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Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Thursday 17 March 2016

The Government are committed to ensuring that our country is resilient in the face of more extreme weather. That is why we announced in yesterday’s Budget an additional £700 million for flood defences on top of the £2.3 billion capital budget we already have in place. That means £150 million for new schemes in those areas affected by the winter floods, and further funding to support the outcomes of the national resilience review.

On a different matter—[Laughter.] Well, it is a different matter! Staffordshire farmers are particularly strong in dairy farming. Like dairy farmers all over the United Kingdom, they are suffering from volatile prices and low milk prices. What can my right hon. Friend do to try to get milk consumed more—I am a great lover of it, which is why I have good teeth—and to get Government Departments buying milk?

I compliment my hon. Friend on his teeth. We have been working hard on Government procurement. One hundred per cent. of the milk that Government Departments buy is British, as well as 98% of the butter and 86% of the cheese. I am pleased to inform the House that, from April this year, all 30 million cartons of milk supplied to Her Majesty’s Prison Service will be British.

Derbyshire authorities found that 60% of takeaway ham and cheese pizzas contained neither ham nor cheese. To protect public health and give confidence in the food we eat, when will the much trumpeted but little seen food crime unit be given the teeth it deserves?

The food crime unit has been established as per our commitment and is operational. I am sure it will be looking into cases such as that one.

T3. The shellfish industry is worth £500,000 to the local economy in Portsmouth and has been affected by pollution in the past. What progress are the Government making to create blue belts that balance the legitimate interests of the fishing industry with marine conservation? (904182)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As she knows, we recently designated an additional 23 marine conservation zones, taking the total to 50 around the country. In addition, we have a network of sites of special scientific interest, special areas of conservation and special protected areas. She makes an important point that, in those designations, we have to balance the needs of fishing with the needs of the environment. That is what we intend to do.

T2. The Secretary of State has rightly acknowledged the need for better management of land upstream and water catchment areas in preventing floods. What concerns does she have about the burning of heather to improve grouse moors in upstream areas, where it reduces the ability to retain water? (904181)

We want management of entire catchments to reduce the flow going into our towns and cities, and to ensure that more farmland is protected. That is part of our 25-year environment plan that we are currently developing. The important thing to acknowledge is that the schemes we announced yesterday in the Budget will be looked at on a catchment basis. We are looking not just at Leeds, but at the entire Aire catchment.

T4. A number of farmers in my constituency have suffered from delays in the basic payment scheme, with all the worry and financial anxiety that that has caused. What guarantee can the Minister give that this will not happen again? (904184)

We have worked very hard with 1,000 people on this project to pay farmers as soon as possible. We have done considerably better than other parts of the UK, such as Scotland. We have now paid about 83% of farmers. By the end of this month, almost all of them will have been paid. We believe that from next year—we have done a lot of work on the computer system—it will be much easier for farmers to complete their application, because the data will already be there.

T5. Violent crime is rising in my urban constituency. It has been proven that access to open spaces and the natural environment can reduce stress and have a calming effect. Will the Minister consider discussing with me the trial of a programme to enable those at risk of serious youth violence to experience the calming effects of the natural environment? (904185)

I completely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the natural environment, and about making sure that our children and young people have access to it. Earlier this week I was with Zac Goldsmith looking at his plans to open up urban farms and urban pocket parks to help to get people that access.

T8. People who love bees, and farmers and consumers of products relying on them, are deeply concerned that there is an attempt by large US and EU chemical companies to downgrade environmental protections from pesticides in backroom lobbying over the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal in Brussels. Is this not an example of how elites run the EU and cause grave concern that their influence is unaccountable? (904188)

The authorisations to use all pesticides are decided by both the European Chemicals Agency and the European Food Safety Authority in the European Union. The chemicals regulation directorate in the Health and Safety Executive contributes regularly to them.

T6. I echo the sentiments of my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) in welcoming the announcement yesterday on flood defences. May I probe for a little bit more detail and ask how much of the £150 million pot the Secretary of State anticipates will be available for Calderdale? Given that it is being raised in a tax in this way, when does she anticipate it becoming available? (904186)

I thank the hon. Lady for her thanks. I can tell her that £35 million has been allocated to Calderdale, which is in addition to the £17 million already scheduled to be invested over this Parliament. We will be producing a specific plan for Mytholmroyd, but there will be a plan for the entire Calder valley by October. We are making sure that local representatives of the local community are fully involved in putting together that plan, so that it has broad support.

T9. Last week, I was delighted to join the Secretary of State on a visit to the thriving Roots farm shop in Barkby Thorpe in my constituency, which has both diversified and expanded in recent years. What steps is she taking to break down the barriers that stand in the way of other farm shops that want to expand? (904189)

I was delighted to meet my hon. Friend at the farm shop, and to experience some of the fantastic local produce available and see how the farmer was adding value to products. We want to enable more farmers to do that. Part of our rural productivity plan, which we have launched with the Department for Communities and Local Government, is a review of rural planning to try to remove the red tape for organisations such as farms shops that want to expand. People can contribute to that review at the moment.

T7. Given that the position of the farming Minister is for the UK to leave the EU, what measures does he believe should be in place and how will he ensure financial assistance for Scottish farmers should there be a Brexit? (904187)

As I explained earlier and as the hon. Gentleman knows, the formal Government position is to remain in the European Union, but the Prime Minister himself made it clear this week that were the country to decide to leave the Government would of course continue to support British agriculture.

Would my hon. Friend broaden the list of special areas of conservation to include the Thames estuary, which has important marine habitat, including marine marshes and marine sands in the area I happen to represent?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Both Leigh marsh and Leigh sands are wonderfully important habitats for wildlife. They already benefit from the protection of being a site of special scientific interest and are also part of a special protected area under the birds directive, so there is already a lot of protection for these wonderful sites.

In Morpeth in my constituency, we have a Rolls-Royce flood defence system, but we also have a problem with insurance companies still quoting exceedingly high premiums. They blame the Environment Agency for not updating the data. What can the Minister do to resolve this unacceptable situation?

There are two issues here which we will be meeting shortly to discuss. First, the introduction of Flood Re will ensure affordable flood insurance underwritten by a national scheme, meaning that lower-rate taxpayers’ premiums and excesses will be £250. Secondly, on businesses, we had a meeting yesterday with the British Insurance Brokers Association, which has now prepared a new package, with more specialised and precise mapping, to ensure that affordable flood insurance is available not just to households but to businesses.