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Topical Questions

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

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.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests stating that I am a trustee of World Horse Welfare. We have heard from my right hon. Friend this morning that lorryloads of fish are clearing the border in less than an hour, but Olympian Richard Davison tells me that horses that are used for dressage are taking between four and 10 hours to clear the border at Calais because of the requirement for equine health certificates. Please will the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to make sure that there is not a looming animal welfare crisis as temperatures increase and grand prix horses are left standing in lorries for hours on end? [R] (912896)

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.

A recent report by the Disability Benefits Consortium said that many disabled people faced a choice between heating and eating during the pandemic and stated that unless legacy benefits were uplifted in line with universal credit, it would be “discriminatory”. Does the Secretary of State therefore feel that the Chancellor’s refusal to do this has discriminated against disabled people while undermining his job to tackle food poverty? (912895)

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.

Over the last year, we have all learned how vital it is to have access to high-speed broadband, whether that is for home schooling, home working, home shopping or keeping in touch with our friends and families. For residents in cities, an internet connection can be taken for granted, but for many residents in the rural or less well-connected villages in Rother Valley—such as Harthill where I live, Netherthorpe, or even Treeton and Wales—connection is temperamental, slow and in some places completely lacking. We have all adapted to new ways of living and working as a result of the pandemic, but what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that rural communities such as those in Rother Valley will not be left behind? (912897)

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.

Will the Minister make a very clear statement on the Government’s policy with respect to our peat bogs and recognise that they are an enormously powerful carbon sink as well as being important for water retention in flood prevention schemes? On that basis, will he agree to meet me and one or two colleagues virtually who, particularly in the south Pennines area, have a real interest in this issue? (912898)

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.

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are fully aware of the problems faced by mollusc exporters from grade B waters, but are they aware of the scale? If we are to introduce innovative solutions, such as creating our own depuration plants, we need to be aware that these are sizeable operations and that businesses such as Offshore Shellfish, based in Brixham, need all the support they can get. Will the Minister take that into account and also meet that business and other organisations in my patch? (912899)

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.

The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan has been condemned by environmentalists as a wish list, DEFRA has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee for failing to drive Government policy on the environment, and the Secretary of State’s Environment Bill has been delayed yet again. COP26 is approaching and the UK’s credibility on the environment is close to zero, so can I ask what input he has had into the COP26 ambitions, what the Government hope to get out of COP26 and what he would consider to be a success at the conference? (912900)

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.