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Topical Questions

Volume 673: debated on Thursday 19 March 2020

The covid-19 pandemic presents significant challenges for our country and, indeed, the rest of the world. It is currently my primary focus. I have been holding regular calls with key players in the food supply chain, to ensure that we take whatever steps are necessary to enable our food producers, distributors and retailers to meet an increase in demand. I wish to record my thanks to all those who work in the food industry—whether on a production line, driving a delivery vehicle or in a supermarket—for all the hard work they are putting in at this difficult time.

Our farmers are famously hardy folk, but like everybody else they are not immune to the effects of coronavirus, and nor are farm businesses. What further support will be available to farmers?

Earlier this week the Chancellor unveiled a package of measures to support all businesses, and some farmers would qualify for that. I am having regular meetings with the National Farmers Union to address any concerns that it might have. The NFU’s principal concern, in common with many other industries in the food supply chain, is the potential pressures on staff.

The shadow Secretary of State and I have spoken to fishers and their representative organisations right across the UK in recent days, and they are worried. In just the past week, the market value of fish landed by British fishers has fallen to 20% of normal rates. There are significant concerns about the viability of the UK fishing industry, especially the small boats that are the backbone of the British fleet. Many fishers are telling us that they will go bust in the next two weeks. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must take whatever steps are necessary to support fishers and the fishing industry to cope with the pressures of the covid-19 crisis?

I obviously agree that our fishing industry is incredibly important. The best way we can help it is to get the markets moving again. I understand that there is a particular issue with disruption to markets in the European Union, which is contributing to the situation. Officials had meetings yesterday with fishing representatives, and I am looking for some feedback from that to agree what we do next.

T3. Many of the farms in the countryside around Aylesbury are very small and often run just by families, so there is limited capacity to cover for sickness. What assessment has the Department made of the impact on very small farms if many of the people who work on them succumb to coronavirus? (901656)

My hon. Friend raises an important point: it is not just those employers with large numbers of staff that could face challenges; it could be those with a very small number of staff, or those with no staff, who operate alone. We are working with the National Farmers Union and others to work out ways to address this issue. It will require friendly and supportive neighbourly behaviour in some cases.

T2. Given the established links between air pollution and poor lung health, and the knowledge that poor lung health is a risk factor for covid-19, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to understand the additional support that may be needed to enable areas across the UK with the worst air quality to mitigate risks and keep people safe during the pandemic? (901655)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The Government have given specific guidance to those considered most at risk, including the over-70s. There will be additional support for those with clinical issues that make them especially at risk.

T5. Delivery slots should be reserved for the vulnerable. Will the Secretary of State stop them being hogged by people who are quite capable of getting to the shops? (901661)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. During this situation, we need everybody to be considerate to others. A number of supermarkets have piloted the idea of a reserved hour at the start of each day for the elderly and most vulnerable. That appears to be working and we will encourage others to do that. There is a limited amount of delivery capacity—currently about 7% of the market—but we will increase that if we can.

T4. As part of the key worker strategy, will the Secretary of State recognise the crucial importance of food and drink manufacturing and distribution in the food chain? In discussions about the long-term sustainability of the industry, can he and his colleagues persuade the Treasury to abandon its dogma for public purchasing that cheapest is always best? (901658)

When it comes to public procurement, for a number of years, we have had an approach called the balanced scorecard, which means that it is not all about price and that our procurement authorities should also take into account quality and other factors, too.

The spring selling season will soon be upon us. Across the country, against the background of the coronavirus crisis, farmers will be concerned to establish whether they will be able to buy and sell their livestock. Can the Secretary of State give any reassurance to farmers as to the extent to which they will be able to use their local farmers auction markets?

We are looking into that issue, but it is obviously critical to keep the food supply chain moving.

Supermarket queues are undoubtedly adding to the spread of coronavirus, not least because of a lack of social distancing. Doing whatever it takes means that there needs to be a sense of urgency from Government Ministers that simply has not been on display thus far across Government. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but it is true. People need to see a much greater sense of urgency. Queues need to be tackled to prevent the spread within supermarkets. Will the Secretary of State, with Cabinet colleagues, today implement and enforce social distancing in supermarkets to reduce the spread in that part of society?

We will not take that measure. It was done in Italy through a restriction on the number of people in stores, but they found that they had hundreds of people huddled together at the entrance to the store, so it was counterproductive.

There is growing concern in West Oxfordshire about the condition of the River Windrush, and particularly sewage discharge. We urgently need the Environment Agency and Thames Water to work together to clean it up. When the immediate emergency has eased, will the Secretary of State visit to see the river’s condition and help me to work with those two parties to make a real difference?

Such incidents are an issue for the Environment Agency, which is the first port of call in a pollution incident. Water companies have water management plans and, under the new Environment Bill, will have to have sewage management plans as well, which will help. Of course I will meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue.

I understand that in 2019, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and FareShare worked on a pilot scheme to make sure that surplus food was diverted to people who needed it. That is still being evaluated. When will Ministers come up with the evaluation? Is now not a good time to put the scheme into practice?

As I said, we are working with food banks and retailers to ensure that they have the supply of food they need through schemes such as FareShare.

I am sure that all hon. Members welcome the additional investment in flood and coastal defences in last week’s Budget. Will the ministerial team continue to work with local authorities such as Calderdale, which was flooded recently, to ensure that existing gaps in flood defence schemes are addressed?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are making a massive commitment to flood spending and they have increased the current programme from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion between 2021 and 2027. They will be working with all areas that have floods, listening to concerns and considerations to learn lessons from what happened this time and using the current grant system, but I, the Secretary of State and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government are considering how the whole project might be improved.