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Topical Questions

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022

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?

T2. From farm to fork, long-term decisions on rising energy prices are being made that could have a devastating impact on food security. Will my right hon. Friend please work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that food production businesses and the wider supply chain receive the support they need to tackle rising energy prices? (901346)

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.

T3. It is not just beaches. In 2021, Ealing and Acton saw 34 raw sewage dumps—216 hours’ worth—including in the dear old River Brent. Did taking back control mean returning to being the dirty man of Europe? Is it any wonder that “Brexit opportunities” has vanished from the new ministerial responsibilities? (901347)

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.

T6. Rob and Sally Mercer, in their farm near Lichfield, each week provide fresh meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables to around 250 families. They run an education project, too, and they have an established charity. I have nominated them for a National Farmers Union community farming hero award, so my challenging question to the Minister is this: does he agree with me that they should get it? (901351)

T4. The Government have said that they aspire to be a global leader in animal welfare, yet only one of the three animal welfare Bills proposed in the 2021 Queen’s Speech has since been enshrined into law. Earlier this year the Government scrapped the Animals Abroad Bill entirely, which would have ensured that cruel animal practices abroad were not supported by the UK consumer market. Does the Minister agree that a country that cares for animals as much as we do should play no part in the import of fur, foie gras and hunting trophies? (901348)

We have long set out that we have no plans to change our animal welfare, food safety or environmental standards, and that remains the case.

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.

T5. During her leadership campaign, the now Prime Minister chose to make a big thing of solar panels being on agricultural land. She did not talk about biomass, which actually takes up far more arable land. Does the Secretary of State agree with her attacks on solar, or does he think that it has a role to play in helping to sort out our energy crisis? (901350)

The Agriculture Act 2020 states that the Secretary of State has to come before Parliament every three years to report on the UK’s food security. Will he do so this autumn?

The Environment Agency is a key player in tackling sewage discharges, yet it has seen its funding halved over the past 10 years. What is the Minister doing to reinstate the essential funding for the Environment Agency?

I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady quotes. In this spending review, the DEFRA budget increased by more than £4 billion, and the Environment Agency is being more active than ever before in enforcing the regulations on our water quality.

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.