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Topical Questions

Volume 615: debated on Thursday 13 October 2016

Following the referendum, we are working closely with all those with an interest in food, farming and the environment to seize the superb opportunities we now have to develop policies specific to the needs of the UK. Alongside this, we continue to prepare for winter weather by testing our response capability, quadrupling the amount of mobile flood defences and making our critical infrastructure more resilient.

The Secretary of State seems such a nice lady, so I do not know what enjoyment she can take from the thought of a fox being torn apart. May I take it from the silence of her and her Department lately that she has dropped the idea of having a vote in this House on foxhunting?

My mum says my sisters are much nicer than me, but, that apart, my view is very simple. Like my predecessor and her predecessor before her, I remain committed to the Conservative manifesto promise that we will have a free vote in Parliament on a repeal of the Hunting Act 2004.

I am shocked by the Secretary of State’s mother’s observations. I have a vivid imagination, but I find that utterly inconceivable.

T4. The Secretary of State will be aware that consent has been given for the first horizontal shale gas site at Preston New Road in my constituency. Will she assure me that the Environment Agency will conduct immediate on-the-spot inspections, and that many of them will be unannounced? What powers does the Environment Agency have to close down a site if it finds it to be in breach of regulations? (906572)

I am very happy to reassure my hon. Friend that we have a robust regulatory framework in place to ensure that shale exploration is carried out in a safe, sustainable and environmentally sound manner. The Environment Agency can undertake announced and unannounced inspections, and if there is any breach of a permit condition or a serious risk to people or the environment, it can take a number of enforcement actions, including the immediate ceasing of operations.

The damage caused by storms last winter cost about £5 billion. Thousands of homes and businesses were flooded and there was significant damage to roads and bridges. The then Prime Minister said that “money is no object”, but councils are still waiting. Allerdale, for example, is owed almost £220,000. How many councils are still waiting for the promised funds, and why?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. We both represent coastal communities and we share the issue of flooding. She raises an important point. She will be aware of the Government’s commitment to spend £2.5 billion over six years, which has given the Environment Agency long-term funding. I will have to ask my hon. Friends in the Department for Communities and Local Government about her specific point on the recovery work and then write to her, but we are continuing to invest in such schemes, including in Cumbria, as she will be aware.

T6. My constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson) enjoy the wonderful Cannock Chase, so we were delighted by the Conservative manifesto commitment to plant trees. May we have an update on how many have been planted? (906574)

I am pleased to report that woodland cover in England is at its highest since the 14th century—well before I was born—and we are committed to growing it even further by planting another 11 million trees over the course of this Parliament. The second phase of applications for the woodland creation planning grant has opened; the first phase generated plans for over 1,000 hectares of woodland. I ask hon. Members to continue to encourage schools to plant trees and to endorse our excellent scheme with the Woodland Trust, which I draw to the attention of the House.

T2. Over the summer, the European Union announced proposals to bring 100 megabits to all EU citizens by 2025. The Tory party talks about 10 megabits but has no plan and no funding. Will the Secretary of State join the Countryside Alliance, the National Farmers Union, the Labour party and millions of frustrated would-be rural digerati in condemning the disgraceful state of rural broadband in our country, and say what she is going to do about it? (906570)

I commend the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central for standing up for rural residents, but I assure her that we are prepared to do that ourselves. The Government are committed to the universal service obligation of 10 megabits by the end of the decade. It is an ambitious programme that we will fulfil.

T7. The common fisheries policy is among the very worst aspects of our membership of the European Union. Our waters have been invaded by European trawlermen and there has been vast overfishing. What plans do the Government have to repatriate Britain’s territorial fishing waters and revive the great British fishing industry? (906575)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As we leave the European Union, there are opportunities to manage our fisheries differently. We will work with colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union on these matters, as we develop a negotiating position. He may be aware that under the UN convention on the law of the sea, it is accepted that we would have an exclusive economic zone going out to 200 nautical miles or the median line. That will be the starting point for discussions.

T3. In Wales, the common agricultural policy provides £200 million a year, in part to protect the long-term future of the Welsh countryside. Will the Secretary of State or one of her Ministers be meeting representatives of the Welsh Government, including the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, to ensure that EU funding to protect the Welsh environment is replaced pound for pound by the UK Government? (906571)

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I met Lesley Griffiths last week to discuss these issues, and the Secretary of State plans to meet her shortly. We intend to work very closely with all the devolved Administrations as we devise a new agriculture policy for after we leave the European Union. We recognise the importance of that to every part of the UK and will engage every part of the UK.

T8. Parts of my constituency were devastated by the Boxing day floods last year, and the council is still struggling to restore the damaged infrastructure. It calculates that even after the £750,000 it has received from the Department for Transport, it faces a £2.6 million shortfall in repairing the damage. Will my right hon. Friend speak with Ministers across Government to see what further help they can provide to speed up the reinstatement process? (906576)

I completely sympathise with all those who were flooded. It is an appalling thing to happen. Following the Boxing day floods, the Environment Agency carried out £500,000-worth of maintenance work in Bury to remove gravel, debris and blockages. A £1.5-million flood defence scheme was completed in November 2014, providing better protection for 164 homes and businesses in the Stubbins area of Bury. I will, of course, look into the point my hon. Friend raises about people who are still suffering from the damage done by last winter’s floods.

T5. Will agriculture and fisheries powers be devolved to the Scottish Parliament after we leave the European Union—or do the Government want to repatriate those powers to Westminster, bypassing the Scottish Parliament? (906573)

As I said in response to an earlier question, we will work very closely with all the devolved Administrations and, indeed, industry groups throughout the UK as we devise a policy for after we have left the European Union. Some elements are already devolved, but the general consensus is that there will have to be some kind of UK-wide framework. We have made no decisions on this yet and will work very closely with all the devolved Administrations.

I would call the right hon. Gentleman who is intently studying his iPad, but as he does not seem keen to engage we will leave him out for now. I am giving him due notice—he had his opportunity.

When the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the current Lord Chancellor, visited my constituency in May, she visited the Orwell food enterprise zone and heard about the skills challenges faced by local small and medium-sized businesses in the food sector. She said that the Government were considering a proposal to allow large food businesses to share their apprenticeship levy with the local supply chain to encourage local buying of food and local skills. Has there been any progress on that?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have been arguing for that to happen for some time, because some large food producers are caught by the levy but would rather use it further up their supply chain. In August, the Department for Education published proposals for funding apprenticeships in England from May 2017, which propose that from 2018, employers will be able to transfer up to 10% of their levy funds in any year to another employer with a digital account. That deals with this issue.

Marine habitats are a matter of real concern to my constituents, who are very concerned about the threat of underground coal gasification in the Dee estuary, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s earlier response on marine protected areas but would like to push her further on this point. Over the past two Parliaments the Government have created only 50 marine protected areas when their own advisers have recommended 127. Will she confirm that in the third tranche that she alluded to we will reach the recommended 127?

The original 127 sites were cited, but we have to follow the scientific evidence. That is the basis of this process. It is not about setting arbitrary targets but about making sure that we have a scientifically robust blue belt. That is what we will continue to do with the next phase of consultation.

Several farmers in my constituency of Louth and Horncastle have complained to me that the Rural Payments Agency has made mistakes in the land maps that determine how much they are paid. Will my hon. Friend help me to advise them on what can be done to address that, now and in future, so that farmers in my constituency receive fair payment for the land that is actually theirs?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Lots of farmers have been affected by the challenges we face in this first year of the new, more complex common agricultural policy scheme. A number of farmers —several thousand—had to go through a reconciliation process where we had to match some of the land-use codes they had with the land maps, which caused some complexity. I believe that the issue has now been resolved, but if she has any specific cases that are still a problem I am happy to meet her to discuss them.

Given the recent discovery of a livestock strain of MRSA in British meat products in UK supermarkets, what action is the Secretary of State’s Department taking to stop the emergence of resistant bacteria? Will she increase support to UK farmers on the use of antibiotics in meat production, to address real concerns about food safety and exports?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He will be aware that the UK is the world leader on getting out the agenda that we need to reduce our use of antibiotics in agriculture and tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance. The Government have a strategy that sets targets for reductions in the use of antibiotics in some livestock sectors. We are also investing in research to support other approaches to husbandry that reduce the need for antibiotic use. This is an important agenda that the Government take very seriously.