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Topical Questions

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 22 July 2021

Over the past 18 months, key workers in our food supply chain have worked incredibly hard to keep the nation fed during the difficult context of the pandemic. The recent hot weather has increased demand for some items, such as bottled waters, and staff absences have increased, but remain lower than seen earlier in the pandemic. We are working with colleagues across Government to support businesses in the food supply chain, and I take this opportunity to thank all those key workers working on farms, in food factories, in the distribution system and in our food retail sector for their extraordinary efforts.

In the past two years, we have seen tragic floods in Yorkshire, Cumbria and south Wales. We have seen the floods in Europe and now in China. The Government have cut spending on flood defences by 10%. Why?

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in that the capital spending on floods is increasing to £5.2 billion. That is almost a doubling of the previous programme. We have held meetings around the Yorkshire area, and Yorkshire will be one of the key beneficiaries from that investment we are making.

In many villages, such as Winchelsea Beach in my beautiful constituency, sewage or foul water drainage is not separate from rain water and storm water drainage. There is a combined system, which means that at times of high rainfall, many residents suffer sewage flooding in their gardens. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of environmental and health concerns, it is imperative that sewage is kept in a separate pipe from rainwater? If so, what steps will he take to ensure that these changes happen? (903092)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Some of the challenges we have are typically with houses built in the Victorian era where, as she says, the street drainage system goes into the foul water sewage system. That can lead to it being overwhelmed at times. Most developments that have taken place since the 1960s do have surface water drainage separated from foul water sewage systems. We have set up a taskforce to look at how we can address this problem and, in particular, reduce the use of combined sewage overflows.

I had a good trip up to Newcastle-under-Lyme recently to meet residents and the pressure group Stop the Stink and to see and smell for myself the horrific emissions from Walleys Quarry, the local landfill site that has the dubious honour of being the smelliest tip in England. What engagement has the Secretary of State had with the owner of the site, Red Industries, to restore residents’ physical health and mental wellbeing and stop the stink? Where is the plan?

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) has been raising this issue with me, the Prime Minister and others consistently. There is a challenge. I have met him twice to discuss it. I have also met the local team in the Environment Agency dealing with this, and I have discussed it with the chief exec of the Environment Agency. One of the problems is that it is thought that some plasterboard was illegally dumped at the site. That is what is causing the current problem with hydrogen sulphide. The Environment Agency is working on a plan to flare those gases off, and we are doing all that we can to support them in that endeavour.

I am pleased to be hosting another “Green-tember” in East Surrey this year—a whole month of pushing for environmental progress and looking at the small actions we can all take as residents to protect nature. As this helpfully coincides with COP26, would Ministers consider my request to speak at the East Surrey COP summit this year? (903094)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a really big year for the environment internationally—not only with COP26 being hosted in Glasgow, but with the convention on biological diversity COP15, where we are going to be setting some crucial biodiversity targets. I am sure that either I or one of our ministerial team would be more than happy to speak to her event, and we are speaking to many other such events around the country.

When I visit schools in Luton North, including Lealands, where I went recently, I find that one of the top concerns for young people is plastic waste. The Government say they will eliminate plastic waste by 2042. By that time, the kids I met at Lealands will be adults, they would have jobs and many would have become parents. Will the Secretary of State work with Opposition Members to improve recycling rates, and actually deal with the plastics crisis affecting landfill across the country and the oceans across our planet before those children become adults? (903091)

I am regularly contacted by students in schools around the country on this great challenge. We have made some very important steps forward with the ban on some single-use plastics, and we intend to go further with such bans, and the levy on single-use carrier bags. We have, in our flagship Environment Bill, the proposal for extended producer responsibility, which will make the people who manufacture goods and use the packaging responsible for its recycling at the end of its life. That will be a significant change that will help reduce the use of plastics.

The annual scientific advice on fish stocks provided by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea is a crucial element in determining sustainable fisheries in European waters, but there are concerns that without an independent peer review process the Government may take that wholesale without considering other elements such as social or economic concerns. What steps are the Government are taking to ensure there is a whole industry process that takes all these factors into account when determining total allowable catch and quota for the year ahead? (903095)

The UK Government work very closely with ICES. Indeed, our chief fisheries scientist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science is the deputy president of ICES. ICES regularly receives submissions from CEFAS, and where we believe its methodology is incorrect, wrong or missing certain things, it is often our scientists in CEFAS who help to update that information. Of course, when we set quotas annually and set our position on that, we take into account a range of factors—principally the ICES advice, but other factors as well.

Almost 60% of people in England are living in areas where levels of toxic air pollution exceeded legal limits last year. Putney High Street and other local main streets are some of the most polluted streets in the UK, so my constituents know the dangers of air pollution only too well. Why has the Secretary of State rejected every attempt to include World Health Organisation air quality targets in the Environment Bill, and will he commit to doing this when the Bill returns to the House later this year? (903093)

We are doing a very detailed piece of work on all the targets we intend to set under the Environment Bill, including on air quality, but also on water, biodiversity, and waste and resource management. We are looking very closely at two particular approaches to air quality. One is a concentration target for PM2.5— and I know there have been representations from people that it should be 10 micrograms—and the other is population exposure.

[R] As I understand it, the DIVA test is being piloted at the moment. When can we expect it on farm, and if we must wait for approval, why has the Secretary of State cancelled culling licences before approval has been given? (903096)

We have not cancelled culling licences, but it is the case that the intensive four-year culls in many parts of the country have run their course and have therefore ended. To answer my hon. Friend’s question, we are running field trials at the moment on that DIVA test, and we plan to have that vaccine in 2025.

Shortages of workers in warehouses and food- processing centres across the UK are having a real impact on packaging food for supermarket shelves, with Tesco bosses warning that every week 48 tonnes of food is wasted. This is exacerbated by an estimated 100,000 shortage of HGV drivers. What interventions will the Secretary of State make to address this shocking state of affairs? (903107)

The Department for Transport has already announced some plans to increase the speed of driver testing and to deal with some of those logistics issues. Secondly, we are working across Government to ensure that where isolation is needed we protect particularly important strategic infrastructure.

I am sure the Secretary of State was shocked to see the huge volumes of litter left around Wembley and London’s west end after the Euro final. He referred earlier to extended producer responsibility for packaging. That seeks to put the blame for litter on manufacturers, making them responsible for the cost of the clean-up. Does he agree that this was all caused by illegal actions of the public, and while it is important to consider business responsibility, should the Government not also look to ensure that their citizens behave responsibly? (903098)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We all have a role to play in this; people should take responsibility for their litter. We have taken some steps, such as fixed penalty notices so we can issue on-the-spot fines to people who do litter, but we need a culture change in this area.