DEFRA debate

Commons Hansard
4 Dec 2007

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will, but not very often, as time is short.

Mr. Martlew: I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman refers to animal diseases, so may I take him back to mad cow's disease and BSE and ask him how many humans died because of the incompetence of the Conservative Government?

Mr. Ainsworth: You may well decide, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that has very little to do with DEFRA - [Interruption.]

The Government's amendment even "congratulates the Government" on setting up the Department in the first place. I rather doubt that many who have had to contend with DEFRA over the years will share in the general air of back-slapping. Certainly not the one third of farmers who live in poverty; certainly not those affected by movement restrictions and export bans during the recent foot and mouth outbreak; certainly not those who were driven to the brink of financial ruin as a result of DEFRA's bungled implementation of the single farm payment; and certainly not the insurance industry, which this week called for "improved national leadership" on flood defences.

It would be good to be able to say that the hardship caused by the incompetent handling of farm payments was now behind us, but it is not. Apart from the fact that the whole fiasco could end up with the taxpayer having to foot a bill for hundreds of millions of pounds in European Union fines, nearly £75,000 is still owed to farmers from 2005, and £1.7 million remains outstanding from last year.

It was the mess at the Rural Payments Agency that substantially kick-started the financial problems that have dogged the Department ever since. Last year DEFRA Ministers were forced to cut budgets by over £200 million, and this year we learn that further cuts of around £270 million are needed to balance the books. Of course Conservative Members are always keen to find sustainable ways of reducing unnecessary expenditure, but forced cuts brought about by financial mismanagement are a different matter altogether.

Let us take the impact on Natural England, which is being asked to cut its budget for next year by £12.5 million. Today it published a board paper which sets out the likely consequences and presents options that will impinge on measures to promote biodiversity, wildlife enhancement and nature reserves. The paper states:

"We are therefore once again" -

that "once again" is quite telling, for this is not an isolated instance -

"fire fighting to secure a budget in the short term that allows Natural England to operate."

An organisation that is, I believe, less than two years old is already fighting a battle for its survival, and not for the first time.

Then there is the issue of bovine tuberculosis. We are still without an adequate policy to tackle bovine TB, which has so far cost the taxpayer more than £500 million. There is also the seemingly relentless rise in regulation. There is much talk of light-touch regulation, but the cost to business of DEFRA regulations is now put at about £530 million a year.

Mr. Martlew: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should raise that point. A significant number of regulatory reform orders with which my Select Committee has dealt in recent years have come from DEFRA. Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the Conservative party does not turn up at the Select Committee's meetings?

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that that is a rather pathetic question. The hon. Gentleman might like to tell us whether DEFRA is on target to fulfil its promise, set out in "Maximising outcomes, minimising burdens", which commits it to delivering a £158.8 million-a-year reduction in administrative burdens by 2010. Are the Government on target for that? I wonder. I think not.

This is not how it should be. Farmers should feel that the Government are there to serve them, not the other way round. Basic competence on the part of Government is an essential prerequisite for the important task of rebuilding trust. There should be a positive relationship between the farming industry and DEFRA's policy process.

More broadly, the rural community as a whole has been neglected. Those living in rural areas know only too well the problems that they face with declining services, problems over accommodation and a huge programme of post office closures. Without its own house in order, it is small wonder that people have lost faith in DEFRA's ability to handle the big issues. It seems caught in a downward spiral, with high staff turnover, hundreds seeking early retirement, and rock-bottom morale. The fact that the Department has a part-time permanent secretary may or may not impinge on its performance; all I can say is that if I were the permanent secretary at DEFRA, I would probably want to be part-time as well.

To add insult to injury, we discovered recently that over the last five years DEFRA had spent more than £1 billion on consultancy fees. That is a staggering sum, and what is there to show for it? Does dependence on outside consultants reflect, in some way, a sense of insecurity within the Department itself?

It is not just rural areas that have been let down. This is the Department charged with leading the way on efforts to combat climate change. Tellingly, last year it quietly dropped its long-standing manifesto commitment to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010. In fact carbon emissions have risen since 1997, and fell last year by only 0.1 per cent. Plans to encourage microgeneration in homes and offices have been half-hearted, with reduced grants - [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) blaming another Department?

Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman should ask the leader of his party about the issue of generation of wind.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We must hear the correct parliamentary language in interventions.

Mr. Ainsworth: I take the hon. Gentleman's intervention at face value, and assure him that the Leader of the Opposition will have a great deal to say on that very subject in a few days' time.


Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman has pointed out that a lot of work remains to be done. Does he believe that all the money for flood defences must come from taxation, or should we find another source?

Martin Horwood: I believe that it would add insult to injury if all the money came from water bills, and I should be very concerned about that. I hope that the funds will come from the reprioritisation of broader Government spending. Perhaps we could save money in other sectors of government if we invaded fewer countries.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): If I may paraphrase the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who spoke well, it appears he thinks that we should scrap the right to roam, cull the badgers and plant GM crops everywhere.

Mr. Morley: A good manifesto speech.

Mr. Martlew: Indeed. On the right to roam, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman use the word "socialist", which we do not hear often enough in the Chamber. In fact, many people roam through his constituency along Hadrian's wall, past my house, through the city and right on to Bowness. There is a value in people walking the countryside, and some of the rural pubs will be pleased with the Hadrian's wall path and the right to roam.

I want to come on to what is basically a constituency speech. The motion and the amendment talk about foot and mouth disease, and in 2001 my constituency was the epicentre of the disease in the north of the country. I had the first Adjournment debate about foot and mouth disease in this Chamber when it did not seem to be a major problem. However, it turned out to become one; indeed, it was horrendous. When I found out that there had been another outbreak in the south of England, I felt so sorry for the individuals involved.

However, it turned out that we had learned the lessons from 2001. The outbreak then was difficult, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said. In 2001, we did not know that foot and mouth was around. The farmer concerned from Heddon-on-the-Wall had some terrible practices, but never reported the disease and in the end was prosecuted. That was the source of the outbreak in 2001. We argue about meat coming in from foreign countries, but if everybody had done what they should have done and if the biodiversity had been there, we would not have suffered the 2001 outbreak.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman says that if everybody had done what they should have done, we would not have experienced that outbreak. Does that include the DEFRA official who licensed the premises in Heddon-on-the-Wall, which should never have been licensed?

Mr. Martlew: I do not know, but if that is the case, they should perhaps take the blame. The real answer, however, is that the pig swill should have been boiled, but that did not happen and that was the source, although we did not hear much criticism of the farming community or that individual from the Opposition then. However, we have learned the lessons of 2001. That is good and I am glad that the outbreak has been contained, because we do not want to go through that again. The big danger with foot and mouth is that in 10, 15 or 20 years' time when we have forgotten the lessons, it might happen again. I hope that at any such time we bring in vaccinations at a very early stage.

Another issue is the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment. My constituents work in a very large RPA area office in the centre of Carlisle and when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary came up, he was candid in saying that things had gone wrong, but that there was no blame to be laid on the work force. I am sorry that the Opposition seem to be blaming DEFRA civil servants. In the Rural Payments Agency in my constituency, they work two or three shifts. These are civil servants on shift work - something that I never thought I would see. They work very hard and very conscientiously, doing their best in very difficult circumstances. I hope that the Opposition spokesman who replies will acknowledge that. If we are to blame civil servants, let us blame those up near the top rather than individuals further down.

Flooding is another issue in our amendment. In 2005, my constituency suffered from the worst floods in an urban area of Britain for 50 years. It may have been worse since, but those were very serious floods. Unlike those we saw this year, they happened in the dead of winter in early January. We not only had floods; we had no electricity for many days. This was the first occasion for many years on which individuals drowned in floods in inland UK. Two old ladies drowned in their own homes in Warwick road in my constituency. It just so happens - it is a coincidence - that the Environment Agency announced today that the £12 million flood defences built in that area are now watertight. People living there will be able to sleep comfortably this winter. Unfortunately, in the part of the city where I live, the flood defences have not yet started, so I will not be able to sleep comfortably for another two years.

I would like to pay tribute at this stage to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe. That serious flooding happened on 5 January and my right hon. Friend arrived on the morning of 6 January, when it was still raining. He gave me a commitment on that occasion - in front of the cameras, which I felt was a rather brave thing to do - that money would be made available for flood defences in Carlisle. The £30-odd million that was needed for flood defences in the city has been made available. When they are completed, Carlisle will be the best defended city in England. I really want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that.

I would also like to pay a special tribute to the Environment Agency, which has done a magnificent job on the flood defences. I pay particular tribute to the lady who led the defences work - a lady called Kim Nicholson, who was there when the going was rough and made sure that the plans were delivered on time, but who tragically died this summer. It is the greatest tribute to her that her team has continued and that the flood defences are completed on budget and before time. That will be a fitting memorial for her.

Let me return to the point I raised earlier with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about the funding of this country's flood defences. I appreciate that the Government have gone along with increases from £600 million to £650 million and then £800 million, but I can tell the Secretary of State that that will not be enough. If we reflect on what happened this summer, it is clear that we will not be able to raise enough money through general taxation to pay for all the flood defences that we will need in the future. I do not believe that it is possible. Those who live in a flood plain who pay high insurance premiums and do not sleep easy at night should perhaps be asked to pay an extra contribution in future. I am not sure what the best mechanism is for achieving that. It may be through insurance premiums, but I am sure that people would like to pay more towards flood defences and less to the insurance companies. I think it was the hon. Member for Cheltenham who spoke of the inability to obtain insurance at all for some properties, the reduction in value of properties on flood plains and sky-high premiums. I suspect that if we could provide flood defences for those communities, they would be prepared to make a small contribution. The Secretary of State should consider that point.

Another aspect of floods is the aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe, who has seen many more skips than I have, will know that once the floods have happened the skips arrive, and are themselves flooded with rubbish that goes to landfill. In Carlisle we probably contributed to eight years of landfill in a fortnight. Where was the recycling process? I can accept what happened in Carlisle because that was the first of a series of events, but I cannot accept as the years go by that all the goods that are taken out of houses and put in skips should go to landfill. It is partly to do with the way in which the insurance companies work: it is old for new. If you have an old suite, you put it in the skip. It was amazing to see how much more was recycled by those who were not insured than by those of us who were well insured.

During the 2005 floods my car was flooded, but it was running. I ran it for a fortnight. Then the insurance people came along, and said that it was a write-off and would be crushed. My neighbour had a brand-new Porsche -

Mr. Paice: You must live in a posh area!

Mr. Martlew: It is not posh, actually, but that is another story, for which I do not have time. Anyway, the Porsche was taken away and crushed as well. The Government must take the lead on recycling in the event of flooding, especially if it is to happen year after year.

I do not believe that the lessons of Carlisle were learned. I think we should have protected the water treatment establishments and the electricity sub-stations. Fortunately not many of those went out, but the whole country should be sent the message that water treatment and sewage plants and electricity sub-stations must be protected. Nevertheless, I think that the Government are doing a good job overall, and I will support them tonight.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB