The Secretary of State was asked—
Air pollution is at a record low. However, we need to do more to protect the vulnerable, in particular, and drive cleaner air for all. Last year, more than £1 million was awarded to local authorities under the Department’s air quality grant for projects specifically aimed at children. Yesterday, we announced more than £11 million-worth of grants, across 40 local authorities, to improve air quality; several of these projects were focused on schools and their monitoring.
Vortex, a company in Swansea bay, manufactures high-quality, low-cost digital monitors—it has 500 across Hammersmith—which help to deliver local air quality schemes, with public support. Given that half a million children in schools are suffering from toxic levels of air pollution, will the Minister undertake to provide monitors across the country, to drive public opinion and better air quality, in accordance with World Health Organisation standards?
The hon. Gentleman is a very assiduous campaigner on this topic. Local authorities can choose to monitor outside schools, but it is often better to target resources at improving air quality generally. As I say, we gave £11.6 million yesterday, of which more than £1 million was also for education, following the coroner’s report on Ella Kissi-Debrah. I would, of course, be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue further.
The Government have a world-leading target to halt nature’s decline by 2030, and recovering urban biodiversity is an important part of that work. Through our local nature recovery strategies, we will identify local priorities for nature recovery, including of course in urban areas, such as creating, connecting and restoring habitat to form part of our nature recovery network. We are investing £750 million through the nature for climate fund, and I urge my hon. Friend to look at the range of funding we have available, including the local authority treescapes fund and the urban tree challenge fund.
Local urban communities such as Southport benefit enormously from trees, shrubbery and other green spaces that promote biodiversity and rewilding, but there are strong concerns among my constituents that Sefton Council is planning to cut back the greenery along Southport’s pavements and replace it with concrete blocks for cycle lanes. So will my hon. Friend support my attempts to fight this nature crime—a potential tree massacre—by Labour-controlled Sefton Council?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for this, as Members can tell, and he has regularly bent my ear about the green spaces in his constituency. Through our Environment Act 2021, we have a strengthened duty on local authorities to assess what they can do to further conservation and biodiversity, and we have placed a duty on designated authorities to produce these local nature recovery strategies. We also have that world-leading target to halt the decline in nature. So I urge him to work with the council and get it to do more, but it could replace those concrete blocks with hedges. The air pollution Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), would be grateful for that, as there are some views that that would help to tackle air pollution as well.
How bio- diversity and renaturing is undertaken in the UK will be guided by the convention on biological diversity. Biodiversity has experienced a catastrophic collapse globally. The United Nations biodiversity COP15 is shortly to resume. What are the Government’s strategic goals at COP15? What equivalent headline target is there to the net zero target at COP26, which is well understood in local urban communities and across the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that and for his shared interest in biodiversity. He is right: we must not just do this at home—we have to deal with it abroad as well. Biodiversity loss is a global problem and the forthcoming COP15 on the convention on biological diversity will be really important in furthering our work to bend the curve on the loss of biodiversity. That was agreed at the G7, and the aim of the CBD is to get as many as countries as possible to sign up to that.
Extended Producer Responsibility
The Government consulted on the introduction of extended producer responsibility for packaging last year, and the response will be published shortly. We will then consult on reforms to extend schemes to batteries and waste electronic and electrical equipment this year, and to end-of-life vehicles in 2023. I am keen for industries to step up and come forward with schemes themselves, just as the paint-manufacturing industry has done. My door is always open to ways to drive EPR forward.
I commend the Minister for moving forward with the extended producer responsibility scheme, which has the potential to significantly increase recycling rates for a number of products, but she will be aware of the potential impact on household budgets. She has opened the door to speak to industry; will she also listen to industry about the pace of change, so that we can get it right at an affordable cost?
Many of the companies local to my hon. Friend have articulated their concerns and worries—indeed, during a trip to Viridor last week to look at polymer recycling, I spoke to Unilever, which I believe has a plant local to him. The forthcoming response to the EPR consultation will show businesses that we are listening and working with them. Our initial analysis indicates that EPR will not result in a significant uplift to prices, but we will keep things under review and I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend further.
UK-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement
Over the past 18 months, I have held regular discussions with both the current Secretary of State for International Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), regarding the negotiating mandate for the free trade agreement with New Zealand, which includes protections for British agriculture. Tariff liberalisation for sensitive goods, including beef and lamb, will be staged over time.
The Secretary of State’s decision to seek advice from the Trade and Agriculture Commission is welcome, but the questions on which he seeks advice all seem to revolve around standards. Important though standards are, they are not the full story as far as the crofters and farmers in my constituency are concerned. Will the Secretary of State encourage his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade to take a more farmer and crofter-focused approach? This week the Government’s own figures indicated that that trade deal risks taking £150 million out of British agriculture.
It is important to recognise that New Zealand has always had access to the UK market under an existing World Trade Organisation schedule of around 114,000 tonnes, but in recent years New Zealand has used only half its quota, because long before the quota is filled it is unable to compete with the great UK producers, including those in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Livestock production is important for food production, the capture of carbon in pasture and the preservation of some of our most iconic landscapes. Our new policies—including the new animal health and welfare pathway and the newly increased farming investment fund—will support livestock farmers.
What progress has my hon. Friend made on examining the Welsh compensation scheme for cattle destroyed because of suspected tuberculosis? I understand that the Welsh model pays the value of the animal that is destroyed. What plans does she have to replace the standardised valuations in England, particularly in respect of prize-winning high-quality breeds?
The Welsh Government intend to move away from their current practice of individual animal valuation. They are considering and have recently consulted on moving to a practice of table valuation, such as we use in England. I understand that my hon. Friend recently met the Secretary of State, with her constituent Andrew Birkle, to discuss this important issue.
Most livestock farmers want to follow the best animal welfare standards, and consumers need to have confidence in that. I do not know whether the Minister saw the recent “Panorama” episode, “A Cow’s Life”, but it shows yet another Red Tractor farm that is not meeting those standards. What is she doing to ensure better consumer confidence and to make sure that livestock farmers live up to the standards that they profess to adopt?
The hon. Lady is a great campaigner for animal welfare and she and I have discussed these issues many times previously. She is right to raise the important issue of animal welfare again and I would be delighted to talk to her about our recently published animal health and welfare pathway. An annual vet visit to every farm and direct discussion between the vet and the farmer will really help at a granular and practical level to bring about the increases in animal welfare that we all want.
As with the pandemic, the dreadful situation in Ukraine has brought food security into sharp relief. Currently, the pig sector in the UK is still in crisis, with thousands of animals dammed back on farms and more than 40,000, sadly, having been culled on farms and not going into the food supply chain, creating huge health and welfare issues. I know that the Government have put measures in place and that the Minister is chairing summits, but can she update the House on what the Government are doing to avert this human and animal welfare crisis?
It is fair to say that the dreadful situation in Ukraine means that food security in the broader sense is uppermost in all our minds. We must feel very fortunate in this country that we grow almost all our own grain and are able to be so self-sufficient—74% self-sufficient in the food that we grow. That is not to say that we should be complacent. The Government are working very closely with industry at all levels, with processors and retailers, and not just in the pig sector.
The £150 million impediment to livestock farmers as a consequence of the New Zealand trade deal is a direct consequence of Brexit, as are the lack of Northern Irish animals at Stirling bull sales; the lack of an ability to export seed potatoes to Northern Ireland and the EU; the tariffs on jute sacks for seed potatoes; and the nightmare of exporting shellfish. These are direct consequences of Brexit. Can the Minister give my Angus farmers just one single benefit of Brexit and make sure that it is not some nebulous opportunity that has not been realised?
I wish—and I am sure that some of the hon. Gentlemen’s farmers wish—that the Scottish Government were going with the real benefits that we are able to make as a result of Brexit in the agricultural space. In England, we will be able to move towards a system of paying people for producing public goods. In Scotland, that option is not yet available to farmers. I will be meeting NFU Scotland later today to discuss further issues to do with Scottish farming.
I note that the Minister did not address the question about the pig crisis. Pig farmers have been in crisis month after month after month, and, frankly, the Government’s response has always been too little and too late. As was said, more than 40,000 pigs already culled on farms have been completely wasted. It is becoming apparent that one problem is the failure of the processors to honour the contracts to farmers. How much more suffering has to be endured before the Minister does as she has hinted that she might do and passes this to the Competition and Markets Authority, so that we can find out what has been going wrong in what increasingly looks like a broken market?
Only time constraints prevented me from setting out in full what we are doing with the pig industry. We have been careful to work with the pig industry in lockstep at all stages and have brought into play actual schemes that are helping them today. I agree that the supply chain in pigs is in trouble. I have said that frequently, and I have started a review of that supply chain—a serious and systematic review—which may well result in regulatory change. In the collection of the evidence, we will certainly refer matters to the Competition and Markets Authority at the appropriate time, when we have the right evidence. In the interim, I would be most grateful if any pig farmer or producer sent me a copy of a contract, which has been very, very hard to find, as I would very much like to see that.
International commodity prices are heavily influenced by factors such as energy costs and exchange rates. Recent pressures have been sustained and we have seen food price inflation rise to 4.4% in January, up from 4.2% in December. Events in Ukraine and the effect of that on energy prices are likely to have further impacts, which we are monitoring closely. Our UK food security report, published in December, included analysis of food security at household level.
The cost of living is rocketing and the price of food has risen by 3.9% year on year. Food banks such as Hebburn Helps and Bede’s Helping Hands in my constituency tell me that they are as busy as ever, as more and more people are being driven into poverty, having to choose between eating and heating. Does the Minister agree that the time has now come for the Chancellor to commit to ending food poverty in the UK by including in his forthcoming spring statement all the measures set out in the “Right to Food” campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) to achieve the permanent eradication of hunger in the UK?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government have put in place a number of measures to help households, particularly with the sharp increase in energy costs that they face. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have set those out previously. In addition, we have other schemes such as the holiday activity programme to support those suffering from food insecurity and additional food costs, and we have given local authorities additional measures to help them with those struggling to afford food.
With Putin’s murderous regime wreaking havoc on Ukraine and murdering innocent women and children, there is a direct impact on food and grain prices. Ukraine has stopped exports, as have many other countries. What will the Secretary of State do to protect grain supplies in this country? Secondly, what talks will he have with the retailers to ensure that we can share some of the pain of the costs, which pig and poultry just cannot stand? Thirdly, how are we going to create greater food security and grow more grain in this country, which we are in need of?
On my hon. Friend’s final point, we published a highly comprehensive analysis of our food security, including a focus on the production to supply ratio, which showed that we produce roughly three quarters of the food that we are able to grow and consume here. On his specific point, we were aware of the risk of these events in Ukraine and set up a dedicated group within DEFRA at the beginning of January to do contingency planning for the possible impacts on food. We do not import wheat from Ukraine, or only very small quantities; we are largely self-sufficient in wheat and we import the balance from Canada. However, we are looking at the cost of inputs, particularly for the livestock sector, such as poultry.
The Secretary of State will be aware of widespread concern that the rising cost of fertiliser will add further inflationary pressures to the price of food. Indeed, I have been told by one farmer of a quote for £930 a tonne plus VAT for a shipment that last year cost about £280. What steps can the Government take to address this crisis and ensure that our food security is not undermined?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Fertiliser prices had spiked even before current events in Ukraine, because the cost of ammonium nitrate is heavily dependent on the cost of gas, as he knows. We have been working closely with our own domestic producer in the UK to ensure that it maintains production. Most farms will now have purchased their fertiliser and have it on farm for the current growing season or the beginning of it, but we are setting up a special group with industry to work on this challenge and to identify better long-term solutions that rely less on the price of gas.
Price rises are having an adverse effect on the household budgets of people across my constituency, perhaps none more so than those people who are off the gas grid and must buy heating oil or gas in bulk. They are not protected by the Government’s energy cap. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what he is doing and what work he is doing with BEIS and the Treasury to help to protect my constituents from bills that may have more than doubled?
I have had conversations with the Business Secretary on this matter. The disruptions we are seeing, particularly following events in Ukraine, are having some impact on the supply of household heating oil for those who are not on the grid. I know he is well aware of these issues and his Department is working closely on it.
Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine clearly drastically affects Ukraine’s ability to produce grain and many other foodstuffs, threatening not only price increases, but global famine and disease spread. Domestically, our farmers are experiencing increased seed, fertiliser and transport costs, and the UK, lacking the leverage it once had as part of the EU, is now a small player on the global market. The Secretary of State mentioned a food security review and summits. Exactly what actions is his Department taking to ensure food security in the UK and stabilise food prices, and what plans are the Government making to assist developing countries to meet their needs?
Tomorrow, I will attend a special session of the G7 where, with other like-minded countries, we will discuss some of those issues and the impact on international commodity prices. It is inevitable that when a country such as Russia under Putin takes such steps, there will be some turbulence in the market. It is essential that the world community shows solidarity in taking tough action on sanctions, which we will do. It is inevitable that there will be some collateral damage to our own interests and prices, but nevertheless we must see that through and impose those sanctions where they are needed in order to bring the regime to its senses.
Coastal communities are key to our levelling-up agenda, supported by the UK shared prosperity fund, the coastal communities fund and the £100 million UK seafood fund. Up to 2027 we are investing a record £5.2 billion in coastal erosion risk management. That will be invested in about 2,000 schemes and approximately 17% of it is expected to better protect against coastal and tidal flooding. It includes a £140 million coastal project on defences at the Eastbourne and Pevensey coast. We are putting coastal communities right at the heart of this flood protection landscape.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. In Southend, we are blessed with a wonderful coastline, and I am sure she agrees that the best support coastal communities can have is a healthy marine environment allowing our fish and marine life to flourish, thus supporting Southend West’s fishing industry. I would therefore be very grateful to know what is being done to monitor and improve the water quality around the English coast, particularly regarding the reduction of heavy metals, sewage and other pollution, especially around the north Thames coast adjacent to Southend West.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome her to her seat. How wonderful that she has chosen DEFRA orals to ask her first question. That is very fitting, because I think the wonderful Sir David Amess never missed DEFRA questions. She is going to be a great spokesman for her area on this front. She makes a good case for the importance of keeping our waters healthy. In terms of fishing, an inshore survey programme of the outer Thames and the south coast is under way so that we can get data on the fishing stocks to better inform and help our fishermen. A recent survey showed that, remarkably, the Thames estuary, having been declared virtually dead not very long ago, has made a fantastic ecological recovery to the point that we can now see seahorses, eels and seals there.
Who knew we had seahorses off the coast of Eastbourne? This is my perfect moment. I thank my hon. Friend for her answer on the excellent work that is being done on water quality—that is clearly of massive significance to me—and on the coastal defence scheme; Eastbourne is set to potentially receive £100 million to protect the town for 100 years. But my question is about sewage and waste treatment. The sea, and all it affords, is our greatest visitor asset in Eastbourne and highly valued by local people. I recently met my local swimmers—a very hardy crew that includes one cross-channel swimmer. They are concerned about waste treatment because they so enjoy their swimming. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give them about the new powers in the Environment Act 2021 that will address this, but equally about Government-sponsored local action that will improve storm overflows and surface water, and help to take us from “good” to “excellent” status for our bathing water?
I am tempted to ask whether my hon. Friend joined the swimmers with her bathing costume on. I thank her for her work in campaigning on this matter, which she constantly talks about with me. I am delighted that we recently confirmed funding for East Sussex County Council’s Blue Heart project, which she was very proactive about, to help to reach “excellent” bathing water status. That very much focuses on what to do about the surface water and how to separate it from the sewage. That fits fully with all the work we are doing, as a Government, to make a game-changing difference on improving our water quality.
In the past, central Government have helped the Northern Ireland Assembly to address some of those issues, through finance but also through physical help. Has consideration been given to undertaking a UK-wide survey of coastal erosion with a view to taking a UK-wide approach and reinforcing coastal roads and homes on those roads that are unable to withstand these storms, which appear to happen more regularly than ever?
We take coastal erosion extremely seriously, which is why 17% of our flood protection budget is going to be devoted to coastal areas and coastal erosion. We work very closely in advising and liaising with the devolveds, which we are always happy to do. We are updating our shoreline management plans, which will help inform us, and we are happy to share information with our colleagues in the devolveds.
We are the first Government to set out our expectation that water companies must reduce storm sewage overflows, and our Environment Act includes a raft of powers to support that expectation. We have almost doubled the funding available for our catchment farming advisers and have taken action to ban microbeads and microplastics in personal care products. We are currently seeking views on further actions we could take in relation to wet wipes, and will shortly be setting targets under the Environment Act to further improve water quality and drive action in the coming years.
The Secretary of State and his team are a very nice bunch of people, and we have heard a lot of warm words this morning, but what my constituents want is action on clean water. My constituents want clean air and clean water. I spoke to Thames Water yesterday. Leading academics from the University of Reading tell us that the cuts to the Environment Agency mean that the agency is no longer measuring how much pollution is in our rivers. That is a shameful fact. Not one river in our country is safe to swim in—that is the truth. What is the Minister going to do about it?
Action is happening on this side of the House, and if the hon. Gentleman followed it, he would know exactly how much we are doing. Through our Environment Act, we have taken a game-changing move to cut down on the harm caused by storm sewage overflows. Your party, in fairness, never did any of these things. I have inherited—.
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.
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.
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.
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—
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.
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.