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Topical Questions

Volume 632: debated on Thursday 7 December 2017

We discussed the vital importance of the veterinary profession during our earlier exchanges on the question from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I thank the nation’s chief veterinary officer, Nigel Gibbens, for his years of service as he moves on and leaves the Department. He has done an outstanding job, and the country is grateful for his service.

The UK’s terrible air pollution is getting worse and does not respect local authority boundaries. When can we expect an air quality plan that makes a real difference, or will the Secretary of State continue to shunt responsibility to councils that have neither the resources nor the powers to address this nationwide challenge?

Air quality is actually improving. I recognise the challenges on roadside NOx, but hopefully the hon. Lady is aware of the £90,000 grant given directly to Ealing Council to help to address particulates. We are preparing a wider clean air strategy, with a consultation next year.

T2. I, along with many colleagues, have been contacted by constituents with concerns about the vote against new clause 30 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which was interpreted as an attempt to weaken the protection of animals. The Secretary of State and the Government have been very clear that we are committed to the highest standards of animal welfare, but will my right hon. Friend please provide absolute assurances that that will be the case as we leave the EU? (902821)

My hon. Friend has been a clear and consistent advocate for higher standards of animal welfare, both before and since she entered this House. It is absolutely the case that we are committed to ensuring not just that we recognise the principle of animal sentience, but that we provide appropriate and stronger protection in UK law. We will shortly be bringing forward proposals on the appropriate legislative vehicle for that protection.

T3. It was good to see the Secretary of State supporting the Woodland Trust event in Parliament yesterday. What work is he doing with the Department for Communities and Local Government to strengthen protection for ancient woodland in the national planning policy framework? (902822)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area. He has also been a great champion of the Woodland Trust’s work. I met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government yesterday to discuss precisely this issue, and I hope that we can bring forward proposals when the 25-year environment plan is published next year.

T7. I never tire of reminding the House that 40% of Scotch whisky distilleries are based in my Moray constituency. Will the Secretary of State outline the Government’s continued support for this iconic Scottish industry? (902826)

Thanks to my hon. Friend’s advocacy, I have had the opportunity to visit one of the distilleries in his constituency. I hope to be able to visit many more over the next few weeks, months and years. He is a brilliant advocate for the interests of the Scotch whisky industry. There are huge opportunities as we leave the European Union. There has been a particularly dramatic increase in exports of single malts since 2000 because of the effective and principled advocacy of people like him. Whether it is Glenlivet or Aberlour, they roll around the tongue perfectly, and they both have no better advocate than my hon. Friend.

T4. A quarter of our rivers are at risk from unsustainable abstraction, which is a particular problem in the south and east. When will the Government actually take action to tackle unsustainable water abstraction? (902823)

We have been considering this carefully. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement on the publication of our abstraction plan within the next month. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will enjoy reading it, and I am happy to discuss it with him later.

Cornish food and drink is some of the best in the world, whether it is our amazing dairy products, such as Rodda’s cream, which is made in the constituency of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or Tribute beer, which is brewed by St Austell. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with the Secretary of State for International Trade about the possible new markets for Cornish food and drink once we leave the EU?

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Rodda’s, which is obviously a world-leading food company. It has been very successful in exporting its cream to the far east and other markets. We are in regular discussions with the Department for International Trade and, as I said earlier, there are export opportunities for our great food producers.

T5. At DEFRA questions on 20 July, the Secretary of State was asked to confirm that article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, which, as we have heard, categorises animals as sentient beings, would be part of the repeal Bill. He replied: “Absolutely”. Given that he then voted against the inclusion of article 13, what caused him to disagree with himself? (902824)

I am tempted to quote from the American poet, whose name I temporarily forget, who made the point that “I contain multitudes”. The truth is that we want to go further than existing EU law to protect animal welfare. A better legislative vehicle is available, and we will make an announcement about that next week.

Cats Protection has highlighted the fact that when the UK signed up to the EU pet travel scheme, we had to abandon the previous requirements that cats coming into the UK needed compulsory treatment against tapeworm and ticks. When we leave the EU, may we reinstate these regulations?

I have two things to say. The first is that the poet whose name I temporarily forgot is, of course, Walt Whitman. The second is that the short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is yes.

T6. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that following our withdrawal from the EU, farmers in my constituency will have a clear and accessible route to apply for stewardship and environmental schemes, because at the moment the process is arduous and complex? (902825)

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Only last week we announced that we would be simplifying countryside stewardship and having four principal routes that farmers can take. I look forward to working with her to ensure that the farmers she represents have access to this money, which will ensure that her beautiful constituency receives the cash it needs for further environmental enhancement.

There was huge applause for the Government’s decision to ban the UK ivory trade, but there is now growing evidence of an increase in the trade in hippo ivory. With only 100,000 or so African hippos left, the slightest increase in demand could spell disaster for that species. May I urge Ministers to extend the proposed ban to include other ivory-bearing species such as hippo, narwhal, walrus and the like?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The scope of our proposed legislation is so far restricted to African and Asian elephants, but the consultation is still open, so I will take what he says as a submission. We are very keen to see what we can do to protect all endangered species and their habitats, and this may be one way of achieving that.

T8. About half of the veterinary surgeons registering in the UK qualified elsewhere in the EU. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he is having with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that their vital skills continue to receive due recognition post Brexit? Will veterinary professionals be able to come to the UK and work on exactly the same terms as they currently enjoy? (902827)

Such discussions are part of our planning. We want to put in place a close new partnership with our European partners, and trying to get an agreement on mutual recognition of some of these qualifications would be on that agenda.

When we leave the EU, the UK will be able to set its own farm support policy. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of whether, if the EU continues farm support, the UK will have to do so, because otherwise British farming could be severely disadvantaged?

My hon. Friend is one of the most formidable and knowledgeable experts on the agri-food business in this House, and he is absolutely right to say that we need to keep pace with what is happening in other markets to ensure that we support farmers to continue the work that they do. It is thanks to his advocacy that National Farmers Union of Scotland representatives will be coming into DEFRA next Thursday, when I look forward to discussing how we can ensure that they and their colleagues get the support they deserve in the future.