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Topical Questions

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024

Since I last updated the House, the Government have been delivering on their plan to back British farmers. We are now seeing an average increase of 10% in our environmental farming payments so that farmers can protect our environment and continue to grow the food that we need. Recent storms have threatened the livelihoods of many farmers, which is why, alongside the wider flood recovery framework, I announced financial support of up to £25,000 for farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land.

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of our environmental improvement plan; I will not repeat the announcements we touched on earlier, Mr Speaker, given your steer on brevity. Finally, it is worth reminding the House that we have passed Second Reading of the Pet Abduction Bill, which introduces stricter sentences for those who steal dogs and cats. Pet abduction causes huge trauma to families and to pets, and we are taking decisive action to address those crimes.

Flooding has caused repeated damage to homes across rural Fylde. Last week, I held a multi-agency meeting with Fylde’s flood authorities, which updated me on the work carried out since our initial meeting last July. From blocked culverts to overflows from highways and apparently insufficient drainage on newly built estates, the causes are wide-ranging. At the meeting’s conclusion, I asked the agencies to provide a written breakdown of their action plan. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the plan and how his Department can assist?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am familiar with the Fylde and the issues there. I am always happy to meet him to discuss the issues he mentions. I am in contact with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about new developments and some of the wider issues that my hon. Friend has been raising.

The UK ended the year as the only rich nation with food price inflation of more than 10%, and families buying food still face persistent price increases. New Brexit red tape affecting European food imports poses a further risk of rising inflation in the prices of items such as bread, milk and even baby formula. May I again ask the Secretary of State to commit himself to implementing food price controls if further Brexit red tape leads to the food price hikes that are being anticipated?

Such is the obsession with Brexit in the SNP that we hear no mention of the impact of the war in Ukraine, no mention of the farmers who are striking across the EU, and no recognition of the huge amount of work on supply chains that is being done by my right hon. Friend the Farming Minister. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman seems not to have noticed the rapid review of labelling that we are conducting, which is about empowering consumers and ensuring that the high animal welfare standards that we have in England are better reflected.

T3.   I am sure the Secretary of State has seen reports in Farmers Weekly that about a third of the UK wheat crop has either rotted in the ground because of the wet conditions, or was not drilled at all. Supplies of spring seed are very tight, with many varieties already sold out, and while it is possible for some farmers to use farm-saved seed, it is illegal for it to be traded between farms. Many farmers did not grow spring crops this year or, indeed, sell their crops at harvest. Is there a solution to the problem? (901290)

I am very alive to this matter, both because of the very good work that Farmers Weekly has done to highlight it and because my right hon. Friend, as Chair of the Select Committee, has discussed it with me and my right hon. Friend the Farming Minister, who is also discussing it with plant breeders. We need to look at what we can do constructively, working with them, to deal with what is an entirely legitimate issue.

T2.   According to the recent report from the Office for Environmental Protection, the Government are off track when it comes to hitting environmental targets, which include restoring our waterways to health. What will the Government do to get back on track? (901288)

As was mentioned earlier, that report was based on two months of data within a 25-year plan, and was therefore somewhat premature in its judgment. This is the first Government in the world to put legally binding targets to reverse nature decline into law. Yesterday, we marked the first anniversary of those targets at Kew, and set out further proposals which have already been touched on. We have also provided international leadership by putting nature at the heart of tackling climate change at COP26, which was strongly reflected at COP28.

T4. The Select Committee has been consistently holding water companies and regulators to account for the inexcusable levels of sewage being illegally dumped in our precious waterways, but more can be done. Does my right hon. Friend agree that given our plan for water, our record levels of investment in monitoring and improving water quality, and the unlimited fines imposed on water companies, while the Opposition parties have no affordable plan and just throw muck from the sidelines, it is this Government who are actually getting on with and dealing with the issue? (901291)

My hon. Friend is right in saying that we have a plan and that a great deal has been done. He is also right that more can be done, and I reassure the House that I am entirely committed to doing it. We will hold the water companies to account—that is my absolute intention.

Springwater park in my constituency suffers from regular flooding during storms, which causes landslip and movement approaching the highway. Unfortunately, it falls outside established funding pots from schemes such as Bellwin, so we keep being bounced between the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and DEFRA. Will the Minister meet me, along with representatives of Bury Council, to see what we can do to address the problem?

The Government are investing in ongoing projects in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, including the Radcliffe and Redvales flood risk management scheme, and we are doubling our investment in flood alleviation schemes from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion over the next six-year funding round. However, I am of course happy to meet him.

T5. My constituency is home to many international food and drink manufacturers, including General Mills and Coca-Cola, both of which are seeking to expand their operations here in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the work being done to help such manufacturers to expand and grow for the benefit of our local and national economies? (901293)

We have regular meetings with the food and drink sector to ensure that we are in tune with its concerns and aspirations. Those discussions will continue, and we will continue to support great businesses such as Coca-Cola in my hon. Friend’s constituency, support British jobs and generate benefit for the UK economy.

Towns and villages such as Maulden and Shefford in my constituency have seen their flood risk profile change dramatically over the years, partly owing to housing growth. How will the Minister ensure that funding for the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards adequately reflects the way in which that risk has evolved?

Improving our flood alleviation schemes and our flood resilience is incredibly important, which is why the Government are recognising the amount of investment we need to put into it. We are doubling that investment from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion over the next six-year period. The sorts of schemes we are helping will assist projects across the country to deal with those problems.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that drift net fishing for bass is more sustainable, targeted and efficient than fishing with set nets? Will he reconsider the ban, which was introduced as a temporary measure, in order to allow those with an existing bass entitlement to undertake drift net fishing?

Bass stocks are still recovering from poor spawning periods and overfishing. The bass fisheries management plan commits to review existing commercial access, including gear types such as drift nets, which pose a higher risk to sensitive species and bass fishes. A careful balance must be struck between increasing fishing opportunities and protecting vulnerable bass stocks, but I assure my right hon. Friend that these matters will remain open.

Since April last year, thousands of homes in my constituency have suffered from a fly infestation assumed to originate from a recycling plant. Will the Minister meet me and the Environment Agency to get this resolved?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to try to deal with these issues, because for this Government dealing with waste and recycling is incredibly important. If the challenges are having an impact on householders, we need to get on top of this, and I am to meet him to discuss it.

Walleys Quarry, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), is stinking again, with monitoring stations showing high levels of hydrogen sulphide and with complaints soaring. The site is blighting my constituents too, and the Environment Agency now says the owner is no longer working towards compliance. It is long past time that the permit was revoked and the company prosecuted. Will the Minister come to Staffordshire to witness the stink and see the sorry sight for himself?

I always listen closely to your steer, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue, which I know is very troubling to those affected. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) is going there in the coming days, and I can assure her that this is being discussed and actively followed up.

Food price inflation remains twice as high as general inflation in the UK, and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit warns that it could rise even higher next year. What assessment has the Secretary of State made, with his colleagues, of the impact of soaring food prices on those we represent?

Of course, we continue to monitor food price inflation and work with the sector to reduce it as much as possible. We co-operate with not only farmers, processors and retailers, but all those involved in the sector to try to make sure that we provide a reasonably priced food basket for our constituents. The good news is that the cost of our food basket in the UK is lower than that found in many parts of the European Union.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In response to Question 1, the Secretary of State attributed another party’s position on Europe to my party. The Alba party’s position on Europe is to opt for the European Free Trade Association, thus maintaining sovereignty over fisheries and farming. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State would correct the record.

Such is the confusion within the Scottish National party that I hope the House forgives me for the mistake. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has changed his party and now is an Alba Member. I am happy to correct the record.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like your advice on the scheduling of business today. A number of people—

Sorry, but that is not relevant to the questions we have just had. The only way the hon. Gentleman can raise that as a point of order is by doing it after we have done all the questions. We now have questions to the Attorney General.