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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Nature Loss

I direct the hon. Lady to read the environmental improvement plan, which has 262 pages of comprehensive cross-Government actions we will take to meet the legally binding targets this Government put in place to restore nature. Copies of the plan can be found in the House of Commons Library.

Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Nearly half of the UK’s nature has been destroyed, which is well above the global average. In response to a 2021 report on biodiversity loss, the Government pledged that they would leave nature in a better state than they found it. Yet since that pledge, no firm targets have been set to improve our declining nature. Will the Minister support my Ecology Bill, which has widespread support across the House and would require her to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030?

The Environment Act 2021 could have no stronger target, and throughout the 262 pages of the environmental improvement plan we explain the legal targets, including on tree canopy cover and on improvements to water, air quality and our soil. We are also making significant progress with our environmental land management scheme, which will reward farmers for their environmental stewardship.

I welcome the news, announced last week, that the West Midlands Combined Authority is to receive £1 million from the natural capital programme. Will the Minister outline how the programme, working with local authorities and Andy Street, the West Midlands Mayor, will help to tackle nature loss and benefit local people in my constituency?

Absolutely. That is a fine example of how local authorities are providing the support for nature that we need. As we roll out our local nature recovery strategies across all 48 upper tier authorities in England very soon, we will see start to see how the collaboration between authorities, environmental non-government organisations, charities, our farmers and communities will halt the decline of nature by 2030.

Food Prices in Supermarkets

3. What recent discussions she has had with supermarkets on ensuring that reductions in wholesale food costs are reflected in food prices. (905119)

The Department meets regularly with food retailers to discuss a range of issues, including the impact of food inflation. Most recently, on Tuesday the Chancellor and the Secretary of State met a number of food and drink manufacturers. We will continue that engagement to ensure consumers have access to a range of affordable food, in recognition of the pressures people are feeling at home.

I thank the Minister for his answer. My constituents in Lichfield and Burntwood, and people in the rest of the country, are enduring high food inflation, as are those in the rest of Europe. What controls—if that is the word—do we have to ensure supermarkets do not take unfair advantage and excess profits from wholesale prices?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Retailers work to ensure strong that competitive pressure remains in the marketplace. However, the Competition and Markets Authority announced last week that it is looking into the grocery sector to see whether any failure in competition is contributing to prices being higher than they would normally be. The CMA will focus on areas where people are experiencing greater cost of living pressures. My hon. Friend will also be aware that the Groceries Code Adjudicator will remain separate from the CMA and can take up investigations should it choose to do so.

Food price inflation remains at the eye-wateringly high level of 19%, causing misery to millions. The UK Farm to Fork summit provided an opportunity to tackle inflationary pressures across the supply chain, but the Secretary of State’s written statement did not mention inflation once. Can the Minister say if there is a plan to rapidly reduce food price inflation—and if not, why not?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one of the Prime Minister’s main targets is to reduce inflation. Clearly, food makes up a huge part of that inflationary pressure. Pressures in global markets are driving up energy and food, not least because of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but we are working closely with retailers, producers and processors to ensure we can strip out as many of those pressures as possible.

Food inflation is running at almost 2%, lower-standard imported eggs are on supermarket shelves because our producers are being undercut, and today record immigration numbers are announced, but the wrong people—we do not have the people to produce food in our fields. What are the Minister and the Secretary of State, who are responsible for our food system, doing about all that? Are they just innocent bystanders?

Once again, the hon. Gentleman is a little disingenuous. The immigration figures were partly driven by people coming from Ukraine and Hong Kong. I recognise that we need help and support in the labour market. That is why the Government have issued 45,000 visas, with an extra 10,000 top-up not only for this year —we have already have stated we will do that again next year—to give growers and producers the opportunity to source the labour they need to harvest vegetables and fruit.

Last week’s most vaunted Farm to Fork Summit, from which the Scottish Government were excluded, was described as an “empty meeting” by food and farming industry representatives, with no action on price or food inflation discussed, and one that

“did not touch on the fundamental problems of food price inflation”.

In addition, Ministers offered no commitment in response to a call by the National Farmers Union to stop Britain’s self-sufficiency in food slipping below its current level of 6%. Does the Minister agree with the National Farmers Union’s assessment of the summit? If not, what concrete outcomes does he think it achieved on food price reduction?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady lives in a different universe, because the NFU welcomed the food summit. It requested it and it was grateful that it took place. It was a huge success, pulling together retailers, processers and primary producers to get under the skin of the challenges that we face as a country. We will solve those challenges by working together. Many people celebrated that Farm to Fork Summit, as should she, rather than criticising it.

Fresh Food and Drinks: Duty and Customs

4. What recent assessment she has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the duty and customs regime following the UK’s exit from the EU on the fresh food and drinks sector. (905121)

7. What recent assessment she has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the duty and customs regime following the UK’s exit from the EU on the fresh food and drinks sector. (905124)

The Government recognise the importance of trade in the food and drink sector. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs regularly reviews UK import and export trade statistics, including from the European Union. In April, the Government presented their draft border target operating model for all goods imports into Great Britain. To ensure enough time for proper preparedness, we will implement the model across three milestones between the end of October and 31 October 2024. In the longer term, the UK single trade window will enable all information required to import and export goods to be submitted to border agencies through one interface, further simplifying the process for traders.

In recent years, Scotland has grown a third of all the UK’s soft fruits. However, exports have been quashed because of Brexit, with UK fruit exports falling by more than half, from £248.5 million in the year ending March 2021 to £113.8 million in the year ending March 2023. Given that Scottish food perishables travel further to Dover and are more sensitive to delays among the sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to remove the Brexit barriers to trade that her Government have imposed on Scottish businesses?

It is the European Union that has put certain checks in place in its export arrangements. We have had a pretty open door since we left the European Union, which is why we are implementing the target operating model to ensure that we introduce further controls, mindful of the biosecurity risks that we face.

Mike Park, the chief executive officer of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, told The New York Times that his industry members were the “poster boys” of Brexit, but now admit that Brexit has delivered nothing, saying:

“It has left some very negative legacies and hasn’t provided any of the positives we were promised.”

Given the latest polling shows that only 9% think that the decision to leave the EU was more of a success than a failure and 62% describe it as more of a flop, and given the damage to Scotland’s global fresh food and drinks sector, can the Secretary of State finally agree that the only Brexit growth our economy is experiencing is in managed decline?

What can I say? Rubbish. The quota for British fishermen, including Scottish fishermen, has gone up since we left the European Union. We have signed new trade deals, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership being the latest. We have announced an extra five agricultural attachés around the world, making 16 in total, who will promote great British food, including fish, around the world.

Bathing Waters

There are now 424 designated bathing sites. Four new sites have been added this year, including two in Rutland Water, one in Plymouth and one in my own constituency, on the River Deben, near Waldringfield. That is the highest number of bathing water sites we have ever had.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that bathing water sites are designated on the basis of how many people bathe there rather than water quality. However, thanks to targeted regulation and investment of £2.5 billion, we have made excellent progress in improving bathing water quality at existing sites, such that 93% of bathing waters were classified as good or excellent last year, up from just over 70% in 2010.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her answer. She will be aware that last week, Water UK announced that water companies will support applications for 100 sites on inland waterways to achieve the bathing water standard. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Environment Agency is resourced to facilitate monitoring of those sites on their journey to achieve that important designation of clean water in our rivers?

I assure my right hon. Friend that the Environment Agency will do the monitoring that is expected for all designated bathing water sites. I welcome what the water companies said last week—both their apology and their proposal to support more inland waterways to achieve the bathing water designation. However, let us be clear: the money announced by the water companies was what we were expecting, to comply with the storm overflows discharge reduction plan that we have already set in place. We will continue to ensure that the regulations promote bathing water sites, but the ultimate benefit of subsequent targeting and interventions will be improved water quality.

I thank the Secretary of State for backing my campaign to designate Devil’s Point and Firestone bay in Plymouth as bathing waters. I am now targeting a sewage outlet that is pumping raw human sewage into Plymouth Sound all year round. Is it time to look again at the period during which water testing takes place in official bathing waters, and extend it from the period of 15 May to 30 September, since wild swimmers like me swim in bathing waters all year round, not just in the summer season?

The dates set down are pretty consistent across much of Europe, as the original regulations that we signed up to came from Europe. The dates reflect the fact that more people tend to go swimming in the summer, so bathing water sites are designated on that basis, although people will swim in different parts of the country all year around. I am pleased that Plymouth was granted that status, and I am sure people will welcome the extra investment that is likely to follow as a consequence.

Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State led Tory MPs through the voting lobby to vote down Labour’s Bill that would have finally ended the Tory sewage scandal by making polluters pay. Last week, water companies apologised for their part in the Tory sewage scandal. Given her own track record, more recently and previously as water Minister, overseeing a doubling of sewage dumping, will she now do the right thing and apologise? Will she right that wrong by following Labour’s lead to ensure that water company dividends, not bill payers, cover the costs of ending the Tory sewage scandal?

I think the hon. Gentleman might need to correct the record. The Government did not vote down a Bill; what we voted down was the Labour party trying to take control of the Order Paper. During that debate, we pointed out the inadequacy of the Bill and how the plan referred to in the long title was already under way, so his Bill was nugatory. The hon. Gentleman also seemed to forget about the Welsh Labour Government and the fact that there is greater frequency of sewage outflow usage in Wales than in England. Somehow that was left out of the debate, because the hon. Gentleman did not realise the issue was devolved.

I remind the House that it was not a Labour Government who introduced the monitoring of storm overflows. Indeed, a Labour Government introduced self-monitoring by water companies in 2009, after they were taken to court by the European Union. We should be clear that we have now seen an increase in monitoring, and by the end of the year over 91% of storm overflows will be monitored. That has unveiled the scourge of this scandal. Frankly, it is Labour Members and previous Labour Ministers who should hang their heads in shame about looking the other way.

Waste Incineration

We want to see less waste being sent to incinerators, which is why we set a statutory target to halve the 2019 level of residual waste by 2042. The Environment Agency inspects and audits energy from waste plants to ensure that they are complying with the requirements of their environmental permits, which include strict emissions limits and associated strict requirements to monitor those limits.

Only about 20% of the waste that goes into the Beddington incinerator in my constituency is plastic, but it makes up three quarters of the harmful particulates that come out of the chimney stacks. Technology is available to extract plastic before it is burnt, and is being trialled around the country. Does the Minister agree that all waste incineration plants should be installing this technology as soon as possible?

We have legislated to prevent incinerators from accepting separately collected paper, metal, glass and plastic unless they have gone through a recycling facility first. We are trying to reduce all our waste but particularly plastic, and our plastic packaging reforms, which are under way, will mean that, overall, less waste will be incinerated.

As the Minister has said, we need to reduce the amount of waste that is being incinerated. One way of doing that would be to develop a truly circular economy, which could also result in the creation of many more green jobs. This is a DEFRA responsibility, but we do not hear much from DEFRA about its plans. Will the Minister tell us what action she is taking?

The hon. Lady is right, and we are committed to measures to introduce a much more circular economy. We must cut the amount of resources that we use, and recycle more, reuse more and refill more. Work is under way, and data is being gathered on our extended producer responsibility scheme, which we will introduce in 2024, and the deposit return scheme will be introduced in 2025. Those, along with consistent collections, will reduce the amount of waste that we, as a society, throw away.

Waste incinerators are three times more likely to be built in the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods than in the least deprived, and people in those communities are twice as likely to have a lung condition and seven times more likely to die from one. Is the Minister confident that she has enough monitoring in place to provide accurate, timely and consistent data to ensure that these incinerators do not breach our emissions targets and thus put local people at risk of further harm?

It is crucial for waste incineration plants to have the correct permits and to be correctly monitored, which is why the Environment Agency has imposed strict emissions limits and applies the permit scheme to a number of pollutants to ensure that people who live near incinerators are completely safe. All operators of incinerator plants must carry out their own monitoring and report back constantly on the safety of their plants, because human health is, of course, critical.

Species Decline

Halting species decline is a considerable task, but one to which we are absolutely committed. Again, I recommend the perusal of our environmental improvement plan, which summarises the significant action taken so far, but let me give a few examples. We have created or restored plant and wildlife habitats equivalent to the size of Dorset, we have established 40,000 agreements with farmers on nature-friendly actions, we have 22 landscape-scale restoration projects under way, and we have benefited from the conservation status and prospects of 188 species.

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Research conducted by the Natural History Museum has revealed that when it comes to the amount of biodiversity that survives, we are at the very bottom of the list of G7 nations and among the lowest 10% globally. Thousands of badgers continue to be slaughtered unnecessarily; that, along with bee-killing neonic pesticides, has been authorised by this Government, who have also have failed to act to stop illegal hunting or effectively limit peatland extraction or moorland burning. Moreover, they have missed the legal deadline for the publication of their own environmental targets. Given all these facts, how can we now trust them to ensure that some of our most loved and iconic British animals do not become extinct?

I point to the Environment Act 2021. I also point out that the real priority for species abundance is creating habitat, and in a country where 70% of our area is farmed, that is exactly why we have our environmental land management schemes. We are planting more trees and creating more habitats. We are investing £750 million to create more opportunities to plant trees and hedgerows. We are improving the air that all species breathe and improving water quality. We are putting everything we can in legal targets and interim targets, as well as in moral ambition, on the back of our environmental improvement plan.

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Leader of the House on the parliamentary timetable for the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. (905126)

I note the Secretary of State’s answer, but the Bill contains urgently needed animal welfare provisions on puppy smuggling and zoo regulation, so does she agree that a date to introduce these measures should be announced urgently?

As I just said, I expect an announcement on the progress of the Bill very soon, but I stress that animal welfare has been a priority for the Government since 2010. We have made improvements for farm animals, pets and wild animals. In 2021, we published an action plan on animal welfare, and since then we have delivered four manifesto commitments and passed the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 and the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021. We have provided greater protection for elephants by bringing the Ivory Act 2018 into force, and we are extending that. We have also made micro- chipping compulsory. We have supported many measures in our manifesto through the House and hopefully more will complete their passage through the other place within the next couple of months.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s response. I endorse the request made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), because puppy smuggling is an important issue in Northern Ireland. We have to work together to tackle the smuggling of puppies from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland and across on to the mainland. Has the right hon. Lady had an opportunity to speak to the authorities in Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland in particular, to stop this terrible activity that goes on across all of the United Kingdom?

I had the great pleasure of attending the Balmoral show recently, although I admit we were more focused on farming and food, rather than aspects of animal welfare. The police can act on a number of activities where they suspect crime is being committed, and we intend to strengthen the offences to help the police.

Cost of Food

We have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, and as halving inflation is one of the Government’s top priorities, it is discussed regularly. Recent discussions have covered the substantial package of support from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury that is already in place, and we continue to meet retailers and producers to explore how they can further support their customers.

Families on lower incomes have no choice but to spend a much bigger proportion of their income on basic foodstuffs than those of us who are lucky enough to be better off. With inflation for many basic foodstuffs still running at over 30%, thousands of my constituents are facing real cost of living increases that are probably double the official rate of inflation. Government targets are all very well, but my constituents cannot eat targets. Can the Minister give any indication of how much longer my constituents will have to wait until the real price of their food shopping bill comes back to what it was just two years ago?

Of course we recognise that challenge, and that is why we are protecting the most vulnerable households. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced targeted support worth £26 billion to support those very people. More than 8 million households are eligible for means-tested benefits. They will receive extra cost of living payments totalling £900 per household in 2023-24, and over 99% of the cost of living payments for this year have already been made.

Will the Minister ensure that our farm support programmes, as well as delivering crucial environmental goals, make it easier for farmers to make a living from growing food? That will feed through into lower food prices.

It is worth stating again that food production is the primary purpose of farming in this country. We will always back our farmers to produce great-quality, high-welfare food, but we can do that at the same time as improving our environmental output and biodiversity.

Food Price Inflation: Food Bank Use

11. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of food price inflation on levels of demand for emergency parcels from food banks. (905128)

As I said earlier, tackling inflation is the Government’s No. 1 priority, and we have a plan to halve inflation this year. We have provided significant support over this year, worth more than £3,500 per household. That includes direct cash payments to the most vulnerable households, as well as uprating benefits and the state pension by over 10% in April.

According to this week’s inflation data, the cost of sugar and some cooking oils is up nearly 50%, but the prices that people see in the supermarkets for some products are up 100% and above—I hope the Competition and Markets Authority will get to the bottom of that. It is no wonder that food banks are facing record levels of need for support. Between April 2022 and March 2023, the Trussell Trust distributed more than 1 million parcels to children, reaching this grim milestone for the first time in its history. What is the Department doing to ensure that, when food banks are overwhelmed, the Government are there to step in?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the household support fund. The Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced a huge £26 billion package of support for the most vulnerable households, to get them through the pressures they are feeling. We are subject to the global pressures driven by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused huge ripples not only in the UK but around Europe. We will back those people, and we will support the most vulnerable in society.

Topical Questions

I am pleased that we had the Farm to Fork summit in Downing Street last week, and it was a good opportunity to discuss issues such as the supply chain and trade. It brought together super- markets, food processors and food manufacturers, as well as food growers, to have that vital discussion as we continue to try to make sure that we improve the status of farmers in our food chain.

Today, I also welcome the statistics showing that farmers’ incomes are up 17% this year. I am sure we will continue to have a thriving food production industry for many years to come.

Homes in Newton Poppleford, Tipton St John, Metcombe and Venn Ottery in my East Devon constituency were badly damaged by recent flash floods. I went to see the residents, and the result of the flooding is heartbreaking. Insurance companies really need to step up and support those residents, who rallied around each other in very difficult circumstances. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the multi-agency response to the recent flooding, because the risk of floods in East Devon is not going anywhere?

My hon. Friend is undoubtedly a doughty champion for his constituents, and I am very conscious of the impact that flooding can have on communities, households and businesses. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), is happy to meet him, and she has recently met the Environment Agency. We will continue to make sure that we deliver thousands of flood schemes, which will benefit not only East Devon but every part of the country. We will also continue to try to improve the local and national response.

A year on from my request from this Dispatch Box for an urgent meeting on food security, the Government’s Farm to Fork summit was described by attendees as “no more than a PR stunt” that will do nothing to help the cost of living crisis.

The Secretary of State also knows that fishing is a key pillar of our food security, but it is under grave threat on Teesside. Given that crustacean die-offs continue to cripple generations of fishers, will she join me in demanding that the inevitable “truth on Teesside” public inquiry includes this environmental and economic disaster in its terms of reference?

Yet again, the shadow Secretary of State does not seem to trust civil servants. Our chief scientific adviser did a thorough job of going through what has happened on Teesside and what is available. Organisations such as the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science have also looked at recent incidents, and we will continue to use our scientists to investigate, as appropriate.

I am afraid that peddling conspiracy theories is not appropriate for a shadow Secretary of State.

T6.   Seven parish councils along the River Severn from Aust to Sharpness have joined forces under the chairmanship of local resident Mr Barry Turner to ask the Environment Agency for improvements along the riverbank, in preparation for rising tide heights and more extreme weather events. Will the Minister meet me, Mr Turner and the local councillor, Matthew Riddle, to discuss their concerns and help find a solution? (905139)

I believe the Environment Agency has already met Mr Turner and his group, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend too. Obviously, I must stress that managing coastal change in those legacy landfill sites, some of which have historical issues, is very much the responsibility of the local coastal protection authorities. The Government are taking action, looking at what priority action we could take on these historical landfill sites to find a way forward in these many and varied areas.

T3.   Yesterday, we learned that sugar prices have risen by a massive 47% in the past year, and industry experts predict that they will rise again this autumn, because of the high energy costs of extracting and refining sugar. What steps is the Minister taking to support the food and drink sector throughout this period of extreme inflationary pressure, so that these costs are not, yet again, passed on to consumers? (905136)

The hon. Lady should be aware that I meet British Sugar regularly. We are keen to help and support it with new technology, with investment in genetic technologies to improve sugar beet yields. We will continue to have those conversations. We are very much aware of the pressures on global sugar prices, which is why we need a thriving and productive sugar market here in the UK.

My local farmers have told me that they need their seasonal worker visas extended to a nine-month period from six. Will the Department work with the Home Office to have that extended?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are very aware of the challenges those businesses are facing, which is why we have increased the number of visas. We have also rolled over 45,000 visas to next year, with an extra 10,000 if required. We will continue to have conversations with our friends at the Home Office on how we can best support that sector.

T4.   Should not the cost of cleaning up our waterways be met by the profits of water companies, not higher bills paid for by hard-pressed consumers? (905137)

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that dividends and profits of water companies cannot come from customers—[Interruption.] If the water companies want to compensate people and they have not done the right thing by the environment, that will not come out of customers’ pockets. This Government have put in a huge plan for £56 billion-worth of investment by the water companies to clean up our waters—this is more than ever before.

Dog-loving constituents of mine have expressed concerns about a potential ban on e-collars. They say that in Wales, where e-collars are banned, attacks on sheep have increased exponentially, with the result being electric fences that are far more harmful to dogs. Will my right hon. Friend consider some form of licensing or regulation of usage, rather than an outright ban?

I have heard clearly what my right hon. Friend is saying. I, too, am a dog lover and understand the need for not only positive training, but corrective training at times. For that reason, the use of collars that emit a spray or vibration will be permitted to continue, and invisible fence containment systems are also not part of this proposal. I will ensure that she has a meeting with my counterpart in the other place, because this is yet to be debated in the Lords.

T5. The proposed accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership has required concessions to Malaysia on palm oil tariffs, raising concerns about the environment and increased deforestation. What involvement have Ministers from the Department had in the negotiations? Will the Government ensure that there are at least back letters to protect the social and environmental necessity of avoiding deforestation? (905138)

Of course, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was heavily involved in this wide-ranging trade deal, which covered not just agricultural elements, but a number of services. Our FLEGT—forest law enforcement governance and trade—regulations, which we are still processing, will be an effective way of making sure that the supply chain is sustainable for any products brought into the country that it covers.

Although showing some progress, the NFU’s latest digital technology survey reveals that only 21% reported reliable mobile signal throughout their farms and fewer than half have adequate broadband for their business. What is my right hon. Friend doing with her counterparts in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to ensure that rural businesses are prioritised for increased connectivity.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: of course we need good broadband and good connectivity across rural areas. We continue to have conversations with our friends in the Department to make sure that this is delivered, as it is a priority of the Government.

T7. Those of us who represent fishing communities hear every week of boats that have had to tie up as a consequence of their inability to get crew, because of the Home Office’s refusal to give a bespoke visa scheme for getting crew. We all hear it. Can the Minister assure me that his Department is actually counting the number of these boats, and can he tell the House what it stands at today? (905140)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have been able to get fishermen on to the shortage occupation list. The Home Office has conceded on that so that those people can now make use of that process. We shall continue to have conversations with both the fishing industry and the Home Office to try to help the industry. The good news is that, following our leaving the EU, we do now have the opportunity to manage our own fisheries and we have been able to increase quotas, and the amount of catch and fish that is landed has now gone up.

This week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee visited a Dogs Trust rescue centre as part of our inquiry on pet welfare and abuse. Each year, huge numbers of puppies, heavily pregnant dogs and dogs that have had their ears horrifically cropped are smuggled into the UK. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me and the House that the Government are committed to stamping out these horrific practices by bringing back the appropriate animal welfare legislation?

T8. My constituents expect the Government to tackle the sale of, and trade in, animal fur. The consultation of the Government’s Fur Market in Great Britain was launched in May 2021. Although that is more than two years ago, we are still waiting for a formal response from Ministers. Why has it taken so long? (905141)

I have already set out to the House that it is two years since the ambitious animal welfare plan was put in place. We have pursued a number of different issues. As you can imagine, Mr Speaker, the Government are working on a variety of things and a response will be given in due course.

On Monday, BBC’s “Panorama” programme examined the continuing misery being inflicted on my constituents by Walleys Quarry Landfill, and, as you will know, Mr Speaker, the Staffordshire waste site in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is also affecting my constituents. We have a situation where not one, but two rogue operators are making the lives of the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme a misery, and the actions of the Environment Agency are too slow and not robust enough, so what will the Minister do to ensure that we get justice and accountability for what we are going through?

I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner on the issue of Walleys Quarry, and that the Secretary of State has visited the area recently. I know, too, that there was a “Panorama” programme about the site. An enforcement notice was issued by the EA on 5 May requiring the operator to take further action around waste acceptance procedures on the site to reduce the risk of sulphate-bearing material entering the landfill. I have spoken many times to the EA and know that it is working very hard to reduce the dangers, potentially, that locals may feel come from this site.

Will the Minister be prepared to meet me and representatives of the Horticulture Trades Association to discuss what further steps the Government could take to support the horticultural sector in developing responsibly resourced, high-quality alternatives to peat that can be produced at volume?

I have already met James Barnes at the HTA and I will continue to meet him and other members of the association. I have visited a number of nurseries and will continue to do so. I also offer to have a meeting with the hon. Member to discuss how we are supporting the horticultural industry, which is incredibly important in this country for food production. During the week of the Chelsea Flower Show we can see for ourselves the green-fingered talents of this country, which need to continue and be supported.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Serious Violent Crime Prosecutions

1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support the prosecution of serious violent crime. (905104)

11. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support the prosecution of serious violent crime. (905115)

This Government are committed to delivering justice for victims of serious violence, and I can confirm that the CPS prosecuted more than 103,000 cases of serious violence, firearm offences and homicides in 2022, with a conviction rate of over 84%.

There have been a number of knife crime incidents in Blackpool over recent weeks that have concerned my constituents, not least a disturbing case in which a man was arrested after carrying a 16-inch machete. What action is being taken by the CPS to reduce knife crime offending both in Blackpool and across Lancashire as a whole?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his interest and knowledge in this area—not least because he seems to be drawn for these questions, week in, week out. Of course the CPS has been instrumental in the pilots of serious violence reduction orders, which are aimed at reducing knife crime, and it is right to say that those orders will provide an extra tool to help to crack down on violent crime. The CPS looks at both breaches of those and the original orders. The law tour next week is visiting the north-west CPS area, which covers both my hon. Friend’s constituency and yours, Mr Speaker, and you would both be more than welcome to join us on that tour to see the CPS and the police working together on this issue.

My constituents and I have been deeply shaken by recent incidents of violent crime in my constituency. Losing a loved one to senseless violence is a tragedy that no one should ever have to endure. Will my hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss these cases, which have caused concern to my constituents, and how we can better support victims and their families by ensuring that the prosecution of violent crime is a priority?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his hard work on behalf of his constituents. It is right to say that tackling serious violence and improving the support we offer to victims is a priority for this Government. That is shown not least through the Victims and Prisoners Bill and the revised victims code. I would be happy to meet him to discuss that further.

I thank the Solicitor General very much for his responses to those questions. Northern Ireland has seen more than its share of violent crime, but in relation to the knife crime that both questions referred to, Northern Ireland has also seen an increase in the number of knife murders, attempted murders and people carrying knives or other sharp instruments. I know he is a very dutiful Minister, so what opportunity has he had to discuss those matters with the pertinent Minister for Northern Ireland, to ensure that we also see some benefit from those measures?

May I return the hon. Gentleman’s compliment and pay tribute to him for his diligence in this House and for all that he does? In fact, the Attorney General has had very close links with Northern Ireland recently, and both she and I, with the Advocate General for Scotland, had the privilege of being called to the Bar in Northern Ireland. I am determined to keep those conversations and channels open, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the Home Office is consulting now on knife crime, with a closing date of 6 June.

Violence against Women and Girls

2. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (905105)

5. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted. (905109)

Tackling violence against women and girls remains one of the Government’s top priorities. We are doing everything possible to make our streets and homes safer for women and girls. Since the launch of the joint action plan, we have seen a significant increase in charge volumes for adult rape since January 2021.

More than one in nine rape prosecutions were dropped last year because victims withdrew their support, crushed by what can be a three-year wait for their day in court and the humiliation of victim blaming. Will the Attorney General fix those problems and accept the joint inspectorate’s conclusions that the system is obviously failing rape victims when many of them find the legal process overlong and more harrowing than the original offence?

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this matter; it is something she and I discussed for many years as colleagues on the Justice Committee. We know it is important that justice is given as speedily as possible. Digging into the attrition of victims, particularly in rape cases, is very salutary. It is one reason why the Government have increased the money available to support victims fourfold in recent times. On the law tour next week, which the Solicitor General referred to, we will be visiting an independent sexual violence adviser in Nottingham. We know that, where a victim has support, they are 50% less likely to withdraw from proceedings.

I have heard from many women in my constituency who have been victims of domestic violence and abuse. They have reported it to the police but they are still not getting the support or the justice that they deserve. Rather than offering warm words, can the Attorney General explain why the number of charges for domestic abuse and violence has not just failed to keep pace with the rise in reported offences but has gone so dramatically backwards?

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this matter as well. Far more than warm words are being provided by the Government. We have been working very closely on real joint work between the CPS and the police. We know that that has significantly increased the number of successful prosecutions in rape and serious sexual offence cases. We are now rolling out a similar but not identical form of working in domestic abuse cases. She will be pleased to know that, in her CPS area, the volume of adult rape suspects charged has gone up 41% in the last year.

Does the Attorney General agree that it is important to remember that, where there is sufficient evidence to put a case before a jury, the conviction rate for rape and serious sexual offences is entirely consistent and on a par with that for other serious violent offences? Is not the real challenge to ensure that the quality of the evidence presented by the police to the Crown Prosecution Service is sufficient to bring charges in the first place? That was the issue highlighted in the joint inspection report. Is not that where we should be paying the most attention?

Well, this is a Justice Committee alumni session and it is always good to hear from our Chair. He makes, as we would all expect, an important point. It is true that the CPS can prosecute only the cases that are referred to it. It then works out which ones to prosecute using a two-stage legal test. If we strip out the guilty pleas, the CPS is running at a conviction rate of between 50% and 60%. It always prosecutes where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so.

The Attorney General has been discussing rape prosecution statistics. National World reported last month that there have been 1,600 cases over the past five years in which a suspect accused of and investigated for rape ended up being charged with a lesser offence. We all know that that type of under-charging is not uncommon, but the allegation in National World was that those 1,600 cases were then counted towards the charge rate for rape, even though no one had been charged with a rape offence. Can the Attorney General tell us whether that is true and, if so, does it mean that the charge rate for rape is even lower than we currently think?

I, too, saw that report, and I asked for further clarification of the material within it. I have been told that, for a force to have charged an alternative offence, the facts and the evidence must be extremely similar and must relate to the victim and the circumstances. I have also been told—although I have not dug into every single one of those cases—that some of the reporting that the right hon. Lady refers to may relate to historic sexual abuse and that may explain some of the figures.

Illegal Migration Bill: Trafficking Convention

3. Whether she has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. (905107)

By long-standing convention, whether the Law Officers have been asked to provide advice, and the contents of any such advice, is not disclosed outside Government.

Nearly 200 civil society organisations covering human trafficking, modern slavery, asylum and refugees have called on the Government to immediately withdraw the Illegal Migration Bill because, as it stands, it will breach multiple conventions and agreements in international law. Will the Attorney General work with her colleagues to revise, review and change these provisions, or is she happy to underline that hers is a lawbreaking Government?

As I said, there is a long-standing convention that means I cannot go into the legal advice that may or may not have been given. I can say simply that we do consider the Bill to be consistent with our international obligations.

The Attorney General will know that concern has been expressed on both sides of the House that the Bill will make it even harder to successfully prosecute traffickers. In short, that is because victims will not come forward if it simply means they are going to be detained and then removed to Rwanda. What is the Attorney General going to do about that?

I am sorry, but once again, I cannot go into the content of any legal advice that might have been given. I would, however, refer the hon. Gentleman to the explanatory notes that accompany the Illegal Migration Bill, which set out the circumstances in which ECAT is operating at the moment.

Serious Fraud Office

The SFO has implemented wide-ranging reforms following the recommendations made by Sir David Calvert-Smith and Brian Altman KC. The SFO’s strategic plan sets out a programme to modernise, build on capabilities and protect the UK’s reputation as a safe place to do business.

Just how much detail will the Solicitor General require to properly implement Sir David’s recommendation on oversight? We need to keep a tight rein on the remaining tenure of the current director, do we not?

As ever, I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I am sure he will have seen the written ministerial statement that was laid before the House yesterday. The update confirmed that the planned review is ongoing. Additionally, since April this year, case lists prepared for superintendents’ meetings include all cases that may have required case consent and, importantly, there is more explicit signposting to high-risk cases.

Could we talk about the fraud strategy, which, sadly, is itself a bit of a fraud? As revealed by Spotlight on Corruption, the new national fraud squad is patched together with £100 million already announced last year and 400 officers, up to 300 of whom are already in post. With no new money and precious few new staff, how on earth will that make a dent in the £6.8 billion a year lost to consumer fraud, let alone the £21 billion a year in public sector fraud that this Government let run rife?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome the strategy. He was calling for it, and the shadow Attorney General, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), was calling for it at the last Attorney General questions. We promised that it would be delivered soon—I remember that exchange—and, indeed, it was delivered soon after those questions. He will know that that strategy sits within the Home Office, which is absolutely right, and I will continue to work with the Home Office on the fraud strategy. I am sure he will be pleased, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) was, with the written ministerial statement yesterday specifically on the subject of this Question.

Domestic Abuse Prosecutions

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support the prosecution of domestic abuse cases. (905110)

8. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to support the prosecution of domestic abuse cases. (905112)

We are committed to increasing the volume of prosecutions and supporting more victims of domestic abuse. For example, we have ensured that victims now have much longer to report offences.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend outline what is being done to encourage the reporting of rape and sexual assault in rural areas, where victims may be less likely to report these crimes due to distant support services?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for her rural area. She will be pleased to know that, in the south-west England CPS area, we consistently see one of the highest conviction rates for rape and domestic abuse. Her area is covered by Operation Soteria, which is testing new ways of working between the police and the CPS.

The breakdown of a relationship is a particular stigma for women in families from the Indian subcontinent, many of whom are forced to either remain in coercive relationships or return to their abuser. What measures could my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that those women are given full support through the Crown Prosecution Service and assisted to rebuild their lives?

My hon. Friend is a great campaigner for Harrow East and all the communities that live there. He will be pleased to know that CPS London is also working hard: this week, it is holding an event in his constituency to develop the domestic abuse joint justice plan, where colleagues from across the criminal justice system will come together to increase prosecutions in the cases he has outlined.

Financial Services Sector: Corruption

7. What steps she is taking to ensure the effective prosecution of corruption in the financial services sector. (905111)

The Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill will extend the Serious Fraud Office’s pre-investigative powers, allowing it to compel people to furnish the SFO with information earlier in cases of domestic corruption and fraud.

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his answer. Will he agree to meet me and a number of whistleblowers at his earliest convenience? We will provide him with evidence of corruption and fraud in financial institutions, financial regulators and the judiciary.

The Financial Conduct Authority rightly published guidelines in July 2017 referring back to the money laundering regulations of that year. The hon. Gentleman might want to direct his inquiries towards the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. In relation to his substantive question about prosecutions, it is of course right that both the SFO and the CPS operate independently. The Attorney General is responsible for safeguarding that independence, and she takes that role incredibly seriously.

Serious Fraud Office Reviews

9. What progress the Government has made on the implementation of the recommendations of the reviews of the Serious Fraud Office by Sir David Calvert-Smith and Brian Altman KC. (905113)

Yesterday, the Attorney General laid before the House a written ministerial statement outlining the progress made on the delivery of the recommendations made by Sir David, which demonstrated significant progress in implementing all 29 recommendations.

The husband of a constituent of mine was a powerful and strong professional footballer, and was defrauded of all his life’s savings and investments in a huge, organised, fraudulent scam. Since then, in spite of his losses and being the victim, he and many of his colleagues have been pushed to absolute bankruptcy by further claims from other Government Departments for consequential taxes and so on, on already fraudulent activities. What more can my hon. and learned Friend do to make sure that Government Departments do not further punish those victims?

I am very grateful indeed to my right hon. Friend for raising this case; she is right to do so, and I know that the Attorney General is familiar with the details of the case. I will just note one thing that may be of relevance and help my right hon. Friend: the CPS has recovered assets worth £480 million through confiscation orders, of which £105 million has been returned to victims of crime by way of compensation.

Lord Chancellor and Law Officers

10. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the ninth report of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, “The roles of the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers”, HL 118, published on 18 January 2023. (905114)

As Attorney General, I am honoured to play an important role in upholding the rule of law, which is fundamental to our constitution. I thank the House of Lords Constitution Committee for its report. The Government published their response in March, and I am looking forward to appearing before the Committee next month.

The Constitution Committee said:

“The Government has now twice knowingly introduced legislation…which would breach the UK’s international obligations and in doing so, undermined the rule of law.”

The Committee was referring to the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Does this Attorney General accept that the Illegal Migration Bill is the third such example, and the first on her watch?

No, I do not accept that. I am bound by the Law Officers’ convention mentioned earlier, so I cannot comment on advice, even that provided by previous Law Officers. With regard to the two earlier Bills that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Government published summaries of their legal position during the introduction of both Bills, and we did so more recently in February this year on the Windsor framework.