The Secretary of State was asked—
Cost Increases: Food Producers and Consumers
I draw the attention of the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I also pay tribute to the previous Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, who did fantastic work supporting UK agriculture, the environment and rural communities.
I can report to the House that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused huge ripples around the world in spiking energy and food costs. Food costs rose by 12.7% in this year to July, but the Government have already taken action to support farmers, pulling forward this year’s basic payment scheme payments and making sure that consumers are supported with their energy bills, with a huge package to support people with the cost of living.
I welcome the Minister to his new place. National Farmers Union of Scotland president Martin Kennedy has urged the new Prime Minister to immediately, on behalf of all food producers and consumers,
“address the brutal ‘here and now’ facing farming and food production whilst delivering an unequivocable commitment to the importance of food security across the UK”.
Given that the Prime Minister was formerly a DEFRA Minister, what funding support is being considered for Scottish and UK food producers, and what plans are there to ensure that affordable food is secured for consumers?
I hope the hon. Lady will recognise the contribution of UK farmers across generations to keeping the UK and Europe well fed for decades, which will of course continue. The Government are committed to supporting UK farmers through the use of taxpayers’ money, and I am sure that will also continue, but this is a challenge that we take very seriously and she will see that support over the coming months.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. Will he encourage the large supermarkets to enable community food projects such as Threehills Community Supermarket in Glasgow South West to purchase much-needed top-up supplies in bulk from their depots at as discounted a cost as possible, and can he assure the House that community food projects will be given top priority in his Department?
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that retailers will play a huge part in solving the challenges we face, not only in the United Kingdom, but across the whole world, with the price of food going up. The Government continue to engage with those food retailers, and we will support them in any way we can to try to help our consumers. He also highlights community projects, which have a huge part to play in meeting the challenge.
Local food partnerships could play an important role in providing resilience and healthy, cost-free produce to the local community. In this time of drought and water restrictions, however, South East Water has not made an explicit exemption for such partnerships, and that will really curtail their activity. Will the Minister join me in calling on the company to revisit its position—in line, I believe, with other water companies?
Of course those water companies have other responsibilities as well, but the use of water for agricultural food production will be fundamental to our success. My hon. Friend may be aware that there is a debate in Westminster Hall later today on food infrastructure, and she may want to come and contribute to that debate.
I warmly welcome the new Farming Minister to his place. I am delighted to see that he has been appointed during Love Lamb Week; he certainly knows his way around a lamb dinner. The sheep farmers in my Brecon and Radnorshire constituency produce world-class food that is good for our health, our environment and the rural economy. Will he take this early opportunity to restate his commitment to the red meat sector, and may I invite him to visit one of the seven livestock markets in my constituency?
I contemplated denying liking a lamb dinner, but I do not want to start by misleading the House. We recognise the huge contribution that Welsh farmers make not only to lamb production, but to food supplied to our country, and I would be delighted at some point, if my diary allows, to visit Brecon and Radnorshire to see one of those livestock markets.
First, may I welcome the new Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), 54and his Ministers to their place? I look forward to a constructive relationship, but it will be a testing relationship, as we work through the catalogue of failures left by his predecessor.
Rocketing food costs have pushed inflation to a 40-year high and, according to the Bank of England, households and food producers are set to face harder pressures yet. Last week, I received a letter from a family bakery who are extremely worried that their energy bills are increasing by 380%, potentially risking the viability of some of their stores. An energy crisis, a food security crisis, a labour crisis and an import cost crisis—how much worse is it going to get for businesses and the 7 million people already in food poverty?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and look forward to working with the Opposition Front Bench. I would strongly push back at his comments about the previous Secretary of State. The work he did to support rural communities and UK agriculture was fantastic, and we should pay tribute to him for that. Of course, Vladimir’s invasion of Ukraine has caused massive ripples. It is a global challenge, but we are in a position where the UK economy is fit, and that puts us at an advantage compared with some of our competitors around the world. We will be able to intervene to try and assist people. We have already committed to £37 billion of support for consumers, and if the hon. Gentleman waits, he will be able to listen to the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box later today setting out her plans to support those businesses and people across the country.
Thank you ever so much, Mr Speaker. It feels like business questions. I thought I was getting away from the right hon. Gentleman, but there is seemingly no escape. May I welcome him to his new role and congratulate the new Secretary of State? I know they have a huge inbox—they do not have to seek problems. As we have heard, there are rocketing prices for the rural economy and astronomical price rises for the consumer, and on top of that there is a fertiliser crisis, agflation in the sector and a harvest that remains unpicked because of the lack of seasonal labour. So is this the right time to pick a fight with the EU over the Northern Irish protocol, with the real risk of tariffs being introduced for the sector? Is now not the time to climb down, negotiate properly and get the best possible solution for our farmers, our producers and our consumers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I, too, thought I had escaped him. He will be surprised to know that there is another method available to us, which the SNP does not understand. We do not have to pick a fight with everybody; we can actually talk to people and negotiate, and that is what we are doing with the EU. We are trying to build relationships rather than pick a fight with the whole world.
Fertilisers make up around 9% of input costs into food production. Cost increases may be absorbed at various points within the supply chain, but of course we should recognise that there has been a huge spike because global energy prices are going up. The Government recognise that input costs have increased and are challenging cash flow. That is why we brought forward the direct payments to try to help people with their cash flow, and we will continue to monitor that as we move forward.
Last month my constituents at CF Fertilisers were made redundant. Within days of that happening, the company announced that it was halting CO2 production at its plant in Billingham. I know that the Minister is new in place, but I warned his predecessors again and again that we could not afford to be in such a vulnerable position and that we should have got the company sold to the many people who are interested in purchasing it. I am so disappointed that we have got to this point, because it was completely avoidable. Will he, on behalf of his Department, apologise to my constituents who have lost their jobs unnecessarily and to everyone in the country who will be paying more for their food as a result of this very short-sighted decision?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, we do not want the company to be able to exploit the monopoly position it holds within the marketplace. It has ceased the production of ammonia at the plant, but it will continue to produce ammonium nitrate and nitric acid. The Government continue to engage with the plant to make sure we can secure supplies of fertiliser and other products.
I do not think the situation could be any more serious for farmers in this country, both grain farmers and grass farmers. The UK requires around 2.2 million tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser, and about 1 million tonnes of that came from the Ince plant and the Billingham plant. The Ince plant is shut and the Billingham plant is paused while waiting for deliveries of ammonia in order to switch from North sea gas. In welcoming the Minister to his place on behalf of the Committee, may I ask him to say when the first load of ammonia will arrive at Billingham and when production will commence? There is a real fear that the plant might not start, and then we will really be in serious trouble.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. That is something that we take seriously. We recognise the huge challenge to not only UK agriculture, but other sectors around the country. He will be aware that AdBlue, which many diesel cars up and down the country use, is also dependent on products of a similar nature. We will have to work together as an industry to look at other alternatives. We may have to look back at our ancestors and how agriculture operated in the ’30s and ’40s, with nitrogen-fixing crops and other agriculture methods, to solve some of the challenges that we face.
I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his place. I am sure that we will work constructively together, and I look forward to swapping Benches at the earliest opportunity. He knows the effect that high input costs have on farmers, whether that is fuel, fertiliser or labour. I am sure that one of the first questions he put to his civil servants was about the CO2 impacts of the shutdown of those facilities. Rather than just reassuring us, will he publish the Department’s assessment of the CO2 consequences of any shutdown at those plants?
It is tempting to resign, to be honest, but I will resist at this moment. We continue to have those conversations. We recognise the size of the challenge. If the hon. Gentleman gives us a small window, we will be able to make a full assessment of where we are at.
Labour Shortages: Agriculture and Fishing
The Government are working to ensure that UK agriculture and fishing sectors secure the labour that they need. We know that there is a shortage of labour and it is difficult for businesses across the food sector. That is why the Prime Minister committed during the leadership campaign to looking at expanding seasonal worker schemes. The Government have already expanded the number of people in the seasonal worker route to 40,000 for horticulture and poultry in 2022; we have commissioned an independent review into labour shortages in the food supply chain in England; and we launched a £10 million skills and training scheme in August 2022 to support new entrants in the fishing sector.
Ending the freedom of movement has been a catastrophe for constituencies such as Ochil and South Perthshire, with labour shortages in every sector, especially food production. The lack of seasonal workers and the food rotting in the fields are evidence of yet more Brexit chaos. We all must surely agree that food waste is a scandal. Given that the new Prime Minister pledged to expand the seasonal worker scheme if she was elected, when will that be done?
I think we need to give the Prime Minister longer than 48 hours to deliver on that commitment. The hon. Gentleman would have kept us in the common fisheries policy by remaining in the EU. The country requires an immigration system that benefits the United Kingdom; we should not just have an open door to anybody who wants to come. We need to be able to select the people who will assist the UK economy and make sure that the people who come to the United Kingdom benefit the United Kingdom.
Key sectors are facing acute labour shortages because of a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for. Salmon Scotland has reported very low unemployment and extremely limited labour availability in rural areas, with processing factories 20% light on staff. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that fishing communities and processing sites have the necessary supply of workers?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I set out, the seasonal agricultural worker scheme is a huge opportunity for people to come to the United Kingdom to support the sector, but we need to make sure that we get the right people coming to support our economy. The last thing that we should do is erect a border between Scotland and the rest of the UK—that would be a tragedy for Scotland. I hope he will reflect on trying to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and the new farming Minister to their places. The seasonal worker scheme is essential to the fruit sector in my constituency of Faversham and Mid Kent, so can my right hon. Friend assure me that it will be not only extended, but improved—and sooner rather than later—so that British consumers can continue to enjoy British fruit?
My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for rural businesses in Kent. I hope she will be aware that in December 2021 the seasonal worker visa route was extended to 2024. This visa route allows overseas workers to come to the UK for up to six months each year to harvest edible and ornamental crops. In June, the Government announced that the food strategy will see the release of an extra 10,000 visas for the seasonal worker route, and this is something the Prime Minister committed to in the leadership election. We recognise the challenge, and we will do all we can to provide support.
I welcome the new Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions, and I look forward to working with them. A number of those at Montgomeryshire agricultural shows raised the issue of labour shortages, and while it is great to have record levels of unemployment in Montgomeryshire, we need people in our dairy farms, our abattoirs and across our food sector. Can I implore the Minister, if he is indeed enjoying a lamb dinner in Brecon and Radnorshire, to venture up to the other half of Powys and come to the biggest Welsh lamb market in the United Kingdom to talk about these important labour shortages and what we can do?
I realise what I have started here. Of course, I recognise the contribution that Welsh farmers are making. I think we should celebrate the fact that unemployment is so low, but in sectors such as the one my hon. Friend describes, that does bring its own challenges. We recognise such challenges, which is why we have the seasonal agricultural worker scheme, and we will be continuing to expand that as we negotiate with the Home Office to make sure the scheme works.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The volume of sewage spewed out by water companies is completely unacceptable, and the public have rightly shown their outrage. Yesterday, in my first day in office, I told water chief executives that it is not good enough, and I have instructed them to write to me formally by 21 September with a plan for how they will make significant improvements. I also met the Environment Agency and Ofwat, and I told them that they should use every enforcement power available to them to make sure that there is compliance. I will not hesitate to take further action if I do not see the pace of change that this House expects.
Over the summer, I had the pleasure of meeting those from the Hampstead and Highgate Angling Society, who fish in all 32 London boroughs. The River Wandle has had a very bad incident of water pollution, which included human sewage, and in the past the Environment Agency itself has said that the fines meted out to Thames Water were “not sufficient”. What is the Secretary of State going to do to improve this desperate situation?
First, it is this Government who introduced the monitoring that allows us to know what is going on. Secondly, it was this Government who introduced the Environment Act 2021, which allows the Environment Agency to levy unlimited fines on water companies.
We all looked on in horror at the viral images of beaches in Sussex being destroyed by disgusting sewage overflows. I have heard that businesses in the area that are very reliant on income from tourists—from beachside cafés in Seaford to tourist hotspots in Eastbourne—have lost money because beaches were shut and people were put off swimming in poisoned water. Will the Minister demand that Southern Water compensates Sussex seaside businesses?
First, I have already set out to the House what I intend to do. Secondly, I would observe that the Liberal Democrats’ plan is simply to play politics with this serious issue. When they were in government they did not take the action that we have done now. Sadly—and this is the serious point—what they are calling for in their leaflets is for sewage to flow back into people’s homes, because that is the consequence of what they are proposing.
Since asking a question on this issue in the House on Tuesday, we now have a new Secretary of State—I welcome him to his place—but we also have a new wave of sewage warnings across the country. Over 100 beaches have pollution warnings for untreated sewage. Water companies such as Northumbrian Water in my area have paid billions in dividends for dumping filthy raw sewage on to our playing fields, our beaches and our waters, and that is having a huge impact on biodiversity and public health. I went to the River Don in Boldon in my constituency a few weeks back, and the stench alone made clear the scale of the issue. The last Minister refused to do anything about this environmental vandalism. Will the new Minister take urgent action?
First, I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s account at the end of her question. The Government have been working on this issue, and we passed the landmark Environment Act 2021. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Double) published his plan over the summer, and we set out in that plan that there will be £56 billion of capital investment to tackle these issues. Indeed, we have ruled out some of the rises that the Opposition would have liked, which have added £122 to household bills. As I set out to the House, we are tackling this.
Ripping out our existing combined sewerage infrastructure is simply unaffordable, but will the Secretary of State, who I welcome to his post, look at sustainable development systems of the sort that have been implemented to very good effect in cities as far away as China and North America, particularly as the Government look at revising their planning laws to build much-needed housing?
I welcome the Secretary of State to his position, and I am pleased with the strength of the DEFRA team. I have spoken to him this morning about flooding on the River Severn, and I have also been contacted by residents of Coton Hill about the quality of the River Severn through Shrewsbury, and some of the discharge issues that he has heard about. Will he please accept my invitation to visit the River Severn and meet residents, and hear their strength of feeling about the need for him to take action on this essential issue?
The Liberal Democrats seem obsessed with my constituency, whether that is the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) this morning, or the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) yesterday. Does the Secretary of State agree that they need to be honest with people in my town of Seaford that their plan, when heavy rainfall occurs, would result in sewage backing up into people’s homes, gardens and roads, and that the Government’s £56 billion investment is the only sustainable solution?
My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituents and constituency, and she is right to say that although storm overflows should not be used, they are a safety valve. They stop the flooding of raw sewage back into people’s homes—that is what the Liberal Democrats are promising.
Over the summer, the Government allowed water bosses to dump sewage on 90 beaches in our coastal hotspots—the foundation of those visitor economies—affecting already hard-squeezed businesses that are barely keeping their heads above water. We hear that the Secretary of State is satisfied by a telephone call with water bosses, but does he not realise that they are laughing at him? They are laughing at Ofwat, laughing at the Environment Agency, laughing at the country, and laughing all the way to the bank. Without tougher penalties to ensure that there is a bottom line, they will not change their behaviour. Does he agree that there must be tougher sanctions, including prison sentences?
I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to be constructive, but now he is playing politics. Clearly he was not listening when I set out my plan a moment ago. First, the water companies are reporting back in two weeks, and secondly we have legislated to issue unlimited fines through a criminal process, and we will not hesitate to do more.
Fish Stocks and Marine Life
The UK’s rivers and seas boast some of the greatest biodiversity and marine life anywhere in the world. The Government have prioritised protecting species, not least by leaving the common fisheries policy that did so much to damage fish stocks. We have also announced plans to reduce the sewage being discharged in our seas and rivers, and we have recently taken action to protect our precious chalk streams against drought.
I hope that the Minister is aware of the ecological disaster off the coast of Teesside and North Yorkshire that has had a devastating effect on the fishing industry. Catches are now less than 10% of what they were, and it appears that a large part of our sea is dead or dying. When will Ministers recognise that they cannot rely on the conclusion that an algal bloom was probably the cause of this disaster, order a more comprehensive study into what is happening and come up with solutions to save our sea?
I pay tribute to the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who has done a lot to highlight the issue. We do have to listen to science and the scientists who have done investigations, and one of their conclusions was that the algal bloom was a huge factor. We continue to talk to bodies in the north, including the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, which is continuing to carry out tests on material from the north-east coast. It is a challenge that we recognise, and we will continue to work with the authorities in that part of the country.
Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill
The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was introduced in June 2021 as part of our animal welfare action plan. The Bill delivers three important manifesto commitments—strengthening protections for pets, farmed and kept wild animals—as well as other valued reforms. It was reintroduced in May following Her Majesty’s most Gracious Speech and will continue to Report as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome him to his position. I am sure that he will do an excellent job and look forward to working with him. I also welcome the Government’s commitment to the kept animals Bill, which will introduce landmark protections for pets, livestock and kept wild animals. That will include helping in the fight against puppy and kitten smuggling and cracking down on pet theft. Those milestone protections are hugely important to my constituents in Old Bexley and Sidcup who, like me, are animal lovers—hopefully, they may even vote for Westminster dog of the year next week. Will he provide assurances that the Government’s commitment to this landmark legislation will mean that Ministers will now go further and explore measures such as increasing the minimum age at which dogs can be brought to the UK, and prohibiting the importation to the UK of heavily pregnant dogs and those with cropped ears?
The kept animals Bill does include the powers to introduce those restrictions through secondary legislation. Last year, Her Majesty’s Government launched a consultation that proposed measures for both commercial and non-commercial movements of dogs into Great Britain, and I am told that there were more than 20,000 responses, so there was clearly a great deal of interest from the public. My Department will publish a response in due course.
I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State to his place. I pay tribute to the previous DEFRA team and look forward to continuing a robust relationship with the new team.
On a recent visit to Battersea here in London and to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Newport, I saw the consequences of the Tory cost of living crisis. I heard about Frasier, a four-year-old domestic short-hair cat who was taken to Battersea in June by his heartbroken owner who was facing financial hardship and could no longer afford to keep his beloved pet. That is happening across our country because people cannot afford to keep their family pets, so we need a plan. Will the Secretary of State tell us what it is?
First, the Government will cut people’s taxes. We are going to let people keep more of their own money. We are going to ensure that people continue to have great jobs in the economy by incentivising investment in our businesses. If the hon. Lady and Opposition Members are willing to stay in the House a bit longer, they will hear from the Prime Minister herself.
It is a privilege to be asked to serve as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In doing so, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) for his nine years of service as a Minister in the Department, and to all those who served with him. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister set out her commitment to get Britain growing. That means backing our thriving British food industry, working for a cleaner environment and maximising the benefits of Brexit. From food security and supporting our farmers to water quality and economic growth for our rural communities, there is much to do, and the Government are determined to deliver.
Valiant food banks serving Newport East tell me that they will really struggle to stay open this winter with rising energy, fuel and insurance costs and people finding it more difficult to donate to them. They provide a vital service that, sadly, we will need more than ever before, so what immediate steps will the Government take to help them stay open this winter?
My hon. Friend is, of course, right. I also encourage him to wait to hear what the Prime Minister says later today. It is very, very important to ensure we continue to be able to produce some of the best food in the world and the Government are committed to doing that.
Listening to those on the Labour Benches, one would think that between 1997 and 2010 there was no sewage discharge from our system. The fact is that there was, but it is only because of the measures that this Government have taken to put monitoring in place that we are aware of the problem, and we are now the first Government ever to take action to solve this problem.
I pay tribute to Rob and Sally. Staffordshire farmers are second only to Nottinghamshire farmers in their delivery for UK food production.
In my tourist town of Eastbourne, the sea is our greatest asset. Meeting with the Environment Agency just a week or two ago, water quality was deemed to be good, yet social media discharges by local Liberal Democrats would have people believe that it is dangerous to swim. Does my hon. Friend agree that the raft of measures we are bringing in through the Environment Act 2021 will not only improve the quality of the water, but that responsible, balanced and honest accounting is important, too?
My hon. Friend is a strong champion for her constituency of Eastbourne and the businesses there. She is absolutely right. This is the first Government ever to take the action we are taking to address this long-standing issue that has been going on for many, many generations. She is absolutely right that the misinformation put out by some Opposition parties is shameless scaremongering.
I want to see clean water in the Ladybrook, the Micker brook and all the streams that feed into the great River Mersey. United Utilities is responsible for our waste water and sewage discharges. It is consulting on its plan to spend up to £18 billion on the water quality and discharges in our area. I am asking my Cheadle constituency to join that consultation. Will the Minister join me in encouraging everybody to play their part and make their voices heard?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that addressing that long-standing issue will be a combined effort with everyone working together. It is really important that everyone engages in ensuring that we get the right solutions in every situation to address the problem and reduce the amount of sewage being discharged as quickly as possible.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. The demand for pet food banks is more than doubling in parts of the UK as owners have to make heartbreaking decisions thanks to the cost of living crisis. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), said, charities are bracing themselves for an increase in the number of abandoned animals, but it does not have to be this way. What assurances can the Minister give us about targeted financial support for those charities through a really difficult winter?
I am sure that we would all agree that owning a pet brings additional responsibilities. Everyone should consider those, including the costs, before deciding whether to take on that responsibility. The Government have already introduced £37 billion-worth of support to help households, targeting that at those most in need. The Prime Minister will announce further measures later today.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, as well as the news from the Environment Agency on Wednesday that there will now be a regulatory investigation into Walleys Quarry in my constituency. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for his help over the summer. Will the new Secretary of State visit Newcastle-under-Lyme, and does he agree that now that we have two investigations—regulatory and criminal—into Walleys Quarry Ltd, it is imperative that those are concluded as soon as possible so that my constituents get justice and everyone gets to see some accountability?
I am very aware of the issue that my hon. Friend is raising, and I am pleased that we are making progress with the Environment Agency on enforcement action. I am very happy to meet him to ensure that we continue to do all we can, and if appropriate, to visit the site with him.