Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 11 December 2014

DEFRA’s priorities 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. Bees and pollinators play a vital role in the health of our environment and economy. That is why on 4 November we published our national pollinator strategy. It sets out the first ever wild pollinator and farm wildlife package for farmers, commitments from major landowners, and how everyone, from schools to parks and gardeners, can do their bit to contribute.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. On her recent visit to my constituency, she saw and tasted for herself the excellent food and drink products that come from the area, produced by many excellent local companies. What role do businesses like these have in boosting British exports?

I had a very interesting visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. Food and drink exports are now worth nearly £19 billion, and businesses like the one I visited play a key role in that growth. I enjoyed visiting Taylors of Harrogate, which now exports Yorkshire tea to China, and Bettys, with its confectionary brand, is part of our contribution to breaking the £1 billion mark in exports of confectionary around the world.

The Secretary of State has ministerial responsibility for food production and processing, so it is concerning that yesterday she transferred a question about campylobacter contamination in chicken, which had been on today’s Order Paper, to the Department of Health. The Food Standards Agency has said that 70% of chicken on sale in Britain, much of it produced here, is contaminated by campylobacter. That is higher than the salmonella infection rate in poultry in the 1980s. What is she doing to tackle this totally unacceptable state of affairs?

I can tell the hon. Lady that there is a project being run by the FSA and BOC to try to develop a treatment system of blast-chilling poultry to deal with this disease. Earlier this year the FSA ran an information campaign to raise awareness among the public of this problem, and as she is aware, the FSA has also recently published information about the incidence of campylobacter in poultry among a range of retailers.

The Minister sounds complacent. He has no plan to deal with this scandal, beyond transferring questions about it to other Departments. Food poisoning caused by campylobacter contamination in the poultry industry costs our economy and the NHS £900 million a year in days off work and treatment costs. It kills an estimated 100 people and makes 280,000 people ill every year. When will he stop being the mouthpiece of the food poisoners and start being the champion of consumers?

I simply say to the hon. Lady that, as she well knows, the FSA is the responsibility of the Department of Health. The FSA leads on food safety issues, including campylobacter. It is the FSA that has decided to publish this information, so it is right that the Department of Health should lead on this issue, but I totally reject the notion that I have been complacent: within the first week of coming into this job a year ago, I had our chief and deputy chief veterinary officers give me a briefing on the issue.

T4. There are 11 microbreweries, and even the Holmfirth vineyard, in my Colne Valley constituency in West Yorkshire. Will my right hon. Friend and the Department continue to support the success of the UK brewing industry, especially the businesses in my constituency, which are exporting their ales across the world, including to Australia? (906563)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and congratulate him on his work in promoting the brewing industry in Colne Valley. I know the Magic Rock brewery ales from his area are available as far afield as Australia, as he mentions, and there are other famous Yorkshire brands like the Ilkley brewery, which I visited recently, as well as the Black Sheep brewery, which are selling around the world. This is thanks to the GREAT Britain campaign and UK Trade & Investment, which are doing so much to promote our fantastic beer.

T2. There is concern about recent reports that indicate that the Government intend to bring forward the badger cull to early next summer in order to cull badger cubs. If these reports are accurate, is it not further evidence that this Government have reached new levels of desperation? It is cruel and it is bad science. The mass culling of junior badger cubs now is not a substitute for a serious TB strategy. (906561)

It has always been for the cull companies to decide when to start operations. The reality is that we inherited the highest level of bovine TB in Europe because the Labour party did nothing when it was in government. We are dealing with this with a comprehensive strategy that involves cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas and culling where the disease is rife. That approach has worked in Australia, where the disease has been eradicated, and it is working in Ireland and New Zealand. We are determined to continue with that approach.

T5. I thank my right hon. Friend for bravely and rightly extending the flood payments and reliefs that were given to the communities that were flooded at the start of this year and to all those, including in Nottinghamshire, that were flooded in 2013. As a good Yorkshire girl, she recognised the injustice that was being done to the midlands and the north and she put it right. Will she join me in thanking all the groups in my constituency, including the Southwell flood forum, and those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) that have campaigned on this issue over the course of this year? (906564)

I certainly thank my hon. Friend’s constituents, and I also thank him for the fantastic work he has done to promote this cause. It was right that we were able to bring forward those grants and I was delighted that, in the autumn statement, we were able to confirm £700,000 for flood defences in Southwell, which will benefit 235 houses.

T3. Mr Speaker, you will know that Newcastle is a thriving hub of life science, digital, creative and video gaming industries, but not everyone who works in the city lives there. People tell me that when they go home to rural Northumberland, they wish that this Government had delivered on Labour’s fully funded commitment to universal broadband for all by 2012. Does the Minister agree with them? (906562)

I welcome what the hon. Lady says about the industries in her part of the world. I would say to her that broadband is being taken forward. It is increasingly passing more and more homes in rural areas like my constituency and other rural areas around the country. Labour left us a legacy of an aspiration to do this; we are actually delivering on it and making a difference. We have further to go, but this is making a huge difference to those rural communities.

T7. The Marine Management Organisation says that it cannot meet me to discuss the disposal site at Rame Head South because of a judicial review. Will the Minister support my call to withdraw the existing licence and apply for a shorter one so that a new site could be investigated, the River Tamar could be dredged and we could care for the marine environment? (906566)

I understand that lawyers representing both parties in this judicial review are in discussions. I think the hon. Lady will agree that we need to ensure that we can continue to dredge the Tamar, which is a vital to the important port of Devonport. Also, I have always made it clear to her that I am willing to have meetings with residents, with the dredging company and with her to see whether it would be possible to identify an alternative site for the longer term.

T6. Around 10 million turkeys are slaughtered each year for the Christmas market. The vast majority are intensively reared and kept in sheds containing up to 25,000 turkeys, with no fresh air and very little light. They are fattened up so fast that they collapse under their own body weight. It is almost certainly too late to save this year’s turkeys, but what is the Minister doing to improve animal welfare standards in the future? (906565)

The hon. Lady should recognise that there are a number of free range turkey farms, and that these are growing in popularity as demand increases. I can tell her that we are in the process of reviewing all our animal welfare codes, and having discussions with the industry and with animal welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming. It is our intention to get the new codes in place as soon as possible.

T8. One of the side effects of hydraulic fracturing at depth is the huge amount of contaminated water that has to be disposed of. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take a close personal interest in the first fracking application, because at this stage Third Energy has had no detailed discussions with the relevant water company about how to dispose of the contaminated water safely? (906567)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Fracking is safe and has low environmental impact if it is done responsibly. The Environment Agency has been working hard to get the licensing process in place to make sure that groundwater is protected. I will certainly be keeping a close eye on this issue and working closely with the Environment Agency on it.

The landing obligation for fisheries is potentially a disaster for the Northern Ireland fishing industry, and it is to be introduced in January 2016. What discussions have taken place with the fisheries Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly about the effect the discard policy will have on the nephrops fisheries in the Irish sea?

I have regular meetings and discussions with representatives from the Northern Ireland industry, including earlier this week, when we discussed our approach on the total allowable catch—TAC—for nephrops for next week’s December Council meeting. The landing obligation contains many flexibilities: there is a de minimis; we can bank and borrow quota from one year to the next; and where there is high survivability we are able to put species back. There are sufficient flexibilities in the regulation to make this discard ban work, but there is detail we need to resolve, which is why we are issuing a consultation in the new year to begin that process.

Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), across rural England there are many concerns about the safety of the exploitation of shale gas, so can the Secretary of State confirm that no site will be given the go-ahead without approval from the Health and Safety Executive as well as the Environment Agency? They must be satisfied that any site will comply with strict safety criteria.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right about the HSE, and of course the local planning process also has to be gone through. I commend to him the paper produced by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. They looked at these issues in detail and at experience from other countries, which shows that, provided the correct environmental regime is in place, fracking is safe to carry out and does have very limited impact on the environment.