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Topical Questions

Volume 644: debated on Thursday 12 July 2018

The future of food production has to be at the heart of DEFRA’s work. That is why I am very pleased that, in conversations I have been having over the past two weeks with our lead non-executive director, Henry Dimbleby, he says he is drawing up plans to envisage how a food strategy can operate across Government. I look forward to updating colleagues on the progress of that work.

I very much welcome the appointment of Julian Glover to do a review of national parks. Will my right hon. Friend say when he expects that review to report? Does he agree that it is very important that national parks are not held back to become museums, but become thriving places for people to invest and develop houses in the right places?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comments. He is absolutely right; Julian Glover is an outstanding individual who I know will conduct a superb piece of work, which we expect to publish in the latter half of next year. My right hon. Friend is also right to say that the reason our national parks are so successful is that they are not museums; they are active, working places, and individuals make sure that they are places of beauty that draw so many visitors, but are also places of food production and economic activity.

T5. A recent paper by the International Solid Waste Association has shown that much of the plastic we declare as recycled, when it is exported to China and other Asian countries, ends up in rivers and accounts for at least 25% of the plastic pollution going into the seas. Is the Secretary of State aware of that, and what action does he intend to take to improve the situation? (906433)

The Environment Agency is the regulator in this regard, and operators are bound to ensure that what is exported gets recycled appropriately. I have not looked at that report yet, but I am happy to look into this and write to the hon. Gentleman.

T2. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited my constituency last month, he met some outstanding members of both Radnorshire and Breconshire young farmers clubs. Will he confirm both to them and to the House that those young farmers have a future in farming post Brexit? (906428)

I remember my visit to Wales with affection, and I am very much looking forward to revisiting my hon. Friend’s constituency, I hope, in under a fortnight’s time for the royal Welsh show. Those young farmers are outstanding young men and women, and it is my responsibility to make sure that their commitment both to food production and to high environmental standards is supported at every level. May I also congratulate the Welsh Government on their proposals for providing support for farming in the future? I look forward to working with them.

The Secretary of State scored a major coup in being the first to interview President-elect Trump. As the Secretary of State has since become a born-again green and the President will touch down on these shores today, will the Secretary of State use all his famous skills of tact and persuasion, as well as that pre-existing special relationship, to impress on the President that climate change is an existential threat to our planet and to persuade him to reverse his disastrous decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accords?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for being so generous about some of the activities I undertook when I had a sabbatical from the Front Bench earlier in this Parliament. Of course, she is very flattering. I do not know that I have the diplomatic skills to bring the President of the United States into the same space that she and I are in when it comes to fighting climate change, but believe me, I will do my best.

The Secretary of State should not undersell himself; he really should not. Do not break the habit of a lifetime.

T3. What steps are the Government taking to help farmers and rural businesses in Cheshire to boost their productivity? (906430)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Earlier this year, we invited calls to a small grants scheme to promote farm productivity. It was over-subscribed, so we have put in an additional £7 million, making a total of £23 million. We intend to have additional calls later this year.

Yesterday, senior industry leaders were in Westminster as part of the Prince of Wales’s corporate leaders group, which is facilitated by the Cambridge-based Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Industry will be key in tackling the environmental challenges of the future, but when will the Government acknowledge that far from being a burden, intelligent regulation is the key to environmental innovation?

I think the Government have always acknowledged that. In the spirit of your comments about not underselling myself, Mr Speaker, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the speech I gave at the Policy Exchange four weeks ago on the need to reform capitalism. I am afraid that that is something only the Conservatives would undertake, because while we can reform capitalism in the interests of the country, the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party would destroy capitalism and, with it, torpedo this country’s prosperity.

T4. Given some worrying air quality hotspot alerts in my constituency and the projected significant increase in vehicle volume, what extra measures will the Department deploy to help my local authorities combat those pollution hotspots? (906432)

The joint air quality unit provides advice to councils that are seeking support. I suggest that councils have many powers already, but this will largely be a case of working closely with the county council to try to make sure that the traffic flows, and I am sure that that will improve air quality in my hon. Friend’s area.

Diolch, Mr Speaker.

What consideration has the Secretary of State made of ways in which the UK Government might intervene to alleviate the pressures faced by farmers across Wales as a consequence of the recent dry weather, particularly the pressures on the already dwindling fodder reserves?

We will hold discussions with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations on those issues. Only a few months ago we sought and achieved a derogation from the EU linked to wet weather. I am now aware that in many parts of the country, including England and Wales, there are issues linked to dry weather, and we are considering seeking derogations from certain schemes to take account of that problem.

T6. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the happy news that Finn’s law, the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Bill, achieved its Second Reading last week. Once enacted, it will make it easier to convict people who attack police dogs and other service animals. The Secretary of State has consulted on increasing the sentence for such attacks to five years’ imprisonment. Is it possible to have an update on the timetable for that so that we know when we can expect it? (906434)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his tenacity and success in ensuring that service animals will be better protected as a result of the Bill that he is bringing forward. We want to ensure better protection for all God’s creatures, which is why we will bring forward proposals to increase the sentences available to the courts for those who commit the most extreme acts of animal cruelty.

Has the Secretary of State made any progress in understanding what is happening on our farming land and in our countryside that causes so many species of birds and other animals to disappear?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. The farmland bird index shows that over the past 30 or 40 years there has been a precipitous decline in some species, although there has been an increase in others. Many factors are at work—sometimes the way the land has been farmed has had an impact, but there are also other factors, including climate change. At the Environmental Audit Committee yesterday the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) raised a number of issues that we need to address, including through education, to ensure that conservation, biodiversity and environmental enhancement are valued not just by the Government but by us all.

In a rural area such as west Oxfordshire, the livelihood of farmers is of enormous importance, as is leaving our environment in a better state than we found it. What are Ministers doing to ensure that farmers are protected while improving our environment?

My Department and Ministers personally carry out extensive consultation with farmers and those who work alongside them. In the agricultural shows that I have had the opportunity to visit over the course of this summer, and in meetings with the National Farmers Union and others, I have been struck by the commitment that farmers have not just to food production, but to the highest environmental standards for the future.

I do not know whether the Environment Secretary has had a chance to look at Oxfam’s excellent new report, “Behind the Barcode”, which looks at modern slavery and human rights abuses in the food supply chain. I know that it is not his primary responsibility to consider issues such as modern slavery, but given that it is so prevalent in our food system, what conversations has he had with his colleagues about trying to stamp it out?

I have had conversations with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Home Secretary about ensuring that high standards are maintained—not just environmental standards, but also social and labour protection standards—at every stage in the food chain. I will endeavour to look at that report and ensure that my colleagues across Government are acquainted with its contents.

What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the current weather on farmers across the country, on future food prices, and particularly on the viability of small farms?

As I said earlier, there have been challenges with the dry weather, particularly for cereal crops that in some cases are having to be harvested early. There may be a knock-on impact on the availability of winter forage and straw, so we continue to monitor the situation closely. Farmers are used to weather events, which are a common feature of agriculture. Just a few months ago we had too much wet weather, and we now face problems with dry weather.

The plastics industry in Corby is not only a significant employer but it is keen to engage with the Government and try to identify solutions and innovate around the issue of non-recyclable plastics. What steps will the Government take to foster that engagement?

I and my officials have met a variety of companies to discuss this issue, and if they feel that they have not yet been consulted, I would be more than happy to hear from them.