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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Thursday 30 October 2014

The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are: leading the world in food and farming; protecting our country from floods and animal and plant diseases; improving the environment and championing the countryside; and improving rural services. Food and farming are core parts of our long-term economic plan, contributing nearly £100 billion to the economy and employing one in eight people. I am sure that the House will want to join me in celebrating the latest figures that show we are now exporting our world-class food and drink to a record number of markets. That includes more than 1 billion pints of great British beer being sold to 113 countries.

Will the Secretary of State help Britain’s hard-pressed dairy farmers by supporting fixed-price contracts and looking again at the product labelling regime and take some form of supply chain initiative with retailers and processers to dissuade them from, among other things, using liquid milk as a loss-leader?

I met the board of Dairy UK last week. I am keen to work to help our industry become competitive and deal with the increasing exposure to international markets. There are things that can be done on price volatility, and I have spoken to the supermarkets and the intermediaries on the matter.

T2. I share the concerns of the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) about the UK dairy industry, which is deeply depressed in many parts of the country, and is suffering very large losses. We have an opportunity to debate this matter next week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has secured a debate on it in Westminster Hall. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that she is meeting those concerns and is fully engaged with this problem, which threatens much of the dairy industry? (905759)

I am very much engaged with this matter, as is the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). On a positive note, dairy exports have risen by 50% since 2010. I was in Paris last week at the SIAL trade fair—the world’s largest trade fair—and I met representatives from White Farm Cheddar who are now selling their cheese in the Carrefour supermarket chain across France. We have good international prospects for our dairy industry, and we are working hard to open the markets for British producers.

The Secretary of State purports to run a science-based Department, so what evidence did she use to underpin her decision to withdraw CAP payments from farmers with solar panels on their land?

As I have just said, food and farming is one of our largest industries. It contributes £100 billion to the economy. There are 250,000 hectares of commercial roofs where solar panels can be located, but I do not think it is right that we locate solar panels on productive agricultural land that could be contributing to our economy, and I am sure the hon. Lady would not want that to happen.

There we have it—the Secretary of State had no underpinning evidence, just an ideological prejudice. Does she not realise, as the National Farmers Union has said, that land can be multifunctional, yielding an agricultural benefit as well as producing energy? At a time when National Grid is having to prepare contingency plans to ration energy use this winter because spare generating capacity is at a seven-year low, does she really think her priority should be cutting Britain’s ability to generate clean electricity? Is not this just another example of the self-styled greenest Government ever now resorting, in the Prime Minister’s words, to getting rid of the “green crap”, regardless of the consequences for our energy security?

This Government have a very good record on the environment. We have seen carbon emissions and air pollution go down and our rivers and water are cleaner. The problem with the hon. Lady’s point is that she does not seem to understand how important food and farming is to the rural economy. Under her Government, she failed to deal with animal diseases and the problems in that industry. The reality is that under this Government, we are seeing production expanding and overseas markets opening, and food and farming is now a much bigger success.

T3. Handline mackerel is a superb, sustainably caught fish, and many fishermen from my constituency have been struggling to secure a realistic price during the summer. How are the Government helping Cornish mackerel fishermen, and mackerel and herring fishermen throughout the UK, to combat the Russian trade embargo? (905760)

As a Cornishman, I am well aware of the importance of the handlining mackerel industry in Cornwall. We have managed to secure agreement from the Commission to allow us to bank up to 25% of this year’s quota to next year, to remove some mackerel from the market if necessary. We have also been very successful at reopening the market in Nigeria, which has been a particularly important market for many of our mackerel producers.

T4. Last night, young people from Peru told MPs about the dire effects that climate change is having on their agricultural communities, and asked that Governments listen to what people in those communities need. Will the Minister give support to international and national initiatives to tackle climate change once and for all? (905761)

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we do face a threat, and that is why this Government are taking action. The Prime Minister recently did a new deal on targets for carbon emissions. This Government take the issue very seriously.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am rather pleased he is not here—nothing personal.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Humber flood risk strategy, which is a joint strategy supported by all Members of Parliament to get £880 million of investment into the Humber for our defences? The current system does not work for us. We need a specific solution for the Humber.

My hon. Friend and his colleagues across the House who represent areas in the Humber estuary rightly consistently raise the need to review flood defences there and make sure that we have adequate investment. We will be bringing forward a capital programme alongside the autumn statement, and I know that he and his colleagues are very much pushing the case for investment in his area.

T5. Investing in research is vital if we are to meet the challenges of climate adaptation. Will the Secretary of State be a champion for an increase in our science budget, so that we can encourage innovation in both the public and private sectors? (905764)

I am very keen on science. It is vital that we use it better across Government. I have had a number of discussions with our chief scientist about our science strategy, which we will be launching in due course. We need science not just for the environment, which is very important, but also for our food and farming industry, and that is why we are sponsoring agri-tech strategies on how to obtain better yields from our crops and use water more effectively. Through better use of science and technology we can see a real improvement to our environment.

T8. Although west bank residents of the River Severn in Bewdley have benefited from brilliant flood defences, those on the east bank live with the uncertainty of the Environment Agency’s final solution to local flooding. May I urge my right hon. Friend to seriously consider demountable flood barriers to protect the east bank residents of Beales Corner in Bewdley? (905767)

I am aware that there is a long-standing flooding issue at Beales Corner and that, as my hon. Friend says, the Environment Agency is trialling temporary flood defence barriers there. I understand that the trial is set to continue until 2017 while longer-term solutions are being considered and the agency, quite properly, consults the community, but if my hon. Friend has further concerns and would like to write to me, I would be happy to discuss those with him.

I call Mr Michael McCann. He has toddled out of the Chamber. Goodness knows what is going on. Mr Grahame Morris.

I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the vital role of the Food and Environment Research Agency in detecting and responding to threats to our natural environment and the food chain, particularly in the light of the UK signing up to the transatlantic trade and investment partnership agreement. Will the right hon. Lady think again about privatising this agency, given its vital role?

That is not what we are doing. We are creating a joint venture. I went to visit FERA in York last week. It is a world-class institution, researching all kinds of things from plant diseases to the security of our food chain, which is very important, so I fully support its efforts. I want to see it much better linked into all the work we do across Government so that we can have a truly science-based strategy.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) raced late into the Chamber like a perspiring postman. It is good of him to drop in on us and now that he has had a chance to recover his breath, let us hear from him.

T7. After that introduction, Mr Speaker, I hope I do not disappoint, but thank you for calling me, in any event. What steps are being taken to increase the planting of commercial forestry in this country so that we do not face again the problems of yesteryear, and businesses have the timber supply they need? (905766)

There is a huge opportunity to expand the market for high-quality British timber, and I am pleased to say that since Grown in Britain started last year, we have seen an 8% increase in the amount of domestic timber and British wood products that we are selling. I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has the very large Kielder forest in his constituency, and I look forward to its future success.

If the Secretary of State is so keen on science, why does she not start applying it to the issue of where the birdsongs have gone? Will she look at Caitlin Moran’s recent article on this? The birds are disappearing from our gardens and our countryside, and they have disappeared even faster in the past four years. What is she doing about that with science?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Some weeks ago I visited the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ farm, Hope farm, up in Cambridgeshire. When we announce our new agri-environment schemes, measures that will support the recovery of farmland birds will certainly be among them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can the Secretary of State find out what has happened to the scheduling of payments for higher-level stewardship schemes for farmers in my environmentally sensitive part of Somerset? These have been contracted for a 10-year period but they seem to have been cut, delayed or changed without consultation or notice, and many farmers depend on them for their business.

I understand the hon. Lady’s point. An important part of the agri-environment scheme in the next few years will be to fund higher-level stewardship schemes to conclusion. If she has particular concerns, I am happy to discuss those with her. There has been some alignment on the start dates of some of the schemes, but I am not aware of any problems with schemes discontinuing.