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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 19 October 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Canal & River Trust Funding

We have had many discussions with the Canal & River Trust over the past three years on the review of its funding, and we are providing it with more than £400 million of additional funding between 2027 and 2037. When the trust was created in 2012, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the trust signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing that the trust would have to move increasingly towards alternative sources of funding.

In Ellesmere Port, we are proud that the Canal & River Trust has made its headquarters there, but we are concerned about the implications of the funding decisions, which amount to a £300 million cut in real terms over the next decade. Clearly that will cause the trust real problems, so I urge the Minister to think again about these decisions and to engage with the trust about how that gap can be bridged.

We all recognise the important work and benefits that the Canal & River Trust brings, but the £300 million cut in funding asserted by the trust is not correct, because that includes adjustments for inflation. Government funding does not provide for that. We should also remember that an investment portfolio of over £1 billion was transferred to the trust, and it gets the benefits of the investments and the funding that accrues from them.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the waterways, I share concerns about the future of our canal network, but I am conscious of the fact that 15 years ago when the trust was set up, the aim was for it to be self-financing. Richard Parry, the chief executive, has discussed with me and Ministers in the past the possibility of receiving a lump sum, rather than a sum over 10 years. What progress has been made on that?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the valuable work he does in that capacity. That subject is still under discussion.

American Bully XL

2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on introducing the proposed ban on American Bully XL dogs. (906484)

The Prime Minister made a decision about introducing the proposed ban on American XL Bully dogs, recognising the horrific consequences of recent dog attacks and the disproportionate amount of those being undertaken by such dogs. We are working at pace on the legislation, and importantly on how it will be put into practice, and I hope to say more on that soon.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. As a veterinary surgeon, I strongly agree with the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State that we need to ban the dangerous American XL Bully dog as soon as possible to keep people and other animals safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in parallel to this necessary urgent action, we need to undertake important work with the public on responsible dog breeding, responsible dog ownership and better training and socialising of dogs as part of a holistic, long-term solution to dog attacks?

My hon. Friend has great credibility in this field, given his professional experience as a vet. I understand that many owners of XL Bully dogs are passionate about their animals—their pets. That is why we are working at pace, but taking our time to get right the definitions and the transition period that we anticipate. It is important that all dog owners work to make sure that their dogs behave and have appropriate training. That is why we established a taskforce that includes dog welfare charities. We expect it to respond to us by the end of the year, and we will potentially take forward some of its recommendations.

As someone who has had a pet dog all my life and still does, I am conscious that some of those who own American XL Bully dogs think that their dogs are integral and safe, but many in the general public see them as a danger and have fear. Is the Secretary of State’s intention, as this process goes forward in Westminster, to engage with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the police, in particular, to ensure that the law and the recommendations that come out of this place can be shared with them?

The hon. Gentleman is right to recognise owners’ concerns where they believe that they have very good dogs. That is to some extent accommodated already in the legislation that has evolved since 1991. On working with other nations, the law—the primary legislation—will apply in both England and Wales by default, but we are working with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Administration on potential moves to make this a UK-wide approach.

I listened carefully to the answers the Secretary of State gave to both hon. Members, but I am still not reassured that she has the planned legislation in place to ban XL Bully dogs effectively. Is she satisfied that we have the kennel space across the UK, enough vets to make assessments, and clear rules and legislation in place to make the ban effective?

The hon. Lady asks a fair question. The legislation has evolved since 1991, with amendments made to the primary legislation in 1997 and in the Dangerous Dogs Exemption Schemes (England and Wales) Order 2015. In that, there is a combination of work with the police in particular and with local councils and, of course, the judicial system. We have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire to take the matter forward. I want to ensure that the legislation is right. I am expecting to present two statutory instruments to make it effective, with one bringing the ban into effect and the other providing the transition element and some of the finer details that still need to be completed.

Resources and Waste Strategy: Extended Producer Responsibility

3. Whether she plans to publish a new timeline for key milestones on (a) extended producer responsibility for packaging and (b) other measures in the 2018 resources and waste strategy for England. (906485)

In July, we announced the deferral of the producer payments under the extended producer responsibility scheme, moving them to October 2025. I must say that that was at the request of industry, which asked for more time so that it could prepare. We remain fully committed to delivering the programme to the timeline. The Government continue to deliver obligations set out in the 2018 resources and waste strategy, and we recently published “Maximising Resources, Minimising Waste”, which is England’s waste prevention programme. On 1 October, we also expanded our ban on certain single-use plastic items.

I am grateful for that comprehensive answer. No one should underestimate the critical role of recycling, but, as I am told by the Green Alliance, it is critical that it is economically viable for the industry, which is worried about the increased costs of waste separation in the Government’s proposals. I accept what the Minister said, but will she confirm whether her Department’s upcoming simpler recycling proposals will retain commitments for recycling to be separated at home?

Details of the simpler recycling system will be announced shortly, but I can tell the House that it will mean that all local authorities will collect the same materials. Of course, as we have always said, food waste will have to be collected separately. It will also be flexible. This has all been discussed with local authorities.

Food System: Health and Sustainability

The Government’s food strategy set out longer-term measures to support a resilient, healthier and more sustainable food and farming system. In May, the Prime Minister’s farm to fork summit built on that with a focus on how we can work together to support a thriving UK food and farming industry. The summit focused on innovation, skills and labour, and on rolling out the new farming schemes to ensure fairness across the supply chain to boost exports and support energy and water security, as well as to reduce red tape.

Every year, post-farm gate, 9.5 million tonnes of food that could have provided more than 15 billion perfectly edible meals is wasted. That also has a massive carbon footprint. Given that DEFRA’s impact assessment concluded that mandatory food waste reporting would result in

“financial benefits to business and significant environmental benefits”

and is backed by many retailers, including Tesco, why have the Government dropped their plans?

We are working closely with retailers to try to reduce food waste and will continue to do that. The hon. Member will recognise that a vast amount of food waste occurs within the domestic home, and we can do more to help and support consumers to make the most of the food they purchase. We will continue to work with primary producers, retailers and consumers to reduce food waste wherever we can.

Sustainability is top of our agenda in the New Forest, and the national park authority is keen to discuss opportunities for it with the Minister. I have sent him an invitation—will he come?

I am excited to have an opportunity to visit the New Forest. As soon as my diary allows, I will hot-foot it down there to meet my right hon. Friend.

To maintain that healthy, sustainable food system, farmers need a level playing field, so when the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) made his recent comments about the benefits of importing hormone-injected beef, it sent a shudder through the industry. This time last year, he was at the very top of Government, alongside the Secretary of State. Given the Minister’s long experience in Government, can he tell us how many others at the top of his Government privately harbour that view?

The gentleman at the top of Government —the Prime Minister—has been absolutely clear and explicit that we will not accept hormone-produced beef at any point in the future, nor will we accept chlorinated chicken. He has the backing and support of British farmers, and he will do everything he can to help and support them.

Water Companies: Water Pollution and Overflows

5. What steps her Department is taking to require water companies to help reduce water pollution and unsatisfactory overflows. (906487)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because no Government in history have taken a more comprehensive approach to tackling water pollution. This Conservative Government are delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle every source of water pollution. Under our storm overflows discharge reduction plan, £60 billion is targeted at cleaning up storm sewage overflows. Thanks to our monitoring, we know what is happening and we are able to take action. Let me remind Members that there was virtually no monitoring under the Labour Government. This Government are setting the record straight.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. The Liberal Democrats pretend that we can fix storm overflows in 48 hours and Labour has an undeliverable sewage plan, so it is unsurprising that sewage is discharged more often in socialist-run Wales. Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is only the Conservatives’ plan for water that is credible, costed and comprehensive?

As ever, my hon. Friend is right on the button. We are the only party with a costed, credible plan to tackle this issue, and we uncovered it. If Labour had a plan, it would be using it in Wales. We have just heard how serious the illegal sewage discharges are in Wales. We have discovered that not only has Natural Resources Wales not carried out any enforcement, but it has not issued any fines at all on this subject—nothing. And the Liberals do not have any plans.

Order. We will get through these questions. I have to get to a certain number and I have not yet called the Chair of the Select Committee, and you are not helping me.

Like many of my constituents, over the summer I took advantage of the relatively warm temperatures in the North sea to enjoy swimming off our coast. Should my constituents and I worry about the quality of the water due to the practices of water companies? Is it not time for Labour’s plan for automatic fines for discharges?

Ninety three per cent of bathing water around our coast is good or excellent. It is a tremendous record.

Scarborough’s South bay is included in the 7% of bathing water without a blue flag. North Yorkshire Council recently convened a taskforce of local politicians, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and others, including academics from Durham University, to look at the problem. It became clear that it is not as simple as many people think. Discharges come from further north around the bay, and pathogens were picked up not only from human effluent but from sea birds, dogs and ruminants. Will the Minister take a personal interest in that work, because lessons learned in Scarborough may well apply around the country?

My right hon. Friend highlights that the issue is not as simple as people think. That is why our plan for water takes a holistic approach to tackling all sources of water pollution. It is also why we launched our £34 million slurry fund to help farmers reduce the pollution that they may inadvertently put into watercourses.

I have never heard such codswallop in all my time in the House. I was born by the Thames and I love the rivers, and I have to say to the Minister that I have seen no Government in history who have put more sewage into our streams, rivers and oceans than hers since the privatisation of water.

I had a meeting about the Thames tideway tunnel yesterday. That amazing project has already increased wildlife so extraordinarily at the end by the Lee tunnel that there are kingfishers, otters and all kinds of other creatures there. When the tunnel is finished, it will be the biggest single means of cleaning up the Thames that has ever been put in place. It is this Government, through a special tool of private-public funding, who are enabling that.

Last year, this Government oversaw record levels of illegal sewage discharges into our rivers and waterways after they cut enforcement, and then they let the water bosses reward themselves for that failure with nearly £10 million in bonuses while hiking bills for consumers. Labour believes that the polluter, and not the consumer, should pay. Will the Government adopt Labour’s plan and give the regulator the power it needs to block water bosses’ bonuses if they keep illegally pumping toxic filth into our rivers?

I have already said that Labour has not costed its plan, which has no credibility whatsoever. We have already changed regulation and the tools that Ofwat and the EA can use. No dividends or bonuses can be paid out at all if there is any environmental damage, and there are more fines than ever before. There were no fines under the Labour Government; indeed, they were taken to court by the European Commission for polluting water, and they did nothing about it. This Government introduced the monitoring, and that is why we know what is happening and why we have the biggest criminal investigation in the history of water under way.

Fishing Communities

The Government are supporting communities by opening new fisheries for spurdog and bluefin tuna, accelerating action to protect valuable non-quota stocks through the first fisheries management plans, and protecting stocks by better controlling fly-seiners, and we have brought about increased benefit through reform of the economic link.

Off the coast of beautiful Hastings and Rye, fishermen are suffering the impact on their fishing of a growing seal colony. Due to the nature of the fishing—small boats leave their nets in the water—sound systems to deter seals are not appropriate. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the presence of seals does not result in the decimation of our fishing communities, let alone the fish?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a tenacious campaigner for her fishing community. We are working alongside the Marine Management Organisation to assess non-lethal seal deterrent options to keep seals away from fishing catches, and we will publish an evidenced report on targeted acoustic startle technology later this year. We are also considering the next steps, including for net fisheries, under our Clean Catch programme. The special committee on seals provides formal scientific advice to the Government on behalf of the Natural Environment Research Council on the management of seal populations under the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 and the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010. Its reports include seal population data based on extensive regional surveys and form the foundation for monitoring our UK marine strategy.

I wonder whether the Minister has seen the video footage that is doing the rounds of the recent incident involving the Spanish longliner Antonio Maria trying to ram the Shetland whitefish boat Defiant; in fact, it put out a rope to foul its propeller. The footage is truly shocking, but the real scandal is that this is not the first time it has happened; it is at least the third documented incident in recent times. This will keep happening unless something is done to stop it, so will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport and the Foreign Office to make sure that France, as the flag state with enforcement powers in this case, takes its responsibility seriously?

I have seen that footage. It is truly shocking. This was a deliberate act to try to sabotage a UK fishing boat. It was outrageous behaviour. As the right hon. Gentleman identifies, enforcement is difficult, because the incident involved a Spanish boat under a French flag, but given the seriousness of the event I will most certainly raise it with my ministerial colleagues.

Community Farming Projects

We welcome community farms in England, because they give local communities a chance to become involved in the countryside. Like any other farm, they may be eligible for a variety of grants enabling smaller farms to be supported more fairly. We have introduced a sustainable farming incentive management payment, and we have also extended the farming in protected landscapes fund until March 2025. The fund is open to farmers in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, allowing them to deliver projects to support nature, climate, people and places.

Figures from a social return on investment study show that every £1 invested in a community farm is worth £9 of community benefits through food production, new skills and community resources. In my constituency, for instance, Lauriston Farm is investing in a community orchard and gardens, outdoor learning and a community kitchen to help people pick up new skills and produce affordable food. Does the Minister agree that in a cost of living crisis it is critically important for people to have access to such facilities, and that more needs to be done to help small community projects to maximise their potential?

I pay tribute to those who are involved in that community project. As the hon. Lady will know, agriculture is devolved to the Scottish Government, and I hope they will use some of the £620 million a year that they are given to support Scottish farmers. I am sure she will be a tenacious campaigner in holding the SNP Government to account.

Flood-risk Areas: Rural Communities

The Government’s six-year £5.2 billion flood investment programme benefits both urban and rural communities. Approximately 40% of schemes and 45% of investments are being directed at rural communities, which have benefited from our frequently flooded fund, our natural flood management fund and our flood and coastal innovation programmes.

The Minister has visited Shrewsbury a number of times at my invitation, and has heard at first hand from the River Severn Partnership, which is trying to find a holistic solution to the problems of managing Britain’s longest river rather than just creating flood barriers which push the problem downstream. When can give us more information and an update on the resources being afforded to the partnership to support landowners and others who can be part of that solution?

I thank my hon. Friend for the great work that he does with the partnership. Both the Secretary of State and I have visited his constituency. There are funds available: the £25 million for natural flood management schemes may be of interest to farmers, and the environmental land management schemes include provisions for temporary storage capacity on farms.

In the autumn, storm overflows are inevitable, and my constituents are holding their breath as they wonder whether their homes will be flooded once again. I understand from speaking to residents that it is very unclear whom they should call when that occurs, so will the Minister look again at setting up a national flood line that can be called at any time, and ensure that it is connected to a local flood centre that will be accountable for a response from local services?

I have visited my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I know that she has done a great deal of work on the issue of flooding. The Environment Agency works in partnership with the Met Office to provide an online “checking for flooding” service, which is operating today to deal with Storm Babet. Members of the public can check the flood risk, find advice and guidance on how to prepare for flooding, and sign up for warnings on the site.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s response, and I noted that she did not mention the National Infrastructure Council’s report, commissioned by the Government a year ago, which stated that an extra 190,000 homes were at risk of flooding—not because of climate change, but because of the Government’s failure to maintain existing flood defence assets. When the Government cannot even get the basics right, how can anyone possibly trust them to have the answers to the ever-increasing flood risk that our country faces?

That is exactly the Environment Agency’s duty, and it works very hard on the asset management side of our flood assets, which are a very large proportion of our £5.2 billion fund.

Sewage Discharges

9. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the steps taken by her Department to prevent sewage discharges. (906493)

We have gone further and faster than any Government in history to drive down sewage discharges. Last month we published our £60 billion plan, which sets stringent targets to reduce sewage discharges. Those targets will prioritise action at target sites. What did Labour do? It did nothing when it was in power.

Water companies need stable finances to make improvements. In December 2022, Ofwat outlined concerns about the financial resilience of several water companies. What has the Minister done to mitigate the risks, and what will she be doing in future?

The Ofwat report on sewage discharges, published in September, was extremely disappointing. I have written to all the water companies that were highlighted as lagging, and I have written to all the CEOs to say that I want to meet them in person. I have also written to the CEO and chair of Ofwat to ask how they will hold these water companies to account.

This Government introduced monitoring, so we now know the state of the problem. The water companies are now engaging and Ofwat has powers to put financial pressure on them. Given that only 4% of sewage overflows in Scotland are monitored, does this not show that we are progressing it in the right way and that the nationalisation of water companies is not the way to go?

Food Affordability and Inflation

In September 2023, the consumer price index was at 12.2%, down from 14.8% in July. Industry analysis expects that food price inflation will continue to decrease over the remainder of 2023. The Government are providing an average of £3,300 per household to support them with the cost of living this year and next.

The West Lothian food bank in my Livingston constituency does an incredible job, just like food banks across the UK, but the reality is that it should not even have to exist. Folk are struggling more than ever, which is why the SNP has called on the UK Government to control supermarket price gouging, amid record profiteering, by introducing a price cap on staples such as bread and milk. Will the Minister help all our constituents by getting on with doing that?

If the hon. Lady compares the price of a shopping basket around Europe with the price here in the UK, she will see that the free market is doing a lot of work to suppress food inflation. We have a cheaper food basket than they have in France and Germany. She is, in effect, advocating communism. She should look at how that works around the world. Controlling those markets does not work.

Prior to the Westminster crisis that has been inflicted on us all by the Tory party, a loaf of wholemeal bread cost £1.01. Even after a slight drop in food prices, the price is now 20% higher. We know the farmers are not benefiting from these price increases. The price of milk in supermarkets today is almost twice what we pay the farmers for their product. Why will the Government and the Secretary of State not consider price caps to stop the supermarkets profiteering and to help ensure that basic essentials are not beyond the reach of many people?

We have done an enormous amount of work in this area to help to support primary producers and farmers. We will legislate in the dairy sector to help to make sure those contracts are fair, and to make sure we have fairness across the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman is advocating the control of market prices, which would have exactly the opposite effect of what he wants to achieve. It would drive up prices across the country, and we would end up in a far worse place.

Topical Questions

The Met Office has issued various warnings. Indeed, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), pointed out, we are preparing for potentially significant storms, which is why the Environment Agency has mobilised its emergency operations centre and why temporary defences are being lined up in different parts of the country. We continue to encourage households to register for flood alerts and warnings and to take action, where appropriate.

Ball Corporation has invested £200 million to create Europe’s largest and most modern aluminium drinks can manufacturing plant in Burton Latimer. Will the Secretary of State be kind enough to meet the company to explore her plans to support drinks can producers against potentially unfair market distortions as a result of the decision to exclude glass from the deposit return scheme?

I decided not to proceed with glass in the DRS because of the complications that would bring to its introduction; I would have thought his local company would benefit from that. However, I know that the chief executive recently had a constructive and useful meeting with the recycling Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who will take away the comments from that for further consideration as we finalise our policy.

T2. I have received a host of emails from constituents, many with respiratory problems, who are rightly complaining about poor air quality. The smoke in the air was caused by heather burning on the moors, which resulted in a spike in poor air quality to levels that were four times the legal limit. Will the Government finally do the right thing and bring in an outright ban on these practices, which are affecting not only my constituents’ health, but the natural environment and the climate? (906503)

The hon. Lady will be aware of the action that has been taken—that Ministers required Sheffield City Council to take—to accelerate measures to improve air quality. On the wider measures that she talks about, we are not seeking to ban important practices, but of course things continue to evolve. Air quality is improving and she should be grateful not only to her local councils but to the Government for making that happen in her constituency.

T4. Dunstable downs rotary club is paying for 4,000 trees to be planted at Chute wood, on Dunstable downs. Will the Minister commend this action and commend other organisations to do likewise, given the crucial importance of tree planting in combating climate change? (906506)

That was worth the wait! I will absolutely commend Dunstable downs rotary club, and the work that this Government are undertaking, because trees are essential. They are the larder and the shelter for our wildlife. They are vital for our ecosystem. They protect us from flooding, prevent us from overheating and are at the forefront of this Government’s plan for the environment. That is why we are rolling out local nature recovery strategies to support more good volunteering in our local authorities.

Work is ongoing on avian influenza. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have suffered two years of catastrophic effects of that disease. Animal and Plant Health Agency vets are working round the clock with primary producers to protect their flocks. I do not want to jinx myself, but at the moment we are making good progress. We will continue to work hard with the sector to protect it and ourselves from that terrible disease.

As the Secretary of State knows, my constituency is chalk stream central, with the headwaters of the celebrated River Test, the Bourne rivulet and the River Anton, which runs through Andover. What can the Government tell me to reassure my constituents that the unique ecology of chalk streams is uppermost in their mind as they work to enhance our rivers across the country?

As my right hon. Friend knows, I know that area well. I used to live in Whitchurch, which has the River Test flowing through it. We are making progress with our chalk stream action plan, but he will also be aware of the amendment that the Government agreed to work with Viscount Trenchard on and which is now part of the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, which I hope will become an Act very soon.

Some of the finest seed potatoes are grown in the north of Scotland. Right now, the seed potato farmers are worried sick, because a lot of their crop is below water. That also poses a question mark over the supply of seed for next year. I know that this matter is devolved, but as the Minister is a farmer will he put the maximum encouragement in the direction of the Scottish Government to please help the farmers?

The hon. Gentleman has done that with his question. I do not diminish the effect that the rain is having on the seed potato crop; once seed potato is under water for more than a week it will probably be destroyed. Scottish seed potatoes are some of the finest seed produced anywhere in the world and I encourage him to seek contact with the Scottish Government to get them to help.

Kirklees Council is looking to invest in its food waste recycling strategy, in line with the Environment Act 2021, but it is still waiting for full clarification and details that support that legislation. Will the Minister advise as to when that will be sent to councils?

That clarification will be coming very soon and within it the new simpler recycling approach will include mandatory collection of food waste.

Publicly owned Scottish Water has invested £668 million since 2010 in improvements and committed another half a billion pounds between 2021 and 2027. That is why Scottish Water has had its product—the waters around Scotland—classified as being in “good ecological condition”. Why do English bill payers pay the most and get the mankiest water?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. There is a lot of chatter about water; we should never undermine the cleanliness of the drinking water that people enjoy. The interministerial group is working on different ways of measuring ecological status across the United Kingdom and we are looking to see what we might do about that. We made the change in 2016, which other parts of the United Kingdom did not, and we continue to work together as responsible Governments. I remind the hon. Gentleman, only 4% of storm overflows in Scotland are monitored—they would be better off getting on with that.