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Topical Questions

Volume 619: debated on Thursday 19 January 2017

I would like to place on record my sincere thanks for the commitment and hard work of the military, Environment Agency staff, local councils, volunteers and the emergency services during last weekend’s tidal surge. While a small number of properties were flooded, more than half a million homes and businesses were protected from flooding along the east coast as a result of their efforts. I am sure the whole House would like to join me in expressing our gratitude.

The consumer prices index is at the highest it has been for over two and half years, largely driven by rising food prices. Since the Government stubbornly refuse to measure and act on levels of food poverty, what will the Secretary of State do for the millions of people her Government have ignored for years now who cannot afford to eat?

Food prices are steady and have been reducing. There is a very recent small uptick, but generally food inflation has been low. As the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), explained to the hon. Lady earlier, we do monitor the levels of expenditure on food very closely.

T2. May I endorse what the Secretary of State has said about the superb work done by the emergency services and other voluntary groups along the east coast? What are she and her Department doing to support community interest companies, which can harness both the public and private sectors in finding additional funds for coastal and other defences? (908271)

We as a Government continue to invest in flood defences right around our coasts—a feature that my hon. Friend and I share in our constituencies. I reiterate our thanks to our emergency services and the military who helped people at risk last year. We continue to invest so that fewer homes and businesses will be at risk in future.

I was originally told that the study by the Small Area Health Statistics Unit investigating the potential link between emissions from municipal waste incinerators and health outcomes would be published in 2014, then 2015. In October last year, through a parliamentary question, I was told that it would be published this year. Is the Minister confident that it will at last be published this year?

That is a timely reminder from the hon. Gentleman. I will look into the matter straight away and write to him.

T3. Will the Secretary of State agree to visit the “Slowing the Flow” project in Pickering? It is a natural flood alleviation scheme part-funded by DEFRA, which saves the taxpayer about £15 million compared with a similar, traditional scheme. Will she meet the local flood authority and the Yorkshire dales partnership to see what has been done and what could be done with some of the £15 million that the Department has allocated to other, similar projects? (908272)

I would, of course, be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. If we can get our diaries to work, that would be truly delightful. I would particularly like to see the success of the Pickering project, which has been one of the building blocks in securing the £15 million of funding that we announced in November last year, which is dedicated specifically to natural flood management schemes across the UK. This money will let us test new approaches to see how natural flood resources can help us in the future.

We do not have time to waste. Since the Westminster Hall debate in December, 4,007 elephants have been killed for their tusks. With China introducing a total ban on the ivory trade by the end of this year, will the Government reconsider their proposed and unworkable partial ban, which will still result in criminals being able to trade in ivory, and will the Government move immediately to a total ban on ivory, as Labour would?

I am sorry to say that the hon. Lady is talking nonsense. The Government are not proposing a partial ban. At the meetings I held in China and Vietnam at the illegal wildlife trade conference last year, we were very clear that we will do everything possible not just to enforce a ban on the trading of post-’47 ivory—enforcement is absolutely key—but to minimise exemptions. The hon. Lady needs to work with us to assure the protection of the species, not make party political points about it.

T5. My US friends used to say, “Enjoy the dash between the dates on your tombstone,” by way of happy birthday wishes. I merely wish you a happy birthday, Mr Speaker. The Vale of Evesham is proud of its horticultural industry. Many of the local growers and food produce companies are highly reliant on seasonal workers. May I add to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) by asking: can we please seriously consider bringing back a seasonal agricultural workers scheme? (908274)

As I said earlier, I have experience in the soft fruit industry. I know many of the growers in Evesham, and indeed I have had correspondence recently with Angus Davison, from one of the largest growers in the west midlands, on this issue. We understand the concerns and we are in discussions with departmental colleagues on it. We want to get the right approach so that we can control immigration but ensure that we have the labour where it is required.

T4. The Minister was doubtless reminded by the National Farmers Union Scotland on Monday that 90% of this country’s beef and lamb exports are to the EU. For the farmers concerned, the Prime Minister’s threat to walk away from the single market with no deal would not be bad; it could leave them facing tariffs of up to 20%, and that would be catastrophic. What assurances can he give to the farmers and crofters in my constituency that he and the Government will not leave them exposed in that way? (908273)

The Prime Minister gave the assurance that we seek a good deal, and that no deal is better than a bad deal; I do not think that anybody can disagree with that. I will simply say that in food and drink alone, we have a trade deficit with the EU of some £10 billion, so the EU has a great interest in having tariff-free access to the UK market.

T7. Following the success of the charge for plastic bags in reducing the amount of plastic going into our seas, and the welcome announcement on limiting the use of microbeads, the next big issue we need to address is single-use plastic bottles. Can the Secretary of State update the House on what plans she has to cut the number of plastic bottles polluting our seas and beaches? (908276)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the consultation on microbeads is out there. It contains a call for wider evidence on the need to tackle other plastics. We are developing a new litter strategy, which may well address this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is personally interested in the matter and intends to set up an innovation fund that may explore new ideas to tackle it.

T6. Under the common agricultural policy, an enormous amount of subsidy is used to encourage very intensive farming. Although subsidies to help farmers need to continue, could Ministers also look at some of the ideas for rewilding advocated by George Monbiot and others and see whether, after the common agricultural policy, our subsidies could encourage the restoration of the environment rather than its conservation? (908275)

We will be looking at representations from all people. If we want to improve the farmed environment, we have to look at the whole farmed environment and not restrict our ambitions to the uplands or, indeed, the moorland areas. We are looking in a range of areas at how we can improve soil management and water quality.

T8. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the proportion of 2016 single farm payments that have been made and progress on that with our Cornish farmers? (908277)

As the Secretary of State said earlier, we have now paid 92.8% of basic payment scheme claims for the current year. As a fellow Cornishman, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that 97% of claims in Cornwall have now been paid.

Hill farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in the country will be concerned that their interests should not be compromised in any free trade deal with New Zealand. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that she will fight for farmers in any free trade deal and ensure that they are not put out of the market because of cheap imports of New Zealand lamb? Will she fight for farmers in the post-Brexit world?

It will be for us, as a free and sovereign Parliament, to determine the terms of any free trade agreements. I have already read out our manifesto commitment on the highest levels of animal welfare. Our manifesto also commits to food safety and traceability. In our ambition to be a world-leading food and farming sector, we intend to promote those commitments around the world.

There is a continuing problem of beam trawling, fly shooting and electronic pulse fishing in UK waters. Not only are those practices environmental vandalism, but they are having a devastating impact on local fishing communities. Will the Minister assure the House that he is doing everything he can to address the problem?

I am aware of the concerns, particularly about pulse trawling in the southern North sea. I have asked CEFAS, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, to look at the issue, do a review of current literature and give me a report on what we know about the science. In addition, there is a working group in the EU on the matter.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. At the time of the negotiations on the now stalled TTIP deal, the US Agriculture Secretary said that the EU needed to rethink its current bans on chlorine-washed chicken and beef from cattle raised with growth hormones. British consumers do not want those products on their shelves, but given that we are now in a much weaker negotiating position, how can the Minister reassure us that the Government will not allow them into the UK?

The US represents US interests in negotiations; the UK Government will represent the UK in any future trade negotiations. As I made clear earlier, we will not compromise on issues such as animal welfare and food safety.