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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 707: debated on Thursday 27 January 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Flash Flooding: London

I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and I pay tribute to all those who responded to the flash flooding incidents in London last summer, which took everybody so by surprise. I know that her constituency was particularly affected. We have doubled our flood defence programme to £5.2 billion, with 34% of planned projects aimed at surface water management. That includes £13 million this year for 32 schemes across London, which will better protect 2,300 properties.

In July my constituency experienced devastating flooding, with more than 2,000 homes affected. Many residents are still in temporary accommodation, and many have lost all of their belongings, especially those in basement flats. In 2007 we experienced similar flooding. At that time, a plan was put in place to put in an emergency relief sewer. That never happened; it was not actioned. What can my hon. Friend and the Department do to hold water companies to account and ensure that Ofwat is tough in regulating them?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and my sympathy goes out to those who suffered and indeed are still suffering. We expect water companies to carry out their duties and deliver on their commitments, and we fully support the regulators in holding them to account. In the 2019 price review, Ofwat confirmed that Thames Water had incurred a penalty of £148 million for cancelling the Counter’s Creek project, which I believe is the one she refers to. As Members will know, the Government are now taking strong action on the water companies, through our statement to Ofwat. I have met my hon. Friend before, but I would be particularly happy to discuss this project with her.

As you and the House will know, Mr Speaker, flooding is of course a challenge right around the country. I am grateful for the Minister’s support today, and as she knows, tomorrow we are launching Connected by Water, which is a pioneering regional flooding strategy for South Yorkshire. It is the first of its kind and will protect thousands of businesses and homes, but as the Minister also knows, there is a bit more to do. Will she commit to working with us to secure the additional £76 million that we need to deliver it?

I think that is the worst connected question I’ve ever heard in this House. Perhaps the Minister wants to be generous and say very briefly how it could possibly be connected.

“Cheeky” is the word I would use, Mr Speaker. I am doing a speech for that event tomorrow. I am pleased it is being held, and it is important that everyone works together. I understand the issues the hon. Gentleman is facing, and always, as he knows, my door is open. I think he will agree that we have done a great deal for his area to help sort the flooding out, and more work will continue.

Fly-tipping

Criminals should have no place to hide when they mindlessly dump waste. Fly-tipping blights lives and neighbourhoods, and wrecks our environment. We are consulting on legislative reforms to the way waste handlers are regulated, and introducing digital waste tracking.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. In the London Borough of Harrow, dealing with fly-tipping on the public highway costs council tax payers £1.5 million each year just to clear it up. The worst aspect is fly-tipping on privately owned land. What further measures can my hon. Friend take to highlight those people, catch them, put them through the courts, and get justice for people with privately owned land?

We know that fly-tipping incidents have increased. We had 1.13 million of them last year. We are taking that robust action, which we have been enabled to do through the Environment Act, and our recent consultations clearly set out how we will ensure that offenders face the full force of the law. Last year, we launched a grant scheme to provide £350,000 in funding for councils to tackle fly-tipping, but I commend Harrow Council on having made a large investment—£300,000—in its enforcement team. It is taking an area-based approach, it is delivering more fines, and it is using the full fixed penalty of £400. However, I urge my hon. Friend to urge his council to bring more prosecutions forward, as they did not do so last year.

Will the Government ensure that the section 33 offence attracts a fixed penalty of at least £2,000, much more than the price of a skip? At the moment, it is a rational economic decision for people to fly-tip, albeit a horrendously antisocial one. The fixed penalty for the section 34 offence should also rise to £1,000, so that we can kill off the illegal waste industry that is turning parts of our beautiful country into a litter tip.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend: fly-tipping blights our countryside and, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), blights our towns. As I have said, we are taking robust action. We need to ensure that those fixed penalty notices are high enough to act as a deterrent, that more serious offences can be prosecuted, and that courts can hand down fines in excess of the fixed penalty notice should the offence be sufficiently serious. We are producing a new guide on how to present robust prosecutions, which should support tougher sentences, and digital waste tracking—the reform to waste carriers, brokers and dealers—will allow householders to know where their waste is going and that their contractor is legitimate and transparent. We must do more about this offence, which blights all our constituencies.

Since I was elected, constituents have written to me continuously about fly-tipping, both in our towns and particularly on farmers’ land. One of the reasons for the increase has been the ease with which the public can obtain waste removal licences: the checks and balances just do not appear to be sufficient. Will the Minister explain what the Government plan to do to increase the detail in which those checks are undertaken by the local authorities, to stop people providing a cowboy waste service that undercuts legitimate businesses, and stop them from abandoning that waste on the streets and farms of places such as Sadberge, Trimdon, Wheatley Hill and Wingate?

I agree with my hon. Friend: it is not fair that legitimate businesses are undercut by individuals who do not treat waste properly, and who take no care in anything they are doing. The waste carrier registration scheme needs reform urgently: that is why we are acting, and it is why we published our consultation. The measures that we announced will increase the competence and background checks that are needed to operate in the sector, and make it easier for regulators to take enforcement action to make sure we hound the criminals out of this industry and support our legitimate businesses, so that they play by the rules and treat that waste properly. We will make it easier for householders and businesses to act on a level playing field.

Everything that the Minister has just said is music to my ears, because illegal fly-tipping blights all of our communities and shames our country. It destroys our sense of place and our neighbourhoods. As the Minister will know, large-scale fly-tipping more than doubled in England between 2012 and 2019, with councils spending almost £13 million last year cleaning up somebody else’s mess. Of course, part of the problem with enforcement is that the resources available to the Environment Agency and to local government have been cut. What more can she say about ensuring that those enforcement agencies have the tools and the finances they need to get the job done?

We have supported the Environment Agency with additional funding of some £60 million in 2019—I think it was—and by making sure that they have the right regulatory framework in which to go forward. We are also supporting our councils, not only by equipping them with better processes and guidance in order to bring these criminals to account, but by making sure that the system is joined up so we know where the waste has been taken from, where it is going, and that it has arrived. We intend to beat this blight.

Fly-tipping is a blight across the UK, both in rural and in urban areas. What recent assessment has the Minister made of the need for fly-tipping to be treated as organised crime, so that investigations are properly resourced?

I do not think I can say any more than that it was described as similar to the narcotics industry. We need to treat fly-tipping with that much seriousness: we need to crack down and make sure that the people who are earning illegally and blighting others’ lives are hounded out of this industry.

May I first thank the Minister for her enthusiasm in the matter? She clearly means what she says and I thank her for that. The most recent statistics from back home show that in the past two years the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs cleaned up 306 illegal waste sites, costing half a million pounds or the equivalent of 15 nurses’ pay. What discussions has the Minister had with her counterpart in the Northern Ireland Executive to discuss how we can combat these issues together and take the pressure off local councils?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I meet Ministers from the devolved Administrations regularly. I have not had specific conversations on the matter, but I would be happy to because fly-tipping knows no boundaries. We need to sort it out together.

I would like to begin by acknowledging that today is Holocaust Memorial Day. May we never see such hatred and wickedness again.

The Minister will know that many fly-tips consist mainly of household waste. Wales has seen its household recycling rates catapult from just 4.8% in 1999 to more than 65% in 2021. That is the difference a Labour Government makes. Will the Minister join me in acknowledging the success of the Welsh Labour Government and tell the House what lessons she is learning from them?

I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments about the holocaust.

Consistent collections, ensuring we can collect the seven strands of waste, will allow all households in this country to make sure they are recycling. Coupled with the deposit return scheme and other measures in the Environment Act 2021, they will ensure that everybody in England can recycle easily and consistently.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Minister mentions the deposit return scheme, because including cartons in the scheme is one extra step the Government could take to tackle fly-tipping. Please will she meet Tetra Pak, based in my constituency, to discuss the feasibility of the onward processing of cartons, which I believe would make that inclusion a practical possibility?

As my hon. Friend knows, we will announce more information on the deposit return scheme shortly. I would, of course, be happy to meet his constituent for further discussions. I do not think we should rule anything out, but nor am I making any promises.

Household Budgets: Food Prices

Food prices are influenced by a number of factors, including exchange rates and energy prices, both of which have risen since the coronavirus shock. Last year, we published the “United Kingdom Food Security Report 2021” which included a comprehensive analysis of household level food security. It showed that over the last decade spending among the poorest 20% of households has remained relatively stable at 16%.

Shamefully, this country now has more food banks than branches of McDonald’s. As Jack Monroe, the bootstrap cook, highlighted, inflation at a 30-year high has put many staples out of reach of household food larders, yet at the same time supermarkets have thrown away the equivalent of 190 million meals worth of food. Will the Secretary of State sit down with the big top 10 and charities such as City Harvest in Acton, the Felix Project and the newly launched Ealing Food Cupboard, and work out a way to link the two in a circular economy fashion to eliminate both landfill waste and food insecurity?

The hon. Lady raises an important point that we can reduce food waste. A number of supermarkets are already engaged in programmes to support local food banks. The Government support the FareShare charity, which also helps to redistribute food and tries to prevent food waste in the way she sets out.

Further to that question, many large retailers are keeping their budget lines at a higher price than they need to while not raising the price of higher-priced food, so I think there is an argument that they could do more to lower the price of food. Further to the Secretary of State’s comments on FareShare, can he see the £5 million that I think it is due to get food directly from farms, processors and retailers straight out to the people who need it?

I am aware that my hon. Friend has asked previously whether FareShare could also be engaged in making sure that food from farms does not go to waste, and I have said that I am willing to discuss that with it. On his point about prices, we have a highly competitive retail sector and, generally speaking, it has absorbed some of the price pressures to date.

Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of winding down the seasonal agricultural workers scheme on the food and drink sector. (905289)

We are not winding down the seasonal agricultural workers scheme; in fact, we have now extended it until 2024 and it supports both edible and ornamental horticulture. There are 30,000 visas already available, with the potential to increase that to 40,000 if there is demand.

Instead of the 70,000 seasonal agricultural workers needed across the UK, the Government are limiting visas to 30,000, which is less than half of what is required. The National Farmers Union of Scotland has warned that, just like last year, we will again see millions of pounds-worth of crops lying rotting in the fields. Will the Secretary of State explain why the UK Government are not providing enough of the visas required? If they cannot manage an immigration scheme without harming one of Scotland’s key sectors, perhaps the Scottish Government should manage our borders.

As the hon. Lady may know, I worked in the soft fruit industry before coming into politics, so I am very familiar with the soft fruit industry in Scotland. It is one of the reasons why the Government have put in place the seasonal workers scheme, and we have had such a scheme since the second world war. Last year, we had a scheme with 30,000 visas, but only just over 25,000 were required. Many settled EU citizens will also continue to return to do seasonal work and we judge that 30,000 is probably the right number.

Bees: Thiamethoxam

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of his authorisation of the use of the pesticide thiamethoxam in certain circumstances on the bee population. (905290)

The emergency authorisation of thiamethoxam has been granted for sugar beet, which is a non-flowering crop so there is no direct risk to bees. However, due to the risk that thiamethoxam can stay in the soil for a period, we impose strict conditions on authorisation, including a requirement not to sow other flowering crops such as oilseed rape in the same field for at least 32 months.

Residents in the Kettering constituency want to see a larger and healthier bee population, but they do not want the England sugar beet crop destroyed by aphids. Will the Secretary of State outline the economic impact on sugar beet production if that pesticide is not used and what examination he has undertaken of alternative means of controlling aphids?

As part of our assessment of emergency authorisations, we consider the economic impact, and it is considerable. The sugar beet industry is an important crop for this country. As hon. Members will be aware, 12 other EU countries have also granted an emergency authorisation for sugar beet, so it is a common approach across Europe, but we have taken many steps to ensure that there is no risk to pollinators.

Nature Recovery Networks

7. What steps he plans to take to help increase farmer and other land manager engagement with nature recovery networks. (905292)

England’s nature recovery network is backed by the national delivery partnership, which includes partners such as the Country Land and Business Association. Earlier this month, I set out further details of our new farming schemes, including local nature recovery, which will incentivise farmers to make space for nature on their land and contribute to the network.

I do not want to upset the Secretary of State, but I really like this policy and approve of it wholeheartedly. The fact of the matter is that most of our constituents are not Greta Thunberg or Bill Gates, but they want to roll up their sleeves and do something in their local community. That is why I like the schemes. I am involved in one in John Clare country, in the poet’s neighbourhood, and one in Huddersfield. I speak to farmers, charities and people who really want to do that, but there is a blockage relating to how people get the money and a bit of resource to do it and how they open that up. Farmers, in particular, think it is a magical mystery tour. They want to do it but they cannot get on the journey.

It is great that we have cross-party consensus on the importance of nature. We also have the local nature recovery strategies that local authorities are putting together, making space for nature within local communities and new local nature reserves. In terms of schemes for farmers, we have already announced full details of the sustainable farming incentive and there will be many more details to come on things like landscape recovery for them to engage with.

UK-EU Catch Limits

8. What steps he is taking to ensure a greater share of the UK-EU catch limits for the UK fleet in 2023. (905293)

We have seen uplifts in quota share across the UK, with an increase of approximately 15% already. It will continue to increase year on year until 2026. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that there have been some particularly significant uplifts for the pelagic sector.

I look forward to continuing to work with the Minister to deliver the best future for Scottish fishermen as we move forward outside the common fisheries policy. Could she provide an estimate of how much the Scottish fishing industry has benefited in 2021 from being outside the CFP and particularly from negotiating as an independent coastal state for the first time?

My hon. Friend, a great champion for the industry, will know that Scotland has so far been allocated 36,000 of the 60,000 tonnes of additional UK quota. The Scottish industry is also benefiting from additional white fish quota and from the ability to undertake quota swaps.

More data may help in the negotiations, but data is no justification for the much-loathed catch app that the Government are imposing, which requires fishermen to guess the weight of their fish before they land them. When I was with Essex fishers in the estuary earlier in the week, they told me just how difficult that is.

I am not going to slap a dead fish on the Dispatch Box, Mr Speaker, because that would not meet with your approval, but I do have a copy of Tuesday’s Hansard, so I wonder whether the Minister can guess its weight. If she is not within 10%, will that make her a criminal? That is what the new rules will do to England’s fishers from the end of next month.

The hon. Gentleman knows that as a cook I am quite keen on guessing the weight of things, but I confess myself totally unable to guess the weight of Hansard without touching it.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s serious question, we will continue to work with the fishing industry on the best way to make sure we have the data that we need—as I think he would agree—to assess the future sustainability of stocks.

Food Labelling

Now that we have left the EU, we can review food labelling to make sure that consumers have the information that they need to make healthy and sustainable choices. We have already launched a consultation on animal welfare labelling, and we will consider the wider aspects of labelling in the coming months.

We know that our consumers want to buy British and buy Northern Irish to support higher animal welfare standards and our farming community, but sometimes they find food labelling confusing and misleading as to country of origin. What action have the Government taken to clarify the confusion? What steps will the Minister take, particularly with regard to making the technology even better in future?

Country-of-origin labelling must not mislead. If the main ingredient has a different origin—for example if a British pie has French meat inside—the label must say so. I have spoken to my hon. Friend about possible technological solutions to labelling issues, such as using QR codes, which can give consumers much more information about a product. We will continue to work on those solutions.

The Scottish Government—rather sensibly, I think—are awaiting the outcome of the EU review of genome-edited and genetically modified organism products, but the UK Government are pushing rapidly to introduce the production of genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs in England. Through the back-door route in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, they will enter the rest of the UK even if devolved Governments continue to prohibit them. Will any GE or GMO foods introduced in England be labelled as such so that consumers throughout the UK can make informed decisions about the food that they put in their mouth?

As I said, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of labelling; one issue that will be considered is whether a product is produced by GE, which probably will not happen for several years. The hon. Lady will know, although she opposes it, that we have made steps towards bringing in some GE pilots, which I think are going well. I look forward to working with hon. Members across the House on how to label such substances in future.

Coastal Communities

Coastal communities are key to our levelling-up agenda. A positive picture is emerging for our fishing industry, with a quota uplift of £146 million by 2026. In addition, our £100 million UK seafood fund will invest in coastal communities across the UK.

Research has shown that, with rising sea levels, Southport could resemble an island by 2050 if no further action is taken. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State commit to visiting Southport to explore what further steps we could take to protect my constituents’ homes from rising water levels and the increased risk of flooding?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have increased spending on flooding to £5.2 billion so that we can better protect 336,000 properties across England. I would, of course, be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and visit his constituency to discuss the particular challenges that Southport faces.

The fishing industry in Shetland is being hammered by Spanish boats engaging in the completely unsustainable practice of gill netting. I have spoken to the fishing Minister about this in the past. What is being done to stop it or to ensure that, if it is to be done, it is to be done safely?

We keep different gear types and fishing practices under constant review. Concerns are sometimes raised about gill netting; that can be a sustainable form of fishing in some inshore waters, but not in all cases. I would be willing to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss his particular concern, although in some areas it will be for Marine Scotland to make the technical decisions.

Topical Questions

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.