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Topical Questions

Volume 682: debated on Thursday 15 October 2020

Next year is a really important year for the environment internationally, with the UK hosting COP26 on climate change in October, but also with the convention on biological diversity taking place, where biodiversity targets to replace the Aichi targets will be agreed. The UK has been working on a leaders’ pledge for nature, which over 70 world leaders have now signed. We are also working to secure better targets on biodiversity and to make nature-based solutions a key part of our approach to tackling climate change.

The world needs to stop the loss of species and endangered species need the conservation work of zoos, so I applauded when the Government announced their £100 million package to support zoos and the vital conservation work they do, but then I discovered the eligibility criterion that they must have less than 12 weeks’ reserves. The trustees of any zoo with less than 12 weeks’ reserves would already have declared voluntary liquidation, so will the Secretary of State look again at the criterion, replace it with one based on percentage of revenue lost and—

Order. Topicals are short and punchy, not full questions, please. This is to help other people, and to help me get through the list. I care about other colleagues even if colleagues do not care about each other.

I understand the point the hon. Gentleman was making. It is important to note that we had a smaller zoo fund to support small zoos, which was announced earlier. This fund is for the very large zoos, and many of them do have large reserves. It is right that we expect them to use those reserves before they come to us, but they can apply for the fund before those reserves run out, and we have increased it from six weeks to 12 weeks.

The Agriculture Bill has prompted a lot of discussion within parties, but does my right hon. Friend not agree with me—surely the whole House agrees—that the creation of a framework to allow the fair distribution of the meat levy across the United Kingdom is a very good thing? The Scottish livestock sector has been calling for it for many years. (907640)

There has been a problem for some years in the fact that the levy is collected at the point of slaughter, and Scottish farmers have raised with us a concern that animals crossing the border meant they did not capture all of the levy. We have now put in place the powers to address that, which is indeed very good news for our Scottish farmers.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that he has a plan to let food produced to lower standards in to Britain if a few extra pence is charged on tariffs, meaning that our farmers will still be undercut if tariff protection is introduced as an excuse to allowing lower quality food into our country?

I think the hon. Gentleman perhaps misunderstands the current situation in that it is already possible for these countries to sell us goods at a particular tariff provided they meet our sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and that will not change. However, tariff policy is the best tool in the box to address issues such as animal welfare.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to maintain food standards at the end of the transition period, so that there is no cliff edge in food standards? (907643)

At the end of the transition period, the existing animal welfare regulations and the prohibition on sale, for instance, of hormones in beef will be retained in UK law, but our new Agriculture Bill will also strengthen animal welfare and reward farmers for high systems of animal welfare.

Will the Secretary of State explain what the Government are putting in place, in the event of a deal not being concluded by 31 December, to allow the UK distant waters fishing fleet to continue to fish for Arctic cod? (907639)

There has been a long-standing arrangement between Norway and the EU under which, broadly speaking, Norway has some access to blue whiting in the North sea and in return the EU—we have a share of this—has some access to Arctic cod. Those negotiations are about to commence again. This year there will be an EU-Norway bilateral to decide these matters.

Concerns have been raised about the possible requirement for pet passports after the transition period. People from Northern Ireland want to know that, as part of the United Kingdom, they will have the same right to travel to the UK with their dogs, particularly guide dogs, without additional documentation or pet passports. (907654)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are aware of this, and it is one of the issues that we are seeking to address at a technical level and through the Joint Committee process for resolving how these finer details of the Northern Ireland protocol will work.

Farmers are being sold short on payments for their milk. That is destabilising the market and is not providing a fair price to farmers from processors. Please will the Secretary of State say what he plans to do to rectify this, and please will he have a meeting with one of my dairy farmers, Mr Andrew Birkle? (907648)

Earlier this summer, we issued a consultation on having mandatory contracts in the dairy sector. That is something that I have long felt is important, since dairy farmers, perhaps more than any others, all too often are price takers. We will be considering that consultation and the responses we received, and we intend to bring forward legislation under the future agriculture Bill. I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituent.

Food price increases due to harvests and Brexit, combined with cuts in support for those needing help in the pandemic, will hit the poorest families in our communities hardest. In the light of Louise Casey’s comments this morning, what is the Government’s plan to tackle food poverty, and will they follow the Welsh Government in guaranteeing free school meals during holidays until Easter 2021? (907656)

We introduced a number of measures to support those struggling to afford food during the initial lockdown and over the summer months. It is the case that, as unemployment rises, we are likely to see more such need, so the Government keep this under review. Obviously, through projects such as FareShare, we do support the redistribution of food to help those people, but we keep all these matters under review.

Cleaner air for residents in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke is a priority for me and my neighbouring colleagues. The air quality directive from my right hon. Friend’s Department to close key roads in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, however, is not the solution to the problem. We have recently seen a drop in the level of dangerous emissions at key locations, and we are no longer above the Government’s threshold, so will my right hon. Friend meet me urgently to discuss a review of this project and enable Stoke-on-Trent City Council and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to offer a range of alternative methods? (907664)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course I would be happy to meet him to discuss this matter. I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), has already met him and others to discuss it, but we are of course happy to meet again.

Fruit and vegetable growers have relied on skilled European seasonal workers to get food into shops and stop it rotting in the fields. The Secretary of State’s idea to fill vacancies is to use the unemployed in the UK. How does he think horticultural work can be taken on by people who do not have the relevant skills or experience? (907660)

I used to run a strawberry farm, so I am familiar with this challenge, but everybody needs to be trained at some point to do this sort of work, whether they are a foreign worker or a domestic worker. We are looking at the mix of this and are in discussions with the Home Office about arrangements for next year.