Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 12 January 2023

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Environment Agency Budget: Sewage Discharge

1. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential effect of a reduction in the Environment Agency’s budget on levels of sewage discharge. (902942)

16. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential effect of a reduction in the Environment Agency’s budget on levels of sewage discharge. (902960)

The volume of sewage discharged by water companies is absolutely unacceptable. Improving water quality is a high priority for the Government, which is why we have launched an ambitious plan to reduce sewage discharges from storm sewage overflows in water companies, the biggest in history. It is also why we have increased our monitoring from 5% in 2016 right up to 19% now. It will be 100% next year. Interestingly, one might want to note that under the Labour party there was no monitoring at all, and that the Environment Agency has received £2.2 million each year for the last three years specifically for water company enforcement to ensure that robust action is taken against illegal breaches.

I thank the Minister for that explanation. Across the country we are faced with the unprecedented dumping of raw sewage into our waterways, including into the Platt and Gore brooks in my constituency. It is good to hear the Minister’s plans to provide more money, because at the end of the day there needs to be sufficient funds for enforcement so that those who pollute our waters are held to account. What further will she be doing to ensure that that happens?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises the plan we have put into operation, because the like of it has never been seen before. I reiterate that it is our increased monitoring that is bringing to light the fact that permits are being contravened and sewage is going into our rivers. That is why we have cracked down and put in the biggest programme ever to tackle it, with our targets on storm sewage overflows and £2.2 million for the Environment Agency over the last three years for enforcement. It is taking cases, and the extra funding it got the last time around has enabled it to do more inspections.

I have raised previously in the House, and in letters to Ofwat, the Environment Agency and Northumbrian Water, the disastrous impact on waterways in my constituency of the continued pollution by Northumbrian Water. Sewage was dumped every four minutes during the Minister’s years as a junior Minister, with nearly 3 million hours of sewage discharged into waterways and the sea during her tenure as Minister with responsibility for water. As Environment Minister, will she now take action to stop the pollution? When will she publish the clean water and biodiversity targets, as required by the Environment Act 2021?

I have made it absolutely clear that sewage going into our waters is totally unacceptable. That is why under my tenure as Environment Minister—actually, it began with the previous Environment Minister, now the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—we set in motion the monitoring that did not happen under Labour, the storm overflows reduction plan, the targets in the Environment Act and the new direction to Ofwat. We are bringing everything together under one hat to tackle this issue once and for all. Because of the work we have done I launched an investigation, which is being undertaken by Ofwat and the EA—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working very closely with them. That is uncovering all these incidents. Trust me, we will be clamping down.

May I welcome the massive and unprecedented increase in the monitoring of illegal sewage discharges, and in particular the welcome steps taken by some water companies for live monitoring so that people can see in real time where sewage is being put into our rivers illegally?

That is yet another measure that has been put in place. There is a requirement now for water companies to report all discharges from storm sewage overflows with dates and deadlines, but some water companies have gone over and above. They already have that in place and some companies, in particular around the coast, are reporting annually.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 1MC.] That is proving extremely useful for anybody who wants to know the condition of our water. All of this will improve.

Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the Environment Agency for testing the water around our coast? I know she met South West Water earlier this week. Although I recognise that there is work still to be done, on the beaches around my coastline it has significantly reduced the storm overflow. The superb surf beach of Croyde has seen its water quality raised from good to excellent for the first time. It is important to celebrate those successes and to support the businesses that rely on those bathing waters for their futures.

My hon. Friend is such a strong advocate for her area. I absolutely love going swimming down there. She is right that the latest statistics show that 72% of our bathing waters are classed as excellent, which is brilliant for our tourism industry, particularly in her area.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, and your officers for allowing the time for this very important session; it is appreciated. When we met here in December, I asked the Environment Secretary if she had met water bosses to tackle the Tory sewage scandal that has had turned Britain into an open sewer. We are facing huge water leaks, drought and sewage pumping out across the country, and not a single English river free of pollution. Yet it was not seen as a priority that she clean up her own mess, because as a previous Environment Minister she literally opened the floodgates. Now she has finally met water bosses, can she say what firm commitments have been secured to finally end the Tory sewage scandal?

I have been meeting regularly with water companies, as has the Secretary of State. In fact, we had a joint meeting just last week with the five poorest performing water companies. That was a very feisty meeting, as can be imagined. The water companies are being held to account. We now have the data we need, thanks to the monitoring and the programmes that this Government are putting in place, which were not in place under all those years of the Labour Government. It is no good standing up there and scaremongering. At the end of last week I met South East Water, and this week it is South West Water.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 2MC.]

UK100’s Clean Air Recommendations

2. Whether she has made an assessment of the potential implications for her policies of the recommendations of UK100’s clean air net zero report. (902943)

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

I am pleased that air quality is improving across our country. I have not made an assessment of that report, but I expect all local authorities to make full use of the many powers available to improve air quality and meet their statutory obligations. That includes an expectation that local authorities will contribute to delivering the new target on reducing population exposure to PM2.5.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. She will be aware that UK100’s report, “Yes We CANZ: Local leaders delivering Clean Air and Net Zero”, highlights the importance of bringing together clean air and net zero challenges. Many sources of greenhouse gases are also sources of air pollution. Can she comment on the report’s recommendations? Will she agree to meet me and some of the cross-party local authority members of UK100 to discuss how the Government can support the further integration of the clean air and net zero agendas?

I will not commit to meet because, as I have said, I have not made an assessment. Let us think about the environment in the long term. That is why five years ago we set out the 25-year environment plan and why, at the end of the month, we will be doing the environmental improvement plan. If we think back, it was in the dash for net zero and reducing carbon emissions that we got diesel cars being touted. That was a Labour initiative—I am not criticising Labour Members because they did not realise the impact that would have on air quality. We want to continue to work together, but it is important to recognise that different Administrations, such as the Northern Ireland Executive when it re-forms, have that responsibility. Local authorities right across the UK already have significant powers to make improvements today.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

This Government’s targets under the Environment Act 2021 have finally been announced, more than six weeks after the legal deadline. Sadly, they condemn our children and grandchildren to live, learn and play in toxic levels of pollution for another 18 years. Will the Secretary of State, at the very least, pick up the excellent recommendation in the UK100 report to improve data for national and local action, with a comprehensive monitoring network of air quality sensors?

More air quality sensors are being put in place across the country. The hon. Lady will know that it is a devolved matter in Wales, so that is for them. Local authorities are doing this already. What worries me is that too many local authority leaders, particularly in Greater Manchester and London, are dragging their heels about improving air quality. We need to ensure that all our local authorities have a focused plan on how we make that happen.

Food Security

The first UK food security report was published in December 2021, which showed that the UK has a highly resilient and diverse food supply chain. We produce 61% of the food we need in the UK, complemented by strong trade links, and that figure has changed little over the last 20 years. We also published the Government food strategy last June, setting out a commitment to maintain broadly the current level of food we produce domestically and boost production in sectors with the biggest opportunities.

On food security and fish stocks, Newcastle University believes the mass killing of crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans off the north-east coast is due to dredging ahead of the freeport, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has dismissed it as a natural event due to algae bloom and has set up an inquiry, with a secret panel meeting in private, despite the fact that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has asked for an open and transparent inquiry that is done independently. Will the Secretary of State commit to an independent evaluation of the evidence, to protect all our coasts from the massive destruction from toxic emissions ahead of freeports—

I have already replied to the DEFRA Committee about this. The impact on crabs is under investigation, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, and it makes no difference to the adequacy of the UK’s food security, which is the topic of this question.

Is it not clear that secure domestic food production requires consistent orders? A huge amount of food is purchased by the public sector, including Government Departments, especially in Defence, hospitals and local government, and especially schools. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that they prioritise buying British? Is it not time to take back control?

I think the right hon. Gentleman voted to stay in the European Union, which stopped us promoting British food procurement. However, there is Government policy to encourage that, and I am confident that local authorities, including his, will continue to do so when considering school meals.

Recent events have shown that we need to pay more attention to how resilient we are across a range of core areas—food, water and energy are the obvious ones. Does the Secretary of State agree that producing our own food is key, but that resilience can also be improved with stronger trading relationships with many more countries, such as Brazil, that are friendly and with which we share history and common values?

It is important to recognise that there are many foodstuffs we enjoy that we simply cannot produce in this country; it is simply not physically possible. It is important that we continue to have that world trade. My hon. Friend is the trade envoy to Brazil, which is a very important partner for our Government in agrifood, climate and biodiversity, as I learned on my recent trip there.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest challenges to UK food security is the competing demands for the very land needed to produce the food from housing and commercial organisations and the latest scourge of solar farms? Will she therefore join me in welcoming the increased protections for agricultural land in the consultation on the new national planning policy framework?

I know that my hon. Friend made the case strongly during the passage of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill in this House and was able to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and secure some changes that are being consulted on. It is critical that we look at the use of land, and that is why we have committed this year to producing a new land use framework, in which the issues he raises are very important.

In December, the Environment Secretary told the Select Committee that she did not believe it was the role of Government to feed people. All of us want to see a country where work pays fairly and, through that work, families can afford to feed themselves, but that is not the case after 13 years of this Tory Government, with food inflation at a 40-year high, a cost of living crisis and 7.3 million people in food poverty. It is the Secretary of State who is responsible for food security. Her Department has a legal obligation to publish the food security report, and it distributes the FareShare food grant. To show she is not completely out of touch, can she tell the House the price of a loaf of bread and the price of a pint of milk in her local supermarket today?

Mr Speaker, it depends on what brand you buy. A pint is 95p, and two pints £1.20. It depends on what type of bread you get, but the last loaf I bought was £1.25 for a seeded one from Tesco—I am sure there are other retailers as well.

It is quite clear to me that the hon. Gentleman probably has not read the food security report published in December 2021. However, I will say that in my time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions we got more people into work and we provided an exceptional amount of funding through the household support fund, because we recognise that these times are really challenging. That is why we, as a Conservative Government, have made sure that the most vulnerable are protected, and it is why we will continue to do so as we move forward through this challenging time.

Is it not the truth that we have a Secretary of State overseeing a sewage scandal who did not believe that meeting water bosses was a priority; a Secretary of State responsible for food security in a cost of living crisis who does not think it is the Government’s job to make sure people have access to food; and a Secretary of State who has a lead role in climate change who, frankly, is clocking up more air miles than Father Christmas? Even when she is here, she is missing in action. Can she prove that she is finally getting a grip of this? It seems to the public that this Government have given up, have run out of ideas and have no plan, and in the end it is the people of this country who are paying the price. Is not now the time to just stand aside and let Labour get on with cleaning up their mess?

The hon. Gentleman is obviously taking lessons from other people on the Front Bench about talking complete and utter garbage. I could use stronger language, but it would be unparliamentary.

Let us just go back and remind ourselves that there was no monitoring of sewage under the Labour Government; that was introduced under a Conservative Government. That is why we have gone to a situation where we are recording more, and why we are in a position now to be challenging—using the price review we did, using our levers through Ofwat—to open up investment and get the storm overflows discharge reduction plan, so that by the end of this year we will actually have 100% monitoring right across the country. Conservatives do not shy away from problems; we open them up, put a spotlight on them, take action and get stuff done, as opposed to Labour, which just ignored it, did not want to know, looked the other way and now thinks it is all a new issue.

On my being missing in action, far from it: it is the hon. Gentleman. When I came back from Montreal after securing, with many other countries around the world, the global biodiversity framework, where was he for the statement? He was not here. God knows where he was. I then went to represent the United Kingdom at the inauguration of President Lula, and I think it was really important to do so to recognise how critical it is to improve the environment. Frankly, we will carry on to deliver action.

The National Farmers Union of Scotland is calling on the UK Government to recognise the strategic importance of fertiliser amid a worsening food security crisis and a 200% increase in fertiliser costs. It is vital that more support is given to domestic food production. Will the Secretary of State meet me and the NFUS to discuss supporting domestic fertiliser production and building greater transparency in the market to drive resilience and security?

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, which is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries and I met the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to discuss this particular issue, and why that Secretary of State then took action by requiring information, so we are in active discussions about it. I am afraid I am not in a position to be able to share any more information, given the aspects of commercial sensitivity, but I can assure her that this Government are on the case.

As well as concerns about fertiliser costs, the Government’s expected classification of farming as a non-high energy business in their review of the energy bill relief scheme is another body blow for farmers. It will inevitably push up inflation for food producers and consumers, worsening the disproportionate cost of living impact on rural communities. What steps will the Secretary of State take to mitigate the impact on farmers and rural businesses right now to help tame global inflationary pressures on domestic markets?

We have seen support to industry through this Government, recognising the price of energy, which was beyond the control of individual users. We have recently seen that wholesale prices have fallen to what they were before the illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine. We are trying to get to a situation where we stabilise the support we are giving, focusing particularly on recognised energy-intensive industries such as those represented by Members in the Chamber today.

Environmental Land Management Schemes

5. What recent assessment she has made of the potential impact of the introduction of environmental land management schemes on farmers’ incomes. (902948)

As my hon. Friend knows, this Government are committed to backing British farmers. Last week I announced that farmers will receive more money for protecting and enhancing nature, and delivering sustainable food production under the environmental land management schemes.

I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that some farmers are concerned about moving away from the basic payment scheme to ELMs. Can he assure farmers that it will be in their financial interests to do so, given the complexity and uncertainties of the schemes, and given the high production costs that farmers are facing to produce food, which is of course their basic job?

I hope my hon. Friend will have recognised the increase in the payments we are making. Only last week we announced that some of the prices we will pay in countryside stewardship will rise by more than 40%. I encourage his constituents, and farmers up and down the country, to take another look at these schemes, which are a great opportunity for them not only to produce great food, but to enhance the environment and improve our biodiversity.

We want ELMs to work, but as it stands, the scheme risks going the way of those magnificent elm trees that have so suffered across the English countryside over the past 40 years. The Minister has admitted that the uptake of sustainable farming incentives is low—indeed, the National Farmers Union rightly described last week’s announcement as “too little, too late”. Will the Minister come clean and tell the House how many farm businesses he will allow to go to the wall because of this failing agricultural transition process? Will he sit down with us and work out a simpler way forward that keep farmers farming and secures the environmental goals we all share?

I am genuinely disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s response, and his negativity is in danger of spreading across the Front Bench. We ran a pilot—that is why the uptake was low; it was because the pilot was small—and we listened to individuals who took part in that pilot. We tweaked those schemes in response to the pilot that we ran. That is good government. The way to organise and run such schemes is to listen to those who are taking part. We have listened, we have improved the payments, and there is now a great opportunity for our farmers across the country to engage in those schemes, improve our environment, improve biodiversity, produce great food, and make a profit.

Farming: Increased Costs

6. What recent steps her Department has taken to help support farmers with increases in the cost of (a) fertiliser, (b) feed and (c) energy. (902949)

We have taken a number of steps to help mitigate global factors that are increasing farming import costs, in fertiliser, feed, fuel and energy in particular. Those include working with industry and looking to ease restrictions on feed imports, and providing regulatory flexibility where possible. We have increased payment rates on our environmental land management schemes, supporting farmers to lower their import costs.

Opaque fertiliser markets are damaging farmers’ confidence and their ability to plan and invest. To put forward a meaningful solution, what steps are the Government taking to establish a trusted gas fertiliser index, as exists with grain and other industries, to improve transparency in fertiliser, including new sources of fertiliser such as that provided by our friends in Jordan?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and pay tribute to her work in this area. DEFRA established the ministerially chaired fertiliser taskforce with key stakeholders, in response to global fertiliser supply pressures. The taskforce identified improving market transparency as an important action to increase farmer confidence. Industry members are currently leading that work, with DEFRA playing a convening role.

Farmers: Mental Health

DEFRA’s farmer welfare forum brings together England’s largest farming and welfare organisations that provide mental health support, such as Farming Community Network, which I was pleased to join recently at an online meeting. We also recently opened the third phase of the future farming resilience fund, which provides free business advice to farmers, and supports mental health and wellbeing where appropriate.

My right hon. Friend knows that my constituents Andy and Lynda Eadon lost their son as a young farmer to suicide. Will he join me in thanking the Eadons for all the work they have done to raise awareness of mental health challenges, particularly for younger members of the farming community? Does he share my view that we should do much more to ensure that mental health awareness and an understanding of where to go for help when it is needed is built into the education and training received by those going into farming?

Of course, I join my right hon. and learned Friend not only in paying tribute to Andy and Lynda Eadon, who have done fantastic work following the tragedy they experienced, but in recognising the importance of this issue and how we should all be able to talk to someone to assist us at moments of great challenge. I met Andy and Lynda at the recent National Farmers Union community farming heroes awards, where they were honoured and paid tribute to for their work. I encourage them to continue that great work.

The wellbeing of farmers in my constituency is a priority, and I work closely with the NFU and other organisations. Last week, I was fortunate enough to go to Swansea Museum, where there is an exhibition called, “Stories of a Changing Landscape”. It is hoped that the exhibition will create a point of connection for agricultural workers who are struggling with their mental health and with the issues with which years and generations have suffered. They are the people who feed our country. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Councillor Andrew Stevens, and the DPJ Foundation and Kate Miles, and in supporting them in the future? We need to prioritise our farmers’ wellbeing to keep them feeding the nation.

I of course join the hon. Lady in congratulating Andrew Stevens, and all the charities doing work in the sector. Farmers work long hours and are often isolated and do not have opportunities to speak to other people. Those charities working with the sector are doing great work, but we all have a responsibility to try to help and support colleagues across our society.

National Food Strategy

9. What plans she has to implement the recommendations of Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy review on tackling the junk food cycle. (902953)

The Government food strategy responded to Henry Dimbleby’s independent review of the food system, taking on several of the review’s recommendations. DEFRA also worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop effective policies to deliver healthy, sustainable diets. “The Eatwell Guide” sets out the Government’s recommendations on eating healthily and achieving a balanced diet.

How can the Government be trusted to protect the health of our young people from the cycle of junk food when they are six months late in responding fully to their own national food strategy? I know that the Minister says that he has responded, but the recommendations of the independent body set up under Henry Dimbleby have been subject time and again to hollow promises. The Minister must also recognise the serious risk to our farming communities and to national food security, so when will the Government begin to implement the policies of their own review that they commissioned?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, we have responded to that report. The Department of Health and Social Care leads in this area in tackling obesity. The good news is that British farmers are producing great quality food that is healthy as part of a balanced diet, and I encourage them to continue to do so.

Support for Zoos

We are working with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the zoo sector so that our zoos can become even more sustainable and conservation-focused. In addition to £16 million of covid support funding, the energy bill relief scheme will help with overheads.

The Minister will be aware of the incredible work that zoos across the country, and in particular Colchester zoo in my constituency, undertake on conservation, tourism and job creation. Zoos are also doing incredible work internationally, but, as she knows, they have been badly hit by the pandemic. What support are the Government providing to preserve this great international work as well as to help create jobs, boost tourism and boost our local economy? Of course, she is always welcome to come to the Witham constituency and to Colchester zoo.

My right hon. Friend is quite right and is brilliantly championing Colchester zoo. Zoos across this country are working on more than 800 conservation projects with more than 105 countries. Saving endangered species is vital work. We have already announced that zoos will be eligible for higher-tier support under the energy bills discount scheme from April 2023 to March 2024. We also work closely with zoos and their representatives. We have continued to ensure that the updated licensing standards support zoos.

I welcome the support that the Government have given zoos, both through the pandemic and with energy costs. The right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) is absolutely right that zoos are at the forefront of conservation and are major employers and generators of income through tourism. When will the Government bring back the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill? It is in danger of running out of time, so can the Minister give us some information today about where the Bill is and when it is coming back?

That is, of course, a matter for business managers. May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman asks that question at business questions?

Flood Defences: Shipley

11. What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of flood defences in the Shipley constituency. (902955)

Bradford Council and the Environment Agency have identified 48 properties at several locations in the Shipley constituency that are at high risk of flooding from the River Aire. An assessment has confirmed that neither upstream storage nor walls or embankments provide viable options to protect those properties, as I am sure my hon. Friend has been made aware. Bradford Council is carrying out some property flood resilience surveys. When the evidence has been gathered, consideration will be given to putting in property flood resilience measures—depending, obviously, on feasibility and funding.

Fifty properties being flooded 10 times is as bad as 500 properties being flooded once. In fact, I would argue that it is even worse, yet the funding for flood defences does not reflect that. When he was Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) introduced the frequently flooded allowance to benefit constituencies such as Shipley, which are regularly flooded but do not have the flood defences that they need to protect residents. When will Shipley benefit from the frequently flooded allowance?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. We realise the difficulties for those few properties that are frequently flooded: as he says, it can be devastating for people who have to experience it time and again. That is why we opened the new frequently flooded fund. Applications have come in, and I am pleased to say that details of who will be awarded funds—I know that Shipley has applied—will be announced at the end of this month.

Affordable Local Food: Newcastle upon Tyne Central

12. Whether she is taking steps to help ensure the availability of affordable locally produced food in Newcastle upon Tyne Central constituency. (902956)

DEFRA continues to monitor and work closely with industry to keep abreast of supply, prices and trends. While the Government do not set retail food prices or comment on commercial decisions by companies, we are providing £26 billion in cost of living support in 2023.

Food security is national security, and local food production is an essential part of that. In the north-east we have a fine farming tradition, but our food banks are overwhelmed with demand. West End food bank in Newcastle Central is handing out more than 2,000 food parcels a week, yet donations have halved because of the cost of living crisis. People in the north-east are poorer under this Conservative Government. What we need is a plan to address rising farming costs, to improve and integrate our supply chains and to target public procurement and decent wages for working people, not this absolute lack of any action.

The latest national statistics from a survey published in March show that 93% of all households were food-secure in 2020-21—an increase of one percentage point from 92% in 2019-20. I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the great farmers of the north-east, who are doing great work to produce food.

Deposit Return Schemes: Digital Technology

13. If her Department will take steps to support trials of digital deposit return scheme technologies. (902957)

We recognise the benefits of a digital DRS. Many trials are being run; I am very encouraged by the results, and my officials and I will be looking closely at them. Once a deposit management organisation has been appointed to run the DRS alongside industry, it will be decided whether to introduce digital solutions to the scheme in future. We will be watching with a weather eye.

I am pleased that the Minister recognises the possible advantages of a digital deposit return scheme, which, according to Resource Futures, could reduce the cost of the current scheme by £3.3 billion. We were promised a response to the latest DRS consultation, but it has still not been published. Will the Minister tell us when we can expect a response?

Further details of the deposit return scheme, which will be so important to reducing waste, will be announced and published later this month.[Official Report, 16 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 2MC.]

VAT: Pet Food

14. What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on temporarily reducing VAT on pet food in the context of increases in the cost of living. (902958)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Treasury leads on VAT policy, and that includes VAT policy on pet food. The Government are actively considering the impact of the increased cost of living on all aspects of people’s lives.

I know that you, Mr Speaker, are a particular fan of pets, and we all know that they are very important to people’s mental health. I recently visited the Dogs Trust rehoming centre in the Broomhouse area of my constituency, where staff told me of their significant concerns about the cost of living crisis. They said that many pet owners were going without meals themselves in order to feed their pets, and that one couple from Belvedere, also in my constituency, had said that the price of dog food had risen by 12% month on month. Would the Minister be willing to meet me, along with representatives of the Dogs Trust, to discuss this further and see what support we can provide for pet owners?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that important case. The Government recognise the challenge people are facing with their household bills, which is why the Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced a huge package providing billions of pounds of support for household incomes. I also pay tribute to Dogs Trust, which is dealing with its own challenges when pets are presented at its centres when families cannot continue to feed them. I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the Treasury and will encourage Treasury Ministers to meet him, but if he has no success in that regard, I shall be happy to continue to work with him to secure the meetings that he requires.

Flood Risk

We are investing a record £5.2 billion to deliver about 2,000 flood schemes benefiting every region in England. More than 349,000 properties have already been protected since 2015, and, as my hon. Friend probably knows, the Environment Agency has erected demountable flood barriers in view of recent flood alerts. Flood defences and barriers have also been deployed at other locations along the River Severn, including Ironbridge, Bewdley and Upton upon Severn, and, along with the agency, we will be monitoring the situation closely.

Flooding has become an annual occurrence in Shrewsbury, with devastating consequences. I chair the caucus of 40 Conservative Members of Parliament who have the River Severn, Britain’s longest river, flowing through their constituencies. I am extremely grateful for the £40 million secured from DEFRA as seed investment for the River Severn Partnership, a consortium of councils representing communities all the way down the river which is trying to find a holistic solution for the management of Britain’s longest river. Last year Treasury officials came to Shrewsbury to see for themselves the potential uplift in gross value added for our region if a holistic solution is found. What more can the Minister do to help us to secure—finally—that solution?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has been doing in his constituency. Since I have been the water Minister, he has done nothing but bend my ear about Shrewsbury and the flood situation. As I have said, flood barriers have been erected, and we are listening: Shrewsbury has already received money for various projects. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work in the River Severn caucus, which brings together Members of Parliament up and down that important region. The River Severn Partnership has already benefited from significant funding for the development of schemes and some very useful pilots, and we will be working closely with it.

Crustacean Deaths: North-east coast

17. What progress she has made on establishing an independent panel of experts to investigate the crustacean deaths on the north-east coast in 2021. (902962)

The independent panel of experts has already been established to look at the available data, and I expect a report from the panel later this month.

Following the environmental catastrophe of the mass die-off of marine life in the North sea off Teesside, will the Minister confirm whether capital dredging for the Teesside freeport project, and at other freeports including the planned freeport in Liverpool, will be paused while the Government await the hopefully independent panel’s findings about the causes of the disaster that has devastated the ecosystem and ruined livelihoods?

It is important that we get the facts as soon as possible, but I want to give the independent panel time to assess the facts. The hon. Gentleman and I have a shared ambition. We want to know the facts of what is causing the die-off in the north-east. We want the panel to look at that independently, without pressure. As soon as we have those facts, we can respond appropriately.

I raised this matter from the Dispatch Box back on 21 June 2022, when the official Government explanation was that the die-off was caused by algal bloom. The Government’s position has since shifted due to overwhelming evidence, but even yesterday the Prime Minister said that DEFRA

“concluded that natural causes were most likely responsible for some of the things that we saw.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2023; Vol. 725, c. 558.]

He also reiterated that

“an independent panel will be set up to report quickly.”

Will the Minister confirm that the independent panel has now been set up? His initial answer was very quick, so can he confirm that the panel will be reporting this month? The fishing industry in the Tees is dying off, and to continue it needs the certainty of that report.

The report will be given to the Secretary of State, and I expect it to come this month, in January. We want to get the facts as soon as possible, and to respond to them as they are presented.

Topical Questions

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.