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Topical Questions

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 8 March 2018

Since the last DEFRA questions, the Department has continued to work on plans for our departure from the European Union and we have published our Command Paper on future agricultural policy. We have laid legislation to introduce mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses, taking forward our agenda to enhance animal welfare. Parliament has also recently debated and passed legislation to strengthen laws on combating litter.

Remainers and leavers agree that one of the very worst aspects of our EU membership is the common fisheries policy. Can the Minister confirm that we are leaving it on 29 March next year, that the British fishing industry can be relaunched as a result, and that he will not trade away our newly re-won sovereignty over fishing in the interests of a wider trade deal?

We have always been clear that when we leave the European Union, we leave the common fisheries policy and become an independent coastal state under international law. There are, of course, always annual negotiations—even for countries outside the EU—to agree an approach on the management of shared stocks, and we envisage that such meetings will continue. I can confirm that the UK Government’s view is that there is a trade discussion to take place. We want a free trade agreement and a fisheries discussion to take place, and we want to take back control of our waters.

Last week’s freezing temperatures caused chaos to water supplies this week. Households in London were among those hardest hit, with customers widely reporting a systemic failure by Thames Water to comply with its legal obligation to provide 10 litres of water per person for every day that a customer is disconnected. Will the Minister confirm that that was the case and, if so, when the Department was notified, as is the requirement? What actions does she intend to take against companies that fail to meet that obligation?

As I said in my recent statement to the House, I have ordered Ofwat to undertake a review of what has been happening. I have asked for a report to be made available—there might be an interim one by the end of this month—and I will be able to update the hon. Lady after that.

I hope that we can ensure that water is getting to customers who are still without connected water supply this week. Given that executives at the top nine water and sewage companies in England earned a combined total of nearly £23 million in 2017 and those companies have paid out £18.1 billion in dividends since 2006, but that Ofwat has already said that taking action on pay, dividends and tax structures is not in its current thinking, what is the Government’s plan to rebalance executive pay with investment in infrastructure and resilience and to get a grip on our water companies if Ofwat has said it does not intend to do so?

As we set out in our strategic policy statement to Ofwat, there is an expectation of the increased investment that needs to be made by the industry, and the price review is under way. Water companies will be coming out with their consultation, but when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the water industry at Water UK a few weeks ago, he read it the riot act. He has said that he will give Ofwat whatever powers it needs so that the water companies will up their game.

T5. In my constituency, plastic debris is often washed up on the town’s beach, harming the local ecosystem and damaging tourism. Does my hon. Friend agree that reducing plastic waste is essential for the regeneration of Britain’s seaside towns? (904270)

Absolutely. As a child I lived in Formby, so I visited Southport many times. My hon. Friend is right that plastic does not belong on the beach or in the sea. I commend the work that has been done, but he will be aware of our ongoing measures to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean and, therefore, being left on our beaches.

T2. The Committee on Toxicity is reviewing the most recent research on folic acid. If it advises the Government that the maximum recommended intake should be increased or abolished, will the Minister commit to following the scientific evidence, and successful practice in other countries, by amending bread and flour regulations to require the fortification of flour with folic acid, which reduces neural tube defects? (904267)

The hon. Lady will be aware that this issue is shared between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The former leads on folic acid and we lead on labelling issues. It is the case that there is a complexity in EU law. EU regulations now require that all products that have flour must include labelling. That creates burdensome problems for the industry, but if there is a recommendation, we will look at it sensibly. Once we leave the EU, we will have an opportunity to adopt a slightly different approach.

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We are part of an international convention on migratory species. Illegal trapping in Cyprus has been a long-running sore. I commend the Ministry of Defence, police and the armed forces at the sovereign base in Cyprus for working so hard to tackle this issue. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has shown that there has been a 70% fall in the amount of illegal poaching.

I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman does not represent a migratory species, and I doubt that proposition would be the subject of a Division of the House.

T3. In the light of the Secretary of State’s warning to water companies to address public concerns on prices, is he aware of the nine water companies that are committed to the Keep Me Posted campaign to ensure that consumers have the right to choose paper bills and statements? (904268)

Customers can choose to keep paper bills. Water companies, like many other companies, tend to offer a discount if people choose to switch to electronic communication, but I am sure that customers can take this matter up directly through the Consumer Council for Water if it is proving to be a problem.

T7. Earlier this week, thousands of my constituents had their water shut off by Southern Water due to poor winter preparedness. What discussions has the Department had with the water industry and Ofwat, the regulator, to ensure that this does not happen in future winters? (904272)

Officials have been in regular touch with the water companies, and on Tuesday, I convened a meeting of water company chief executives, Ofwat and Water UK. As I announced to the House, I have asked Ofwat to undertake a review to look into the practices that happened.

T4. The Command Paper includes the line:“We will adopt a trade approach which promotes… lower prices for consumers”,which I find rather worrying. Is it not the case that food prices are already historically low? Lower prices will not do anything for British farmers. We need good-quality, affordable and healthy food, not a race to the bottom to get ever cheaper food. (904269)

The point that we are making is that in the long term, there may be opportunities in certain sectors, particularly for food that we are unable to produce in this country, to have lower prices for certain products. However, the hon. Lady makes an important point. Generally, we have low and stable food prices in this country, and countries that are fully dependent on importing all their food tend to have higher prices and less choice.

T8. Given the intention to use public money to promote public good, does my hon. Friend agree that as well as rewarding farmers for looking after the environment, we should support growers who contribute to public health by growing healthy fruit and vegetables? (904273)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point—as a former fruit and vegetable grower, I should perhaps declare an interest—and she is absolutely right. We believe that our future policy, in so far as it supports innovation, will be open to the horticulture sector so that it can invest in its future, and we also talk about the importance of promoting nutritious food.

The Government said in court that they considered it sufficient to take

“a pragmatic, less formal approach”

to areas of poor air quality. Portsmouth has consistently breached World Health Organisation guidelines, with 95 premature deaths each year attributed to air pollution. Does the Minister therefore consider it appropriate to take an informal approach to preventing deaths and protecting the health of my constituents?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is selectively quoting from the judgment. However, this Government take air quality very seriously. Portsmouth is expected to be compliant within the next two to three years. The Government have been using the benchmark of a charging clean air zone, which would take at least four years to come into place. The hon. Gentleman might well be shaking his head, but he needs to be working with his council on what it is doing to improve local roads and what it is working on regarding public health. I am sure that he will work alongside Councillor Donna Jones, who is making great efforts to improve air quality.

The EU Commission’s position on fisheries has been widely reported in the last 24 hours. It states that

“existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained”.

It also seems to suggest that any future trade deal will be heavily dependent on EU fishermen maintaining the current unfair access to British waters. Agreeing to this position is clearly unacceptable to fishing communities around the UK. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government consider the EU’s position to be just as unacceptable?

Yes. I simply say to my hon. Friend that this is an EU position. It currently benefits considerably from access to UK waters. At the moment, the UK fleet accesses around 100,000 tonnes of fish in EU waters, but the EU accesses 700,000 tonnes of fish in UK waters, so it would say that, wouldn’t it? That is not a position that the UK Government share.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the very serious oil spill stretching from Pymmes brook in my constituency right down the River Lea to the Olympic Park. This has happened for the second time in two years. Is it not time for the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust, the local authorities and Thames Water to get together, once they have cleaned up the spill, to see what they can do to prevent such spills?

I have already replied to the right hon. Gentleman about this point through answers to written questions. The Environment Agency has traced the waste oil to a potential polluter, but I cannot give further details due to the ongoing investigation. I assure him that the Environment Agency carries out pollution prevention visits at industrial premises along that area and, of course, we are still working to clean it up.

Last week’s Brexit paper referred to the availability of food, but made zero reference to the scandal that one in 12 British adults had gone a whole day without it. Why do the Government not care about people going hungry?

We do care about people going hungry. We have a number of initiatives to support food banks and ensure that food is redistributed. We are also reforming and improving the benefits system to help people back into work, which is obviously the best option.

The Minister will be aware of the concern expressed by Northern Ireland farmers and other food producers about cross-border trade. Does the Minister agree that we need an arrangement that will accommodate everyone?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I met him and a number of others yesterday to discuss the particular challenges of the Northern Ireland border, and I can reassure him that the Government are fully apprised of that concern.