The Secretary of State was asked—
Protected Geographical Indications: Export Value
I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for International Trade and others on promoting the UK’s food and drink abroad, including those foods with geographical indications. Food and drink with GIs represents about 25% of UK food and drink exports by value, with Scotch whisky being the largest by far. Those play an important role as exemplars of quality British produce.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Arbroath Smokies, Stornoway black pudding and Scotch whisky are all key products in maintaining a high profile for Scottish food and drink. When he comes to agree trade deals post Brexit, will he be consulting and involving the Scottish Government in these discussions to make sure that all brands are protected?
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that we are clear that initially, through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, all of our protected food names will come across and be protected in UK law. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we maintain all our protected food names, and we have some 70 right across the country. I know that some, particularly salmon and Scotch whisky, are incredibly important to Scotland, and of course we will be working with our devolved Administrations and with our MPs in this House to make sure we protect those foods.
As well as working with the Scottish Government, does the Minister agree that the Scotch Whisky Association has done an incredible amount of work on this issue, which is hugely important for that industry? Will he give further assurance that he is working across government—not just in his Department, but with every Department—to ensure that everyone knows how important the GIs are?
Yes, and I would like to pay tribute to the work that the Scottish Conservative MPs have done to highlight these important issues. On Scotch whisky, we, along with the Department for International Trade, have done a lot of work with other Departments to ensure that we highlight the importance of these vital brands.
The Secretary of State was explicit that
“market access for fisheries products is separate to the question of fishing opportunities and access to waters.”
But what use are fishing opportunities and access to waters if your product risks being held up in customs? For industries such as the live shellfish industry of Orkney this is literally a life-and-death situation, for should one of these shellfish perish, the whole tank is lost. Has the Minister had conversations about the difficulty we may have in the near future?
I am not aware there is a precedent anywhere else in the world of giving a country access to your waters—to your own resources—in return for trade agreements. That is just not the way it works. There will be a discussion and an agreement on the management of shared fisheries stocks, and we are clear in our White Paper that we will manage our own exclusive economic zone and control access to it. Then there is a separate discussion to be had on trade, and the EU wants access to the UK market, too.
It is a great pleasure to welcome the hon. Lady back to the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is a great pleasure to be back, and I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) for the fantastic work he did.
Last year, we were listening to hon. Members and the industry, which is why we changed the criteria for the woodland carbon fund and the woodland creation planning grant to make them more attractive to applicants. I am pleased to say that countryside stewardship applications have increased; we have established a large-scale woodland creation unit; we are providing funding to kick-start the northern forest; and we have appointed the national tree champion, Sir William Worsley, to help drive the growth in forestry.
May I, too, say how wonderful it is to see the Minister back in her place? But while back in her place, can she reassure me that a pilot forestry investment zone will be launched this summer and that its sole focus will be on delivering the productive softwood planting that the forestry industry, including sawmills in my constituency, so desperately needs?
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield did announce that the first forestry investment zone will be in Cumbria. I cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) an assurance that it will solely focus on softwood planting, but we are recruiting the person to lead that zone and I am confident they will be in place before the end of year.
I welcome the Minister back, but will she give that Secretary of State of hers a good thump in the direction of taking trees seriously? There is a close relationship between trees and the quality of air that we breathe in our country, and this Government only plan to sort out clean air by 2040. Can we not have more trees, as under the northern forest initiative and the white rose initiative? Will she get that man next to her to do something and do it now?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is exceptionally passionate about trees; I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the Secretary of State’s constituency has the highest concentration of trees in the country. This issue is not always straightforward. I was at the planting of the first Lowther park estate, where 230,000 trees are due to be planted, and there is more happening up on Doddington moor. Through things such as the woodland creation grant and the creation unit, we will continue to work to get more parts of the country planting quickly.
Mr Speaker, I am sure that in your constituency and mine there will be a lot of tree planting to replace the trees that have to be felled for the construction of High Speed 2. I welcome the Minister back to her role. Will she give serious consideration to the proposal for a new national park at the heart of the west midlands conurbation, so that the biodiversity lost can be offset at scale?
The Department for Transport has already issued a grant so that tree planting can start, so that is already under way. Julian Glover is undertaking a review of national parks and we want to understand the future perspective. I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s application will be considered carefully.
The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) may not know this, because she does not have eyes in the back of her head, but I can advise her that she has now thoroughly wound up the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan).
Pursuant to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), I remind the Minister that HS2 will go through Buckinghamshire and the Chiltern hills. Is she aware that we are contemplating applying for national park status for the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty? That would help to protect what ancient woodland and trees are left after HS2 has gone through the middle of Buckinghamshire.
I am sure that that consideration will be given serious attention in due course.
Oh, very well; I call Mr Philip Dunne.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister back to her place. On the proper stewardship of trees, is she satisfied that the existing arrangements between the Forest Holidays group and the Forestry Commission fully accord with the commission’s statutory objectives?
We are not happy about the arrangement that the Forestry Commission has entered into with Forest Holidays, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has asked Colin Day—the Department’s non-executive director and chair of its audit and risk committee—to undertake a review. He will be investigating the matter carefully.[Official Report, 16 July 2018, Vol. 645, c. 2MC.]
Leaving the EU: UK Fish Exports
We want to secure an agreement with the European Union that ensures tariff-free and frictionless market access for fisheries products. That is of course a separate negotiation from those on fishing opportunities and access to waters, which will be founded on the UK’s legal status as an independent coastal state and will be consistent with fisheries agreements internationally.
Commiserations on the tennis, Mr Speaker.
And the football.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s belated recognition that we cannot have frictionless exports to the European Union for our fish and agriculture products if we are not in a single market, as the Chequers agreement recognises. Will he explain why his fellow hard-Brexiteers do not seem to grasp that simple truth? Do they just not care about our fish and agricultural exports?
It would be wrong to say that the position put forward in the Chequers agreement is analogous to membership of the single market or the European economic area. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that membership of the European economic area and the single market does not guarantee entirely frictionless access to the European Union for fisheries or other products.
Many fisheries and seafood-processing companies in my constituency have come together with other businesses to express interest in the concept of a free port, post-Brexit. Will the Secretary of State assure them that the Government will agree to nothing that would prevent a future Government from designating free ports?
It would be reckless of any Government to do anything that would imperil the ambitions and aspirations exhibited by the exemplary constituents whom my hon. Friend serves so well.
The White Paper makes it clear that the Government do not intend to change the method for allocating existing quotas. Two thirds of UK fish quotas are controlled by three huge companies, and small boats are being squeezed. Is it not time for the Government to admit that Scotland’s fishermen will see absolutely no benefit from Brexit, but will lose access to the world’s biggest marketplace?
Almost everything in that question was wrong, but that does not surprise me because almost everything in the Scottish National party’s position on fisheries is wrong. It wants to stay in the European Union and therefore in the common fisheries policy and yet it wants Scotland’s fishermen to enjoy all the advantages of being outside the common fisheries policy. Some Members of this House have been accused of wanting to have their cake and eat it. I am afraid that SNP Members want to have a whole chain of bakeries and eat everything in them. If hypocrisy were a term that was allowed to be used in this House, then it would fit the Scottish National party like a bunnet.
There is no prohibition on the use of the term. It can apply to a collective, but not to an individual. The judgment as to whether the Minister is on the right side of the line falls to me. Happily, from the point of view of the right hon. Gentleman, he has not erred.
Persuade me that the common rulebook is not the acquis by another name.
The acquis is, of course, a French term and the common rulebook is an Anglo-Saxon one, and therefore they are happily distinct. I know that my right hon. Friend is fond of Anglo-Saxon terms and pithy ones at that. One thing I would say about the common rulebook is that it governs goods and it governs agri-foods only in so far as is necessary to have free and frictionless access. In that respect, we remain, and will be, a sovereign nation.
Leaving the EU: Agriculture and Fisheries Management
Mr Speaker, thank you for your indulgence on the line call earlier in saying that the ball was in.
The Government’s consultation setting out the policy framework for agriculture in England after the UK leaves the EU closed on 8 May. All responses have been analysed and will be used to inform future policy. A report of the findings will be published in due course. Plans for the reform of fisheries management when the UK leaves the EU were set out in the “Sustainable fisheries for future generations” White Paper, which was published on 4 July.
What post-Brexit safeguards are being put in place to stop EU vessels registering in the UK simply to farm our waters of fish, as happened in the Factortame case, if there is to be a common rulebook in the agriculture and food sector?
The hon. Lady raises some very important points. The first thing to say is that the Factortame case was a case that relied on the supremacy of the European Court of Justice. The supremacy of the European Court of Justice will end under the Government’s proposals for leaving the European Union; that is quite clear. The second thing is that the common rulebook on agri-food applies only to those sanitary and phytosanitary requirements that allow us frictionless access to the EU. That means that we will be outside the common agricultural policy and outside the common fisheries policy. It is also the case that economic link conditions can be reformed in such a way to meet the needs that she points out.
What consideration has been given to changing the fishing-quota-based system post Brexit to either a percentage-based system or a days-at-sea-based system, which would significantly help my fishermen in Newhaven?
My hon. Friend stands up very well for the fisher people of Newhaven. One thing we can do outside the common fisheries policy, as the fisheries White Paper spells out, is reallocate additional quota and we can also—and we propose to do this—pilot days-at-sea or effort-based methods of fisheries control. We hope to work with inshore fishermen such as those whom she represents so well.
The truth is that the Government could be taking action today to support the UK’s catching sector. Instead, they are sending the most lucrative licences out of the UK. Why?
Well, we are in the European Union at the moment and governed by its rules and that is why the people of Grimsby voted to leave.
When will the farmers and crofters in my constituency know the shape and content of the UK-wide framework for the payment of agricultural support post Brexit?
There are many important things for the farmers whom the right hon. Gentleman represents, but the details of how payments will be paid have been laid out by the Scottish Government, by the relevant Cabinet Secretary, Fergus Ewing, and I know that he is consulting on those proposals.
As my right hon. Friend will be profoundly aware, the EU Commission wishes to maintain guaranteed and continued access to UK waters even after we leave the EU and the common fisheries policy. I am pleased that, in the fisheries White Paper published last week and in discussions with fishermen during his visit to Peterhead in my constituency last week, he confirmed that that is not the position of this Government. Will he confirm again today that, as negotiations with the EU continue, this Government will not allow the Commission to conflate its access to British waters with our access to EU markets?
My hon. Friend puts the case absolutely correctly.
It is a delight to see the DEFRA team still in their place, but may I offer a special welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who we have missed? We hope that she enjoys her time back as part of the team.
Will the Government tell us exactly who they can sign a free trade deal with, apart from the EU, whereby we do not degrade either environmental protection or animal welfare standards?
Lots of countries.
Monopoly Water Providers: Senior Executive Pay
On 1 March I set out the need for water companies to respond to public concerns over executive pay and a number of other practices. The Government fully support Ofwat’s reforms that require water companies to ensure that executive pay is linked to customer service.
The chief executive of Severn Trent earned £2.45 million last year. As a Wrexham customer I have to contribute to that salary, following the hostile takeover of our local water company. Does the Secretary of State, in his new progressive form, agree that Severn Trent should follow the example of the John Lewis Partnership and link the pay of its highest paid chief executives to those within the business who are lower paid?
It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I am a huge fan of the John Lewis Partnership and the leadership that its executives have shown. This Government and this DEFRA team have taken stronger action than previous Governments and previous teams have done in order to ensure that water companies smarten up their act, that they deal not just with executive pay, but with some of the byzantine financial structures that have not worked in consumer interests in the past, and that they invest more in improving the environment and keeping bills low.
Far too much water in this country is wasted by it leaking out of water pipes. Why on earth can we not link the pay of senior water company executives to their achievement of leakage reduction targets?
Ofwat, the regulator, has been stringent in the steps that it has taken in order to ensure that performance will be linked to pay in the future.
Mr Speaker, may I first join you and others in welcoming back the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) to her rightful place at the Dispatch Box?
I am afraid that prior to the “beast from the east” Ofwat made it perfectly clear that it had no interest in taking direct action on executive pay, tax structures or dividends. May I say how delighted Labour Members are that, after months of raising this very issue, Ofwat has finally U-turned on its position? Will the Secretary of State explain why it has taken Ofwat so long to take this action and tighten up the weak regulation that has let customers down so badly?
I am so glad that the hon. Lady welcomes the action that Ofwat is taking. Ofwat has superb leadership and I am four-square behind that leadership in ensuring that we get a better deal from water companies.
Since 2014, the Government have given the Environment Agency an extra £60 million to tackle waste crime, as well as additional powers to take stronger enforcement action. This year we consulted on further measures to prevent crime at waste sites and I have commissioned a review of serious and organised crime in the sector. The review’s recommendations will inform our strategic approach to waste crime in the forthcoming resources and waste strategy.
One area about which I get considerable correspondence from my constituents is that of fly-tipping. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not only morally reprehensible, but a threat to the environment and our wildlife? Will he also outline what the Government are doing to tackle fly-tipping, particularly in the countryside?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; fly-tipping is morally reprehensible and does have environmental costs. That is why a review, being led by Lizzie Noel, one of the non-executive directors at DEFRA, and supported by Chris Salmon, former police and crime commissioner for Dyfed-Powys, will look at exactly what powers and sanctions are required to deal effectively with this scourge.
Fly-tipping in all its forms is unacceptable, but it is particularly unacceptable when businesses try to avoid costs by dumping commercial waste on unauthorised sites. In such circumstances, does the Secretary of State feel that those businesses should have their vehicles confiscated, alongside any other assets that they use to facilitate this unacceptable practice?
The hon. Gentleman, like me, is tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Therefore, we will give consideration to his recommendation in the review that is being led by Lizzie Noel.
Plastic Waste Recycling
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs estimates that in 2017 there were exports of 661,000 tonnes, compared with 790,000 the year before. Since China banned imports of certain plastic waste at the start of this year, exports to China have fallen significantly, but exports to other countries have risen. We want to ensure more and better-quality plastic recycling in the UK, and we will set out measures for this in our resources and waste strategy later this year.
Will the Minister give the House more detail on the likely impact on UK plastic pollution of China’s and Thailand’s decision to restrict UK dry recycling imports?
As I said, exports to China have fallen drastically, but other countries such as Turkey and Vietnam have taken on more of the plastic waste. Our issue has been more with the paper waste that China used to take from us. It is proving a challenge to get the price that it used to attract.
Wales has the best recycling rate in the UK and the second best in Europe, and the Welsh Labour Government have the stated aim of being the first “refill nation”. Could not the Department learn a lot from Wales, including on plastics that we send abroad, and incorporate that in the upcoming resources and waste strategy for England?
Indeed. I give credit to the Welsh Government for their progress, as I have at the EU Environment Council in the past, and I assure the hon. Lady that we have been looking carefully at what they are doing.
It is vital that we recycle more of our plastic waste here at home and create jobs and growth in every nation and region of this great country. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to my Committee yesterday to recycle half of England’s 35 million asthma inhalers by 2020, not only because of the damaging plastic but because of the damaging fluorinated gases—greenhouse gases—that they release into the atmosphere. Will the Minister enshrine the principle of extended producer responsibility into law through the waste strategy so that more producers are responsible for the waste they produce?
Extended producer responsibility is already part of the legal framework that exists today. I assure the hon. Lady that EPR and the PRN—packaging recovery note—are being very carefully looked at, but she will have to wait until later in the year.
Farming: Environmentally Sustainable Produce
The Government have pledged to work with farmers, food producers and environmental experts across Britain to devise a new agri-environment scheme to be introduced in the next Parliament.
What provisions is my right hon. Friend’s Department making to maintain high environmental standards in farming in case of no deal?
The Department is undertaking significant steps to ensure that high environmental standards are maintained not just in farming but across the piece in the event of the country leaving the European Union in March 2019 without a deal, but of course it remains the commitment of this Government to secure the best possible deal for Britain.
Will the Secretary of State support the recommendations of the agroforestry review by the Soil Association and the Woodland Trust and put on-farm tree planting at the centre of any environmental land management scheme?
We absolutely recognise the vital importance of integrating forestry with farming on appropriate sites and at appropriate times.
Leaving the EU: Food Quality Standards
As a country, we are proud of our high food safety and animal welfare standards, and we have no intention of undermining our reputation for quality by lowering our food and animal welfare standards in pursuit of trade deals.
The Government are demonstrating today that they are happy to roll out the red carpet for unpalatable arrivals from the US, so can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister’s Chequers agreement means that we will hold a stronger line when it comes to rejecting chlorinated chicken imports?
The existing food safety provisions on issues such as chlorinated chicken will come across through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. We have always been clear that we will not water down our standards in pursuit of trade deals. The general approach is that if one is a guest in another country seeking to do business there, then one should adopt and abide by the customs and rules in those markets. That is what we do when we seek access to foreign markets, and that is what countries will have to do when they seek access to our markets.
Air pollution and climate change are closely linked. Our strategy for cleaner air recognises that our “road to zero” strategy tackles several of the issues that were raised in the report. In addition, our future energy, heat and industrial policies, including phasing out coal-fired power stations and improving energy efficiency, show that we can do stuff by working together for air quality and climate change.
The Committee on Climate Change has been scathing about the Government’s abysmal response to the UK’s seriously poor air quality, citing the fact that we are now on course to miss the fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Many of us struggle to breathe due to air pollution, and around 50,000 people die prematurely each year, while the Government have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds defending their record in the courts. When will they get a grip and put forward a workable and funded air quality strategy of the sake of my residents in York?
Overall air quality has actually been improving, and the hon. Lady will be aware that our legal challenge is on roadside nitrogen dioxide concentration. I am sure she will want to respond to the clean air strategy, which is ambitious and will achieve a lot of the outcomes we all want, wherever we live in this country, so that we have better air.
The Government’s “road to zero” strategy, published earlier this week, provides clarity on the role that cleaner diesel vehicles can play in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and meeting ever more stringent air quality standards. My hon. Friend will be aware that we continue to have the policy to end the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040.
I am not aware of that call about the national parks, but I am sure that the hon. Lady recognises the £3.5 billion being invested in improving air quality—a lot of it in changing transport mode to more buses, which I know she is a fan of, and through more cycling and walking. We continue to want to implement that.
The tragic death of a nine-year-old is the first death to be directly linked to illegal levels of air pollution. The lawyer representing the family has said:
“The Government has willingly presided over illegal EU air quality limits since 2010 and this ongoing failure is costing lives.”
Does the Secretary of State agree?
The death from asthma of Ella Kissi-Debrah is absolutely tragic. It is important to say that this is part of an ongoing legal assessment, and it has not yet been conclusively linked to air pollution, but I am fully aware of the impact that poor air quality can have, and that is why this Government are acting on it.
According to UNICEF, more than 4.5 million children in the UK are growing up in areas with toxic levels of air pollution. It is unacceptable that the most vulnerable members of society, who contribute the least to air pollution, are the ones suffering most from its effect. Will the Minister accept that this is a children’s health crisis? What urgent targeted action and funding to reduce child exposure have the Government committed to?
I recognise that this is a challenge, and that is why the Government are addressing it so clearly. The clean air strategy has come out, and the issue that UNICEF refers to is particulate matter. Under current EU rules, we are not in any way breaching the levels set out, but we have recognised that we have to take action. Some 40% of particulate matter comes from domestic burning, which is why we will be consulting on measures later this summer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 hon. Friend’s area.
It seems only right, in Environment questions, to call someone called Mr Ben Lake.
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.
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.