The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government food strategy sets out what we will do to create a more prosperous agrifood sector that delivers healthier, more sustainable and more affordable food, including commitments to broadly maintain the level of food we produce domestically and to boost production in sectors with the biggest opportunities. We are also providing support to farmers to improve productivity.
With a greater emphasis on food security as a consequence of Putin’s war in Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend agree that her Department’s response to the independent Dimbleby review, only to maintain broadly the current level of domestic food production, lacks ambition? Will she now bring forward a national food strategy that not only commits to increasing food production significantly here in the UK but gives preference to the production of healthy food to tackle the growing threat of obesity, especially in children?
My hon. Friend is right to flag these issues, particularly Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which is a reminder of the crucial importance of UK food producers to our national resilience. I do not intend to change the Government food strategy, but I am conscious that we need to ensure that food security, as the heart of our vision for the food sector, is delivered. That is why we will continue to maintain the current level of domestic food production, but there are opportunities, such as in horticulture and seafood, where we can do even better.
Some supermarkets are now rationing eggs and, ahead of Christmas, there is a real concern about the supply of turkeys. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association has said that a third of its members have cut back on production as a result of avian influenza. Can the Secretary of State say what the Government are doing to help poultry farmers through this very challenging time?
I understand that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), is meeting the industry on a weekly basis. It is fair to say that retailers have not directly contacted the Department to discuss supply chains, although I am conscious of what is happening on individual shelves. Nearly 40 million egg-laying hens are still available, so I am confident we can get through this supply difficulty in the short term.
Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to visit Old Hall farm in Woodton in my constituency to see the excellent work done by Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew who use regenerative techniques to produce high-quality food that both protects the environment and reduces costs to the NHS through more healthy food?
My hon. Friend offers an interesting invitation. Given my diary, I cannot commit now, but his constituents’ work is exceptionally positive. We introduced the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill because we know we need to adapt some of our food production industries to be resilient for the future.
We will produce less food if we have fewer farmers. In just a few weeks’ time, the Government plan to take 20% of the basic payment away from farmers, at the same time that barely 2% have got themselves into the new sustainable farming incentive. Will the Secretary of State consider delaying the reduction in the basic payment scheme to keep farmers farming while she sorts out the mess in her Department on the environmental land management schemes? Will she also meet Baroness Rock at the earliest opportunity to discuss her important tenant review?
It has been well trailed for several years that we will shift from the EU common agricultural policy for distributing money to our farmers and landowners to using public money for public goods. That is why we have been working on the environmental land management schemes and will continue to make sure we get them right. We will make further announcements in due course.
Food production is vulnerable to animal disease, and we have heard about the impact of avian flu on supermarkets, which are limiting the sale of eggs. This week, the Public Accounts Committee highlighted what it describes as
“a long period of inadequate management and under investment in the Weybridge site”
of the Animal and Plant Health Agency. The PAC warned that the APHA would struggle if there were a concurrent disease outbreak. As the Secretary of State well knows, other diseases do threaten. Although staff are doing their very best, what is her plan if we face another disease outbreak, or is it just fingers crossed in the hope that it does not happen on her watch?
I have been at COP27 for the past few days, so I have not read all of the PAC report, but I reject its assertion that our biosecurity is not well done. We should be proud that the United Kingdom is protected against such diseases, and that will continue. That is why the APHA is an important part of what DEFRA does, not only for England but for the UK.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
Some of the things that we require to ensure increased food production are good trade deals, and in a rare moment of understated candour, the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has conceded that the much-trumpeted flagship Australian trade deal is “not…very good”, something any of us could have told him if he had been prepared to listen. Why does it take the resignation or sacking of former Secretaries of State to get that type of blunt candour? Does the Secretary of State agree that these rotten deals betray and let down all the sectors that she represents?
No, I do not.
Water Industry: Competition and Regulation
I thank my hon. Friend for his independent report, “Power To The People”, which focuses on competition in the regulated sectors. Through our strategic policy statement, we have instructed Ofwat not only to put the environment at the top of the agenda but to promote competition where that would benefit consumers. This year, we also instructed Ofwat to produce a competition stocktake. It published that in July and we are reviewing it.
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words about my report on competition in all utilities, including the water sector, which was commissioned by the Government but, as she says, is independent. I am pleased to hear that we have now got a statement or a request—a demand, I suppose—that Ofwat introduces more competition. It is essential that we get dates and deadlines on introducing more competition and reducing the regulatory burden. Will she promise me that the Government’s response will aim for those dates and deadlines, so there can be no backsliding in progress towards helping my constituents with their water bills?
By putting competition on the agenda for Ofwat, we have already demonstrated that we mean business on this issue and we will respond to that report. Ofwat has already put an outcomes-based approach in its 2024 price review and it is already enforcing competition for the procurement of infrastructure. That demonstrates that we are going in a direction that I think my hon. Friend may be pleased with.
South West Water, which covers both my constituency and that of the Minister, has been given a one-star rating by the Environment Agency because of water pollution. It is clear that Ofwat cannot properly regulate some of the wayward companies that continue to pay out huge sums in dividends while failing our communities. Does the Minister agree with me that Ofwat should be abolished so that we can create a new regulator that actually has some teeth?
The answer to that is no. We are working very constructively with Ofwat. It can fine a water company that is found to be in breach 10% of its turnover. It has used fines, and Environment Agency fines have significantly increased over the last year as well. I am certain that working with Ofwat, so that it works with the water companies to bring them into line, is the right way to approach the issue, and that is what Ofwat is doing.
We are investing £5.2 billion over the next six years in flood protection to better protect communities across England. Some 35,000 properties have been better protected since April last year. Last week was Flood Action Week and we encouraged many communities to take note of whether they are in a flood area, as many people do not realise that; they can check that on the Environment Agency website. There are steps that we can all individually take. The EA has also taken on more staff, who are all funded and ready to respond whenever necessary.
In the last few weeks, with the weather getting wetter, I have been contacted by anxious farmers and residents in the Winmarleigh, Pilling and Hollins Lane areas of my constituency, all of which fall within the catchment of the River Wyre. What steps is the Minister taking to protect my constituents in Wyre against flooding before it happens and devastation is caused?
Our flood funding is funding 2,000 infra- structure projects across the country. There are three already in the hon. Lady’s constituency: two are about to get under way and one we do not yet have the date for, but all the work has been done. One of the key ways that we work with farmers is on nature-based solutions, so that they can take flood water if they have to do so. I am working closely with the Minister responsible for farming, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), on the environment and land management scheme, so that farms are also catered for to deal with water issues as well as food production.
Residents near Sleaford were horrified to find out that Anglian Water plan to flood a large area near Scredington, flooding their homes, their farms and their businesses. Apparently, this is to create a reservoir to provide water in the south-east of England. It is an entirely unsuitable place for such a reservoir: it is a large concrete-bunded, unnatural-looking structure. Will the Minister meet me so that we can ensure that this reservoir does not happen in this location?
We have already had a conversation on that and I am really happy to follow it up. We need water infrastructure in the right place, but we do need new water infrastructure, because we have to increase our water supply. We also need to tackle leakage and water efficiency. DEFRA is working hard on a combination of measures to make sure that people have the water that they need. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that proposal.
Environment Agency: Enforcement Budget
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.
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.
Coastal Businesses: Sewage
I am still bobbing; I feel as if I am back on the Back Benches.
We are the first Government to tackle storm overflows through the storm overflows reduction plan. We recognise the importance of bathing waters to the economy of coastal areas, with each visit adding approximately £12 to the local economy. Our strict new targets will see £56 billion-worth of capital investment over 25 years and we will eliminate ecological harm from storm sewage discharge by 2050. Our impact assessment on the storm overflows reduction plans provides evidence of the benefits to businesses and society of cleaning up the water.
People in coastal communities have seen for themselves the increasing sewage on beaches during 12 years of Conservative Government. Business owners have faced the consequences, with tourists less likely to visit. Will the Minister admit that cutting the Environment Agency budget was a mistake, and perhaps apologise to Environment Agency staff for those cuts and for making it harder for them to do their jobs? While she is apologising, will she also apologise to coastal communities for the damage done and tell us what the plan is to stop sewage discharges on our beaches?
I take issue with that question. Our bathing waters in England are a massive success story, with almost 95% achieving good or excellent status last year, the highest since the stringent new standards were introduced in 2015. I accept that there are issues, and the hon. Gentleman will know how hard we are working—harder than any Government ever before—to tackle storm sewage discharges, hence our reduction plan and all the targets we are setting the water companies. We will do it.
I call the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee.
The Minister will be aware that two or three weeks ago there was a well-publicised spillage at the beach at St Agnes in Cornwall, where a large volume of brown material was expelled into the river. Many campaigners immediately leapt to the assumption that it was a sewage discharge and became very voluble about how disgraceful it was. Had it been sewage, it would have been disgraceful, but it was in fact soil erosion. That is in itself another problem, but we need to urge moderate language when we manage these issues. People should not immediately leap to a conclusion, but allow the Environment Agency and the water company to be clear about what has caused the incident.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that particular issue. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, assuming that it was sewage, and it was proven not to be. That is why monitoring is so important and why this Government have set in place a comprehensive monitoring and data-gathering programme and project. We need that to sort out those issues, as well as all the other measures we have put in place.
I have recently met both the chair of Natural England, Marian Spain, and the chief executive, Tony Juniper. DEFRA frequently discusses regulatory work with Natural England. Its efficiency and effectiveness is appraised in a range of measures, including 19 key performance indicators, which are published in Natural England’s annual report and accounts.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. When she next meets Natural England, will she tell it to stop exploiting the insufficient information loophole, which prevents it from having to respond within 21 days to planning applications as a statutory consultee? Brocks Pine in my constituency is a development that would be on the heathland and inside the green belt. It took Natural England nine months to respond to that, and when it did, it said it had insufficient information. Is that not wholly unsatisfactory?
Clearly, when statutory consultees do not respond promptly, it causes delays and deeper problems for developers and communities. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and esteemed colleague to discuss what went wrong with Brocks Pine, but I would say that Natural England are making significant progress across a number of measures, from countryside stewardship scheme agreements to the coastal path, national nature reserves and many others. There will be creases to iron out, and I will discuss those when I meet him.
Yesterday I met the chair of Natural England, which is doing excellent work. Will the Minister say a bit more about what she sees as Natural England’s role in nature-based solutions to tackle climate change?
Natural England is a vital organisation that I work with closely to ensure that we meet our environmental targets set out in the world-leading Environment Act 2021. Whether it is working with farmers, local communities or environmental organisations, Natural England is at the heart of everything we are doing.
Air, Water and Biodiversity: Statutory Deadlines
The Government already have existing legal targets driving ambitious action on air and water quality. As the hon. Lady will be aware, bio- diversity was included in the Environment Act 2021, so it is already in primary legislation. When I became Secretary of State, frankly, I was disappointed to discover that we were not in a place to publish these targets, but we are now working at pace, building on the work of my predecessors and the environmental implementation plan.
My constituents will continue to suffer from breathing toxic air because of the Government’s failure to meet the legal deadline to introduce targets under the Environment Act. The Government are also planning to water down standards by committing to cut PM2.5 only by 2040, not by 2030, the target that the EU has committed to, reneging on yet another pledge not to water down standards post Brexit. Will the Secretary of State provide a new date for the publication of environment targets and commit to a 2030 target?
I know that we are in a debating Chamber, but what the hon. Lady said at the beginning of her question is factually incorrect. It is important to say that legislation is already in place. We are actually seeing air quality improving right across the country. Indeed, I remind her that in her constituency, it is of course the Mayor of London who should be driving improvements in air quality. He has all the powers at his disposal to do so and it is up to him to deliver.
We now come to the shadow Secretary of State, Jim McMahon.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her post? She has been in post for three weeks now, but the crisis of raw sewage turning England into an open sewer can be traced back to her time as an Environment Minister. To undo that damage, will she update the House on when she held a roundtable with all the water bosses and what the outcome of it was?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that warm welcome. It is great to be back at DEFRA, a Department in which I served for three years—I am pleased to be there. Let us be candid about this: we have seen some difficult situations with water companies. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is already on the case in that regard. I have not yet prioritised the water companies specifically, because other Ministers are doing so and I am prioritising my work to achieve environmental targets to satisfy the legislation set out by Parliament, as well as the preparation we are doing for the Montreal conference. My hon. Friend has already set out to the House some of the work that is under way. We are taking proactive action on sewage spillage.
The Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), may only have been in office for just over a month, but even he met the water bosses for a roundtable on his first day in office. Why, for one of the biggest scandals in her Department, has she not seen that as a priority?
Moving on, in a stunning turn of events, ahead of COP27, the Secretary of State announced that the Government will breach their own self-imposed legal obligations to publish targets on air quality, clean water and biodiversity. How does she expect other countries to take us seriously at COP15 when we cannot even get our own house in order?
I was at the last COP on the convention on biological diversity, COP14, in Sharm El-Sheikh. I just got home from Sharm, from the climate COP, to come back in time for orals today. I assure the hon. Member that we continue to work with countries around the world to ensure that our outcomes in Montreal are as ambitious as they can be, including signing people up to the 30 by 30 coalition, and indeed the 10-point plan for biodiversity financing. I assure him that we are working at pace in the Department on the Environment Act, and the subsequent targets from it that we need to put into legislation, and I hope to update the House in the near future.
The Government are providing £32.7 million a year to enable all four fishing Administrations to deliver funding schemes to support the seafood sector, such as the fisheries and seafood scheme in England. In addition to that, £100 million is being provided through the UK’s seafood fund to support the long-term future and sustainability of the industry, helping to bring economic growth to coastal communities and supporting levelling up.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I draw attention to my role chairing Renaissance of the East Anglian Fisheries, a community interest company promoting the fishing industry in East Anglia. It is welcome that policy labs in the Cabinet Office are engaging with local fishermen in producing the bass fisheries management plan, and a REAF director recently attended a workshop in Lowestoft. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is also liaising with the Department for International Trade to confirm that the management plan accords with the trade and co-operation agreement, and will also apply to EU vessels?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tenacious campaigning on this topic. The bass fisheries management plan will manage bass fishing in England and Wales. We are delivering on our commitments in the Fisheries Act 2020. The fisheries management plan will apply to all vessels fishing in these waters, and the Fisheries Act 2020 requires consultation with all interested persons. Our fisheries management plans will comply with the UK’s international obligations, including the trade and co-operation agreement.
I pay tribute to the previous ministerial team, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), on the work that they did while they were Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have just returned from my fourth climate COP, the UN climate conference in Egypt, where I held productive bilateral meetings with a range of counterparts from India to Japan. Yesterday, I was delighted to announce a new big nature impact fund for our country of £30 million as seed investment to bring in other private investment that will help us to plant more woodland, restore precious peatland and create new habitats, as well as bring green jobs to our communities. We should be proud of what we are achieving, and indeed the work that we are doing to unlock financing around the world, but it is critical that we have a great global effort, so that, as we head into the financial negotiations ahead of the COP15 on the convention on biological diversity in Montreal next month, we come together to ensure that we have ambitions for the future of our planet.
Carshalton and Wallington residents warned the Lib-Dem-run council that the incinerator that it campaigned for in Beddington would one day want to increase its capacity. Sadly, they have been proven right, because it is now seeking to burn more. I know that the waste minimisation strategy calls for the phasing out of incineration, so does my right hon. Friend agree that residents should get involved in the Environment Agency consultation to say that they do not want to see that increase?
It will be no surprise to anyone in this House that Liberal Democrats often say one thing to get elected and then do the exact opposite. We should be aware that generating energy from waste should not compete with greater waste prevention, reuse or recycling. Consideration must be given to the Government’s strategic ambition to minimise waste and our soon-to-be-published residual waste reduction target, and I agree that my hon. Friend’s residents should respond to the consultation in full force.
I am not committing to visiting the hon. Lady’s constituency, but I am very concerned about what she just relayed. I have already asked for the Environment Agency to meet for a deep dive on the flooding budget. There is a frequently flooded fund, which can support constituencies such as hers, and we need to make sure we are delivering effective action. That also goes for councils, which need to make sure they have cleared the gullies, so that we do not get these levels of surface water flooding.
Following consultations on the two schemes my hon. Friend mentions, intensive work is going on in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make all the schemes link up, because these are complicated issues. I can assure him that we are aiming to publish our responses to the outstanding consultations by the end of this year.
It is really important that we make the best use of our land, to have the food security that was referred to earlier. It is also important, when considering land use, that we think about the best place to put renewable energy. By and large, I think most people in this country would agree: let us have good agricultural land for farming, and let us use our brownfield sites for other energy projects too.
I hear that it was a lively debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. We are actively encouraging more applicants for bathing water status, and I look forward to receiving the application for the River Nidd and discussing it with him. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland said in that debate, it is time to get your Speedos out.
There have been many warm words from successive Secretaries of State on saving nature. Many species may soon be extinct, including the red squirrel, the water vole and even the hedgehog. Two years ago, I was on the Environment Bill Committee, and much was made of new targets. The 31 October date for those new targets was missed. Can the Secretary of State be clear today: what is the date for publishing those targets and taking action on saving nature?
I would like to reassure the hon. Member that we remain absolutely committed to publishing our environmental targets, and I have been meeting partners, including farmers, environmental organisations and the people managing protected landscapes. The most important thing is that we deliver on the outcomes clearly set out in our 25-year environment plan.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that planning policy is a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and solar policy is a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but she should be assured that my officials are working closely with those Departments to ensure that we get the right balance between boosting our food production and delivering long-term energy security.
Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the outstanding statutory deadlines we have spoken about on air, water and so forth will be published before COP15, so that we can lead by example? If she cannot guarantee that, does she agree that that bodes incredibly ill for the deadlines in the utterly misguided and reckless Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill? If we cannot meet these deadlines, how will we meet those?
I completely understand why Members of the House are concerned that the Government have not come forward with the secondary legislation as set out in primary legislation, and I have already expressed my disappointment. I assure the hon. Lady that we are working at pace to get those targets in place. I am conscious that we are still working on certain aspects of that, but I hope to try to get them done as quickly as possible.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee, Sir Robert.
I thank my right hon. Friend the fisheries Minister for rapidly acceding to the Committee’s request to set up an independent panel to investigate the cause of the mass shellfish mortality off the north-east coast last autumn. When does he expect that panel to be established and when might he expect it to report its findings?
Obviously we want to set it up as soon as possible and we want it to assess all the available evidence. All interested parties want to make sure that we identify the challenge. A number of—if I can use the term—red herrings have been thrown into the mix, so establishing the true facts as rapidly as possible will be the ambition of this rapid inquiry.
Some 80% of UK firms say that they are struggling to trade with the EU because of Tory Brexit red tape. Scots exports to the EU have been slashed by 13%. The cost to households in Scotland as a consequence of Brexit averages £900 a year. Additional Brexit checks for meat exports are being imposed on 14 December that will further hammer the agricultural sector. Where is the promised Brexit dividend for farmers? So far, all they can see from the Tories are restrictions and red tape.
One day, the hon. Lady will have to accept the result of the referendum and the fact that Brexit took place. We are embracing those opportunities in the Department. We are doing trade deals and promoting British products around the world. We are proud of what our British producers produce. We should get on the front foot and big them up, rather than being negative.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and, hopefully, will welcome her soon to Newcastle-under-Lyme to see Walleys Quarry for herself. As she knows, that major issue has been blighting the community for some time. Although the odour is getting better, we still have no accountability. There are two investigations going on—criminal and regulatory. Does she agree that it is imperative for the Environment Agency to bring those investigations to a conclusion as soon as possible so that my constituents can have justice and accountability?
As my hon. Friend knows, I cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, but I can confirm that the EA is continuing to work closely to regulate the operator and to consider appropriate action in compliance with the enforcement and sanctions policy. That includes ensuring that the operator continues to implement all the 20 or more measures that were recommended, which, I think he will agree, are starting to have a real effect.