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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Food Production Costs

11. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on increases in the cost of food production. (905839)

13. What steps her Department is taking to help mitigate the impact of increased food production costs on (a) consumers and (b) businesses. (905841)

Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine has placed pressures on global imports and energy costs. We have taken significant action to support British growers and to safeguard our food security. Building on the work to invest in fertiliser supply and slurry storage, energy infrastructure and costs, the Prime Minister recently hosted the first ever UK Farm to Fork summit on productivity and sustainability, as part of maintaining the £2.4 billion budget for farming each year.

Last month, the Prime Minister said that weekly shopping bills had

“gone up far too much in the past few months”.

That must be the understatement of the year. Food inflation is at a record 45-year high. Farmers and growers are facing higher business costs across the board, and consumers are bearing the brunt with their weekly shop. What discussions has the Minister had with the Prime Minister to find out what they can do now for farmers, growers and producers and to protect beleaguered shoppers? What is the plan, because what the Government are doing now ain’t working?

I think the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are not responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has had a significant impact on global energy prices. The good news is that those global energy prices are coming back to a level, and that is starting to feed back into our food supply chain. That is why we are helping and supporting farmers, investing in new technology and investing in their businesses to make them more sustainable and more profitable going forwards so that they can continue to deliver great quality British food at a reasonable price.

The war in Ukraine has not caused the labour shortages that are causing Scottish crops to be ploughed back into the fields. The war in Ukraine has not caused customs barriers and tariffs that mean that Scottish seafood is being left in the sea. Brexit has caused those things. That is why food inflation is higher in the UK than elsewhere. When will the Government accept that?

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. Food prices are higher in Germany and France. If Brexit were the issue, clearly that would not be the case. That is why we are investing in those farmers. We are supporting them by increasing the number of visas that are available in the seasonal agricultural worker scheme. We are supporting those farmers to continue to produce great quality food.

Businesses, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has said, are suffering because of the absence of labour, in fishing and, indeed, in farming in East Lothian. Given that this has been brought about by Brexit and that the previous routes of labour have been sold off, is it not time that the Scottish Government had control over some migration visas, even of a limited timescale, as applies in south Australia and Quebec?

We have issued 45,000 possible visas on the seasonal agriculture worker scheme and we are currently nowhere near that level. There are an extra 10,000 visas available should the industry require them. We have not seen the necessity to trigger those extra 10,000 at this moment in time, which is because there are adequate visas available to support farmers and fishermen.

The price of wheat peaked at £350 a tonne. It has subsequently fallen to below £200 a tonne—not much more than it was before the invasion of Ukraine. Why has the price of bread in our supermarkets not fallen, too?

I declare my interest in these matters.

I recognise the fact that global wheat prices have now come back down. We work closely with retailers, processers and the hospitality sector to make sure that there is not extra profiteering in the marketplace. We will continue to have discussions with those representatives and will work with the sector to make sure that food is reasonably priced for our constituents.

The farming Minister will know that in north Northamptonshire we have some of the best farmers in the country who are facing these challenges, like every other farm up and down the land. Would he be kind enough to visit Kettering to meet a large group of local farmers—perhaps in early September in between harvesting and drilling?

That is a very kind invitation. It is always a pleasure to visit Northamptonshire, and, if my diary allows, I will of course meet my hon. Friend and his farmers.

The Minister has talked a lot about support for farmers, but in reality there is a severe lack of profitability for those producing chicken. That is causing a sharp reduction in the number of birds reared in England, while in Scotland production has changed significantly, as retailers resist demands to pay a fair price for chicken. Will the Minister commit to extending the examination of food supply chains to poultry meat, as requested by the National Farmers Union Scotland, as the threat of empty shelves looms? Will he also engage with retailers to ensure that poultry farmers are fairly compensated?

I was on a poultry farm yesterday talking to poultry producers. The SNP cannot have it both ways; it cannot ask one question about suppressing prices for consumers and another about increasing the prices for farmers—those things are diametrically opposed. What we are doing as a Department is supporting those farmers through the £2.4 billion-worth of subsidy, helping them to invest in new technology and talking to retailers and producers to make sure we get fairness in the supply chain, so everybody gets a fair return for their hard work.

Animal Welfare

The Government are committed to continuing to deliver on our manifesto commitments and the work we have undertaken through the action plan for animal welfare from 2021. So far we have delivered six measures through primary legislation and four through secondary legislation. We have also supported three private Members’ Bills, one of which, the Shark Fins Act 2023, banning the import of detached shark fins, received Royal Assent last week. As the Minister updated the House on 25 May, we will be supporting the delivery of the measures from our manifesto during the remainder of the Parliament and we have already started with a consultation on banning primates as pets through secondary legislation.

We have had three Secretaries of State and 760 days have passed since the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was first introduced in this House, and we are no further forward today on banning animal fur imports, or on tackling illegal puppy and kitten smuggling, or on banning foie gras. The former DEFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), said the Bill did not go ahead due to

“a lack of resolve to take it through.”

How long must animals suffer the consequences of this Tory psychodrama, and when will animal welfare finally be prioritised in this place?

The hon. Gentleman must be living in a parallel universe. There is no doubt that many measures have been undertaken to improve animal welfare. One thing I would say is that there have not been any live exports of animals since 2021, and we still have legislation ready to go. We have already set out our approach. Of course he will be aware that it is already illegal to smuggle pets, and some of the legislation we were working on was to try to make it more challenging for criminals who abuse pets as well.

The Secretary of State is right that progress on animal welfare can be made by specific and targeted measures. I would add to the ones she mentioned the adoption by the Government of my own private Member’s Hare Coursing Bill. However, we do need a clear programme of further progress. Can she tell me the progress on two specific changes: the ban on the import of dogs with cropped ears and the ban on keeping primates as pets?

As my hon. Friend points out, he has already undertaken significant work regarding hare coursing; it is one of the top priorities for rural police and crime commissioners and they continue to do good work on that, recognising that much of it is connected to organised crime. On the two measures he refers to, because we are introducing secondary legislation to stop people keeping primates as pets, we have to consult formally and then the legislation will be prepared alongside that. In terms of the mutilation elements, when my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries spoke to the House on 25 May, he said that we would be taking forward measures on individual issues. I intend that to happen in the next Session of Parliament.

Last Friday Lord Goldsmith resigned from the Government and his letter to the Prime Minister was absolutely devastating. If I may paraphrase it, it said that before taking office the Prime Minister assured party members via Lord Goldsmith that he the Prime Minister would continue to implement the action plan, including the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and measures such as ending the live export of animals for slaughter, banning keeping primates as pets and preventing the import of shark fins and hunting trophies from vulnerable species. Lord Goldsmith has been horrified as bit by bit the Government have abandoned those commitments, domestically and on the world stage. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill has been ditched, despite the Prime Minister’s promises; efforts on a wide range of domestic environmental issues have simply ground to a standstill; and, more worryingly, the United Kingdom has visibly stepped off the world stage. Lord Goldsmith and the Secretary of State served as DEFRA Ministers in the last Parliament. Does she agree with his devastating critique of the Prime Minister and her Department?

Of course not. I was very sad that the noble Lord chose to leave Government. I pay tribute to him for a lot of what he has done in terms of international nature. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), set out to the House on 25 May the approach that we are taking and why. We are getting on with the legislation on keeping primates as pets, and we are preparing single-issue Bills. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, clearly does not know a lot about government. I understand that, because he has never been in it—[Interruption.] I am responding to the chuntering from the hon. Gentleman. The point is that when we introduce secondary legislation, the formality is that we have to consult. That is why we are doing a short consultation, which we launched last week. We will get on with the secondary legislation when we return after the recess.

Coastal and Marine Biodiversity

3. What recent discussions she has had with relevant stakeholders on monitoring coastal and marine biodiversity. (905830)

My hon. Friend and I share a feature in that the coast and the sea are a key part of our constituencies. We have just brought into effect our first three highly protected marine areas. We engage regularly with various stakeholders on a variety of issues relating to the monitoring and protection of coastal and marine biodiversity. We will continue to do that around our shores, but we also do extensive work around the world, with our knowledge and expertise, to ensure that we preserve marine biodiversity much more strongly right across the globe.

I recently met Applied Genomics Ltd, a marine scientific business in my North Norfolk constituency. It specialises in environmental DNA acquisition and processing, and has developed an effective technique to measure a broad biodiversity profile, from fish stocks and invasive species to microbial pollution. The UK does not currently have an all-encompassing nationwide programme to monitor our coastal marine environments, so will the Minister consider launching a consistent, low-cost and accurate programme, and will she meet me to discuss it?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we monitor marine and coastal wildlife and habitats through the UK marine monitoring and assessment strategy evidence groups. Indeed, the £140 million natural capital and ecosystem assessment programme is an important example of how we are trying to do these things in a smarter and more timely way. I am delighted to say that Applied Genomics, the company to which he refers, whose work I think is interesting and valuable, has delivered some of that work.

When will the Secretary of State join me in a campaign to try to clean up our seas and oceans? Around our country, there are reports of marine life dying. When will she wake up to the fact that tyres are not just made of rubber but contain 72 chemicals, some of them poisonous and related to cancer, and all that wear goes into the gullies, gutters, streams, rivers and oceans and it is poisoning marine life? When will she do something about it?

I know that the hon. Gentleman is trying to launch a campaign on that. The Department and the Government are aware of the impact of the particulate matter that comes off tyres and brakes. That is increasingly one of the challenges for heavier electric vehicles, and the Department for Transport in particular is working with the industry on that. On the other aspects he mentions, we have the £500 blue planet fund, and we invest right around the world and on our shores in improving marine biodiversity. That is why we are sponsoring activity on coral reefs, for example, and on getting plastic out of our oceans. It is why the UK played a critical role in securing the UN “biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction” treaty on trying to improve marine biodiversity. This Government have done more for the oceans, and made them a central part of tackling climate change, than any other country in the world, and we will continue to do so.

Tree Planting

I am pleased that the England trees action plan has set out more than 90 actions to help us meet our targets in increasing tree planting. Since its publication, we have rolled out the England woodland creation offer grant scheme; we have added two new community forests, bringing that to a total of 13; we have invested in nursery capacity; and we have launched a new training and apprenticeship scheme to boost skills and workforce in the forestry sector.

Since January 2020, 350,000 trees have been planted in the west midlands. An estimated 62 tonnes of air pollution have been removed as a result in the Black Country alone. More than 320,000 of those trees have now been registered with the West Midlands Combined Authority’s virtual forest. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking our wonderful Mayor, Andy Street, for spearheading that massive effort, and will she outline how the Government plan to help the west midlands to plant even more trees?

It is fantastic to hear about these successes and the innovation of virtual forests. I thank Mayor Andy Street and the people of the west midlands for planting more trees. We will continue to support tree planting through our national forest in the midlands. We will work closely with the Forestry Commission on the nature for climate fund grant schemes, including the local authority treescapes fund. This is yet another example of fantastic Conservative Mayors delivering for their residents cleaner air, and greener and more beautiful spaces. As we regularly say, vote blue, go green.

I recently visited the Woodland Trust’s Snaizeholme tree planting project, which is in the Prime Minister’s Yorkshire constituency. It has huge potential for nature recovery and carbon capture, but along with other sites, it faces a financial cliff edge when the nature for climate fund comes to an end. Will the Government commit to long-term funding that provides certainty for that vital work?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have extensive funding, and he will also know that the cycles of funding go with something called the spending review, which is until 2025. We will continue to invest in forestry, and we are doing it through our environmental land management schemes as well. I planted the first tree in the northern forest with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green). We need to keep it going.

No, he didn’t. The more trees that are planted, the better, so let us all take credit for planting trees. It is good for wellbeing, and it is good for the planet.

Fur Market

5. When she plans to publish the results of her Department’s consultation on the fur market in Great Britain. (905833)

A summary of responses to the call for evidence on the fur market setting out the results and any next steps in this policy space will be published soon.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called for evidence on banning the import and sale of fur back in 2021, but two years on, we have yet to hear what the public think about such an important and timely issue. Will the Department commit to a date when it will release the results of the consultation on the fur market in Great Britain?

Non-mains Drinking Water

Private drinking water supplies are regulated by local authorities, which receive scientific and technical advice from the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Local authorities sample and identify water-quality risks, can serve notices to correct any issues identified and have remedial powers if those responsible for the supply do not comply with the notice. Private water supply compliance is steadily improving. In 2022, 96.4% of private supplies were compliant, up from 91.4% in 2010.

The nine homes of Aysdalegate near Charltons do not have access to mains water. Over the last decade, Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has performed drinking water checks nine times, and on all occasions, the supply has been judged unsatisfactory owing to bacterial contamination, including E.coli and enterococci. A regulation 18 notice, which specifies that the water requires boiling before drinking, has been in place permanently since December 2017, and residents report to me finding tadpoles and other life in their drinking water. This is a Dickensian scandal in 2023, but Northumbrian Water has advised that it will cost these low-income homes over £100 each simply to give them a quote for mains water connection. That is obviously unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me urgently so that we can discuss how to help my constituents?

I am sorry to hear about this issue, which my right hon. Friend has already brought to my attention. Our legislation does allow for those on a private supply to request a connection to the mains supply, but it is right that the legislation allows a water company to charge for the cost of making a new connection, because otherwise it would impact on all customers’ bills. The local authority can give advice, and I urge him to keep contacting it, but if there is anything more we can discuss usefully, I would be happy to do so.

Like yourself, Mr Speaker, I am of a generation that can well remember when water came from the wells, and it was pure and clean. Times have moved on, and we have realised that such water is not available to everyone, as the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) said. I ask the Minister this question ever mindful of the discussions that she will have had: have there been any discussions between the Government and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland to ensure that grants are available for people who need to go on to mains water and that their water is pure, as it was many years ago but is not always today?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I, too, have a well, but it does not supply our drinking water. I think a lot of people have wells on their properties, or locally on their roads or wherever. The issue he has raised is a matter for the Northern Ireland Administration, but here the Drinking Water Inspectorate has commissioned research into the impact of future private water supplies, as well as the whole regulatory model and legislative framework.

Support for Farmers

We are backing British farmers with £2.4 billion of investment every year. We have recently updated our new schemes based on the feedback that farmers have given us, making them easier to apply for. We are providing tailored business advice to all farmers. We have cut red tape, brought in fair enforcement regimes, and helped the sector access the seasonal labour it needs. We are looking closely at the Shropshire review that we commissioned to see how we can go further. We are reviewing supply chain fairness in the sector and trying to unlock opportunities for genetic technologies. I could keep going, but I will leave it there for now.

Upland farmers across Burnley and Padiham, and indeed right across Lancashire, play a huge role in keeping us fed and enhancing the local environment. That is why it is so important that we support them. Can my right hon. Friend say how recent announcements will improve support for upland farmers specifically, and will he reaffirm the commitment made in May by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we will move beyond income-foregone calculations when designing support schemes?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Lancashire farmers and the efforts they make to keep us all well fed. We are committed to ensuring that payment rates mean that as many farmers as possible can benefit from our offers, and have recently increased payment rates for upland farmers. Through countryside stewardship-plus, we will pay farmers extra for co-ordinating their action and working with neighbouring farms and landowners to tackle climate change, as well as supporting nature gains and keeping us all well fed.

Farming: Delinked Payments

The Government plan to bring forward regulations to delink payments later this year, as the parliamentary timetable allows. Those regulations will introduce delinked payments in 2024, as planned. Information about delinked payments can be found on

Delinking the legacy basic payment scheme payments from the need to have land area entitlements could be a really powerful catalyst for change. It would free the Rural Payments Agency and farmers from the bureaucracy of the legacy scheme; remove a very difficult distortion from the land market; and, crucially, free farmers up to make decisions about what to do with their land in future. Since farmers are making decisions about next year’s land use now, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm from the Dispatch Box that the delinked payments will happen next year, and that there will be no reversal of that plan?

I am happy to confirm that, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work he did to get us to this point. Of course, we will be bringing forward the legislation to delink those payments next year.

Food Security

The first UK food security report, which we introduced in the Agriculture Act 2020, was published in 2021; the next one is due in 2024. The F4 group, comprising the British Retail Consortium, the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation and UKHospitality, meets regularly and reports directly to Ministers. We recently met representatives from the whole supply chain at the UK Farm to Fork summit in Downing Street.

I have raised access to food before with the Minister and, in particular, how surplus food and food near its use-by date can be used by organisations such as FareShare. There is still a huge problem right across the country whereby constituents cannot afford to buy food in supermarkets, and are therefore relying on food pantries and food banks for their main shop. To have food security, people must be able to afford food. What more can the Minister do to resolve those issues and ensure that people are not literally starving, or in a position where they cannot afford to buy basic foodstuffs?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the huge package of support the Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced to help families with the cost of living challenges they face. On average, every household receives over £3,000 of support with their energy and food bills, but I am sure we can do more to help and support primary food producers, processers and retailers to make sure that we drive as much efficiency as possible into the system, in order to maintain lower food prices and help families up and down the country.

Last week, past failures caught up with the DEFRA ministerial team. First, the Climate Change Committee castigated them for lack of progress on agriculture and land use, and then the report they had commissioned from John Shropshire and his team detailed the crop losses and lost productivity and production caused by their failure to address labour supply issues. This week, could the Minister tell the House if he knows whether the UK is more or less food-secure than this time last year, and will he explain how he has reached that conclusion?

We have extensive conversations with the food supply market. We are blessed in the UK with very robust food supply chains, which are some of the most secure anywhere in the world. Of course, I acknowledge that the Shropshire review has indicated some areas in which we can improve and assist, but we have delivered the 45,000 visas that are available through the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. Not all of those visas have been taken up, and an extra 10,000 are available if required, but nobody has asked for that to be triggered.

Topical Questions

It has been a particularly busy week for DEFRA in a number of different ways, with not only the launch of the designated highly protected marine areas, but the House of Commons voting to support the legislation to introduce the ban on plastics, which is another way to improve the environment.

Of course, there has also been significant speculation about the water industry. I think it is important to put it on record that the Government have confidence in the financial resilience of the water sector industry. We will continue to have discussions, which are important, and I think it is critical to be aware that people who do not know a lot about the water industry, frankly, are out of their depth in making some comments and speculation. We need to make sure that we treat this situation very carefully, because it is critical to make sure that we have ongoing investment in the water industry, which everybody here relies on.

Thankfully, my dog Sidney Pickles came from a great home, although one could complain to trading standards that his former home failed to describe him as a naughty cocker spaniel or a fox poo-rolling little tinker. Seriously, however, there has been much misinformation about the Government’s action on puppy farming from the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government have, in fact, been taking firm action to stop the unscrupulous selling of puppies by deceitful sellers?

Indeed, and I want to thank my hon. Friend. I have met her dog Sidney Pickles, who is delightful. As she says, it was purchased from a great breeder. One thing we need to continue to focus on is improving the laws on dog breeding to crack down on unscrupulous breeders. Regulations do require commercial dog breeders to hold a valid licence from their local authority, and it is important that people check for that licence. The regulations also prohibit the third-party sale of puppies and kittens.

The Tories are sinking the water industry. Since Tory privatisation, water companies have racked up debts of over £60 billion. Every day, we see 800 sewage dumps and lose over 3 billion litres of water in leaks, and what is the biggest leak of all? The £72 billion paid out to shareholders. Now Thames Water is on the edge as the money dries up. Can the Secretary of State tell the House if she believes that this is an isolated case—yes or no?

I have already said to the House that the Government have full confidence in the financial resilience of the water sector. I will point out that, of course, the gearing for Thames Water shot up in 2007, when Labour was in government. It is fair to say that, when a previous Secretary of State issued a strategic policy statement to Ofwat, one of the key focuses was about reducing the gearing, and that has not happened with Thames Water. Ofwat is still responsible, and I am still holding it to account on how that goes forward. However, it is very important that we do not have speculation and misinformed comments. It is critical that we get water companies through certain stages, and I am confident the Government will do that.

Like the industry itself, that response does not hold water. People know that Thames Water is not an isolated case: five companies are rated as being of concern by the Government’s own financial regulator. Last weekend, I wrote to the Environment Secretary setting out six key tests to safeguard bill payers, workers and taxpayers from paying the price of a failing water industry. Will she finally act to protect the national interest and commit to those six tests, and will she rule out customers having to pay twice for boardroom failures—yes or no?

I have not yet seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter, but I will of course respond to it before the recess. Over £190 billion has been invested into our water industry since privatisation, through a long-standing combination of equity and debt investment by water companies. Speculation around such an important utility does not help the situation, and a measured approach is critical to getting through this difficulty. He mentions other water companies, and that is why Ofwat has acted and why new equity has come into many water companies. It is critical that we continue to have that confidence.

Hundreds of animal lovers across the west midlands have suffered the dreadful crime of pet theft in recent years. What are Ministers doing to prevent such crimes?

Stealing a pet is already a criminal offence, and we know the devastating impact that pet theft can have. We legislated to require the microchipping of cats, in addition to dogs, because that can act as an effective deterrent. The pet theft taskforce reports that dogs are mostly stolen from gardens and outbuildings, and highlights the need for owners to ensure security at home for their treasured pets.

T3.   Bearing in mind the escalating number of dangerous dog attacks, including the death of a dog, Sula, in Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire, whose owner felt that their life would have been at risk had they intervened, will the Secretary of State review the Government’s decision to drop the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill? If not, will she explain to the House how she plans to deliver its measures by different means? (905849)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries set out on 25 May how we intend to take through our manifesto commitments. We also have a taskforce working on this situation, and I expect a report with some recommendations later this year.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Yorkshire Water’s sewer improvement project. This £15 million scheme under the A65 in Ilkley is only happening as a result of a huge campaign by the Ilkley Clean River Group and our passing the Environment Act 2021, which the Opposition voted against at every stage. Does the Minister therefore agree that the Government are purely focused on cleaning up the water quality of our rivers?

I could just say yes, but I will add a bit more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is this Government who have got water quality on the radar. We are cleaning up our rivers and our bathing waters, 93% of which are classed as good or excellent. Our plan for water will ensure that we provide the clean and plentiful water we need for generations.

Gateshead food bank and Feeding Families, both of which operate in my constituency, have seen huge increases in the demand for food parcels over recent years. With food inflation running at 18.3%, the situation will only get worse. What will the Minister do to tackle food inflation, so that people do not have to rely on those organisations?

That is why we are investing in our farmers to help them produce food more efficiently and increase productivity. It is also why the Government have put forward a huge £94 billion support package—over £3,300 per household—and provided £100 million of support to charities working in the sector.

The use of storm overflows is of huge concern to my residents in Southend-on-Sea. Due to this Government’s actions, Anglian Water was supposed to have its plan for mitigating the use of overflows on the Secretary of State’s desk last Friday. Was it there, and when will my residents be able to see it?

Every water company was asked to put a plan for every storm overflow on the Secretary of State’s desk. I can tell my hon. Friend that all the plans have arrived and are being analysed.

What should I say to my twin grandsons, who are here today, about their future given that they live in Cambridge, where air quality is poisoning young people, pregnant women and many others? What will the Secretary of State really do about cleaning up the environment for that generation?

What assurance can the Farming Minister give my Ynys Môn farmers that this Government are doing all they can to ensure that food labelling is accurate? Will the Minister accept my invitation to the Anglesey show on 15 and 16 August to discuss the matter with my farmers in person?

It is always a pleasure to visit Wales and Welsh farmers. I say to constituents of my hon. Friend that making sure there is a red tractor on their food is a very good step to make sure that their food is procured in the right way and that they are supporting UK farmers. I will look at my diary and see whether I can attend her show. I am sure it will be an excellent example of the top-quality food and farming in Wales.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Justice for Victims of Crime

1. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (905801)

4. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in ensuring access to justice for victims of crime. (905804)

The CPS is improving access to justice for victims through its victim transformation programme. Together with measures in the Victims and Prisoners Bill, this will help to ensure access to justice for all victims of crime.

In October 2021, the Government made the not hugely ambitious pledge to reduce the size of the Crown court backlog within four years. The latest figures published last week show that the backlog is now almost 2,900 cases higher than when they started. Will the Solicitor General explain what new steps the Government will take to meet their target, as what they have been doing so far clearly is not working?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. One method being used is sentencing blitzes, whereby sentences are being lined up back-to-back to ensure that cases are completed as quickly as possible.

The Ministry of Justice’s early legal advice pilot scheme has just reported. It ran for five months, cost £5 million and supported a sum total of just three people. Instead of the Attorney General and the Government trying to reinvent the wheel by making it square, why do they not deliver better access to justice by supporting more people through legal aid?

In terms of access to justice for victims, I mentioned the victim transformation programme, which is vital in supporting victims. It will transform how the CPS communicates with victims and ensure that those with specific needs have enhanced support.

The victims’ right to review makes it easier for victims to seek a review of a CPS decision not to bring charges. Will the Minister congratulate CPS East Midlands on having the victims’ right to review prominent on the front page of its website? Is he satisfied that the scheme is being rolled out satisfactorily across the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He will be pleased to know that on the law tour, the Attorney General and I saw CPS East Midlands for ourselves, and he is right. It is also right to acknowledge that the vast majority of cases are performed correctly and accurately. Of those that are not, it is right to say that 243 decisions were found to be incorrect and were reviewed last year.

Illegal Migration Bill

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the compatibility of the Illegal Migration Bill with the European convention on human rights. (905802)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am bound by the Law Officers’ convention not only to not talk about advice that I give to Cabinet colleagues, but to not even reveal whether such advice has been given.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave evidence to the Court of Appeal, advising the court on matters concerning international refugee law. That ultimately contributed to the Bill being found unlawful. The recommendations included co-operation with EU neighbours and fair and fast asylum procedures that are more humane, efficient and cost-effective. Will the Attorney General ensure that the Cabinet listens and enacts those recommendations?

The Government are disappointed by the recent outcome of the case before the Court of Appeal and will seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeal did say that the policy of removal to a safe third country could be compatible, and it did not disturb the finding of the High Court that Rwanda is safe, though the majority was concerned about the possibility of onward removal from Rwanda. The Government will make robust arguments before the Supreme Court and will be applying for permission later today.

The former Lord Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), when told of the demise of his Bill of Rights, said:

“All the wrong people will celebrate.”

Was the Attorney General celebrating the defeat of that attack on our European convention rights? Will she now stand up to other of her Cabinet colleagues who repeatedly transgress international law? They did it with the Northern Ireland protocol, with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, with the Illegal Migration Bill and again this week with the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. She is the Attorney General, so if she will not stand up for the rule of law, who will?

I absolutely can and do stand up for the rule of law. The Government are committed to the rule of law domestically and committed to maintaining and upholding our obligations under international law. That is made quite clear to all Ministers.

The Rwanda asylum plan was declared so poor that it threatened the rights of asylum seekers not to be tortured or subjected to inhumane treatment, and it was found incompatible with a host of international conventions. Those were the findings of the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court will inevitably reach the same conclusion. How much taxpayers’ money does the Attorney General estimate the Government will spend appealing this illegal plan?

I absolutely do not accept the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. The divisional court was a strong win for the Government. At the Court of Appeal, the majority found against us, but we also had a strong judgment from the Lord Chief Justice. We believe that the assurances we have had from Rwanda regarding asylum protections there are robust, and we intend to make those arguments strongly in the Supreme Court.

Violence against Women and Girls

3. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (905803)

Work is going on across the criminal justice system to drive up prosecution levels. In the Gower, charges of adult rape suspects have increased dramatically in the past year. The Solicitor General and I recently visited CPS South Wales to discuss its future plans.

The Jade’s law campaign is gathering more supporters with each passing day, united in our belief that a man such as Russell Marsh should have no say over the future of his children, whose mother he so viciously murdered. Will the Attorney General engage in a serious and sympathetic discussion with her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about how we can make Jade’s law a reality?

While I always enjoy my discussions with the hon. Lady, I am afraid that I am not a Minister in the Ministry of Justice. I am happy to pass on her points to those Ministers. The Attorney General’s Office stays completely separate and independent of the Ministry of Justice, and it is important that we maintain that.

I am sure the Attorney General will agree that the investigation and prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences requires particular skills in both investigation and handling in court. Will she therefore welcome the increase in prosecution counsel fees to an equal level with those for the defence so that we get the most competent people doing these cases? Will she also accept that more investment must continue to go in so that the Crown Prosecution Service, as the Director of Public Prosecutions pointed out to our Committee on Tuesday, can continue to recruit sufficient experienced rape prosecutors and have the digital technology to deal with things such as mobile phone evidence in these cases?

My hon. Friend knows well that I do not hold the budget that he is seeking to influence, but he is one of the best campaigners in the House and, as ever, he made his point extremely clearly. I watched with interest his Committee’s proceedings earlier this week and noted what was said.

Almost 500 days ago, in the joint inspectorate’s report on the post-charge handling of rape cases, it recommended that “Immediately”—I stress that word—

“the police and the CPS should work…to ensure that bad character is considered in all rape cases, and progressed wherever it is applicable.”

That means applying to enter into evidence relevant elements of a suspect’s history, including past convictions and a record of violence. But when I recently asked the Ministry of Justice about the issue, it could not even tell me how many bad character applications had been made or allowed in the last year, let alone what progress had been made in meeting the immediate recommendations from last year’s report. Does the Attorney General know what progress has been made? If not, will she make immediate inquiries?

I am always interested in the right hon. Lady’s inquiries into the way that data is produced. She has made some valid points in the past, and I am always keen to engage with her on how best we can provide transparency. I am happy to take her point forward with Ministry of Justice colleagues. I have seen much closer working between the CPS and the police. That is working particularly well in the area of rape and serious sexual offences, which is why we have prioritised that work. I would be happy to look into her question.

Crimes of Aggression against Ukraine

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential establishment of a special tribunal on crimes of aggression against Ukraine. (905805)

I am confident that Russia will be held accountable for its appalling actions in Ukraine. We have been at the forefront of international efforts. We have referred Russia to the International Criminal Court, we will intervene on behalf of Ukraine before the International Court of Justice later this year, and we are part of the core group of states working to establish a special tribunal for the crime of aggression.

The Attorney General will appreciate that the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over crimes of aggression—in effect, the deliberate, violent and unprovoked military incursion into the sovereign territory of another recognised state. Karim Khan, a prosecutor at the ICC, has pointed out that none of the other 93,000 war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine could have happened had it not been for that initial crime of aggression. Will the Attorney General assure us that steps are being taken to set up a special tribunal as quickly as possible, so that Putin and his fellow criminals can be brought to justice before they get the chance to destroy the evidence?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in this matter. There are three broad strands to our work on accountability. First, we have provided expert assistance to Ukrainian investigators. Secondly, alongside the international community we will continue to provide the ICC with funding, people and expertise, though I accept that the crime of aggression cannot be prosecuted there. Thirdly, we are exploring other options to hold Russia accountable for the crime of aggression.

Rape and Serious Sexual Offences

6. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase support for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. (905806)

10. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to increase support for victims of rape and serious sexual offences. (905812)

We know that increased support for victims means that they are more likely to stick with the case until trial. We are working together across the criminal justice system to achieve that. Independent sexual violence advisers are really effective. The new intervention is the revised victims code, which will put a duty on the CPS team to meet the victim.

In constituency surgeries I have heard some of the most horrendous, gut-wrenching child sexual exploitation stories, some of which have involved multiple instances of rape of young children. That has profound, lifelong implications not only for the victims but for their families. As the cases move through the court, the experience can be terrible and traumatic, which is further exacerbated if the trial is delayed. Will the Attorney General assure me that in those cases, the whole family, including the victim, are supported not only during the trial but before and after, with mental health and wellbeing support?

I have spoken to my hon. Friend about the specific case in his constituency. The Government are making it easier for all victims, including children, to access support. I spoke earlier about ISVAs—we also have children and young persons’ independent sexual violence advisers, who are specially trained to work with children. The Solicitor General and I saw some great work in Manchester, where a large number of child victims are supported.

Some of those who groomed and raped children in Rotherham during the child sexual exploitation scandal and were put away are now starting to be released, some having served less than half their sentence. That is causing immense psychological damage to the victims, who live knowing that their rapists walk free. What can we do to protect those vulnerable people and make sure that child rapists serve their proper sentence behind bars?

Public protection is our top priority,. We want serious offenders to serve the time in prison that reflects the seriousness of their crimes. Last year, we abolished automatic halfway release for serious sexual and violent offenders who are serving more than four years.

I thank the Attorney General very much for her answers. One thing that concerns me and everyone in this House, but in particular families, are the delays for those who have been sexually abused over a number of years and are waiting for a trial to happen. What has been done to support families and individuals through that, because the timescale erodes their willingness and confidence to have justice?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the concern that with delay comes victim attrition. The answer lies in support. The ISVAs that I mentioned earlier are invaluable in ensuring that victims are willing to continue their case to trial.

Serious Violent Crime: West Midlands

7. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the level of prosecution rates of serious violent crime in the west midlands; and if she will make a statement. (905808)

On our recent law tour, the Attorney General and I saw at first-hand the work of the Crown Prosecution Service west midlands serious violence unit. As my hon. Friend would expect, the CPS prosecutes violent crime robustly.

As the Attorney General will know from intimate knowledge, serious violent crime is thankfully not something that Lichfield suffers very much from at all, but that is not the case in the broader west midlands. What can the CPS do to demonstrate to people in the west midlands that it will have a zero tolerance attitude and take action against serious violent crime?

The sale and use of drugs is driving serious and violent crime. Last year, for drugs offences the CPS in the west midlands had a conviction rate of over 90%. I agree with my hon. Friend’s zero tolerance approach.

Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme

The unduly lenient sentence scheme remains an important tool, ensuring appropriate sentences for the most serious crimes. Last year, we referred 139 cases to the Court of Appeal and the sentence was increased in just under 70% of those cases.

I thank the Solicitor General for his response. He will recall that I contacted him on behalf of a number of my constituents about a child sex offender in my constituency. Our local newspaper, the Stoke Sentinel, reported the sentencing of that offender beneath the headline, “Pervert Walks Free From Court”. My constituents are rightly concerned that such serious offenders can receive a non-custodial sentence. Given that my right hon. and learned Friend has been unable to intervene, will he review the way in which such offending is evaluated, so that such cases can be considered?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for raising this case. He is a great champion for Stoke-on-Trent. He will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but it is right to say that the threshold or test for undue leniency is a high one. In the vast majority of cases the Crown court judges get the sentence right, and the Court of Appeal will grant permission only in exceptional circumstances.

War Crimes Trials: Ukraine

We have sent our most experienced international judge, Sir Howard Morrison, to train more than 100 Ukrainian judges. I met some of them earlier this year in Kyiv with him. Next week, we have a delegation of Ukrainian officials in the UK for prosecutorial training.

The International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression was launched in The Hague this week with the backing of the EU, the US and the International Criminal Court, collecting data, interviewing victims and building evidence files to assist both international and national prosecutors to bring criminals to justice for the invasion of Ukraine. In addition to what the Attorney General has already said, what further practical steps will she take to support the centre, and assist and support international efforts to gather evidence of war crimes committed in Ukraine?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I would be delighted to pick this up with her outside the Chamber if she would like more detail on the work we are doing. I work very closely with the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin. His team are currently investigating and prosecuting 92,000 open war crimes cases during a conflict—something that is unprecedented. We are providing help at every level, including prosecutorial and evidence-gathering help. We are a keen part of the atrocity crimes advisory group. We have been training judges. We are keen to help with the wider accountability question on the international stage as well. At all levels, we are absolutely determined to help our friends in Ukraine.

I could keep going on Ukraine almost forever, Mr Speaker. What else shall I talk about? What a delight! I could talk about Ukraine all day.

There is another large piece of work on compensation that we are undertaking with our international partners—