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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 719: debated on Thursday 8 September 2022

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cost Increases: Food Producers and Consumers

1. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of rising costs on (a) food producers and (b) the cost of food for consumers. (901326)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of rising costs on (a) food producers and (b) the cost of food for consumers. (901340)

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.

I think there will be a lot of nervous lambs in Wales awaiting that visit. Let us come to the shadow Secretary of State, Jim McMahon.

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.

Fertiliser Costs

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?

Of course, we recognise the challenge. I have been in post for 12 hours, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I have not been able to make a full assessment of the position.

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

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling labour shortages in the (a) food and drink sector, (b) agricultural sector, (c) fishing industry and (d) supply chains for those sectors. (901328)

11. What recent steps the Government have taken to help ensure an adequate labour supply for the (a) agricultural and (b) fishing industries in Scotland. (901337)

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.

Sewage Discharge

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers, inland waterways and the sea. (901329)

16. What steps he is taking to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers, inland waterways and the sea. (901342)

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 thank my right hon. Friend for what he says. He is right that we should look at innovation from around the world to ensure that we are transforming our infrastructure, including in the water system.

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?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for these issues, and I welcome what he said earlier. Although I do not know what is in my diary tomorrow, I would be delighted to visit at the earliest opportunity, and for other Ministers to do the same.

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

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that rivers, inland waterways and the sea can sustain fish stocks and other marine life. (901330)

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

6. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the progress of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. (901332)

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.

Topical Questions

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.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Ukrainian Refugees

Six bishops and hundreds of clergy have Ukrainian evacuees living with them, and the Church of England is using vacant vicarages in a number of places. Churches are also actively involved in recruiting new hosts where needed.

Over the summer, I was delighted to meet Reverend Peter Godden at St Dunstan’s church in Monks Risborough—England’s oldest recorded parish—to hear at first hand about some of the incredible work that the church and wider deanery is doing to support 130 Ukrainian refugees who have been welcomed to the wider Princes Risborough area in my constituency, such as English lessons, a conversation café and a children’s summer week. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all our churches for the work they are doing to support our Ukrainian friends? What more can the Church of England do to support churches such as St Dunstan’s in their work?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the interest that he takes in and the support that he gives to his local churches. It is wonderful to hear of the practical compassion in action of St Dunstan’s in Monks Risborough and St Mary’s in Princes Risborough. I know that those churches are making a big difference to the lives of Ukrainian refugees. I assure him that the Church is actively seeking new hosts where some families want to pass on that responsibility and it will keep on with this important work.

As we approach the six-month point, what action can the Church take to encourage members of their congregations to step forward—and the congregations themselves to support them—where some initial sponsorships are not renewed?

My right hon. Friend asks a typically pertinent question. I reassure him that many dioceses are developing schemes to rematch sponsors and Ukrainian refugees as the initial six-month placements draw to an end. We are also funding other support programmes for Ukrainians, for which I am extremely grateful. We must all guard against compassion fatigue.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that my parish church in Huddersfield is playing a very good role in helping Ukrainian refugees, but in a sense the honeymoon period is over? People from Ukraine in my constituency told me last week that they need help with permanent housing, with education and with the translation of their qualifications into English qualifications. They also very much need to use their high skills to help the community.

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has told the House. I know that he takes a supportive interest in what his local churches do in this important area. He is right in everything he says. The Government will play their part, and I can assure him that the Church will absolutely continue to be there at a national and local level to do everything that is needed.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his deep interest in these matters, which is much appreciated. Following on from what other hon. Members have said about the integration of Ukrainian refugees, has consideration been given to allowing the use of parish halls free of charge for English lessons and as community hubs for small pockets of rural Ukrainians to meet?

The hon. Gentleman makes typically sensible suggestions. He has put them on the record, and I know that the Church will do everything possible nationally and locally. He has made good suggestions.

Persecuted Christians: 2019 Report

2. What steps the Church is taking to help implement the recommendations of the report of the Bishop of Truro on support for persecuted Christians published in 2019. (901368)

I thank my right hon. Friend for her sustained and long-term interest in freedom of religion and belief for Christians and people of all faiths around the world. At the Lambeth conference, the Bishop of Chelmsford, herself a Christian refugee from Iran, spoke about the need to challenge some of the darker elements of faith leaders who condone persecution.

In the light of the conclusions of the independent review assessing the implementation of the Bishop of Truro’s report on supporting persecuted Christians around the world, what improvements would the Church like to see in relation to the envoy for freedom of religion or belief? My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has done a wonderful job, but we want to see the post established on a permanent basis, with greater capacity to engage across Government and resources to match.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising an extremely important point. Our hon. Friend the faith envoy, who is in the Chamber, does a fantastic job. I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Church remains completely committed to the full implementation of the Truro review, especially recommendation 6, which is to make the envoy a permanent position with “appropriate resources and authority” to work across Government.

Now that the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has been named, I think we ought to bring her in.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for her question and my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner for his answer. The recent independent review of progress on Truro has confirmed that there is more to be done before FORB becomes firmly embedded in the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. One area that was highlighted is the need for better engagement with stakeholders, among which the Church is key. Would the Second Church Estates Commissioner be willing to join me to discuss the matter at a meeting with an FCDO Minister, which has been agreed?

I should be delighted, and I would like to bring our bishops who lead in the area and senior officials from Church House to that important meeting.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Elections Act 2022: Electoral Commission

3. If the Committee will make an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act 2022 on the impartiality of the Electoral Commission. (901369)

10. If the Committee will make an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act 2022 on the impartiality of the Electoral Commission. (901376)

11. If the Committee will make an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act 2022 on the impartiality of the Electoral Commission. (901377)

The Speaker’s Committee has no plans to make an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act on the impartiality of the Electoral Commission. The commission itself has raised concerns about the potential challenge to its impartiality from the introduction of a strategy and policy statement by which the Government can guide its work. Its view is that that is inconsistent with the role that an independent electoral commission plays in a democratic system. The commission is currently considering the consultation on the draft statement and will publish its response in due course.

The last Prime Minister and the Government attacked the impartiality of the Electoral Commission after the Downing Street flat refurbishment was found in breach of donation declaration rules and a fine was subsequently imposed. That was followed by leading Tory Members calling for the abolition of the Electoral Commission or, sinisterly, for its direction to be controlled via the Elections Act strategy and policy statement. Does the representative of the Speaker’s Committee agree that the new Prime Minister should commit to protecting the independence of the Electoral Commission and should remove the specific aspects of Government overreach in the Elections Act?

As I said in my previous answer, the Speaker’s Committee has made no assessment on this particular matter. Any changes to the Elections Act will be a matter for the House, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pursue those avenues in other areas of its business.

The road down which the UK has been travelling is increasingly concerning. It involves removing our human rights, threatening the removal of the European Court of Human Rights, and then gutting the impartiality and powers of the Electoral Commission in the Elections Act 2022 by Government diktat and the rejection of all Opposition amendments. This follows on from suggestions that no new independent ethics adviser will be appointed under the new Prime Minister, which would further diminish independent investigation. Given those facts, does the representative of the Speaker’s Committee agree with all but one of the board members that the Elections Act seriously undermines the independence of the Electoral Commission?

Let me repeat the statement that the Electoral Commission itself has issued: it believes that the introduction of a strategy and policy statement would be inconsistent with the role of an independent Electoral Commission. We are currently engaged in consultation on the Government’s draft strategy and policy statement. The Commission will continue to act in an independent and impartial way in order to help maintain public confidence in elections throughout the UK.

The Electoral Commission manages elections and plays a vital role in maintaining fairness, trust and public confidence in our democratic processes, and its independence of any party or Government is therefore essential. Does the hon. Member agree that one way of helping to defend that independence would be to ensure that in future the Speaker’s Committee never has a Government majority, and would he be willing to raise that with the Speaker of the House of Commons?

The hon. Gentleman himself has raised it with you, Mr Speaker, and I believe that the composition of the Committee is a matter for you. Its composition changed recently because of the reallocation of responsibilities from one Government Department to another, and therefore the chairmanship of the relevant Select Committee—the previous Chair was ex officio—has changed: the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) has been replaced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). I believe that you, Mr Speaker, will be reviewing the position regularly.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Holy Trinity Church, Wingate: Review

4. What progress the Church has made on the review of lessons learned at Holy Trinity Church, Wingate. (901370)

This has been a deeply troubling time for the Bell family, and I want to pass on my heartfelt apologies for what has happened. I am pleased that the issue has been resolved and the lessons learned process begins next month, and I know that the vicar of Holy Trinity Wingate has strongly supported the family during this difficult time.

May I place on record my thanks to the hon. Member for his assistance with this matter during the recess?

I can report to the House that Thomas Bell’s coffin has been located, and that his late wife Hilda was buried with him after a heartbreaking eight-week delay. Appallingly, however, for 17 years the family—who were my constituents, living in Easington—unknowingly attended the wrong grave, and in the process of locating Mr Bell’s coffin several other errors were identified. Does the hon. Member agree that we need to improve burial records, with digital copies, introduce a new process for marking plots after burial, and draw up rules for the orderly organisation of plots in churchyards?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: record-keeping is incredibly important. The Parochial Registers and Records Measure 1978 clearly states that records should be kept in fireproof places, and the hon. Gentleman’s point about digital copies was also well made. The lessons learned inquiry will focus on best practice for all parishes. Let me add, on a personal note, that I was very pleased that Mrs Bell’s great-grandchild was baptised in the church last weekend.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Elections Act 2022: Regulation and Electoral Process

5. What recent assessment the Committee has made of the potential effect of the Elections Act 2022 on the (a) regulation of political party donations and finances, (b) regulation of campaign expenditure and (c) overall integrity of the electoral process. (901371)

The Speaker’s Committee has not made an assessment of the potential effect of the Elections Act on the matters the hon. Member refers to in her question. The Commission’s view is that the Elections Act makes limited changes to the regulation of political party donations and finances and campaign spending. The requirement for new political parties to set out assets or debts when registering will give voters some greater transparency. Changes relating to third-party campaigners will bring limited additional transparency while increasing the complexity of the law. The digital imprint requirement will increase the transparency of campaign spending. The changes to the administration and conduct of elections will enhance the integrity of the electoral process. The Commission’s view is that the voter ID requirement addresses a vulnerability of polling station voting in Great Britain to fraud, but it has emphasised that voting must remain accessible for those who do not already have appropriate ID.

According to openDemocracy, between 2010 and 2019 the Tory party received £3.5 million from Russian-linked donors, yet instead of countering undue influence from oligarchs or shady think-tanks, the Elections Act weakens rules on donations from overseas, making it easier to pay for influence. The new report by the Institute for Constitutional and Democratic Research has set out a simple remedy: cap all political donations to a level appropriate to the poorest. Will the representative of the Speaker’s Committee confirm whether a donation cap has been considered?

The cap has not been considered in the Speaker’s Committee or discussed by the Speaker’s Committee and the Electoral Commission. The Commission says that it is committed to ensuring that political funding is transparent and to preventing unlawful foreign money from entering UK politics. It continues to recommend changes to the law to ensure that voters can have greater confidence in political finance in the UK. This includes recommendations for new duties on parties for enhanced due diligence and risk assessment of donations and changes to the law to ensure that companies have made enough money in the UK to fund any donations.

Elections Policy: Departmental Transfer

8. Whether the Committee has made an assessment of the implications for its work of the transfer of elections policy from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Levelling up, Housing and Communities. (901374)

The Speaker’s Committee has not made any such assessment. However, the change in ministerial responsibility has had an impact on the Committee in a number of ways. As I mentioned in a previous answer, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) has been replaced as an ex officio member of the Committee by the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts). The Commission reports that it will continue to work closely with the team of civil servants, which has moved Departments. It has also had several meetings with responsible Ministers at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in particular to discuss the implementation of the Elections Act.

The governance of elections is of course a very important matter, and it was rather bizarrely removed from the portfolio of the Cabinet Office by the previous Prime Minister and entrusted to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Can the representative of the Speaker’s Committee provide any clarity on whether that will continue, and what consideration has he given to the merits of transferring the responsibility back to the Cabinet Office?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question, but the Committee will simply respond to however the Government organise themselves. It is a matter for the Government and the Prime Minister to allocate different responsibilities among different parties, and the Speaker’s Committee will respond accordingly.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—

Affordable and Sustainable Housing

Following the Church’s “Coming Home” report on meeting housing need, the Church is looking to establish a new national housing association and to make use of Church-owned land to develop more affordable homes where we are able to, along with pod homes to house vulnerable people temporarily.

Understandably, there were mixed feelings when the original St Elizabeth’s church in Eastbourne’s old town had to be demolished, but the church community moved next door and is thriving. Demolition created a significant site in a prime location in a town where housing development opportunities are few and far between. May I ask my hon. Friend what progress has been made in order to realise the potential on the site?

St Elizabeth’s Eastbourne was due for demolition in 2019 because the building was unsafe, and I am pleased that the congregation are thriving in their new location. We are now looking for a new home for the Hans Feibusch murals from the crypt, which I have to say, from the photographs I have seen of them, are very splendid. We are working with the local council, developers and the local community to find an appropriate housing scheme for this site.

Accessibility of Churches

The Church of England strongly encourages parishes and cathedrals to ensure access for all, wherever possible. On a personal note, I am grateful to the parish church where I grew up for providing ramps to get my mother in and out of the church in her wheelchair. The public worship of Jesus should always be accessible to as many people as possible.

The Holy Trinity or West Allington church is beautiful and historic, but access to it is quite poor. The lovely grass slope going up to the church means that, in winter and in poor, wet weather, the church is inaccessible to the elderly and those with disabilities, and some of my constituents have missed family funerals as a result. What can the Church Commissioners do to help?

It is typical of my hon. Friend’s conscientiousness that she has visited Holy Trinity, Allington to help get these much-needed improvements. If she contacts the archdeacon of Boston, the archdeacon will work with her and the parish, with the assistance of the church buildings department, to improve their bid for the necessary funds to help revitalise the church as a resource for the whole community. As she says, it is appalling that people have not been able to attend family funerals.