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Topical Questions

Volume 710: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022

The harrowing events following the invasion of Ukraine have touched us all. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received inquiries from many farmers, food producers and water companies that want to offer help to the people of Ukraine. We are co-ordinating with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and aid agencies to ensure we target those offers through the right channels.

There has also been some turbulence in international commodity markets, with agricultural commodity prices strongly correlated to the price of energy. My Department established a dedicated team to plan contingencies for this eventuality early in January. While the UK is largely self-sufficient in wheat and imports some, predominantly from Canada, we do import certain vegetable oils from Ukraine. Tomorrow, I will attend a special meeting of the G7 to discuss these issues further.

The amount of meat imported to the UK as a result of the trade deals with New Zealand and Australia will vary considerably, depending on whether it is in carcass form or deboned. Are there any nuances in those trade deals stipulating that the meat coming in should be in carcass form, which will not only limit the amount of meat imported but ensure that the added value of the produce is obtained here?

There is a convention in the sheep meat sector that these international agreements are based on something called the carcass-weight equivalent. That does not always apply to beef. However, the special agricultural safeguard that operates from years 10 to 15 will be based on a carcass-weight equivalent mechanism.

T3. My hon. Friend the Minister knows how important the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill is for animal sanctuaries. Could she update the House on the progress of that Bill and its timeline in this Session? (906003)

The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was introduced in June and completed Committee stage in November. We continue to work on the Bill, and have added a new pet abduction offence and extended the primates measures to Wales. We have also consulted on puppy smuggling. Work continues and I will keep my hon. Friend posted.

It has been two weeks since I submitted this parliamentary question. Russia and Ukraine account for 29% of global wheat exports and are significant in fertiliser supply. Cereal, bread and pasta are household staples for millions of homes across this country. Even before the war in Ukraine began, we were in the midst of a supply chain and cost of living crisis, with gaps on the shelves and food left rotting in the fields. Labour has a plan to buy, make and sell more of our great British produce, but what is the Secretary of State’s plan to address our weakening food security?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are working on a food strategy that will address all these issues across the food supply chain and some of the other challenges around the food industry, too. On his specific question, as I have said, we are largely self-sufficient in wheat production. We import some wheat from Canada. Most of our bread manufacturers therefore have British or Canadian wheat in their bread. We have modelled the impact of the increase in commodity prices on the price of a loaf of bread, and because wheat only represents about 10% of the cost of a loaf of bread, the impact is actually quite modest. A much bigger impact is likely to be the increase in fuel costs, since the cost of delivering bread is the biggest cost they face.

Many food banks have raised concerns that they may face having to turn away hard-working families struggling to get by. Some have reported that donations are down as families feel the cost of living squeeze, but demand for services is rocketing. It cannot be left to charities and retailers such as the Co-operative and others to fight this alone. What will the Government do to step up and deliver food justice, especially given that this cost of living crisis originated in Downing Street?

The big drivers of household financial insecurity are energy costs, housing costs and so on, and that is why the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have already announced schemes to try to help households with the cost of energy. When it comes specifically to food, we have a household support fund worth around £500 million, and at a DEFRA level we support projects such as FareShare.

T5. Breathing clean air is an essential ingredient in living a long and healthy life. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that residents, particularly in our urban areas, are breathing as clear air as possible? What support are the Government offering local authorities to tackle air quality? (906005)

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is a basic right to have clean air. That is why yesterday we announced more than £11 million in grants across local authority projects to improve air quality. We have made £880 million in funding available to support local authorities to tackle their nitrogen oxide exceedances and to get compliance. That is on top of the £2 billion investment in cycling and walking and a further £4 billion for making the switch to cleaner vehicles, showing a cross-Government approach. The Environment Act 2021 ensured that local authorities have the powers necessary to tackle this issue.

T2. I know that as an animal lover, Mr Speaker, you are one of the seven in 10 who think that breeding mammals just for the fur on their backs to end up on a coat is immoral, and the figure is even higher for those against force-feeding ducks and geese for foie gras, so why are the Government even entertaining the idea of lifting the proposed ban on these completely unnecessary so-called luxuries? Can they be true to their Brexit opportunities and put that rumour to bed? (906002)

We are considering the evidence to inform potential action as far as fur goes and we are being guided by the evidence. We will come forward with further information in due course.

According to Southern Water’s own figures, between 27 December 2021 and 6 January 2022, for 236 hours untreated wastewater was discharged from the Lidsey sewage treatment plant into the Lidsey Rife en route to the sea. That is 24 hours a day for 10 consecutive days. The final draft of “The government’s strategic priorities for Ofwat” states that the Government expect water companies to

“significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows.”

Can the Minister confirm—

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has been here a very long time. In topicals, you cannot just ask the question that was missed out previously. You have to shorten the question so it is short and punchy. Otherwise, nobody is going to get in.

Ofwat is legally required to act in accordance with the policy statement that my right hon. Friend referred to, and the Government expect Ofwat to take serious action against water companies. He might be aware that Ofwat called in five water companies just yesterday to look at what they are doing and their data, and our new system will tackle the issue.

T4. Residents of Newcastle’s west end are sick and tired of wading through litter. Despite swingeing cuts to Newcastle City Council’s budget, it found extra money for street cleaning, but council tax payers should not bear the whole burden. The producers of litter should also pay, so why has the extended producer responsibility scheme been delayed? Has the Minister looked at the impact on Newcastle streets and will she compensate the council? (906004)

We will be hearing the response to the extended producer responsibility consultation very shortly. I also highlight that, within a week, we have the Keep Britain Tidy and Clean for the Queen campaigns. That is about everyone taking on part of the responsibility and the extended producer responsibility scheme will help everyone to do that.

I know that the Minister gets regular updates on the situation at Walleys Quarry in Newcastle-under-Lyme. She knows that the problem is not yet solved and people are still having to live with it. What update can she give me? What hope can she give to my constituents? Can she update me on the work of the chief scientific adviser’s team?

DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser has been talking to independent external scientific experts about Walleys Quarry and site capping, gas management, air dispersal and leachate. My officials keep me regularly updated and my hon. Friend knows that I take it very seriously. I get weekly updates and I will keep on applying the pressure to ensure that we get the result.

T6. I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I say to the Secretary of State that farming faces a moment of existential crisis with massively increased input costs, especially for fuel and fertiliser, which could seriously reduce productivity in the long term. Will he use his office to bring together the unions, the supermarkets and other stakeholders in farming to find a way through so that farming has a long-term future? (906006)

Yes, we are doing that in fertiliser. We are also exploring options to identify alternative sources of animal protein.