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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 676: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pubs as Takeaway Restaurants

The Government welcome the reopening of food-to-go businesses in line with social distancing measures and have relaxed planning rules so that pubs and restaurants can operate as hot food takeaways. We published guidance for restaurants offering takeaway or delivery services, which has been widely welcomed by the sector. The UK Government, along with the devolved Administrations, are working closely with the food and drink and hospitality sectors to support their gradual reopening and continued operations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Pubs like the Fleur De Lys in East Hagbourne have been doing a great job, with takeaway pints of beer and food three nights a week, from fish and chips to roasts. Can he confirm that he actively encourages that but knows that it is not a substitute for being properly open and that the Government will work with pubs to guide them on how they can do so safely as soon as possible?

We were very clear when we imposed the original restrictions at the point of lockdown that those did not extend to takeaway food outlets. We were clear that we wanted to support those pubs and restaurants that wanted to remain open, offering takeaway food. Those that have done have made an important contribution to our food supply at this difficult time, and we very much welcome the steps they have taken. Of course, we also recognise that until things return to something closer to normal and they can reopen normally—hopefully later this summer—that will not give them all the trade they previously had.

I am encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s response. Our pubs are at the heart of the communities I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. What work will he be undertaking alongside his colleagues across Government and, more importantly, on a regional level with our West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, to ensure that pubs in the Black Country have all the means necessary to survive and thrive again once the crisis is over?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Pubs are at the heart of our community, and the fact that they have been forced to close has caused difficulty for many of them. As the Prime Minister has outlined, we intend that the hospitality sector, including pubs, will be able to tentatively start gradually opening, hopefully during the month of July, subject to the epidemiology supporting such a move. We are already working with the hospitality and pub sector to identify what social distancing measures they might be able to put in place to make that work properly.

Supermarket Supply Chains

We have worked closely with retailers and suppliers to ensure the security of supply chains, while also protecting staff safety. I would like to put on record again my thanks to the sector for demonstrating such resilience and flexibility in the face of the crisis. Staff have worked around the clock to ensure that people have the food they need. To support industry, we have introduced temporary measures, including temporary relaxations to competition law, and extended delivery hour regulations, and we have published guidance to help to ensure that workplaces and retail spaces are as safe as possible.

To support the resilience of the supermarkets and food shops on which my constituents in Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner depend, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that people who work in food supply and food retail are able to access priority testing for covid-19, so that they can get back to work?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that all essential workers, including all those involved in the food supply chain, are eligible for testing. We are working with the food sector to ensure that employees who are either self-isolating with symptoms of the coronavirus or who have a symptomatic household member are able to access those tests. Eligible workers who are self-isolating can apply for a test directly online or can be referred for a test by their employer.

The resilience of the food supply chains has been impressive, and we thank all those who work on our farms and in processing factories and the pickers, delivery drivers and, of course, shop workers who have kept the food flowing to our supermarkets. The foolish dismantling of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, now made worse by the covid crisis, means that we face an alarming shortfall in the 70,000 experienced people needed to pick our crops. The laudable “Pick for Britain” campaign may help, but it was reported only a few weeks ago that of the 50,000 applicants, only 112 had made it into the field. Can the Secretary of State tell us what those figures are today and what is his plan B?

We estimate that only about a third of the east European workforce who would usually come to work on our farms are here or have continued to come. That means that we will need a British workforce to step up and assist in getting the harvest in this year, and we are very encouraged by the results so far. The hon. Gentleman is right that a few weeks ago, when it was early in the season, there were not many jobs. But we are now approaching the peak season in June, and employers are starting to recruit more and more British workers. For instance, G’s salads currently has more than 400 British people working on its farms today

Food Supply

The food industry has responded quickly and impressively to the significant changes in demand that we have seen over the past month. That has ensured supply into stores and people’s homes across the country, and has demonstrated that the supply chain remains resilient. The Government have supported the industry with proportionate and temporary relaxations of competition law and drivers’ hours and extended delivery hours.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right: British farmers have been brilliant in getting food on the table. Does he agree, therefore, that there is no need for US-style industrial factory farming of poultry in this country, and will he look into the rotten proposal from my constituency, which I wrote to him about on 15 April?

I am aware, as it has been drawn to my attention, following my hon. Friend’s question, that there is a letter that I have yet to respond to; I will respond to that. Obviously, the issues that he has raised are predominantly issues for the environment agencies that carry out such environmental assessments. He mentions US-style poultry. Obviously, some approaches to poultry farming in the US will not be lawful in the United Kingdom, so I can reassure him on that.

The adequacy of the food supply includes the nutritional values and the production standards. The Government whipped their Back Benchers to vote against maintaining food standards for imports in the Agriculture Bill, and now we are hearing that it is a fire sale in the US trade deal. How can the public ensure that the food in our shops remains of the same quality as it is now?

This Government have a very clear manifesto commitment that we will protect our food standards in all our trade negotiations. Certain practices, such as chlorine washes on chicken or hormones in beef, are subject to a prohibition on sale in the UK, and that law remains in place. It is also the case that, as we advance trade negotiations with all third countries, animal welfare is one of the issues that we will be seeking to promote.

Supermarkets: Good Hygiene and Social Distancing

From the outset, we have worked extensively with retailers and Public Health England to establish best practice and publish guidance on social distancing and hygiene, to keep staff and customers safe. Industry has adapted effectively and quickly, and measures introduced include signage and floor markings to help customers maintain distance, screens at tills and limits on the number of customers in store.

On a recent visit to my local supermarket in Blyth, I was pleased to see that the supermarkets are taking all the necessary precautions to try to protect the public while they are out shopping. Those include cleaning stations, markings on the floor and regular announcements to tell people to maintain social distance. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as measures are relaxed and we move forward, we must all be aware and mindful while out shopping, to protect not only ourselves but the staff, who have been providing an invaluable service during this pandemic?

On the latter point, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those key workers working throughout our food supply chain, from those working on farms to those working in logistics and food manufacturing, and of course those working in our supermarkets. They have helped to ensure that the nation has remained fed, and the work that they have done has been truly phenomenal.

I also agree with my hon. Friend that as we seek to evolve the current restrictions and move back to something closer to life as normal, we all have a great deal that we can learn from the measures that have been put in place by supermarkets—and also in factory environments by our food processors.

I congratulate my local Sainsbury’s stores in Erith Road, Barnehurst, and in Crayford on their good organisation and friendly staff. Does my right hon. Friend agree that other businesses will be able to learn lessons from the actions taken by supermarkets to ensure good hygiene and social distancing?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: our supermarket retailers acted within hours—certainly within 24 hours—to implement social distancing when lockdown occurred. They acted swiftly, and we have learned a lot along the way, in conjunction with Public Health England. I can tell my right hon. Friend that the experiences of our supermarkets and food manufacturers have been shared extensively with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as it has developed safer-working protocols for other parts of the economy, because we can—absolutely—learn from the steps that supermarkets and others have taken.

Food Security

The coronavirus response has exemplified the resilience of the UK food supply chain. Industry has responded quickly to significant changes in demand to ensure that people have the food they need. In the initial few weeks, when there was an episode of panic buying, our food manufacturers increased output by some 50%.

Although our food security depends on both international trade and domestic production, this crisis has brought home the crucial importance of domestic food production. We are fortunate to have some of the most innovative food manufacturers and producers in the world, and I pay tribute to all they have done in recent months.

Between April and September last year, the Trussell Trust reported a 23% rise in the number of food parcels provided across the UK. As of April this year, the figure has doubled. Given the World Bank’s recent warning of a covid-19 worldwide food price spike, as well as the alarming rise in unemployment we have seen today, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to alleviate the shameful growth in food poverty?

We recognise that, as a result of the coronavirus crisis, the financial vulnerability of households has also increased. That is why, last week, the Government announced a new £16 million fund to support food charities, including refuges and homeless hostels. The food will be distributed by our existing partners in FareShare.

Food bank demand is surging, up on average by between 60% and 80% from pre-virus levels. Now, unemployment is soaring, up by nearly 70% last month. It is clear that we need measures that match the scale of the crisis. Last week, the Secretary of State whipped his MPs to reject Labour’s sensible proposals for an emergency coronavirus food plan. With The Times reporting that the Prime Minister is now keen on a food plan of his own, dealing with obesity and coronavirus, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s urgently needed food strategy, which must include a coronavirus focus, will be published before the recession bites?

The food strategy that is being developed by Henry Dimbleby, one of our non-executive directors, will involve an initial report in the autumn setting out the approach and the nature of the challenges, and the final report is expected in the early part of next year.

UK Food Producers

Our food and farming industry plays a crucial role in challenging times, and we are co-funding a £1 million campaign to promote milk, alongside industry and devolved Government partners. We are also supporting the fishing industry by promoting a wide variety of seafood species from UK waters. A further campaign is promoting beef across the devolved nations, and our Food is GREAT campaign, which showcases internationally products from across our four nations, has delivered successful trade and consumer focused marketing activities.

Given that there is already mandatory country of origin labelling for fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, wine, honey, olive oil and beef, does the Secretary of State agree that now is the right time for mandatory country of origin labelling for all meat, so that consumers can never be misled by dodgy imports produced in conditions that would be unlawful here and which are sold as if they were British?

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there has been a long-standing legal provision for mandatory country of origin labelling on beef, in which, to claim that the country of origin is the UK, the animal must be born, reared and slaughtered in the UK. Those regulations on mandatory country of origin labelling were extended several years ago to cover all principal meat species. They do not yet extend to processed goods that might contain multiple goods, but there have been significant steps forward in broadening the scope of mandatory country of origin labelling.

Financial Support for Food Producers

What additional financial support he plans to provide to food producers to mitigate the effect of the covid-19 outbreak. (902760)

What additional financial support he plans to provide to food producers to mitigate the effect of the covid-19 outbreak. (902766)

We are working closely with the agriculture and fishing industries to manage the negative impacts of covid-19. In addition to HM Treasury’s financial support packages, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has announced support schemes for the dairy and fishing industries, and we continue to monitor other sectors.

Will DEFRA Ministers go further and insist with their counterparts in the Department for International Trade on high standards for animal welfare, phytosanitary and food production imports to protect our domestic food producers?

The Government are very clear—and it was set out in our manifesto—that we will not compromise on our high food and animal welfare standards as we approach trade agreements. Specifically, that means that the UK will determine its own domestic standards when it comes to the so-called SPS chapter—those sanitary and phytosanitary issues—relating in particular to food safety. Those will be set at a UK level and we will not abandon or change those standards in response to demands from other countries.

I note that today’s announcement by the Department for International Trade does not change agricultural tariffs, so how will DEFRA Ministers ensure that the new tariff regimes after Brexit continue to favour our long-established and profitable trade in that sector with member states of the European Union? How will they ensure that the tariffs prevent our marketplace from being flooded with low-quality products from elsewhere in the world?

The new UK global tariff that has been announced today does retain tariffs for most key agricultural products, including those sensitive agricultural products that are often discussed in this House. The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we would seek to grant tariff-free access to EU trading partners in future through a free trade agreement, and we have set out clearly the legal text of an acceptable free trade agreement should our partners wish to enter into such an agreement. Maintaining those agricultural tariffs also ensures that we do not expose our market in the short term to lower-standard products from other countries.

Covid-19 Lockdown: Air Quality

What assessment he has made of the effect on air quality of the reduction in the use of motor vehicles during the covid-19 lockdown. (902740)

It is an absolute pleasure to be taking part today, Mr Speaker, although nothing really makes up for being there in person with you.

DEFRA’s roadside air quality monitoring stations continuously monitor air quality. Between 23 March and 5 May, nitrogen dioxide concentrations were, on average, 46% lower than this time last year, with reductions ranging from 9% to 65% at individual locations. That is largely due to the substantial reduction in traffic levels, although other factors such as weather may also have had some impact. Interestingly, concentrations of other air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, have not shown similar trends.

I thank the Minister for her answer. That is some small good news, I guess, out of lockdown. In Manchester’s sister city of Wuhan in China, private car use nearly doubled when the lockdown ended, with the obvious effects on air quality. Is the Minister concerned that the Prime Minister’s statement of 10 May encouraged the use of cars?

It has been made very clear in all the guidance and by the Prime Minister that, first and foremost, if people can work from home, they should do so. Those who have to go to work were advised to go by car, and also to cycle and walk. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question, because he strikes a good note. He will know that the uptake of cycling has surged during this time, especially where businesses are providing a scheme so that their employees can have bikes. He will also know that the Prime Minister has announced that we are phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035—earlier, if possible. Lessons will be learnt. The Air Quality Expert Group has been conducting a big survey, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be interested in the results when they are revealed.

Before I bring in the shadow Minister, may I just ask Ministers to speed up the answers? We have to get through some more Members.

It is my first time appearing opposite the Minister; hopefully we will have many fruitful discussions.

There is growing evidence that deaths due to covid are higher in areas of bad air quality, but lockdown means that right now we are breathing the cleanest air that we have had in generations. We need to do all we can to ensure that many of the survivors of covid, who will have weakened lungs, are protected. Air pollution currently kills 40,000 people each year, with 40 of our towns breaking the World Health Organisation limit. The Government and the Minister dismissed putting targets in the Environment Bill, but surely covid has changed all that. Will the Minister sit down with us and agree a form of wording that will require Ministers to set targets on air quality in order to reach the WHO standard by 2030 and help save British lives?

As the hon. Gentleman alludes to, the Environment Bill delivers key parts of the clean air strategy and introduces a duty to set an ambitious, legally binding target on PM concentrations of pollutants of greatest harm. I know that he will also be interested in the independent Air Quality Expert Group, which has been analysing the situation so that we can learn lessons from coronavirus, and from air quality and its potential impact on human lives. Air quality is a serious issue for human health.

Commercial and Household Waste Collection

What steps he is taking to ensure that (a) commercial and (b) household waste continues to be collected during the covid-19 outbreak. (902742)

DEFRA officials are working with local authorities and industry to ensure that commercial and household waste can continue to be collected safely during the coronavirus outbreak. I pay tribute to and thank all those working in local authorities and the waste sector who have ensured that nearly all household waste collections in England are operating as normal. On 5 May, DEFRA published guidance to help local authorities to reopen household waste and recycling centres.

Does my hon. Friend agree that waste collection is an integral part of ensuring health and wellbeing during this global pandemic? I know that she has thanked key workers, but would she particularly thank key workers in South West Herts? I am sure that they would appreciate her comments.

Of course, I would be delighted to thank those key workers. We must not forget that those who work in the waste sector are key workers, and they have done a tremendous job in keeping our waste systems flowing, with a terrific record of 91% maintaining normal collection services from our households during this difficult period. Many are now working in the waste and recycling centres that I am pleased to say have opened, and that are working efficiently in almost every area—albeit with strict guidance and slightly different services from those that they were operating before.

Covid-19 Death and Infection Rate: Air Quality

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the relationship between air quality and the rate of (a) death and (b) infection from covid-19. (902749)

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the link between air quality and the exacerbation of covid-19 symptoms. (902765)

DEFRA has had extensive discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care on the relationship between air quality and health, recently considering the specific relationship between covid-19 deaths and air quality. DEFRA is actively working with Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics to assess further the relationship for the UK, and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser is working with relevant experts in health, disease and air quality to assess the relationship between air quality and the risk of infection, based on the emerging scientific research into covid-19.

Research from Harvard University suggests that a change of 1 microgram per cubic metre of PM2.5 leads to a 15% reduction in covid deaths, and Queen Mary University of London has shown that short-term pollution gives rise to more infection. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State meet me and the academics from Harvard and Queen Mary on 29 May at the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution to discuss this, with a view to introducing World Health Organisation air quality standards into the Environment Bill?

I know that the hon. Gentleman works very hard in this area. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Public Health England and the ONS are working together to assess whether there is evidence of association between exposure to particulates—the PM2.5 that he refers to—and covid-19 mortality in the UK. The clean air strategy sets out the comprehensive action required across all parts of Government to improve air quality for everyone, and it includes measures to reduce key sources that contribute to fine particulate matter. Because of the lockdown, I think joining the APPG would be difficult, but I would be very interested to have some feedback from that meeting.

Tens of thousands of lives cut short every year—that was the UK’s air quality health emergency long before we had even heard of coronavirus. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, we now know that there is a strong correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and covid-19 deaths, so clean air zones are needed more than ever. However, Nottingham’s taxi drivers tell me they are worried about their ability to invest in new clean electric vehicles as a result of lost income, and other businesses face similar pressures. As we come out of lockdown, how will the Government support local councils and small businesses to go even faster to protect the public from toxic air?

As the hon. Lady will know, we have supported Nottingham City Council to tackle its nitrogen dioxide exceedance through a £1 million investment to support the uptake of e-taxis and £1.7 million to retrofit 171 buses, which means that there is not a need for a clean air zone. Nottingham is also one of the Go Ultra Low cities. My officials will be working closely with and will be very interested to speak to Nottingham City Council to see how the impacts of coronavirus are affecting its plans. They are doing that with all local authorities across the country, just to keep a weather eye on how coronavirus will impact our new clean air zones and our drive to reduce air pollution, which of course is all important.