The Secretary of State was asked—
Untreated Sewage: Discharge into Waterways
I have been absolutely crystal clear that the amount of sewage discharged by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable. We have our Environment Bill and our strategic policy statement which, for the very first time by any Government, directs the regulator to ensure that water companies tackle sewage discharges, so we are right on it. We have strengthened the Environment Bill to get a new duty on water companies to progressively reduce discharges. Last week, we voted through six pages of measures to stop raw sewage going into our watercourses.
Despite bizarre assurances that the Government have been working on their U-turn for weeks, it was the public outcry about sewage being pumped into waterways that forced a change of mind by the Government. In Gower, the number of people enjoying the sea and swimming in Caswell bay and Langland bay has increased, as many Members know, especially during covid. What work is the Minister doing to work with devolved Governments to ensure that the whole United Kingdom is protected for people to swim and enjoy?
Yes, it is a beautiful part of the world. We have to remember that water issues are devolved, so water companies are working in their own ways, but it is absolutely right that they need to work together across our borders. We are at pains to make that clear. Indeed, there were measures in the Environment Bill to highlight the fact that partnership working is so important. All the measures in the Bill will make a significant difference to any of this pollution going into the river. I remind her that a fifth of the pollution is from sewage, but four fifths is from agricultural pollution and waste treatment works. We are also working on very strong measures on this issue, not only through the Environment Bill, but through the farming rules for water.
I am grateful to the Minister and Secretary of State for meeting me and concerned colleagues earlier this week on this issue. Only a few days ago, we had a discharge into the Walney channel. For the avoidance of doubt, can the Minister please lay out the fact that the amendment we are putting forward to the Environment Bill will drive down discharges such as this and increase penalties and liabilities on water companies that are acting irresponsibly?
I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the meeting earlier this week to explain what is a very complicated picture. It has to be tackled from so many angles, which is why I mentioned agriculture just now—it is not just one source. We have the measures in the Bill and the six pages of measures we added to improve reporting, monitoring, duties and governance to check on the actions that water companies are taking. Those are in the Bill, but this overarching new duty to direct water companies to progressively reduce sewage will make the real difference. It puts into law what we have already directed Ofwat, the regulator, to do.
Days from COP26, I must tell the Minister that the episode with raw sewage has not done Britain’s reputation going into that conference any good. The Government whipping their own MPs to vote against an amendment to end the routine discharge of raw sewage does nothing to build confidence and has rightly sparked a public outcry. Raw sewage is being routinely discharged today, right now and every single day throughout COP26. When the Minister talks about progressive reductions, can she say how much raw sewage will be progressively reduced each and every year? Importantly, when will this disgusting practice come to an end?
I want to make it clear that a lot of what we have heard in the social media storm has been whipped up, and there are a great many untruths flying around. We all spoke last week, after all the tributes to dear Sir David Amess, about a better form of government that is more respectful. Actually, I would like us to pick that up, because a lot of people have not seen it over this issue. The amendment, as it was worded by the Duke of Edinburgh—[Interruption.] Sorry, I will correct that right now. The amendment of the Duke of Wellington, with whom I have had many meetings, would have legally bound Ministers to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged from overflows, eliminating them. That would have involved the complete separation of the sewerage system. We have data, which I believe will be published today, that shows that that could cost between £300 billion and £600 billion. We had to be mindful of that. The hon. Gentleman asks when these things will start happening. They are happening already. Some £3 billion is already being spent by the water companies to stop sewage going into our rivers. The measures in the Bill will further add to that.
Order. I say to the Minister that I recognise her passion, but we are 10 minutes in and we are on question 1. We are not going to get very far. If she can speed up her answers, it will help me. We now to come to a question from Kate Osborne, who is not here, so I expect the Minister to reply on that basis, then I will go to Ian Byrne.
National Food Strategy: Government Response
The food strategy will be published early next year. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set out how we can create the food system that we want. It will identify ways to make our food healthier, more sustainable and, I hope, more accessible.
In April, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report on “Covid-19 and the issues of security in food supply” said that the Government should consult on a legal right to food and address that in their White Paper responding to the national food strategy, which was published in July. In the light of the horrific rise of food poverty in all our communities, with kids going hungry, as highlighted on Monday night in a harrowing “Dispatches” programme, will the Minister meet me to discuss the upcoming White Paper and the right to food?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman, as I have many times to discuss the important issue of food poverty. I take the opportunity to commend him for his work with Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which is a great initiative. I thank all those involved.
When people think of great British cheese, they think of Stilton, which was invented in my constituency. In the national food strategy, there are concerns that we will be forced to change that amazing national recipe to reduce the salt content. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that vital issue and my campaign to open a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs office in the rural capital of food, Melton Mowbray?
The national food strategy is a weighty tome, but Henry Dimbleby, who the Government commissioned to write it, is not a happy man. Last week, following the New Zealand trade deal, he told the Soil Association conference that,
“the Government has clearly rejected my advice.”
He also said:
“There is no point in creating a food and farming system here that looks after animals, sequesters carbon, and supports biodiversity, if overseas products on our shelves don’t do the same.”
I suspect that virtually everyone in the Chamber agrees with that—the Opposition certainly do. Can the Minister tell us her view and the Government’s view?
The hon. Gentleman will be glad to hear that my view and the Government’s view are entirely aligned. Henry Dimbleby’s report was a useful step in the development of the Government’s food strategy and we are grateful to him for the enormous amount of work that he put into it. As I said earlier, we will respond as a Government probably in the middle of January, which will be six months after the report was published. That is what we always said the timescale would be. There is a lot of work to do and it is a really important piece of work. It is genuinely a once-in-a-generation chance to try to put our food strategy on the right track for the future. I cannot give Members any spoilers now.
Winter Air Quality
We know that air pollution is a particular threat to vulnerable groups. We continue to drive forward the ambitious actions in the clean air strategy, such as phasing out the sale of house coal for domestic burning. The Environment Bill also makes a clear commitment to set targets for fine particulate matter, which is the pollutant of most concern for human health. We are working across Government, including with the Department of Health and Social Care, which has overall responsibility for respiratory diseases, to address actions on air pollution.
Research in 2014 and 2016 by King’s College London and Imperial College London recorded 1,000 hospital admissions a year among those with pre-existing respiratory conditions. In 2018, King’s College London found that as many as 36,000 people a year die early due to air pollution. When will the Government stop tinkering around the edges and finally introduce legally binding limits to abide by the World Health Organisation’s stricter clean air standards?
We need to get those targets right. In the Environment Bill, which should be back in this place shortly, we have committed to setting a target, but it is important that we get the evidence right to set the right targets. Those targets will be based on evidence. We are currently reviewing the air quality strategy. We will be looking at a revised strategy in 2023. The PM2 target is on a population basis. We also need the population exposure targets so that in areas such as hers, where we know that there are hotter spots, we can work directly with local authorities—we all own this challenge—to get the right targeted measure in the right areas. The overall target is important, but so are those targeted, individual approaches.
As you know, Mr Speaker, in Newcastle-under-Lyme we suffer with poor air quality from the odorous emissions of Walleys Quarry, which have had a serious impact on respiratory disease. That includes the case of the five-year-old boy, Mathew Richards, who won his judicial review against the Environment Agency. Does the Minister share my concern that the Environment Agency has frustrated attempts by investigators to access the public register? Does she agree that it must be open to having the register inspected by those trying to get to the bottom of how this scandalous situation has been allowed to develop?
My hon. Friend and I have already had several discussions on this matter. I hope to have a further meeting with him next week and to visit the site shortly. As part of permitting the regular inspection process, the Environment Agency considers the existing concentration of relevant pollutants in the area surrounding such challenges and, if air quality levels are exceeded because of those impacts, a lower limit can be set by a local authority. We should try to be transparent, but, in these complex matters, we must try to take on board the needs of constituents while driving the right conclusions to sort out this difficult problem.
City of York’s Lib Dem/Green council—Oh, the irony of it—is instituting six new car parks in our city centre. As a result, there will be a further threat to people’s lives, particularly with regard to respiratory conditions, given the already challenged air quality. What discussions is the Minister having with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that councils do not put new car parks in their planning?
There are many local initiatives going on. The nitrogen dioxide plan, which I spoke about earlier, is the key to driving down emissions, and we are working with the Department for Transport on that. People using their cars less in the city centre and the promotion of cycling and walking in a beautiful city such as York would obviously enhance the city for all its tourists. I am sure that the city of York, the tourist board and indeed everybody would be pleased to see that.
Environmental sustainability is fundamental to our new approach. Our new schemes will pay for regenerative farming practices, improvements to animal health and welfare, reductions in carbon emissions, cleaner water, and habitat renewal.
I recently visited Henry Hunt and other young Bedfordshire farmers who are already doing amazing work to significantly improve their soils. What more can we do to encourage other farmers to follow their example as brilliantly shown in the documentary “Kiss the Ground” and ensure that, when environmental land management payments start, there is not a gap with the basic payments scheme ending?
My hon. Friend has already told me about his great meeting with Henry Hunt—one of his farmers—recently. I accept that the change from area-based payments to public money for public goods is challenging for farmers. The new system is being brought in gradually over seven years, but I reassure him that there is much in the new system for soil health, including one of the first eight standards, which has already been published. The soil health action plan and the Environment Bill will help, too.
Many of my constituency farmers have already diversified and have been successful in that. Has consideration been given to funding diversification projects such as milk and eggs vending machines to enable farmers to boost their incomes so that they can farm the land and pay the bills?
The tethering of horses is a serious issue about which I have spoken to my right hon. Friend many times in the past. I suggest we meet to discuss if there is more we can do to end unnecessary horse tethering. Occasionally this can be an appropriate practice.
I just say to Members that if they are bobbing to their feet then they should keep bobbing as otherwise I will think they have changed their mind about wishing to speak. Knowing who is standing and who is not helps me all the way through.
We now come to a more interesting matter: I call Neale Hanvey to ask Question 6. He is not here. If Members are not going to be present, they must let the Chair know. May I suggest once again that the Minister answers the question even though the Member is not here, although he was due to be?
UK Environmental Protections: COP26
Our vanguard Environment Bill demonstrates how much we are doing on that—more than any other country. This will be groundbreaking legislation and as we build back greener from the pandemic it will transform how we protect our environment and will better protect our resources—our air, our water and, of course, our soil.
The Minister will be aware of the policy on biodiversity net gain, which is due to come in in the next couple of years. I and many other Members have been pressing to accelerate the introduction of this wonderful policy. Can the Minister give any update on the Department’s thoughts on whether we can bring forward implementation of biodiversity net gain?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his work on this, because it is going to be a very important part of how we increase our protections and protect more nature. We have the target to protect and halt the decline of species abundance by 2030. Local authorities will play a key part in delivering that through their planning services and it is important that we work with them to give them the time to get this under way.
The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world and the decline is not slowing. The Government have made a deliberate decision not to announce any concrete targets to reverse it until October next year, long after COP26, and are instead focusing on cutting the costs of internal flights rather than cutting rail fares. Does the Minister think this undermines the Government’s credibility at the conference this weekend?
Freight Traffic: Navigable Waterways
Of course I want it, especially when it is from that particular Member; he is always at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and I thank him for that.
The Government are providing £20 million through the Department for Transport’s mode shift freight grant schemes in 2021-22 to support rail and water freight services on routes where they deliver environment benefits over road haulage but are more expensive to operate. Responsibility for the operational matters and management of the inland waterways rests with the relevant navigation authority and Ministers have no role in that.
I thank the Minister very much for her reply, and for her kind comments about me, which I thought were rather nice.
The all-party group on waterways, which I have the honour of chairing, has identified that about 1,500 miles of our 5,000 miles of navigable waterways are suitable for freight. In addition to the measures the Minister has just outlined, has her Department given any thought to reintroducing the freight facility grants for wharfs and handling facilities?
I am genuinely interested in my hon. Friend’s work. This area comes under Department for Transport responsibilities; it does not have any plans as such to reinstate the freight facilities grant in England, but the Government are of course very interested in the shift to getting freight transported in other ways. The fund I mentioned earlier has mostly gone to rail because the case has to be made for whether it is better to do it by water, so I recommend that my hon. Friend gets in there and makes that case, remembering of course the other great benefits of waterways, especially through cities, for health and wellbeing.
Agricultural Exports to the United States
Recent discussions with the US have led to several positive outcomes for the UK. We have resolved the Airbus-Boeing dispute, leading to the suspension of the 25% tariff on Scotch whisky; for the first time in two decades, British beef is on US plates; and most recently, my officials spoke to their US counterparts, who confirmed their intention to enable the import of British lamb following the Prime Minister’s discussions on that with President Biden.
That is an incredibly important point. Of course, when the Prime Minister left the White House, he declared to Scottish and UK businesses that they would indeed once again be able to export their lamb to the United States of America, but we have seen from leaked memos from the Secretary of State’s own Department that that was not necessarily the case. Perhaps he can shine a little more detail on that. When will Scottish producers be able to export their lamb to the United States?
I cannot put a timescale on precisely when that will happen, but as I said, the Prime Minister had very positive discussions on this very issue with President Biden, and my officials have been continuing that discussion with US officials, who have confirmed their intention to enable the import of British lamb to the United States.
I and my constituents in the beautiful island constituency of Ynys Môn are rightly passionate about the environment and keeping our waters free from sewage and agricultural pollution. Can Ministers reassure my Ynys Môn constituents that they will work with the Welsh Government to ensure that the waters of Anglesey will be enjoyed by generations to come?
Order. Unfortunately, that is not relevant. Let me explain: supplementary questions have to be linked to the substantive question that is asked. If you had put in something about the wonderful lamb that comes out of Ynys Môn, I could have allowed it. You have to make sure that there is a link to the question that is asked—I think the Whips have got some jobs on their hands.
Food and Drink Sector: Labour Supply
I regularly speak to Cabinet colleagues about the current state of the labour market in the food and drink sector. Working across Government, we have extended the seasonal workers pilot this year to 30,000 visas and introduced additional temporary visa routes for poultry workers, pig butchers and heavy goods vehicle drivers in the food sector.
Delays and shortages, whether of lorry drivers or butchers, are causing huge concern and anxiety to business owners and consumers alike. Dayle Evans, a landlord and business owner in my constituency, was unable to reopen his pub’s kitchen for eight weeks due to difficulties sourcing produce. As we approach the Christmas season, which is the busiest for hospitality, and given the issues of last Christmas, what further action can the Government take to ensure that the shortages are resolved before that busy period is upon us?
My Department has regular dialogue with all the supermarkets and the major food manufacturers. They had some anxiety around their ability to deliver for Christmas about a month ago. That is why we acted expeditiously to introduce those temporary visa schemes. I can say that confidence in the industry is now higher, and it is gearing its logistics chains to make sure that we have food on the shelves. It is an improving situation.
The powerful new measures in our world-leading Environment Bill, alongside substantial funding and incentives to protect and restore nature, represent a step change in our ambition. Our commitment to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030 while setting a historic legally binding target to halt the decline in species abundance underlines our intent on all this. Internationally, we are playing a leading role in developing an ambitious new global biodiversity framework under the convention on biological diversity, making nature a top priority for our COP26 presidency.
Today is the memorial for Peter Ainsworth, my predecessor in East Surrey, who was Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee and on the board of the Environment Agency. I am sure that the Minister, like me, would like to pay tribute to all his work in this area.
Ahead of the Surrey-wide virtual COP summit tonight, will the Minister update the House on the work that has been conducted on the possibility of a new “wild belt” designation, which would protect biodiversity across the country?
We, too, obviously pay tribute to all the great work that Peter Ainsworth did, particularly in this area.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and wish her every success with her virtual Surrey-wide COP26 climate summit. Many other colleagues are doing similar, really great events. DEFRA is working very closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on how future planning reforms could make a really big difference to our environmental outcomes. Protections, including those in particular areas—urban areas and such—will all come under that microscope. The Government will publish their response to the planning White Paper in due course.
The marine environment can play a huge role in climate mitigation, with blue carbon held in native oyster reefs, kelp forests, seagrass, salt marshes and so on. What are the Government doing to scale up the rewilding of our seas for biodiversity and blue carbon, an issue on which we could show global leadership at COP26 and at the convention next year?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that really important point. Everything we are doing on protections relates to both land and sea, with the protection of 30% of the land and 30% of the sea. We are gathering more data on blue carbon. We do not have quite enough data yet to factor it into all our calculations, but we mean to do so. She is absolutely right that our kelp beds and salt marshes can make a great contribution, and a great deal of work is being done on that. Indeed, many of our flood resilience squads are linking in with such restoration projects.
Next week, the UK will host COP26 in Glasgow. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing our planet. Both the COP President-designate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), and the Prime Minister have set out the areas where we hope to make progress. My noble Friend Lord Goldsmith and I have held many meetings with countries on the agenda the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been leading on, specifically in relation to forests and nature-based solutions to climate change. We will be seeking progress on that agenda in the weeks ahead.
The current focus in addressing the sanitary and phytosanitary issues in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol now seems to be on a bespoke, specific arrangement for Northern Ireland. I and many others believe that, overall, a UK-EU veterinary agreement would be the best way forward for not only Northern Ireland but the entire UK. Is that objective still the position of the UK Government?
The position of the UK Government was set out very clearly and comprehensively in the Command Paper we published earlier this summer. We also have specialised committees working with EU and UK officials to resolve some of the technical and veterinary issues. We are clear, however, that we want goods to be able to travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without unnecessary barriers in the way.
My hon. Friend is such a great champion for the Isle of Wight. He never ceases to collar me in the corridor to talk about it. He is right that it is an amazing biosphere. He will know that Natural England has started to develop an England-wide assessment to identify further landscape conservation enhancement needs, looking at potential areas of outstanding natural beauty and so on. I urge him to keep that dialogue open.
The fishing dispute with France is very troubling, and the facts need to be established. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether the Marine Management Organisation has issued an external waters licence to the Scottish scalloper currently detained in Le Havre, as its name does not appear on the MMO website? Is that an oversight?
My officials are investigating the circumstances around the vessel that has been detained in France. It is too early to be able to identify precisely what happened, but I have seen reports that it was on a list originally and then appeared not to be on a list. I have asked our officials to investigate urgently.
We are providing £15 million for peatland restoration through our nature for climate fund. A lot of that money has already started to be dispensed to projects. We announced £16 million for projects between Cornwall and Northumberland. It is competitive and one has to put a good case, but if my right hon. Friend wants to consider making applications for Lindow Moss it would be well worth looking at.
I will return to the fishing dispute in my urgent question that you have kindly granted, Mr Speaker.
There are significant concerns that any introduction of gene editing to the Scottish food chain could be a huge nail in the coffin for sales to the EU, with the divergence of standards leading to further loss of the European market and the risk of Scotland’s reputation for high-quality food and drink production being tainted by association. What recent impact assessment has been conducted on changing trading standards in Scotland and the ability to trade with the EU in future?
The approach that we take is that decisions on whether to cultivate gene-edited crops or, indeed, genetically modified crops would be for the devolved Administrations, but in line with the provisions of the internal market, there would be access for goods. That mirrors what exists at the moment in the European Union. As the hon. Lady will know, the vast majority of animal feed sold in the EU is genetically modified.
Increased exports are the path to prosperity for our food and drink sector and the route back to profitability for many of our farmers. With that in mind, what is the Minister’s assessment of the bounce back package for agriculture, food and drink that was announced last year?
The bounce back package provided effective and targeted support to exporters. We will continue to strengthen our export capability by launching the “Open Doors” campaign, creating an export council and increasing the number of superb agrifood counsellors.
The truth is that the impacts of covid have had an impact on fish prices over the last 18 months. They have gone from a historic high down to quite low levels; they have now recovered. It is also the case that some North sea stocks, notably cod, have been in a difficult place over the last couple of years, so fisheries administrations have taken the right and necessary decision to reduce some of those quotas.
One of the Secretary of State’s responsibilities is the provision of an adequate supply of domestically produced fruit and vegetables. Much of this year’s harvest has been lost as a result of a lack of labour. Contrary to popular belief, there is not a queue of domestic labour waiting to harvest apples and tomatoes. Having lost this year’s harvest, what will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that there is adequate labour supply for next year?
I visited the Kent agricultural showground last week for the very impressive national fruit show, and I was able to talk to many growers about the very tight labour market that we are suffering from at the moment. As my right hon. Friend knows, we have a seasonal workers pilot with 30,000 visas. Growers can also continue to recruit workers under the EU settlement scheme. For the longer term, we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to encourage the recruitment of more UK workers and undertaking a review of how automation will help with this issue.
Every weekend, people are out fishing, rowing, kayaking and paddleboarding, enjoying the rivers and canals in Nottingham. They are horrified to learn that there have been hundreds of thousands of sewage discharges into England’s waterways and that, under this Government, the Environment Agency has suffered huge cuts to funding for monitoring water quality and prosecuting polluters. What resources will the Secretary of State’s Department commit to addressing the dirty water crisis?
With adverse weather and flooding again affecting Cumbria and other areas in the north, will the Secretary of State join me in thanking everyone on the ground from the Environment Agency, local government, emergency services and volunteers? Can he reassure my constituents in Penrith and The Border that the Environment Agency will continue to have the funding and support that it needs to help, protect and support communities vulnerable to flooding?
My hon. Friend is right. There has been an amber warning in his area and we are keeping a very close eye on it. All the systems are in place through the Environment Agency; I hope he will agree that it gives a really professional service. We thank all its staff, and all the people in the area, for what they are doing. Please will he ensure that his constituents are all involved in the alert systems and have all the warnings available? It is really important to bring communities on board with us.
Recently, the children of Stocksfield Avenue Primary School wrote to me to express their dismay at the plastic pollution in the rivers, the seas and their environment. That follows similar appeals from the children of Mountfield Primary School, Hilton school—
I, too, am regularly contacted by schools in my constituency raising concerns around plastics. We have banned certain single-use plastics, we have introduced levies on carrier bags, and our extended producer responsibility scheme will reduce plastics further.
I am so pleased to hear about the project; I absolutely support it and would love to visit. Wetlands are so important, on so many grounds. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust does superb work: carbon capture, flood storage, biodiversity, nature—it does it all.
Order. Before we come to the next group of questions, I point out that in the absence of the spokesperson for the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) will answer on the Committee’s behalf. I am grateful to her for doing so. I emphasise to the House that she will be answering on behalf of the Speaker’s Committee, rather than undertaking her Front-Bench responsibilities.