The Secretary of State was asked—
This is the last time I will be able to address you from the Chamber, Mr Speaker, so I would like to put on record my thanks to you for what you have done for this House, particularly during my time as a Back Bencher, when we worked closely on a number of issues. I thank you very much what you have done.
The UK is a world leader in efforts to protect endangered plants and animals from poaching and illegal wildlife trade. We have invested over £36 million between 2014 and 2021 on work to directly counter the illegal wildlife trade, including reducing demand, strengthening enforcement, ensuring effective legal frameworks and developing sustainable livelihoods. We will significantly scale up our funding from 2021 by doubling the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund as part of the £220 million international biodiversity fund announced in September.
I am concerned, along with many constituents who have contacted me on this issue, that the persecution of raptors is not treated as a priority by local police forces. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that raptor persecution, particularly that of hen harriers, is a national wildlife crime priority and that strong penalties are in place for offences committed against birds of prey?
The illegal wildlife trade is not just an international issue; it is a domestic issue as well. All our birds in the UK are protected. Wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and there are strong penalties for committing offences. The Government take wildlife crime very seriously and have identified raptor persecution as a national wildlife crime priority, and that includes species such as hen harriers and peregrines of course. We are very concerned, however, about hen harrier populations, which is why we took the lead on the hen harrier action plan to increase hen harrier populations in England. I add that DEFRA has committed to at least maintaining existing levels of funding for the national wildlife fund until the next spending review.
A constituent of mine has been terrorised by off-road bikers, who are also devastating local wildlife. Because this is happening on private land, our local police have found it difficult to take action, so will the Department and the police work together to overcome this dreadful problem?
I have had letters from the constituents of a number of hon. Members raising the same issue: off-road bikers causing wildlife mayhem in sensitive and fragile parts of the countryside. I of course commit to the hon. Gentleman to talk to the police and landowners and animal welfare charities to see what the best solution is. There is no silver bullet to solve the problem. It needs to be addressed, but it is not immediately obvious what that solution would be.
Canned lion breeding in South Africa is causing terrible angst for many people because these lions, barely two years old, are shot at point-blank range. That adds to the trophy hunting imports to this country. When is the consultation my right hon. Friend has mentioned going to begin?
My hon. Friend is right: canned lion hunting is one of the grimmest of all human activities. It is hard to see any defence for it. There are concerns that, although it may not be a direct conservation issue, creating a legal trade in lion parts, particularly lion bones, provides a cover for the illegal trade, and we know that lion numbers have plummeted in the last 15 or 20 years. As she mentioned, we have committed to launching a call for evidence and, based on the results we get, we will take whatever steps are necessary to end, or to regulate the import of hunting trophies.
I commend the Minister for all he has done to stop imports from trophy hunting, but with special reference to that can he outline recent steps taken to absolutely ban any such imports? I think it is the mood of the House and the country for that to happen. Can he tell us what has been done?
The hon. Gentleman knows my views on the issue; we have discussed it many times. From the Back Benches and as a Minister, I have debated the issue with him, although we have been on the same side of the debate. I am appalled by the very concept of wanting to shoot these extraordinarily beautiful, endangered wild animals. I cannot see any obvious link between that activity and protection of those animals. However, we are obliged as a Government, before embarking on any kind of legislation to prevent the import of trophies, to consult so that we know exactly what the impacts of that potential legislative change would be. So we have to do that consultation. We have to do it in an honest fashion. On the back of that consultation, we will take whatever steps are necessary, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is not an issue that we intend to kick into the long grass.
May I just say that I am not ignoring the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)? I am conscious that she has Question 6, on which another party wishes to come in, so it would perhaps be better for her to wait until then. We look forward to hearing from her in a few minutes.
I wish you all the best for the future, Mr Speaker, and thank you for chairing DEFRA questions with such patience and consideration over the last few years.
We know that there are loopholes in the Hunting Act 2004 which are being exploited. A Labour Government would strengthen the hunting ban, so may I ask what the Conservative Government have been doing to stop foxhunters from breaking the law?
There is no doubt that illegal activities continue. They are well documented and often secure widespread coverage on social media in particular, and they cause outrage among the population. Those activities are already illegal: they are against the law. Digging up setts, bashing fox cubs on the head and breeding foxes to feed to hounds are illegal as well as abhorrent. The challenge relates to enforcement and prosecution. As I mentioned, we are committed to maintaining levels of funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and we are encouraging other Government Departments to play their part as well.
May I join others, Mr Speaker, in thanking you and your chaplain for your service to the House? You have been particularly kind in enabling me to raise from the Back Benches many issues that really matter to my constituents, and I am profoundly grateful.
The Government have introduced a range of measures to improve animal welfare, including a rigorous ban on the ivory trade and mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses. We are considering proposals to tighten the welfare rules for animals in transit, including a ban on unnecessary and excessively long journeys to slaughter.
We will be pressing ahead with the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill so that horrific crimes like that can meet with the appropriate punishment. We are consulting on compulsory microchipping for cats to ensure that lost pets can be reunited with their owners, and we have also banned third party sales of kittens and puppies.
One way of preventing animal cruelty would be to tighten the law on illegal foxhunting. Will Ministers undertake to introduce a system of monitoring before the foxhunting season starts in order to find out just how many illegal killings are taking place, so that we know how to address the problem?
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, we believe that it is crucial for all our laws to be properly enforced, including the Hunting Act, and we will continue to engage with the appropriate authorities to ensure that that is the case.
That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker. I will save my tribute for the right time, in due course.
Unfortunately, as colleagues with rural constituencies may know, at this time of the year there is a steep rise in the number of abandoned horses as winter approaches. A couple of weeks ago I personally dealt with four abandoned ponies, including two foals barely weaned at 12 weeks. They were in a terrible condition: their feet had never been trimmed, their ribs were showing, and they had lice and mites. I had to get them rehomed.
I welcome the Government’s proposals to take a tougher line with those who abuse animals in this way, but can my right hon. Friend reassure me—gently, given the problem with her voice today—that the Government will support the police and local authorities in taking action and enforcing the law on these criminals?
There is cross-party support for increasing prison sentences for those who hurt and cruelly kill animals, but Ministers have dithered and delayed over the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill. Even in this divided Parliament, and even at this late stage, there is still a chance to get that Bill on to the statute book before the election. Labour backs the Bill, the Secretary of State’s own Back Benchers back the Bill and the public back the Bill, so will she give a commitment that she will use every effort to get it on to the statute book before the general election is called?
May I add my fond goodbyes, Mr Speaker? I will forever remember, as a Back Bencher, waiting and bobbing and finally being woken up and called by you saying, “Rebec-Kerpow!” I will always remember that, although you probably did not realise you had said it.
The Environment Bill includes measures to improve air quality, which will ensure that local authorities have a clear framework and simple-to-use powers to tackle air pollution. DEFRA and the Department for Transport’s joint air quality unit works closely with local authorities, underpinned by £572 million in funding, to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances. More than £3 million in air quality grant funding was awarded to local authorities in March for projects in local communities.
Mr Speaker, may I first thank you on behalf of many of us for the role you have played in ensuring that this elected House calls the Executive to account with such fervour? Also, could you turn your attention to the bag that is in the cupboard in your office, which requires your signature so I can use it as a raffle prize?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We know that the ultra low emission zone in central London has been a huge success, bringing about a 36% reduction in nitrogen dioxide pollution in London. Does the Minister not agree that it is vital that the Government support the Mayor of London in his efforts to tackle air pollution, and will she please support the expansion of the ULEZ in 2021?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. London faces specific challenges, not least because the size and complexity of the capital’s transport network is quite different from others, and the commitment of the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly to tackle air quality in the capital is absolutely welcomed. The Mayor has received a comprehensive funding settlement for dealing with air quality, to the tune of £5 billion, which includes measures to tackle the nitrogen dioxide limits.
May I wish you well in your retirement, Mr Speaker?
Air quality has been worked on across Government, across Departments and across local government, so can we be assured that all parts of the Government will do everything they can to get everybody working together to monitor air quality, get more electric cars and actually do something about the quality of air across the whole of our country, especially in the hotspots?
The Chairman of the Select Committee makes a very good point. Air quality is an absolute priority because it affects human health. We already have the clean air strategy, but in the Environment Bill we are putting through much clearer and simpler powers for local authorities to actually use their duties to tackle air quality, and we will see many more of these charging zones coming in over the next year. As the Minister in charge of air quality, I will ensure that these are tackled as fast as possible.
Tackling air quality is closely linked to what happens in the planning system, particularly when it comes to housing. Officials in the two Departments have recently collaborated on developing planning guidance. I recently wrote to Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers to urge much closer collaboration on, for example, housing and housing design, because all the emissions from housing affect climate change. This is all about cross-working.
Parts of Chatham suffer from high levels of air pollution. Medway Council is doing what it can to tackle it, but I am working with a school that sits right on a very busy road to develop a green wall to reduce some of the air pollution specifically for children. What work is the Minister doing with the Department for Education to support schools to provide their own green solutions to tackle air pollution?
That question is of great interest to me as a former horticultural journalist. Green walls are a great thing. Not only do they look great, but they help by taking in carbon emissions and so on. DEFRA has an air quality grant programme that can help local authorities to fund projects to tackle air pollution in specific areas like schools, so that school could ask for support under the programme. Good question.
One of the things that I will certainly miss when you are not in the Chair is how you pronounce my name, Mr Speaker. Thank you so much.
Why does the Environment Bill not include World Health Organisation targets for air pollutants or set clear targets to meet them?
Air quality targets are included in the Bill, but we already have an ambition in the clear air strategy. Reaching the target for particulate matter 2.5 is an absolute priority, but the actual target will be set in secondary legislation after expert advice has been taken on exactly how to do that. I met one of the heads of the WHO just last week, and she agreed that that is the right way of doing things, because this is tricky, and we must get it right.
To tackle plastics pollution, we have introduced a world-leading microbeads ban, reduced single-use plastic bag usage by 90% in the main supermarkets, and launched the Commonwealth Clean Ocean Alliance to tackle the issue globally. We also have a widespread package of measures on plastic pollution in our Environment Bill.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your tremendous support for Back Benchers throughout this House during your time in the Chair. I also thank Becki Woolrich, who founded Stafford Litter Heroes, for all that she and her colleagues have done. By this weekend, they will have collected more than 2 tonnes of litter from the area in a very short time. We should pay great tribute to volunteers such as them.
There are 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution per mile of beach in the UK. The amount of plastic produced globally has increased from 1.5 million tonnes in 1950 to 320 million tonnes a couple of years ago. It is clear that we need to produce less plastic, not more, so will my right hon. Friend explain what we are doing to ensure that as much plastic is recycled as possible and that that happens here in the UK? Plastic should not be shipped overseas for other people to deal with.
My hon. Friend is correct: current levels of plastic pollution are intolerable, and the Government are determined to tackle them. We will be introducing a system to incentivise plastic packaging producers to use more recyclable material, but also less material in general. We will be banning plastic stirrers and cotton buds. We are introducing a deposit return scheme on drinks containers. We will also be introducing more consistent recycling to help everyone to recycle more to tackle the terrible problem of plastics pollution.
Our Environment Bill provides the opportunity for future Governments to set targets on the use of resources and recycling. Reducing the need for single-use plastics is an important part of this, but recycling will also be a crucial part in reaching our goal of eliminating avoidable plastic waste in the coming years. That is why we are seeking to increase the amount of plastic that is recyclable and is recycled.
May I, too, wish you all the best, Mr Speaker? May I also thank you for teaching me the value of patience and for helping me have considerable exercise for my knees during my time in this Chamber?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituent Nik Spencer has invented an incredible, groundbreaking piece of technology that would eliminate the need for plastic waste entirely if it is commercially adopted, because it converts plastic waste in the home into energy? If, as I very much hope, we are returned to government, will she agree to meet me to see how we can stimulate and incentivise technologies such as this machine, so that we can tackle plastic pollution at its source?
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for making me feel welcome in the short time I have been here so far. After “The Blue Planet” and other television programmes, after the in-depth investigations by Friends of the Earth and others, after the mass campaigning by schoolchildren all over the world to prevent plastics in our oceans and after the verdict against a major British company for exporting unsorted waste, can the Secretary of State explain to me why there was nothing in the Environment Bill to tackle waste once it has left this country or to ensure that material collected in good faith for recycling is actually recycled?
The Government are absolutely determined to crack down on any unlawful waste exports and to ensure that waste that is exported is dealt with appropriately. I wish to emphasise that this Government are doing more or less more than any other Government in the world on this, including by making real progress in ensuring that we protect 4 million sq km of the world’s oceans by the end of next year.
Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollutant emissions from a wide range of sources. The World Health Organisation has recognised the strategy as an example for the rest of the world to follow. We have also put in place a £3.5 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and our Environment Bill makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter.
May I echo the tributes being made to your chairmanship, Mr Speaker, although I did not get the memo about sending a bottle to your office as part of it? I very much welcome the inclusion of air quality provisions in the Environment Bill. May I urge the Minister to look at some of the technological solutions, including one from a company in my constituency which is producing paints and coverings that neutralise nitrogen oxide emissions, not just absorb them? May I also ask her to look at the issue of air quality monitoring, because it turns out that several bits of air quality monitoring equipment in my constituency have not been working for some time? Although we have obligations on local authorities to reduce air pollution, we do not appear to have similar requirements on them to make sure they are monitoring it properly and accurately, and that needs to be looked at.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important points. Officials would be pleased to hear about any technologies, because the use of innovation and tech is absolutely the way we are going to solve lots of these problems. So I would be grateful if he would like to feed them in so that I can pass them on. Monitoring is also key, and it is all about science and data, which are very important. Our landmark Environment Bill requires us to set legally binding targets on this fine particulate matter, which is what authorities are mostly monitoring, as well as nitrogen dioxide, and to have separate long-term air quality targets to improve air quality nationwide. So we are moving in the right direction.
We are hearing commitments and good words from the Government but we are seeing very little action. They have been lackadaisical towards the breaking of legal limits on air pollution, including at 50 sites across London. The Mayor of London has taken effective action, through the ultra low emission zone, and has taken practical steps to reduce air pollution. Is it not time we saw the same sort of determination from the Government?
A great deal of action is taking place: local authorities have a duty to tackle air pollution and this year clean-air zones are coming into major cities right across the nation. The Department is working closely with others on the introduction of those zones, about which the House will hear more shortly.
Office for Environmental Protection
Clause 20(2) of the Environment Bill places a duty on the Office for Environmental Protection to
“have regard to the need to act…transparently.”
It must publish key documents, such as its strategy, annual report and accounts, and lay them before Parliament.
The concept of the OEP has been touted by the Government as an independent watchdog, yet it will be funded by the Government and its chair will be appointed by the Government. Surely the Secretary of State will agree that at the very least the relevant Select Committee should play a key role in the appointment of the chair and the non-executive members of the board.
I assure the hon. Lady that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee will play a key role in the pre-appointment scrutiny of the OEP chairman. I also assure her that the OEP will have a multi-year funding settlement and that Ministers will be required to safeguard its independence. In many ways, the departmental structure will be broadly similar to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has clearly demonstrated its total independence from the Government. I am sure we will see that same determination from this powerful new environmental watchdog.
I was very sorry to have to miss your visit to the SNP group the other day, Mr Speaker. I shall take this opportunity to thank you for everything you have done—for your doughty defence of democracy and particularly your support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and for Back Benchers’ interests. I wish you and your beautiful family all the very best for the years ahead. May I also commend the two gentlemen to your left—stage left, as we used to say—Mr Peter Barratt and Mr Ian Davis, who I know have offered you such valuable support over years?
Let me begin my question by saying happy non-Brexit day to the Government Front-Bench team. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Scottish Government support the proposals on the OEP? Were they consulted on them?
There was extensive work between the UK Government and the Scottish Government on the Environment Bill, including the clauses on the OEP. We are grateful that, as a result of that work, large elements of the Bill will apply in Scotland. I understand that the Scottish Government intend, I hope, to create a body that is broadly similar to the OEP, to manage the scrutiny of environmental matters where they are devolved in Scotland.
May I join the tributes to you, Mr Speaker? I thank you for your comradeship in opposition, when you were a spokesman with me in various Departments, and for your encouragement in respect of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you.
Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on steering Finn’s law through Parliament. The Government remain absolutely committed to tougher sentences for animal cruelty offences, and we intend to bring the Bill back to the House as soon as possible.
Thank you for my second go, Mr Speaker.
My right hon. Friend will know that the supporters of the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019 were also keen to improve the maximum sentences and to see them go up. Can she confirm that that will be a top priority for any incoming Conservative Government?
Oh Mr Speaker, I do not know what to say. I am going to miss this. Thank you for everything you have done for Back Benchers.
The Secretary of State says that the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is going to come back to the House as soon as possible; that could be Monday. There is cross-party agreement on this short Bill, and as the Labour DEFRA Whip I have the permission of our shadow Secretary of State to say that we support the Bill, we could crack on, and it could be done and on the statute book before Dissolution. Even at this late stage, why will she not put it on the Order Paper for Monday or Tuesday?
Waste crime blights local communities and the environment, and we are committed to tackling it. We have given the Environment Agency £60 million extra to tackle waste crime since 2014. The Environment Bill takes forward a number of commitments on preventing, detecting and deterring waste crime.
Fly-tipping is a scourge in many communities across North Warwickshire and Bedworth, and it costs councils and local landowners hundreds of thousands of pounds to clear up, but it is often unwittingly facilitated by householders failing to ask whether a valid waste licence is in place. What steps can householders take to check that there is a valid licence, so that they do not unwittingly become the recipient of a fine themselves?
Householders can check using the carrier’s business name or registration number, which the carrier should be able to give them on request, and they have the opportunity to check those against the details on the Environment Agency website, or by ringing the Environment Agency helpline.
I would like to say, Mr Speaker, what a pleasure it has been to serve under your speakership during my time in Parliament.
Recently, I went out with members of the National Farmers’ Union in my constituency and was horrified to discover a spate of fly-tipping of very dubious materials that then need to be checked by the landowner. The landowner has a responsibility to check out the hazardous nature of the materials and then to dispose of them safely. This is putting much additional pressure on farmers and rural communities. What can the Government do to support those rural communities and the police forces who continue to be under significant pressure to address this spate of fly-tipping?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. Fly-tipping is completely unacceptable, and it is blighting life in rural areas, in suburban areas, such as my constituency, and in urban areas. One thing the Environment Bill will do is facilitate the introduction of electronic waste-tracking, which should assist the law enforcement authorities to crack down on this unacceptable crime.
One of your predecessors, Mr Speaker, congratulated me on always addressing the Chair. If I may say it has been my particular privilege to address the Chair when you are in it, and, if I may also say, those who stand beside it have always gone to extraordinary lengths to be helpful.
The New Forest is being desecrated by people fly-tipping. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that we are more robust with respect to punishments—perhaps garrotting perpetrators with their own intestines?
I am not sure that I could go quite that far. Certainly, in providing extra resources for the Environment Agency, we are absolutely determined to crack down on this deeply antisocial crime. I hope the courts will view it seriously and inflict appropriate punishment.
May I join others in expressing the hope that no circumlocutory measures will be put in place to try to restrict your perorations post your retirement, during the next stage in your career?
May I ask the Minister to liaise with the Northern Ireland authorities to ensure that action is taken on the huge waste dump at Mobuoy, outside Londonderry, to ensure that restrictions are put in place and that we pursue those responsible?
We are running late, but, of course, the Chair has the benefit of Kantian perfect information. That is to say that I know how many people have or have not applied to speak in subsequent business, and subsequent business is not especially heavily subscribed. My priority is to try to accommodate, within reason, Back Benchers.
This Government are committed to taking action to protect and enhance the water environment, including our valuable chalk streams. Chalk streams are under particular pressure at the moment due to low groundwater levels following two dry winters. We are working closely with partners to reform and reduce the volume of abstraction, deliver catchment sensitive farming, reduce pollution and plan future environmental resilience.
Today is a sad day for Buckinghamshire, Mr Speaker, because we are going to lose you as the Member for Buckingham. Before I ask my question of the Minister, may I just say that you have been a superb colleague to sit alongside? I am going to miss you particularly because you will not be there to join me in championing the Chilterns, but you have consistently stood by my side when opposing HS2, and you are to be congratulated on what you have done on autism. As I press for the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty to become a national park, I do hope that, even though you will have left this place, you will still stand by my side and support that proposal.
The Chess and the Misbourne are ecologically vulnerable chalk streams in my constituency, and there are several in the Chilterns that are under threat. HS2 Ltd has now said that it requires 8 million litres of water a day for two years in order to build phase 1 of HS2. That means that we could face over-abstraction again, and could see these streams irreparably damaged or destroyed altogether. Will Ministers really take this on board and work with the Department for Transport to get HS2 cancelled—and, if not, to protect these absolutely precious pieces of our environment for our future generations?
Chalk streams are some of our most precious environments, so this is a serious issue. The Environment Agency is advising HS2 Ltd and its contractors on mitigating the potential impact of its work on water levels and the quality of chalk streams, including when it comes to water usage for tunnelling in the Chilterns. The Environment Agency will be reviewing any application for increased abstraction in line with the relevant abstraction management strategy to ensure that there is no detrimental effect on chalk streams. I take this matter very seriously and would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this further because chalk streams are so important and it is important that we get this right.
Mr Speaker, thank you for turning the pronunciation of challenging surnames into an art form in itself—although I have to say that my campaign to be called in reverse alphabetical order continues.
The River Cam is fed by chalk streams. In July this year, it fell to a third of its normal level, which has caused huge concern not just in Cambridge, but in the surrounding county. This has happened largely due to over-abstraction. What can the Minister to do to assure us that that is going to be tackled with urgency?
The issue with chalk streams, of course, is that they are fed by groundwater from aquifers; they are very special areas of water extraction. There is going to be section in the Environment Bill on abstraction licences. I hope that when that gets going and we have proper discussions about that Bill, it will include some ameliorations for chalk streams.
Since the last EFRA oral questions, the Government have: introduced a major Environment Bill; committed to plant 1 million trees in Northumberland; pledged £11.6 billion for climate measures abroad; published proposals to restrict the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals; banned the sale of primates as pets; and introduced cat microchipping. We have made clear our determination to improve the welfare of live animals in transport, with a view to choking off live exports for slaughter or fattening. I have also had the chance to make visits around England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to talk to farmers, fishermen and those involved in the food sector.
May I join colleagues in thanking you for your help, Mr Speaker? I am going to once again try to avoid your eye while I ask what should be a very short question.
Blaydon Quarry landfill site in my constituency causes a huge nuisance for the communities surrounding it, particularly from the regular bad smells, as residents tell me there are at the moment. I think it is time for the site to be closed—safely. Will the Secretary of State join me in that call and put an end to the absolutely misery caused to local residents by this landfill site?
It is worrying to hear the reports of the odour from the site. I understand that an odour suppression system has now been installed in the waste tipping bay and that further engineering works are under way to try to tackle the problem. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Environment Agency continues to take this issue very seriously and is working with the community and the local authority. Earlier this year, it took regulatory action preventing the site from accepting waste until remedial work has been undertaken.
Thank you very much, too, to Oliver and Freddie. I look forward to seeing very much more of you.
Pagham Harbour in my constituency is one of the best places to see wildlife in the UK, covering 600 hectares of salt marshes, mudflats, reed beds and lagoons. It is an important natural store of carbon and it absorbs up to 310 tonnes per hectare. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that carbon-rich natural habitats are protected to improve biodiversity and help us to reach net zero by 2050?
Protecting nature is a key part of the Environment Bill. It supports the nature recovery network envisaged by our 25-year environment plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done in relation to this wonderful site. She is right to say that nature-based solutions, with natural storage of carbon in such locations, will form a key part of becoming a net-zero economy.
I thought for a moment that for the first time in six years we might not get on to fisheries and agriculture at DEFRA orals. May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, along with others, to thank you for your chairmanship and stewardship of these occasions and wish you well for the future? May I also record a tribute to Reverend Rose, who is also leaving us? She not only presided over my marriage in St Mary Undercroft but baptised my daughter. Many Members have benefited from her pastoral support and advice.
I had a meeting with officials yesterday to discuss the issue of cod and the EU-Norway negotiations. Those negotiations will take place during November. I remain Fisheries Minister during the election period and will continue to monitor events. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the December Fisheries Council that formally adopts these proposals will be about three days after the general election. I hope still to be in place and to go there, but if I am not, I am sure that whoever my successor is will have a steep and enjoyable learning curve in coming to terms with the complexities of the December negotiations.
I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Scottish fishing industry wants to leave the CFP and take advantage of the sea of opportunity that we will have when we become an independent coastal state. It is his party that is standing against the interests of the Scottish fishing industry by wanting to remain in the European Union.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I commend Harrogate Borough Council. The National Trust has said that a child today is three times more likely to go to hospital for falling out of bed than falling out of a tree. Obviously I do not recommend either activity, but there is no doubt that children who are insulated from nature are losing out; I very much agree with him. Working with the Woodland Trust and community forests, we are on track to meet our target of planting 1 million trees at English primary schools by 2020, and we committed in the 25-year environment plan to encourage children to be closer to nature in and out of school. The last week of November is National Tree Week, and I strongly encourage Members to plant trees with their local schools, so that we can all celebrate together.
Mr Speaker, our careers have been somewhat in parallel. I had a slight interregnum in the middle of your speakership, but I am pleased to be here today, to top and tail it. We have remained good friends throughout.
The Government committed to keeping the current level of farm spending until the end of this Parliament, which will be in the next couple of days. The Labour party will commit to keep that level of spending and, indeed, even spending more under the new system, which will be expensive to introduce. Will the Government make that commitment?
The hon. Gentleman is right; the Government are committed to keep spending exactly the same until the end of this Parliament. He will have to wait to see our manifesto to find out what will happen in the next Parliament, but I will simply say this. It is implicit in the Agriculture Bill that there will be a transition over a period of seven years, during which we will roll out the new policy, and we have already committed to fund the objectives of the Agriculture Bill.
The Woodland Trust, of which I am a keen member, believes that we can increase the amount of tree coverage by natural regeneration. That seems to be the best way of doing it, so how can we incentivise that within the new environmental land management scheme?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right. Much of what we need to do to tackle climate change and restore nature involves rewilding or natural regeneration. A growing number of projects around the country are already delivering vast benefits. For example, at Knepp Castle in West Sussex, agri-environment funding has helped to create extensive grassland and scrub habitats, with huge benefits for declining bird species such as the turtle dove and the nightingale. As he says, the new environmental land management scheme will be transformative, because it will make subsidies conditional on the delivery of public goods such as biodiversity, woodland and flood management. It really could be the big thing that improves biodiversity in this country, which of course means increasing tree cover and encouraging natural regeneration.
The Environment Bill sets out a duty to set targets—actual targets will all be set in secondary legislation, as has been quite clearly stated—and it has had a lot of support from many organisations across the board. The whole system will be overseen by the Office for Environmental Protection, which will have to look at the five-yearly targets and review them annually. There is a very strict set of regimes in there. The Government have given very clear indications about not reducing our environmental standards—that is absolutely not the direction this Government would ever intend to go in—and that includes comments made just last week by the Prime Minister about non-regression.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kindness in calling me today, for your broader kindnesses to all of us and for all your service from the Chair.
I want to raise an issue again that I know is also of concern to you, Mr Speaker. Ministers know that HS2 and its construction will affect a good deal of farmland. They will also be aware, I hope, that HS2 Ltd has not been as effective as it should have been either in providing full and timely financial compensation for land lost or in making the practical arrangements necessary to allow farmers to farm properly the land they have left. Will my right hon. Friend and her colleagues please make sure they engage with colleagues at the Department for Transport to ensure that the financial and psychological consequences for the farmers affected by HS2 are properly mitigated, if this project is to continue?
Of course I am happy to give a commitment to engage with colleagues in the DFT on these important matters. It is of course vital that HS2 Ltd does all it can to ensure that it meets its obligations in a timely way in relation to farming and environmental concerns.