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Topical Questions

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 14 March 2024

Since last updating the House, we have continued to bring forward measures to place greater prioritisation on food production and food security. That includes delivering a key National Farmers Union ask for a food security index, committing to the Farm to Fork summit as an annual event, and the largest ever round of grants for farmers, worth £427 million, announced by the Prime Minister to drive greater productivity. We are also consulting on fairer food labels to ensure that our British farmers are fairly rewarded. We are announcing today a consultation on the next phase of our tuberculosis eradication strategy, which includes culling in high-risk areas, and this week I announced that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) is conducting a review into public sector food procurement.

Furthermore, we are taking action to hold water companies to account more strongly, which includes a fourfold increase in inspections and consulting on banning bonuses for companies that commit serious criminal breaches. We are working at pace with the devolved Administrations on the banning of wet wipes. As we covered earlier, we continue to address the threat from the bluetongue virus. I can confirm to the House that I have acted on the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) on extending the neutering deadline for XL Bully dogs by some months, from 30 January 2024 until 30 June 2025. Finally, tomorrow the Minister responsible for nature will announce the successful bids for species restoration grants, building on the progress on biodiversity net gain.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the inflexibility, bureaucracy and cost of the seasonal poultry workers scheme make it prohibitive for businesses such as Kelly Turkeys in my constituency to hire labour for just a few weeks in the run-up to Christmas? Will he urge the Home Office to include it within the existing seasonal agricultural workers scheme, thus allowing producers to use labour that is already in the country?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Of course, there are 2,000 seasonal worker visas to meet the demand in the run-up to Christmas. He will know that from my time as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, when I dealt with the issue of turkey supplies before Christmas, I am happy to look at that issue. He is talking about a finite period, and I will make those representations to Home Office colleagues.

Last month, I visited Newcastle-under-Lyme with local campaigner Adam Jogee to meet residents who are literally choking on toxic fumes from the Walleys Quarry landfill site. More than 10,000 residents have complained about the stench, and a five-year-old child ended up in hospital. Will the Secretary of State publish all correspondence between DEFRA, the Environment Agency and the operator, so that residents in Newcastle-under-Lyme can see why the site has not been closed down?

No one could have done more to highlight the issue than the constituency MP. Indeed, the Minister with responsibility for water has already been to Walleys Quarry to look at first hand. Having spoken directly to the chief executive of the Environment Agency, I know that everything that can be done within the law is being done. That is the assurance that the Minister and I have had from the chief exec of the Environment Agency. Indeed, enforcement action was taken recently at that specific site.

T4. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries. I welcome the limited help that the Department is giving to a few pollack-catching hand-liners, but it will not help the vast majority of fishermen in my constituency who rely on that stock. Will the Minister speak to the Treasury to see whether there is any way to look at compensation for those boats, or at least at decommissioning help? (901998)

The Government recognise the huge challenge faced by pollack fishers. We are trying to offer funding to help those most affected. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s campaign and that of my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) and for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) in raising the issues. We are helping those fishermen through the fisheries and seafood scheme, as well as with a new scientific study, but the Secretary of State and I are personally looking at what other options may be available to help and support. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) will continue her pursuit of this issue and support for her constituents.

T2. The public have the right to access just 8% of land in England, including thousands of access islands that can only be reached by trespassing. With polling now showing that 62% of the public support the extension of the right to roam through England, are the Government now prepared to commit to overhauling our outdated system of access rights and to follow Scotland in enshrining the right to roam in law? (901996)

The hon. Gentleman’s question merely highlights a fundamental difference between the Front Benchers of the two parties: I want to work with farmers, which is why through SFI—the sustainable farming incentive—we are looking at permissive access, where we pay incentives to farmers to provide access to their land; but Labour would impose a top-down requirement with the right to roam, rather than work constructively with our farmers and landowners, which is the approach that the Conservatives are taking.

T5. Lowestoft is the largest town in the UK without formal flood defences, with the tidal barrier project on hold due to cost increases. I am most grateful to Ministers for considering the compelling case to fill the funding gap that would enable a scheme to proceed that will protect property and unleash the provision of new homes and business opportunities. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will leave no stone unturned in working across Government so that the project can restart ? (901999)

I pay tribute to the amazing campaign led by my hon. Friend on behalf of those in his constituency. Already, £80 million of support has been secured from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for that scheme. He will be aware that the local authority has changed the scope and driven the cost, so there is a question as to what contributions are made by partners, but he is a formidable champion of the scheme and £80 million has already been allocated.

T3. Hedge-rows provide a crucial habitat for nearly 130 priority species, including some red-list birds, and they are a carbon store. When cross-compliance ended on 1 January this year, long-standing legal protections for agricultural hedgerows ceased to apply, ending the 2 metre buffer strip and the no-cutting period. The Government committed to reinstating important protections, so will Ministers explain when the Government will lay legislation to close gaps in hedgerow protection urgently, in particular as bird-nesting season is under way? (901997)

The hon. Lady is slightly behind the times. We have committed to protecting our hedgerows in law in England. We carried out a consultation, and this measure was extremely popular with our farmers, because we know how much they value hedgerows. They will be protected with those regulations, including the 2 metre buffer strip from the centre of the hedge, and all the rules and regulations on what can and cannot be done, and the cutting ban. We are fully behind that. We are working on the fight to protect nature, and that will be part of getting to our nature target.

I thank the Minister responsible for water for coming to Vale Road in Colwick recently to meet residents affected by flooding. I know that that meeting was very much appreciated. Will the Minister reassure me that he and his Department will carry on working with me to continue to improve flood defences in Colwick and across Nottinghamshire, so that the residents can sleep a little better at night?

I was glad to visit Colwick and meet residents along Vale Road to hear about the impact of recent flooding, not only on them but on residents of the wider area. I will continue to work with my hon. Friend and with Nottinghamshire County Council. This is not the only area that he is interested in; he has also been working with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) to focus on Lambley and Woodborough as well. That work will build on the £51 million that has already been allocated to Nottinghamshire County Council and is already better protecting 15,000 properties.

T7. For my constituents in Bradford, food prices have soared along with the rising cost of living. The increase has recently reached a peak of 19.1%—the biggest in almost 50 years—making it increasingly difficult for families in Bradford to make ends meet. What does the Minister have to say to my constituents, who are now paying far more for their weekly shop, not just because of inflation but because the Tory Government have failed over 14 years to implement a proper food strategy to support UK farmers, and have put in place damaging barriers to trade with the rest of Europe? (902001)

I have a really clear message for his constituents: we are sticking to the plan, which is bringing inflation down—that is what the Chancellor set out in the Budget; the numbers are clear on how inflation has come down—and we are not risking going back to square one, as the hon. Gentleman’s party would propose.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is very aware of the concerns raised by the seafood processing and catching sectors about recent proposals by the Migration Advisory Committee to remove key occupations from shortage occupation lists. What engagement has he had with the Home Office to ensure that the occupations on which our food security and coastal communities depend are adequately and meaningfully supported?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his campaigning again on behalf of his constituents. We continue to work with our friends in the Home Office to ensure that the fishing sector in Scotland and around the UK gets the labour that it requires to deliver top-quality British fish to the marketplace. I will continue to have those discussions with the Home Office to ensure that we get to the right place.

I was pleased to play a small part in passing the Animals (Low-Welfare Activities Abroad) Act 2023, but the Government continue to delay its implementation, while 550,000 captive wild animals suffer in tourist entertainment around the world. One example is that of elephants in Thailand, many of which suffer complex post-traumatic stress disorder because of the psychological and physical abuse that they endure daily. UK companies may still advertise and sell tickets for activities that involve elephants that are forced to perform for tourists. Will the Minister assure me that the conversation will be launched as soon as possible and that the regulations will include a ban on the advertising and selling of elephant tourism?

Future decisions on which animal activities will fall into the scope of the legislation will need to be evidence-based and subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The Government continue to make animal welfare a priority. We are currently exploring a number of options to ensure that there is progress as soon as is practicable.

The Secretary of State is bringing forward a system of extended producer responsibility to obligate brand owners, including food suppliers, to bear the cost of recycling the packaging that they place on the market. However, in some estimates, the cost to obligated businesses will be 10 times higher than under the current packaging waste recycling note system. Given that the cost will need to be passed to consumers, does the Minister share the concern that it will contribute to food price inflation?

It was good to meet my hon. Friend just this week to discuss that issue. I encourage all those in the packaging sector, and those involved in the industry, to keep feeding information to my officials. We are reviewing EPR at the moment—we have a dedicated roll-out plan for it—but we are very keen to hear from the industry.

The Government promised to ban plastic in wet wipes nearly a year ago, on 3 April last year, but there is still no ban in place. Will the Minister protect nature by banning plastic in wet wipes now?

I am extremely keen to get the ban on wet wipes delivered. Has the hon. Lady spoken to her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government? As she knows, these things need to go through with agreement from the devolved Administrations. I can assure her that I am pressing very hard on that, and hope to have something to announce very soon. [Interruption.] I will take the chuntering from the Labour Front Benchers into those discussions.

Ministers are already aware of the success of my quarterly water summits, which have caused Anglian Water to beat the Government target for reducing storm overflows by five years and to pilot all-year-round testing of our bathing waters. However, one agency consistency failed to attend: the Environment Agency. Will the Minister come to the next summit and bring the Environment Agency with him?

There is no doughtier champion than my hon. Friend, who has been lobbying me on this issue. I am happy to commit to the Environment Agency attending her next summit, and I will also attend in person.

British farmers produce some of the very best produce in the world, but the trend in supermarkets selling it is going in the wrong direction. Will the Minister support Liberal Democrat proposals to invest an additional £1 billion in British farming, and reform environmental land management schemes so that they genuinely incentivise sustainable farming?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that British farmers produce among the best food in the world, but I do not agree that the trend is deteriorating—quite the opposite. We have the Buy British campaign, which a number of supermarkets have already signed up to; the public sector review—the Quince review—is under way; and we are looking at labelling, and how we better empower consumers to buy food with good animal welfare standards. There is a lot of progress, and it reflects the great standards we have for British food.

Can my hon. Friend update the House on the responses to the consultation on the 27 bids for bathing water status—one of which, of course, is for the River Nidd and the lido in Knaresborough?

My officials have been inundated with a huge number of responses to the consultations on the 27 bathing water sites. My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for the River Nidd; I cannot say anything at the moment, but he will not have to wait too long before hearing the outcome.

Lidl has become the first supermarket to roll out a deposit return scheme across the whole city of Glasgow. Will the Secretary of State commend Lidl on doing what he blocked the Scottish Government from rolling out across Scotland?

I always commend supermarkets that are being innovative, but part of the problem with the initiative in Scotland was the amount of push-back from industry. That is why the Scottish Government pulled it.

Extended producer responsibility will add financial burdens to amazing food producers, such as Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree in my constituency, so can the Secretary of State say what he is doing to keep financial costs down and reduce red tape for great British food manufacturers?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we are kindred spirits in trying to keep the amount of red tape and regulation down. Indeed, on a visit to Tiptree just a couple of weeks ago, I looked at methods of automation that bring the cost of food production down. My right hon. Friend will have heard the comment from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who has responsibility for water: a consultation on these issues is live, and as a formidable constituency champion, I know that my right hon. Friend will ensure that any concerns about costs are raised in that consultation.