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Topical Questions

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 2 March 2017

I will update the House on the delivery of the basic payment scheme. As of today, 95.5% of eligible farmers have received their payment, which is good progress but there is still more to be done. Last week I secured agreement from the Treasury that a 75% bridging payment will be available to any farmer with an outstanding claim at the end of March. The window for 2017 applications opened yesterday.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. In response to my earlier question, the Under-Secretary mentioned our former colleague, the Mayor of London. Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to his work on tackling poor air quality? Will she say whether it is her policy to retain the existing provisions of the air quality regulations in UK law after the UK leaves the European Union?

It is absolutely the case that we will keep all regulations when we leave the EU so that regulations look the same the day after we leave as they did the day before. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are looking very carefully at the whole issue of air quality. We have spent more than £2 billion since 2010 on ultra-low emission vehicles and on trying to reduce the impact of poor air quality. There is more to be done, and we are looking closely at that.

T4. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to poultry producers across Norfolk who set the highest animal welfare and biosecurity standards? There has obviously been concern about the recent avian flu outburst, but can she confirm that no poultry producers in Norfolk will lose their free-range status? (909020)

We are determined to hold this terrible disease at bay for the sake of our entire poultry sector, and our robust actions so far have included an amended avian influenza prevention zone from 28 February, which covers all of England and requires mandatory biosecurity for all keepers and the compulsory housing or netting of poultry and captive birds in defined higher-risk areas. That is very important for the entire sector.

Further to what the Secretary of State just said, she must be aware that English poultry producers are concerned about the prospect of losing free-range status because of the postcode lottery of the bird flu restriction system. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association is particularly concerned about the inconsistent approach. What more can she say to assure egg producers throughout the UK that the right measures are being taken to sort out this whole sad issue?

Colleagues will be aware that there was a full housing order until 28 February. With extensive scientific advice, we have gleaned that those places where wild fowl congregate are high-risk areas. That has been extensively peer reviewed on the basis of scientific evidence, which is why we have published a paper to outline the rationale. This has absolutely not just come out of our own heads; in no way whatsoever are we doing anything other than protecting this vital sector.

T6. I have been contacted by a number of my constituents who are concerned about the welfare of puppies, particularly in the context of puppy farming and puppies being bred for sale. Will my hon. Friend the Minister set out what action he is taking to tackle so-called backstreet breeding and to ensure the highest welfare standards for puppies bred for sale? (909022)

My hon. Friend makes an important point about an issue I championed while I was responsible for this part of the portfolio. The Government have recently published proposals for improving the laws on the breeding and selling of dogs, among which are proposals that anyone breeding and selling three litters in a 12-month period will need a licence and that no puppies will be sold under the age of eight weeks.

T2. Tendring District Council recently did a superb job dealing with a flood threat, calmly overseeing a mass evacuation. Is any extra funding available to support local councils when they are putting in place flood contingency plans? (909018)

Traditionally, councils were given grants for their flooding responsibilities through the rate support grant. I visited the centre near Jaywick and saw the excellent work that was being done by the council and by many voluntary services, as well as by our emergency service response. I am sure that councils will continue to work, to reflect on what happened, and to monitor whether their schemes continue to be appropriate.

The Prime Minister recently laid out plans to invest £4.7 billion in innovation by 2021. Will the Minister please explain how the food and farming communities of rural West Oxfordshire can look forward to benefiting from such measures?

As my hon. Friend will know, we already have in place an agri-tech strategy worth £160 million, which has supported more than 100 different projects to support science and technology transfer in food and farming. In addition, we have food information networks to try to create clusters of innovation in the food sector.

T5. Will the Secretary of State go back to her office and think seriously about how we will protect the maritime environment when we come out of the EU? Where are the protections that will save the future of fish and the maritime environment? (909021)

We take the marine environment very seriously, which is why we said in our manifesto that we would extend the blue belt, and that is what we have done, not only around this country’s shoreline but around those of our overseas territories. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to play a leading role through OSPAR, as well as through our role on the Council of Europe and the related Bern convention.

The BBC drama “Resistance” airs tomorrow on Radio 4 and portrays a dystopian future without effective antibiotics, and antibiotic resistance is also the subject of a Westminster Hall debate I have secured for next week. Does the Secretary of State agree that although we are world leaders in work on antibiotic resistance both in health services and in agriculture, the fact that we have recently licensed three new colistin products, which are the last line of defence, shows that there is more we can do?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK has taken a leading role in the work on antibiotic resistance, which we have pushed on to the agenda of the OECD, the G7 and the G20. We can adopt processes to reduce our reliance on antibiotics—for example, through the acidification of water in the pig sector. We can always do better, but some of these critical antibiotics have a role in agriculture, too.

T3. The partial liberalisation of the water market starts in April this year, with further phases of liberalisation being planned, yet we have seen nothing of the abstraction reform legislation, which is essential if this liberalisation is to work. When will the Secretary of State publish the Bill? (909019)

We take the preservation and the use of water very seriously. The opening up of the market for small and medium-sized enterprises and businesses is a good advance, but I am looking at those other matters carefully.

On the day after St David’s day, will my right hon. Friend reassure Welsh farmers that Welsh lamb and not New Zealand lamb will be at the forefront of her mind when negotiating an EU exit?

My hon. Friend, like me and lots of other colleagues from across the House, enjoyed that lovely reception at Downing Street and the fabulous Welsh singing. I can absolutely assure him that we will keep Welsh lamb farmers at the heart of any negotiations on free trade agreements.

T7. At a recent meeting with the Scottish Rural Affairs Minister, Fergus Ewing, the Secretary of State described the discussions as “good”. However, the Scottish Minister said that all he got was radio silence. Does that mean that her interpretation of a good meeting is to say nothing? (909023)

It was a private meeting. In fact, the agreement was that we would not talk openly about the level of discussions. I found our meeting helpful. We made some progress and got a clear way forward. Such discussions need to take place, and I look forward to more of them in the future.

Has the Secretary of State seen the very positive statement from Associated British Foods, which runs British Sugar, the iconic sugar beet and sugar factory in Newark, saying that it expects that, post-Brexit, the ability to design our own system without EU quotas will lead to up to a 50% increase in its profits and sales, which is good news for farmers and consumers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Associated British Foods is one of the great British-owned food companies. It is a world leader in sugar and it has driven competitiveness and investment in the industry. I believe that the sugar industry in this country has a great future.

Since 2010, the budget of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been cut by 57%, which means that the Department is struggling to get out plans such as the 25-year farming plan. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury to protect the budget from the 6% cut expected next week?

My Department is indeed involved in a transformation project, which will take out costs, but it will also deliver better and more focused frontline customer service. I am very optimistic about that, and we are looking very carefully at the further efficiency savings that are needed.

Order. I apologise to the House. The House is very hungry today, but, as is so often the case, demand exceeds supply, and it is not possible to satisfy the appetite of all colleagues. We must now move on to questions to the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), representing the Church Commissioners, and to the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), whom we welcome to her responsibilities as representative of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission.