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House of Commons Hansard
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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
25 July 2019
Volume 663

The Secretary of State was asked—

Climate Change Adaptation

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1. What plans she has to implement the recommendations on climate change adaptation in the May 2019 Committee on Climate Change report on net zero carbon emissions. [912183]

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The Government recognise the need for urgent action on climate change—on both mitigation and adaptation. For example, we are investing £2.6 billion over six years on flood defences. Some sectors are already adapting to the changing climate. When I visited the Fruit Focus event in Kent, I learned that the climate is now better suited for apricot production and for vineyards. The good news is that this will mean more high-quality English sparkling wine to toast the health and success of our new Prime Minister.

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Do I detect an end-of-term feel about the Minister’s comments?

What analysis has the Minister undertaken of the impact on homes, infrastructure and communities as a result of climate change over the next 10 to 20 years? Will he share that analysis with the House, so that Members are able to assess the impact on our constituencies?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The Committee on Climate Change assessed 33 sectors, and we welcome its report. We are committed to taking robust action to improve resilience to climate change. We will formally respond to the Committee’s detailed recommendations in October, in line with the timetable set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, and that will include the way climate change affects communities.

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Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that tackling and adapting to climate change has the virtue not only of being the right policy—making sure that we continue to be a world leader in this regard—but of being popular?

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As we switch the way we support our farmers from the basic payment system to paying public money for public goods, getting action on climate change will be just one of those public goods that we can deliver outside the European Union.

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The Minister might be toasting the new Prime Minister, but I do wonder how much hot air is being generated and what contribution that will make to the net emissions target. The Scottish Government have committed to net zero by 2045, rather than the UK Government’s 2050 target. Is the UK not willing to match that level of ambition?

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When it comes to hot air, pots and kettles spring to mind.

I look forward to working with the Scottish Administration to achieve the target. This is not a party political issue. Every single part of this House wants to take action on climate change, and it is vital that we do so to deliver a cleaner and greener planet in the future.

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This is perfect weather for barbecues and enjoying Scottish beef. Does the Minister agree that the beef industry is doing its bit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burping cows?

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Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, but it is interesting to note that, unlike carbon dioxide, which takes 100 years to dissipate, methane dissipates in about 12 years. That means that if we can reduce the current rate of methane production—never mind net zero—we will actually reduce the amount of methane in the atmosphere, which will be an important way of contributing to our net zero targets.

Forestry Investment Zones: England

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2. What steps she is taking to designate forestry investment zones in England. [912184]

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We are piloting the first forestry investment zone in Cumbria to learn how best to support long-term forestry investment. I was delighted to visit Northumberland last week to discuss with my hon. Friend and others how to increase tree planting rates. We have everyone from the county council to the national park agreeing to work together to increase woodland creation in that great county.

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I welcome the Minister’s visit to Northumberland last week and thank him for his kind words. Does he agree that what we need is a whole of Northumberland FIZ, which will be structured to allow long-term private investment to support local landowners to plant and, importantly, maintain extensive commercial and amenity planting projects, so that our 11 million new carbon sinks—our trees—will be a reality, not just a plan?

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I welcome my hon. Friend’s further comments on the development of a FIZ in Northumberland and completely agree that we need to do more to make our long-term tree planting aspirations a reality. As we discussed last week, we need to explore further the opportunities around the potential FIZ in Northumberland, basing them around the lessons learned from the Cumbria pilot. I welcome the positive work that has already taken place. We clearly need to do a lot more to achieve our ambitious targets across the country and in Northumberland.

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The Minister knows that the Tory Administration in the 18th and 19th centuries stole the public land from the people. That is the truth of the matter. The enclosure Acts were a stain on the history of this country. Is it not about time that we gave that land back and grew trees on it—and that we did so seriously, not through playing around with words?

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Of course we need to do more to plant more trees, and we are taking that action. We are already committed to planting 11 million trees by 2022 and we are well on target to achieve that aim, but our aspirations are much bigger—going to 12% level of woodland cover by 2060.

Plastic Pollution

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3. What steps she is taking to tackle plastic pollution. [912185]

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17. What steps she is taking to tackle plastic pollution. [912199]

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rose—

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Hear, hear.

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Thank you. It is good to be back at this Dispatch Box.

Our priority is preventing plastic waste from entering the environment in the first instance. The resources and waste strategy sets out our plans to eliminate avoidable plastic waste, including measures to tackle certain single-use plastic items. This week we published Government responses to consultations on measures that include making recycling easier and ensuring that producers pay the full cost of managing their packaging waste responsibly.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her new role.

Pupils from Kings Road Primary School and the Bishops’ Primary School in Chelmsford want to do more to reduce single-use plastic. I have obviously given them copies of “Vicky’s Guide to Going Green”, but what top tips would my right hon. Friend like to share?

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There are many top tips in our 25-year environment plan, and I commend my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for his world-leading work on this matter. A key message to get across to all the schoolchildren around the country who want to take part in tackling plastic waste is: don’t drop litter.

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I also congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment. Will she join me in congratulating the students from the National Citizen Service I met at Roots Hall in Southend on Monday, who, inspired by David Attenborough, are right at this very minute picking out plastic from our beautiful coastline in Southend?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Both these questions illustrate that there is a real attitude out there among the public that they want to be part of resolving this urgent problem. The Government will continue to support organisations such as the National Citizen Service to engage young people and ensure that they are playing a part in the Government’s determination to address this problem because people are concerned about it.

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Nearly 40 million plastic bottles are used in the UK every day, but the Government’s bottle return scheme does not kick in for four years. Why so long?

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We have gone further than any other Government in history on tackling plastic waste. I acknowledge the concern felt about the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised. We will always try to move as fast as we can to ensure that we are taking the most effective action possible, but we also need to take time to ensure that we get it right. I assure him that I will be working hard to ensure that this action is delivered as soon as possible.

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I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place.

On 1 May, this House unanimously supported Labour’s declaration of an environment and climate emergency. The Center for International Environmental Law predicts that plastics will contribute to 13% of global carbon emissions by 2050 if no action is taken, yet the Government’s plans do not envisage that extended producer responsibility for packaging will come into force before 2023 or that a 75% recycling rate will be achieved before 2030. Does the Secretary of State accept that the emergency requires much faster action?

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I look forward to working with the shadow Front Benchers on these issues. We have gone further and faster than the previous Labour Government with radical changes, including the plastic bag tax and our plans to ban plastic stirrers and other plastic products. We are a world-leading country on this issue, and we will continue to be so because we are determined to tackle the problem.

Air Pollution: Local Authority Funding

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4. What assessment the Government have made of the adequacy of funding allocated to support local authority implementation of air pollution reduction plans. [912186]

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The Government have invested £3.5 billion in improving air quality and £495 million is specifically set aside for councils where they are in breach of nitrogen dioxide limits. We will continue to support councils in a variety of ways to improve air quality.

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Residents and businesses want to play their part in Greater Manchester’s plans to reduce air pollution, but unless the Government will properly support plans for vehicle upgrades and for retrofitting, many businesses will not be able to afford to do so. When will the Government give the clarity and the assurances on funding that businesses in Greater Manchester need?

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I have had to send back the plan to the Mayor of Greater Manchester because it is not ambitious enough in making changes in Manchester as quickly as possible to improve air quality for the residents there.

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Local authorities will not be able to fix the massive air pollution that is caused by a third runway expansion at Heathrow. The new Secretary of State and I both voted against that plan, and of course the new Prime Minister is a long-standing opponent. But pollution goes far wider than air pollution—it is also noise pollution—and it is in conflict with our law on net zero carbon emissions by 2050 that this House passed unanimously. Will the new Secretary of State now insist that this project is put on hold and that a review of it is undertaken before any further work is done?

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It is the absolute priority for the people who are developing the third runway to come forward with a plan that meets environmental targets in law. If they do not, they will not get the consent to make it happen. However, I am highly confident that the operators of Heathrow airport will be able to devise such a plan.

Air Quality

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13. People with lung conditions find it really difficult to breathe on days like today. Poor air quality contributes to poor lung health, and the World Health Organisation calls this a public health emergency. So will the Secretary of State, as her first act in post, introduce a clean air Act as a priority and a matter of urgency? [912195]

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about the importance of tackling air pollution with regard to lung health and other medical conditions. That is why we have been consistently working on this ever since I have been an Environment Minister, and air quality continues to improve. We are very conscious that the clean air strategy was welcomed by the World Health Organisation as being world-leading and something that it wanted other countries to pursue. The hon. Lady will well know that measures are being planned on air quality that will be in the forthcoming environment Bill.

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Many parents, including those in Redditch, are worried about the impact of air pollution on their children’s lungs, especially when they are going to and from school. Will the new Secretary of State, who I warmly welcome to her place, ensure that local authorities’ funding under the clean air strategy is adequate to help them to tackle this problem?

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I hope that my hon. Friend is aware that councils already have many powers to improve issues relating to cars and other vehicles, especially around schools. I would encourage her to work with Redditch Borough Council and Worcestershire County Council on taking advantage of those powers. She will also be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has indicated that we are going to increase the fines for idling.

Tree Planting

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5. What plans she has to increase tree planting rates. [912187]

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11. What plans she has to increase tree planting rates. [912193]

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To encourage more planting, we have modified our main grant schemes and announced additional funding of £10 million for urban trees and £50 million for the woodland carbon guarantee scheme. We have invested £5.7 million in the northern forest. We have also reappointed our tree champion to develop our tree strategy so that we can plan to consult on this later in the year. That demonstrates our commitment to achieving our goal of planting 11 million trees during this Parliament, and our wider aspirations.

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I congratulate the Secretary of State on her welcome return to the top table. Earlier this year, her predecessor visited the wonderful Thames Chase community forest in my constituency and planted a tree to contribute to this growing woodland. With the forest likely to be impacted by the lower Thames crossing, will the Minister provide an update on the Department’s biodiversity net gain plans to ensure that major infrastructure projects have the potential to enhance, not detract from, precious green spaces?

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I know how hard my hon. Friend works for her constituency. We have committed to mandating biodiversity net gain through the forthcoming environment Bill. That policy will deliver measurable improvements to biodiversity through development including housing and local infrastructure, thereby making sure that development has a positive environmental impact through habitat creation or enhancement. The Government are also exploring the best approaches to net gain for nationally significant infrastructure, including the lower Thames crossing.

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Trees are a vital tool in combating carbon emissions, but in Seaford and Alfriston in my constituency, trees are having to be cut down because of elm disease. What support can the Minister give my local council to ensure not just that those trees are replaced but that even more are planted?

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As my hon. Friend knows, I am very aware of Seaford and Alfriston, and while no specific grants are currently available to replace elm in urban settings, there are opportunities for funding new planting in and around our towns and cities under the recently launched £10 million urban tree challenge fund. That fund will support the planting of at least 130,000 trees across towns and cities in England and contribute towards our manifesto commitment of planting 1 million urban trees by 2022.

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Hyndburn Borough Council has planted an awful lot of trees. In fact, I believe that it has planted more trees than any other borough in Lancashire. When will the Government reward Labour councils such as Hyndburn Borough Council for the work they have done to meet the Government’s targets?

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I praise the work they are doing. There is a huge opportunity with the northern forest, which the Government have helped to kick-start. It will make a huge difference, working through many community forests. I was pleased to be able to plant the first Government-funded tree in Bury just a few months ago.

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I thank the Minister for his response. Tree cover across the UK mainland is approximately 12%, and in Northern Ireland it is only 8%. What is the Minister doing collectively with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to improve the lungs of the world by planting more trees?

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I praise the work that is going on across the country. Clearly, there is important work going on in Scotland that we need to learn from. We are absolutely committed to taking forward this important work, as I know the hon. Gentleman is, because we need many more trees to achieve our targets in addressing and tackling climate change.

Single Use Plastics Directive

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6. What her timescale is for bringing forward legislative proposals to implement the single use plastics directive 2019/904. [912188]

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The Government strongly supported the single use plastics directive, partly because we were already undertaking several of the actions proposed. I am confident that the necessary regulations will be brought in within two years, as happens with directives, but as I say, we are already on the case.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I recently arranged for a bottle deposit scheme of the type used in Norway to come to Cheltenham high street, and I know from the reaction of my constituents that there is a huge demand to drive down the number of plastic bottles in our environment. Of course we have to get the detail right, but does the Minister agree that we should look at such a scheme very carefully, with a view to introducing it as quickly as possible?

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Indeed. The Government published their response to the consultation just the other day, and we have indicated again our support for continuing with the scheme. I know that people are impatient—I am impatient. I have now been to about seven countries to look at their deposit return schemes. It is complex. We have the biggest on-the-go market out of any country in Europe, and we need to ensure that we have a system that works, alongside all the other reforms we are making, such as extended producer responsibility and the plastics tax. It is important to ensure that those are co-ordinated and will have the desired effect.

Access to Food

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7. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on helping to ensure that everyone has access to (a) safe, (b) healthy and (c) affordable food. [912189]

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Ministers and officials regularly discuss all aspects of food security, including accessibility. We have long-established relationships with industry and work collaboratively to ensure that the UK continues to have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food from a wide range of sources, particularly from British farmers. I plan to visit the Game Fair tomorrow, so I will make a plug for British game and the grouse that will be coming into our larders following the glorious twelfth.

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, particularly because my newly appointed right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not had a chance to speak to her Cabinet colleagues. The problem with safe food is that we need to be able to read on the label that it is safe. Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died because she ate food that was contaminated with sesame seeds, but the label did not make that clear. We still have a problem in this country with honesty in labelling. Can more be done, to ensure that the label says what it is?

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Clear labelling is vital, particularly when it comes to ingredients that may provoke allergic reactions. We have learned a very sad lesson from that situation, and the Government have responded.

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On the subject of the Game Fair, it is very sad that Chris Packham has been banned from attending to speak out against grouse shooting. I would have thought that the Minister would welcome free speech on the subject.

On food, the Government grant for school meals has not risen in the last five years. It is £2.30 per pupil. It is really difficult to provide nutritious meals for children for that amount. Can he speak to the Secretary of State for Education about that?

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I will certainly speak to the new Secretary of State for Education, a fellow Scarborian, to discuss that issue. It is very important that we have good, nutritious school meals available for children.

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It is a great pleasure to see the new Secretary of State in her place. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) for all the work he did on agriculture. I want to emphasise that, as we produce food in the future, we can have a better environment, but let us use all the technologies and everything available so that we can have affordable, safe food.

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Yes, absolutely. There are a number of new technologies that we can use, not least the opportunities that gene editing may offer to produce healthier, more productive crops in our fields.

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I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. Changes to the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (England) Regulations 2018, in line with changes to EU rules for ovine age identification, would go a long way to helping ensure access to safe and healthy food and would help our farmers, but I am repeatedly being fobbed off with an excuse that a consultation will be coming soon. When will we see it?

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Having spent a lot of my life looking into sheep’s mouths in ageing them, I know how important it is to ensure that we have a system that we can demonstrate clearly does not present any risk to health. We were keen to move away from carcase splitting. We took a precautionary approach because of the delays in delivering Brexit, but I hope we can make progress once we have left the European Union.

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Access to food also requires access to labour to plant, care for and pick it. Over the last year, I have had many representations from farmers in my constituency and from the National Farmers Union. What representations is my right hon. Friend making to Cabinet colleagues advocating a points-based system to make sure that that has sufficient flex so that there is access to labour not just seasonally, but all year round?

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My right hon. Friend and I are both former Immigration Ministers, so we know this issue. Indeed, one of the points made to me at the Fruit Focus event was the need to access labour to pick our fruit. The pilot scheme that my right hon. Friend brought forward during her time at the Home Office is a step in the right direction, but we do need to ensure we can have the workforce to pick the fruit, particularly given the weakness of the pound and the fact that perhaps not all European Union citizens are as attracted to come to the UK as they were.

Fast Fashion

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8. What plans the Government have to reduce the (a) environmental and (b) social impact of fast fashion. [912190]

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The Government will be working through the Waste and Resources Action Programme and with industry on developing an ambitious new phase of the sustainable clothing action plan. We are planning to develop regulatory standards and labels to support durable, repairable and recyclable products; consult on an extended producer responsibility scheme; and support innovation in textile recycling. We are also increasing the transparency of reporting required on modern slavery, and continuing to prioritise the enforcement of national minimum wage legislation.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her place, but the announcements she has just made will not go far enough to tackle the fast fashion epidemic, which is being promoted by shows such as “Love Island”. It may be bikini weather outside, but when bikinis are being sold for £1 on fast fashion websites, it is clear that workers are not getting what they need. When is she going to bring in extended producer responsibility and ban clothing from landfill?

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First, I very much look forward to working with the hon. Lady’s Environmental Audit Committee on these and other matters. I very much hope to appear in front of the members of her Committee when there is time in their diary.

The hon. Lady raises very important points. I think there is real consensus across the House that we need action. The Government have a credible plan, which we are delivering. As I said in response to earlier questions, we need to ensure that we get this right. I can assure her that we will be moving towards solutions on these problems in response to public concern.

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Does the Secretary of State agree with me that fashion provides very important livelihoods for people in low-income countries around the world? As we, rightly, address the question of sustainability, we must never throw away their livelihoods, which are so important. In fact, we must seek to ensure that those livelihoods are improved.

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With all these matters, our goal should be to pursue both prosperity and environmental sustainability at the same time. My hon. Friend makes a very valid point that in taking forward our new regulatory structures to tackle this problem, we must also take into account the impact on developing countries and the interests of people on low incomes.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. As we have heard, fast fashion has a negative impact on our environment. The Secretary of State mentioned environmental sustainability, but she repeatedly voted against measures to protect the environment and tackle climate change. How can we trust her to deliver the transformative change that we need to tackle the climate and environmental emergency we all face? Will she confirm that net zero is still the Government’s target, and if so, will she commit to taking the necessary steps that she previously voted against?

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I do not know whose voting record the hon. Lady has been looking at, but it does not sound like mine. The Government are doing more on climate change than ever before, and we are one of the first developed countries in the world to commit to the net zero target—not something that our Labour predecessors were prepared to do. I have backed, with enthusiasm, a succession of vital measures taken by the Government—for example, to ensure that more of our electricity is generated by renewables than ever before.