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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 671: debated on Thursday 6 February 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Organised Waste Crime

Waste crime blights local communities and our environment and this Government are determined to tackle it. Over the past six years, we have invested £60 million in measures to achieve that. Last month, we launched a joint unit for waste crime, led by the Environment Agency, and including the National Crime Agency, HMRC and the police. This new unit will help us crack down on serious and organised crime in the waste sector.

Fly-tipping in particular is an issue that costs our local councils and landowners hundreds of thousands pounds annually to clear up, with rural communities particularly affected. Just last week, the village of Austrey in my constituency was targeted yet again. What additional resources and powers can we give our local authorities and police to eradicate this scourge once and for all?

I fully appreciate how strongly my hon. Friend’s constituents feel about that issue, as do mine in Barnet. We are giving local authorities additional powers through our Environment Bill to tackle fly-tipping. We have also already enhanced their powers to search and seize vehicles, which may be involved in this menace, and we have granted them power to issue fixed penalty notices, and I encourage them to use those powers.

I welcome the Minister’s answer, but I must tell her that landfill tax fraud is a multi-million pound business. From my experience in the north-east of England, where there is some good co-operation going on between various agencies, the problem is with HMRC, which will not investigate unless a certain threshold is hit. I asked for feedback on prosecutions in one high-profile case that was activated four years ago and found that, to date, nothing has happened.

That is one reason we are bringing together the relevant agencies in this new joint unit. They include HMRC, which is absolutely determined to crack down on tax fraud and evasion of all sorts. The right hon. Gentleman has his point on the record, and I am sure that the issue will be raised in the new joint unit.

Fly-tipping ranges massively from lorry loads of hospital waste to a sofa. Farmers are then expected to dispose of that waste at their own cost. We quite rightly welcome what the Secretary of State says about taking lorries, vans and cars away from people, because we really must stop this crime.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are determined that our new joint unit to tackle this issue will ensure that those who are responsible for waste crime of all sorts, including fly-tipping, pay the price for what they are doing and are held to account.

Fly-tipping is a major issue in my area, not least because of changes in policy from North Lanarkshire Council. One way of stopping such crimes is by increasing the recycling rate and targeting particular sectors, such as the construction sector, which has a particularly bad problem with waste pollution. Will the Secretary of State outline potential areas such as training staff in those sectors to ensure that they are aware of how to recycle properly?

Of course, training in this area is very important. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as far as England is concerned, our new Environment Bill contains an extensive list of measures to improve rates of recycling, and yes, we hope that that will be part of a wider strategy to cut down on waste crime and ensure that more of our waste is recycled, and that all of it is treated appropriately.

Air Quality in London

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Mayor of London on improving air quality in London. (900649)

The Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital and has reserved powers under part IV of the Environment Act 1995 to reflect that. Although the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not had any recent discussions with the Mayor of London on air quality, our doughty DEFRA officials are in regular contact with the Greater London Assembly.

I also wish to welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know that she is already a strong voice in her area, and is obviously indicating that she will continue to be so.

My constituency has some of the worst air quality in London. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Mayor of London needs to do more to improve air quality, given that currently only 2% of London buses have been converted to electric and only 10% of the 2 million trees that he promised have actually been planted?

My hon. Friend’s question demonstrates how strong a voice she will be in this place. I must reiterate that the Mayor of London is responsible for air quality in the capital and has reserved powers under the 1995 Act to do this work. A great deal of money has been committed to help with that work, especially the retrofitting of buses, but I would not underestimate the challenge posed by air quality in our cities, especially London.

Small and Medium-sized Food Producers

3. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on supporting small and medium-sized food producer businesses. (900650)

The Secretary of State holds regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the Government’s work to help small and medium- sized enterprises. Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry—bigger than automotive and aerospace combined. It is worth more than £100 billion per year and is geographically dispersed, which means it brings wealth to every corner of our nation.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that local British foods, which are some of the finest in the world, continue to benefit from a fair, competitive and transparent food supply chain post-Brexit?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Every Member will have examples of successful local food manufacturers. In her constituency, we have of course Samworth Brothers, a highly successful large business, and many other smaller enterprises. I congratulate her on having secured for her area the status of designated manufacturing zone. Government procurement rules encourage the local sourcing of food, and the requirements of some protected food name designations will also require food to be sourced locally.

What is the Department doing, and what discussions has it had, about giving support to those small independent shellfish producers on the west coast of Scotland who, because of Brexit, are about to be put at a huge competitive disadvantage to their Northern Irish neighbours?

I hold regular meetings with the shellfish industry. As the hon. Gentleman will know, my constituency is in Cornwall, where we have a large crab and scallop industry. The political declaration on our future relationship with the EU envisages zero-zero tariffs on all goods.

Last week, the Secretary of State followed in the Minister’s footsteps, visiting Cleethorpes and the neighbouring constituency of Grimsby, where she saw some of the fine seafood processors there. Can I urge her and the Minister to continue the support for that industry and to give it an absolute assurance that fish supplies will continue without any hitch?

I very much enjoyed my visit to the seafood village in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I look forward to visiting that area and Grimsby more generally again in the future. Our fishing industry will have many opportunities as we leave the European Union and depart from relative stability, but for our fish processors in constituencies such as his it is also important that we continue the flow of trade from countries such as Iceland and Norway.

Imported Agricultural Goods

4. What her policy is on the compliance of imported agricultural goods with UK (a) animal welfare, (b) environmental and (c) food safety standards after the transition period. (900651)

As we set out in our manifesto, we are committed to upholding our high standards of environmental protection, food safety and animal welfare. Now we have left the EU, our high standards, including import requirements, continue to apply. We will not dilute our standards, or put the UK’s biosecurity at risk, in our future trade negotiations.

My constituents benefit from the glorious countryside of Northumberland and County Durham—landscapes shaped by small-scale farmers. Those farmers would be devastated by unfair competition from the American agro-industrial machine, with its lower animal welfare, food and environmental standards. The Secretary of State talks a good talk and reads a good brief, but she will not put anything into law, so will she now unequivocally condemn any Government who trade away our high food, environmental and animal welfare standards?

I can assure the hon. Member that we will not trade away our high standards of environmental protection, animal welfare or food safety. We will make sure that our trade negotiations work for our whole country, including the farmers she mentioned. I met farmers in Northumberland only a few days ago and had those very conversations.

On Monday, the Secretary of State heard from both Opposition MPs and MPs on her own Benches that she had to put our high environmental standards into law to prevent US agriculture from undercutting them in any trade negotiations. Now that a few days have passed since that debate, has she reflected on the fact that there is cross-party support for putting those promises into law and will she do the right thing and put them in the Agriculture Bill?

I reiterate what we said in a debate last week: our high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards are already in law, including legislating to prevent the importation of chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef, and our manifesto commits us to continuing to defend robustly those standards in future trade negotiations.

I am afraid that is not a good enough answer from the Environment Secretary, because unless there is a specific clause in the Agriculture Bill that guarantees that there will be no undercutting of British farmers by imported US agriculture in particular—produce grown to lower animal welfare and environmental standards—no one will believe a word that the Environment Secretary has to say. The Trade Secretary is today publishing a document that will apparently lock those standards into law, so if it is good enough for the Trade Secretary, why is it not good enough for the Environment Secretary to put the same commitment into law?

As I have said, those commitments are already in law, and the Government will defend them in our trade negotiations. There is a cross-party consensus in this House that we value our high standards. We will continue with those high standards; we will not compromise them in trade negotiations.

How will the Secretary of State ensure that ractopamine-treated pork and turkey meat from the United States stays out of our food chains?

As I have said, we will ensure that all food coming into this country meets our high sanitary and phytosanitary standards and our high standards of food safety. We will not under any circumstances compromise biosecurity or human health in our trade negotiations.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s and the Government’s commitment to maintaining high food, welfare and health standards, but can she update the House on what plans there are for a food standards commission, as requested by the National Farmers Union of Scotland?

I have discussed that with the National Farmers Union, and there is real merit in its proposal. We continue to consider it, but I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that, whatever the mechanism, we will engage very closely with farmers and other stakeholders as we take forward our trade negotiations.

Can my right hon Friend put the House at ease and confirm that any trade agreement will have to be ratified under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and that this House will therefore have a full opportunity to scrutinise any effect of trade deals on our food standards?

I can; this House will be involved in scrutiny of our trade negotiations, and I look forward to having those debates with hon. Members.

13. It is absolutely right that we focus on high-quality standards in our trade deals with the rest of the world, but the reality is that 90% of Cumbrian farm exports are to the European single market. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that my farmers next January will not be facing crippling taxes and tariffs on their exports? (900663)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government are clear that we are seeking a free trade agreement with the European Union without tariffs. That is something that the Prime Minister and his team will be working on in the months ahead.

Tree Planting

Our manifesto commits us to increase tree planting to a rate of 30,000 hectares a year by 2025 across the UK. Our £640 million nature for climate fund will help us to deliver a massive uplift in tree planting, as part of wider efforts to become a net zero carbon economy.

The Secretary of State will know that many of us are leading on planting plans in our constituencies, working closely with local councils, local wildlife trusts and so on. A good example is the new arboretum at lower Westgate Street in Gloucester, which was planted at the beginning of January. However, does she agree that there is a risk that, however many thousands of trees we plant in our constituencies, somebody will always say that we should have done much more? Is there an opportunity for some independent body to make an objective assessment of how many trees can realistically be planted in urban constituencies such as mine?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about setting appropriate targets. We plan to work closely with local authorities as we drive forward with our commitment to plant more trees. The Environment Bill contains important changes to the planning system—for example, an environmental net gain—that will encourage investment in nature, biodiversity and tree planting.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me and the Woodland Trust that we need to get local councils writing emergency tree plans that identify land for tree planting, and that we need to ensure that developments that come forward from housing developers include a minimum of 30% tree canopy cover?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s ambition for tree planting in his local area. As I have said, changes to the planning system should incentivise investment in tree planting and nature. Programmes such as the urban tree challenge fund could provide a great opportunity for local authorities to play their part in delivering this tree-planting effort.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the pupils of Good Shepherd Catholic Primary School in my constituency, who recently planted 130 saplings in a new eco-area at the school? Does she agree that the new eco-area at the school will be a great educational resource for the students, helping them to learn more about the natural world while also helping to improve the local environment in Coventry North East?

I do congratulate them; it sounds like a wonderful effort. Our Environment Bill provides for local nature recovery strategies that are led by the local authority, but which I very much hope will involve engagement with schools and enthusiastic groups such as the one mentioned by the hon. Member.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the prime purpose of planting trees in the present climate crisis is to provide an effective carbon sink to produce the negative carbon emissions that offset other carbon emissions in a net-zero world? The Committee on Climate Change suggests that that means planting perhaps up to 50,000 hectares of trees per annum up to 2050—perhaps 2.4 billion trees. Does she agree that the present target in the clean growth plan of 11 million trees is tiny—especially as it is currently being missed by 71%—and almost amounts to “greenwash”? When is she going to get real on tree planting and management, and adopt measures that will secure the billions of trees we need and not the millions she is projecting?

Where I would agree with the shadow Minister is that we do need massively to step up our tree planting in this country, and that is what we are determined to do, particularly by working with the devolved authorities as well. I encourage everyone to take the message out to their constituents that they can get involved with these programmes through the countryside stewardship woodland creation grant, the woodland creation planning grant, the woodland carbon fund, the woodland carbon guarantee and the urban tree challenge fund. We will soon be consulting on a tree strategy for England to drive forward further the crucial task of planting more trees in this country.

Councils are required to deliver a five-year supply of sites for housing. Has not the time come for us to require councils to provide a five-year supply of sites for tree planting?

That is a very interesting idea. I hope that the process of local nature recovery strategies that we are establishing under the Environment Bill will embrace the kind of idea that my hon. Friend has just floated.

Glass and Plastic Deposit Return Scheme

In our manifesto, the Government committed to introducing a deposit return scheme to incentivise people to recycle plastic and glass. We are aiming to introduce that scheme from 2023. The Environment Bill that was published recently includes an important section on waste and recycling, and will introduce powers to establish deposit return schemes. A deposit return scheme would include aluminium and steel cans, alongside plastic and glass bottles. The final details of the scheme, including types of drinks containers to be included, are being developed and will be presented in a second consultation.

I thank the Minister for her response. I think the whole House welcomes the introduction of the deposit return scheme in the Environment Bill, but the concern is that it is overly prescriptive, specifying two categories of plastic, rather than creating a framework that could be amended and widened in scope to incorporate more materials that could be recycled in future.

I thank the hon. Member for his comments. I am delighted that he is so interested in the scheme. The first consultation had very wide support and we will have a further consultation. The industries wanting to use the collected recycled materials, particularly plastics, want very pure and well-sorted materials so that they can then turn them into the next products. We are thinking about this very seriously. More will be heard in the second consultation and that will come through in the Environment Bill.

Air Pollution

Our clean air strategy sets out an ambitious programme of action to reduce air pollution from a wide range of sources. We have also put in place a £3.5 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. Our Environment Bill delivers key parts of our world-leading clean air strategy and makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter, as well as enabling local authorities to take more effective action to tackle air pollution in their areas.

I thank the Minister for her response. She will know that incineration is considered to only be slightly better than landfill when it comes to disposing of waste, but Lib Dem-run Sutton Council seems to think that its Beddington incinerator has no harmful effects at all on my Carshalton and Wallington constituents. Does she agree that the council should improve air quality monitoring near the site, tackle congestion and be much more ambitious as regards tackling air pollution?

I am aware that Sutton Council approved the development of the Beddington incinerator as an alternative to landfill, which would have a higher pollution impact. The incinerator is required to operate in compliance with the permit conditions set by the Environment Agency, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows; he has mentioned the incinerator before. We encourage all local authorities, including obviously his Lib Dem-run council, to take action to improve air quality. I urge him to keep pressing it to keep within its commitments.

Birmingham City Council’s planned demolition of the Perry Barr flyover, which feeds traffic from Birmingham into West Bromwich East, will do nothing to tackle the already poor air quality in the area and cause huge traffic problems for my constituents. Does the Minister agree that local authorities have an obligation to ensure that major roadwork projects, especially on busy highways, improve air quality and ease congestion?

Local authorities are required by law to consider the impacts of development on air quality. Local authorities are best placed to take local planning decisions and should take into account a range of factors, including impacts on air quality, the local economy and traffic flow—so my hon. Friend raises a good point—when carrying out roadwork projects. In terms of the wider picture, we are providing financial and expert advice to local authorities to tackle air quality.

Air quality is seen very much as an urban issue, but even in the bucolic rural constituency of Thirsk and Malton we have our problems, including in Malton town centre due to high levels of standing traffic. What support can my hon. Friend offer to the local authority to resolve this issue?

The Environment Bill includes measures to improve air quality that will ensure that local authorities, including in Malton, for which my hon. Friend always speaks up so determinedly, have a clear framework and simple powers to tackle air pollution. The DEFRA and Department for Transport joint air quality unit works with local authorities, underpinned by £572 million in funding, to tackle nitrogen dioxide exceedances, and DEFRA provides grant funding and technical support via a dedicated helpdesk.

If the Secretary of State has read the unprecedented four reports in the last Parliament by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—chaired by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is sitting behind her—she will know that a lack of power and resources in local government is a real problem, particularly in two-tier areas, as is the chronic lack of joined-up thinking by central Government. When will those two critical issues be addressed?

This Government take air pollution extremely seriously. We are investing £3.5 billion in air quality and clean transport. We are helping local authorities to tackle air quality through the implementation fund and the clean air fund, with a £572 million budget and a lot of expert advice. I am overseeing many programmes being rolled out, and the right hon. Gentleman will see a great deal happening this year.

Two hours of exposure to diesel fumes leads to 24 hours of negative impact upon a person’s health. What is being done to reduce diesel fumes for ordinary people in our communities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Roadside pollution is a key area. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the serious issues tackled under our nitrogen dioxide plan. Local authorities have a legal duty to tackle high levels of pollution on roadsides, which is why we have introduced a comprehensive system to help local authorities to tackle it. We are also bringing down the rate of diesel cars on the market.

Topical Questions

In recent weeks, DEFRA has been driving forward the biggest programme of legislation in Whitehall. That includes publication of our landmark Environment Bill, to introduce a new legal framework and demanding targets on matters such as nature, recycling and air quality. We have published our Fisheries Bill, to enable this country to take back control of its fishing waters and end the common fisheries policy. The Agriculture Bill has had its Second Reading, to ensure a brighter, greener future for our farmers. And of course, my team and I have played our part in securing the biggest election victory for the Conservatives in 30 years.

Data published in the recent climate change agreements biennial report showed the dairy industry delivering a 21% improvement on its energy efficiency over the last 10 years—the latest in a long line of sustainability wins for the industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from being a villain in the climate change story, the dairy industry is proving itself a force for good?

I very much agree. I pay tribute to the huge efforts made in the dairy sector to become more efficient and more sustainable. I know that those in the sector have further plans through the pioneering dairy road map, and I wish them well with that. We need to support UK agriculture in the tremendous efforts it is making to be part of the solution on climate change.

This Government have made much of the fact that we are leaving the EU and all its bureaucratic processes, but only to replace it with the catch app, a far more complex system for smaller fishing boats. Will the Secretary of State instruct the Marine Management Organisation to change the new catch app and remove the risk of criminality, which is causing so much anxiety for fishers in our coastal communities?

I have met officials on that matter. The reason we introduced the catch app is that, if we want to improve our management of the inshore fleet and offer fishermen, say, three months’ catch opportunities at a time, or even move to an effort-based regime, we need better, more accurate catch data. Those rules already apply to the over-12 metres and will in future apply to the under-12s as well.

T3. I am proud to represent many farmers in East Surrey who are the guardians of our beautiful countryside. Does the Minister agree that the best way to support those farmers and protect the environment is to buy seasonal and to buy British? (900667)

T2. If the biodiversity gain requirement is to make a real difference, local authorities will need additional strategic planners, ecologist and enforcement officers. What assessment has been made of the human and financial resources required, and will the Secretary of State confirm that those resources will be set out and funded in the forthcoming Budget? (900666)

Burdens put on local authorities through the Environment Bill will be fully funded. They will play a key role in helping with biodiversity net gain. They will also play a key role—as will other local organisations—in setting up our local nature strategies, which will inform what we do, and I very much look forward to that.

T4.   In Beaconsfield, we have many hard-working farmers, as well as local environmental groups such as Transition Town Marlow and Wild Marlow, which are leading the way locally in animal welfare and environmental protection. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the new standards that we are going to put in place for environmental protection and animal welfare as we leave the EU, and for the protection of our British farmers? (900668)

I will, indeed. Our departure from the European Union gives us the opportunity to introduce a new farming policy—a new system of farm support—that has sustainability and the environment at its heart. We can use that to support our farmers in the brilliant work they already do as stewards of our environment and countryside.

T6. Putney High Street is one of the most polluted streets in London and the country, although electric buses have helped a lot. Ammonia emissions, predominantly from farming, are rising and are above World Health Organisation safe limits. In London, particulates derived from that ammonia are the largest contribution to imported background or particulate pollution. Will the Secretary of State commit to tackling this issue of ammonia pollution in the Environment Bill? (900671)

We have a strong focus on these matters. The measures we will be bringing forward in the Environment Bill will help us to set challenging and demanding targets on those issues. Our new system of farm support will also provide support to farmers in reducing ammonia emissions. I know they are determined to do it. I understand completely the importance of delivering on this.

T5. Will the super-talented Minister for litter consider requiring drive-through fast-food restaurants to print the purchaser’s vehicle registration number on the receipt, so that the origin of roadside litter might be more readily identified? (900670)

I thank my hon. Friend, who is such a campaigner on this issue. It is a great idea. I believe that one fast-food chain is already considering doing this. It is something I have thought about myself when I am out on my bike and I see all the litter on the verges. Trust me, this Government are doing a great deal on litter, but we need to do more.

One way to reduce food waste is to rebalance the relationships between suppliers and supermarkets. Will the Government therefore commit to expanding the power of the Groceries Code Adjudicator and amending the groceries supply code of practice to better protect our farmers’ interests and reduce the amount of unnecessary food waste that can occur due to supermarkets’ excessively strict requirements?

Our Agriculture Bill has an entire section on fairness in the supply chain, enabling us to introduce regulations that build on what we have started with the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that there is fairness and transparency in that supply chain.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that for many years animal rights activists and welfare activists for animal rights have been calling on Government to stop exporting animals on the hoof, and to let them be slaughtered in our slaughterhouses and go on the hook. Now we have left the EU, can the Secretary of State confirm that that sort of practice will cease?

We do want to see an end to live exports, and we will soon be consulting on measures to improve the welfare of live animals in transport. We hope that ultimately the effect of this will be an end to live exports overseas.

My constituent, Mr Latimer, after exhausting every avenue to halt the flow of sewage on to the beach behind his very popular restaurant, ended up filing a complaint with the European Commission. The ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that the Government needed to rectify the problem within five years. That was eight years ago. Can he expect any action from this Government?

Will the Minister tell us what the Government intend to do in their upcoming legislation on dog smuggling to prevent the import of drugged dogs by busker gangs?

There are already laws and regulations in place to protect animals used by buskers. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is a criminal offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal, or to administer an injurious or poisonous drug to an animal. If my hon. Friend has specific concerns, if he reported them to the police or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, action could be taken.

Does the Government’s policy in relation to the standards of agricultural imports align with the views of the relevant expert trade advisory group?

As I have said, in our trade negotiations we will ensure that the outcome works for farmers and for the nation as a whole. We will defend our standards in future trade negotiations.

As part of her proposals for a deposit return scheme, has the Secretary of State sought to persuade her counterpart in the Scottish Government that the interests of consumers, producers and administrators will be best served by a system that covers the country—the UK—as a whole?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. Scotland introduced its scheme first. We are consulting to ensure our scheme is absolutely fit for purpose. We want ours to completely align and we are very much lining up with manufacturers and processors to get the right system that suits them.

During the debate before the election on restoring nature and climate change, the Minister, who is now in the Lords, told the House that a legislative response to the problem of burning peatlands was being developed. When can we expect to see legislation being published?

We are looking carefully at the issue of rotational burning on blanket bog. We are working closely with land managers to ensure that we see this practice come to an end. We have scrutinised the voluntary mechanisms and in due course we will have to consider whether to legislate in this area.