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Topical Questions

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 7 July 2016

Two weeks ago, the British people voted to leave the European Union. I will be ensuring that food, farming and the environment have a strong voice in the exit negotiations and in establishing our new domestic policies. Until we leave the EU, it is business as usual for farmers and the environment, and I am meeting relevant organisations to assure them of that. DEFRA’s work continues: we will shortly be publishing the national flood resilience review; we will be continuing with our Great British Food campaign and our work to open up new markets; and we will be developing 14 local environment plans.

Following the devastating Boxing day floods last year, will my right hon. Friend tell me and my constituents what long-term plans are being put in place to protect low-lying villages in my constituency, such as Methley, Mickletown, Allerton Bywater and Woodlesford?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been an assiduous advocate of his constituency, ensuring that towns and villages in his area are not adversely affected by flood defences upstream. We will be working on an overall plan for the River Aire catchment, through which we will manage the overall river flow instead of looking at individual places. That will form part of our national flood resilience review, which we will be announcing shortly.

The horticultural industry is particularly vulnerable following the leave vote due to the high proportion of EU seasonal workers in the sector. How will the Secretary of State ensure that our crops are harvested in this uncertain period by securing continued labour from the EU?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and welcome her to the Dispatch Box. She was a fantastic advocate for her constituents during the difficult flooding in York, and I look forward to working with her.

As for agricultural workers, my constituency is a great producer of salad vegetables and onions, and I fully understand the importance of EU workers to our agricultural industry. It will be one of the key things that DEFRA will work on, putting the case across Government to ensure that we continue to have that supply of workers.

It is evident from the Secretary of State’s responses that her Department did not make contingency plans for a leave vote, failing in its duty to protect not only one of our major industries, but those who work in it. Will the Secretary of State confirm that all EU citizens working in farming can remain in the UK, which the vote on yesterday’s Opposition day motion called for, and that she has already made representations to the Home Office?

It is absolutely clear that it is business as usual while we remain members of the EU and that those workers will continue to work in those areas. The reality is that I cannot make decisions for a future Prime Minister. That is the fundamental issue here and that is why my job over the coming months is to be a strong voice for farming and the environment in the overall negotiations.

T2. Following the floods in Carlisle, I am concerned that a group of leaseholders will not be able to get insurance under Flood Re. They consist of 68 long leaseholders with a management company as the freeholder with responsibility for insurance. That management company has not been able to obtain insurance so far. Will the Minister look into the issue and consider amending the legislation if necessary? (905704)

In addition to welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to her position, may I also welcome my friend the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to his position?

As for the flooding in Carlisle, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) is a great champion of his constituency. If there is an individual leasehold property, it would be covered with affordable insurance under Flood Re. Unfortunately, when there is a larger number of properties, such as the more than 60 properties that the landlord has in this case, it would be classified as commercial insurance and would require a bespoke, tailored commercial insurance product from the insurance industry. I am happy to look at the individual case, and the British Insurance Brokers Association is also coming up with tailored products exactly to address such commercial risks.

T4. Scotland’s food and drink industry exports £725 million-worth of produce to the European Union. Given the disastrous Brexit vote, what impact does the Minister believe any restrictions on the seasonal workforce will have on the industry north of the border? (905706)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It shows why we are turbo-charging the work of the Great British Food Unit, to make sure that we open up new markets and get more of our products out into the world, as well as into the European Union. I am clear that agriculture and food has major export growth potential, which is why I am having a meeting today with the Business Secretary to talk about our trade negotiations and making sure that food is a key part of those.

T3. Our farms have some of the highest livestock welfare standards in the world, so how will that be recognised in upcoming trade negotiations? We will be doing our farmers a disservice if cheap imported food produced with very little regard for livestock welfare comes into the UK. (905705)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware that we have a manifesto commitment to recognise animal welfare standards in our trade negotiations. That is particularly important in sectors such as poultry meat during Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership discussions, and I can assure him that we make these representations to the European Commission.

T8. The Government decided against using DEFRA funding to implement a clean air zone in Manchester. Greater Manchester is expected to miss our 2020 air quality targets, because of the high levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter caused by road transport. Will the Government look again at a scrappage scheme for older vehicles and at incentives to encourage the use of hybrid and electric cars? (905711)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. According to our projections, Greater Manchester will hit, by being below, the 40 mg target, which is why it has not been included in the mandatory clean air zones. We are shortly about to consult on those, but the legislation is in place for Greater Manchester to put in that clean air zone if it wishes to do so; I believe in devolution, and surely it is a matter for the local council if it wants to take that forward.

T5. The recent Environmental Audit Committee report on the important subject of soil highlighted that a significant proportion of our agricultural land will be become unproductive within a generation. Will the Minister therefore meet me to discuss the sustainable management of soils, so that emphasis is put on treating them as ecosystems, rather than as growing mediums? A monitoring scheme would really help. (905707)

My hon. Friend correctly says that soils are not just for short-term production; they are incredibly important stores of organic matter. There is a lot that we can do, and are doing, on precision farming and shelter belts. Rothamsted Research is also doing work on this issue, but I would be delighted to meet her and to make sure that this is central to our 25-year plan.

More than half the population of England live within an hour of a national park, but many young people and their families struggle to get to them because rural bus services have been hit by devastating cuts and eye-watering fare rises. This is Catch the Bus week, so can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions she has had with the Transport Secretary about making our countryside accessible by public transport?

DEFRA takes that very seriously; we have a responsibility for rural affairs. We have very regular contact with the Department for Transport on this issue, and we supported it on developing community bus schemes. There is much more we can do. As the hon. Lady has pointed out, without communications connections, which buses are central to, rural areas will be disadvantaged.

T6. On 27 April, the Prime Minister confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) that the Government are working on a flood insurance plan for the many small and medium-sized businesses in flood-risk areas that are excluded from insurance cover. Will the Minister update the House on how those plans are going? (905708)

My hon. Friend has been an extraordinary champion for his constituency—indeed, he had a late Christmas day celebration a couple of days ago. I saw at first hand with him the devastation for businesses in Calder Valley, ranging from furniture shops to carpentry manufacturers. The problem on commercial insurance is, of course, that different businesses have different attitudes towards interruption payments and excesses. However, that is being addressed through the BIBA process and, most importantly, through the investment in flood defences.

I fully understand the 2009 cut-off date for Flood Re, of which developers and local authorities should have been fully aware, but what more can the Minister do to make it legally binding to inform purchasers that they will not be eligible for Flood Re? What about properties that are downhill of new developments that have subsequently become more at risk as a result of developments built since 2009?

Fundamentally, the answer to these issues is to ensure that we have good flood defences and that we build resilience in housing, but it is absolutely correct to say that we need to ensure that transparency is part of that. Somebody buying a house needs to know that it is at flood risk so that they can make an intelligent decision—ideally, it would be not to buy that house.

T7. The excellent annual Trawden show takes place on Sunday 14 August. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Trawden and District Agricultural Society on organising the event, and does she agree that agriculture shows in communities play a key role in promoting agriculture to a wider audience? (905710)

Agriculture shows are fantastic. I have been to a large number this year, culminating in the fantastic Norfolk show last week. I want to give my compliments to the Trawden show and wish it all the best for 14 August.

Literally thousands of EU nationals play an indispensable role in fish processing and agriculture businesses in my constituency, yet this week the Government have failed to give any reassurance that these people will be allowed to live and work here post-Brexit. Will the Secretary of State and her Ministers make every effort to use all their influence with the Home Secretary to provide some certainty at an early stage for these people and these businesses?

As I said in response to an earlier question, I agree that the EU workers are an important part of both the agriculture and fishing sectors, and we are working on this at the moment.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has a very important visitor centre at Fairhaven lake in my constituency. The Ribble estuary, one of the most important estuaries anywhere in the UK, attracts about 270,000 birds per year. What are the Government doing to ensure that local children are engaging with the RSPB and gaining bird knowledge?

That is a fantastic result—270,000 birds. The Environment Agency and Natural England are working very closely with the RSPB in the Ribble estuary. Connecting children to nature is absolutely essential. If we are to protect nature for the future, people need to love it. The key is to ensure that children not only access nature, but understand it and respond to it.

Order. We come now to questions to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), representing the Church Commissioners, and to the right hon. Member for South West Devon—[Interruption.] I mean the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter)—it is only a matter of time—representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission.