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Topical Questions

Volume 617: debated on Thursday 24 November 2016

Flooding is devastating for anyone who experiences it, and I have spent a great deal of time recently ensuring that we have the best possible preparation for the winter weather. There will be opportunities for all colleagues to play our part in ensuring that our constituents are as well prepared as possible—for example, by getting them to sign up to the Environment Agency’s free Flood Warnings Direct service or to visit the Floods Destroy website, which enables people to check their own flood risk. The Environment Agency will also be hosting a drop-in session for parliamentarians next Tuesday from 1 pm to 5 pm in Committee Room 9, where we will be able to hear more about winter preparedness.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I would like to ask her about her Department’s UK food and drink international action plan, which suggests that the Department will seek foreign direct investment to fill existing gaps in skills and production. How will she ensure that food standards, production rates and manufacturing skills will be maintained in the event of foreign takeovers of existing companies, as we have seen with Mondelez and UK biscuit production?

The UK has some of the highest animal welfare, food safety and food traceability standards in the world, and we will always seek to maintain them, notwithstanding our international food export action plan, which seeks to promote great British food abroad as well as to take advantage of foreign direct investment to make our sectors even more successful.

T3. Is the fisheries Minister aware that the shell fishery in the Wash is now the most prolific in Europe? We have recently seen record catches of shrimp, much of which is exported. However, this part of the fishery is at risk because of a permit system. Will he look into the situation, intervene and do his best to ensure that the fishery continues to thrive? (907473)

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me before, so I am well aware of it. I am also aware that it is a matter for the local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agency, although DEFRA does have a role in working with IFCA and signing off any proposals. I understand that this particular case is at the consultation stage, so local fishermen should make their views known at this point.

The pound has fallen, the cost of imports has risen and Brexit is costing the wine industry £413 million more in imports alone. From Marmitegate to the Toblerone gap, we have seen rising prices across the food industry. Customers are paying more for food while those working in farming and food production have been hit even harder. And it is getting worse. What is the Secretary of State doing to mitigate these factors?

The hon. Lady will be aware that we have an incredibly thriving food and farming sector that employs one in eight of us. It is worth more than £100 billion a year to our economy. Our food innovation is second to none: we produce more new food products every year than France and Germany combined. Food inflation continues to be low, and our thriving sector’s exports are improving. They have gone up this year and we are doing everything we can to create a sustainable environment for the future.

The reality is that food inflation is at 5%. This is happening on the Secretary of State’s watch. It is her responsibility and her crisis. People are struggling now. The sector is calling for security: security of labour; security in the market; security of trade; and security in knowing the plans for the sector on leaving the EU. Labour can provide the sector with confidence today—we have a clear plan. Why will the Secretary of State not share her plan? Is it because there is no plan?

If I may say so, that was nonsense. Food prices have been dropping after peaking in 2008, and they do move up and down. On the hon. Lady’s point about the resilience of the food and drink sector, exports this year are well up on last year and growth in the sector is booming. We are doing everything we can on food innovation and getting young people into apprenticeships in increasingly high-technology jobs. This is a well-organised sector with great potential.

In several conversations with the National Farmers Union and farmers in south Wiltshire, complaints have been made to me about how the Rural Payments Agency has been working. Edward Martin and Will Dickson complain of unilateral changes to agreed eligibility calculations. What will the Minister do to ensure that such issues are sorted out so that I do not have any more complaints from my farmers?

Having ironed out some of the difficulties we encountered in 2015, we are in a stronger position this year. The RPA reports that over 80% of basic payment scheme claims were submitted online, meaning that the number of cases requiring manual data-entry was significantly reduced. If my hon. Friend would like to give me further details of those two cases, I will ensure that they are investigated and will personally get back to him.

T2. Will the Secretary of State tell us how much it will cost to replace the agricultural subsidy when we leave the EU? (907472)

We have committed to continue to make all payments up until 2020, and we are already engaging with the industry and others to devise future agriculture policy. Those plans will be announced well in advance of 2020.

In my fishing town of Filey, only seven boats have been licensed by the Environment Agency and all licences will expire by 2022, ending heritage fishing in the town. Will the Minister meet me to seek a solution to secure the future of fishing in Filey?

I understand my hon. Friend’s issue. The situation with wild salmon is particularly bleak at the moment, which is why we are looking at additional measures to reduce the catch through netting. However, I am quite sympathetic to the arguments made about the sustainability of T-nets, which I understand are used along the shoreline in his constituency, and I am more than happy to meet him.

T4. In the weeks immediately after the floods that devastated my constituency and others last year, the Government were able to argue that there was no evidence of market failure to deliver affordable insurance for businesses affected by the flood. Since then, however, I have had case after case of businesses being denied insurance or offered unaffordable packages. What are the Government doing to ensure that such businesses can secure affordable insurance? (907474)

Since the floods, small and medium-sized enterprises have received over £6 million of direct support from the Government to help with their resilience. On insurance, I recently met representatives of the British Insurance Brokers Association and expect them to be launching new products next month so that more businesses can get flood insurance.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that both the 2010 and 2015 Conservative party manifestos said that we would ban all ivory trade. Will she update the House on what progress she made towards that aim at the Vietnam conference last week?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The conference was superbly successful and some real steps were taken towards improving awareness of the importance of preserving endangered species, the elephant in particular. In this country, we have announced our intention to ban the trade in post-1947 ivory—that is 70 years—and we will consult on that shortly to consider how we implement that and what further steps can be taken to meet our manifesto commitment.

T5. Last month, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union could not offer an answer when asked whether powers over agriculture and fisheries would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, DEFRA Ministers say that the UK Government will be devising a UK-wide policy framework for those industries. When the UK leaves the EU, will responsibility for agriculture and fisheries be devolved to the Scottish Parliament—yes or no? (907475)

I think we have all been consistently clear that in leaving the EU we will be seeking the best possible deal for the UK. That will involve close co-ordination and communication with all the devolved Administrations to make sure that we absolutely understand what it means to get the best possible deal for all sectors within the DEFRA family.

Food and drink production has flourished under my right hon. Friend’s leadership; as we have just heard, record levels of hard cheese and sour grapes are emanating from the other side of the Chamber, and in my constituency the Hogs Back brewery, a very successful micro-brewery, is doing a roaring trade. May I invite her to join me for a knees-up in my brewery—something Opposition Members could never organise?

I would be delighted to do that. We have some amazing products. We have taken gin out to the Chinese, which was a great experience, and just look at the beers from the UK that the Vietnamese are drinking already. We are seeing market access and greater exports, and just yesterday we saw the beers at the “Taste of Cheltenham” event. My right hon. Friend is right to highlight produce from his constituency and I would be delighted to share in a knees-up with him any time.

I have always thought of the right hon. Gentleman sitting and reading Proust, rather than having a knees-up, so one’s imagination is challenged a bit—but there you go, it is probably good for us.

T6. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), may I argue the case for Wales and ask the Secretary of State what discussions she has had with Assembly Ministers on the case for post-2020 funding that both respects devolution and gives us a fair funding settlement for Welsh farmers? (907476)

I am meeting a Welsh Minister just today to discuss that very subject, and my colleagues have met a number of Welsh Ministers in recent weeks. At official level there are constant discussions, we have had informal stakeholder meetings and, as we have pointed out, formal consultations will be taking place, starting in the near future.

T7. We have already had an exchange about the importance and inadequacy of broadband in rural areas. Are Ministers aware that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a crazy plan to make all businesses with a turnover of more than £10,000 submit tax returns four times a year, online—[Interruption.] This will be impossible for my hill farmers in Teesdale. Will Ministers make representations to Treasury Ministers to stop this crazy idea? (907478)

I think we have all just felt the effects of slow broadband in that question! Nevertheless, I am aware of the plans and I can assure hon. Members that conversations have already been had with the Treasury.

Thanks to the Minister, the sheep dip sufferers group now has access to documents including medical records from the poisons unit at Guy’s hospital, which show what many sufferers have known for years: there were long-term health impacts of using sheep dip. Will he meet us again so that we can act for those who still suffer?

The hon. Lady will be aware that I met her and others about a year ago, when we looked at this issue in depth. I subsequently went back through all the submissions that came from the chief veterinary officer in the early 1990s to establish precisely why we stopped using sheep dip, and it was not because of health concerns; it was because of a belief that it was not possible to tackle the disease. I note that she has now got the documents, but I simply say that the committee on toxicity looked at this issue exhaustively, examining 26 different studies over a period of more than a decade, and concluded that in the absence of acute poisoning there would not be meaningful long-term effects.

Traffic hotspots in the Broomhill area of my constituency create unacceptably high levels of nitrogen dioxide. The council is doing what it can, but it is frustrated by the Government on issues such as the deregulation of taxi licensing. We need joined-up action across government, and as the High Court said earlier this month, we need it urgently. So when will the Government produce an effective and comprehensive air quality plan?

We have accepted the Court’s judgment and we now have a new timescale for revising the plan. We have already said that we would update our plans on the basis of evidence on vehicle emissions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contribute to the clean air zones consultation, which was launched on 13 October. More than 100 councils applied for an air quality grant and these decisions will be made in due course.

The World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative published a report card on the UK last week which awarded zero points out of 10 to the Government’s plans for protecting infant and young child feeding in emergencies such as flooding. Will Ministers work with their colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that when flooding or power cuts occur during the winter there are plans in place to protect infant and young child feeding?

I have already had discussions with officials from various Departments on our preparedness for winter. There is an inter-ministerial group meeting next week at which the Department of Health will be represented, and I will make sure that it is aware of the hon. Lady’s question.