The Secretary of State was asked—
River Wear: Pollution
The Environment Agency routinely assesses pollution levels in the River Wear, and it is working with the Coal Authority and Northumbrian Water to reduce pollution. The EA will take the strongest enforcement action, where necessary, and improving water quality is a Government priority. Conservative Members voted in favour of a whole range of packages and measures to improve water quality; sadly, the hon. Lady and her colleagues did not.
Following their field trip to the River Wear last month, year 5 and 6 pupils at St Thomas More School in Belmont were saddened by the levels of pollution in the river, especially the amount of plastic, so they have asked me to come here today to keep everyone on the right track. Can the Minister tell the pupils of St Thomas More School what the Government plan to do to help clean up the River Wear to protect local wildlife and preserve the beauty of the riverside?
I commend the St Thomas More primary school pupils for going out, and it is wonderful to get our children out in the environment. It is interesting and perhaps disappointing that they found pollution, but the message to them is that this Government are absolutely on water and river pollution. Indeed, our new proposed target to reduce the amount of pollution in rivers such as the Wear in old abandoned mining areas by 50% by 2030 will make a genuine difference, as will our raft of other measures to tackle storm sewage overflows.[Official Report, 10 May 2022, Vol. 714, c. 1MC.]
Household Budgets: Food Prices
Since we last gathered for DEFRA oral questions, our noble Friend Lord Plumb has, sadly, passed away. He was a titan of the agriculture industry, and National Farmers Union president throughout most of the 1970s, during a period of great change. He then went on to be President of the European Parliament. I know that the thoughts of all those in the House will be with his family.
Agricultural commodity prices fluctuate in any given year based on factors including energy costs and exchange rates. High energy costs exacerbated by events in Ukraine mean that there is going to be pressure on food prices as a result of increased input costs. The Government monitor household spending on food. Between 2008 and 2016, the proportion of household income spent on food by the poorest 20% of households was about 16%. It then dipped to under 15%, but we can expect that proportion to rise.
Family-run farms such as Castle farm in my constituency are really being hit hard by the cost of feed, fuel and fertiliser, which in turn impacts on the cost of things such as eggs, as reported by BBC Wales today, and just adds to the soaring food prices that are hitting families so hard. Why are the Government not doing more, especially when the supermarkets are now cutting prices?
The Government are taking action. We have made available an additional £500 million to help households with increased pressure on household budgets. We are also taking measures, for instance, to remove tariffs on maize to try to reduce the costs of animal feeds. The hon. Member is right that the supermarkets will absorb some of these costs, but probably not all.
What is my right hon. Friend doing to give the Groceries Code Adjudicator some more teeth to make sure that supermarkets do not inappropriately take advantage of the difficulties that we see with food prices? As he will well know, a lot of farmers face great pressure from supermarkets, and some would argue that they actually control the prices that farmers get when that is not really how it should be.
The supermarket adjudicator has, in recent years, made good progress in bringing transparency to the way relationships work between suppliers and the supermarkets. In addition, through the Agriculture Act 2020, we have introduced new powers so that in future we will be able to regulate and improve the transparency and fairness of contracts between farmers and processors.
Britain is besieged by a cost of living crisis. Tax hikes and rocketing bills are making life harder for working people. We know that 4.7 million adults and 2.5 million children live in food poverty, 2.1 million food parcels were issued last year, and 1 million people will not eat at all today. Looking back on his nine years in the Department, what would the Secretary of State have done differently to improve rather than weaken the food security here in the UK?
Our food security, based on the amount of production we have in this country as a proportion of our consumption, has remained remarkably stable, at around 75%, for the past 22 years. Since we have left the European Union, we have had the ability to increase investment in farms and make available more grants for that, which we have done, and we have also introduced measures to improve transparency and fairness in the supply chain.
The Secretary of State knows that the cost of food will get much higher as farmers and producers grapple with increased costs and Government-inflicted labour shortages. As the Minister responsible for food security, will he urgently convene a cross-Government summit with the food industry, devolved and local government and charities to finally get ahead of the crisis—or are the Government once again just out for themselves, out of touch, and completely out of ideas?
I have already had many such meetings with the food industry and the agricultural industry about the current situation and the pressures on those input costs. The next meeting of the UK Agricultural Partnership in Scotland will focus specifically on the issue of food security.
The shadow Secretary of State will be pleased to hear that Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon has called for a four-nation summit, and I believe the UK Government have agreed to that, so I am pleased that that will see some progress.
National Farmers Union of Scotland president Martin Kennedy has said that the UK is on the verge of food security concerns not seen since world war two due to covid, Brexit and the war in Ukraine, with feed, food and fertiliser costs and labour shortages drastically affecting the farming and food production sectors. London School of Economics analysis shows that Brexit alone raised food prices by 6% in the past year or so. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts Brexit losses to be more than £1,250 per person, and 178 times bigger than trade deal gains, which, combined, are worth less than 50p per person. What support packages is the Secretary of State considering for the farming and food production sectors to ensure that their extra costs will not also be passed on to consumers?
The hon. Lady is right: I have spoken to Mairi Gougeon of the Scottish Government, and we are going to have the next meeting of the UK Agricultural Partnership at the James Hutton Institute, which approached me to host that event, and we look forward to it. On her wider points, the truth is that after the 2016 referendum household spending on food actually went down, but food prices have always been governed principally by the price of energy and by exchange rates.
The Government are investing a record £5.2 billion in a six-year flood defence investment programme running from 2021 to 2127. This will be invested in about 2,000 new projects and schemes to better protect 336,000 properties. In terms of the effect on the economy, it will save about £32 billion, which is really significant. Our 2015 to 2021 programme exceeded its expectations and better protected 314,000 properties.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving flood defences. I pay tribute to the work of Councillor Chris Sizeland, who has been working with me and local residents to tackle flooding around Chinley and Whitehough. In 2019 the town of Whaley Bridge was evacuated following a structural failure in the dam wall of Toddbrook reservoir. I am pleased to report to the House that the construction on the £16 million restoration of the reservoir is due to start next month. Will the Minister update the House on progress in implementing the recommendations of the Balmforth report on that incident so that we can get the tougher oversight needed to ensure that such incidents never happen again?
We all remember that event well, and I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend’s report that the reservoir has been made safe. Works were completed in 2019 and the long-term plan is under way. Actions to address 15 of the 22 recommendations made in the independent review after the incident are complete. In order to address the remaining recommendations, the EA will shortly publish guidance for reservoir owners.
The Minister will recall that earlier this year we launched “Connected by Water”, an innovative flood strategy for South Yorkshire that will protect thousands of homes and businesses. I am grateful to the Minister for her support. Will she commit to working with my successor as Mayor, whoever they may be, so that together we can draw down all the investment needed to deliver the plan in full?
We have been in regular touch about this, and this much wider approach to tackling everything connected with flooding is absolutely the right way. It is the direction that the Government are taking, including many nature-based solutions, and my door will always be open to speak to colleagues.
We have banned microbeads in rinse-off personal care products. We have restricted the supply of straws, stirrers and cotton buds. We have consulted on banning other single-use plastic items, including plates and cutlery. We have conducted a call for evidence on problematic plastic items, including wet wipes, tobacco filters and sachets, and we are reviewing that information. Our ambition is to maximise resource, minimise waste and reduce, reuse, recycle. All plastic packaging will be reusable or recyclable by 2025.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, but actually it is about the use of the appropriate material for the appropriate product. Plastic is a good product when used sensibly and when it can be recycled, and we often now see 100% recycled plastic. We are introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers so that consumers can easily recycle them. News of that and work on it will be coming forward shortly, to be delivered in 2025.[Official Report, 18 May 2022, Vol. 714, c. 4MC.]
I am sure the Minister will be aware that we are approaching Reusable Nappy Week, and I declare an interest as my 15-month-old son uses reusable nappies. What more can she do to encourage local authorities to have schemes that support new parents using reusable nappies? It has to be acknowledged that one of the biggest issues for landfill that has still not been dealt with is disposable nappies that have very limited ways of decomposing and cost huge amounts in terms of our carbon problems within the UK and around the world.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue. I have met companies that promote the use of reusable nappies. It is a great idea, and there are also schemes where people can rent and save money by doing so, and so on. All these things are well worth promoting, and I congratulate him on that. He is absolutely right that one of our biggest problems is trying to dispose of all those nappies. Making sure that they do not contaminate material that can be recycled is also hugely important, and all power to him.
I am working with my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) on this, because the challenge in sewers is acute with the build-up of wet wipes. As I say, we have recently conducted a consultation. That consultation has now finished. We are now reviewing the results, and we will be bringing forward more information shortly.
I thank the Minister for her response, and in that theme of positive strategy going forward, what discussions has she had with the Department of Health and Social Care about the packaging of medical supplies being more readily recyclable? The pandemic has clearly illustrated and highlighted the reliance on single-use plastic, and we must do everything we can to reduce that.
There are certain medical devices, where sterility and so on are important, where single-use plastic is the best product available, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the team at the Department of Health and Social Care is working on making sure that products are not only more recyclable, but more reusable, because often it is about that repeatability.
We have announced that we will be supporting our growers by delaying the changes of use to urea fertiliser by a year. We have revised and improved statutory guidance on the farming rules for water, with slurry storage grants available to help farmers to implement them. We are cognisant of fertiliser costs. We are working across Government to ensure that we are aware of and working on the situation. I have an organic fertiliser task and finish group and I am talking to industry and farmers. We have the second meeting of our fertiliser taskforce shortly.
I am extremely worried about the impact that rising fertiliser costs will have on our food production and food security in this country. Andy Matthews, who farms in Aberbrân, tells me that fertiliser was once £270 a tonne and is now £900 a tonne, which is a real risk for our food production capabilities. Innovation will be one of the ways out of that, so can the Minister update the House on the work that she is doing to ensure our long-term food security?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend that innovation is key. We are seeing innovation come through at a tremendous pace to help farmers and growers with some of the key challenges that they are facing. For example, ensuring that we optimise the use of fertilisers is a huge saving, as is ensuring that we can drive yields. We are doing that by investing £38 million through the farming innovation programme. We have launched an £8 million competition for large R&D partnerships. This week, I was at the James Hutton Institute and the Roslin Institute. The amount of innovation that is coming through from farmers and innovators is something that this country should celebrate.
I have been contacted by several farmers in my constituency explaining that, because fertiliser and fuel costs are rocketing, they may not be able to afford to plant for next season. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to reverse the cut to the basic payment scheme to help our farmers survive the crisis?
I thank the hon. Lady for the question. That is too much of a blunt instrument that does not help the right farmers. We are supporting all farmers, which is why the fertiliser taskforce and the work across Government to keep an eye on the situation and to ensure that we are supporting correctly are important.
Some years ago, in high summer, people could often smell Worthing before they could see it, because of the rotting seaweed on the beaches that had previously been collected by farmers before commercial fertilisers became widely available. Now that we have the Sussex kelp restoration project, to which the Secretary of State has kindly already contributed, and given that seaweed has a major environmentally friendly use in feeding livestock and fertilising agricultural lands, will he look again at how we can promote it as a good, environmentally friendly alternative to commercial fertilisers?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), has been down to see that work. Fantastic work is going on in other universities, such as Aberystwyth, on the use of seaweed for feed additives and so on. That is what I am talking about. The time is ripe for us to look at those other developments; what is going on in his area is very exciting.
Does the Minister agree, though, that we must be careful about what we put on our soil in terms of weed killers and nutrients? According to Cambridge University, soil degradation is one of the biggest challenges to our planet. We have been mistreating our soil for many years. Can we be careful about what we do with it?
Indeed, soil is the main plank of the sustainable farming incentive. It lies at the heart of ensuring that our land is as productive as it can be. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and that is where innovation can play its part to ensure that we breed plants that use fewer pesticides and resources. All those things not only enhance our farmland but ensure that our soil is the key ingredient so that we can all feed and improve the biodiversity of our country.
Cost, of course, is incredibly important but so is availability. The UK food system is dependent on two factories for CO2, one of which has been shut for months and the other has been operating at relatively low levels. Before Christmas, the Government were slow to intervene and coy about the terms of the agreement. Can the Minister tell the House today what that agreement was, how much it cost and what the plan is to ensure that the UK food system is secure in future?
This is a highly complex area which obviously involves CO2 and various other things that are important to industries right across the country. We are keeping a very close eye on this, but I say to our farmers that they should have confidence and make sure they put forward their orders so we have sustainable demand, which will of course improve the supply chain.
Sadly, food security has come into sharp relief again with the dreadful situation in Ukraine. Our fantastic farmers in Cumbria and across the UK continue to produce high-quality food in these difficult times but, as we have heard, there are increasing pressures from fertiliser costs, animal feed costs and fuel costs. Can my hon. Friend assure me that there will be cross-Government work to support our farmers to mitigate these pressures so that they can continue to produce the highest quality food?
We maintain a constant dialogue across Government, keeping all these things in view. Through the sustainable farming incentive we are making sure that we allow farmers to plant and be rewarded for planting nitrogen-fixing plants, for example, and that we are making the most of all the technology and innovation to help minimise inputs and keep control on those costs. We are doing that right across the Department.
Invasion of Ukraine: UK Food Security
Ukraine is a significant global producer of many agricultural commodities, such as wheat and sunflower oil. The UK is largely self-sufficient in wheat production and imports a small amount, predominantly from Canada. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has had a significant impact on commodity prices. We are taking steps to assist the food industry in using alternatives to sunflower oil and working with like-minded countries around the world to ensure markets remain open and trade flows continue.
The conflict in Ukraine shows the fragility of many of our supply lines, and it has certainly increased the cost of many inputs and is disrupting the sector considerably. In order to minimise these effects, will the Secretary of State look again with his colleagues at having a more flexible immigration strategy and at uniting again on our sanitary and phytosanitary approach with the European Union, and take steps to make sure we are putting our food security on the same level as our energy security?
We do recognise the importance of food security; under the Agriculture Act 2020 we introduced a new requirement that every three years the Government must publish an assessment of our food security, and we monitor that closely. On the wider point, the reality is that food prices and international commodity prices have always been linked very closely to the price of energy, and the sharp spike in gas prices is inevitably going to have an impact, but overall we are still self-sufficient for about 75% of the foods we consume.
UK-Faroese Fishing Grounds
We do not have jurisdiction over the fishing activities of vessels operating in the special area under a licence issued by the Faroes. However, we have urged the Faroese Fisheries Minister, Foreign Minister and Prime Minister to stop Russian vessels fishing there.
As it happens, I had my own opportunity to make exactly these representations to the Faroese Prime Minister yesterday and I am sure that, like the Minister, I was able to welcome the undertaking that the Faroese will look at not continuing this arrangement when it expires at the end of the year. However, does she agree that, as I said to the Faroese Prime Minister yesterday, the war in Ukraine is happening in the here and now and, while the Faroese have a good and profitable record of playing both sides against the middle, this is one occasion where they really need to pick a side?
I could not agree more, and I hear that that was very much the tone of the useful meeting the all-party group on fisheries had with the Faroese Prime Minister yesterday. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Government Ministers have also made that message loud and clear at all levels.
UK Food Production
Fortunately, we in this country have a high degree of food security. We currently produce about 60% of all the food we need and 74% of all the food we can grow or rear here. We monitor the level of production extremely carefully and, as the Secretary of State said earlier, published a detailed report at the end of last year.
As the shadow Minister referred to earlier, last autumn CF Fertilisers in my constituency stopped production because of high energy costs, and it has not reopened because the demand for its products simply is not there. It really is a concern that farmers are not putting food into the ground because of the high prices. I wonder what the knock-on effect will be in the next two or three years, particularly on availability and cost for consumers as well as my constituents’ jobs. We have had a list of things that the Government are doing, but surely it says something that even now, with rocketing fuel prices and food prices, there is simply not enough demand for that factory to reopen. Does the Minister agree that more must be done?
I chaired a fertiliser taskforce several weeks ago, and the strong message from Government, those who work in the industry and those who supply fertiliser to the industry was that we should have confidence in this year’s fertiliser supply, buy fertiliser and use it as required. We will continue to work together to monitor the situation.
I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments on Lord Plumb, who for over 70 years really fought for agriculture and food in this country.
Further to the great question from my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson), the Agriculture Act 2020 requires the Government to conduct and assess our national food security every five years. The Minister has said that that will be reduced to every three years. In 2020, after food supply chain challenges arose during the pandemic, the Select Committee recommended that the Government commit to producing a report every year and, with the situation in Ukraine, global gas prices, pressures on food supply, severe labour shortages and the high price of fertiliser, that is more important than ever. Will my hon. Friend therefore reconsider producing an annual report?
My hon. Friend knows that food is always at the very top of my agenda, and the nation’s food security is as well. He and I have discussed the right frequency for that report’s sequencing many times. It is a substantial piece of academic work, and I was proud of the version that we published at the end of last year. We have always said that we will undertake more frequent reporting if that is required, but I think that, for that serious piece of work, the three-year timescale is about right.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.