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Topical Questions

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 12 January 2023

We closed 2022 by agreeing a global treaty to protect and restore nature across the world, and I am delighted that we rang in the new year on 1 January with all public authorities, including national parks, applying the general duty to conserve and enhance biodiversity. As the general duty came into force, I was in Brazil for the inauguration of President Lula. I was pleased to meet Brazil’s new Environment and Agriculture Ministers, and to visit the projects we are supporting to make sure that the flora and fauna on which the whole world depends are restored.

I was contacted by a young farmer in my constituency who, after returning from maternity leave, moved to a new farm and created a new business. She was denied her young farmer’s financial support payment by the basic payment scheme because the Rural Payments Agency deemed it to be a continuation of her old business. The BPS rules have no business continuation guidance. Why are the new business questionnaires needed when the RPA determines that a new farm is not a new business? Will the Secretary of State ask the Farming Minister to meet me and my constituent to discuss this case?

It would be helpful if the hon. Lady wrote directly to the Farming Minister, who I know is happy to meet her to go through the case. It sounds like quite a complicated, technical situation, so it may take a little time to get a full answer from the RPA.

T2. The Secretary of State has mentioned Brazil a few times today, and we know that she recently visited Brazil for the inauguration of President Lula. While acknowledging her brief time there, does she agree that Brazil represents a huge export market for our farmers and our food sector, as well as being a potential source of food that we currently import from elsewhere? (902968)

Brazil already produces a significant amount of foods that are not produced in this country, so we welcome any imports. My hon. Friend highlights the importance of trade and how we can export to Brazil. In any potential future trade agreement with Mercosur, of which Brazil is a member, we would want to make sure that we uphold our standards on food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection.

T3. Between 2020 and 2021, there were more than 775,000 sewage spills in England and Wales. The Government have muddied the waters further by scrapping vital indicators of river and stream health, and by omitting water quality from their legally binding environmental targets. The Secretary of State avoided my previous question on this subject, so I ask again: how can our constituents be sure that their water is clean? (902969)

We will be publishing our environmental improvement plan, but the hon. Lady will be aware of the action already taken by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). As we have highlighted to the House today, thanks to Conservative Government monitoring is now widely available, so that we can tackle that, and we never had it before. That is why we are trying to resolve the issues and I know that the hon. Lady will want us to achieve that as quickly as possible.

T4. Some people particularly want to buy halal and kosher meat, and some people particularly want to avoid doing so. Is it not time to properly label all these products appropriately, so that consumers, whether they want to buy this or do not want to buy it, can make an informed decision? (902970)

The Government have committed to consult on mandatory labelling reforms this year. We want to make it easier for consumers to purchase products aligned with their values. As part of the consultation, we will seek views on labelling products that conform with religious requirements, such as those that are halal and kosher.

T5. Earlier this week, I met the Agricultural Industries Confederation Scotland and it echoed what I am hearing in North East Fife about the impact of gas prices on the cost of fertiliser. What assessment has the Minister undertaken of the impact of fertiliser costs on farming and what is he doing to prevent farmers from being forced to roll back agricultural production as a result of it? (902971)

I am chairing the fertiliser taskforce within DEFRA that is looking at these challenges. We recognise the huge pressure that fertiliser prices are putting on farmers up and down the country. We will continue to work with our colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to assist in dealing with the challenge we are facing. The good news is that the wholesale price of gas is coming down and some fertiliser prices are reflecting that drop in wholesale gas prices.

T6. The Government require local authorities to assess local air quality, but they only expect and request air quality action plans to be reviewed every five years. Many of those plans are seriously out of date, so will the Government please get a bit tougher with local authorities to make sure that those plans are up to date and are doing what they are supposed to do? (902972)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point, which highlights not only the role of local authorities in air quality, but ensuring that these action plans are reviewed and delivered on time. We have recently updated our local air quality management policy guidance, with a new escalation process for local authorities that do not have an up-to-date plan.

T7. The River Severn and the River Vyrnwy are in flood again, and the Minister will know that this is the fourth year in a row we have seen flooding, with record flooding over the past three years. Obviously, that water originates upstream in Wales. Will she update me as to the conversations she has had with her Welsh colleagues about managing the upper Severn catchment? (902973)

The hon. Lady raises the important point that the whole catchment is involved in flooding; this is about not just where the flooding occurs at the bottom, but where it comes from. Not long ago, I visited the Vyrnwy reservoir. Apparently, that was the first time a Minister had ever been there. I held a roundtable with the Welsh equivalent of the Environment Agency and all sorts of other bodies, but the Labour Welsh Environment Minister declined to join us.

Two days before Christmas, thousands of my constituents were left without any mains water after the perfect storm of the big freeze followed by the big thaw and a deluge of water into the Testwood and Otterbourne water supply works. Does the Minister agree that Southern Water, which I met last week, needs to get its explanation, with details of compensation, out to residents this month? Will she place on record her thanks to Winchester scouts, who did amazing work with the local resilience forum in getting bottled water to affected residents?

Yes. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work as the local MP; all our local MPs got involved in this, as did DEFRA’s emergency team. I met the chief executive officer of South East Water to talk about how it had to put up better water stations and improve its communications—all the things that he is mentioning. Its feet will be held to the fire to get its comms out to everybody to explain what happened and to improve the situation in future.

Untreated sewage was released from storm overflows for more than 2.6 million hours in 2021, according to The Rivers Trust, and now, according to the Competition and Markets Authority, customers are paying on average 20% of their water bills on servicing debt and rewarding share- holders. That is billions of pounds that could be spent clearing up our waterways and investing in infrastructure. Does the Minister really think that the current system of regulation is fit for purpose?

Yes, the Minister does think that the current regulation is fit for purpose, but many tweaks and improvements are made to ensure that it is working properly. That is why, under the Environment Act 2021, powers were given to Ofwat to alter the licences, so that what it pays out reflects whether it is improving the environment. That will be a critical step forward, as will our strategic policy statement that we gave it to put tackling storm overflows and improving the environment at the top of the agenda.

Sadly, the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of avian influenza has been confirmed this week on a poultry premises in Eden in my constituency. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected there and across the country as well. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking everyone on the frontline, including vets and Animal and Plant Health Agency officials, involved in tackling this crisis? Will the Government reassure farmers and producers that they are keeping the avian influenza support and compensation measures constantly under review as we navigate this crisis?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those people who are working on avian flu, including the chief vet, who was recognised in the new year’s honours list. I can assure my hon. Friend that we continue to talk to, and work with, industry to make sure that farmers can be profitable and confident that their business will succeed next year.

There have been reports this week that the UK might be about to adopt ludicrous proposals that were, quite rightly, rejected by the EU to ban producers of plant-based products from using terms that are traditionally associated with meat and dairy. I do not think that anyone buying a hot dog actually thinks that it has canine content. Does the Minister think that the British public is so stupid to think that a product called “oat milk” comes from a cow?

Blackpool’s historic piers are showing signs of significant deterioration due to sand erosion beneath them. Although the Department is providing £12 million to prevent coastal erosion along my constituency, the measures that we need around the piers are not included within those plans. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how they can be amended to make sure that we have the money to do this within the package that the Government are providing?

Within our budgets, we have the coastal erosion fund, of which my hon. Friend is aware. The pier is a very specific case. Of course, I would be happy to meet him to discuss this.

Research by Material Focus found that at least 1.3 million disposable vapes are thrown away every week. That is two vapes every second, and that includes precious metals such as lithium being improperly disposed of as well as a litter nightmare. Material Focus called for clear recycling advice and for manufacturers and retailers to install collection points in shops. What is the Secretary of State doing to support that, and what work is being done to prevent the huge waste problem that we are currently experiencing?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We had a recent debate on this subject. It is astounding that these disposable vapes are being literally littered. Measures include our extended producer responsibility scheme, which puts the onus on the manufacturer and the seller of the product to deal with their safe disposal. Repair, restore and recycle will eventually take in all these different sectors that we are having to deal with, and we are starting with packaging.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support the planting of hedgerows to increase hedgerow coverage by 40% by 2040?

Hedgerows are absolutely fantastic, as I saw for myself here in Parliament at the hedgerow showcase of CPRE, the Countryside Charity. As we treble tree planting across this country, I will ensure that we do everything possible to put hedge planting and protection at the forefront of our priorities.

What discussions have Ministers had with colleagues about monitoring and restricting plants brought into the UK from overseas by the public to protect biodiversity and food production?

The hon. Lady raises an important question. It is critical that we have that information for the public at our borders, as well as the targeted information focused on nurseries. We will continue to inform the public that bringing alien species into this country is bad news for nature in the UK.

T6. New year’s fireworks celebrations caused the deaths of two horses this year—one in my constituency. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is very difficult to enforce. May I meet the animal welfare Minister to look at this issue? The numbers are astounding. No fireworks display is ever worth the death of a much-loved family pet or animal. (902972)

I am conscious of the impact fireworks can have on animals. I will share my hon. Friend’s concerns with my noble Friend Lord Benyon, who covers this area, and I expect Lord Benyon will meet with him.

The Minister will be aware of the Northern Ireland protocol and the difficulties that vets in Northern Ireland are experiencing in accessing medicines. It is important that assistance is given on both availability and cost. Vets are reorientating their supply chains with great difficulty. Can I seek the Minister’s help for Northern Ireland vets in respect of medicines access, so that we have the same access to treatment as the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the status of what is happening with the Northern Ireland protocol. My noble Friend Lord Benyon leads on borders and veterinarians, so I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s question to his attention. It is important that we continue to ensure a peaceful solution to what is happening in Northern Ireland and a restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly as quickly as possible.