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Topical Questions

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 28 October 2021

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.

T3. May I confirm that the Secretary of State and his team are aware of the Isle of Wight’s achievement of UNESCO biosphere reserve status and of our desire to work with the Government on new landscape designations that recognise the Island’s unique sea life, landscape, rare flora, fauna, birds, butterflies and animal species? (903915)

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.

T4. I welcome the Government’s commitment to restoring peat bogs. What support, financial and otherwise, will be given to Lindow Moss in my constituency? (903916)

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.

T2. Marine Scotland’s sea fisheries statistics have recently shown that the value of landings right across Scotland has fallen. In Aberdeen alone, it has fallen by some 34%, so I ask the Secretary of State: where is the sea of opportunity? (903914)

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?

We have doubled the size of the catchment sensitive farming scheme, which supports farmers to reduce pollution on their farms, and we have increased resources to the Environment Agency and put additional inspectors on this task.

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.

Team Stroud is setting up the all-party parliamentary group for wetlands with WWT Slimbridge. Will the Minister join me in supporting the investment in nature and the importance of blue carbon habitat creation?

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.