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Topical Questions

Volume 659: debated on Thursday 9 May 2019

First, I thank colleagues from all parties for their support for the Government in giving the Wild Animals in Circuses (No. 2) Bill its Second Reading. Thinking of our responsibility to the natural world, I extend my sympathy to the family of Guardsman Mathew Talbot. Mathew died working on an anti-poaching initiative in Africa just two days ago. He was a distinguished young 22-year-old solider who was fighting to preserve the natural world. Our sympathies go out to his family, friends and colleagues.

Vale of Evesham asparagus is the only asparagus with protected geographical indication status. As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, we are currently in the middle of the British Asparagus Festival, which is held mainly in my constituency. Would he like to join me at that festival and to show his support for great British farmers who grow not only the best asparagus in the world but so much more fantastic, world-class British produce?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his drawing attention to the importance of asparagus growers in our broader agricultural export successes. It is not only grown in the Vale of Evesham, beautiful part of the country though it is; we also grow world-beating asparagus in Yorkshire. Overall, asparagus exports have secured £3.2 million for this country. Although I cannot join the festival, I would be delighted to share some asparagus with my hon. Friend at the first available opportunity.

Last week, the House made history by declaring a climate and environmental emergency. The Labour motion that was passed gives the Government six months to table urgent proposals to restore our natural environment and tackle devastating climate change. That means that the deadline is 1 November. The clock has started to tick. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Cabinet has met to discuss the urgent nature of the motion? When will he publish a timeline that clearly sets out how the UK can reach net zero emissions by at least 2050?

I thank the hon. Lady for underlining the cross-party, consensual approach that the House has taken to dealing with climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we face. The House will be updated not only on progress against the 25-year environment plan and not just in response to the recent report by the Committee on Climate Change on how to reach net zero by 2050, but on a broader suite of measures that every Government Department, from the Treasury to my own, is committed to ensuring that we deliver.

T2. What steps have been taken to establish a Great Britain-wide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, which the industry wants, including Highland Spring in Blackford in my constituency? (910796)

Having had the opportunity to visit Highland Spring, thanks to my hon. Friend, I endorse wholeheartedly the company’s leadership in providing high-quality products to so many people across the world. It also provides employment in his constituency. Highland Spring, like us, wants to ensure that we have a UK-wide scheme. Although I applaud the ambition of Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Government Environment Minister, in taking forward a DR scheme, it is absolutely vital that we make sure it works UK-wide. I hope and believe that the Scottish Government will now put the interests of the United Kingdom ahead of the ideology of separatism that sometimes creeps into some of the things they come up with.

T4. One of the recommendations in the Committee on Climate Change’s report last week was a 20% reduction in meat consumption by 2050 to meet that net zero goal. Can the Secretary of State set out how he plans to achieve that in a way that is fair and equitable? Red meat is obviously particularly important in the diets of children and women, and we do not want to use price as the mechanism. (910798)

That was a typically balanced and thoughtful contribution from the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. One thing I would say is that sustainable farming, particularly mixed and livestock farming, is a critical part of ensuring that we have a healthy environment. I absolutely take on board her point. One thing we absolutely do not want to do is use a crude taxation intervention when it is much more sensible to work with farmers to raise the quality of livestock. There are things we can do on how livestock farmers operate that can contribute to reducing emissions, while at the same time maintaining high-quality red meat that is available to people at every price point.

T3. May I invite you, Mr Speaker, your officials and all Members in the Chamber to join me, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Kew Gardens, the British Beekeepers Association and others as the all-party parliamentary group for bees and pollinators discusses how we can green the parliamentary estate and get a hive of bees on board as well? Does the DEFRA team agree that we would all get a tremendous buzz to see Parliament as a hive of activity for our pollinators? (910797)

I had better answer this with a coat of honey. It is important that this Parliament is open to nature. We have already seen great changes through the Administration Committee and what we are trying to do about elements of plastic. The Department already has a beehive on its roof and I am keen that we should continue to do whatever we can as leaders. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be very aware of the national pollinator strategy and how important it is to the future of biodiversity and sustainable food production.

T5. At Treasury questions a few weeks ago, Ministers boasted about how much hauliers had saved through the freezing of the fuel duty escalator. When I challenged them on the environmental impact, they looked absolutely amazed, as though the thought had never cross their minds. Should the Secretary of State be in a position of influence later this summer in a new Administration, will he be equally blinkered or will he be bold in tackling emissions from road transport? (910799)

I am frankly amazed at the suggestion that any Minister should indulge in something as prideful as boastfulness. I suspect that my Treasury colleagues were pointing out that this Government combines economic efficiency with environmental stewardship in an unprecedented fashion, which is why we have been responsible for reducing carbon emissions faster than any other G20 nation while at the same time growing the economy over the past 20 years by more than 66%.

T6. Consumers are doing everything they can to reduce the amount of packaging and to recycle their plastic, but supermarkets are continuing to wrap fresh produce, in particular, in massive amounts of plastic that cannot be recycled. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is high time the supermarkets did more to protect our planet? (910800)

We are meeting supermarkets on Monday at a big event at the V&A, hosted by the food waste champion Ben Elliot, about how to reduce food waste. The majority of vegetables do not need plastic packaging to extend their life, but some do, which is why we have to take a scientific evidence-based approach. Let me point out to my hon. Friend what we said in the resources and waste strategy: we would like to see more plastic-free aisles in our supermarkets and unnecessary use of plastic must be stopped as quickly as possible.

Last month, I visited Mountfield Primary School in my constituency. The pupils there told me that the No. 1 issue for them is plastics and litter in their environment. Pupils at Canning Street Primary School have also raised this with me. What is the Minister doing to get plastics out of the lives of the children in my constituency?

First, let me thank the tens of thousands of volunteers who participated in the month-long litter-picking campaign. It really matters that we try to tackle litter locally, and that is about education and activity. We have given councils extensive new powers to impose fines to try to reduce such behaviour.

The chair of the Environment Agency has highlighted the need for help in addressing coastal flooding. We need to protect not only houses, but some of the most fertile land in this country, from future flooding. Can we have a real plan for the way forward?

Yes. I have had the privilege with my hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of visiting the Steart peninsula in Somerset and seeing effective flood management that makes sure that we balance the need to protect nature with the need to preserve farmland. It is vital that we say more, and we will shortly in our national policy statement.

Thinking of young people and food production, the primary school in the small village of Inver in my constituency has a polytunnel. I do not know whether the school grows asparagus, but it certainly grows very good carrots and other vegetables to make delicious soup for the pupils. The pupils also sell the vegetables to their parents to make money for the school. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be very helpful if this idea were replicated in all schools across the UK? Perhaps, Mr Speaker, we could even have a polytunnel for hon. and right hon. Members to grow vegetables here on the estate.

That sounds very exciting, I must say—very entrepreneurial. I think it is time that I visited Caithness.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend been having with his Cabinet colleagues about cutting vehicle emissions—for instance, by improving the infrastructure of charging points in cities for electric and hybrid vehicles, which is absolutely critical to this aim?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have been working with the Secretaries of State for Transport, for Business and for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that charging points are automatically included in new developments. But there is more that we must do to ensure that we have an infrastructure that allows us to move towards ultra low emissions vehicles as quickly as possible.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State said to me last week, the DEFRA main estimate says that the budget for peatland restoration is unchanged. I am not going to ask for an apology, but the Secretary of State knows that peat amounts to 10% of our carbon dioxide emissions, so when is he going to increase the measly £6 million budget?

As much as I would like to continue indefinitely with these stimulating exchanges, I am afraid that we must move on.