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Environment, food and rural affairs

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 26 November 2020

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was asked—

Fishing Industry: Tariffs

What discussions he has had with representatives from (a) fishing communities and (b) the fish processing sector on the potential effect on the viability of the UK fishing industry of the imposition of tariffs after the transition period. (909294)

Before I turn to the question, the tragic loss of the Joanna C on Saturday is a sad reminder of the dangers that our fishermen face every time they go out to sea. We are all incredibly grateful for the bravery and dedication of the Coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and all those involved in the search. Our thoughts are with the families of Adam Harper and Robert Morley, and all the families and those affected.

The Government have offered the European Union a free trade agreement along the lines of the EU-Canada one, which would involve zero tariffs on all goods, including fish and fish products. We hold regular discussions with both the catching sector and the fish processing sector to discuss the great opportunities that will arise at the end of the transition period.

I associate my group with the comments of the Minister. It is a timely reminder of the high price that is sometimes paid for putting food on our plates at home.

Non-tariff barriers are also a concern for the fishing industry, as are tariffs. This week’s test run for post-border transition procedures demonstrated the severe chaos that might be expected in the new year. I am sure that the Minister appreciates fully that seafood products need to be delivered to markets timeously. So what assurances can he give to the catching and processing sectors that delays will not equal ruined produce and ruined businesses?

We have been working with the fishing industry and local authorities to ensure that they have the capacity in place to employ the environmental health officers necessary to issue both the catch certificates and the environmental health certificates. We have about 1,000 officers now who can issue export health certificates for fish. It is the case that there are some concerns in Scotland, where the Scottish Government potentially have a gap in capacity of 100. We are working with them to try to offer our help to ensure that that gap can be filled.

I, too, associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks. That reminds us why this industry is so important to us and why it tugs at our hearts when we hear of such sad events.

Tariffs are a great worry for many other sectors as well. Tariffs of a possible 48% are a huge concern for the sheep sector, so the Secretary of State’s suggestion that sheep farmers could simply switch to beef production if punitive lamb tariffs cause their business models to crash has angered many Scottish farmers and crofters, who have spent many years building up the high reputation that Scotch lamb enjoys for quality. The National Sheep Association Scotland has called for assurances that a compensation scheme will be ready and waiting. What details can he outline today of such a scheme?

I always advise people to look at what I actually said, rather than at the Twitter attacks on what I might have said. I never said that specialist sheep farmers and crofters should diversify into beef; I explicitly said that some of the 7,000 mixed beef and sheep enterprises might choose to produce more beef and less lamb if the price signal suggested that they should.

The Scottish Seafood Association has joined other food and drink leaders with a recent letter to the Prime Minister. The message is clear: tariffs mean enormous damage to our industry, and that is on top of covid losses of an estimated £3 billion. So when will the Minister reveal details of the financial support that is so clearly desperately needed?

Tariffs on fish, particularly the fish that we export, are typically far lower than on many agrifoods. The average tariff on the shellfish that we export is about 8%. Obviously, we would prefer there to be zero tariffs on all goods, and that is the offer that the Government have made to the European Union—in both directions—but the fishing sector generally recognises that, if it needed to pay tariffs, it could pay those tariffs, and the European Union would have to face higher prices.

Food Security

Question 4 has been withdrawn. If the substantive question cannot be answered, do not worry. I call the shadow Minister.

May I associate those on this side of the House with the Secretary of State’s comments on the appalling loss of the Joanna C?

Twenty-six per cent. of our food comes from the European Union, and it is reported that last week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ head of food security warned industry reps to expect just 40% flow rates. I am sure the Secretary of State will want to provide reassurance on that, but as we have already heard, his attempts to placate livestock farmers recently led to some pretty dreadful headlines in the farming press. “Laughable” was the comment from the Farmers Guardian. So can he do better today and explain the plans he has in place to keep our food supplies flowing in just 35 days’ time?

We have worked with industry to ensure that the capacity is in place to issue export health certificates, and we have been contacting meat processors, fish processors and others in the sector to ensure that they are prepared for the new administration that will be required, and of course we continue to work on plans to ensure that goods flow at the border.

Plastic Pollution

The Government have banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics and banned the use of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and the 5p charge for single-use plastic bags has reduced their use by 95% in the main supermarkets. We are increasing the charge to 10p and extending it to all retailers. In addition, we are seeking powers in the Environment Bill to require similar charges for single-use plastic items, to make recycling collections more consistent and to reform packaging producer waste responsibility schemes.

Earlier this year, I was written to by year 6 pupils in the Chevening and St Lawrence primary schools. They were asking me to protect the environment, and reducing plastic pollution was top of their list. I am sure they will have been reassured by the Secretary of State’s answer, but can he reassure them further that we will act to stop this attack on our environment and that they will see change in their lifetime?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I congratulate the Chevening and St Lawrence primary schools on their interest in this. All hon. Members cannot help but have noticed the rising awareness within all our schools of the scourge of plastics in particular and the action that must be taken. In my own constituency, I have been contacted by schools such as Lanner, Troon, Treleigh, Rosemellin and Roskear on this very matter just in the past year. We are working very hard to address the concerns raised by pupils in my hon. Friend’s primary schools.

Pollinators

The national pollinator strategy sets out the actions we are taking with partners to protect pollinators. It includes dealing with habitat loss and the potential harm from pesticide use, invasive species and climate change. Our future agriculture policies will help to improve biodiversity and support habitats for pollinators, building on existing agri-environment measures to enable many more farmers and land managers to take positive action.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, from the garden of England. My right hon. Friend will know that the value to the economy of pollinators is estimated at about £691 million. Some 60% of our native pollinators are in decline, and we have lost 75% of them over the past 25 years. Will he support me in backing Kent’s Plan Bee, which is seeking to establish 5,000 miles of B-lines across the United Kingdom?

That sounds like a very interesting project, and I would certainly be willing to meet my right hon. Friend and representatives in Kent to discuss it. Our future environmental land management scheme will encourage the creation of habitats for pollinators, and our local nature recovery plans, to be advanced by local authorities, will also have a role to play.

Covid-19: Zoos

In addition to the full range of financial support available to all businesses and employers, we have established an extra £100 million support fund for those who are facing severe financial difficulty, and the deadline for applications to the fund has been extended to the end of January.

On a recent visit to Chester zoo, I saw its excellent conservation work and learned at first hand about the remarkable way it is coping with the coronavirus pandemic. However, the zoo animal fund criteria for access seem to be very peculiar, because zoos seem to have to be on the verge of closure before they can get any money. Surely that is wrong. Will my hon. Friend look at those criteria again, please?

We listened to concerns following the roll-out of the initial support scheme and we have made changes to reflect that. The zoos animal fund, which is simpler to apply for, is now open to zoos that have up to 12 weeks of reserves left. It can be applied for in advance of that and can include applications for essential planned maintenance.

As we have just heard, zoos have an important conservation role to play. The white-tailed eagle is listed in our 25-year environment plan as a species whose reintroduction we could support as we develop our nature recovery network. Cumbria is at the forefront of nature recovery, as we have a local nature recovery strategy pilot and, separately, we are in a group that has submitted a bid for feasibility work on the white-tailed eagle’s reintroduction. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how her Department might assist with that proposal?

The 25-year environment plan encourages the reintroduction of species such as the white-tailed eagle. I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the funding pots on offer, and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials would be very pleased to meet him and the project scheme to discuss what further action could be taken.

Sheep Farmers

Lamb producers have enjoyed a very good year in 2020. A significant increase in lamb imports by China, combined with tighter supply globally, has contributed to high prices and confidence in the sector, with prevailing market prices typically 10% to 15% higher than last year. However, we recognise that historically the lamb sector has been more reliant on the EU market than most other farming sectors, so we stand ready to help it identify new markets in future.

I hope you did not find me very strange, Mr Speaker. Upland sheep farming is hugely important to my constituency, which is why, I, like those farmers, very much welcomed the Secretary of State’s comments yesterday at the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that he does have well-developed plans in place to support upland sheep farming in the event that a deal is not possible with the EU. Perhaps he could set out some further reassurance to those farmers today, because many of them have to take decisions right now about their forward planning and what would be in place if there is no deal with the EU.

I can say that 18 months ago, in preparation for the first potential no-deal, the Government, working with the Rural Payments Agency, had developed detailed plans to be able to support the sector in the short term. Those plans are still there and still ready to be activated, but in the medium term, in the event of there being no further negotiated outcome, we will be helping the sector identify new markets.

Air Quality

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 £3.8 billion plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and our Environment Bill, which I am pleased to say is making huge progress in Committee, makes a clear commitment to set a legally binding target to reduce fine particulate matter and enables local authorities to take more effective action to tackle air pollution in these areas.

How can Bolton avoid a future of £15 congestion taxes? How can Bolton deal with being in a clean air zone akin to the distance between Westminster, where we are standing, and Watford, of almost 500 square miles?

My hon. Friend has engaged continuously on this issue and is really standing up for his Bolton North East constituency. I assure him that only the most polluting older vehicles are charged in a clean air zone, and it is not a congestion charge; the Greater Manchester plan does not include charging private cars, and the evidence provided by Manchester authorities to date shows that this is not needed. We have provided £41 million in advance of the zone to help drivers and businesses in Greater Manchester that are least able to upgrade their vehicles, with further funding to be allocated. Manchester authorities are consulting on their plan until 3 December, and I encourage people to engage with the consultation.

In Harrogate and Knaresborough there are three air-quality management areas. The one at Bond End in Knaresborough saw junction improvements a couple of years ago that improved the situation, but another, at Woodlands junction in Harrogate, continues to break NOx levels, and that must change. What help is my hon. Friend giving to local authorities to help them to reduce NOx levels?

I thank my hon. Friend for putting the case for those roads. Local authorities have a range of tools that they can use to reduce air pollution, and we are building on them through the Environment Bill to ensure that local authorities have a clear framework and simple-to-use powers to tackle air-pollution issues in their areas. We are also broadening the range of bodies required to take action to improve air quality. As a former Transport Minister, my hon. Friend will understand what I mean by getting other bodies involved—we want them to work closely on the air-quality management plans. We will also continue to provide support through the air-quality grant.

Air Pollution from Motor Vehicles

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of the easing of covid-19 lockdown restrictions in August 2020 on the level of air pollution from motor vehicles. (909302)

Average roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations remain below levels observed in the previous three years, despite some increases as the March lockdown measures were eased. Working closely with Ministers in the Department for Transport, we continue to drive forward our ambitious plans to improve air quality, and we are delivering our clean air strategy and working in partnership with local authorities to deliver measures to tackle nitrogen dioxide pollution. The Environment Bill will enable greater local action to tackle air pollution.

As we hopefully exit a respiratory pandemic, technology grants for home-working, public transport vouchers and the cutting of staff parking permits could all be part of a joined-up strategy for employers to make driving into the office a thing of the past in the new normal, or at least radically reduced, with things such as vehicle scrappage, all-electric fleets and a proper charging network for those who cannot avoid driving. Will the Government adopt a proper, joined-up, cross-governmental strategy, rather than the piecemeal, far-off future targets that they have now?

The hon. Lady gives some examples, but she is somewhat aggressive in her approach, in that I work so closely with the Department for Transport and the Department of Health and Social Care so that we do have a joined-up approach on air quality, and our clean air strategy goes right across all Departments. Some £1.2 billion from the Department for Transport is being devoted to cycling and walking investment, and the bike vouchers literarily went like hot cakes in the summer. We do work closely together. The hon. Lady raises some important points, and we are looking into all the options because we know that times are changing and work patterns are changing.

We are one United Kingdom, so I know that the Minister will have paid keen attention to the work happening, albeit devolved, in other parts of the country to tackle toxic air quality and pollution. Will the Minister confirm that she has read the Welsh Government’s clean air plan and share with the House some of the tips she has picked up?

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing Wales into the discussion, but of course air quality is a devolved matter—she serves on the Environment Bill Committee, in which we have said so many times that it is a devolved matter. I hope that she and the Welsh Ministers have read our clean air strategy, because it is considered a global leader, but I am always open to ideas. If we can pick up tips from other places, I am all for it.

Poor Air Quality: BAME Communities

What assessment his Department has made of the extent to which poor air quality may disproportionately affect BAME communities. (909304)

Air pollution can be harmful to everyone; however, some people are more affected than others. My Department has commissioned research into inequalities of exposure to air pollution, and monitors emerging evidence investigating air-quality impacts on BAME communities. That research has shown that those BAME groups are disproportionately affected by poor air quality, partly because larger numbers of BAME people live in urban areas where air pollution tends to be worse.

I am the MP for one of those urban areas where black and ethnic minority constituents are disproportionately affected by both covid-19 and air quality. Has the Secretary of State held recent discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care? Will he make a statement about specific actions that will be taken on this issue?

Of course we talk with our colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on all matters relating to air quality in some urban areas. We intend to take action through the Environment Bill by setting new targets on air quality. One of the targets that we are investigating relates to the impact on particular populations in particular areas.

Flood Defences

What steps he is taking to ensure that local authorities have the resources to build adequate flood defences. (909305)

The Government are currently investing £2.6 billion between 2015 and 2021, approximately £650 million of which will be allocated to local authorities. Between 2021 and 2027, we will invest £5.2 billion in flood and coastal defences, in addition to a £200 million resilience innovation fund, which were all mentioned yesterday in the spending review. In July 2020, we announced an additional £170 million to accelerate shovel-ready flood defence schemes. Funding for projects is allocated according to the rules governing DEFRA’s existing six-year capital programme.

Maw Green Road in my constituency has been hit by severe flooding. In fact, residents have been seen canoeing their way out. Cheshire East local authority has not been successful in its applications for financial support to tackle this issue. Will the Minister agree to meet me to look at its proposals to see what we can do to support it financially so that it can tackle this matter?

We all understand the difficulties that flooding can bring and my hon. Friend is right to raise it. I understand that the Environment Agency recently attended a meeting with the Lead Local Flood Authority to address the surface water flooding in Maw Green Road, and that the LLFA is pursuing specific actions to address the situation, including seeking Department for Transport funding to alleviate flooding under the railway bridge upstream. Therefore, no DEFRA floods funding has been applied for in this location, but, obviously, I am happy to have a chat with him and look into this matter.

The environmental land management scheme could do much to help stop flooding, especially flash flooding. How advanced is the ELM scheme, and when will we hear about it? In the future, can we ensure that the payments are enough, so that people can farm water as part of their farming practice?

My hon. Friend, I know, speaks from experience as he has a farm right by a lot of water, so he raises a very important point. May I just say, Mr Speaker, that we have tremendous support on the Conservative Benches today, which, I think, demonstrates the understanding of these issues. My hon. Friend was right to raise the ELM scheme. Our future farming policy will be centred around support aimed at: incentivising sustainable farming practice; creating habitats for nature recovery; and establishing new woodland ecosystem services to help tackle climate change. We will help farmers to deliver environmental public goods, which, of course, bring in things such as natural flood management, which he has mentioned. They will be an important part of our new future, with things such as leaky dams, slowing the flow and, of course mixed in there, good soil management, which is something that is very dear to my heart.

Raw Sewage and Storm Water: Discharge into Waterways

What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce the discharge into waterways of raw sewage and storm water by water companies. (909306)

Water companies are committed over the next five years to a significant programme of improvements and to the monitoring and management of storm overflows, costing around £1.2 billion. However, there is more to do, and I met the chief executive officers of water companies in September and made it clear that sewage discharges must be reduced. To achieve that, I have set up a taskforce bringing together the Government, the water industry, regulators and environmental non-governmental organisations to develop actions to address the issue.

It is good to hear that a taskforce has been set up. In 2019, Yorkshire Water spent 616,643 hours discharging raw sewage into local rivers, which is the worst figure in England. It posted profits of more than £212 million in 2018-19—very much a case of private affluence and public effluence. We need to raise standards, and the Environmental Audit Committee Chair has proposed measures to do that. Will the Government be supporting the proposals of the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne)?

The hon. Lady touches on an issue to which the Department is giving a great deal of attention. As I said, I have recently met water companies to say that that is not good enough and that they need to improve. The Environment Agency carries out a lot of monitoring on the issue, but the situation is not good enough. The taskforce that I mentioned will be developing short and long-term actions to increase water company investment in tackling storm overflows. The Government are very supportive of the aims of the private Member’s Bill of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne); some measures in the Bill could be helpful in reducing storm overflows, and I have asked the taskforce to look at some of those measures. I thank the hon. Lady for her question.

Whiston in Rother Valley has repeatedly been flooded, most recently last year; and people are still out of their homes. In part, this has caused overflow of sewage into the Whiston brook. Indeed, raw sewage went into Whiston brook 43 times last year. However, Rotherham Council has just granted planning permission for 450 homes off Worrygoose Lane, which is directly above the brook. That is going to have a huge impact on Whiston brook. Will my hon. Friend speak to Rotherham Council to convince it that building an extra 450 homes in Whiston is going to flood the brook and bring misery to so many people’s lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for his impassioned question. The national planning policy framework makes it very clear that new developments should be made safe and resilient without increasing the risk of floods elsewhere. The Environment Agency and Rotherham Council have been working together in partnership to find a solution to flood risk in the area. Early studies of the proposed Whiston flood alleviation scheme indicate that the scheme could better protect about 60 houses.

Topical Questions

Since the last session of DEFRA oral questions, Royal Assent has been granted to both the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill. The Agriculture Act 2020 gives us the powers to transform the way in which we support farmers and build back nature in the farmed landscape, while the Fisheries Act 2020 gives us powers to become an independent coastal state, and decide who can fish in our waters and under what terms. We will be bringing forward new policies under both Acts in the weeks and months ahead.

My right hon. Friend’s Department is a very busy one right now, but may I ask him to look at the issue of animal cruelty sentences? I know that the Government are looking to legislate to increase sentencing. Animals feel pain and emotion, and all of us in this House have probably had terrible cases of animal cruelty in our constituencies, which can be upsetting for all our communities. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that there is a good level of enforcement for animal cruelty offences?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Government support extending maximum penalties and offences for animal cruelty. We are supporting a private Member’s Bill currently going through this House to achieve that. Should that not go through, we will introduce legislation in a later Session in this Parliament in order to do that. We are also working with local authorities and others to improve the enforcement of the current animal welfare legislation.

After the “News at Ten” exposé of foxhunters discussing how to put up the smokescreen of trail hunting when foxhunts break the law—exemptions that they describe as a “good wheeze”—is the Environment Secretary satisfied that the Hunting Act 2004 is as strong as it needs to be to stop illegal hunting? I am not.

The Hunting Act was brought forward by the Labour party, and there is now a consensus across this House that it should remain. Where there is a breach of that legislation, obviously the police can investigate, and they do.

No, that is not a good enough answer. We support the strengthening of that Act and I hope that the Environment Secretary will too. Forestry England has just announced a ban on hunts using its land in response to the exposé. Should not other landowners now follow this lead and ban trail hunters from their land as well?

The Government believe that the Hunting Act is sufficient. Where there are breaches, it should be enforced. It is for individual landowners to choose, as they always have done, whether they would like hunts on their land.

Ahead of 1 January, the Renaissance of the East Anglia Fisheries is stepping up its plans to revitalise the East Anglian fishing industry. Investment in port and processing infrastructure is vital, and I would be grateful if the Minister could outline the role of fishing in the national infrastructure strategy, what funds will be available and when they will be announced (909255)

For now, the residual bit of the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund continues to be something that fishing communities can access, but we will be replacing the EMFF with a domestic fund, and we will say more on this in due course. I am aware of the REAF project in my hon. Friend’s constituency. There are great opportunities for fishing communities along the east coast to benefit from our departure from the EU.

Air pollution is estimated to lead to 40,000 early deaths per year, and here in London, in normal circumstances, some 2 million people are living with illegal levels of air pollution. So will the Secretary of State please commit today to accepting the Environment Bill amendment that would require him to produce an annual report on air quality that includes the work of public authorities and Government Departments in tackling air pollution? (909256)

Under the Environment Bill, we will have a 25-year environment improvement plan that addresses issues such as air quality. There will also be targets set for air quality under the Bill.

First, I very much associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks regarding the tragic loss of the Joanna C.The brilliant fishermen who come out of St Mawes and Falmouth and along the whole Fal estuary—indeed, around the entire Cornish coast—are delighted that the Fisheries Bill finally got it Royal Assent this week. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this landmark Act will better the lives of these fishermen, as well as ensuring that our sea are sustainably managed to allow future generations of fishing families to prosper? (909257)

My hon. Friend and neighbour in Cornwall makes a very good point. As a fellow Cornish MP, of course I want to see the interests of the Cornish fishing industry prosper in the future. In many cases, we have had a profoundly unfair share of stocks in the Celtic sea, and that will now change.

After the 2007 floods in Hull, I campaigned for many years to get the Flood Re scheme introduced. However, there are problems with the Flood Re scheme, and I wonder whether the Government need to consider again their message about encouraging house building through schemes such as Help to Buy on areas that are prone to flooding at the same time as saying that house building should not take place in those areas. (909258)

We are in discussions on this matter with ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The hon. Lady will be aware that a planning Bill is coming forward, and one of the things we have already said we would like to do is strengthen the role of the Environment Agency as a statutory consultee on future planning developments.

Many of my constituents farm some of the most visited countryside in the UK. Much of Derbyshire Dales lies in the Peak District national park. Those farmers understand that future Government support will be based on public money for public good. They view producing high-quality food such as milk for Stilton, beef and high-quality lamb as a public good. This goes hand in hand with delivering access to clean air and water, biodiversity, and soils that store carbon. It is a case, is it not, of how food production sits alongside the environment—a case not of either/or, but of both? Can I please have reassurance— (909261)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our future policy will be about incentivising, encouraging and supporting sustainable agriculture so that we have sustainable food production but also environment improvement.

The Chancellor did not pledge a single extra penny yesterday towards a green economic recovery, while wasting tens of billions on polluting new roads. Will the Secretary of State explain how that fits with the Government’s so-called green industrial revolution and net zero strategy? (909259)

Last week the Prime Minister announced a new round for the green recovery challenge fund—an additional £40 million—and the Chancellor yesterday confirmed the spending that we intend to put through the nature for climate fund as well.

This Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to maintain agricultural funding across all four nations. Despite the disingenuous political games being played by the Welsh Government and the farming unions in Wales, can my right hon. Friend confirm that yesterday’s statement from the Chancellor delivers on that commitment and safeguards funding levels for all our farmers in Wales? (909262)

Like the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), primary schoolchildren across my constituency have also raised the issue of plastic, so why is the Government’s plan to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 years behind schedule, and why does it have such weak proposals? Is the Minister kicking Britain’s plastic waste crisis into the long grass? (909260)

I do not accept the point that the hon. Lady makes. We have recently banned plastic stirrers, plastic straws and plastic cotton buds. We are considering other bans on single-use items, and the Environment Bill brings forward extended producer responsibility.