Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

I am delighted to have been appointed to this important role and to have such an early opportunity to answer questions. In the 48 hours since my appointment, I have not quite been able to speak to everyone or look at every issue, but I know from my work in Norfolk how vital this Department is. Food and farming and improving our natural environment are central not only to our rural communities, but to everyone in the country, and I want them to be a mainstream concern that everyone is part of. I believe that we can both grow our economy and improve our environment, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to do that.

The M60, the M62 and the M602 run through my constituency, so it is definitely not very rural. We have extremely high levels of air pollution from road traffic. Indeed, the Highways Agency has had to shelve its plans to widen the M60 near my constituency because that would have brought too much road traffic and made our unacceptable air pollution worse. Now that the European Court of Justice has ruled that the Government are failing to meet their air pollution targets, does the Secretary of State know, after 48 hours, what plans Ministers have to tackle air pollution in areas such as mine, to prevent my constituents from suffering respiratory disease and early death?

Let us be clear. Air quality is very important, as is protecting and enhancing the environment. This is a huge challenge for lots of countries, and it is something I am working on with colleagues to address. We have invested more than £2 billion in measures since 2011 to reduce emissions from transport sources.

T3. My constituents in Avonmouth suffered an unacceptable infestation of flies earlier this summer. The response from all parties involved, particularly the Environment Agency, was slow: it looked at the source of the problem, which was slow, not at the effect on my constituents, who suffered unacceptably. What will we do to ensure that there are plans in place for such emergencies and that agencies such as the Environment Agency respond quickly to residents’ concerns? (904911)

I understand that we await the final judgment from the Court of Appeal on this issue. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how we can ensure that the Environment Agency takes swift and effective action when such concerns are raised.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her promotion and welcome her to her new job. However, I am appalled to hear the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), confirm that she is going to continue with the discredited, unscientific, inhumane and ineffective badger cull. Is she aware that Professor David Macdonald, the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, which will have to license the culls, has described them as an “epic failure”, adding:

“It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified”?

Will she at least undertake to ask the independent expert panel which reported on the safety, humaneness and effectiveness of year 1 of the cull to report on year 2?

I thank the hon. Lady for her congratulations. Let us be absolutely clear: the reality is that bovine TB represents a massive threat to our dairy and beef industries. We are looking at the potential loss of over £1 billion of economic growth in our country. We need to look at the best scientific evidence. I have already spoken with the Department’s scientific adviser about this precise subject. We are progressing with our programme, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State outlined.

That was a disappointing reply. I am afraid that the Secretary of State has just flunked her first test and missed a golden opportunity to put scientific evidence back where it ought to be in DEFRA—at the very centre of decision making. I would be grateful if she answered this question: will she now give an undertaking to ask the IEP to report on year 2 of the culls, as it did on year 1—yes or no?

Let us be absolutely clear: we are asking Natural England, which is a proper expert body, to assess how the culls are going and look at what we can do in future. We must use every tool in our toolbox to address this threat to our beef and dairy industries.

T4. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. She has already demonstrated her commitment to UK food, but does she agree that large supermarkets, such as Tesco, should be encouraged to stock in-season products, such as British lamb, rather than discount New Zealand lamb, during our peak production period? (904912)

I completely agree that British beef and lamb are fantastic products, as is British pork—as an East Anglian MP, I obviously do a lot to promote British pork. I understand that Tesco has entered into a two-year contract with 200 British lamb farmers to help supply British lamb, but I think that we can do more to encourage not only supermarkets to offer local, seasonal food, but people to consume it. That will help our environment and our economy.

T2. The Burry inlet in my constituency is once again experiencing mass cockle mortality. Last Thursday, in response to action taken by some of the cockle pickers in my constituency several years ago, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion in which it named nine agglomerations that are failing to meet the waste water directive, including excessive spills from Gowerton and Llanelli into the Burry inlet, where there are sensitive waters. Although the Welsh Government will clearly be involved, it is the UK Government who are answerable to the European Commission. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this serious issue? (904909)

I will not seek to unpick the devolution settlement because, as the hon. Lady quite rightly says, this is a devolved matter. The Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales will be playing a key role in enforcement and in looking for a way forward, as will Welsh Water, but if she would like to write to me with further details, I will be happy to look into her concerns.

T9. I welcome the Department’s commitment to safeguarding our bee population. Now that the pollinator strategy consultation has closed, when will the Government respond and address public concerns about the effect of pesticide use? (904917)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is crucial for the future. We will finalise the strategy when we have received and considered the recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the draft strategy, which was launched in May and is due to report at the end of July.

T5. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that so few young people in our country ever visit the countryside? If she does, will she join my campaign, as many Members across the House have done, to raise £1 million—£5,000 from 200 constituencies would do it—so that more young people from underprivileged schools can visit the countryside? (904913)

I will look into the hon. Gentleman’s campaign. In my previous role as an Education Minister, we introduced the subject of food into the curriculum, both where it comes from and practical cooking, as well as bringing horticulture and agriculture into the design and technology curriculum, precisely to help more children and young people understand where our food comes from and to build the skills they need to work in the food and agriculture industries.

Small-boat fishermen in South East Cornwall and throughout Cornwall are concerned that a discard ban, along with their tiny share of the UK quota from the EU total allowable catch, will affect their economic viability. Does the Minister agree that repatriation of UK waters should have preceded a discard ban? Will he take forward a request to include repatriation of UK waters in future negotiations?

On the small fleets, I point out to my hon. Friend that we have reallocated some of the unused quota from producer organisations to the under-10 metre fleet. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), made considerable progress in reforming the common fisheries policy. We now have far greater regional control, with member states multilaterally deciding the management plans, and flexibility on quotas and a legally binding commitment to sustainability.

T6. May I press the Secretary of State to talk to her colleague, the Health Secretary, about how GP services in rural areas are under threat? That is a particular concern in my constituency. I urge her to push this point because they are facing a big threat—bigger than that faced by those in many other areas. (904914)

I will certainly be working with the Health Secretary, along with colleagues in other Government Departments, to make sure that we enhance and protect rural services.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Secretary of State, but is she not just a little disappointed to discover that 90% of her new job is simply to carry out instructions from Brussels?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that a lot of red tape is being passed down to us from Brussels. That is why I am determined to negotiate strongly at a European level as well as making sure that agriculture is part of our overall discussions on the EU.

T7. My constituents and people around the United Kingdom are facing a cost of living crisis. This Government are not doing enough on water affordability. With fewer than 25,000 people eligible to benefit from social tariffs offered by just three water companies, does the Minister believe that the Government’s voluntary approach is insufficient in helping those struggling to pay their water bills? (904915)

When the hon. Gentleman says “voluntary approach”, I assume that he is referring to water companies’ implementation of social tariffs. More companies are taking up the option of bringing in a social tariff, having consulted their customers about whether it is right for their area. The biggest thing we can do for people with regard to water bills is to keep the cost down. We have been clear on this matter in our messages to Ofwat. It has taken action and the companies have responded.

Was the Department’s press office correct in giving the impression last Friday that at least 20 staff will be retained at Alnwick after Steria’s Shared Services organisation moves its operations from there next June?

My right hon. Friend is understandably taking a close interest in the future of what has been a very efficient office. As he knows, Shared Services, with Steria, has bid for contracts on which it was unsuccessful. However, other DEFRA teams at that location will continue to work there in situ.

T8. Earlier in this Parliament, the Secretary of State supported selling off the public forest estate. Does she still? (904916)

We are not going to sell any of the public forest estate. I speak as an MP who has in my constituency one of the largest lowland forests, Thetford forest, which is a fantastic resource for people and nature.