The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government share my hon. Friend’s ambition to improve safety and access for horse riders. Our 25-year environment plan and landscapes review explain how we will help to connect people with nature. Our new environmental land management schemes will include payments to ensure that those goods are delivered.
The Minister will be aware that as more and more building takes place in villages, more traffic is put on the road, which presents a danger to horse riders. Just last year alone, 46 horses were killed and 130 riders were injured. One way in which more access could be provided is by allowing horse riders to use footpaths, for example, and there are many other ideas. Will she work with me and others who are concerned about this issue to try to improve access to bridleways for horse riders?
I would be delighted to do that. I have first-hand experience of negotiating bridleways over motorway bridges and level crossings with two small daughters on their ponies, and I very much appreciate that one of the benefits of improving the bridleway network will be increased safety. The schemes we are introducing will incentivise farmers to enhance public access across the piece.
Scottish Fishing Businesses
Under the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement, the UK has secured tariff-free access for fisheries products and a substantial transfer of quota from the European Union, benefiting fishing communities across the UK, including Scotland. The transfer is equivalent to 25% of the value of the EU’s historic catch in UK waters, worth £146 million delivered over five years. All fisheries Administrations will have regulatory control, giving Scotland powers over the largest part of the UK’s exclusive economic zone.
At the beginning of the year, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and told Members that difficulties with the UK-EU fishing trade were just “teething problems”, but two months on those problems are still ongoing, and the Government’s compensation fund is clearly insufficient. On Tuesday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was told that in the medium term, we will see a lot more of the smaller companies stopping trade in Europe, and it may ultimately be their demise. That is terrible news for the East Neuk in North East Fife and their fishing fleet. Does the Secretary of State still agree with the words that he wrote in 2016, when he said:
“From the point of view of the fishing industry, the case for leaving the EU is overwhelming”?
Yes, I do still believe that, and we have a 25% uplift in quota as a result of the trade and co-operation agreement and regulatory freedom that we did not have before. It is worth noting that we are now seeing lorry loads of fish clearing border control posts in France typically in under an hour—sometimes a little longer, but it is an improving situation. Volumes of trade are back up to around 85% of normal volumes.
The Prime Minister said a week ago that he thought the fishing industry could be saved if we only ate more British fish. Two months ago, the Leader of the House said that the fish are “happier” because of Brexit. In January, the DEFRA Secretary said the collapse of exports was a “teething problem”. Can the flippancy end now, and can we get some serious answers for the industry? Some Scottish businesses still face three-day waits to get their fresh fish to EU markets. Does the Government not accept that they have got it wrong and that the taskforces and other sticking plasters are not enough? Will they get back to the negotiating table with the EU, eat some humble pie and accept whatever regulatory alignment and other measures are necessary to save the industry?
As I said, volumes of fish exports are currently running at about 85% of normal volumes. Given coronavirus and the lockdown in the EU, we think that is probably about the right level, given the stress to the markets in the European Union. It is an improving situation. Well over half of all consignments now clear border control posts within an hour, and typically in 45 minutes. Over 90% are clearing them within three hours, so we do not recognise the figure that the hon. Lady gives of three days.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker—Mr Speaker! Goodness gracious me, I am so sorry. Gosh! Apologies.
Biodiversity definitely matters, and it is critical that we act now internationally and at home in this crucial year for nature and biodiversity. In England, our Environment Bill sets out a strong legal foundation for improving the environment, and we have introduced substantial new funding for nature, including the nature for climate and green recovery challenge funds. We have protected 40% of English waters across 178 marine protected areas, and we have committed to protecting 30% of our land by 2030.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has given me the chance to say that we on the Front Bench—every single one of the Ministers and the Secretary of State—are absolutely committed to nature-friendly farming, and there will be schemes through the new environmental land management system that will reward it. The sustainable farming incentive will support approaches to farm husbandry that will help the environment. That might include propagating integrated pest management and actions to improve soil health and water quality. Local nature recovery will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and deliver local environmental priorities, with farmers potentially collaborating. Finally, landscape recovery will support much wider landscape-scale and ecosystem recovery through long-term change of land use and projects. Internationally, that work continues with our Darwin initiative and many more things, and we will bring all those into COP26.
Office for Environmental Protection
Now that we have left the European Union, we have the opportunity to do things better. We will innovate and improve our environmental and agricultural standards, enabling us to identify where we can deliver better environmental outcomes more effectively and in ways that better align with our regulatory systems.
Lockdown has highlighted the importance of our environment, with the positive effects of good air quality, access to green spaces and connecting with nature for our health and wellbeing. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on the remit of the new independent regulator and on what the interim Office for Environmental Protection will be able to do to maintain those important protections, as we seek to enhance and protect our natural environment?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The interim OEP will be able to produce an independent assessment of the Government’s progress towards their 25-year environment plan and receive complaints about failures of public authorities to comply with environmental law. It will take decisions on operational matters such as recruitment, accommodation and facilities; develop the OEP strategy, including its enforcement policy; and determine approaches to how the OEP will form and operate.
May I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mary Robinson)? I am a fellow Greater Manchester MP, and my constituents in Heywood and Middleton also put a very high premium on our natural environment, especially as we are in a city region. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to implement the measures in the Environment Bill ahead of Royal Assent?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although the timetable for the Environment Bill has slipped by a few months, we are working at pace to implement the policies and measures behind it. We have announced Dame Glenys Stacey as the chair of the OEP and Worcester as its HQ, and it will launch on an interim basis in July. We are also progressing work on developing targets. We have already published a policy paper and set up working groups, and we are developing proposals for a consultation. We will launch further consultations on a raft of measures to be brought forward under the Environment Bill, including relating to packaging and waste collection reforms.
Now that we are no longer a member of the European Union, it is vital that all steps are taken to ensure that the UK has the strongest possible protections for our environment. That is why so many of us are confused that the Tories weakened their own Environment Bill in Committee by voting down cross-party amendments that would have strengthened the OEP and made the Bill fit for purpose. Can the Secretary of State finally confirm that, when the Environment Bill eventually comes back to the House, he will support all steps to make the OEP—which was promised to Bristol and the south-west but is now headed for Worcester—fit for purpose and fit for the 21st century?
I believe it is fit for purpose. We have set up an independent Office for Environmental Protection that has powers to investigate. It will have powers to bring a judicial review, and powers to investigate and follow up on any complaints that the law has been broken. Crucially, as well, it has been given some work to develop those targets, and also to comment on progress towards both the targets and our environmental plan.
Flood Re: Consultation
We published a consultation on amendments to the Flood Re scheme on 1 February 2021 on DEFRA’s consultation hub. We drew public attention to this through a press notice to the media, which received positive coverage. In addition, the consultation has been communicated to a range of stakeholders, including members of the property flood resilience roundtable. The consultation will close on 26 April 2021, and I would encourage all interested parties to engage in it.
We have just passed the one-year anniversary of the devastating flooding that hit my community of Pontypridd in February 2020. Sadly, far too many people are still unable to get affordable home insurance, and it is clear that there are serious problems with the Flood Re scheme in its current form. Will the Minister, as part of this consultation, please agree to meet me and some of the residents affected in my community to hear at first hand about the problems with Flood Re?
I thank the hon. Lady for that, and of course, as ever, I have huge sympathy with anyone who has suffered flooding; it is not a nice experience. But Flood Re is doing everything it can to ensure that people can get flood insurance. It was introduced in 2016, and since then 96% of those with prior flood claims were able to get five or more insurance quotes. So this is really moving, but we are doing the consultation because if tweaks need to be made, we will make them. We very much look forward to hearing views. Do input to the consultation—
Too many people in flood risk areas cannot afford and do not have adequate insurance. Flood Re strongly supports flood cover being a standard part of household insurance, as recommended by the Blanc review. Can the Minister confirm what steps her Department is taking to ensure that this recommendation is implemented, and by when?
I thank the hon. Member for that. It is very important that those who might be susceptible to flooding can get hold of the right insurance. We are doing a great deal of work on this. She refers to the independent review of flood insurance. It was actually a special review taken around the Doncaster area to look at the lessons learned there. It has reported with its recommendations, and the Government are looking at that with a view to taking on board suggestions that may be helpful in this space.
Import Checks: Live Animals and Products
We are already conducting some checks on live animals, with full documentary checks and physical checks being conducted at the premises of destination. We plan to introduce some documentary checks on products of animal origin next month and then begin some physical checks from July onwards, and also to introduce similar checks on plant products later this year. Recruitment of staff by the port health authorities is at an advanced stage.
On Tuesday, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard from a series of our fish and meat exporters to the EU who are struggling with the paperwork system imposed by the EU and its border officials. One exporter in Brixham needed over 70 pages of paperwork for one consignment of fish. When we start making checks this summer, we could insist on 140 pages of paperwork for EU imports, if we wanted to. However, could we, in our mutual interest, negotiate with the EU a digital system to make it easier for our businesses both to export and to import?
Unlike the European Union, we have taken a pragmatic approach to phasing in border controls, so that we can protect business supply chains and UK consumers, but when we do start to introduce those export health certificates, they will be certificates that are of a similar form to those of the European Union, since they are derived from retained EU law. I understand the point my hon. Friend is making, but we should also remain conscious that the primary focus of these checks is to protect food standards and animal health. Over time, the European Union may diverge from British law or may suffer variable enforcement between member states, and the UK needs the ability to protect British consumers and to operate food safety surveillance of other EU member states.
In July 2020 we published a long-term statement setting out our
“ambition to create a nation more resilient to future flood and coastal erosion risk”,
and it contained five key policies and over 40 actions to better protect and prepare the country. We are investing £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years; this is a serious commitment and it will better protect 336,000 properties.
I thank the Minister for her response and also for meeting me and the Environment Agency in January to discuss various issues surrounding flooding in Bassetlaw. Can the Minister update us on the progress of the proposed £6.5 million scheme in West Stockwith with local stakeholders?
I was very pleased to meet my hon. Friend and the EA to discuss this issue. He is a great campaigner for his local community. The West Stockwith pumping station evacuates flood water into the Trent at times of flood; elements of the station are at the end of their design life, and the Environment Agency is working with its partners to consider competing water demands in the area to develop an outline business case to replace these. There is a £5.5 million grant-in-aid indicative allocation in the capital programme for 2020-21 to 2023-24 for this work, and, crucially, the work will protect around 68 homes.
Illegal Puppy Trade
Puppy smuggling is abhorrent. We operate a rigorous pet-checking regime and work collaboratively to share intelligence, disrupt illegal imports and seize non-compliant animals. Officials liaise closely with devolved Administration colleagues, and they meet fortnightly to discuss developments, although of course often they speak in between these formal meetings as well.
I thank the Minister for that response. Puppy smuggling is a trade carried out outside current regulations and it causes considerable distress and suffering. Does the Minister agree with charities such as the Dogs Trust that we need tougher penalties right across the UK for those caught smuggling puppies, in order to ensure that there is a real deterrent in place to tackle this horrific trade?
DEFRA is considering a range of possible measures, which may result in legislative change. We are listening to a group of stakeholders, including the Dogs Trust, and the recommendations that they and the EFRA Committee made relatively recently will inform our policy making in this important area.
This month will see the completion of the Government’s six-year £2.6 billion investment programme to deliver over 1,000 flood schemes, better protecting 300,000 homes from flooding. Starting in April, the Government will invest £5.2 billion in a six-year investment programme to deliver 2,000 flood schemes, protecting 336,000 properties from flooding. Alongside this programme, a further £170 million will be invested to accelerate work on 22 shovel-ready projects for defence schemes, and construction on these will begin from March 2022.
I thank the Minister for that response and also for meeting me and the Environment Agency yesterday. As she knows, Bewdley in my constituency has suffered from two once-in-100-year floods in the last 18 months alone. While the western bank of the River Severn is protected by impressive demountable flood barriers, the eastern bank, known as Beales Corner, has been protected just by temporary barriers and by property-level resilience, and this year the temporary barriers collapsed catastrophically and the property-level resilience all but failed. The Minister is very familiar with Bewdley, having kindly visited last year during the flooding, and she knows that the Environment Agency is working up plans to provide a permanent solution to floods at Beales Corner, but can she promise me that she will work with me, the Environment Agency and the residents of Beales Corner to deliver on the pledge made by the Prime Minister when he visited Bewdley last year that we will finally “get Bewdley done”?
As my hon. Friend knows, I was very sorry to hear of the flooding of the 19 properties at Beales Corner on 22 January, when the temporary flood defences failed. He kept well in touch with me on that at the time, and we have since met, as he said, which I was pleased, and always am pleased, to do. I give him an assurance that the Environment Agency is working really hard with the local authority and partners—and indeed with him—to develop the business case for a permanent flood scheme at Beales Corner. He knows that I take a very close interest, from a ministerial perspective, in this and all areas relating to it, including just working out how it will be possible and the funding options. I urge him to keep up the good work that he is doing in Bewdley.
Agricultural Policy: Farmers
Since 2018, we have been working with farmers to build up ideas and gain their insights. So far, more than 3,000 farmers have helped us to develop aspects of our new approach through 72 tests and trials. Our co-design approach includes the sustainable farming incentive pilot, which will open for expressions of interest shortly. We will also be working with farmers on various consultations and on policies, in particular to address the causes of poor profitability.
Last year, I visited a dairy farm near Penistone in my constituency that is using new technologies to increase efficiency and improve yields. That is a great example of innovation in farming that can lead to a bright future for the dairy industry. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how his Department is supporting farmers to remove barriers to adopting new technologies that they need so that they can become more competitive?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Dairy businesses such as the one she refers to in her constituency are embracing technology and innovation, and we want to support them to go further. Over the last three years, we have provided around £75 million to farmers to help them purchase new and innovative technology. From autumn this year, the new farming investment fund will help farmers, including those in the dairy sector, to build on the progress already made by offering them grants. We will also be launching a new approach, with research and development syndicates to support individual farm businesses with research and development of technology.
Untreated Sewage: Discharge
Water companies are committed over the next five years to a £1.1 billion programme to improve the monitoring and management of sewage discharges. However, I have made it clear to water companies that more action is needed. That is why we have established the storm overflows taskforce, which has agreed to set a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows and is working on plans to start progress towards that goal.
The River Lea, which runs through my constituency, is well used for water sports by many clubs and schools, and it is much loved. Sadly, it is also one of the most polluted waterways in the UK; in 2019 alone, Thames Water spent over 1,100 hours discharging raw sewage into the River Lea. When will the Government finally hold water companies to account to protect our waterways properly?
The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue, and indeed the Department is taking it very seriously. In fairness, as I said, water companies already spend £1.1 billion to improve their monitoring and discharging, but we have set up the taskforce to hold their feet to the fire to come up with some measures for how we can set this long-term goal of getting rid of these sewage outlets once and for all. They will be doing more real-time data checking, so we will have the relevant data that we need soon, and they will be installing more monitoring devices, but the taskforce will report back in the spring on further actions that we may be able to work on.
Fish Products: Standards
I regularly have discussions with Cabinet colleagues on this issue, in particular through the Cabinet Sub-Committee dealing with EU exit. Import controls on fish products are being introduced in stages. Imports of most fish products have required illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing documentation since January. That includes a catch certificate. We plan to introduce documentary checks for export health on imported fish from April and some physical checks from July.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the efforts he is making to iron out the wrinkles in the export of fish products from the UK. However, if these problems persist, why do we not serve notice on our friends in the EU that with immediate effect we intend to treat the import of fish products from EU countries in precisely the same way that our fish exports to EU countries, especially France, are currently being treated—regulatory equivalence? Would that not help to bring people to the table to resolve the current disruption being suffered by our fishing industry?
As I said to the Chair of the Select Committee earlier, when we start to introduce those checks they will indeed be equivalent and similar to the types of checks that the European Union is currently requiring on our own fish exports. At that point, I hope there will be an opportunity for some discussion about how we can each ensure that we have the right safeguards for our respective markets in a way that is more user-friendly and more pragmatic. There are countries in the world that have better and more developed systems for doing this documentation than the European Union.
When it comes to pesticides policy, the Government apply the precautionary principle. Emergency authorisations are an integral part of the precautionary principle, because they allow restrictions on a precautionary basis for certain products while allowing their use where there is a risk that cannot be controlled by any other means. At the beginning of the year, applying that principle, the Government granted an emergency authorisation for the use of thiamethoxam on sugar beet. Sugar beet is a non-flowering crop and we applied a strict condition, which is that the pest pressure should be assessed over the winter months and that the product should only be used if it were deemed necessary and the pest pressure passed a certain threshold. I can tell the House that earlier this week that analysis was published. The threshold was not met due to some of the cold weather we have had. Therefore, the terms of the emergency authorisation are not met and the neonicotinoid in question will not be used this year.
The fishing and fish processing industry continues to be affected by the closure of hospitality nationwide and the impact of border friction arising from Brexit, which has also weakened sales in key Asian markets such as Korea. Will the Secretary of State volunteer his Fisheries Ministers to meet further with me and affected employees? Can he also confirm that the replacement for the European fisheries fund will also benefit the fish processing sector, as well as the fishermen themselves?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. My ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), was nodding to give her assent to a meeting. Indeed, I would also be more than happy to meet fish processors in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can confirm that the new £100 million fund to develop the fishing industry and infrastructure will be open to fish processors. In addition, those fish processors who have had issues during January, due to the new administrative processes, in exporting to the European Union, are eligible for the fisheries disruption fund and many have already applied.
Fishing boats are tied up and fish exporters are tied up with red tape. Fishing was promised a sea of opportunity, but the reality is that many fishing businesses are on the verge of collapse. Much of the so-called extra fish may not even exist or be able to be caught by British boats. The fishing industry feels betrayed. Is it not now time for the Secretary of State to apologise to the fishing industry for the Brexit deal that his Government negotiated?
I have made it clear all along that the Government had hoped to get closer to a zonal attachment sharing arrangement in that first multi-annual agreement, but the EU has been required to forfeit 25% of the fish that it has historically caught in our waters—a significant uplift—as the price for continued access. That additional fishing quota is worth £140 million.
The pollock quota has gone down in the south-west. There is no apology and no sense of reality from the Secretary of State. He cannot wriggle out on this one—the net is closing in on him. The reality is that fishing has lost trust and confidence in the actions of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. For all the broken promises, fishing businesses have closed and others will follow. Why will the Secretary of State not apologise? What will he do to fix the mess that this incompetent Government have created for fishing communities nationwide?
As I said, we have seen, through the trade and co-operation agreement, a significant increase in quotas—25%, worth some £146 million. As we have left the single market and the customs union, there are some new administrative processes in place. That was challenging for the fishing sector during January, which is why we opened a fund to support it. Looking to the long term, however, we have regained control of regulations in our waters, which enables us to do conservation measures on places such as the Dogger Bank that were never possible as an EU country. It has also enabled us to ban pulse trawling in our waters. These are all things that could not be done while we were shackled to the common fisheries policy.
My right hon. Friend is right that the EU has chosen to introduce new import controls on GB livestock, including that they must enter through a border control post. Border control posts will be designed to take account of animal welfare need. The border control post at Calais for equines is one such post. We are working very hard with the European Commission to ensure that any disruption to traffic, especially across the short straits, does not lead to welfare issues. I would be grateful if she could get in touch with me directly with any specific examples and I will take them up.
I do not accept that. Obviously, the Chancellor has made an announcement in relation to extending the universal credit uplift to help the financially vulnerable through the current situation. We also announced new rounds of funding late last year to support charities such as FareShare in food redistribution and to support other food charities to help those in need.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. All rural areas need good digital connectivity, including his constituency. The Government have delivered superfast broadband to more than 5 million premises, with 96% of UK premises now able to access superfast speeds. We are investing an unprecedented £5 billion to support deployment of gigabit broadband in the hardest-to-reach areas of the country.
I or one of my ministerial colleagues would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and others to discuss this. I completely agree with him that deep peat in particular can be an important store of carbon. That is why we have recently announced new restrictions on burning on blanket bog. Restoration of the hydrology of some of those deep peats is a fundamental part of our approach to tackling climate change.
My hon. Friend and I have discussed the current completely unacceptable situation many times, particularly in respect of Offshore Shellfish in Brixham. There is no justification for the European Commission to ban our molluscs from class B waters, and we are seeking an urgent resolution of this dispute. We are willing to provide additional reassurances, but we ask the Commission to recognise the existing high standards and long history of trade between us. I am happy to meet the business as my hon. Friend suggests.
I clearly do not share the hon. Gentleman’s caricature of the situation. This Government are the first in the world to make it clear that 30% of our international climate finance will go on nature-based solutions. In answer to his question, what we hope to get out of COP26 are ambitious targets around the world to continue to tackle carbon emissions, but also, crucially, a big recognition of the role of nature in tackling climate change.