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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 692: debated on Thursday 22 April 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food and Drink Exports to the EU

What recent assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of UK exports of food and drink to the EU. (914620)

The combination of falling demand in the EU due to coronavirus restrictions and the introduction of new procedures at the end of the transition period meant that exports fell significantly in the first month of January. Exports of food and drink recovered in February, increasing by 77% on the previous month. While official statistics for March are not yet available, we know that the number of applications for export health certificates has continued to grow.

Since the Government’s precious Brexit, fish exports to the EU have collapsed and the Government said it was teething problems; cheese exports collapsed and the Government blamed exporters for poor paperwork; seafood exports collapsed and the Government said they might reclassify waters to make them cleaner. But nothing substantive has happened on any of it. What will it take to get action from Ministers, or do we have to wait for a text from a crony?

We have indeed taken action right from the moment that there were teething problems in that first week of January as import agents, exporters and border control officials struggled to get used to the paperwork. As I pointed out, it is an improving situation. The hon. Member asked about trends. The trend is a rising one, increasing by 77% in February, and with export health certificates continuing to grow.

Scottish exports make up a quarter of the UK’s food and drink exports. Those exports have been hammered by Brexit, losing out on hundreds of millions of pounds in sales in January and February alone, with some products seeing their market all but collapse, and virtually nothing is being done about it. A new Brexit cliff has arrived before we finished plummeting off the last one: composite food products now need export health certificates. The chaos of the last set of regs is still haunting our exports, and this new chaos will further dent them. Vets say they will not have the capacity to deal with this. What plans do the Government have to address that clear danger?

The European Union has changed some of its export health certificates, particularly for composite goods, from 21 April. We have been working very closely with industry and all those affected over the last few months. We knew that this was going to happen. We have worked with it on getting those replacement health certificates and, in some cases, the need for a private attestation. Yes, it is complicated. It is a change in law that the EU has made and always intended to make, but we worked very closely with industry and all those affected to make sure that they were ready.

Dog Thefts

I recently met the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor in March to discuss the important issue of pet theft. As a result of that meeting, officials from across the three Departments have been tasked with developing solutions that tackle this issue effectively. The work of the pet theft taskforce has already begun, with officials drawing together available data and evidence.

The Secretary of State, I am sure, has a comprehensive understanding of this issue, which causes undue distress to people and affects dogs, cats and all manner of other pets. This week, for example, Cats Protection told me that cat theft is up threefold since 2015. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will back my amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which deal with pet theft and introduce tough sentences for those whose actions devastate so many families?

We are aware that there are some reports of a significant increase in the incidence of pet theft. A number of organisations say that reports of it are doubling, and the official figures show a sharp increase, albeit from a relatively low base. We are looking at the issue, and that is why we established the pet theft taskforce. There is already the possibility of a maximum sentence of seven years for aggravated offences, particularly where there is emotional distress, which clearly there is in the case of pets. We are reviewing this particular area of law.

I am sure the Secretary of State recognises that for those committing the theft it may be a financial issue, but for those who have their pets stolen this is really a loss of a valued member of their family. I give credit to The Star newspaper in Sheffield, which has highlighted a growing number of these incidents, and the heartbreak and anguish it causes people to lose their valued pet. Will the Secretary of State accept that this is a different sort of crime to the normal theft of a possession, and that, as such, it needs a different, specific offence with specific and tougher penalties enacted for those who commit it?

It is a different type of offence in that there is emotional stress on the owner of the pet, but there can also be stress and effects on the welfare of the animal. That is why, in the current sentencing guidelines, the courts can take account of an aggravated offence with emotional distress, and the maximum penalty could be as high as seven years. We have asked the pet theft taskforce to look at this issue more closely and assemble the evidence to consider whether anything further is required.

Pet theft is on the rise, partly because of the demand for pets through lockdown. When gangs steal a pet, they cause harm not only to the pet, but to the families who miss it. We still do not have the five-year sentencing for animal cruelty, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) has been trying his best to get through. In the next Parliament, can we not only have that five-year sentencing for cruelty but link in dog theft to the legislation?

The legislation on increasing the maximum penalty for animal cruelty is nearing its completion. I have a high degree of confidence that we will be able to get it through before the end of the Session. Indeed, we will say more about that over the next day or so.

Coronavirus Zoo Animals Fund

The zoo animals fund has supported a wide variety of zoos throughout the pandemic—56 to date—and it continues to do so. It has helped to ensure the continued welfare of zoo animals and to prevent unnecessary euthanasia. We are really pleased that zoos of all sizes and types have been able to secure funding.

The problem is that the £100 million announcement was more froth than substance, with only £5 million or £6 million of it being spent and not returned to the Treasury. Will Ministers now agree to extend the zoos fund to the important conservation, educational and scientific work that is the bedrock of so much of what our zoos contribute to the global situation?

I do not accept that. This is a real fund, which is being used on the ground to help zoos get through the pandemic. I am very pleased, as I know the hon. Gentleman is, that Chester zoo is now open and that baby Albert the giraffe is open to view. We have extended the fund, for example, to include repairs and maintenance. We continue to work on the fund, but I politely suggest that other Government and UK funds are available to help with the important conservation work done by zoos, such as the Darwin initiative and the green recovery challenge fund. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with Chester zoo to look at whether those would be suitable.

Neonicotinoid Alternatives

What steps he is taking to encourage the use of alternatives to neonicotinoids which do not harm pollinators. (914623)

The Government are committed to supporting alternatives to chemical pesticides. We are currently analysing the responses to our consultation on the national action plan. The proposed plan supports the development of low toxicity methods and improved advice and support for users.

One hundred and fifty-seven of my Bath constituents have written to me since January to raise this issue. We must remember that we are in not only a climate emergency, but a nature emergency. Given that the Government made an explicit pledge to keep pesticide restrictions in place after Brexit, will the Minister commit to giving the Office for Environmental Protection the powers and resources to hold public authorities to account on environmental standards?

I know that the hon. Lady shares my desire that the world will be in a much better place for our children, and may I congratulate her on the birth of her recent grandchild? The Government are therefore completely committed to reducing chemical pesticide use. Protecting pollinators, for example, is a real priority for the Government. They are an essential part of the environment and play a crucial role in food production. As I said, we are analysing the many responses—probably some of them from her constituents—to our recent consultation and we will set out our proposals in due course.

There was widespread relief this year that the colder weather meant that the risk of aphids spreading virus yellows was reduced. Before that, the Secretary of State had authorised a neonicotinoid pesticide to be used, and he has indicated that that will be the same again for the next two years. What is worrying is that the expert advice has been hidden from us—it took freedom of information requests from Friends of the Earth to get it. The Health and Safety Executive recommended refusal, so will the Minister explain why the advice was overruled? At a time when the UK is being looked to for global leadership on the environment, hiding that expert advice is not a good look. Who was pressing the Government to overrule that advice and will they do better in future?

The Government are committed to the neonicotinoid restrictions that we put in place in 2018, and to the sustainable use of pesticides. I believe that the hon. Gentleman was a signatory to the letter that we answered in January this year. As we set out in our letter, when making decisions on pesticides we took advice from the HSE, from the expert committee on pesticides and from DEFRA’s own chief scientific adviser. The specific exemption that the hon. Gentleman has referred to was for a non-flowering crop that is grown only in the east of England, to protect against possible aphid predation, which we were very concerned about at the time. I share his relief that it was not necessary to use neonics on that occasion, and I would ask him to welcome the fact that the authorisation was strictly controlled. We put in place a reduced application rate and a prohibition on growing flowering crops afterwards. I am pleased that it was not necessary to use it on that occasion.

Protection against Flooding

The Government are investing a record £5.2 billion to better protect 336,000 properties from flooding and coastal erosion over the next six years. Alongside that, we recently announced that 25 areas will receive a share of a further £150 million for particularly innovative projects dealing with flood resilience and pioneering many things that we think we will learn lessons from. Our long-term policy statement outlines our ambition to create a nation more resilient to flooding and coastal erosion and we are taking a whole range of actions to forward that.

I pay tribute to this Government for the significant flood mitigation investment that has been delivered. What discussions has my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary had with our right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary about not building new homes on flood-risk areas, such as the proposed west of Ifield development?

As my hon. Friend will know, national planning policy provides clear safeguards for protecting people and property from flooding, and the national planning policy framework is very clear that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided by directing development away from areas at the highest risk. Where development is necessary in such areas, that development should be made safe for its lifetime without increasing flood risk elsewhere, and should be appropriately flood-resilient.

Residents of Norton Green and their local ward councillors, Dave Evans, James Smith and Carl Edwards, have regularly raised the issue of flooding. The River Trent and the canal feeder to the Caldon canal both run through Norton Green, yet the river is hardly ever dredged. The river is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, and the canal feeder is the responsibility of Severn Trent Water. If those two agencies co-ordinated their work, they could help to alleviate the problem, so will my hon. Friend work with me to ensure that the Environment Agency and Severn Trent Water undertake regular dredging to help to improve the lives of Norton Green residents?

My hon. Friend is a doughty spokesman for his constituency, and rightly so. I encourage all relevant risk-management authorities to work together on watercourse maintenance, for the benefit of Norton Green’s residents in this case. Of course, responsibilities lie with a range of bodies, including the Environment Agency, which is responsible for the main rivers; lead local flood authorities or internal drainage boards, which are responsible for ordinary watercourses; and riparian landowners whose land adjoins a watercourse. My hon. Friend could usefully get all those heads together so that people can work constructively, as they are in many parts of the country, to deal with our flooding issues and keep our communities safe.

This year the Burnhams, the Creakes and other villages in North West Norfolk suffered flooding that resulted in sewage coming up through manhole covers due to water infiltrating the sewer system. Things got so bad that foul water had to be pumped into one of our precious chalk streams, so will the Minister ensure that the Environment Agency holds Anglian Water to account so that it puts in place plans and investment to ensure that that does not happen again?

That is a scenario that nobody wants to see repeated. I hope my hon. Friend knows that I am championing his cause, as are the Government. Tackling the harm caused by sewer overflows into rivers, particularly chalk streams, is a top priority for the Government. That is why we established a storm overflows taskforce, made up of the Government, the water industry, regulators and environmental groups, which has set a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. The group is considering the problems caused by infiltration, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and last month we announced plans to introduce legislation to address these things. We are moving on this.

Plastic Waste

We are committed to tackling plastic pollution. We have introduced a ban, with a few very specific exemptions, on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, and reduced single-use plastic carrier bag usage by 95% in the main supermarkets through the 5p charge. This is a great day, and I am pleased my hon. Friend has chosen to raise this subject today, because we are debating increasing the charge to 10p and extending it to all retailers, and we are seeking powers in the Environment Bill to charge for single-use plastic items, making recycling more consistent.

Plastic waste is a huge problem in coastal communities such as mine, but does the Minister agree that it is not that plastic is the problem but that waste is the problem and we should do all we can to tackle waste? To that end, will she come to Redcar and Cleveland, when restrictions allow, to visit the new site for ReNew ELP at Wilton, which began construction last month and where revolutionary hydrothermal technology will be used to turn hard-to-recycle plastics back into their component oils, allowing them to be reused?

There is another doughty spokesman for his constituency. My hon. Friend has spoken to me about this matter before. It is vital that we tackle plastic waste by taking a holistic approach, which includes increasing reuse and recycling, in line with our ambition to transition to a more circular economy. More work is required to understand where chemical recycling represents the best outcome for waste and to assess any unintended consequences, but I welcome the invitation and the chance to visit the ReNew ELP site. He should contact my office, and, when time permits, I would be delighted to visit.

It is good to be here in the Chamber and see you face to face today, Mr Speaker.

The Joint Unit for Waste Crime is an important component of the fight against waste, fly-tipping and littering. The Peterstone Wentlooge area of Newport West is a good example of an area in dire need of action from this unit, as the “road to nowhere” there, as it is known, is blighted by fly-tipping, including of noxious substances and chemicals. Clean-up costs for more than 1 million fly-tips cost the taxpayer £58 million in 2017-18, the last time the Department published details of clean-up costs. This Government have pushed councils to the brink and removed the funding needed to tackle fly-tipping, so will the Minister tell the House when this Government will finally take the action needed to protect this green and pleasant land?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I am sorry to hear about that road to nowhere. I would hate my constituency to be described as the “road to nowhere”. I understand what she is getting at, but this Government are tackling litter. We have a whole policy on tackling litter and I have been meeting Keep Britain Tidy regularly to discuss what more we can do. We have had a lot of campaigns, including “Keep it, Bin it”, which has been extremely effective, and we will be working further on measures. We relaunched the countryside code and added to it during lockdown to cut down on the amount of litter that is dumped, and this has had a significant effect. Local authorities have all of their measures that they can put in place—they can take people to court and people can get hefty fines—but they need to take action with the measures at hand.

EU Flowering Bulb Imports

What steps he is taking to improve the domestic inspection process for flowering bulbs imported from the EU. (914628)

It is important that we maintain our biosecurity. Physical inspections of high-priority plants from the EU, including flowering bulbs, have taken place at their destination since 1 January. This is a temporary arrangement designed to prevent delays at the border, but it is working effectively and has been well received by the trade.

Sadly, the bulb organisation that I spoke to told me that a couple of people have left the trade because it is not worth their while. I know that a lot of progress has been made since January on facilitating the trade between the UK and the EU, but there is still a lot of friction in the import and export of flowering bulbs. For instance, the export of bulbs in the green, which have soil on them, is now prohibited except in very specific circumstances, and sometimes 1,000 boxes might need to be inspected, which is not easy. What plans does my hon. Friend have to discuss with her EU counterparts the prospect of simplifying the trade in flowering bulbs with the EU?

It is true that the plant-health requirements for dormant bulbs are different from those for bulbs in growth. My officials and I are willing to discuss directly with my hon. Friend’s constituents the specific issues that she raises. I reassure her that we continue to have discussions with our counterparts in EU about export processes.

Toxic Air Pollutants: Local Authorities

What discussions he has had with local authorities on preventing toxic air pollutants from affecting children’s health. (914629)

Ministers regularly engage with local authorities to discuss air quality and assess their air-quality plans. I recently met elected representatives from Greater Manchester, Bath and North East Somerset, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke, and we have made £225 million available to local authorities, via the active travel fund, to deliver safe cycling and walking routes, including school streets. As we review the air-quality strategy, we will include measures specifically to protect children from pollution.

The death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah was a family tragedy, but it was made a public scandal when the coroner decided some time ago that her death was caused by air pollution, which was shocking. Yesterday, the coroner decided in his most recent report that there is no safe level of air pollution and called on the Government to bring our air-quality standards up to the World Health Organisation recommended levels, which would mean a significant reduction in pollution. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government accept that recommendation? If not, we are literally putting the lives of our children at risk.

We are of course taking this issue extremely seriously, and all our sympathies go out to Ella’s family. In fact, the Secretary of State and I were pleased to meet Ella’s mother—for which we thank her—and we listened closely to what she said. The coroner’s report was published yesterday and we will respond in due course. The points made are being taken extremely seriously.

Through our landmark Environment Bill, we will introduce a duty to set a long-term air-quality target and an exposure target. To do that, we are meeting all the scientists and academics and all those who can inform us as to exactly the right level to set. We understand that air pollution is a killer and we need to take it very seriously. A £3.8 million air clean-up programme is under way and we are working hard to ensure that that money is targeted at the places where it is needed.

In the Committee on the missing-in-action and elusive Environment Bill, Labour tried to write the World Health Organisation air-quality guidelines into the Bill. Unsurprisingly, the Tories voted us down. Yesterday, in response to the devastating death of Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013, the coroner published a prevention of future deaths report that recommended that the Government should view the World Health Organisation guidelines for air pollution “as minimum requirements”, because all particulate matter is harmful. The coroner has given a clear recommendation and clearly stated that it would save lives, so when will the Minister commit to setting a PM2.5 target that is at least in line with the World Health Organisation guidelines?

The report highlights that there is no safe limit of PM2.5, which is why it is so important that we get it right. That is why we are taking so much advice on it. The WHO has acclaimed our clean air strategy as world leading and

“an example for the rest of the world to follow”.

It sets out the steps that we are starting to take to improve air quality. The Environment Bill will introduce a duty to set a long-term target on air quality and an exposure target, which nobody has done before. We will give the issue all the attention it deserves.

Neonicotinoids

DEFRA applies the precautionary principle in relation to pesticides. We therefore supported a ban in 2018 on the use of neonicotinoids to treat crops. Given what the current science tells us about these pesticides, they can be authorised for use only on an emergency basis if very specific circumstances are met and with the appropriate environmental safeguards.

Farmers in the east of England very much welcome the Secretary of State’s dispensation for the use of neonics in treating aphids. What I want from the Secretary of State is some reassurance for the farmers in the east of England that, until a suitable alternative to neonics that is evidence based is available, he will continue to use the dispensation so that we can properly support our farmers to grow crops and protect them from aphids.

As I said, these are emergency authorisations that we grant on an annual basis. In the case of this application for the current year, we added additional conditions to those that have been proposed by the applicant—in particular, adding another 10 months to the period before a flowering crop could be sown. Also, in this case, the threshold for pests was not met and was therefore not needed, but, of course, if there is an application in a future year, we will look at that again.

Topical Questions

Today is Earth Day, an initiative that has been running now every year since 1970 and promotes engagement, awareness and individual action for our environment. The Government continue their own engagement with countries around the world in the build-up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year. As part of that programme, next Monday, along with the World Bank, I will be hosting the first dialogue on sustainable agriculture, setting out how changes to agriculture policy can incentivise regenerative agriculture and enhance environmental assets in the farmed landscape.

Given that food waste accounts for 19% of the UK’s landfill and that even the proposed targets in the Environment Bill to separate household food waste collections are unlikely to eliminate food waste in landfill by 2030, is it not time that his Department considered a food waste to landfill ban in England for food waste businesses that produce more than 5 kg of food waste per week?

We are obviously looking at this very carefully through our waste resources strategy and through the provisions in the Environment Bill. We will require local authorities to collect food waste through our consistent collections policy; that is an area that we are consulting on at the moment. Obviously, once food waste is collected separately we can treat it separately, and that could involve anaerobic digesters and other ways of dealing with this waste other than landfill.

Pet theft, especially of pedigree dogs, is a major issue in my constituency. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice about introducing new measures to tackle this crime? (914580)

As I said earlier, I had meetings in March with both the Home Secretary and the Chancellor on this particular issue. We have set up a pet theft taskforce that is investigating it and, in particular, gathering the evidence to understand the scale of the

The year 2020 was the warmest year on record: more habitats were lost; more species were facing extinction; and more raw sewage was pumped into our nation’s rivers, seemingly without consequence for the water companies involved. On Earth Day, will the Secretary of State commit to take fast action against water companies that are pumping raw sewage into our rivers, killing fish, killing habitats and killing birds, and do so while committing to no further roll-back of environmental protections?

I have already acted in this area. The Department has established a taskforce to look at combined sewer overflows, which are one of the key sources of sewage pollution, and we are also putting a real focus on tackling sewage incidents in our future water strategy, which will inform Ofwat’s approach to the pricing reviews that it has with water companies.

According to research compiled by the Local Government Association, the manufacturers of food packaging in the UK contribute only about 10% of the cost of recycling their products. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as part of the efforts that we are undertaking to improve the recycling of waste food packaging, we need to see the manufacturers of that packaging contribute much more towards the costs of recycling their products, in line with the contribution they make in other countries, rather than leaving our council tax payers to foot most of the bill? (914583)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend on this matter. As he will be aware, the Environment Bill introduces the concept of extended producer responsibility, and we are consulting on that at the moment. In future, the manufacturers and the users of packaging for products will take responsibility for recycling it.

Waste incinerators emit toxins and pollutants that are harmful to human health and exacerbate climate change. I am pleased to say that local residents in my constituency of Cynon Valley have recently successfully campaigned against a waste incinerator through the Valleys For Tourism Not Trash campaign, and the Welsh Government have recently announced a moratorium on any future large-scale incinerators. Will the Minister commit to reconsidering the Government’s decision to exclude waste incinerators from their post-Brexit carbon emissions trading scheme and follow Wales’s lead by introducing a moratorium on future incinerators? (914581)

This is obviously a contentious area. However, energy from waste can be a way of extracting some use from it. It is often preferable to landfill and often has lower carbon implications because some energy can be generated from it. Nevertheless, there are some environmental concerns around this. That is why in England the Environment Agency has to authorise and license any such facility.

Charity shops are currently experiencing both a surge in donations and an increase in fly-tipping on their doorsteps. Many of the goods donated are of poor quality and simply cannot be sold on. This is causing significant extra waste disposal costs for charities, which have already seen their incomes diminish during the pandemic. What support can DEFRA offer through its new waste management plan to support the charitable community in this financial challenge? (914584)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Fly-tipping has become a scourge in recent years. It has become a growing problem, with organised gangs behind some of these waste crime incidents. We have already taken action to improve our surveillance and to improve the traceability of some of these products so that we can trace them back to the source that they came from and bring those responsible to justice.

A shocking report released by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has revealed that one in every five people working in the British food sector, which stretches from factories and distribution firms to cafés and supermarkets, live in households that have run out of food because of a lack of money. We live in arguably the sixth richest country on this planet and our workers are going hungry because of meagre wages. Does the Secretary of State agree that access to affordable and nutritious food is a basic human right, and will he commit to ensuring that the right to food is included in next month’s Queen’s Speech? (914582)

The Government monitor household spending on food very closely, and we agree that we want to raise earnings among the lowest paid. That is why it has been a long-standing policy of this Government to first introduce a national living wage and then increase it incrementally year on year, and we have done that to take the lowest paid out of poverty. As a result of that policy, household spending on food among the poorest households has actually fallen from about 16% to under 15%, which is the lowest on record.

I have been working with local councillors in Stoke Bardolph and Burton Joyce to work with residents and partner organisations to set up a flood action group that will help to take some preventive action and provide reassurance in part of the Gedling constituency that occasionally floods. Will my right hon. Friend join me commending those who are volunteering to join this group and tell me what steps the Government are taking to help to prevent flooding in Nottinghamshire? (914585)

I commend the work that my hon. Friend and those local volunteers are doing. We have our flood resilience forums around the country. The Environment Agency works with local government on them and on putting them in place so that communities can improve their resilience. More broadly, we have an ambitious capital programme of more than £5 billion over the next five years to invest in flood defences and to protect communities such as his.

In an earlier exchange about air quality, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), seemed to suggest that because there was no safe level of air pollution in the way it affects in particular our children’s lungs, that is a reason for rejecting a move to make legal the World Health Organisation standards. That is patent nonsense of course, but can Ministers look particularly at the position around our schools? It is where our young children are very vulnerable. Traffic idling can make pollution levels intense, particularly in urban areas. Is it not time now to take proper action and not simply hear fine words? Action now, Minister, please. (914589)

I am not sure that is what my hon. Friend said earlier, but she was making the point that since there is no safe limit of particulate matter and PM2.5, what we should be doing is focusing on additional measures such as overall population exposure, and that is indeed something we are looking at through the target-setting process in the Environment Bill.