Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 7 December 2023

May I begin by thanking and paying tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for her work as Secretary of State? Having represented for over 13 years a rural constituency that, with the Cambridgeshire fens, is well known for its farming and water management, I am delighted to be appointed as Secretary of State at DEFRA and to be working with a strong ministerial team, including the new Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore).

In the next few days I will be travelling to COP28 to continue the work that was put centre stage at Glasgow on ensuring that nature is at the heart of our approach to tackling climate change. My priority for the Department is to back British farming and fishing, champion rural communities and protect our environment for generations to come.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. My constituents are particularly keen that the UK has the best possible animal welfare standards internationally, and they wrote to ask the Secretary of State what progress is being made, particularly on livestock and equine welfare.

Animal welfare is an extremely important issue. That is why we introduced the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill in the King’s Speech. We were only able to do that because of our exit from the European Union. It is right that we put in place a ban to stop the export of livestock and horses for slaughter. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the two private Members’ Bills that are being taken forward to tackle the important issues of pet smuggling and pet theft, which I know are concerns to Members on both sides of the House.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. He will have seen the BBC “Panorama” investigation that exposed how this Conservative Government have turned a blind eye to corruption and cover-ups at the heart of the water industry. Consumers are left facing higher water bills, while water bosses profit from pollution. Will the Secretary of State now back Labour’s plan to let the regulator block any bonuses for water bosses who are responsible for the tidal wave of sewage pouring into our rivers?

We can go one better than that, in that we have already brought forward measures that allow the regulator, Ofwat, to take action, alongside tougher penalties, now with unlimited fines. In addition, all storm overflows will be monitored 100% by the end of this year, and there will be a much tougher approach on regulation, as the House heard in the strong response to the debate earlier this week.

T2. The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s proposal for a 493 square mile clean air charging zone would have been a disaster for businesses in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend provide an update on the Government’s response to the current Greater Manchester clean air proposal? (900520)

I can try, but the task of finding clarity in the position of the Mayor of Greater Manchester in this regard is somewhat confusing. First he says he is in favour of tackling the issue of air quality—and, indeed, we have heard from Opposition Members how important that is—and then, when he has powers to take action, he seems to look to Westminster and expect us to act on his behalf. Of course I will follow up my hon. Friend’s request and seek clarity from the Mayor, but the ability to do so has, to date, been rather limited.

T3. Why have the Secretary of State and this Conservative Government allowed water companies to increase my constituents’ bills substantially and pay out millions in executive bonuses, while failing to regulate the industry’s rampant pollution and the dumping of raw sewage in our waterways, in stark contrast to Labour’s commitment to hold those companies accountable? (900521)

Let us look behind the rhetoric. Given that the Leader of the Opposition keeps telling us that he wants the Labour Government in Wales to be his blueprint, it is probably worth our taking a look at Labour’s record in this respect. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked the question, but he does not seem to want to hear about Labour’s record, which is not surprising. Under Labour in Wales, the average number of spills from storm overflows last year was 66% higher than the average in England. We have introduced unlimited fines and tougher regulation, and we have set strong targets in legislation. We can see what Labour in power would deliver—we can see it in Wales: a 66% increase in storm overflows.

T5. Can the Minister give me an update on the investigation by the Department and the UK Health Security Agency of the recently confirmed human case of influenza A(H1N2)v, which is similar to influenza viruses currently circulating in pigs in the UK? Does he agree that infectious diseases such as this with a zoonotic potential underline the importance of the Animal and Plant Health Agency to our national biosecurity and public health, and that we should definitely be investing in the long-term redevelopment of its headquarters in Weybridge? (900523)

Swine influenza is endemic in the UK pig population. It generally causes only mild illness, but the Health Security Agency’s investigation, with support from DEFRA, is ongoing. We are committed to upholding the UK’s high level of biosecurity, and work is under way, with £200 million in the current spending review, to safeguard the long-term future of Weybridge as a centre for scientific excellence in tackling high-risk diseases such as this.

T4. What steps has the Department taken to deliver the measures proposed in the national food strategy to encourage the reformulation of food and drink products? (900522)

That is one of the issues that I look forward to dealing with in the weeks ahead, and I shall be happy to drop a note to the hon. Lady.

I apologise for not being here earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Fly-tipping is the No. 1 issue in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join me in praising Conservative-run Harrow Council for introducing free waste collections and 24-hour notice of fly-tipping clear-ups, and indeed increasing the number of fines for fly-tipping from 60 per year—under Labour—to 600 last year?

I commend the great work that Conservative-run Harrow Council is doing, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for bringing those points to our attention. The new fly-tipping league tables allow central and local government, and indeed members of the public, to identify councils that are taking a proactive approach to enforcement—instead of simply cleaning up after fly-tippers—at fly-tippers’ expense.

T6. A successful healthy and sustainable food system requires a number of factors, including a consumer base that can afford it. Recent surveys show that 25% of people have removed healthy and organic food from their diet to save money. How does the Secretary of State plan to cultivate a consumer base that will enable people to buy good, healthy food? (900524)

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out a whole range of methods to support consumers with the cost of living—[Interruption.] Just as the hon. Lady raises her hands on that, it is also worth remembering that, under the Barnett consequentials, Scotland receives more per head than those consumers in England. So those in Scotland are better able to meet those cost-of-living pressures—[Interruption.] SNP Members do not seem to like the facts, but it is a fact that under Barnett consequentials the funding in Scotland is higher per head that the funding in England, which allows consumers to meet those cost of living pressures and to make those choices, should they so wish.

Over the past six weeks, the Suffolk and Norfolk coast has taken a real battering. Homes have tragically been lost to the sea, not least in Pakefield in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend review the support provided to such households and businesses, to ensure that they receive parity of support with those impacted by pluvial and fluvial flooding?

As a fellow east of England MP, I know what a fantastic champion my hon. Friend is for his constituents and how rigorously he will ensure that those points are made. He, as an experienced parliamentarian, will also know that many of those fiscal issues are for colleagues within the Treasury, but I am very happy to have discussions with him and to make representations where required.

T7. Oxford was proud when Port Meadow was given bathing water status, yet just last week the water quality was again rated poor. With the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can hold Thames Water to account for its continual failure over dumping raw sewage in Oxfordshire? (900525)

I am happy, as the Minister responsible for water quality, to meet with the hon. Lady, but I will also say that, from the bathing water classifications we saw this week, 95.7% of bathing waters in England are rated good or excellent. That is up from 2010, when just 76% across England were rated good. This Government are taking water quality seriously, and I will endeavour to make sure that we go even further.