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Topical Questions

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 28 April 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused shocks to international commodity markets. Over the last few days, I have been in the United States to meet political leaders and the US farming industry to discuss the challenges that they face and the global situation. There are many similarities in our concerns, particularly about rising fertiliser costs and labour availability. This week, the UK issued a joint statement with the US on the importance of keeping markets open so that we can move wheat and other essential commodities to nations that were previously reliant on Ukraine for their supply.

I strongly support the Government and the Department in their introduction of biodiversity net gain, which could be transformative across the east and south-east of England in particular. Will the Secretary of State commit to ensuring that biodiversity net gain becomes mandatory on all construction sites in England by the end of 2023?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of biodiversity net gain. It will ensure that we can get the housing development that we need while protecting nature and building back greener. We have committed to a two-year transitional period to ensure that biodiversity net gain is introduced in that timeframe.

The National Audit Office’s damning report on waste crime published this week has revealed the Tory Government’s shameful record on prosecutions and enforcement. When will the Minister finally get a grip on tackling waste crime and at least set a robust and achievable target for precisely how many criminals the Environment Agency will prosecute this year?

We have a suite of measures that will help crack down on that. Yes, the report was damning and showed the size of the problem, but we have established the Joint Unit for Waste Crime to disrupt serious and organised waste crime and the Environment Agency has enhanced powers, as do local councils. Local authorities have the legal powers to take enforcement action and I urge them to use them. We have bolstered those powers. We have awarded £450,000 across 11 councils for the use of innovative technology, such as CCTV cameras, to really drive down on this issue.

T3. I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to end the scourge of fly-tipping across the country. It is the No. 1 issue that every one of my constituents raises when I speak to them. Can she assure us that there will be a process for urban and suburban councils to get funding from the Department to ensure that they can combat this scourge in our society? (906659)

I am working on the next tranche of funding to help tackle this scourge. My hon. Friend talks tirelessly about the challenge in Harrow. I would be really happy to come and see the issue for myself, and discuss with his constituents what more we can do, because Conservatives absolutely want to get rid of this blight.

T2. I invite the Minister to visit Ellesmere Port, where we have many fly-tipping hotspots as well. If there are to be further rounds of grants, I urge her to ensure the criteria for selection are transparent and clear, so we all know what we are looking for to get approvals to deal with this issue. (906658)

T4. Last year in my constituency, storm overflows discharged untreated sewage into the Thames estuary no less than 48 times for the equivalent of 10 whole days, which is totally unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister tell me please what is being done to stop water companies discharging sewage into the Thames estuary around Southend? (906661)

I agree that that is completely unacceptable, which is why the Government are absolutely on it with all the new duties under the Environment Act 2021 and our direction to Ofwat. We have just launched the storm sewage discharge reduction plan consultation, which will set out how we will revolutionise how water companies tackle sewage discharges. I must also mention the Thames tideway tunnel, which is due to complete.

T5. Farmers across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are very innovative and want to diversify. Can I ask the Minister a straightforward question? What is being done to encourage farmers to do just that to help the economy? (906662)

Up to 2028-29, we will be investing £270 million across a programme of innovation to boost research and development, and innovation. I spoke to Northern Irish farmers only this week. They are with us in driving that forward.

T6. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth), will my hon. Friend consider giving special designation to shellfish waters, such as those in the Blackwater estuary where Maldon oysters are grown, to protect them from contamination from untreated sewage discharges? (906663)

I have been working closely with my hon. Friend the Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food on this issue. I can confirm that Blackwater, in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, is one of 96 designated shellfish waters, which are designated to protect economically significant shellfish production.

T7. May I tell the Minister about the very good meeting yesterday with National Farmers Union Scotland and Scotland Office Ministers on the operation of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, the powers under the Agriculture Act 2020 and the wider problems of keeping the integrity of the UK internal market? It was pretty clear, however, that those issues affect farmers right across the whole of the United Kingdom, and she can expect to hear from the Scotland Office in early course as a consequence of our meeting. When she receives those representations, will she do as the Scotland Office has done and bring in all the farmers? (906664)

I had a good meeting with Lesley Griffiths and Mairi Gougeon last night. We will continue to discuss these matters.

Further to the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Anna Firth) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Environmental Audit Committee published its report on water quality in rivers, which was widely well received across the House. The Government are supposed to respond to a Select Committee report within 60 days. I granted an extension to 90 days. I think we are now at 105 days. Can we please have this report today?

I am well aware of that issue, as my right hon. Friend knows—indeed, I have discussed it with him—and I absolutely am chasing this up. If I could, I would get the response to him today, but it will come very soon.

Input costs in agriculture are at a tremendous high, including for feed, fuel, fertiliser, energy and wages. On that last point, the Home Office’s pernicious surcharge on growers of £10.10 an hour has no basis in reality. Will the Secretary of State explain what the Home Office is thinking, and will he come to speak to my local growers to see how they can make their way through this unnecessarily difficult situation?

In introducing the seasonal agriculture workers scheme, we were very keen for it not to undermine the domestic labour market and prevent people from joining it. We wanted to give industry access to labour, but not to cheap labour. That is why we followed the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation to have a slightly higher minimum wage for those coming in under the scheme.

In Wales and Aberconwy, farmers have told me of their concerns that an unintended consequence of encouraging tree planting is, specifically, the creation of a new asset class by carbon capture incentives, which encourage the purchase and forestation of viable upland farms. Will my right hon. Friend reassure them that he has that under control?

I reassure my hon. Friend that we are well aware of that challenge. My noble Friend Lord Benyon is leading a piece of work on the green market, including looking at where we should allow private capital to support the development of new forestry.

Further to the questions about sewage, there are fears that dogs swimming in rivers will be poisoned by sewage. Will the Secretary of State make it mandatory for water companies to report on the number of dogs and animals poisoned in their rivers and name and shame the worst offenders?

We have been clear about our work to crack down on pollution in rivers. We have just launched our targets, which have all the details, and our storm sewage overflows discharge plan consultation. I recommend that the hon. Lady looks at and puts her views in.

Kingfisher Seafoods in my constituency is one of the largest producers of cockles and mussels in the UK. It has been awarded a grant by the Marine Management Organisation to move into depuration, but unfortunately, the equipment that they need to buy will not be available by the time the grant expires. May I urge the Minister to apply some of her good sense to the MMO to get it to work with Kingfisher on a solution to that?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his constituents, and particularly for that seafood company. We have discussed it before, and I undertake to look into how we can extend the time available for the application process.

A successful slush syrup manufacturer in my constituency recently reformulated its recipe to reduce sugar, replacing it with glycerine as the anti-freezing agent. As a result of the war in Ukraine and covid, glycerine has become unobtainable, or obtainable only at absolutely exorbitant prices. Will the Minister urgently meet me to discuss how we can make sure that that successful manufacturer keeps manufacturing?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that issue. As I said, we have good food security. We are very fortunate that the war in Ukraine has not directly impacted most of the food that we eat, but in isolated cases, there are real difficulties.