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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 697: debated on Thursday 17 June 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Microchipping of Cats

What his timescale is for introducing compulsory microchipping of cats announced in the Animal Welfare Action Plan. (901400)

The Government have a manifesto commitment to introduce the compulsory microchipping of cats, which was recently reaffirmed in our action plan for animal welfare. We carried out a public consultation and are analysing 33,000 responses. We will publish a summary of them soon and the detail of our proposals later this year.

That is good news from the Minister, as Cats Protection indicates that a quarter of all domestic cats, 2.6 million of them, are not microchipped. What support will the Government provide to ensure that cats are microchipped as a priority?

I encourage the hon. Lady to feed in her views and those of her constituents to our consultation. We are working up detailed proposals now. I know how important this issue is—I have lost a pet to a road traffic accident—and it is important that we get this right, both legally and in support terms.

Shellfish Industry

The European Commission’s ban on the import of live bivalve molluscs from class B waters is wrong and unjustified. We have repeatedly told the European Commission that and we will continue to raise the issue. I am pleased to say that the Food Standards Agency has recently revised its shellfish waters classification process, ensuring that classifications are awarded in ways that are proportionate and pragmatic, and provide high levels of public health protection.

I thank the Minister for that incredibly helpful answer and for visiting my constituency yesterday to see the fishermen and shellfish industry of Brixham—it is deeply appreciated. She mentions the FSA’s report, so in the light of the Prime Minister’s answer yesterday, is there any chance that those recommendations can be brought forward ahead of September 2021?

I can confirm that my hon. Friend represents one of the most beautiful constituencies that I have visited, and it is full of positive and innovative people involved in the fishing industry. As he heard yesterday, the Prime Minister is doing everything he can to accelerate the process, as are we in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but it is important that the process arrived at by the FSA is both robust and fair.

The Government have got this one wrong and instead of blaming the European Union, they should see that the responsibility sits closer to home, with Ministers. Fishing businesses—shellfish businesses—will go bust if a solution is not found soon, and reclassifying waters is a partial fix at best. Being charitable to the Minister, if she thinks she has a case that the EU has acted unlawfully or incorrectly, why has she not begun legal proceedings against it?

I do not need the hon. Gentleman’s charity; I would like his support in representing our position to the European Commission. There is a process for doing this and we intend to follow it carefully. We have made it clear that we do not agree with its analysis of the situation; our shellfish from class B waters is fantastic to eat, and they have always done so. We will continue to use the proper processes, through the new Specialised Committee on Fisheries, and if necessary, we will continue to consider when and if legal action should become appropriate. However, I know, as a lawyer, that legal action is never a quick fix and there may be a better way to do this.

First, may I correct the Minister? She did not go to the most beautiful constituency in Devon when she visited Totnes, as she had come to Axminster, in my constituency, previously. The point about the shellfish is that the European Commission has acted very badly. I have sympathy with the Ministers and huge sympathy with the shellfish industry. The FSA can still move faster to reallocate waters from B to A. We also need all the agencies working together more quickly, and I would like to see some direct support to the shellfish industry, because we are putting shellfish businesses out of business, and no politician and no Government want to do that.

I had the most lovely lunch in my hon. Friend’s constituency the day before yesterday. It was unbelievably beautiful and the weather favoured us at River Cottage. It was just magnificent in every way and it was great to see him there. He also raises some important points about shellfish and rightly says that this is a very difficult issue. It is not one we wanted or would have chosen. We want to export class B molluscs still to the EU, and we think that that should be possible. However, we are looking in a granular way at how we can best support the industry. I am very involved in that work and have spoken to colleagues across Government, including repeatedly to those in the FSA and the Department of Health and Social Care. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are dealing with the issue in a proportionate and joined-up way.

Native Species and Wildlife

To support the recovery of native species in England, we have tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill to require a new, historic, legally binding target for species abundance by 2030, aiming to halt the decline of nature. This is in addition to the long-term, legally binding targets we are developing under the Bill. We expect to publish a consultation on the proposed targets in early 2022. We are looking at the action needed on the ground and will launch at least 10 landscape-recovery projects to restore wilder landscapes. In partnership with stakeholders, we will determine the specific actions that will be paid for by our new schemes to reward environmental land management. In addition, the £80 million green recovery challenge fund has kick-started a pipeline of nature-based projects, many of which relate to native species.

The Washlands in my constituency is a fantastic place to visit: an expansive piece of natural land that follows the river through the heart of Burton upon Trent. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking East Staffordshire Borough Council, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and other organisations for their efforts in transforming the Trent valley to create spaces that work for both people and wildlife?

There is hot competition this morning for the best constituency, and my hon. Friend’s area is an extremely interesting and diverse landscape. I of course thank all organisations that are working to transform the Trent valley, including East Staffordshire Borough Council and the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. Such partnerships and collaboration between partners and the community are absolutely key to the building of successful projects to restore and enhance natural and cultural heritage. I visited the Somerset levels yesterday, where similar partnership working is going so well, with so many partners. I am grateful to all the partners for their efforts towards goals for thriving plants and wildlife right across England.

First, I would be grateful if my hon. Friend confirmed that her Department will support the properly managed reintroduction of beavers, which can contribute so much to the environment.

Secondly, endangered species suffer because of loss of habitat more than anything else. If we rip out hedgerows and headlands and build over all our agricultural land, the habitat will be destroyed and wildlife will be destroyed, so will my hon. Friend join me in campaigning against the use of agricultural land for development?

I knew that my right hon. Friend was going to mention beavers, of which he is a great champion. As he knows, we are to consult on the reintroduction of beavers this summer. There are myriad benefits, but we must also look carefully at the management and mitigations that might be needed.

My right hon. Friend raises an important point about our precious agricultural land. I absolutely reassure him that we on the Government Benches are working hand in glove so that not only do all our new schemes deliver for nature but we can produce the sustainable food in this country that we want. This morning, I went to New Covent Garden market, where I saw a whole lot of our British produce. There were a lot of imports, but a lot of great British fruit and vegetables, and particularly flowers—it is British Flowers Week. Government Members are absolutely supportive of not only productive agriculture but recovering nature.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The Government have made some grand claims about the species-abundance targets that they will add to the Environment Bill to protect our native species and wildlife. The Secretary of State has said that the Government want

“not only to stem the tide”

of the loss of nature

“but to turn it around—to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”

However, last week the Government published their amendment; will the Minister explain why the proposed legislation commits only to

“further the objective of halting a decline in the abundance of species”

rather than reversing the decline?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. This is the first time that we have had questions in the Chamber together.

This is a tremendous commitment by the Government to halt the decline of nature by 2030. No other country has done anything like this, so we are totally committed to the target. All the framework that we are putting in place will build towards this nature recovery: our local nature recovery strategies; our national nature recovery strategies; our 30% of land and sea protected; our 10 new large-scale landscape recovery schemes; and the entire environmental land management system. I could go on and on. I do not think that I could reiterate more the Government’s commitment to that. We will be consulting on the exact detail of the target in 2022, along with all the other targets in the Environment Bill.

Food and Drink Manufacturing Sector: Competitiveness

What steps he is taking to help ensure the competitiveness of the food and drink manufacturing sector.

As the Minister knows, the food and drinks manufacturing sector is the largest in this country, employing more than 400,000 people directly. It is a major innovator and exporter. My concern is that the sector may get too much red tape and regulation. If we look at the obesity strategy, for example, there could be a lot of regulation with very little gain. Can she reassure me that there will be proper scrutiny of any legislation, and that the minimum burdens will be put on this sector, which is vital to our economy? (901403)

Thank you, Mr Speaker; we will manage.

Our manifesto was clear that we want people at home and abroad to be lining up to buy British. We are lucky to have, as my hon. Friend referenced, a fantastic network of manufacturing businesses, most of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, so we are very alive to the needs of those businesses and the difficulty of excessive regulatory burdens. I am quite sure that we will debate the new obesity strategy fully, both in this House and outside. Some of the legislation can be made using powers in the Food Safety Act 1990, and other parts in the health and care Bill. We meet regularly with the sector and are keen to engage with it on a practical level as to how regulation will affect its businesses.

Given that the Australian trade deal is predicted to save the average household an incredible £1.23 per year in the long term, while destroying agriculture and businesses and opening us up to similarly lowered standards and bad deals with the US, Argentina, Brazil and so on, perhaps the Government are counting on that extra disposable income making up for an uncompetitive sector. What protections are intended to be put in place to make sure that our farmers are not undercut by cheap imports?

One thing that I have just said in reference to this question is that we are very keen to promote the buying of British produce. We have a plan to promote domestic products, and we are further strengthening export support. On the other part of the hon. Lady’s question, we will have a chapter in the new Australia deal to deal with the protection of animal welfare standards. I encourage her to get engaged with the details as they emerge in the course of this year.

Trade Deal with Australia: British Food Standards

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on maintaining British food standards in a future trade deal with Australia. (901407)

I have had regular discussions with the Secretary of State at the Department for International Trade and, indeed, other Cabinet colleagues on the issue of food standards in the context of our negotiations with Australia. The UK has a prohibition on the sale of beef treated with hormones, and the agreement recognises our right to regulate in this way.

The Secretary of State will be aware that environmental, animal welfare and farming groups have all expressed their concern about both the small print in the deal and the precedent that it sets. The Minister knows that trust is in very short supply, and that deals have a habit of unravelling, as we have seen very clearly in recent months.

Can the Minister give us a date by which the Trade and Agriculture Commission will be fully operational, and the date on which the analysis of this deal will be published?

The Secretary of State for International Trade will, I think, be giving a statement later. The Government have now published the key components of the agreement in principle, and some analysis of the impacts of this agreement has already been cited. Australia is a very important partner of ours, and it is important that we get a trade agreement with it. It is, of course, a smaller economy and the opportunities are therefore not as large as they would be with a larger economy, but nevertheless, Australia is an important ally and this is a good agreement between us.

I hardly need to explain to the Secretary of State the level of disbelief and anger that there is as the betrayal of British farming unfolds this week. The level of detail is unclear, but The Daily Telegraph helpfully reports a major win for the Secretary of State for International Trade—doubtless briefed by her. The key losers in this situation are British farmers. Given that we now know that there is going to be a huge increase in the amount of beef and lamb coming in from Australia—produced to lower standards at lower cost, disadvantaging our farmers—will the Secretary of State tell the House what he is going to do to help our farmers meet that challenge?

We secured some important mitigations to help the farming industry, including the fact that a tariff rate quota will stay in place for the first 10 years on both beef and sheep, and for the subsequent five years there will be a special agricultural safeguard that means that if volumes go above a certain trigger, tariffs immediately snap back in. We have put in place mitigations through the quota for the first 10 years and through that safeguard.

Horse Tethering

The current legislation and guidance provides the right safeguards and powers in respect of horse tethering. The code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids provides information on acceptable standards of tethering. We want every owner to follow that guidance.

In my beautiful constituency of Harlow, we sadly see many horses tethered by the roadside and in dangerous locations. These horses often have no water and are left for days on end. Sometimes the tether breaks, causing danger for the horses and passing cars. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing not only tougher measures to penalise individuals who mistreat their horses and break the code of practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids, but a mandatory duty on local councils to implement a licensing system to ensure that horses are monitored and receive regular vet checks, and that the highest animal welfare standards are upheld?

My right hon. Friend, from his beautiful constituency, has long campaigned on this important issue. People who mistreat their horses face prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The good news is that the maximum penalty under the Act increases this month to five years’ imprisonment. Anyone who has concerns about inappropriate tethering should report the matter to their local authority. Local authorities have powers under the 2006 Act to take action where a horse is suffering.

Agricultural Sector: Labour Supply

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of labour supply for the agricultural sector. (901406)

DEFRA is working closely with industry and wider Government to ensure that UK growers get the labour they need. This year, the seasonal workers pilot has been expanded from 10,000 to 30,000 visas. Many workers are among those who now have settled or pre-settled status.

The Minister will be aware that the Government’s bizarre approach to labour from the EU is causing chaos across all manner of job roles, including in agriculture. Just this week, haulier Martyn Levitt from Stockton told me that there is a huge shortage of drivers as companies can no longer easily hire from the EU, and goods are not being delivered. That needs to be sorted. Today, the National Farmers Union and I would like to know whether the Minister will extend the seasonal workers pilot scheme to ornamentals to ensure that plants and flowers in fields and nurseries get picked and are not left rotting, bringing joy to no one and bankrupting businesses.

The Secretary of State is working actively on this issue and had a meeting with several representatives of the ornamentals sector only yesterday to discuss it. We are working hard across Government to address these worker shortages. I am working with the Department for Work and Pensions to promote picking and to support the horticultural sector, as well as to recruit more UK workers. Automation will be at least some of the solution to this issue, and we are actively promoting new technologies.

Leaving the EU: Agriculture and the Food Industry

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the UK’s departure from the EU on agriculture and the food industry. (901408)

Farm incomes are heavily influenced by exchange rates, and in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum there was an immediate boost to farm profitability and that has remained the case since. For the first time in 50 years, we are also free to create an independent agriculture policy that works for our own farmers. Our future agriculture policy will support farmers to farm sustainably, to make space for nature in the farmed landscape, and to improve their profitability.

I thank the most excellent Secretary of State for that response. Is he as fed up as I am with doom and gloom from those on the Opposition Benches when our farmers do such a good job? Coming out of the EU allows them to turbocharge their exports. Get rid of that lot and concentrate on the good stuff that we are doing.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. British agriculture in many sectors is world-beating, world-leading, competes internationally and can export internationally. We will be announcing plans to increase the support that we offer to exporters, and there are important opportunities for our goods in some of the Asian markets.

UK-Australia Trade Deal

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on safeguards for British agriculture in a future trade deal with Australia. (901409)

What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of the proposed UK-Australia trade deal on (a) UK and (b) Scottish agricultural producers. (901420)

As part of the agreement with Australia, we secured a special agricultural safeguard, which has a strict automatic volume trigger. It means that for the first 10 years, Australian beef and lamb will be subject to a tariff rate quota, and for the subsequent five years it will be subject to a special agricultural safeguard with a volume trigger.

This particular Opposition Member has no doubt about the world-class nature of our crofting and farming sector and our food production throughout the UK. However, I am aware of the concerns expressed by those sectors about the lack of consultation with the trade bodies and with Parliament before this deal was announced. What can the Secretary of State do to reassure these industries that a dangerous precedent is not being set and we are not going to see a lack of consultation repeated with trade deals, however important they might be, in future?

The Department for International Trade has a number of groups, including one covering agri-food, that discuss the approach to trade deals and help the Department to identify priorities. Necessarily, when in the final stages of a negotiation, the mandate the Government have is kept confidential, otherwise it would undermine our negotiating position, but we do share as much as we are able to with stakeholders, including the National Farmers Union.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is tariff-free access for Australian farmers from day one up to a meaningless cap 60 times current levels of imported beef, and the same applies to lamb up to a cap three times current import levels? Does that not render promises of a 15-year protection period absolutely redundant, and can we expect the same so-called protections in future trade deals?

We have to look at this in the context of the fact that at the moment Australia does not sell us any of these goods because, in the case of beef, it has a minuscule tariff rate quota of only about 1,400 tonnes. We also have to look at it in the context of the fact that we already have a TRQ with New Zealand that is over 100,000 tonnes, and New Zealand does not fill that quota.

Shark Fins: Ban on Imports

What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on enforcement of the proposed ban on importing shark fins. (901411)

As we set out in the recently published action plan for animal welfare, we will be bringing forward legislation to ban the import and export of detached shark fins. DEFRA has been working closely with the Home Office and Border Force officials. We need enforceable legislation that will lead other nations to join us in banning this dreadful trade.

I quite agree that we do need enforceable legislation, and not just on whole shark fins but on shark fin products. I have asked the Minister about this in a written parliamentary question and in Westminster Hall, and I have not had a satisfactory response. Can she confirm today that shark fins and shark fin products will be proscribed from UK borders, which will be a great relief to my Angus constituents?

We are in the process of preparing the legislation at the moment. I would be very willing to meet the hon. Gentleman on the detailed wording of how we do this. We are making good progress. We need to make sure that our measures are as effective as possible in delivering shark conservation measures globally.

UK Fishing Industry

The seafood sector has faced significant challenges over the past 18 months, but the situation is now improving as hospitality opens up and we adapt to new export requirements. Sector support worth £32.7 million is available this year, plus an additional £100 million to help rejuvenate the industry and our coastal communities.

Seafarers UK conducted a report in 2019 that found that most small-scale fishermen often had few savings and reduced financial resilience even before covid, and many have fallen through the gaps of Government funding because they either changed vessels or because their fishing opportunities and earnings in 2019 were not enough to reach the threshold for the fisheries response fund. What steps can the Minister take to address this issue and to support the small fishing boats in my constituency in Lyme Bay?

That excellent report, which I was very pleased to provide a foreword to, highlights that small-scale fishermen face not only financial challenges but social pressures. The report’s recommendations point to where industry and the Government might tackle these challenges together, and we are currently considering these in more detail.

Topical Questions

Today is Clean Air Day. The recent coroner’s inquest into the tragic death of Ella Kissi-Debrah highlighted the importance of making progress on delivering clean air. The Government are working on a new targets framework for air quality and a range of policies to improve air quality, and in particular to reduce particulate matter. We will also do more to raise awareness of the risks of air quality in our urban areas.

In 2007 there were major floods in Sheffield, which not only affected homes but destroyed large parts of industrial areas, including Meadowhall shopping centre, Forgemasters and other industries. A great deal of work has been done on flood defences, with the council and the private sector working together, with some Government support. However, one thing that would really help is the preservation of the peat bogs in the moorlands above Sheffield, which act as a massive sponge to stop the run-off and the cascading of water down into Sheffield. Will the Minister take action now to stop heather burning on the peat bogs and to make sure that peat does not end up in unnecessary products, such as compost for gardens?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Government are clear that we will consult on a ban on horticultural peat, and we will shortly bring forward the legislation that will implement a new ban on the burning of heather on blanket bog. It is our intention to treble the rate of peatland restoration, for all the reasons he said.[Official Report, 21 June 2021, Vol. 697, c. 8MC.]

My borough of Bexley is one of the greenest in London, with great parks and open space. Will my right hon. Friend explain what action is being taken to increase the number of trees planted in urban areas? (901361)

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government set out proposals in our recent England tree strategy. There will be a new urban tree challenge fund and a new treescapes fund for local authorities, and of course our policy of biodiversity net gain absolutely intends to make space for nature in new developments, which will including tree planting.

I hope that today is not the Secretary of State’s last Question Time, given the recent rumours from Downing Street that he is due for the chop. If those rumours are true, how will he spend his next few weeks ensuring that he is not remembered as the Secretary of State who betrayed our fishing industry and who rolled over and betrayed our farmers over an Australian trade deal?

Ministers never comment on reshuffle speculation, particularly when it is about oneself. In the context of fishing, we recently got an agreement with the EU on how to approach shared stocks for the remainder of this year. We of course got an increase in quota of around 25%, with 15% of that coming this year, and we have deployed that to almost double the fishing opportunities for our inshore fleet in this year.

The moors of the Dark Peak are staggeringly beautiful, but unfortunately they remain some of the most depleted in Europe. The case for restoring our peat moorlands makes sense on so many levels. It enhances biodiversity and improves water quality, helping keep water bills down. It reduces the risk of flooding and of wildfire, and it helps tackle climate change. I am proud that the Government are investing huge sums of money in restoration already, but we do need to go further and faster. Can I invite the Secretary of State to come up on the moors of the High Peak with me, so he can see the excellent work being done first-hand and so we can make the case for continued investment in this vital restoration? (901362)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our peat habitats are vital for our biodiversity, can be a vitally important carbon store and can also help with both drought and flood risk mitigation. We will be dramatically increasing the funds available for peatland restoration. I or one of my ministerial colleagues would of course be delighted to visit his constituency in the High Peak and see some of the work being done there.

Further to the previous question, the Climate Change Committee warned this week that the area of land suitable for peat-forming vegetation in the uplands could decline by 50% to 65% by the 2050s through the effects of climate change alone, potentially dramatically increasing UK carbon emissions. How is the Secretary of State planning to amend the “England Peat Action Plan” to bring forward plans for peat protection and restoration in light of the Committee’s damning report? (901368)

We are dramatically increasing the rate of peatland restoration to get to 35,000 hectares by the end of this Parliament. It will be a big feature of the landscape recovery component of our future agriculture policy. We have great ambitions to see the natural hydrology of our deep peat habitats restored.

Fly-tipping is a blight on rural areas. Central Bedfordshire alone issued 400 penalty notices last year, but with the fine only being £400—frequently discounted—it is treated really as just a cost of doing business if someone gets caught, does my right hon. Friend agree that the fine is too low? What other efforts can he take to improve deterrence? (901363)

I know that fly-tipping is a challenge. My hon. Friend says that £400 is too low. That is an immediate on-the-spot penalty fine, which was introduced just a couple of years ago. Prior to that, local authorities had to try to bring a prosecution, but we are doing more to try to improve the traceability of waste, to strengthen the waste carrier transfer system and to digitise the notes to improve the traceability and track down the criminals behind this fly-tipping.

Today marks Clean Air Day, which aims to improve public awareness and understanding of the damage caused by air pollution and to promote campaigning on this critically important issue. I am proud to say that the Welsh Government’s “Programme for Government” published this week included a commitment to introduce a clean air Act for Wales consistent with World Health Organisation guidance and to extend the provision of air quality monitoring. Will the Minister commit to following the Welsh Government’s lead at a UK level? (901369)

This issue is very much the subject of debate in the Environment Bill, which is currently going through both Houses of Parliament. We will be setting targets for clean air, and we will also be looking at a population exposure target, since it is not just about the absolute levels of particulate matter—we want to continue to reduce those—but about looking at the issue of population exposure, too.

The Secretary of State is fully aware that we have an issue at the moment with customs. West Somerset Garden Centre in Minehead, which is at the far end of most supply chains, is getting a lot of these articulated lorries from across Europe, and they start their drop in Minehead, which means that customs forms are done in Minehead for the whole load, regardless of whether only a third of it is coming off there. The other problem is that when these plant trays come off—the Secretary of State knows what I am talking about—even if only three of those plants are coming off in Minehead, the rest still have to go through the customs rigmarole there. The customs officers either do not get to Minehead or do not know where it is, and there is a huge problem with this, as the Secretary of State is aware. We need an answer to this fairly quickly, because the paperwork is swamping a small garden centre in Somerset. (901364)

I will be brief. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this particular issue in relation to customs.

The reason why Cumbria’s farmers feel betrayed is that the Australian trade deal gives Australian farmers an unfair advantage over British farmers, because their production costs are lower due to significantly worse animal welfare and environmental standards in Australia compared with those in our country. Given that this sets an appalling precedent for all future deals, will the Secretary of State ensure that farmers’ representatives in this House get the final say and a veto before this deal is signed off.

Under the provisions that we have to ratify treaties, of course this House will have the ability to decline to ratify any treaty, including this particular one. On the issue of animal welfare, it is the case that we have a chapter on animal welfare co-operation. Of course, we will be seeking to address some of the welfare deficiencies in Australia and, for instance, to get it to follow New Zealand’s lead on the issue of mulesing. It is also important to recognise that this agreement does not cover pork and poultry, on which its standards also have problematic approaches.