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Topical Questions

Volume 733: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023

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.