I feel a bit like a jack-in-the-box this morning, Mr Speaker.
Environment Agency enforcement is at a record high, and its funding is closely monitored to ensure that it can continue to hold polluters to account. Last year, record fines were handed to water companies, making it clear that polluters will pay. The EA’s total budget this year is £1,650 million. I am always bad at reading out numbers and putting them into words. That is nearly 20% of DEFRA’s entire budget, including new ringfenced money for special enforcement activities, such as 4,000 more farm inspections and 5,000 more sewage treatment works inspections.[Official Report, 22 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 4MC.]
I have been dealing with an Environment Agency complaint from residents near a pig farm in rural Wakefield, which has been operating without the necessary licence for more than a year. However, I have seen delay after delay, with residents getting no anticipated timelines and no commitments to resolve the problem, leaving them none the clearer about when life can go back to normal. Can the Minister set out how she will ensure that the Environment Agency’s enforcement actions are fit for purpose so that it can protect our communities?
I have already heard about that particular incident, but I do not have all the details. I would be very happy if the hon. Gentleman would like to meet me. It has been conveyed that the farm is operating illegally, that the EA is involved, and that he has already met the EA and will meet it again, but I am very happy to have the details.
I understand that there are pressures with the prioritisation of any kind of enforcement, but in my constituency, in the village Borstal, we have been blighted with an illegal waste dump for a number of years. It is totally illegal, causing distress to residents and a blot on an area of outstanding natural beauty. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can get the Environment Agency to take really swift action for something that has gone on for too long?
One never wants to hear examples such as that. Of course I will meet my hon. Friend to see what more can be done. We need to work constructively with the Environment Agency, because there is a protocol for what it does, and to get it involved with practical actions that can help.
I call the shadow Minister.
It is a pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) back to her place.
The Environment Agency has a heavy responsibility for environmental protection, especially investigation and enforcement of pollution incidents such as sewage dumping. However, the Government more than halved the agency’s environmental protection budget from £170 million in 2009-10 to £76 million in 2019-20, and that included the three years in which the current Secretary of State was a Minister. Last year, the budget was only £94 million. I know that the Minister had some issues with the number, but that number was mainly around capital spending on flooding, and we have seen a fall in the budget for environmental protection, which is hugely important to people around the country, especially those who live near rivers and seas.
Morale is at rock bottom at the agency, and vacancy rates are as high as 80% in some teams, with many breaches not being investigated or enforced. How does the Secretary of State and the Minister plan to resolve crippling staff shortages and get us back to where we should be?
First, I would like to put on record that we must stop doing down our Environment Agency, which does a great deal of really exceptional work, particularly on the areas I have already mentioned such as flooding. Its staff numbers have been consistent for the last three years at around 10,700 and enforcement is funded from the EA’s environment grant, which the 2021 spending review almost doubled to £91 million.