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Topical Questions

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 9 May 2024

Since last updating the House, we have remained focused on delivering our plan to improve food security, on improving our water quality, and on leading the way, both at home and abroad, in protecting the environment. That is why we are introducing legislation to ban the supply and sale of wet wipes containing plastic. It is why we have launched, as part of our catchment plan, the £35 million scheme on the River Wye, further to our announcement yesterday of £11.5 million in water company fines and penalties to be reinvested in water restoration schemes. We are working on Dartmoor to implement the very good recommendations set out in David Fursdon’s report, and we have seen over 20,000 farmers now sign up to the sustainable farming incentive, making it the most popular scheme ever. Alongside that, we are working at the G7, on bluetongue virus and in many other respects, but I can see, Mr Speaker, that you want me to speed up my reply.

The Environment Act 2021 was landmark legislation, and we of course need to think not only locally but globally. One element of that legislation was the introduction of forest risk commodity regulations. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend said what more we can do through our global supply chain measures.

My right hon. Friend is right to focus on forest risk commodities: our flagship announcement at COP28 was that we were taking leading action on that. Many who have watched nature documentaries, for example on the orangutans, can see how important that is to particular species. I hope to table legislation on that later this month, but my right hon. Friend is right to focus on its importance.

The environmental regulator has today condemned the disgusting state of our waterways caused by the Conservatives letting water companies pump them full of raw sewage. This has to stop, so will the Government now back Labour’s plan and make water bosses personally criminally liable, so that if they keep illegally dumping sewage, they end up in the dock?

We already have the biggest ever prosecution by the Environment Agency, which is already live. We have also already banned bonuses for those companies guilty of serious pollution. We are quadrupling the number of inspections as part of that tougher enforcement scheme. We are also bringing record investment into the water industry. The hon. Gentleman never comments on the quality of water in Wales, but perhaps he will want to address that in his follow-up question.

T2. In response to my earlier question, the Secretary of State said that food security was of urgent national concern. Has any Agriculture Minister ever met a farmer who has denied that 3b land is just as good for growing arable crops as 3a land? (902743)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries is extremely well placed to speak about the quality of land and how it pays, given that he himself farms. We recognise that this is part of a wider debate about the clustering of solar sites on farm- land. We also recognise the importance of food security. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) can see the shift in focus to our environmental schemes that align with food security, because I believe that food security is instrumental to our national security, and that also affects our land use.

T3. An Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report published last year recommended that we support the request of the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food to undertake a country visit to the UK before the end of 2023. The Government initially indicated that they would facilitate that, but the Minister’s latest correspondence to me states that it will not be feasible to invite the special rapporteur this year. Why is that not feasible before the general election? The UN is ready and waiting. (902744)

I am happy to look at the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises in relation to the UN, but we are clear about the importance of food production, food security and backing our farmers. It is left-wing councils around the country that are banning meat and acting contrary to the interests of many of our farmers.

We are constantly working with those farmers facing the misery of a TB outbreak. I am aware of an outbreak in my hon. Friend’s constituency in Leicestershire, which is very painful for the individual farmers concerned. That is why we must throw everything we can at this terrible disease—every tool in the toolbox—to try to stop TB spreading across England.

T6. I am so old that I grew up in a land without plastic; a better Britain wrapped in brown paper and string. Last year, our households on this small island handled 90,000 million tonnes of plastic. It is indestructible—it cannot be burned and we cannot get rid of it. Will the Minister support the global plastics treaty campaigned for by Greenpeace and others? (902749)

This Government are taking action on plastics. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a specific example: there has been a 93% reduction in the use of plastic bags as a result of measures that this Government have introduced. If he looks at the communiqué from the G7 in Turin, he will see that the Government were supporting action on plastics, building on the work announced from Ottawa last week.

Many communities in my constituency face the double whammy of coastal tidal flooding and fluvial river flooding. We have seen significant investment in places such as Par and St Blazey through the StARR project—St Austell Bay Resilient Regeneration—which the Minister has been to see. We have recently completed flood defences at Pentewan, but the village of Mawgan Porth remains vulnerable to both river and coastal flooding, and I cannot get any real progress in developing a scheme to reduce flood risk there. Will the Minister meet me to look at what we can do to protect Mawgan Porth?

Having been to Cornwall to meet my hon. Friend and see the StARR project for myself, I am more than happy to meet to discuss what more we can do, because I know that he and his colleagues on the local council are championing this scheme as much as they can, and I am more than happy to help.

The sun may be shining today, but it has been a long, cold, wet spring for our farmers. Given the prediction that 17% of crops will be lost, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of farming businesses that will reluctantly stop producing food? How will he ensure that the farmers flood fund reaches all the farmers who desperately need it?

The hon. Lady raises an extremely valid point, and it is a shared concern across the House. Everyone can see the impact of the wet weather. That is why we are continually engaging with the sector. We had the farm to fork summit as part of that engagement, and we are looking at what easements can be granted in schemes such as the sustainable farming incentive, but also more widely. I will have more to say on that shortly.

Southport has seen millions of pounds of investment into drainage capacity for water, but unfortunately the villages of Tarleton, Hesketh Bank and Banks have not. These farming communities have been devastated by flooding. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries met me and my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) last year, which was appreciated by farmers, but more needs to be done. A report has been submitted to the Department. We want to set up an internal drainage board. What more can be done to make sure that is done at pace to help these communities?

As I touched on earlier, I am a huge supporter of the work of our internal drainage boards. They do a superb job, which is why the Minister for Water and Rural Growth, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), decided to allocate an additional £75 million. We will look constructively at what more can be done in more areas through the focus of drainage boards. My hon. Friend will have seen that we have already flexed our regulations in response to Storm Henk, for example, and we are looking at what further things we can do.

Brexit has been a disaster for farmers across the United Kingdom, but at least in Scotland they have the certainty of funding going out beyond 2027, unlike in Labour-run Wales and Tory-run England. What steps will the Government take to provide the same level of surety for English farmers that the SNP has delivered for Scotland’s farmers?

As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I think the suggestion that the way the SNP allocates its Barnett consequentials gives farmers funding certainty is a somewhat bold claim. The point with Brexit is that we can tailor our response to the needs of our farmers, whether through specific legislation such as that on gene editing to develop disease and drought-resistant crops, our procurement legislation so that we better leverage our public sector procurement and our labelling legislation so that we can support British producers, as well as through schemes such as the SFI, which is the most popular ever run by DEFRA, with more than 20,000 farmers now signed up.

In the past, flooding from the Lady brook and Micker brook, which run through Bramhall, Cheadle Hulme and Cheadle to join the River Mersey, has caused devastation to homes and families. Does my hon. Friend agree that joint working across the region is part of the solution? Will he continue his support for the upper Mersey catchment partnership working?

My hon. Friend has raised that specific case with me before. I am more than happy to meet her to have those conversations at speed, because I know just how valuable projects such as flood alleviation schemes are to her constituents in better protecting more homes.

North West Leicestershire has benefited enormously from being the heart of the national forest, with millions of trees planted over the past 40 years, much of which are on degraded former colliery land. As desirable as tree planting is, that must be balanced against food security. Does the Minister agree that good agricultural land must be protected to produce good food?

I must first commend the national forest for all that it has achieved. Many farmers are involved in that forest, too. That is why the Forestry Commission’s map showing the best places for tree planting is so important, and that is not on what we call best available land, for which we have specified that the main priority is food production.