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Commons Chamber

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

House of Commons

Thursday 23 February 2023

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sewage Discharges: East Devon

1. What steps her Department is taking to help reduce sewage discharges in East Devon constituency. (903648)

My hon. Friend will know, regrettably, of the poor environmental performance of South West Water, with the second highest number of pollution incidents in the country. That is completely unacceptable for his constituents, and South West Water can, and must, do better. Meanwhile, it is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation led by the Environment Agency, which must be allowed to run its due course.

The Conservative party and Government have brought in the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills. We are holding failing water companies to account, including the one-star rated South West Water, which was fined £13 million last year, and rightly so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that South West Water must clean up its act and our water?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. South West Water continues to be a poor performing company, which is unacceptable. That is why I called in the worst performing water companies at the end of last year, including the chief executive of South West Water. Those companies must take urgent steps to significantly reduce their pollution incidents, and we will ensure that they continue to be held to account. That is why I have asked water companies to provide individual reduction plans for each of the combined sewer overflows.

Sewage discharged into the River Otter flows through east Devon and my neighbouring constituency. The Government have adopted a Liberal Democrat amendment to the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill, which will make water companies produce costed, time-limited plans to stop sewage discharges before they can borrow taxpayers’ money. Although I am pleased that the Secretary of State and her colleagues have adopted my amendment, I wonder why they did not think of it themselves.

I do not think it is the intention of the UK Infrastructure Bank to be investing in the water companies —that is not expected to be its purpose. The amendment—dare I say it?—was perfectly nice, and of course the Government were happy to recommend it. This is important. It has been an ongoing issue for some time, and Liberal Democrat people have been water Ministers as well. We need to face these issues, and the fact that stuff has not been tackled. I am pleased that this Conservative Government are getting a grip and making a much harder effort to ensure a reduction in sewage pollution incidents.

The Environment Secretary first said that it was not a priority to meet water bosses, and then she said that it was and that she really did care—or words to that effect. She then said that she would come forward with a plan and big fines, but there were no plans and no fines. She then said that there would be a plan, but that the water companies will do it, not the Government, and that there might be fines, but only if the water companies agree to that. We now discover that Ofwat has watered down the rules intended to hold water companies to account, actively removing any reference to the consideration of local communities and local economies. On a scale of one to 10, how does the Secretary of State rate her Government’s record on ending the Tory sewage scandal?

I have great confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who continues to meet water companies, as do I. If the hon. Gentleman goes back and looks at the record of the Labour Government, he will see that they failed to deal with the urban waste water initiatives. The European Commission contacted them, took action against them, and took the Labour Government to court for failing to deal with sewage. That is what happened; that is the real history. When the Conservatives and the coalition Government came into power, we started working on leaks and making strategic policy statements, and we started the monitoring. None of that happened under a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman can spew out as much rubbish as he wants, but the reality is that the Labour Government did nothing about it. This Conservative Government are fixing it, making it harder, and that is what we will continue to do.

Oh my God. I have confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is doing a good job in very difficult circumstances to try to make progress, but I do not agree with the Environment Secretary passing the buck to a junior Minister, which is not on. Ultimately, those at the top take responsibility. It is high time the Secretary of State did just that.

I am proud of the Labour Government’s record. We had the cleanest water and the cleanest air since the industrial revolution. That is the Labour record, and it is a scandal that it was not built on further. The abuse of water does not stop there. Let us hear from the North East Fishing Collective, which had the door slammed on it on the scandal of crustacean die-offs on Teesside. It is concerned that livelihoods, jobs and generational pride have been impacted by the Government’s indifference:

“The entire fishing fleet in Hartlepool is finished. There’s no business left. They failed us when we begged them to listen, so now we will have to fight”.

I ask the Secretary of State, for the second time, to rate her Government’s performance on the water scandal that is polluting our country.

The hon. Gentleman should withdraw his earlier comments, because he has, perhaps unintentionally, misled the House. I hope he has the grace to withdraw.

Leading scientific advisers reviewed the crustacean die-offs, and it was published to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the House. We understand that a novel pathogen is the most likely explanation for what happened in the north-east. I continue to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and I take this matter very seriously, but I am conscious that, unlike the Labour Government who in their responses to the European Commission denied that there was a problem and were successfully taken to court, this Government have continued to act and will continue to do so.

Food Costs

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs works closely with other Departments and industry to keep abreast of price trends for food products. We are monitoring the situation and taking relevant action to maintain an efficient food supply chain by mitigating against potential burdens or frictions that could otherwise drive up food prices.

I am tempted to ask the Minister the price of a pint of milk, but no doubt his officials have put that in his brief.

As UK supermarket price inflation hits record highs, consumers are paying just under £800 more on their annual shopping bill, which is in part due to Brexit and the rising cost of animal feed, energy and fertiliser, with agricultural costs rising by almost 50% since 2019. Although farmers are fundamental to food production, they are bearing the brunt of the cost of the food crisis. Farming is an energy-intensive industry, so why is it not getting the same level of support as less energy-intensive sectors? Has the Minister met the Chancellor to discuss how better to support domestic farming?

The hon. Gentleman tries to blame Brexit, but even he will recognise that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine caused enormous ripples around the world, not only in energy prices but in food prices. Ukraine was the breadbasket of Europe and supplied huge volumes of cereals. Of course, rising global gas prices caused a rise in the cost of fertilisers. The Government recognised all that and tried to help farmers through this process and to assist them to produce great-quality food.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a major share- holder in a food production company.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the National Farmers Union’s call to protect home-grown food production?

We have been at this week’s NFU conference to talk directly to the NFU and to listen to farmers’ concerns. We recognise that there are huge pressures on UK domestic food producers and farmers, which is why we are helping them with grants to invest to make their businesses sustainable for the future.

Farmers from across the country met in Birmingham this week—the right hon. Gentleman and I sat on the same table for dinner—at an unprecedented time, with pressures seemingly coming from every direction to create a perfect storm. Although there might have been differences about the scale of the impact, there was consensus that the Environment Secretary had a pretty bad day at the office. Some described it as a “slow-motion tractor crash” or “calamity Coffey.” Joking aside, it was an insult to the very foundation of our food security and hard-working British farmers.

Everyone has the right to have a bad day at the office —I have had a fair few myself—but we have a responsibility to reflect on it and to right the wrong. Will the Environment Secretary, not the Farming Minister, use this opportunity to apologise?

I am very happy for the Farming Minister to apologise on the Secretary of State’s behalf for her outrageous display at the NFU conference in Birmingham yesterday. Will he use this opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State cannot answer this question, because of parliamentary procedure; I am obliged to answer, because I am answering—

Let me help. The Secretary of State will be coming in at topical questions, where she can open with a statement and can respond to anything she wants to then. I also say to both sides that I am really bothered that it is nearly quarter to 10 and we are still only on Question 2. Let us make progress.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State can speak for herself, but we had a successful meeting with farmers in Birmingham. There were some robust exchanges, but that is what we welcome and we engaged with. We continue to work with the NFU and other groups that represent the farming industry.

We are going to have the urgent question on food security a bit later, so I will not labour that at this point. I also thank you for granting the UQ, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have convened a cross-government committee to look at food security in this country and, in particular, the levers they can deploy? I am referring to financial support for farmers, support for energy-intensive food producers, and dealing with labour shortages and all the other issues about which, as he would have heard in Birmingham, farmers feel very frustrated, as it does not feel as though progress is being made on them.

Of course, there are Cabinet Office committees that look at all these challenges, but we in the Department continue to meet retailers on a regular basis. We are convening a roundtable with supermarkets to see how we can assist with those supply chain challenges that we face. We are gripping the situation and trying to assist where we can. It is down to the market to supply where it can, but there are huge challenges, including those in Morocco and Spain that have caused disruptions to food supplies in the UK at this moment.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the consumer prices index rose by 9.2% in the 12 months to December last year. Food inflation is at its highest since the 1970s, reaching 16.9%, making daily essentials such as butter, milk, pasta, eggs and cooking oil, unaffordable for those who are struggling in the cost of living crisis. Of course, that comes alongside the prospect of rationing. Food inflation is not going to fall for the foreseeable future, so what plans will the Minister put in place to ensure that affordable supplies of food can be made available? What steps will he take to make sure that food inflation falls?

The hon. Lady will be familiar with the huge package of support that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put in place for families across the country, including in her constituency in Scotland, to help people with the rising cost of energy and food. That is the right thing to do; it supports those families with those challenges. There is also cash available for local authorities to try to help where the situation is very challenging.

Withdrawal from EU Single Market: Food Production

3. What recent assessment she has made of the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU single market on trends in the level of food production. (903651)

The Government have delivered the first free trade agreement the EU has ever reached based on zero tariffs and zero quotas, and our recent food strategy sets out how we will support a prosperous agrifood sector.

National Farmers Union of Scotland president Martin Kennedy recently highlighted the unprecedented period of change, cost and uncertainty for Scotland’s farmers and crofters driven by Brexit and now compounded by energy costs and fertiliser costs. Last year, I met farmers from across my constituency. They were frustrated by a lack of clarity on a replacement for the common agricultural policy, and our beef herds are now decreasing in numbers. This Government were elected on a pledge of matching EU funding pound for pound, but that has not materialised. Where is the money and when is it coming?

That simply is not true; £2.4 billion is the budget we have committed to in the manifesto, and we are making sure, through this Parliament, that that money continues to go to farmers. Lots of the issues the hon. Gentleman raises are devolved; his own Government are not delivering for the farmers in Scotland. In England, we are rolling out those plans—grants for farmers to invest in their businesses, and help to assist with their environmental schemes and to make sure that they are prosperous. I only hope that he can influence the Scottish Government to give the same level of support to his farmers.

Climate Change: Nature-based Solutions

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero on her Department’s future role in promoting nature-based solutions to climate change. (903653)

Throughout our net zero strategy, and in more detail across the 10 goals and 262 pages of our environmental improvement plan, we have clearly set out that nature-based solutions to net zero are at the heart of everything we are doing.

Coastal wetlands have huge potential both in terms of biodiversity and as carbon sinks, but there is an evidence gap that means we cannot exploit their potential by attracting full private and public sector investment. The right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) said in his recent net zero review that that needs to be part of the greenhouse gas inventory, but we need the evidence base. Can the Minister clarify whose job it is to conduct that work so that we can fully maximise the potential of wetlands? Is it her Department, or is it the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero?

I reassure the hon. Lady that I whole- heartedly agree with her on the value of wetlands. I recently attended the Slimbridge Wetland Centre with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and saw for myself how beneficial wetlands can be. In direct response to her question, the responsibility in DEFRA lies with me. I look forward to meeting her to explain exactly how we are creating more wetlands and how nature-based solutions will feature throughout our net zero and other strategies.

Rural Farmers

Our environmental land management schemes are now open to farmers. The schemes collectively pay farmers to deliver climate and environmental outcomes alongside food production. We continue to evolve those offers, recently updating the countryside stewardship payment rates and bringing forward six new sustainable farming incentive standards.

The right hon. Gentleman is, I know, a horny-handed son of the soil, so he will know that some of the finest seed potatoes are grown in Easter Ross in my constituency. Many of those seed potatoes are in turn sold to English farms in Lincolnshire and suchlike—I might say that is one benefit of the Union. May I press the Minister to tell me what support can be given to those farmers in England to encourage them to grow more spuds such as Maris Pipers and hence to buy more seed potatoes from the farmers in my constituency?

I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Scottish seed potato producers. They are undoubtedly the best seed potatoes available anywhere in Europe, and I know that is recognised throughout the industry. That is why we are supporting farmers across England to continue to grow great British potatoes based on Scottish seed potatoes.

A tight labour market is a reality in agriculture and has been for some time and, although there may be other factors, we know Brexit is at the heart of it. That is why we have a seasonal agricultural worker scheme, but the Government continue to make decisions on that scheme on a short-term basis, too late for farmers to plan, so that they cannot invest in crops or machinery. When will the Government commit, working via the Home Office, to a five-year rolling programme so that farmers can make the right decisions for their staff?

The hon. Lady will be aware that this year we have granted an extra 15,000 visas through the seasonal agricultural worker scheme. We have also committed to those people being guaranteed a minimum of 34 hours a week, paid at the national minimum wage. There is also the option of an extra 10,000 visas if the industry requires them. We will continue to monitor, with the industry, how the scheme is working and to support the farmers who require that labour.

One of the most important roles for rural farmers is their ability to offer up land for affordable housing for rural people. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the new housing Minister about the more vigorous implementation of the Self-build and Custom House- building Act 2015—and if he has not yet had any, when does he plan to do so?

My hon. Friend is very astute at getting his pet topic into DEFRA questions; I pay tribute to the work he has done on self-build. Of course, we always have discussions with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, whose responsibility it is, about land use and we will be producing a land use framework later this year.

The Minister sometimes characterises my line of questioning as a touch gloomy, so I will try to cheer him up this morning by saying how pleased I was to hear his announcement at the NFU conference that the £2.4 billion per annum of agricultural support would be ring-fenced and that, if there was underspend in one year, it would be carried forward into future years. I am sure we are delighted that the Treasury has become such a kind, benevolent, caring organisation, but will he just repeat that promise in the House this morning, and maybe get one of his officials to write to me to point to where in his Department’s accounts that money is, so we can all keep an eye on it?

I am glad that we are making progress. If the hon. Gentleman had only read the Conservative party manifesto at the last election, he would have known that and would not be as gloomy. I encourage him to continue monitoring the Conservative party manifesto.

I am happy to confirm, as I did for the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), that £2.4 billion is ringfenced for the support of farmers—[Interruption.] Where is it? It is being spent at the moment, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) will know. Some of it is being spent on the basic payment scheme, which comes down over seven years, and we are increasing payments through environmental land management schemes as the basic payment comes down. It is a very simple graph: as one comes down, one goes up. We are supporting farmers up and down this country.

Brexit barriers are impacting on exports, and labour and skills shortages across the economy have exacerbated underlying inflation, worsening the economic outlook for farmers, who are already grappling with labour shortages, rising energy and annual feed costs, and the appalling spectacle of unpicked food rotting in fields. A one-size approach to labour shortages does not fit Scotland, whose population is actually falling. What consideration will the Minister give, with Cabinet colleagues, to the Scottish rural visa pilot scheme, which is desperately needed to address Scotland’s specific needs?

As I said to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), the Government recognise that there are challenges with labour supply. That is why we increased the number of visas to 45,000, with the option of an extra 10,000 if required. The industry has not called on the extra 10,000 visas at this time, but we remain ready to deploy them if the industry can demonstrate that they are required.

Bathing Waters: England

As a keen wild swimmer in Devil’s Point and Firestone bay in Plymouth sound, which is the country’s first national marine park, I have been working with Plymouth City Council to declare that really special piece of water a designated bathing water. May I ask the Minister to don her wetsuit and join me in the sea, where I can show her not only that incredible piece of water and the expanding access to it—especially for people from poorer communities—but, importantly, the raw sewage pipe that occasionally emits appalling human waste into a special and environmentally important bit of our sea?

I do wear a wetsuit when I go swimming in the sea—I am a bit of a coward, but I love to put my wetsuit on and go swimming in the sea.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he will have to wait until May to see where we go with that particular designation, but we already have 421 designated bathing sites in England as of last year—that number has gradually been going up. The good news about those sites is that 93% of them are classed as “excellent” and “good”, so their record is extremely good. I will take a rain check on whether I join him for a swim.

Why are there only 421 such sites? People can go wild swimming anywhere in England and other parts of the United Kingdom. Is this whole designation scheme not essentially a rationing scheme? Why do the Government not abandon it and enable people to swim in bathing waters anywhere?

To be quite honest, one can swim wherever one wants; it is just that there is a process for what we call designating bathing waters. In the application for that, one has to demonstrate that there is sufficient interest in using that site—that high numbers of people want to use it—and that there are car parking facilities and public facilities, including loos and so forth. That is all part of encouraging designated sites, but it is not to say that people cannot choose, in their own right, to swim wherever they want.

Fish Stocks

Our landmark Fisheries Act 2020 sets out the legal framework within which we manage fish stocks in UK waters, including fisheries management plans for key stocks. We work with industry and stakeholders, ensuring that precious fish stocks are managed to benefit our marine environment, fishing industry and coastal communities.

I recently hosted the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in Parliament, as the Minister will know, so that it could launch a report highlighting concerns within the fishing industry across the UK about the loss of fishing grounds to an array of pressures, of which offshore wind and marine protected areas topped the list. What assurances can the Government give that they will speak to the NFFO and ensure that fishing is an important factor?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all that she does for the fishing sector. We welcome the NFFO’s “Spatial Squeeze in Fisheries” report, which highlights the need for a holistic approach to spatial planning. I meet regularly with the NFFO to discuss a wide variety of issues, including spatial prioritisation and the concerns outlined in that report.

The Secretary of State and the Minister need to travel to Teesside to meet people from the fishing and wider community who are still looking for answers to the ongoing deaths of crustaceans, fish and other sea life off the coast. If I set it up, will they come to Teesside and explain what they are going to do next to find out what is causing this ongoing crisis?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to know the cause of that terrible disaster. The scientists have looked at this, done a report and come to the conclusion that it was probably a pathogen that is very difficult to detect. Unless there is another event, which I sincerely hope there is not, we may never know the cause of this event.

Global Food Security

The Government are supporting Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, to export grain to countries most in need, including contributing £5 million to President Zelensky’s Grain from Ukraine initiative. The Government are also focused on the long-term drivers of global food insecurity, including climate change and biodiversity loss. We are supporting international programmes to improve the sustainability and resilience of global food systems.

The best form of food security is to grow more of our own food. Lincolnshire is the breadbasket of England, so it makes no sense that there are planning proposals to cover 10,000 acres of my constituency of Gainsborough with solar panels. We are all in favour of solar panels, but there are millions of acres of flat warehouse roofs they could go on. Will the Minister change the planning guidelines so that there is a presumption against building solar panels on 3b as well as 3a land? In reality, there is no difference in growing good wheat and barley between 3a and 3b land.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is responsible for planning. The best and most versatile land is defined as land in grades 1, 2 and 3a of the agricultural land classification, and the national planning policy framework sets out that local planning authorities should consider all the benefits of the best and most versatile land when making plans and decisions on development proposals. Where significant development of agricultural land is shown to be necessary, they should seek to use poorer-quality land in preference to higher-quality land.

Of course. We continue to work closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Government Veterinary Services to monitor this. We are working with the sector to make sure we have the best biosecurity available. There has been a fantastic response from the sector to improve its biosecurity, but we continue to face the challenge of avian influenza. The long-term solution to the challenge is a vaccine, which is not currently available, but we will give all the support we can to the scientific sector to try to develop such a vaccine.

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

9. What discussions she has had with the Leader of the House on the parliamentary timetable for the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. (903659)

The Bill contains a variety of manifesto commitments that we are committed to progressing when parliamentary time allows, but the Leader of the House will continue to announce business in the usual way.

The 2021 commitment to tackle puppy smuggling via the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was welcomed by a number of my constituents, but many of them are now concerned, because the secondary legislation being considered under the frozen Bill includes provisions to restrict the movement of heavily pregnant dogs, young puppies and dogs with cropped ears, and the level of puppy smuggling continues to rise. Can the Secretary of State provide assurances that the Government will continue to work towards ending this horrible practice and the movement of these poor animals across the border?

Yes, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. It is our intention to deliver the manifesto commitments, and we are doing that in a number of different ways and have provided legislation to support a number of those commitments through private Members’ Bills. But as I say, the Leader of the House will continue to be responsible for announcing how the business of Government Bills will progress.

For years, we have told people that we could not do anything about the cruelty of live export. The Secretary of State will understand those people’s frustration now that it is in our gift and in the Bill, won’t she?

Indeed. That is why it was a commitment in our manifesto: it is a freedom that we will be able to deploy having left the European Union. I am conscious that people are very interested in the progress of the Bill, but I stand by my earlier answer.


We are increasing levels of peatland restoration through our nature for climate fund, in order to restore approximately 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. To date, we have committed £33 million to restore 20,000 hectares of peatlands, with a further bidding round in 2023.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Well-maintained peatlands are a crucial nature resource in fighting the climate crisis. The Somerset levels near Bath contain 231 square miles of peatland, storing nearly 11 million tonnes of carbon, but 80% of the UK’s peatland is so degraded that it is acting as a net source of greenhouse gas emissions, doing the opposite of what it is meant to do. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says that part of the problem is the lack of available contractors with the necessary skills and capacity to allow for rapid restoration work. What is the Secretary of State, or the Minister, doing to increase the number of contractors?

We have set out in our peatland action plan the measures that we will be taking. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to recognise the value that England’s peatlands provide: they are our largest terrestrial carbon store, and also provide homes for rare wildlife, regulate our water supply and provide a record of the past, all of which are incredibly important. In the net zero strategy, we committed to restore approximately 280,000 hectares of peatland in England by 2050.

Single-use Plastic

13. What recent assessment her Department has made of the feasibility of ending the use of non-essential single-use plastics. (903664)

Apologies, Mr Speaker; I was told that the right hon. Gentleman had withdrawn his question.

We have banned single-use plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, and have recently announced that additional items will be banned from October 2023, including plastic plates and cutlery and polystyrene food and beverage containers. Through our 25-year environment plan, we are committed to an ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

The Minister has a long-standing record in this area; I thought she might be jumping to get to the Dispatch Box to answer my question. We have to accept, though, that although we were making very good progress on reducing and eliminating the use of single-use plastics before covid, the measures that were necessary during lockdown did see a lot of that progress reversed, and there is now a need for a renewed and reinvigorated approach. Unfortunately, in Scotland we have a rather poorly designed deposit return scheme that risks further damage to the cause of reducing single-use plastics, so will the Minister join me and other Members across the House in designing a strategy for the eventual elimination of single-use plastics that can enjoy everyone’s support?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am always very keen to talk about these issues. Frankly, I believe this Government are doing a really great job in setting the direction of travel for reducing our use of plastics and, indeed, pressing on with all of our schemes—not just the individual bans that I have outlined—as well as the extended producer responsibility scheme, the data reporting section of which has already started; the deposit return scheme; and our consistent collections. I am sorry to hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Scottish deposit return scheme, but certainly, we in this place are pressing on with all our commitments and targets to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste.

Plastic Pollution

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. On a similar note to my answer to the previous question, the resources and waste strategy sets out our plans to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. To do that, we have introduced a range of bans on certain plastic items, as she will know, and the extended producer responsibility scheme, for which data gathering has already started. The deposit return scheme and consistent recycling will also come on board.

There is huge support for banning plastic in wet wipes from hon. Members on both sides of the House, retailers, producers and water companies. The Government’s consultation on the issue ended more than a year ago, but it was not included in the recent plastic announcements—the Government’s action on the issue is so slow. Will the Minister support the campaign of Water UK and the water companies to bin the wipe? Will she meet me to talk about when the Government will finally bring in that ban on plastic in wet wipes?

I know how passionately the hon. Lady feels about the issue—I do too—but we have to get it right. We are still analysing the responses to that call for evidence. Great care has to be taken when considering something flushable, even if it does not have plastic in it—where does it go, where does it end up and what happens to it?—so we have asked for extra information about that. It is critical for wipes to be flushable, but I urge people not to flush things down the loo, because that is how we get blockages and fatbergs. I recently went to a nursery where they were making homemade wet wipes out of kitchen roll, none of which went down the loo. If hon. Members want to see my video on that, they should go on to my Instagram.

Environmental Land Management Schemes

15. What steps her Department is taking to support farmers through environmental land management schemes. (903666)

We published an update on our environmental land management schemes on 26 January. We have worked to ensure that there is something for everyone; we are expanding the sustainable farming incentive offer and launching a new round of the landscape recovery scheme this year. We will expand and enhance our popular countryside stewardship scheme later.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. The £168 million farming investment fund, the six new standards in the SFI and the ELMS prospectus are good news and good progress, but I know from the National Farmers Union conference this week and from conversations with the Buckinghamshire committee of the Country Land and Business Association that detail is still missing that would give farmers the long-term certainty they need. I urge him to get the full detail of the schemes on the table as soon as possible.

We will continue to publish more information on our environmental land management schemes this year. That includes further details by the summer on the new actions that will be made available through the sustainable farming incentive and the countryside stewardship scheme.

I am not usually a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, but I have been absolutely addicted to his television programme and the ventures of Diddly Squat farm. Does the Minister agree that that programme gives people a real insight into the bureaucracy and complications of the schemes? It is very complicated for farmers who want to earn a living and feed the nation. Will he visit Clarkson’s farm to give him a bit of support?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Mr Clarkson and what he is doing to advertise what is happening in the agricultural sector and some of the challenges it faces. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the series was filmed before we announced lots of the detail about our ELM schemes, so some of the criticisms that are levelled at the Department have now been resolved and that information is out there. Mr Clarkson is, however, communicating with a different generation about the challenges of food production.

Food Insecurity

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs leads on food supply and we are working closely with the Cabinet Office to ensure that food supply is fully incorporated into emergency preparedness. The UK has a highly resilient food supply chain that is well equipped to deal with situations with a potential to cause disruption. Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources, strong domestic production and imports through stable trade routes. DEFRA has a collaborative relationship with industry, which allows us to effectively respond to disruption, should it occur.

With the Office for National Statistics highlighting a 16.8% increase in food prices in the year to January, the Government have built their food poverty infrastructure on dependency on voluntary donations and retail waste donations. However, due to demand, food banks in York are running out and are eking out their food supplies. For my part, I am holding a city-wide donation day so that those who can give do so and those who are in need receive. We call it York Together, as we support one another. What are the Government doing to ensure that no one goes without?

The hon. Lady is right to praise the initiative with her constituents in York. That is very welcome, and it is an element of what can be done locally. We have talked about aspects of food pricing, and there is no doubt that inflation is really tough at the moment, but I am conscious that we still have a situation in which, generally across Europe, we have one of the lowest proportions of incomes being spent on food. Supermarkets have been very competitive, and we may discuss some of that later. I encourage her to also support of the household support fund, which is intended to go to people who are particularly in need. However, we know that one of the best ways for people to boost their income is not only to get into work if they are not in work already, but to work more hours or get upskilled to get a higher income. The local welfare grant, which was given some time ago by central Government to local councils, is there for them to use as well.

In the Secretary of State’s first answer, she talked about domestic security and domestic growing, but it is being made clear across broadcast media this morning that the UK Government have refused to give support to greenhouse growers across the winter season, which has added to the shortages we are seeing and the restrictions in supermarkets. Why are the Government refusing to help those farmers, and to ensure that we have domestic food security and do not have these shortages across the supermarkets?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. At this time of the year, we normally import about 90% to 95% of our food, because we cannot grow it in our soils, although I appreciate that there are industrial greenhouses that could grow some of these materials. We do know that energy prices have been going up, and the Government have been supporting businesses. It is when the change happens in April that I understand there may be an impact on greenhouses, which is why we will continue to work with the industry. However, we have always been a significant importer, particularly of things like tomatoes, recognising that farmers will choose to use the land in the way that they think is best to have a sustainable farming business in the UK.

Topical Questions

I am aware that many Members will be concerned by the reports about the availability of various horticultural products right now. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries said earlier, DEFRA is working closely with the industry to understand the issues with that supply chain, in which there was a particular issue in Spain and north Africa before Christmas and shortly after. Officials are already working with food retailers, and I think the Minister will be meeting them very early next week specifically to talk through certain aspects for supermarkets.

In mid-March, the greatest National Hunt festival will take place at Cheltenham racecourse in my constituency. It is a sport that only this week the Prime Minister hailed as a showcase for global Britain. However, to maintain this world-leading position, the international movement of top thoroughbreds to this country is essential, so what have the Government been able to do to facilitate it?

I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency on 17 March, where I will enjoy some of the racing. It is important that we have high standards of health and welfare for thoroughbreds. The Government are close to publishing our target operating model proposals, which will take a proportionate, risk-based and technically advanced approach to future sanitary and phytosanitary controls. We are still considering the approach specifically for live animals, particularly high-level equines, to understand how protecting biosecurity and minimising trade burdens can be carefully and safely managed.

Indoor air pollution is an increasing problem that poses health risks, but the Tories have no plan to tackle it. But do not worry, Mr Speaker, because help is on the way. Labour will have a standalone clean air Act in our very first King’s Speech. Before we get there, will the Secretary of State share what specific action she has taken to tackle indoor air pollution? What discussions has she had with other Departments, and what other actions will she bring forward in the coming months? In other words, where is the plan?

The clean air strategy of 2019 specifically identified indoor air pollution. Ongoing ventilation, and advice on that, is the standard approach. That is true of things such as scented candles and cleaning products. Although the chemicals are changing, a lot of the chief medical officer’s fairly recent report is already contained in the strategy. It is important that we tackle air pollution in all sorts of ways, but the best advice to improve indoor air quality is to keep windows open for five to 10 minutes a day to allow fresh air in. That will significantly help to reduce some of the impacts, and that is needed.

T2.   I thank Ministers for their continued support on coastal flooding, including the £10 million allocated to upgrade flood defences in Fylde, which is a low-lying, largely flat coastal peninsula, meaning that even inland areas remain vulnerable to flooding. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), visited Fylde and saw that for herself, but will she join me for a further visit to the affected areas, and commit to producing a long-term plan to relieve the issues? (903674)

I very much enjoyed my educational visit to Fylde to understand the benefits of our flood spending. Even in low-lying areas, there are benefits of protecting the businesses, which felt safer. Tourism and active travel on the great embankment had been strengthened. I would be delighted to come back if my diary permits it to see the further work that is being done to get even more out of the funding that the Government have committed to from our £5.2-billion budget.

T3. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) mentioned the lack of Government support for greenhouse producers. Energy costs are having a great impact on farmers, but they are not included in the new business scheme coming into place at the end of March. Given that we are about to have an urgent question on food shortages, will the Government reconsider that decision? (903676)

The UK Government have already been helping households and businesses with the significant rises in energy costs. We are now starting to see a reduction in wholesale gas prices, and the Government are confident that that will start to feed through to electricity prices. We will remain focused on energy-intensive sectors that need ongoing support, but the scheme is much more restricted, and the hon. Lady will be aware of the reasons why.

T7. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the fishing industry is not squeezed out of its livelihood by generally welcome but often conflicting factors such as offshore wind and marine protected areas? How will he ensure that the industry is adequately represented in the decision-making process? (903680)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in that sector and the representations that he has made. I meet Scottish fishermen on a regular basis, and I am aware of the challenges they face due to spatial squeeze. I am also very much aware of the great work they do to keep the country fed with high-quality fish in our food markets.

T4.   Jarrow constituents face a rise in water bills from Northumbrian Water—a company owned by Cayman Islands-registered Hong Kong CK Hutchison Holdings. It underspent its budget for repairs by 48%, yet took profits of £2 billion a year, awarded millions to shareholders and pumped sewage into north-east waterways. Will the Secretary of State commit to fining water companies up to £250 million for dumping sewage? (903677)

Northumbrian Water is also the parent company of the water company that services my constituency. I am conscious that dividends were not paid out during covid, but the point stands that we need improved environmental performance from water companies. We are doing that, and it is why we have given Ofwat powers, which they have been consulted on, to link dividend payments to things such as environmental performance. I hope that Ofwat will come forward with final proposals shortly.

If habitats can be restored to a quality in which reptiles—in particular the smooth snake—can thrive, that will be good for all wildlife. That would be a good target, would it not?

I absolutely agree on the importance of securing the habitats and the survival of reptiles. Indeed, we will halt the decline in species abundance by 2030, and increase abundance by at least 10% to exceed 2022 levels by 2042. That is all set out in our environmental plan—all 262 pages of it. On my right hon. Friend’s specific point, I very much look forward to an enlightening conversation with him.

T5. Child hunger has a significant impact on a child’s ability to concentrate, as well as on their behaviour and attainment. Labour has set out that it will provide breakfasts for children in school, and where Labour is in power it is providing lunches as well. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Education Secretary to ensure that children do not go hungry? (903678)

This is similar to the question the hon. Lady raised earlier. The Department for Education has responsibility for free school meals, and many millions of children benefit from them in this country. I am conscious that we want to ensure that food is affordable. Food price inflation is very challenging right now, and that is why we have acted to help with aspects of food production. We continue to try to ensure that we get through this challenging time. That is why there is support through things such as the household support fund, as well as other opportunities, to make sure that no child needs to go hungry.

It was a pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) to Manor Farm in Chearsley last month, to see how farmer Rose Dale, the River Thame Conservation Trust and the Freshwater Habitats Trust have created new floodplain freshwater wetland habitats. Will she congratulate everyone involved in this hugely successful project? What steps are being taken to create further such wetlands?

It was the most enjoyable and informative visit that I took part in with my hon. Friend; I ask that he pass on my thanks to Farmer Rose. The visit demonstrated the value of bringing water into the landscape; it has value for habitats and, in many other places, for flood control. Such nature-based solutions are one of the key planks of not just our flood policy but our habitat restoration project.

T6. The Farm Safety Foundation—or Yellow Wellies, as most of us know it—has just completed a campaign to improve farmers’ mental health. Will the Minister set out what actions are being taken across Government, and at a devolved level, to develop mental health support schemes for farmers? According to the Yellow Wellies survey, farmers’ mental health is plummeting. We need a UK-wide strategy to offer more support. (903679)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the campaign. The Yellow Wellies campaign had an action week last week; I hope he saw my contribution to that. It is very important that we recognise that mental health is a challenge in rural communities. If someone is working alone for many hours, it can lead to dark thoughts. We continue to work with charities in the sector to address the challenges those people face and to give them the support they deserve.

As my hon. Friend points out, two different schemes are proposed. We have consulted widely, in particular with industry, and that is why we have taken the decision not to include glass bottles. Glass bottles will remain in the consistent collections from the doorstep. From our consultation and stakeholder engagement, that is considered to be the best way to increase the amount of glass we recycle.

T8. The Government’s 25-year environment plan aims to deliver cleaner water for our communities. However, recent statistics show that the River Calder and the River Aire, which run through the Wakefield district, are the second and third most polluted waterways in England. The Office for Environmental Protection, the Government’s own regulator, has said that progress has fallen far short. After 13 years in power, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to clean up the waterways for the people of Wakefield? (903681)

We are picking up after the inaction of the previous Labour Government—that takes time. That is why we will continue to do the work. I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we work on a catchment-based approach, which is the approach that is being taken. It is important that we focus in on those rivers, which is why I am asking Natural England to make progress with assessments of sites of special scientific interest around the country, thinking particularly of rivers. It is important that we continue to work together with the people who have the rights and responsibilities of owning those waterways at a local level to make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s rivers are cleaner than ever before.

Is the ploughing under of perfectly good crops because there is not enough labour to harvest them efficiently a success of Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have increased by another 15,000 the number of visas available through the seasonal agriculture workers scheme. An extra 10,000 visas are available should the industry require them. We are supplying the industry with the labour it requires, and the scheme seems to be working very well at this moment in time.

Polling commissioned by the Dogs Trust found that the biggest worry of almost a quarter of dog owners is the rising cost of dog food, causing deep concern and issues of abandonment. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) raised at the previous DEFRA questions the campaign to remove VAT from pet food. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury, and will the coming Budget introduce measures to reduce or remove VAT from dog food?

Pets are, of course, very precious to people and, after children, are often their No. 1 priority. It is important to try to make sure that people are generous. I make a plea to dog and cat food manufacturers to help their customers at this challenging time. The Budget will take place soon, but I want to manage expectations. I do not expect changes to VAT rates for specific products, but let us do what we can to make sure that our pets get fed.

Given the Secretary of State’s view that the financial sector must invest in projects to prevent biodiversity loss, what steps are the Government taking to incentivise businesses to play their part?

We are working across Government, including with the Treasury, to identify opportunities for green finance. We absolutely recognise that in this country, but also all around the world, nature-based solutions and reducing the harm caused by public subsidies are a priority, as set out at COP15 in Montreal by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I am sorry, Mr Speaker. I am so used to jumping up and sitting down, I did not realise that I had been called!

Northern Ireland fishermen have received only £14 million of the additional quota of £20 million that they were due to receive. In addition, the Northern Ireland protocol poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the fishing industry. What discussions have Ministers had with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the producer organisations about the future of fish stocks in and around Northern Ireland and the Irish sea?

Of course, we have regular meetings with the devolved Administrations. We also meet the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science regularly to discuss the level of fish stocks in the sea. We want to give out those quotas in a fair and equitable way that supports the whole of the United Kingdom and all four Administrations, and we will continue to have those conversations and discussions.

I am really sorry to hear that Ministers are not prepared to travel to Teesside to face local people who are concerned about ongoing sealife deaths. Ministers say that they want to find out the cause, so will they invest in further testing now rather than stick their heads in the sand?

The hon. Gentleman will have read the scientific report that says quite specifically that further investigation is highly likely to be futile and that we are quite unlikely to find that pathogen. I can say directly that if we were to analyse all the infections within the hon. Gentleman, we would find a lot of viruses that may not be relevant to his health or condition. That is the challenge. We have to find the pathogen at the moment that it is impacting on those crabs, but that moment has passed.

Are you aware, Mr Speaker, that Shannon and Sheerman are going on a world tour shortly?

Many of us think that the tyres on our vehicles are made wholly of rubber, but research that I have come across recently shows that that is not true. There is rubber but there are also 72 chemicals, many of which have a link to cancer. That waste goes on our roads and flows into the gutters and into our streams and rivers and the sea. What are we going to do about this ghastly poison?

That is why we have increasingly high environmental standards, considering the different chemicals that are used in products every day. We have some challenges with the recycling of certain products, such as sofas and chairs. These are ongoing issues. I am not aware of the science that the hon. Gentleman has commissioned, but I am aware of how the Government have stepped up and supported companies such as Michelin with the circular economy. We made sure that it kept its factory here so that we could have retreading and remanufacturing. It is with that sort of approach—making sure that we really promote the circular economy—that we can try to tackle some of the issues that arise from plastics.

UK Food Shortages

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on UK food shortages.

The United Kingdom has a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated throughout the covid-19 response, and is well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause disruption.

In the last few days, we have seen Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Tesco apply item limits to a small number of fruits and vegetables in response to issues with supply from Spain and north Africa caused predominantly by seasonal weather hampering production and harvest during December and January. The nature of horticulture and the effect on production of short-term events such as weather can create some volatility, and any growing forecast is subject to short-term alterations. We know that Ireland and other parts of Europe are facing very similar supply issues.

Industry has the capability, levers and expertise to respond to disruption and, where necessary, my Department will further support and enable that. I wish to reiterate that UK food security remains resilient, and we continue to expect industry to be able to mitigate supply problems through alternative sourcing options.

In 2021, we imported over £1.5 billion-worth of fruits and vegetables from Spain and £340 million-worth from Morocco. We consistently import over 30,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes every month of the year. Through the winter months, the majority of imports are from Morocco and Spain, but in the summer months, as more production comes online, we also import from the Netherlands. In 2021, our home production accounted for around 17% of tomatoes.

We are working closely with industry bodies across the horticulture sectors to better understand the impacts. Officials have already met retailers, and there will be further meetings to understand their plans to mitigate current pressures. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries will be convening a roundtable of retailers to explore with them their contractual models, their plans for a return to normal supplies, and contingencies for dealing with these supply chain problems.

We know that farmers and growers around the world have been facing significant pressures caused by the invasion of Ukraine and the historic outbreak of avian influenza in Europe. We also recognise the impact of rising food prices as a result of global shocks including the spike in oil and gas prices, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. That is why the Government have taken steps to offer support with energy costs. We cut tariffs to reduce feed costs, we improved avian influenza compensation schemes, and we have taken a range of measures on fertilisers. Indeed, UK growers were able to access the energy bill relief scheme.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue to keep the market under review through the UK agriculture market monitoring group and other engagement forums.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. You will have seen coverage of this issue all over the front pages of the papers and all over the TV, because there is genuine public concern about the availability of food. Given her responsibility for our food security—let us bear in mind that food security is national security—this is mission critical for the Secretary of State. Frankly, I found her response to be completely detached from the reality being faced on the ground, whether in our supermarkets or by our farmers.

There is this idea that, somehow, the issue is all down to external forces. Of course, we understand the impact of covid and the spike coming out of that, we understand the impact of Brexit, we understand the impact of Ukraine and we understand the impact of energy prices. We understand all that. The question is, what is in the Government’s control? What levers do they have to make the situation better today? They did not have to make changes to direct payments that undercut farmers. They did not have to agree to international trade deals that undersell UK farmers. They could have made sure that farmers and food producers had access to the energy-intensive support scheme, but they decided not to do that. They could have made sure that the labour quotas were sufficient to ensure that food was not rotting in the fields. All those levers were available to the Government.

When I met Lancashire farmers who had fallen victim to avian flu and were struggling to find ways of recovering and rebuilding their businesses, they told me that there was not a single DEFRA scheme to help them restart. There are 1 billion fewer eggs on our shelves this year than there were before the pandemic. On pancake day earlier this week, people could not buy eggs to make their pancakes.

This is the result of the Government’s indifference and dithering. If they do not understand that food security is national security, and that we need to end sticking-plaster politics and have a long-term plan, there is no hope for the nation.

I think I set out pretty clearly what is going on right now. [Hon. Members: “Nothing is going on!”] It sounds to me as if the shadow Secretary of State has abandoned the agricultural transition plan, which conflicts with what the Leader of the Opposition said the other day. That is interesting: we are seeing a Labour split already, within 48 hours. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman is trying to play politics with such a serious situation.

The House should bear in mind some of the support that has been provided, such as the changes that we made to the avian influenza compensation scheme. It is true that the number of hens fell by about 4 million last year, but there are still between 36 million and 38 million laying hens in this country. It is important that we continue to have that discussion.

The retailers have had a pretty reliable supply chain, but what has happened in southern Spain and Morocco is unusual, which is why we need a resilient farming industry and a resilient supply chain. [Interruption.] I hear someone mention greenhouses. We are seeing the industry evolve, but I am not aware that any greenhouse owner benefits from any basic payment scheme. The energy bill relief scheme continues to be available to various parts of the sector, although I am aware that that will not necessarily be the case from April onwards, and that there may be a significant reduction.

I think the hon. Gentleman needs to be careful when it comes to the question of ensuring that we retain confidence in the food supply chain. Supermarkets have decided to stop a lot of the buying so that everyone still has access to enough fruit and vegetables. I am led to believe by my officials, following discussions with the industry and with retailers, that this situation will last for another two to four weeks. We must try to ensure that there are alternative sourcing options, which is why the Department has had those discussions with retailers, and there will be further discussions led by Ministers so that we can try to get over this and to avoid similar situations in the future. Even if we cannot control the weather, we can and must try to ensure that the supply is not frustrated in quite the way it has been owing to these unusual weather incidents.

If only I had been told before I voted for Brexit that it was going to cause frosts in Morocco, I could have made a different decision—couldn’t I?

One of the joys of being the Secretary of State for this Department is having the environment and agriculture in the same portfolio, which leads us to take a sensible, careful, long-term approach to considering the factors that can help both our farming sector and the environment. We took that approach when designing the environmental land management schemes, and we are now on a careful journey as we move people away from a very rigid element of what was the basic payment scheme under the common agricultural policy, when more than half the subsidy went to just 10% of the farmers in this country. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) wanted to go back into the European Union, I believe. That decision was made by all the EU countries, so he clearly does not know his history or know anything about the CAP. What he should be doing—unlike the shadow Secretary of State, who now seems to be undermining the environmental land management schemes—is recognising some of the initiatives we have been funding, the various grants we have provided, and the way in which we have tackled, for instance, tariffs on imports. It is by adopting approaches of that sort that we can help our farming industry.

Importantly, the retailers are working to provide alternative sourcing so that those restrictions on consumer consumption will not be in place for much longer.

The Secretary of State’s response shows that she and her Government refuse to take any responsibility for their own shortcomings. Farmers across the UK have been warning of the risk of food shortages for some time as a result of rising costs and Brexit trade barriers. Why did the Government not heed those warnings? Who would have thought that, in 2023, the UK would be facing the problem of food shortages which, despite what we have been told, is uniquely affecting the UK? We are the only European country with empty supermarket shelves. The reality is that food shortages are due to low food production, which is in serious decline under this Government’s watch.

In addition, the supermarket sector has been “hurt horribly” by Brexit, according to the chief executive of Sainsbury’s. The chair of Save British Food has accused the Government of “absolute negligence”, of not caring about food production and of shattering food security. In all honesty, is the Secretary of State not embarrassed and ashamed that, under her and her Government’s watch, the UK is poorer, has less food, and has a declining agricultural sector and higher food costs because of Brexit failure and the empty rhetoric of taking back control?

I do not recognise a lot of what the hon. Lady said about food production. It might be true in Scotland, but that is a devolved matter—she might want to take a look. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady does not seem to take any ownership of what the SNP Government are doing in relation to farming policies. As we set out in the Government’s food strategy last year and in our manifesto, we want to maintain, if not increase, our domestic food security, which is what I said to the NFU yesterday. However, as she will know, there are a number of products that we cannot grow in this country and we also have a season. One of the main differences between our supermarkets and those in Europe is that our supermarkets often have a fixed price contract. In other countries, there is often a trend towards variable price contracts. We recognise that and will be going into that in detail with the supermarkets.

As I have said, there has been unusual weather in Morocco and south Spain, which has led to a temporary restriction—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) continues to chunter from a sedentary position. As I have said, it is for her and her Government in Scotland to decide what they are doing about food production. This Conservative Government back our farmers. We want them to grow food—that is the main purpose of farmers—and to make a good living out of it, and we will continue to support them in that. The £2.4 billion a year will go towards a combination of basic payments and the initiatives to make sure that we have a resilient, sustainable and profitable food industry for many generations to come.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the supermarkets are still importing far too much produce for us and that we should be eating more seasonally and supporting our own British farmers. If we were to move to a seasonal way of eating, many of these problems would be avoided. Great food products are available from local farmers at this time. May I take the opportunity to thank the Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for joining me yesterday at the Taste of Exmoor event where we met some of those farmers vital to our food supply.

As ever, my hon. Friend shows that she is a great champion for her constituents by bringing the Taste of Exmoor to Parliament. I do not know whether you had the opportunity to attend that event, Mr Speaker. I am afraid that I did not, because I was returning from the NFU conference. It is important to make sure that we cherish our specialisms in this country. Many people would be eating turnips right now rather than thinking necessarily about lettuce, tomatoes and similar. However, I am conscious that consumers want a year-round choice, and that is what our supermarkets, food producers and growers around the world try to satisfy.

I always knew that the Conservatives were a bunch of bean counters, but this is off the scale—our supermarkets have had to impose a form of food rationing, while the chief bean counter comes to the Dispatch Box and says, “Crisis? What crisis?” Does the Secretary of State agree with the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, who has accused the Government of a “dereliction of duty” for failing to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose post-Brexit set of border checks on agricultural imports? That was not what we were promised before the Brexit vote?

I think the hon. Gentleman should withdraw the words and phrases he used, because I did not use those words at the Dispatch Box. We recognise this particular issue, right now, which is why the Department is already in discussion with retailers, and why the Minister will meet retailers. This incident is driven by aspects of the supply chain, and the primary source for goods right now is an area that was affected by very unusual weather before and after Christmas. To have snow, and the amount of heat that was there, and adverse weather, is pretty unusual and something that the supply chain has to try to manage. Right now supermarkets have chosen a particular way. That is why we will continue to meet them, and I am hoping that this will be a temporary issue. This volatility is unwelcome, but I am conscious that our supply chain is resilient and that we will continue to invest in our farmers for generations to come.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right in pointing to the factors that she has in answering this urgent question. May I push her a little further on the question of energy, and urge her to work more closely with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to see whether we can reclassify what is energy intensive industry within our support schemes? Agriculture and horticulture are incredibly energy intensive, yet they have not had the same support as some manufacturing sectors. That could revolutionise British farming and keep businesses afloat.

I am conscious of what my hon. Friend says. Industrial glasshouses in particular are an emerging industry, not a long-established one, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will always be looking to consider who should be eligible. We will continue to make the case for why we think this is an important sector. I am conscious that there is a significant scaling back, recognising other issues, such as the wholesale price of gas which has fallen, and we expect to see a reduction in energy prices coming through.

I am concerned that these food shortages will impact on school meals. Should we be looking to give free school meals to far more children in England, just as Scotland and Wales already do?

Free school meals is a policy for the Department for Education. I am conscious that due to the Barnett formula, the Administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales get a lot more funding per head. I do not anticipate that will change, but those Administrations have the freedom to make policies that are relevant to their local demographics. We want more people to be in good profitable work so that they do not need to rely on free school meals, and that is the intention of the Government going forward.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that retailers have taken the right strategy to avoid panic buying? As we know from a couple of years ago, any perceived or real shortage leads to panic buying—we recall the situation with toilet rolls a couple of years ago. Fruit and vegetables are perishable and have a short shelf life, and panic buying would not only exacerbate the shortage but would lead to a lot of food waste.

The hon. Gentleman is knowledgeable in this area, and consumers must be able to buy the products they want to buy. Supermarkets normally have a very resilient supply chain, but we have a particular issue right now, which I believe they are trying to fix, and some supermarkets are taking that approach to ensure that every customer can access those products. It is important to reflect on the fact that sometimes words are said—before Christmas a particular industry person talked about a shortage of free-range turkeys; consumers heard, they moved their things, and we ended up with a glut and prices fell. People need to be careful when we are talking about the resilience of the food supply chain—we have that confidence. I know this is temporary—I believe it to be temporary—and I am confident it will be fixed within the next two to four weeks.

The Secretary of State will have heard the leader of the Labour party announce at the NFU conference this week that he wants 50% of all public food procurement to be locally and sustainably sourced, as France has done for a long time. DEFRA had a consultation on public sector food procurement that closed on 4 September, nearly six months ago. I have not heard any Minister mention it since. Is the consultation still live? When will we have a response? This will be hugely influential in supporting food sovereignty in this country.

We set out our commitment to British food in our food strategy and our manifesto. It is a welcome compliment that the Leader of the Opposition is following a Conservative Government policy. We will act on the response to the consultation, and the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) will be aware that we need careful consideration across Government of how to take certain policies forward. We also need to be mindful of things like World Trade Organisation rules, but I will continue to champion British produce and local procurement. The public sector can make those choices now if it wishes; it does not need Government clearance.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that 170,000 tonnes of fresh produce is wasted each year in this country? Does she think the current crisis will encourage consumers to value their fruit and veg, and their five a day, more highly?

It is very important that consumers have that choice, but we are also committed to trying to reduce the amount of food waste. It is a shame for any food to be wasted. We are also concerned about the carbon emissions that arise from food waste, and we are trying to reduce them on our pathway to net zero.

Despite claims that this is a Europe-wide problem, there are no reported food shortages in France, Germany and other European net food importers. Is it not the case that this problem was created by inward-looking little England and this British Government?

It is 2023, and there are crops rotting in the fields because there are not enough people to pick them, there are kids going hungry in all our communities and now we have rationing in our supermarkets, and it is not because people are stockpiling and panic buying salad, although a lettuce lasted longer than the last Prime Minister. I want the Secretary of State to have more grip, control and leadership on this issue. Her responses so far have been complacent. Unless she wants to go down as the Secretary of State for sewage, food shortages and rural poverty, what is her plan to properly address the food shortages we face? This is a serious issue for families across the country.

This is a serious issue, but I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s question shows his lack of knowledge and his bandwagon jumping. He suggests that there is nobody picking vegetables in our fields, but that is not the case right now. We have a supply chain that brings in food from around the world. I would love to hear about the farms in his constituency that are short of people to pick tomatoes or lettuces. It is probably as rare as—[Hon. Members: “As what?”] I was about to say that it is as rare as his wanting us to be successful. [Interruption.] What is the best way to put it? It is as rare as gold at the end of a rainbow. Perhaps he believes in fairy tales. He certainly does not know how the food supply system works. He jumps on a bandwagon, and he must be embarrassed. I hope his constituents reflect on the fact that he knows nothing about how their daily lives are affected by this.

I know the Secretary of State to be a decent, good-hearted woman, but I say to her that this is a national emergency. Lower-income children and families in my constituency are struggling to afford basic food such as eggs and milk—all the basics a family have to have. There is a national emergency; it is not just the shortages, but the high cost of basics. Will she take action?

This urgent question is about food shortages and I have set out pretty clearly to the House what has happened in the supply chain, what the Department is doing about it, what the sectors are doing about it and my expectation that this will be a two to four-week element.

The hon. Gentleman talks more broadly about food prices. This country has for a long time enjoyed the competitiveness provided by the supermarkets, but I am conscious of the fact that that has also had impacts on some of the contracts that have been signed by farmers; a lot of them have involved fixed prices. However, it is important that we continue to support our domestic food production, which this Government clearly do. It is important that we continue to try to support people with the cost of living, which this Government are absolutely doing. It is important, as the Prime Minister set out in our top priorities, to be halving inflation. We are taking short, immediate approaches as well as longer-term approaches, such as getting energy security. Those are the ways not only to get sustainable inflation, but to act on the food strategy we set out last year. We will continue to make sure that farmers produce in this country and that there is no reason why people do not have food on their dinner plate every night.

Declining self-sufficiency over the past 30 years has left the UK increasingly exposed to shocks to global supply chains. Brexit trade barriers hinder attempts at sourcing alternative supplies and the Government’s own food security report identified that climate change is likely to have a significant impact on production in the countries from which we import a lot of our fruit and veg at present. What are the Government going to do to support and incentivise greater domestic production to avoid a repeat of these shortages?

The UK Government have already set out their approach. We also have a strong trade agreement with the EU. I am very conscious that some of this is connected to a particular shortage of supplies that come into most of our supermarkets, in a part of Morocco and southern Spain. I am also aware that the hon. Gentleman represents a Welsh constituency and this is a devolved matter, so he might want to ask the Labour Government in Wales what they are doing to provide support.

The Secretary of State was booed this week by farmers at the NFU conference for talking down to them and claiming that she knew better about the cause of food shortages. She is telling us today that this is an EU-wide problem, but we can see that there are not the same shortages EU-wide, including in other European net food importers. Does she think that adverse weather really only affects the sunny uplands of Brexit Britain? Does she not see that her continuing to be wedded to the failure of Brexit is one reason why we are seeing less food, a poorer country overall and higher food costs?

No, that is not the situation. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) could have been in the Chamber earlier if he wanted to ask a question. What we have particularly now is an issue that has affected a supply chain of certain products and the supermarkets are acting. It is happening in other European countries, although not in all of them. As I have explained to the House on more than one occasion, sometimes, the contracts are different, which is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries is convening a meeting with the retailers directly. We have already been doing that as a Department and we will continue to do so.

The Secretary of State keeps dismissing the concerns of the farming industry about food shortages, yet supermarkets are restricting food to customers—clearly, her Department is out of touch with the real world. Does she agree that the Prime Minister should call a Cobra meeting because this is now a national emergency and out of the control of her Department?

As I said to the NFU yesterday, farmers are here to feed the country. That is why we support them and will continue to support them in a number of different ways. We are going through a transition away from a financial support system of direct payments, the basic payment, where more than half the money was going to just 10% of farmers because it was based on how much land people had. That is part of the journey we are on, but there are still significant amounts of basic payments going in. That is why we still want, as our manifesto set out and as I said to the NFU yesterday, to at least maintain the amount of domestic food production, if not increase it. We will continue to try to support that, to ensure that our farmers are there for generations to come.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answers and for trying to be constructive in those answers, as always. Having heard examples of shoppers turned away from shops for trying to purchase vegetables for their family of seven—I was told that story just yesterday—it is clear that steps must be taken to secure our produce. Can she outline the steps being taken to ensure that paperwork for importation is a smooth system, allowing new suppliers to be found and easily facilitated at this time of shortage and need?

I am conscious that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are still working on issues involving the Northern Ireland protocol in terms of exchanges between parts of the UK. It is important to recognise that suppliers are proactively working with supermarkets—that is what we have been told. We have been told there is an issue for potentially up to four weeks, and I am keen that the sector gets on with alternative sourcing options. Meanwhile, we will continue to encourage and boost food production. That has always been set out in our food strategy and our manifesto commitment, and I am determined we will try to deliver it.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 27 February will include:

Monday 27 February—Second Reading of the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill.

Tuesday 28 February—Opposition day (13th allotted day). Debate in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to the announced.

Wednesday 1 March—Motion to approve an instruction relating to the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [Lords], followed by remaining stages of the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 2 March—General debate on changes of name by registered sex offenders, followed by general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 3 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 6 March includes:

Monday 6 March—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No.2) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.

Tuesday 7 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Public Order Bill.

Wednesday 8 March—Estimates day. At 7pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 9 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation And Adjustments) Bill, followed by business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 10 March—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business.

Tomorrow, we mark one year since Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. We reflect together on the immense suffering the Ukrainian people have endured, but also on their remarkable courage and resilience. President Zelensky, on his recent inspiring visit to Parliament, made it clearer than ever that Putin must be defeated in Ukraine, and we stand united as a country with him and with all Ukrainians.

Scrutinising legislation is what makes us MPs, and a confident, credible Government would accept that principle and provide MPs with the means to do so. Why, then, did the Government only publish an impact assessment for their sacking nurses Bill weeks after the Bill had been introduced and then forced through all its Commons stages? As well as being published late, its quality is poor; an independent watchdog has branded it “not fit for purpose” and the Government are clearly trying to hide the severe and disproportionate impacts that the law will have on small businesses. Is this why the Government chose to rattle that shoddy, unworkable Bill through Parliament? They are putting an intolerable burden on employers, unions and workers, and what for? To sweeten some of their own Back Benchers. Has the Business Secretary at least read the impact assessment and the subsequent report, and will she publish proper assessments for any future regulations that the Government plan to introduce as a result of the Bill? Could the Leader of the House please ensure that any other assessments for further legislation are published on time, before the Bill? This simply is not good enough.

We have yet another Tory Prime Minister forcing the people of this country and the businesses and people of Northern Ireland to wait while he plucks up the courage to stand up to his own party. Let me tell the Leader of the House what ought already to be clear: this country is sick of waiting for weak Tory leaders to get on and govern. It seems that a deal has been done, but the Prime Minister is too scared to sign it off with his own Back Benchers. So let me repeat Labour’s offer on the Northern Ireland protocol revisions: if the deal stands the test of being in the national interest and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, we will put the country first and provide the support necessary to get it through Parliament. Will the Government put country before party and accept our offer?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that

“Parliament will express its view”—[Official Report, 22 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 219.]

but his spokesperson then said that they would “not get into hypotheticals”. Could the Leader of the House clear up the confusion? Will this House get to vote: yes or no?

The Government must start using the time allocated for passing legislation properly. Week in, week out, I ask the Leader of the House whether she will reach down the back of the Government’s bulging sofa and find the legislation that they keep managing to lose. They complain about a lack of time, but they spend it on what amounts to nothing more than red meat for a noisy minority of their Back Benchers.

Take the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, for example. That Bill means ripping up international agreements and breaking international law. That is not the way forward for a modern, outward-looking country, and it is never going to work; it will lead only to uncertainty and unnecessary confrontation with our EU friends and neighbours. Will the Government do what we have called for by scrapping the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill?

Whether they are in my Bristol West constituency, in Swindon, or elsewhere up and down the country, voters know that the Government have broken our country and have no plan to fix it. Labour does have a plan. Today, the Leader of the Opposition has set out Labour’s vision for a decade of national renewal: strong economic growth, clean energy, improving the NHS, reforming the justice system and raising education standards. That is the choice that voters have: five more years of Tory failure—on top of the last 13—or a fresh start with a Labour Government.

I join the hon. Lady in her comments about Ukraine. Tomorrow, we will mark one year since Russia’s illegal war began and, on Monday, we marked nine years since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. In the minute’s silence tomorrow, I know that we will all think about those who have been lost, the huge suffering and hardship that people are enduring, and, most of all, the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people. I join her in thanking every Briton who is standing with them, who has taken them into their homes, and who is enduring hardship for their sake and for freedom’s sake. I thank in particular all Members of this House; we are all united in our support for Ukraine and that resolve will be unwavering.

The hon. Lady asks about impact assessments. I have been quite vocal about the importance of impact assessments not just to enable scrutiny but to make Ministers give good decisions. She again invites comparisons between the records of our parties. I note that Labour’s 11th relaunch in two years is going on as I speak. I could talk about the fact that the UK has had the strongest growth of any G7 country over the last two years; that we have halved crime with the same number of officers that Labour had; that we have got 4 million more people into work; that we have 10% more “good” or “outstanding” schools; that the Labour-run NHS Wales is outperformed fivefold by NHS England; or that we have had a fourfold increase in renewables since 2011, but that would be churlish of me.

The hon. Lady talks about the very serious situation with the negotiations, and of course, the people of Northern Ireland are at the forefront of our minds in that. I gently suggest to her that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is quite helpful in focusing minds to get the right result. If she really does want a deal, she should not just say she will support the Prime Minister but demonstrate support for him and for the objective that all Members of this House share, which is to alleviate the friction and to address the democratic deficit for the people of Northern Ireland. She and her party should try to stand up for the United Kingdom, as opposed to helping those on the other side of the negotiating table.

I welcome the hon. Lady saying that she will support a deal brought forward by the Prime Minister. As I have previously noted, Labour are very keen to be seen to support all sorts of Conservative policies. They are in favour of fiscal conservatism, “take back control” conservatism and small state, big society and local conservatism. But nobody is fooled by this reinvented Labour party, because what we are seeing is cosplay conservatism. They do not endorse strikes, but they will not condemn them either. They say they support striking workers, but they will not be photographed with them. They centralise and regionalise while talking about localism. They say they are not big spenders while racking up billions in unfunded plans. They say they will stand up for women while undermining and not supporting their own MPs.

The Leader of the Opposition used to promote the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and now he has cancelled him, along with every single one of the 10 leadership pledges he made when he succeeded him. The Leader of the Opposition is socialism’s sensitivity reader. He is editing out the twits and the Trots, but the British people will not be fooled—they will see through it—because it is not enough to say that socialism does not work; you have to believe it too.

Wellingborough Walks is a delightful avenue of Victorian trees that stretches from the town to the River Nene, and there is a tree preservation order. Unfortunately, at this moment, Bovis Homes—now Vistry Group—is attempting to cut those trees down. In fact, an 84-year-old constituent of mine has been arrested trying to stop it today. Vistry Group is doing it on the basis of an old planning permission that is unclear. I have called for a pause for a month, so that this can be sorted out. Vistry Group refuses to do that. Could the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the Floor of the House entitled “The reputational damage that actions by Bovis Homes/Vistry Group is doing”?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. We know that in these circumstances there are balances to be struck, but it is critical that there is the time and space to ensure that everyone is properly consulted, sometimes with alternatives brought forward. I am always keen to encourage Members to apply for debates, but in this instance, I really hope that the firm involved has heard what he said today and will pause, to allow a little more time to get a good result for the whole community.

I pass on the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), who is away on parliamentary business. Mr Speaker, you may have seen last night that the Home Secretary was interviewed by the only outlet she can bear scrutiny from: GB News, or GBeebies, as I call it. She said that the British are too “shy about our greatness”. For starters, I wish she would be a little shyer about her own greatness, but perhaps she has picked up that Britons are all too aware that our international stock has plummeted. As Burns might say to her,

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Perhaps we can debate Britain’s place in the world and just how much it has fallen.

The Leader of the House likes to bring up the subject of ferry procurement, which is bold, considering the antics of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) in awarding ferry contracts to companies without ferry boats—not too dissimilar, in fact, to awarding PPE contracts to mates who do not produce PPE. The Leader of the House is correct that the ferry situation is sub-optimal, but it is being investigated. I can only therefore assume that Westminster has an excellent record in capital and procurement—PPE aside, obviously—but it does not. Thameslink had a budget of £2.8 billion, cost £7.3 billion and was two years late. Crossrail had a budget of £14.8 billion, cost £19 billion and was four years late. The Jubilee line extension had a budget of £2.1 billion, cost £3.5 billion and was a year and a half late. Perhaps we can have a debate on capital projects and procurement, where we can discuss the Stonehenge bypass and Ajax tanks.

Finally, Mr Speaker, we need to debate what constitutes a democratic deficit. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that

“addressing the democratic deficit is an essential part of the negotiations that remain ongoing with the European Union.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2023; Vol. 728, c. 221.]

Perhaps my memory is playing up, but I seem to recall that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union; in fact, a clear two-to-one majority supports rejoining. There is 20% majority support for the protocol, and perhaps most condemning of all, just 3% of Northern Irish voters trust this Government to manage their interests on the protocol. In contrast, the people of Scotland have not voted Tory since the ’50s, voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, and voted time and again to be allowed to choose their own future. Now, that is a democratic deficit.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has been watching the news, especially GB News—I am very encouraged to hear that. I wonder whether that channel is covering Audit Scotland’s report on the SNP’s handling of the NHS, which is out today. Under those circumstances, I think it is brave of the hon. Gentleman to go on fiscal responsibility. He focused on Brexit, however, so let me address the points he raised.

This might be one of the last exchanges we have about Brexit, because it is going to be very hard for the SNP to come to this Chamber and raise the issue of Brexit ever again. Even the most outrageous claims about the supposed negative impacts of leaving the EU made by the most fanatical rejoiners cannot compare with the damage that will be done to the UK’s internal market, to producers and businesses in Scotland, and to the cost of living for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents by the SNP’s DRS—deposit return scheme. In a few months, the only way in which people will be able to buy Scottish produce—if it is contained in glass or plastic—is to come south of the border. Such items will be as rare in their land of origin as Labour MPs.

In all seriousness, I urge the SNP to listen to communities and producers in Scotland and to produce a smarter scheme. On this, as on all things, the SNP should be driven by what is in the Scottish people’s interest. The party’s leadership contest, which is going on at the moment, is an opportunity for a reset and a fresh start, and to end the slopey-shouldered separatism that has done such a great disservice to such a great nation. I suggest to all candidates in the SNP’s leadership contest that a much better DRS initiative would be to desist ruining Scotland.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] When they have finished.

The World Health Organisation pandemic treaty is deeply concerning. It seeks to give the discredited WHO huge powers over this country and our people—powers to call pandemics, enforce lockdowns and vaccinations, and decide when any pandemic is over. Can we have an urgent debate on that proposed treaty, which, if passed, will take accountability, democracy and sovereignty from our constituents and hand them over to unelected and discredited bureaucrats? That would be the antithesis of Brexit itself.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. That is an excellent topic for a debate, and I will certainly make his views known, both to the Department of Health and Social Care and to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which looks after many of the international organisations involved. As we know from the pandemic and from other outbreaks such as Ebola, such diseases know no borders. It is only through international co-operation and collaboration that we will arrive at solutions to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the last few years, and that everyone in the world is safe from those terrible diseases.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. I thank the Leader of the House for her business statement and for announcing the business. I inform Members that the closing date for estimates day debate applications is tomorrow at 1 pm, and—as the Leader of the House announced in her statement—those debates will be aired on Wednesday 8 March, before the House is asked to agree all outstanding estimates. We are still open to other Backbench Business debate applications for the Chamber and Westminster Hall; we welcome such applications.

The plight of children with special educational needs and their parents has long been known, and there is worsening evidence of rationing and queues for assessments; shortages of key staff, such as educational psychologists, to do those assessments; and education, health and care plans increasingly showing signs of being resource-led rather than led by the needs of the individual child, which leads to greater recourse to special educational needs tribunals. The Green Paper, which was overdue but welcome, was published 11 months ago. Can we have a statement on the Government’s intention to legislate on and properly fund provision for children with special educational needs, so that, as the Green Paper highlights, they get the

“right support, in the right place, and at the right time”.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his announcement on Backbench Business debates. We are pleased to be able to give him time on 2 March and 9 March, and we encourage all hon. Members to make use of the Backbench Business Committee.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the important issue of special educational needs. It is critical to enable everyone to reach their full potential and ensure that people are not diagnosed late on in life, so that they can maximise their years in education. I will make sure that the Secretary of State for Education has heard his comments and I point him to Education questions on the 27th.

On Monday, working with Kathleen O’Hara and St Philip’s church in Dorridge, I arranged for a coachload of 60 Ukrainian refugees to come to Westminster so that they could see that not only my constituents, but the heart of democracy in our country stands with Ukraine. I could do that only because National Express donated a coach with two drivers to bring them here, which shows that, as Conservative Members believe, business is a force for good in society. Can the Leader of the House arrange a debate to discuss exactly that, so that we can celebrate the best of business, especially companies such as National Express that do great things?

Many hon. Members were grateful for the opportunity to meet those being hosted in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I add to his praise of National Express for its generous donation. I also understand that St Philip’s church has been doing a huge amount to help hosting families and to make everyone feel at home. Many hon. Members are themselves hosting refugees, often the children of parents who are Members of the Ukrainian Parliament. That is a further example of how strong our resolve is and how our solidarity and friendship with Ukraine is growing.

I know that the Leader of the House is interested in the future of football governance, and her concern for the future of her local football team is well documented, so will she be popping along to the Q&A that the Sports Minister is holding tonight, where he is charging people a £500 donation to the Conservative party for a briefing on the White Paper that is about to be published? Will she be paying £500? Is that common with legislation? Can we have a price list of what is charged for a private briefing on other legislation to make money for the Conservative party?

I do not know about the event, so I cannot comment on that, but nobody should need to go because, after I have finished at the Dispatch Box, the Minister will be here to talk about that precise topic. Hon. Members are welcome to ask him all kinds of questions—completely free of charge.

On that point, I am very concerned because everybody on Sky News and every media outlet has had the ability to hear the announcement before the House. I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that it should be in this House first, not all over Sky News.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right, spot on and in tune with the vast majority of the British people when he made stopping small boat crossings, tackling the illegal and evil people smugglers, and ending illegal immigration into this country one of his top priorities. We are told that we need legislation for that, yet in today’s announcement, no small boats Bill was forthcoming. Can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House assure me that that additional legislation will come before the House before the Budget? Will it have the same urgency behind it that we used for the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020?

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point. We have done a huge amount. He will know that we have the new small boats operational command, 700 more staff and the work being done on accommodation by the Home Secretary. However, we do need new legislation to ensure that if people come here illegally, they should not be able to remain, but should be detained and swiftly removed. The Home Secretary has been working extremely hard to make sure that a really good Bill comes to this House. My hon. Friend will know, because we have said that we want Royal Assent before the summer, that that will come to this House very shortly. I know from having spoken to my colleagues on the Government side of the House that we are prepared to sit through the night, if necessary, to get this on the statute book as swiftly as possible. The country needs it and, quite frankly, the vulnerable people being trafficked and smuggled need it. I think it is an issue that other nations ought to be thinking about, too.

Whistleblowers are essential to removing the veil of secrecy surrounding economic crime, corruption, sexual harassment and a host of other illicit activities across all sectors, public and private, yet they are putting their livelihoods and the livelihoods of their families on the line to reveal the truth. Will the Leader of the House work hard to ensure that the Commons gets a debate in Government time on the importance of whistleblowers and why there needs to be greater protection for them, which I hope would concentrate the minds of Ministers?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important point. I will certainly make sure that the Cabinet Office has heard the issues she has raised. I could give countless examples of where we have relied on brave people with moral courage to do the right thing, and we owe them protections. I think all Members of the House would agree with what the hon. Lady has said.

Leave aside sitting through the night, because so far this week—Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—this House should have been sitting for 24 hours, but in fact seven hours and 47 minutes of that time was lost. I hope my right hon. Friend shares my concern about this, because so often the Government say we cannot debate things because we have not got any time. Will she ask the Procedure Committee to look again at the issue of second Adjournment debates, which used to be commonplace in this Chamber? That would ensure that this time was not wasted, and if the business was going to go short, it would be possible for people to come forward with a second, third or even, sometimes, a fourth Adjournment debate. We would thereby avoid getting a reputation as a part-time Parliament.

I will tackle my hon. Friend on the last point he makes. We have put through a huge amount of useful legislation, and he will know that we have plans to bring forward some really critical Bills to receive Royal Assent, we hope, before the summer recess. I am all in favour of innovation, so I shall certainly look at what my hon. Friend suggests. It is actually a refreshing change to have my hon. Friend complain about there not being enough legislation, as his usual default setting is to try to prevent any from going through at all.