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Topical Questions

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 25 June 2020

The coronavirus has created many challenges for our country, and the response of our key workers throughout the epidemic has been quite extraordinary. As we take the next steps closer to normality, I would like to take this opportunity to record our thanks to all those working in the food supply chain for the phenomenal way they have responded. From farmers to food manufacturers, and from the delivery drivers to all those working in food retail, their response has been truly phenomenal.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The agricultural land around Peterborough is some of the best land in the country. With that in mind, could he let us know how he plans to increase UK food and drink exports to emerging markets such as the Gulf?

This week, we announced new measures on exports, with export champions to lead the way in opening new markets and to get more of our fantastic food and produce in those overseas markets. I have in recent years attended exhibitions such as Gulfood in the Gulf, where there are indeed many opportunities, particularly for our lamb sector.

Last November, after the devastating floods, the Prime Minister committed to holding a summit to improve flood defences in the north of England. Can I ask the Secretary of State why, six months on, this summit has not taken place? Can he set a date, and can he confirm that the Prime Minister will honour his commitment and be in attendance?

The reason that we have not yet had that summit is quite simple: it is that the coronavirus outbreak has taken up quite a lot of our time and obviously made it very difficult to physically travel to areas. I think it would be better to have a summit such as that physically in the location, rather than it being yet another Zoom meeting. However, I can give the hon. Lady a guarantee that that summit will indeed take place. I gave that commitment and it will happen.

The green belt is rightly described as the green lungs around our towns and cities, and it is rightly cherished by residents across the country, including myself. Can my right hon. Friend advise what cross-government working has been taking place to promote our manifesto commitment to protect and enhance the green belt, including areas such as Elton reservoir and Simister in my constituency? (903846)

I thank my hon. Friend for that. Of course, people have valued all these green spaces in this lockdown period; that has been more clear than ever. Our manifesto commitment says that, through the Environment Bill, we will set a new domestic framework for environmental governance, and this will enable us to work with developers, landowners and managers to create and restore wildlife-rich habitats, with wildlife thriving everywhere. We will have biodiversity net gain through that environment plan, and we will have local nature recovery strategies and a whole new area called nature recovery networks. All this will help to look after our precious green space.

Animal welfare charities are witnessing a sharp increase in need and this is expected to rise, while hundreds of charity staff in the sector are being made redundant. Some charities are struggling to cover their core costs, animal feed and vet bills. When will the Secretary of State bring forward his strategy and the necessary funding to support these vital animal welfare charities? (903845)

We are aware that animal welfare charities have suffered from a fall in donations and have had to close during the coronavirus epidemic. There was an application that was considered as part of a charities fund, but we will continue to work with those groups to identify the support that they need.

Many people across Stockton South, including me, enjoy a cheeky Nando’s or a finger-lickin’ good KFC, but we are concerned about the prospect of chlorinated chicken. Can the Minister guarantee that chlorinated chicken will not be on the menu in our trade negotiations and that we will remain a world leader on food and animal welfare standards? (903847)

As I explained earlier, in any trade negotiation it will be for the UK to determine what goes into the so-called sanitary and phytosanitary chapter, which addresses these issues. As I also pointed out, there is currently a prohibition on the sale of any poultry treated with a chlorine wash.

Some 75,000 people work in meat processing in this country. Meat processing plants have been linked to the spread of the virus in many countries, and we have had convincing evidence from Professor Wood at Cambridge and Professor Semple at Liverpool on the risks at these plants. What measures specific to food processing plants has the Minister put in place? (903848)

Very early in this crisis, we worked with Public Health England on guidance for these plants. It included, in some cases, spacing out staff on the production line to maintain a distance of 2 metres, and, where that was not possible, ensuring that things were arranged so that staff were facing away from one another. It also involved increased hygiene, new measures on canteens and guidance on car-share arrangements. As I have said, as a result of the three outbreaks that have occurred, we are reviewing those matters.

I return to the topic covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), although I am less of a finger-licker than he is. Many of my constituents in Warrington South have written to me on their concerns about maintaining high food standards in future trade arrangements, many of them driven by misinformation from the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that sticking with the UK’s high food and animal welfare standards is, among other things, in this Government’s interest, because that is what customers in this country expect and demand from UK food producers? (903849)

We in this country have built a very sophisticated and valuable market based on the safety of our food, the standards of our food and our high animal welfare standards. We have committed in our manifesto to maintaining those.

Perhaps I could dwell on this finger-licking topic that has come up so frequently. Is not the simple truth that because so much of our food consumption goes through the food services sector—in the likes of prisons, hospitals, schools and the chains of restaurants on our high street—with a great proportion of it, the consumer will never know? That is the great fear. The US does not want labelling or descriptors, so those consumers will never know what they are consuming. (903852)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Food labelling can improve transparency, particularly in the retail sector, but of course there are limitations in that around 50% of food goes into the food services sector. That is why we will be addressing these matters in our trade agreements.

Overuse of antibiotics in animal farming has been identified as contributing to bacterial resistance. With American cattle receiving 13 times the amount of antibiotics that UK herds receive, how does the Minister plan to guard against importing resistant bacteria in US beef? (903857)

There has been a global effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance and, in particular, to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture, especially the critically important antibiotics. The UK is a leader in that and has adopted farm husbandry that has made it possible to reduce the use of antibiotics. We have also worked with international partners, including the United States, to assist them to achieve the same.