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Topical Questions

Volume 705: debated on Thursday 9 December 2021

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.