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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Environment Act 2021: Implementation

May I begin by welcoming the new shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), to his place? I am sure that, like all of us, he will find that the rich and colourful diversity of the issues in the portfolio means that there is never a dull moment. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for his two years in the role.

Work on implementing the Environment Act is well under way. We have started developing legally binding environmental targets, consulted on measures to reform the way we deal with waste, published a draft principles policy statement and published a consultation on due diligence in supply chains. Finally, the Office for Environmental Protection has been legally established.

I thank the Secretary of State for those words. In my beautiful constituency of South West Hertfordshire, as he will be aware, we have some stunning chalk streams, including the rivers Chess, Bulbourne and Gade, so I am glad to see the additional protections that the Environment Act offers. I have monthly meetings with Thames Water and related organisations. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how he is working with private companies to implement measures on limiting storm overflows?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the important issue of improving water quality. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), shares his passion for improving chalk streams in particular. We have made it clear to water companies that they must significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows as a priority. We have set out that expectation through the strategic policy statement for Ofwat; we have also taken action to place it on a legislative footing in the Environment Act.

As we look at improving the environment, have the Government looked at the possibility of subsidising the growth of hemp, which allows us to make environmentally friendly cloth and biodegradable plastics and is a very good break crop for farmers to incorporate?

I know that there are the benefits that he mentions from growing hemp. Licences for medical hemp is an issue that the Home Office leads on, but it is an interesting crop; more people are starting to look at it and grow it. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point.

I welcome the proposals in the Act for biodiversity net gain, with an obligation on developers to ensure that all new proposals feature at least a 10% improvement in biodiversity. In the guidance that the Secretary of State issues, will he ensure that that obligation applies to planning applications that are already in the pipeline, not just new applications?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Biodiversity net gain will be an important policy tool to support work in local nature recovery strategies and make space for nature in new developments. On his point about timing, I think the measure will take effect in 2023 and will apply at that point to applications going for determination when it is active.

Fly-tipping incidents increased by 16% to March this year. The number of enforcement actions has decreased in the same period because of a lack of staff and resources. How does the Secretary of State think that the implementation of the Environment Act will ever improve those figures and clean up our country?

As the hon. Lady will know, we have a significant number of staff—more than 10,000—in the Environment Agency. Waste crime and fly-tipping have been a priority for them, and a number of successful prosecutions have been brought.

Water Quality

Improving water quality is a priority for this Government. We are the first Government to work to tackle the historic issue of storm overflows, including by placing a duty on water companies through our landmark Environment Act 2021. That duty builds on the expectation for the water industry to achieve a significant reduction in harm from storm overflows, as laid out in our draft strategic policy statement for Ofwat.

I am grateful for that and very much welcome it. The Secretary of State will be aware that Morgan’s Hill in my constituency is the source place for southern England; a drop of rain that falls there could end up in the North sea, the English channel or the Atlantic ocean. The Government are reviewing the mandate for Ofwat. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Ofwat will be directed to ensure that the water companies have the funding that they need—that they can raise the funding that they need—to make the necessary investments in infrastructure: not just the grey concrete infrastructure, but the green nature recovery infrastructure that is needed to clean our rivers?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I can confirm that the new draft strategic policy statement that we have issued to Ofwat states that there is a clear priority around reducing storm overflows and delivering our environmental outcomes. Yes, in the next price review, such infrastructure will be at the top of its list of priorities.

Landfill Sites: Toxic Air

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact on (a) the environment and (b) public health of toxic air from landfill sites. (904669)

Ministers have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues. We work with the Environment Agency when necessary, and our chief scientific adviser engages with various experts to consider any adverse impacts arising from landfill sites.

My constituents have been plagued for many years by landfill sites that often produce really foul smells, and many of them are concerned about the health implications. Now that we are all much more aware of air quality issues, will the Government take further steps to review the advice issued by Public Health England on toxic smells from these sites?

Only last week I visited a landfill site in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I know that it has a considerable impact on local communities. I also know that the hon. Lady has campaigned vigorously in respect of the site in Blaydon. We are now at the point of capture and contain: the site is being capped and the gases are being captured to prevent them from having that harmful impact. The site was monitored between January and September 2020, and the fumes were not found to be above safe limits.

Farmers: Productivity

There is great potential for farmers to continue to increase productivity in an environmentally sustainable way. Last month we launched the farming investment fund, which will encourage that through, for instance, investment in new technology, new equipment and small infrastructure projects.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s answer, and also for the time that she took to visit farmers in my constituency last month. How will the investment fund support agri-tech innovation, which is surely a pathway to prosperity and profitability for Buckinghamshire farmers?

The fund is broad, and we are willing to look at all sorts of programmes within it. Some great solutions could include new livestock feeds that might reduce methane emissions, robotics in horticulture—I have seen some very good examples around the country—and bio-fertilisers, which we are particularly interested in developing at the moment.

Far from helping farmers to increase productivity, this Government are demonstrating their keen ability to get in the way of productivity. We have a crisis in pig exports to China and seed exports to Northern Ireland and the EU, there are export health certificates for Scottish goods going to the EU but none for the EU’s goods coming to Scotland, there are the tariffs on jute sacks, and there is also the gross shortage and obscurity of the availability of labour. Would the Minister like to apologise to farmers in Scotland and say how she intends to improve this dynamic?

I am indeed concerned about farmers in Scotland, but that is because they are not benefiting from the revolution in agricultural support that we are undertaking in this country, and I am afraid that the Scottish Government are holding them back.

Tree Planting

We are committed to increasing tree planting to 30,000 hectares per year across the United Kingdom by the end of this Parliament. We are spending £750 million through the nature for climate fund on trees, woodland and peat restoration in England.

The UK and Ireland’s “sourced and grown” standard preserves the biosecurity of our woodland, as it ensures that trees are sourced and grown solely within the UK and Ireland for their entire lifespan. Following the Government’s biosecurity consultation, can the Minister please reassure the House that the tree sourcing standard will allow these future projects to be eligible for Government funding?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that important question. The plant health management standard will be the future baseline biosecurity standard for Government grants and contracts. That comprehensive standard, with 23 robust biosecurity requirements, covers the domestic production and international supply of all plants. I know that this is important to my hon. Friend, because the Colne Valley Tree Society is doing outstanding work.

I strongly support the provision of new trees, not only in woodland and beyond but in urban and suburban settings. Will my hon. Friend join me in praising the Trees for Streets project, which is working across urban settings to encourage the provision of trees in streets where residents can get involved not only in planting trees but in nourishing them?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Harrow Council on being one of the first councils in the country to join the Trees for Streets project, which is funded by the green recovery challenge fund. It aims to support the planting of 250,000 street trees over the next 10 years, transforming our urban environment. The national planning policy framework supports that; it promotes street planting and makes clear the expectation that trees should be incorporated into new developments, making our environment better for us all.

The Woodland Trust Northern Ireland has encouraged all local councils to adopt a tree strategy in order to adopt ambitious tree planting targets. Will the Minister introduce a similar scheme here on the UK mainland to encourage the idea of localised tree planting in communities?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago, but I would be happy to talk to him further about what is happening in Northern Ireland to see whether there are lessons to be learned.

Given that forestry is devolved, is not that 30,000 hectare target a bit of a con trick? Scotland’s target is 18,000 hectares, so the actual UK target is closer to 10,000 hectares. Why does the UK Government not step up, learn from Scotland and put forward an ambitious tree planting target?

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not laud the ambition to plant those 30,000 hectares. Having spoken to those in Scotland, I would encourage the Scottish Government to get on and grant people the permission to plant those trees.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister was before the Select Committee last week saying that 7,000 hectares of trees would be planted in England by 2024. When planting those trees, we want native trees that have been grown in this country so as not to import disease. It takes three years to grow a tree, so we need the nurseries to be told exactly what we need for 2024.

We are working hard to ensure that my hon. Friend has that clarity and that we have that understanding in the area of biosecurity. We want to ensure that everybody knows what the rules are so that we can get on with improving the environment and planting those trees.

Clean Air Bill

7. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of bringing forward a standalone clean air Bill. (904673)

We know that air pollution is the greatest environmental hazard to health, and we have taken significant action to clean up our air. Emissions of nitrogen oxides are now at their lowest levels since records began, but there is much more to do. The Environment Act 2021 sets a clear duty to set new targets for air quality, which is something that I am now working on.

People have a right to breathe good-quality clean air, regardless of where they live. Greater Manchester’s clean air zone is set to come into force in May next year, and it will go some way towards tackling the atrocious levels of air pollution in the region. However, the clean air zone will be effective only with sufficient funding, so will the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to work closely with Greater Manchester to understand the impacts of the clean air zone and assess the need for further funding? To this end, will the Minister agree to a meeting?

As I have discussed with the hon. Gentleman prior to this, I would be happy to have that meeting. I agree that we need to get this right in Manchester and the broader Manchester area, and to understand that the clean air zone works for everyone. The Government have provided £132 million through our clean air fund to support the retrofitting of buses and coaches and the upgrading of heavy goods vehicles, private hire vehicles, hackney carriages, vans and minibuses, mitigating the impact on businesses and individuals. I would be happy to work with him, because I will be looking for assurances on how the money is spent and that it is being well spent on the people of Manchester to clean their air.

Dog Theft

The Government launched the pet theft taskforce earlier this year, and it published its recommendations in September, including the development of a new offence. I am pleased to say this is now included in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which has passed its Committee stage. I look forward to its Report stage in the new year.

I welcome the Government’s taking animal cruelty seriously by introducing a specific dog abduction offence to crack down on dog theft. Cat owners have recently been more likely to purchase high-value pedigree cats and, heartbreakingly, criminals are now exploiting these cats and their owners, with cat theft rising more than threefold in the last six years. What measures are the Government taking to protect cats and to ensure there is no place for animal cruelty in our society?

I am sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s point. The offence, as currently drafted, includes the power to extend it to other species. We are also taking other measures to protect cats, including compulsory microchipping, which was announced last week.

Food and Drink Exporters

I am sure the whole House will join me in welcoming the news that the US market is reopening its doors to UK lamb after two decades of restrictions. We want people at home and abroad to line up to buy British. We are establishing an export council and expanding our network of agrifood attachés.

New Zealand currently exports £4.8 billion-worth of meat per annum, including £1.8 billion-worth to the Muslim world via a national scheme. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the Minister for Exports, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), to discuss setting up a similar UK-wide scheme that could potentially open up millions of pounds’ worth of exports for our farming industry?

I would, of course, be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, as I have in the past. He is a great trade envoy to Pakistan. We work very closely on this with Ministers in the Department for International Trade, and we see significant opportunities for British agriculture in markets across the world, including the US, Japan, India and the middle east. We will be well represented at the Gulfood exhibition in February.

Exporting agrifood is fairly straightforward if it is wholly produced in the UK. Where part of it is imported from the EU or elsewhere, there are complicated rules of origin. What is the Minister doing to improve the situation so that exporting becomes much easier?

There is no doubt that the rules of origin are complicated. We regularly meet our colleagues in the EU to discuss issues raised by our exporters, and we work collaboratively to resolve them where we can. We have also set up a new export support service to help businesses navigate the EU’s requirements. I would be delighted to meet any hon. Member who has a constituent with a specific problem.

Free trade agreements like the one with New Zealand are the biggest contributor to British farmers needing to improve productivity. What recent discussions has the Minister had with colleagues across Government on protecting farmers’ interests in future agreements? As I said, we work very closely with colleagues, particularly in the Department for International Trade, and I am confident they understand the issues raised by our farmers.

Basic Payment Scheme: Farmers’ Income

11. What steps he is taking to support farmers who will lose income as a result of progressive reductions to the Basic Payment Scheme. (904678)

Farm incomes have grown significantly since 2016, as farm-gate prices in sectors such as beef, sheep and arable have risen to record highs. This Government are also delivering their manifesto pledge to maintain the agriculture budget throughout this Parliament but to spend it more effectively. Farmers will have access to new funds next year to help them invest to reduce costs and to manage their soil sustainably through our new sustainable farming incentive.

We hear stories of landlords turfing out their tenant farmers because the transition to the environmental land management scheme makes it possible for them to receive payments directly from the Government for rewilding or doing absolutely nothing, which means that the farmers who are producing our food will not have enough land to farm. So will the Minister tell me: how is it possible for tenant farmers to survive if they lose a quarter of their income now and are only getting a promise of a replacement in seven years’ time?

We have designed the sustainable farming incentive so that it is accessible to tenant farmers, and we have worked closely with the Tenant Farmers Association on that. As is always the case, even some of the agri-environment schemes we had while we were a member of the EU would have been carried out by the landlord—some of those investments and things such as land use change. However, the farmer is the one who farms sustainably and can deliver these projects, and so should be able to access the schemes.

I had a useful meeting with Stroud farmers and the National Farmers Union recently at a fantastic dairy farm that has introduced state-of-the-art robotics and transformed its practice. We all know, however, that even with fancy-pants technology farmers work around the clock and that farm labour is almost non-existent at the moment, so I was not surprised to hear nerves about farmers finding time to apply for the new schemes and getting their heads around them. What support is available from the Department?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Last year, we made some funding available to a range of consultants and advisers across the country to help support all farmers with the transition. That advice is available, and I can write to her to make sure that she can relay it to her constituents.

Floor Risk Management: Inner Cities

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Environment Agency on the adequacy of flood risk management in inner cities. (904679)

I regularly meet the chair of the Environment Agency to discuss flood risk management, and indeed I spoke to its board yesterday. We have doubled our investment in flood and coastal erosion defence to £5.2 billion, to better protect 336,000 properties across the country by 2027. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome investment, for instance, in the new flood storage areas on the River Mersey, which were vital to reducing the risk to vulnerable communities during Storm Christoph earlier this year.

That is welcome, because in my constituency we found out that this is a growing problem this time last year, when we narrowly—by 2 cm—averted a disastrous flooding incident in Chorlton and Didsbury when the Mersey flooded. What is the Department’s assessment of the state of readiness in general of flood defences and flood response services as we go into the peak winter storm season?

I discussed this issue with the Environment Agency board yesterday. It is that time of year when being alert to flood risk is absolutely at the top of our priorities, and I visited the flood response centre at Horizon House in Bristol earlier in the autumn. So we stand ready; sadly, we have got quite used to flood response, but we have a good team responding to this now and they are ready for anything the winter might throw at them.

We now come to the shadow Minister and welcome him to the Dispatch Box in his new position. I call Alex Sobel.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

On Boxing day 2015, many town and city centres were devastated by floods. Spending on national flood defences is, in fact, 10% down on what it was in 2015. With increased storm events, how will the Minister defend residential and business properties with adequate climate adaptation this winter?

First, may I apologise for my oversight in not welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place at the beginning of this session?

We have made available £5.2 billion, and this is a significant increase in the capital programme over the next few years. Included in that is some dedicated work on property resilience, where we are working with communities and flood forums locally to identify how we can improve the resilience of individual properties and, when there is a flood incident, to make grants available to them so that they can replace some of their doors in order to be more flood-ready in future.

Plastic Pollution

We have banned plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds; carrier bag sales are down by 95% in main supermarkets, and we have extended our move on that issue to all businesses; and we are consulting on banning single-use plastic plates and cutlery and exploring how we tackle the scourge of wet wipes, sachets and other items. The Environment Act 2021 gives us a framework for extended producer responsibility, deposit return schemes and greater consistency in recycling, to help drive down plastic waste.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her answer. It has been said that the UK is one of the most significant plastic waste producers: each year it produces 99 kg of plastic waste per person, compared with 88 kg in South Korea and 81 kg in Germany. My constituents Amy and Ella Meek have set up the charity Kids Against Plastic to help to raise awareness in schools, and I am due to speak with them on a panel later today. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the responsibility of us all to reduce our plastic waste output?

Hear, hear—I agree absolutely and thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work of Amy and Ella Meek and their Kids Against Plastic charity. I wish my hon. Friend well on the panel this afternoon and congratulate them and others who are taking action against plastic and raising awareness in schools. It is the responsibility of us all to reduce, repair, reuse and recycle. We must get on with reducing plastic waste.

Topical Questions

Each year, the UK faces a seasonal risk of the incursion of avian influenza associated with migratory wild birds. Although we have that threat each year, this year we are seeing the largest-ever outbreak of avian influenza in the UK, with 36 confirmed cases—the largest number since last year, when we had 26. We have put in place an avian influenza prevention zone, which came into force on 3 November in England and on 17 November in Northern Ireland, and an additional housing order was introduced on 29 November. Our chief veterinary officer continues to lead the response to this episode.

The replacement of bureaucratic and burdensome EU red tape with modern, nimble, digital UK alternatives, without compromising food or environmental standards, should be one of the biggest and most important opportunities following Brexit. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to introduce the “better regulation” proposals in my Government-commissioned “Power to the people” report, and when?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on that report, which he and I have discussed many times. There are many things in his report that we do indeed intend to take forward.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The devastation caused by Storm Arwen was significant. Even a week later, more than 20,000 homes in the north of England were left without power, and some with very little on-the-ground support. This was a national emergency that required a national effort, yet it took a full week before it was declared a major incident and it was a full week before the military were called in. Given that those most impacted were those in rural communities, and given the Secretary of State’s overarching responsibility for those communities, will he inform the House of when he visited those communities and what he took away from that?

My colleague the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food visited those areas last week and saw some of the devastation. The hon. Gentleman is right that there has been severe devastation and a tragic loss of many trees in those areas. There have been particular challenges in respect of power disruption; my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy obviously lead on getting that power back, and I know they have been working hard to ensure the issue is addressed.

Let us be absolutely clear: this was a national emergency but a Cobra meeting was not called; the Prime Minister was missing in action; and now we discover that the Secretary of State was missing in action. Instead of supporting the affected communities, the Government were bogged down here in London defending a dodgy Christmas party while hard-working people in the north of England could not even turn on the Christmas lights. Ofgem has announced a narrow review of the response by grid networks, but the situation requires the Government to take charge and carry out a full review, including of their own response. Will the Secretary of State apologise for not taking the time to visit and commit to a full and proper review?

As I said, the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food did visit and she held meetings with farmers to discuss their concerns. I have had raised with me issues such as damage to fencing and some of the problems that has caused for farmers. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been working hard on the key issue of power disruption.

T2. It is so important that we uphold our high animal welfare and food production standards not only in international trade deals but in our domestic public sector food procurement. The Government buying standards for food and catering services currently still provide an exemption from meeting the standards if that would increase costs. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when the Government will close this glaring loophole, as we on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have recommended? (904659)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his passion for campaigning on these issues. We have made a number of improvements to Government procurement over the years, including introducing the so-called balanced scorecard some five years ago. There is more that can be done, and I will certainly look in great detail at this particular proposal that has come from him and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

I welcome the new shadow Minister and the new shadow Secretary of State to their places. I commend the shadow Secretary of State’s predecessor, because I always found him a very diligent, knowledgeable and collegiate opposite number, and I look forward to working with the new team in the same vein.

After our exit from the EU, agricultural support for our farmers is changing throughout the UK, but support levels remain higher in Scotland than in England, and farming improvements are encouraged and promoted through our direct payment scheme. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government will not, under any circumstances, attempt to use the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 or the forthcoming Subsidy Control Bill to undermine agricultural support in Scotland, or attempt to lower it to the levels in England?

We set out, through our schedule at the World Trade Organisation, the so-called aggregate market support that is available for these things, and that does not provide any particular constraint. Agriculture policy is devolved and so it is for each part of the UK to decide what policy works best for its own part of the UK.

T3. On behalf of the small cider producers in West Worcestershire, may I thank the Secretary of State for the representations that he has made to the Chancellor about the taxation regime? Is he also making representations on behalf of the larger, more traditional cider makers with the stronger ciders who may be adversely affected by the tax changes? (904661)

I am aware that my hon. Friend lives in a part of the country, and represents a constituency, famous for its ciders. I would be more than happy to meet with her and any of those businesses to discuss any particular concerns that they have, although she will understand that alcohol duties are very much a matter for the Treasury.

My constituents were horrified to learn just how much sewage is dumped into Newcastle’s waterways during hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours each year. Instead of the meaningless progressive reductions that the Government are currently proposing, when will they ban the dumping of sewage so that my constituents can enjoy the glorious River Tyne in all its natural beauty and safety?

Earlier this year, we published the direction—the strategic policy plan—for Ofwat, which requires it to prioritise reducing the use of these combined sewer overflows and to secure the funding through the pricing review to deliver that.

T4. In Blackpool’s Stanley Park, 15 swans died last month following an outbreak of a deadly bird flu virus. Sadly, over the past month, avian flu has been found in several areas across the UK, and further cases have been confirmed this week. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his update on this issue a few moments ago. Will he arrange for me to meet with officials in his Department so that I can discuss this particular issue in Blackpool? (904664)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. My noble Friend Lord Benyon is leading on this issue and I will ensure that he can have that conversation. As I have said, we are following this closely, and the chief veterinary officer is leading our response.

When will the Secretary of State wake up and take a lead on sustainability? We have talked about clean air and clean water, but we need every town and city in this country to be sustainable for communities. When will he join our campaign for 500 sustainable towns, cities and communities? Moreover, will he stop dodging “Farming Today” and not appearing on the show?

I regularly appear on “Farming Today”, as do my ministerial colleagues.

The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises specifically is addressed through the Environment Act 2021, which has just been passed into law. We now have biodiversity net gain, which very much relates to local authorities, making sure that we have sustainable growth and space for nature in every part of our country.

Although hon. Members on both sides of the House are justified in saying that it took a long time to restore power following Storm Arwen, is the Minister aware that when Storm Sandy hit the east coast of the United States, it took six months to restore power in some parts of southern Manhattan?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. A storm of this scale, which brings down this number of trees, can cause significant damage to infrastructure. We should pay tribute to the work that many engineers would have been doing around the clock to try to restore power.

Wetlands, such as the RSPB’s Newport wetlands, are one of the best nature-based solutions for the climate, biodiversity and wellbeing challenges that we face, so what steps are Ministers taking to restore and create wetlands, as Government advisers have recommended?

Some of this work will be taken forward in coastal areas through our agriculture policy. We are also looking at protected sites more generally and the work that we can do in wetland areas.