landfill sites in England and Wales from around 2,600 to 560 sites that continue to operate.
closing by July 2009 in accordance with a plan agreed with the Environment Agency (10);
subject to outstanding appeals against the refusal of a landfill permit application (25); or
still being considered following further investigation as to their fulfilment of the landfill directive requirements (75)."
That's a good question from Miss McIntosh. Disagreements about climate change will go on and on, but there's a lot more to the environment than just that. How we dispose of our waste - and how we reduce the amount we produce in the first place - is massively important. (Which is not to say it necessarily has no climate change implications.) Could it even be an area of consensus for ConservativeHome readers?!
Parliament isn't just a place to score political points. Written questions are supposed to serve as a way for MPs to glean important information. The following question from James Paice, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, has received an interesting answer:
Mr. Paice: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how much (a) wheat, (b) barley, (c) fresh vegetables, (d) potatoes, (e) fresh fruit, (f) beef and veal, (g) pork, (h) bacon and ham, (i) mutton and lamb, (j) poultry meat, (k) eggs and (l) liquid milk was produced by volume in England in each year since 1997. 
|Volume of UK production|
Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2007, DEFRA
Of course there are lots of political implications here, not least in relation to the fact that yields have fallen in several areas. And we might ask why the Government's answer showed UK-wide statistics, when Mr Paice asked about production in England alone.
But it's also interesting - and sort of cool - to know that British hens laid 9,900,000,000 eggs last year. Isn't it?!
UPDATE: The Scottish Conservatives have recently conducted a task force on food security, and published a report. It was edited by John Scott MSP, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs & the Environment, and can be found here.
"Bluetongue may be a misfortune but foot and mouth disease is different. The Government have been caught red-handed and are damned by their negligence. We know that the source of the outbreak was a Government-regulated and licensed laboratory. We also know from Professor Spratt’s report that the most likely cause of the infection was leaking drains. The Secretary of State has attempted to maintain that foot and mouth escaped from Pirbright through an extraordinary combination of circumstances, but the really extraordinary thing was the state of the drains at Pirbright.
The Government’s initial reaction to the outbreak was, I am afraid, characteristic. The Prime Minister announced that he was taking personal charge and immediately sent his spin machine into overdrive in an attempt to pin the blame on Merial, the private company at the site. That was shabby and dishonest and it smacked of desperation. The reason for the Prime Minister’s desperation to find a scapegoat has since become clear. As long ago as 2002, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council stated in an official report:
“Some laboratories and other areas of the Pirbright estate are not close to the standard expected of a modern bio-medical facility and are well below that expected of a facility of such importance”.
It recommended awarding funding for biosecurity at the site. What was the reaction from the then Chancellor? In the following two years, funding from DEFRA and other Government Departments to the Institute for Animal Health was cut.
It gets worse. In July 2004, Merial wrote to DEFRA with proposals to replace the drains. Nothing happened for two years. Tenders for repairing the drainage systems were finally received in October 2006. Why did it take so long to obtain those tenders? Why did work not start until July this year? Why were repairs to the drainage system not prioritised? Is it not clear that if the Government had acted in a timely way on the repeated warnings about the integrity of the effluent pipes at Pirbright, the farming industry would not be facing a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds, and the reputation of British science would not have been dealt a body blow."
More in Hansard here.