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House of Commons Hansard
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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
17 March 2016
Volume 607

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fishing and the EU

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1. What plans she has to repatriate control over British fishing waters and policy in the event of the UK leaving the EU. [904150]

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We have made some progress in reforming the common fisheries policy so that there is a commitment to fish sustainably, a ban on the wasteful practice of discarding fish, and new flexibilities to improve the way quotas work. As my hon. Friend knows, the formal Government position is that the UK should remain a member of the European Union. However, should there be a decision to leave in the forthcoming referendum, there are well-established international conventions that govern territorial scope and the way nation states manage fisheries.

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The EU’s common fisheries policy has been a disaster for both the British fishing industry and our marine environment. Overfishing by heavily subsidised Spanish trawlers has seen North sea cod stocks fall by 80% and the number of fishermen halved, and Britain is constantly outvoted on matters affecting our traditional British fishing grounds by EU member states that have no coastlines themselves. Will the Minister draw up plans to repatriate our fishing grounds as soon as possible?

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As I said, the formal Government position is that we should remain a member of the EU, but my hon. Friend knows that Ministers have been given the discretion to take an alternative view if they want. We have made progress in reforming the common fisheries policy. This year at the December Council we saw increases in cod and haddock quotas in the North sea. As a result of the work that we have done with other countries, including Norway, Iceland, the Faroes and other EU countries, we have seen a recovery of stocks, in the North sea in particular.

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Does the Minister acknowledge, however, that one of the difficulties involved in Brexit is that it is not necessarily easy to erase grandfather fishing rights?

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With many countries—EU member states and also countries such as the Faroes, Iceland and Norway—we have mutual access agreements, and we have annual discussions about the allocation of fishing opportunities. This is the norm. Whether countries are in the EU or not, there is always a large degree of international debate on these issues.

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Will my hon. Friend confirm that whatever happens on 23 June, there will still need to be quotas, fishermen will still want to export to EU countries two thirds of the fish and 86% of the shellfish that we land in the United Kingdom, and fishermen will still want to retain rights to fish in EU waters?

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My hon. Friend is right. Countries outside the European Union do have quota systems. We have considered alternatives, but a quota system of some sort, with the flexibilities that we are trying to introduce, is the best way to conserve fish stocks, we believe. Just as Norway, the Faroes and Iceland have quotas, we would retain those too. When it comes to the market, whichever side of the EU debate people are on—whether they believe we should stay in or leave—we all agree that free trade is to the benefit of everyone.

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I commend the Minister, who is obviously walking a very careful line today. He knows, however, that we had foreign trawlers operating in British waters before we were in the UK—[Interruption.]—sorry, before we joined the European Union, and that would remain the case if we were to leave. How many bilateral arrangements would be necessary if we were to leave the European Union? Can the Minister tell the fishermen in my constituency how the crucially important EU-Norway negotiations, which have a tremendous direct impact on us every year, would be conducted?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There is a misconception that the December Fisheries Council of the EU decides fishing opportunities in the North sea. As he and others know, fishing opportunities in the North sea are decided at the North-East Atlantic Fisheries Commission through the coastal states meetings and then EU-Norway. The UK currently does not have a seat at those meetings; we are represented by the EU. Obviously, if we were to leave, the UK would regain its seat on NEAFC.

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There is little doubt that membership of the EU has been damaging to the deep-sea fishing industry, but looking to the future, does my hon. Friend agree that our relationships with non-EU countries such as Iceland are particularly important to the industry?

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Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. For Grimsby and his constituents, the close relations and the partnership we enjoy with Iceland in particular is extremely important. There is a tradition in this country that we import much of the fish that we consume, notably from Iceland and to a limited extent from Norway, and that we export much of the fish that we catch to the EU, but also to other third countries, such as China and Nigeria.

Recycling Targets

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2. What steps she is taking to meet the recycling targets in the EU circular economy package. [904151]

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There are two separate questions here. The EU circular economy package is still under negotiation, but on recycling rates we are doing well, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We have gone from 12.5% recycling in 2001 to nearly 44% recycling. That is one of the real success stories in the United Kingdom.

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The hon. Gentleman will know that the aim of the package is to have a sustainable, low-carbon, resource-efficient, competitive economy. Does he accept that had it not been for European Union regulation, we would be nowhere in terms of dealing with waste? If it had not been for the stimulation from the EU and the EU package, we in this country would still be throwing all our waste in holes in the ground.

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The hon. Gentleman tempts me into a much bigger political conversation, but it is true that the European Union has played a constructive role in this. It has shown real leadership on recycling, and there are certainly things we can learn from other European countries—particularly from Denmark and the success it has had on landfill.

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I was litter-picking over the Clean for the Queen weekend outside a local primary school, and I was dismayed to find that most items were recyclable. What could the Government do to encourage the next generation to recycle and not to miss the opportunity to forge a circular economy?

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I hope other colleagues are as virtuous as the right hon. Lady. She has set a very high and exacting standard.

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I join you, Mr Speaker, in paying tribute to the virtue of my right hon. Friend. The answer is, of course, that we need to work on educating people—this is the German model—right the way from school upwards on the importance of protecting resources and of recycling. However, we could also do more to harmonise the system so that it is more straightforward, wherever people live in the country, to know exactly what needs to be recycled and where to put recycling.

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I call Kerry McCarthy. [Interruption.] I had thought the hon. Lady was seeking to come in on Question 2.

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We have been misadvised. Never mind.

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We want to come in.

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It is always nice to be wanted.

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Is my hon. Friend aware of the problems that some of these EU quotas cause local authorities such as Adur and Worthing in my constituency? The quotas are based on weight, and if the county council, which is the lead authority, collects more through municipal recycling sites, other local authorities have less to collect, so they cannot meet their targets and are penalised.

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There certainly are issues there, and I am very happy to look at this specific one. However, we should say that most councils still have some way to go, so I pay tribute to South Oxfordshire, for example, which has hit a 67% recycling rate, when the national average is about 44%.

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Could the Government look at the problem of the number of wretched plastic-lined paper takeaway coffee cups, the overwhelming majority of which never get recycled because of the difficulties of ripping out the plastic lining? It is a huge problem.

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I absolutely agree: it is a huge problem—there are tens of millions of these things being produced and thrown away. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, many cannot be recycled because of the way they are disposed of or because of their composition. The Government have tackled plastic bags—I hope everybody in the House would agree that the plastic bag tax has been a success—and coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next.

Flood Resilience

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3. What recent progress she has made on the national flood resilience review and updating her Department's flood defence plans. [904153]

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We are making good progress on the national flood resilience review. The call for evidence closed on 4 March. Yesterday, at the Budget, the Chancellor announced that, as well as the £2.3 billion already committed, an additional £700 million will be made available for flood defences.

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Has the Secretary of State any qualms about the fact that under the Help to Buy scheme her Government are subsiding first-time buyers to purchase homes in flood risk areas? At the same time, those people are not included in the Flood Re scheme the Government set up to provide flood insurance.

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The reason the Flood Re scheme applies only to homes built before 2009 is that we are very clear that after that period there should be no building in these flood zones. That is a clear part of the national planning policy framework, and it should be adhered to by local authorities.

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May I thank the Secretary of State; the floods Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart); the floods envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill); the Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government; the Prime Minister and indeed the Chancellor for all their hard work to ensure that Calderdale got the much needed flood defence money in yesterday’s Budget? Now that funding is not being inhibited for flood defences, will she assure the good people of Calder Valley that the Environment Agency and other agencies will be held to account over timescales to physically get spades in the ground?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has put in to make the case for Calderdale to receive this funding. I saw for myself the devastation that had been caused by the extreme weather over the Christmas period. We are investing an additional £35 million. At the end of May, there will be a report on the Mytholmroyd defences. Then, in October, we will produce a full plan for Calder Valley outlining the timescales and exactly which schemes are part of this.

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The Government finally gave in to pressure from Labour Members and will apply to the EU solidarity fund. As the Secretary of State said, yesterday the Government announced additional funding that goes some way towards compensating for huge cuts in flood defence spending in previous years. However, will any of this money be used to replace the 50% cut in DEFRA’s funding of crucial research on flood forecasts, warnings and defences, demonstrating that the Secretary of State understands the importance of up-to-date evidence in developing our flood defence plans?

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Let us be absolutely clear about flood defence spending. Between 2005 and 2010, £1.5 billion was invested. In the previous Parliament the figure was £1.7 billion. In this six-year programme it is £2.3 billion, and we are adding an extra £700 million because of the extreme weather we are seeing. Under the previous Labour Government, nothing like that amount was invested in our flood defences.

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While considering future plans, will my right hon. Friend consider the aftermath of last December’s floods? Farmers in Ramsbottom in my constituency are being denied access to the farming recovery fund because people do not accept that Ramsbottom is in Lancashire, which it clearly is. When it rains and there is flooding, it does not stop at an artificial border, so will she ask the Rural Payments Agency to look at this and apply some common sense?

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I very much believe in common sense, and I am happy to look at the case for my hon. Friend’s farmers. I am pleased to say that we have already allocated £1 million from the farm recovery fund to help them to get their farms back in order.

Farming and the EU

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4. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on farmers of the UK leaving the EU. [904154]

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9. What assessment she has made of the potential effect on farmers of the UK leaving the EU. [904161]

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I believe that farmers are better off remaining in a reformed EU. The vast majority of our exports are to the EU—for example, 97% of lamb exports and 92% of beef exports. As part of the single market, we do not face the tariffs and barriers that we face in trying to export to other countries. That is vital for the health of our farming industry.

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This week, European Commissioner Hogan announced a new package of measures to support the UK farming sector. Following that, UK farming union presidents have called on DEFRA, devolved Governments and the European Commission to work together on this new support package. Can the Secretary of State assure me that these trilateral talks will go ahead without any impact from the EU referendum campaign?

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Absolutely. I was at the European Council on Monday, making the case for UK farmers. I want to see investment from the European Investment Bank helping our farmers to increase productivity, particularly in areas such as dairy in producing more products like cheese and butter to be able to add value to our industry.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the EU is an invaluable support, both financially and socially, to rural communities across the UK, and that we absolutely need a resounding in vote in the referendum? If so, will she urge her farming Minister, the Minister of State, to listen to her, to the Prime Minister and to farmers themselves to ensure that our farmers do not bear the cost of internal Tory party feuds on 23 June?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that rural communities depend on food and farming, which face much more export barriers than other sectors. For example, we have been trying for 20 years to get UK beef into the US, and we are still trying to get poultry exported to China. We have on our doorstep access to a single market of 500 million people for our fantastic UK products. I think we need to build on that, rather than leave the European Union. No single country has full access for agricultural products without being a full member of the EU.

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The Secretary of State is quite right in saying that, after BSE in 1996, British beef went back into France and across Europe in 1999 because of single market rules. Twenty years on, we still cannot get it into America or China, so where are all the great markets going to be if we shut ourselves off from the EU market?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. If we look at the UK lamb industry, we will see that 40% of all the lamb produced by British farmers goes to the EU. That supports not just the farmers but our rural landscape and countryside. The fact is that no single country that is not a full member of the EU has tariff-free, hassle-free access to that market. Norway has to pay tariffs and pay into the EU, and Switzerland has to pay tariffs. Canada has quotas and tariffs on agricultural products. We should not take that relationship for granted.

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One EU regulation that my sheep farmers complain to me about is the need for carcase splitting, which adds time and hassle, especially as farmers search for incisors poking through gums. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the Government’s efforts to simplify that cumbersome regulation?

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We are making progress. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for farming, has recently had a meeting on the issue. We need common standards across Europe to make sure that we can freely trade with those other countries. As I have just said, that is particularly important for the sheep sector, 40% of whose products are exported to the EU.

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Even with the EU common agricultural policy payments, farmers are currently struggling because of supply chain issues and low commodity prices, and yesterday’s Budget offered them little help. As the National Farmers Union has pointed out, the

“continued focus on reducing corporation tax does nothing to help the 90% of UK farm businesses who are unincorporated”.

Will the Secretary of State meet the Chancellor to highlight those issues and the need for a fairer tax regime that treats incorporated and unincorporated businesses equally?

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This April, farmers will be able to average their tax over five years, enabling them to deal with the volatile prices they currently face. We have also improved the capital allowances regime for farmers and farm businesses. We are not complacent: we continue to work in areas such as public procurement, with our Great British Food campaign, to make sure that we sell more British food here and overseas.

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I share the Secretary of State’s views on the benefits of remaining in the EU for our farmers, the environment and the wider public good. However, why do we so often hear reports of the UK playing a negative role behind the scenes in EU negotiations, including opposing action on neonics and waste targets, and watering down important laws? If we vote to remain—and I hope we do—can we look forward to the UK playing a more positive role in Europe, starting with showing some real leadership on the environment and CAP reform?

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I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to remain in a reformed EU, but I do not agree that the UK has played a negative role. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has recently led on the international wildlife trade, getting agreement across the EU to help to combat terrible trade in those endangered species. The former Environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), showed leadership on the common fisheries policy by stopping the throwing of perfectly healthy fish back into the sea. We are leading on CAP reform: only this Monday I presented to the European Council a paper streamlining audit requirements, on which we were supported by 17 other member states. We are constantly making progress. We are working to simplify the CAP, and changes have been made to it. Thirty or 40 years ago, there were wine lakes and butter mountains, but they no longer exist.

Tree Planting

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5. How many schools are taking part in the Government’s new tree planting scheme. [904155]

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So far, 800 primary schools have participated in the scheme. The hope is that in the next stage we will give 1 million individual schoolchildren the opportunity to select, plant and care for their own tree.

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I congratulate the Minister on this fantastic scheme. I know that schools in Worcester, which are great fans of the forest schools initiative, will want to play their full part. Trees are a fantastic investment in cleaner air, in the quality of life in our cities and in flood defence. Will the Minister come to Worcester and see the tree renaissance that is taking place in our city, where our mayor, Roger Knight, is leading the planting of thousands of new trees?

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I should be delighted to take up that offer. Worcester is showing real leadership, but we would like many more towns and cities in the United Kingdom to engage in planting more trees. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, it is fantastic for tackling air pollution, fantastic for biodiversity and great for our leisure and health. In particular, I pay tribute to the work in Worcester at Laugherne Brook and Perdiswell.

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In addition to the development of new woodland, the maintenance of existing woodland is equally important. What steps have the Government taken to promote and maintain our existing woodlands?

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We have a series of schemes on this. The countryside stewardship scheme gives grants to improve woodland. We also have new projects worth millions of pounds working on under-managed woodland to make sure it is managed better, and we have a £1 million scheme to help people to plan and develop new woodland across the north of England in particular.

Food Waste

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6. What steps she is taking to reduce food waste. [904157]

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The work on food waste has a number of components. It starts at the farm gate, by making sure that food is not wasted there; it continues to the supermarket shelves, by making sure that products last longer on those shelves; and it ends up in households, by making sure that people understand how to buy sensible portions and that they do not throw away food unnecessarily. The Courtauld 2025 agreement, led by the Waste and Resources Action Programme, has the target of reducing food waste by a further 20% between now and 2025.

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The Minister will know that the Scottish Government have pledged to cut food waste by a third and save £500 million by 2025. Scotland is the first part of Europe to set such a food waste reduction target. Will the Minister follow that example and pledge a UK Government target to save money and cut food waste?

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I pay tribute to Scotland for the work it is doing, but I politely point out that recycling rates in Scotland are, unfortunately, lower than they are in England or Wales. However, we very much endorse the desire of the Government of Scotland to improve that recycling rate, particularly in relation to food waste.

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Where food waste occurs, it is important to treat it as a resource and put it to good use rather than send it to landfill. One of the best uses for it is in anaerobic digesters to produce electricity. As household food waste is collected by local authorities, what discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to encourage councils to raise the proportion of the food waste that they collect and send to anaerobic digestion?

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There are two elements to that. The first is working with councils in Britain to make sure that they all move towards separate food waste collections. That is absolutely central. The second is making sure that we minimise that food waste, but that when it occurs, it is used either for composting or for the generation of energy. That also involves a long-term plan for infrastructure.

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May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and other right hon. and hon. Members a very happy St Patrick’s day? They say that if the sun shines on St Patrick’s day, it will be a very good summer. Only time will tell whether that will be the case.

I welcome the news that Tesco has said that all its unsold food will be given to charities, and that will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the reduction of food waste. What discussions has the Minister had with other large food chains to ensure that they do similar work?

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I join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating St Patrick’s day.

Tesco is taking a serious lead on this, but many other retailers have also taken a lead, particularly Morrisons and the Co-op on the procurement of food and making it last. All the major retailers have now signed up to the Courtauld 2025 agreement. Currently, the waste coming from those retailers’ shelves is only about 0.2 million tonnes a year, which is lower than in other sectors. However, those supermarkets can contribute much more to everything down the chain, both at the farm gate and in the household, and we will continue to work with them closely on that.

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If the Minister wants any further advice on anaerobic digester plants, he should go to see David Easom, a farmer based in the villages of Wessington and Brackenfield in the Bolsover constituency. Several years ago, I mentioned the fact that he was going to have an anaerobic digester in this House. It is now up and running. Everybody is going to visit him, and Ministers from the Department should go to see how it works. Everything is in running order, just like everything else in Bolsover.

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We very much hope that the plant is in Derbyshire, rather than in this House.

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I feel that that is a great compliment. It is a historic opportunity for me to spend time with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), whom I have long admired. I very much look forward to visiting the plant with him.

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I am sure we will get a report in due course.

Marine Environment

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7. What steps the Government are taking to reduce marine litter and plastics pollution. [904158]

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Part 3 of the UK marine strategy, published last December, sets out the actions we are taking to improve the marine environment. It includes measures that contribute to reducing sources of marine litter, including plastics. In England, we have now introduced a 5p charge on single-use plastic bags, following the success of this policy in other parts of the UK. Given the trans-boundary nature of marine litter, we are working with other countries in the Oslo and Paris convention for the protection of the marine environment.

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Marine litter and plastic waste are damaging our wonderful coastlines and marine life, not least, in my constituency, in the Dee estuary, which is internationally important for its bird life, the beaches of West Kirby, Thurstaston and Hoylake, and the Red Rocks site of special scientific interest, which is an important breeding ground for frogs and natterjack toads. Will the Government follow President Obama’s lead and ban microbeads in cosmetics?

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This issue was discussed at OSPAR—the Oslo and Paris—convention in 2014. The UK pushed very hard to get a voluntary agreement to which the cosmetics industry would sign up. At the end of last year, Cosmetics Europe, the industry body representing all cosmetic manufacturers in Europe, gave an undertaking to phase out the use of microbeads in particular. We rule out nothing when it comes to considering regulation in the future.

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The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) is absolutely right to raise this issue. Nothing is more heartbreaking than walking along a coast—or even in Lichfield, right in the middle of the nation, where we have the lakes of Minster Pool and Stowe Pool—and seeing swans and other animals suffering because of bags and other material that have been left there.

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is why we took the decision to introduce the 5p charge on single-use plastic bags. The big problem we have with plastics is that they remain in the environment for a very long time, which compounds the problem, and we add to it each year. Once these plastics are in the marine environment, it is incredibly difficult for them to be removed, so it is essential that we do all we can to stop plastics getting into the marine environment.

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At the last Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, the Environment Secretary assured me that the Government were serious about tackling plastics pollution and marine litter. Yet, on the circular economy all we hear is vague talk of encouraging voluntary action and mumblings about overarching concerns. On the marine side, 10 EU countries have invested in joint EU research into micro-plastics in the sea, the joint programming initiative on oceans. We have world-class marine research facilities in the UK, so why are we not part of that?

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I think the hon. Lady will find that we are doing quite a lot of research on marine plastics. Plymouth University has done some work for us on that. I am very clear: we do want action across Europe. That is why we have worked with partners in the OSPAR convention, and why we have pressed to get a voluntary undertaking by the industry to get rid of microbeads. As I said in my initial answer, we have also been very clear that we do not rule out regulatory steps, if necessary.

Flood Defence Schemes

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8. How many flood defence schemes are planned to (a) begin and (b) complete construction in 2016. [904159]

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Some 246 schemes were begun in 2016-17, and 190 are due for completion.

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Will the Minister kindly update the House on progress with the legislation that is required to set up the Somerset rivers authority as a separate precepting body, so that we can fund flood protection for the future? Local authority budgets are currently covered by a special caveat, but legislation is required to set up the precept for 2017-18.

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As my hon. Friend is aware, DEFRA committed £1.7 million to the Somerset rivers authority. That authority has now decided that its preferred solution is a precept, and a shadow precept will come into effect from April this year. We look forward to discussing the long-term financial arrangements directly with the authority.

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York welcomes the investment in our flood defences, but the Foss barrier will be underfunded by this Government for the improvement that it needs, and the capacity of the pumps will be 40 tonnes per second, not the 50 tonnes per second that is needed. Will the Minister commit to considering that issue, to ensure that we have sufficient funds to improve the barrier?

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We have significant funds for the barrier, and we are committed to considering that issue. I am happy to go and look at the Foss barrier with the hon. Lady. The calculation on the pumps is an engineering calculation, and we would be happy to look at the flood maps with the hon. Lady. We will provide the correct funds for the correct solution for the Foss barrier.

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Order. We are short of time, so single-sentence, short supplementaries are needed.

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13. A small but important role in flood defence is played by farmers who clear ditches and drainage channels. What progress is being made to remove the bureaucracy that sometimes stops them from doing that? [904165]

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Two weeks ago, we took through the House new legislation that will significantly simplify what happens. We will focus the efforts of the Environment Agency on the highest-risk cases, we have reduced red tape by 50%, and we are allowing farmers in non-specialist environmental zones to clear 1,500 metres of drainage ditch without having to get a bespoke permit.

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Will the money allocated for flood defences in yesterday’s Budget stay with the Treasury or be transferred directly to the Department? How much of it will be allocated for maintenance of flood defences?

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We are currently discussing the details of that, but the Treasury was clear that at least £40 million in the first year will go into maintenance, and £200 million of the initial allocation will go to capital spending on flood defences.

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16. The Lincolnshire wolds are beautiful but suffer from flooding. How many homes will be protected in the market towns of Horncastle and Louth as a result of the flood alleviation schemes that are funded in part by this Government, Lincolnshire County Council, and East Lindsey Council? [904168]

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Some 13,989 properties are due to be protected, including more than 300 in the areas mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Air Pollution

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10. What steps she is taking to improve monitoring of levels of air pollution. [904162]

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11. What steps she is taking to improve monitoring of levels of air pollution. [904163]

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The Department continues to improve its monitoring of levels of air pollution in line with the EU ambient air quality directive, and the computer programme to calculate emissions from road transport, or Copert. We have increased the number of nitrogen dioxide monitoring stations by more than 30% over the past three years.

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Air pollution will cost many more thousands of lives if air quality is not improved significantly. How will the Government achieve legally binding targets for air pollution if the third runway at Heathrow is permitted?

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The current objective is to focus on nitrogen dioxide thresholds and ensure that we reduce ambient air quality rates below 40 micrograms per cubic metre. Heathrow is a totally separate question that must be assessed independently by the Environment Agency and our air quality monitors, to see whether ambient air quality targets are met.

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Air pollution kills 50,000 people a year, yet the Government are concerned with only five cities. Will the Minister explain why?

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That is a very good question. In those five cities, the ambient air quality level of 40 micrograms per cubic metre is due to be exceeded. Therefore, our objective is to ensure that by 2020, in Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Southampton, we drop that level below 40 micrograms per cubic metre.

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14. In Deptford, air pollution levels are more than double the European legal limit. London as a whole breached annual air pollution limits just days into 2016. Does the Minister think his Department is doing enough? [904166]

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We have reduced nitrogen dioxide dramatically in Britain—by 44%—but there are still significant problems in London. That is partly to do with the population and design of London, which is why an ultra-low emission zone is being introduced in London to ensure that we exclude the vehicles that are responsible for the majority of that air pollution.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [904180]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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The right hon. Lady was talking about the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith).

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.