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Topical Questions

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 27 January 2022

Earlier this month, I set out further details of our future agriculture policy. Local nature recovery will support farmers who want to make space for nature on their holdings, and landscape recovery will support land use change. However, ensuring that tenant farmers can access our future policy is going to be very important, so today I can announce that my noble Friend Baroness Rock will be chairing a new working group to investigate how we can ensure that tenant farmers access our schemes.

The consultation on the joint fisheries statement is welcome, and REAF—the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries—will be making a representation. However, there is a concern among East Anglian inshore fishermen as to the bureaucratic burden being imposed with regard to vessel testing stability, inshore vessel monitoring and the under-10-metre catch app. Accurate data is important, but I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that obligations imposed on SMEs and self-employed individuals are proportionate, realistic and underpinned by common sense.

My hon. Friend has been a long-standing champion for fishermen in his area and the inshore sector in particular. We have introduced the under-10-metre catch app to ensure that we have more accurate data, but I should point out to him that in this current year we have also increased the amount of quota in the inshore pool by around 70%, with the additional quota that we had as a result of leaving the European Union.

This week, I convened a roundtable discussion with leading members of our food and drinks sector. To the surprise of many, I am sure, the Prime Minister’s having his cake and eating it and stuffing suitcases full of booze were unfortunately not quite enough to sustain the industry through these difficult times.

What is clear is that the sector is struggling: the impact of inflation, the CO2 crisis, the rocketing of feed, fuel and energy bills, and labour shortages are all increasing costs, reducing profit and ultimately pushing prices up for consumers. Those same businesses will be listening closely today. On behalf of those people, may I ask the Secretary of State what the plan is to control inflation, tackle fuel and energy costs, address labour shortages, solve the CO2 crisis, and finally back British business?

I, too, regularly meet food industry representatives—indeed, yesterday I met the retailers, and I meet manufacturers as well. The food industry is Britain’s largest manufacturer: bigger than aerospace and automotive combined. It employs millions of people and brings prosperity to every part of our United Kingdom. There are some cost pressures at the moment, caused by gas prices, which my ministerial colleagues elsewhere are looking at, but we continue to work closely with the industry to manage its challenges.

Essentially there is no plan, and the lack of a plan is a theme running through the Government.

Let us move on to sewage discharge. Yesterday, when asked what could be done to reduce sewage discharges in the River Wye, the Prime Minister suggested putting on his trunks and going for a swim. While it might be normal for him, most of us do not like being up to our necks in raw sewage. Yet investment is down, water companies are £50 billion in debt, private investment has not followed, and the only things that are up are sewage discharges and shareholder profits. That is hardly surprising when over the past decade the Environment Agency has had its grant cut from £120 million to £40 million, reducing its ability to investigate and enforce. What is the Secretary of State going to do to give everybody the right to clean water? And please, don’t say you’ll join the Prime Minister.

If the hon. Gentleman had followed some of the debate on the Environment Act 2021, he would know that this House has put in place legal obligations to reduce storm overflows in particular. That follows up on the Government’s decision last summer to put that in their policy statement to Ofwat. We have also doubled spending on catchment sensitive farming and have increased the number of Environment Agency inspectors by 50.

T2. Two thirds of my constituency of Aylesbury is rural. Farmers there have told me that they really welcome the Government’s new policies, which recognise the importance of benefiting the environment as well as of producing food, so can my right hon. Friend update me on the roll-out of future farming schemes in Buckinghamshire? (905304)

We have already planned this year to open the sustainable farming incentive. It will be open to all farmers and universally available. We have also increased the payment rates for countryside stewardship. Half of farmers are already in that, and we are encouraging the other half to join, too.

T5. The Secretary of State knows from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that there are some 6.6 million people in food insecurity, with insufficient daily food of a nutritious standard. He also knows that food prices, energy prices and national insurance are going up, and universal credit is going down. Does he agree, therefore, that that figure will reach 10 million unless something is done, and will he meet me and the co-operative movement to discuss a plan, including to put the right to food into law? (905307)

Our food security review, which was published before Christmas, showed that we have the lowest spending on food as a percentage of household income anywhere in Europe. Overall, food prices in this country are stable and spending on food is low. However, there are challenges for certain individuals. That is why we have things like the holiday funding.

T3. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be financial support to help upgrade fishing vessels and ready them for five and a half years’ time, when the TCA agreement with the EU ends, in particular our inshore commercial fleet, such as those operating from the port of Looe in my constituency? (905305)

Yes, we have a new £100 million fund to support a range of activities, including port infrastructure as well as upgrades to vessels.

T7. When I met Southern Water to discuss sewage discharges, it said, “Oh, it isn’t our fault because we’re not in charge of runoffs and there’s a mixture of companies that do sewage treatment.” Is it not time to follow the model in Wales and have one water board that is publicly controlled by the consumers, so that there is no more finger pointing in other directions? (905310)

The Environment Agency brought a prosecution against Southern Water in respect of its failures, and it received, as the hon. Gentleman will know, a record fine of £90 million.

T4.   Illegal waste sites have been a problem across North Staffordshire, and the number of organisations and agencies involved in regulating waste is allowing unscrupulous actors to go unchecked, so will Ministers look at better regulating waste? (905306)

Yes, I will. As my hon. Friend knows, I have been up to his part of the world and have looked at some of the challenges there. We need to do more, we will do more, and we will keep monitoring until we get it right.

The Government’s recent decision to authorise a neonic, bee-destroying pesticide runs contrary to the advice of both the Health and Safety Executive and the Government’s expert committee on pesticides. How on earth is this decision compatible with the Government’s legal requirement to halt species loss by 2030, and will the Secretary of State look again at this particular decision?

I addressed this issue earlier. The chief scientist gave some analysis, along with others. We took a decision firmly based on the science. Twelve other EU countries have done so, too.

T6. Corbett meadow is a historic piece of land in my constituency and in the draft local plan it has been afforded the same protections as green-belt land. Does my hon. Friend agree that the recommendations should be carried forward into the final plan, not just because the land is our green lungs but for mental health and wellbeing? (905309)

I cannot comment on matters in that specific plan, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on that work, as our wildflower meadows are so precious. There are only 3% left, and we need to get them protected and communities looking after them as much as possible.

The Government promised a White Paper in response to the national food strategy within six months of its publication. That time runs out at the end of this month, so when are we going to see it? Please do not say “shortly” or “soon”.

In this “tree-bilee” year, the Environment Minister knows about Gloucester’s huge new project, Hempsted woods, where I hope every child will have the chance to plant a tree. She herself kindly planted an apple tree there last year. Does she agree that it would be very helpful if the Department could publish a crib sheet about how everybody in the country can access new trees to plant this year, as soon as possible?

It was a pleasure to plant that tree; I hope it is doing well. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tremendous work with the whole team in Gloucester to plant that huge wood. It will make such a difference to our tree target. It is a great idea of his to send out a list of all the myriad grants that are available for tree planting.