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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 749: debated on Thursday 9 May 2024

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Natural Flood Management Programme

Forty projects have been selected to proceed to the development stage of the £25 million natural flood management programme. They include a broad range of locations, from Alnmouth to St Austell.

I am working with residents in the Chase Way and Kendal Drive area of Great Sutton, alongside Environment Agency representatives and members of the local authority, to try to find a solution to the flooding problems that we have there. There are lots of different pots of money available at different times, and sometimes it is difficult to understand what the realistic chances are of our succeeding in getting the funding that we need to bridge the gap that we have at the moment to get the works done. Will it be possible for me to meet with either the Secretary of State or some of his team to talk about what realistic funding options we have for the area?

I thank the hon. Member for his engagement, and I will arrange a meeting with the relevant member of the team. The information is on Two projects near his constituency—the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and the Mersey Rivers Trust—are involved in the programme. I welcome his engagement. It is a good scheme, and I will ensure that he gets that meeting.

I have been working with the Environment Agency to address a small flood problem on the River Gade in my constituency. The Environment Agency has been very helpful, and has met with me. In another part of my constituency, the River Ver has been flooded with sewage yet again. That is unacceptable, and the Environment Agency needs to take it seriously and take action against the water companies, rather than just saying, “We’ll work with you.” Action is what my constituents want.

I agree. That is why we are increasing fourfold the number of inspections, so that water companies are not marking their own homework. It is why we have the plan for water, introduced by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and significant additional investment. It is why we are taking tougher enforcement action, with the biggest ever criminal prosecution of water firms by the Environment Agency. It is also why we are taking action on things such as bonuses for companies that commit serious wrongdoing.


Food security is more important than ever, which is why we need to back British farmers to keep putting food on our tables, while protecting the environment. We are supporting farming with £2.4 billion of annual spending, an average boost of 10% for the sustainable farming incentive payment scheme, and new rules to ensure that farmers get a fair price for their products.

Obviously farmers in low-lying areas of Lincolnshire are suffering from flooding, so any update on the support that they can be given would be very helpful. I have a specific question for the Secretary of State: will the Government update us on when they will announce the long-term funding solution that they promised for internal drainage boards, to address the pressure on local authorities through special levies?

My right hon. Friend is right to focus on the importance of drainage boards, particularly in Lincolnshire. He knows that I have a particular constituency interest in the adjacent area. We have announced £65 million of funding, and the Minister for water, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), will make further announcements on that shortly. We are looking more widely at the huge pressure on farming from the wet weather, particularly in areas such as Lincolnshire. There has been a 60% increase in rainfall—these have been our second wettest six months—and we are looking at a series of easements, particularly with regard to SFI, to ensure that farmers get their payments.

On behalf of my party, I too wish Phil, the Head Doorkeeper, a very happy birthday.

As the Government know, we grow the very finest seed potatoes in the far north of Scotland. They are particularly good because, relatively speaking, they are virus free. That is probably because of the northerly latitudes where they are grown. I happen to know that farmers in Europe are crying out to get hold of these seed potatoes. I ask the Government to do everything in their power to ensure that the potatoes go where they are needed and wanted.

The hon. Member makes a valid point in terms of both the quality and the desirability of the products to which he refers. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries is engaging actively with the EU on that specific point, and I am sure that he will update the hon. Member on it.

One has only to look over the hedges of eastern England to agree with those who are predicting the worst harvest in living memory. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact that will have on the wider rural economy—in particular, the availability and price of straw, which is vital for the livestock sector, and important commodities such as potatoes, which are likely to be under great pressure in terms of supply and price this autumn?

As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely on the money in terms of the concern regarding straw prices and lower harvests this autumn. We are engaging extensively with the sector. We have the Farm to Fork summit next week, chaired by the Prime Minister. That is an indication of how seriously we are taking this, and how much we are engaging with farmers and farm leaders.

It is north-east week in the parliamentary canteens, and I hope all Members are taking the opportunity to enjoy great north-eastern produce. However, it is always north-east week in Grainger Market in Newcastle, which tries to champion local farmers and produce. What is the Secretary of State doing to support north-east farmers in the challenges they face to produce sustainable and affordable food for my constituents facing a cost of living crisis?

As the MP for North East Cambridgeshire, I feel I should extend north-east a little wider, given that we are a big food-producing area. To the hon. Lady’s specific point, the Minister for Farming is engaging with that issue and is travelling up to the north-east this evening as part of that engagement. Our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), is conducting a review of public sector food procurement, so that within our public sector we can better procure domestic produce. We also have a review of labelling so that we can more clearly label that fantastic produce from the north-east, to ensure that purchasers can buy it more easily.

What are the Government doing to support farmers? Quite a few people are asking that. When one looks at the evidence of what is going on, the survey this week from the National Farmers Union into farmer confidence revealed that a staggering 65% of farmers are facing declining profits, or their business will not survive at all. Their prospects are worse than most Tory MPs, it suddenly seems. Why is it that farmers do so badly under the Conservatives?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have written that question before listening to the various examples that I have just given, but let me give him one. The most successful scheme the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has ever run is the current sustainable farming incentive scheme, with over 20,000 applications—more than any other scheme the Department has run. We have also been flexible in looking at how those schemes are delivered, given the challenges of the wet weather, and I will have more to say on that very shortly.

I listened carefully to that answer. While Brexit has been deeply damaging to farmers all across the United Kingdom, the actions taken by the Scottish Government mean that farmers in Scotland have far greater protection than those elsewhere on these islands. The SNP Government have guaranteed Scottish farmers the level of funding that was available pre-Brexit, unlike the Tories here in England or indeed the Labour party in Wales. That is the SNP standing up for farmers in words and deeds, unlike the Westminster parties. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to apologise to farmers in England for his Government’s betrayal of them?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the £2.4 billion commitment in our manifesto, which has been met in full.

Tree Planting

This Government have put in place the most comprehensive regime ever to increase tree planting. Crucially, it is underpinned by legislation in the Environment Act 2021 and legally binding targets to increase our tree cover to 16.5%, and supported and backed up by our £675 million nature for climate fund. To date, 15 million trees have been planted under this Government, more trees than in any other decade.

Trees must play a crucial role if we are to meet our commitments on nature recovery and net zero, and they are a tremendous source of happiness, well-being and landscape beauty. To meet the ambitious tree-planting goals that the Government have set, can they streamline the permissions process? Some of the red tape seems disproportionate and in need of regulatory reform.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work she has done in her constituency to encourage tree planting, but she is right that the process needs to be fast and simple. We have taken that on board, and the Forestry Commission has recently introduced the woodland creation fast track, aiming to help to decide eligible woodland creation offers within just 12 weeks. To inform that scheme, it has developed a low-sensitivity map of the whole country to show people the best places to plant trees, or where they could think about planting trees, that are not on our best available agricultural land, which is important for food.

Led by the Woodland Trust, Tree Equity Score UK is a map-based application created to address disparities in urban tree distribution by identifying the areas in greatest need of investment in trees. What is the Department doing to promote increased tree cover in the parts of the country that need it most?

I highlight again the low-sensitivity map, which points out exactly the same things as the map the hon. Gentleman refers to. We have many funds focused in particular on urban areas—some come from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities —to encourage urban tree planting, because it is so important for our health and wellbeing. We have a whole list of funds available, and I urge people to look at them and plant trees.

I have to say that the Minister’s response suggests that the Government are completely in denial. The Office for Environmental Protection report exposed that the Government are way off target on their legally binding tree-planting target. There has been no trend of improvement on tree planting between 2018 and 2023. It would be bad enough if the problem were lack of money, but her Department is even failing to spend the money that it has been allocated. The environmental land management scheme is underspent by hundreds of millions, and the nature for climate fund that she spoke about has returned £77 million to the Treasury unspent. Is not it clear that, to get the tree cover that our country needs, we do not need a magic money tree; we need a Labour Government?

I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at his own tree-planting record. This Government have planted more trees than Labour did. We now have the plan in place so, if one looks at the graph, it is ramping up to hit those targets, and the training, skills, the forest apprenticeship and the framework are in place to reach our targets.

Coastal Defences

We are investing approximately £1.3 billion of our £5.6 billion flood and coastal risk management investment programme in coastal projects. They will better protect over 100,000 properties, as well as critical infrastructure. The Environment Agency is also running the £36 million Government-funded coastal transition accelerator programme, which is funding coastal authorities so they can explore how to better support their communities.

The East Anglian coast has taken a real battering in recent months, and projects such as the Lowestoft flood defence scheme have been delayed. Our region is the most vulnerable to climate change, and is a lead player in delivering net zero for the UK, so will my hon. Friend consider a climate change risk assessment on which a regional coast defence strategy can then be prepared to properly protect homes, businesses, ports, farmland and infrastructure, as well as nurture our unique coastal environment?

There is no better champion than my hon. Friend on the challenge of coastal erosion. The Environment Agency is developing a new national flood risk assessment and an updated coastal erosion risk map to improve how we access flood risk information and communicate it to our communities. Those new datasets and maps will include the potential impact of climate change on flood risk and coastal erosion, and will help to inform how we better protect homes, businesses, farmland and infrastructure along our coastal communities.

We learned from the Public Accounts Committee report that 500 flood defence projects have been cancelled, just like the one in Lowestoft. Whether the Minister chooses to use the words “cancelled,” “deferred,” “delayed” or “on a long list” makes no difference, because he is still refusing to tell us where those projects are. Why does he insist on holding residents in contempt by not telling them the fate of their local flood defences?

I and my officials have been reviewing the applications that have been put forward, and announcements will be coming very soon. The Government are investing £1.3 billion in flood defences, which is more than ever before, and we will continue to ensure that we are better protecting coastal communities.

Catchment Partnerships: Funding

6. How much funding his Department plans to provide for catchment partnerships in the 2024-25 financial year. (902715)

One hundred catchment-based approach partnerships are set out in the plan for water. The catchment-based approach is exactly the right one— I agree with the decision taken by my right hon. Friend on that—and is exactly the approach that we are taking. In the financial year, £15,000 is allocated to each catchment for that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The plan for water is starting to work in relation to community partnerships: next week, the East Suffolk Catchments Partnership will publish the plan for the River Deben. However, could I encourage my right hon. Friend to try to accelerate some of those partnerships, potentially by increasing the funding from £15,000 per partnership to £50,000, so that every single partnership can have a full-time employee to really drive this action forward?

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. What we are doing is twofold. First, we are increasing funding: she will have seen that, yesterday, we announced an uplift of £11.5 million for local community-led projects to improve river catchments. Alongside that, we are looking at some major interventions in catchments, such as on the River Wye, where we allocated £35 million. We are taking a targeted approach to catchment-specific issues; in that catchment, the issue was chicken litter. The phosphate was going into the River Wye, so we are funding anaerobic digesters as a targeted way of taking a catchment approach.

Sewage has been discharged into our rivers for 3.6 million hours, including the River Thames in my constituency. Funding is only part of cleaning up this mess: the whole water sector is broken and needs to be put into special measures, so what is the Secretary of State’s long-term plan for tackling these issues, or is he content to keep following Labour’s lead and to take up our policies?

The first thing I would mention is the £4.5 billion of investment in the Thames tideway tunnel over the past eight years, which is going to significantly improve the water quality of the River Thames. Alongside that, we are stepping up inspections, with a fourfold increase in inspections; we are tackling bonuses in companies that are guilty of pollution; and we are taking much tougher enforcement action, with the biggest ever prosecution of water firms by the Environment Agency. A whole range of actions, coupled with the plan for water, is bringing additional investment into the sector and taking a catchment by catchment approach.

Air Quality

We are driving down emissions and concentrations of the most harmful air pollutants, reducing their impact on public health and the environment. Through the Environment Act 2021, we introduced further legal targets for fine particulate matter. We have allocated £883 million to support local authorities, and air pollution has fallen significantly since 2010, with emissions of nitrogen oxide down by 48%, PM2.5 down by 24%, and sulphur dioxide down by 74%.

Given that incinerator capacity far outweighs waste, I welcome the Government’s decision to introduce a short-term pause in the determination of applications for environmental permits for certain types of waste incineration facilities. Will the Minister please now extend that pause beyond its current official end date of 24 May and include existing incinerators that have applied to increase their capacity?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. Our assessment of incineration capacity and needs is ongoing—I do not want to prejudge the outcome of that work or any of the next steps—but the Government are clear that proposed waste incineration facilities must not result in overcapacity or compromise our ambitions to minimise waste and improve recycling.

Last month, my local authority of Richmond upon Thames, along with other councils, was informed by DEFRA that its local air quality grant of £1 million—which had been awarded just two months earlier—was being rescinded. Given the number of areas in Twickenham breaching air quality standards, including areas close to schools, and with World Health Organisation targets becoming ever more stringent, how does the Minister think he is meeting his commitment to “expand the resources available to councils to improve air quality”?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, which gives us the opportunity to highlight the great progress we are making in this area. We want to continue to make progress and support local authorities, but we did have concerns that the local air quality scheme was not delivering the most positive outcomes, and some of the bids that were coming forward were not aimed at improving air quality: we had bids for a robotic chatbot and for a kinetic art project. We want to focus on improving air quality and make sure we are funding local authorities to do just that.

Serious Dog Injuries Register: Dog Groomers

8. If he will take steps to implement a dog groomers charter mark that includes a register of serious injuries for dogs. (902718)

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, groomers must protect dogs under their control from harm and provide for their welfare needs. Where that Act is breached, offenders face imprisonment or an unlimited fine. As the legislation is already clear, we do not have any plans at the moment to implement a charter.

A constituent recently brought quite a distressing case to my office. A routine trip to the dog groomer’s turned into a disaster for her beloved pet. The dog was seriously injured due to the groomer using incorrect equipment, resulting in painful lacerations, multiple veterinary visits and permanent scarring. Unfortunately, that is not an isolated case. I am aware that, as the Minister says, the Animal Welfare Act provides some framework in relation to intentional harm, but I am amazed at the lack of regulation in the industry. Will the Minister make an assessment of what further legislative steps can be taken to regulate the dog grooming industry and ensure the safety of all dogs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this case, and obviously I sympathise with his constituent whose pet suffered that poor practice. The Government’s belief in the importance of animal welfare underpins the strong protections included in the Animal Welfare Act, and we will take steps to address widespread welfare issues where they arise.

Waste Incineration Plant Capacity

9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) operational and (b) consented waste incineration plant capacity. (902719)

Officials are currently assessing planned residual waste treatment capacity, including incineration, against expected future residual waste arising in England, so that we can understand our future capacity needs following the implementation of key commitments in the resources and waste strategy. This capacity assessment will be published in due course.

My North West Norfolk constituents welcome the moratorium on new waste incinerators and the review, but given that the incinerators already operating and those with consent provide enough capacity as we meet legally binding targets to halve residual waste, may I urge the Minister to make that temporary pause permanent so that we do not have to have an unnecessary and unwanted incinerator in Wisbech?

DEFRA officials are currently scoping the need for a review of the role of waste incineration facilities, and I do not want to prejudge the conclusions of that exercise. The current pause period will end on 24 May, and the next steps will be announced no later than that date.

Animal Welfare

This Government remain absolutely committed to implementing our action plan for animal welfare. Since the action plan was published in 2021, we have made significant progress on a whole raft of animal welfare measures, such as introducing tougher sentences on animal cruelty and new laws on animal sentience, bringing forward legislation to ban live exports and keeping primates as pets, launching the animal health and welfare pathway, ensuring the microchipping of cats, and backing critical legislation to crack down on puppy smuggling, pet abduction and livestock worrying.

I am grateful for that answer and, indeed, for all the animal welfare measures that this Government have introduced. Recently, pupils in Larch class at Three Bridges Primary School wrote to me very eloquently about their concern for the welfare and protection of endangered species. Can the Minister say a little more about what her Department is doing in that respect?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and indeed for his own work on animal welfare in this place, which has been impressive. I also thank the pupils of Larch class at Three Bridges Primary School. He can go back and tell them that this Government are absolutely committed to tackling this and to helping endangered species. We are actually the first Government to legislate to halt species decline in this country—as far as I know, no other country has done that anywhere in the world—and we have funds to save species. They might also like to hear about otters returning to our rivers, about saving red kites by protecting them from persecution, about saving the chalk hill blue butterfly and more.


Nationally, fly-tipping on public land has fallen for the second year in a row, with enforcement actions up by 5%, but we all know the huge detrimental impact that fly-tipping can have on our communities. Fly-tipping fines have more than doubled, and we are now expecting local authorities to reinvest that income in enforcement and cleaning up our streets. We are going further with reforms on how waste carriers are regulated, with the introduction of digital waste tracking to help local authorities continue to crack down on waste crime.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. What landowners and the public want is for this to stop. I realise that we have doubled the fines—we have massively increased them again—but may I suggest that all cases should be prosecuted and that prosecutions should be publicised widely, both to reassure victims and to deter perpetrators?

I could not agree more; promoting the convictions absolutely reassures victims that the Government and local authorities are taking tough action. I know that my hon. Friend has particular concerns about what is happening across the countryside, and DEFRA is funding the national rural crime unit to explore the police’s role in tackling fly-tipping and how that can be optimised, working with local authorities to deal with this crime.

Fly-tipping is a concern for many local residents across Uxbridge and South Ruislip. I would like to pay tribute to Mary in Yiewsley, Bernie in South Ruislip, Wendy in Cowley and Donna from Ruislip Gardens, who all act as community champions in reporting regular fly-tipping. I also need to mention the waste service team at Hillingdon Council, who work tirelessly in responding to regular cases of fly-tipping. However, all of this great work from residents and the council can only go so far, so what further funding and support is available specifically to target fly-tipping hotspots?

We have provided nearly £1.2 million to help local authorities combat fly-tipping, and our grants are focused on hotspots where they have funded around 200 CCTV cameras, plus other infrastructure including fencing, signage and mobile tips. A further £1 million is due to be released shortly, which will help further tackle these hotspots. I pay tribute to Mary, Wendy and all my hon. Friend’s constituents who are getting involved in helping him.

Topical Questions

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.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Violence Against Women and Girls: Prosecution Rates

1. What steps she is taking to help increase prosecution rates for violence against women and girls. (902697)

10. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (902707)

Tackling violence against women and girls is a priority for the Government. I recently visited CPS Thames and Chiltern to hear specifically about the work it is doing to combat stalking. I also heard how the domestic abuse joint justice plan will transform how we investigate this all-too-frequent crime.

Data from the Crown Prosecution Service shows that despite an increase in the number of referrals from the police for domestic abuse, both charging rates and prosecutions have decreased in the last quarter. In Bath, the Southside project, Voices, and Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support all support those affected by domestic abuse and sexual violence, but we cannot rely on charities to do the heavy lifting. Does the Attorney General agree that if we want the public to have confidence in the system, increased reporting should lead to increased numbers of prosecutions?

Yes. It is always difficult to talk with pleasure about increased numbers of prosecutions, because all the survivors of those acts have gone through a horrible event for a prosecution to take place, but I agree with the hon. Lady that it is generally a good sign that prosecution numbers are going up. I am pleased to say that they are going up in her area for adult rape cases. There is more to do on domestic abuse cases, which is why we are focusing specifically on the domestic abuse joint justice plan. The work of the charities in her region, which I should say are funded by but independent of Government—that is what survivors prefer—will really help us to ensure that those survivors get justice.

The Attorney General will know that the Online Safety Act 2023 was given Royal Assent at the end of last year and that, in that Act, there are various bits of legislation to protect women and girls in relation to cyber-flashing, deepfakes and revenge porn. Will she set out for the House how many prosecutions have taken place under that new, important piece of legislation that is trying to protect more women and girls from those other forms of violence?

I am afraid that I do not have to hand specific figures for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency under that Act, but I am happy to get them for him. We are confident that it will be possible to bring prosecutions under the Act. These are important and distressing but relatively new crimes, and it is important that we continue to work with the police and the CPS to prosecute novel areas of criminal activity. It is really difficult for survivors of these crimes to deal with them.

The Attorney General rightly refers to the work done in relation to domestic violence. The most serious offences of violence against women and girls are rape and serious sexual offences. As she will know, there are concerns that once victims have come forward, there are delays in their cases being heard, largely because of the difficulty in getting suitably experienced barristers to prosecute them. Does she accept that one of the main drivers of that is the fact that legal aid fees were increased for defence barristers, but prosecution fees have lagged behind? There is a gap of around £500 in the brief fee between prosecuting and defending. Does she agree that we must plug that gap urgently, to get suitable counsel prosecuting as well as defending those cases?

The Chair of the Select Committee is tempting me to step on the firm territory of the Lord Chancellor, as he well knows. He also knows, because he and I have discussed this many times, that the Lord Chancellor and I speak several times a week about our concerns about the shortage of counsel in the criminal sphere in particular. However, I would say gently to my hon. and learned Friend that I do not think money is the only reason why it is not always attractive to prosecute RASSO case after RASSO case. They are draining cases to be involved in, and they are listed very tightly at the moment because of the pandemic backlogs, as he mentioned. That leads to tensions with listings and with the judiciary, which can make it very difficult to do this area of work relentlessly. I have nothing but praise for the barristers who are engaged in it.

Crown Prosecution Service and Police Services: Joint Working

3. What recent steps she has taken to increase joint working between the Crown Prosecution Service and police services. (902700)

Close and collaborative work across the criminal justice system is key to securing justice for victims, holding offenders to account and keeping the public safe. The police and the CPS have invested heavily in new ways of working, including through the national operating model for rape prosecutions, with the result that the police and the CPS work more closely together at an earlier stage in prosecutions.

During a recent visit to Greater Manchester police’s divisional headquarters in Stockport I heard that there can be significant delays between sending a case to the CPS and receiving a charging decision back. To solve that, it was suggested that having CPS staff based inside the station would speed up the process and improve communication. What consideration has my hon. and learned Friend given to a CPS presence in police stations, and will he work with me and Stockport division to facilitate a trial?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this extremely pertinent point. She is right to emphasise the importance of early co-operation between the police and the CPS. At a visit last month to Charing Cross police station I considered precisely that point. There is a buddy system there, with CPS lawyers working with police officers, which is improving case file quality. We are actively exploring how to ensure closer early working with the CPS and the police, and I will look at Stockport with her.

The United Kingdom Government are going above and beyond to ensure that British arms are readily available in Israel’s arsenal to bomb Gaza. The Attorney General is refusing to give out the legal advice, based on the long- standing Law Officers’ convention, yet the circumstances for up to 1.6 million people are now between life and death. What steps is she taking to ensure that Britain is not complicit in the destruction of a nation and its people?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Attorney General keeps all these matters under close review, and will ensure that any legal advice is properly obtained and acted upon.

Royal Albert Hall: Governance

The Royal Albert Hall is one of our most important cultural institutions. There are long-standing differences between the trustees of the Hall and the charity commissioners over governance matters. I really hope that the parties will work together to resolve their differences without expensive litigation and I stand absolutely ready to facilitate those discussions.

The Attorney General, in her—I must say excellent—recent letter on the matter, expressed her “disappointment” that the Royal Albert Hall Bill “is not more ambitious” and

“that the constitution of the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences gives rise to a potential conflict between the private interests of seat-holding trustees and the Corporation’s charitable objects.”

I totally agree. She has said that she will look at this issue but, unlike her predecessors, will she please also consider, if she needs to, referring the matter to the charity tribunal, so it can be settled once and for all? Tickets to attend one of our country’s most famous and treasured venues should not be turning up on notorious ticketing websites like Viagogo, and those who are receiving ill-gotten gains should not be running the charity.

The hon. Lady takes a very close interest in these matters and is, I believe, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. I really commend her for her work in this important area. Many of us who are great supporters of the Albert Hall are concerned by ticket costs. I am hopeful, as I said, that the two parties can continue to work together. I want to avoid expensive litigation if that can be done. A previous Attorney General was asked permission to refer the matter to the first-tier tribunal. I have not been asked by the Charity Commission to do so. I am very hopeful that this matter can be resolved amicably and I am very happy to remain involved if that is helpful.

Women and Children's Safety Online

The CPS takes the issue of keeping women and children safe online extremely seriously. I am pleased to report that the CPS has delivered the first conviction for cyber-flashing within weeks of the new offence becoming law. This is an important milestone for protecting women and girls online, and demonstrates how the Government have worked to put perpetrators behind bars.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that answer. In addition to the good work he is doing to help prevent online bullying, trolling and abuse, keeping safe online includes helping to prevent fraud. Will he detail how the Government, through the online fraud charter, are ensuring that tech companies help women and children?

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the online fraud charter—a world first—which sits under the Online Safety Act 2023. Twelve of the biggest tech companies are working together to reduce fraud on their platforms. The signatories are agreeing to undertake certain measures within six months, such as blocking, reporting and take-downs, to ensure that the vulnerable—such as children being exploited as money mules—are protected online.

Crimes While Protesting: Prosecutions

6. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting people that have committed crimes while protesting. (902703)

Non-threatening peaceful protest is fundamental, but those rights are not absolute and they must be balanced with the rights and freedom of others. The CPS works closely with the police to ensure that those who commit offences during protests are brought to justice and our streets are kept safe. Indeed, just last month the CPS successfully prosecuted a protester under the Terrorism Act 2000 after he wore a Hamas headband to a pro-Palestine rally.

The Minister rightly points out that there is a clear balance between democratic peaceful protest and the tactics used by the likes of Just Stop Oil to disrupt society. We have seen mass protests, mostly peaceful, on the London streets, but we did see damage, such as that to the Ministry of Defence, which is completely unacceptable. How do the new laws that we have passed in Parliament aid the prosecution of those who are not interested in peaceful protest?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this extremely pertinent and concerning point. The police already have a full suite of powers under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986—as well as some relating to criminal damage, the offence to which he referred. To ensure that they act, the Government have, however, reinforced those powers under the Public Order Act 2023. The Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with the police in, for instance, providing round-the-clock charging advice nationally. My hon. Friend is right: it is unacceptable that those who are taking part in legitimate democratic processes commit criminal damage, and it is also utterly unacceptable that, for example, Jewish people feel threatened. The Government expect the full powers available to the police to be used so that offenders can be prosecuted.

International Humanitarian Law: Israel-Palestine Conflict

7. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on compliance with international humanitarian law in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. (902704)

8. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on compliance with international humanitarian law in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict. (902705)

As all Members know, the Law Officers’ convention means that I cannot disclose outside Government whether or not I have provided advice, or the specifics of such advice, but it is no secret that we continue to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and for civilians to be protected.

It is more than three months since the International Court of Justice issued its interim ruling on the Gaza conflict and set out steps that Israel must take in order to protect civilian life. The Netanyahu Government have, as yet, failed to comply with that ruling, but our Government have still not come out publicly and urged them to do so. Will the Attorney General take the opportunity today to call on Israel to take the steps ordered by the Court?

This Government firmly respect the role and the independence of the ICJ. Its ruling, or order, called for the immediate release of the hostages and referred to the need to get more aid into Gaza, and that is exactly what the Government are also calling for.

The ICJ ruling also declared that there was a “plausible right” to be protected from genocide, and following the urgent question to the Deputy Foreign Secretary on Tuesday I cited United Nations international law relating to that. When there are concerns about a potential genocide taking place, those are the circumstances in which the sale of arms should be withdrawn. Can the Attorney General tell me, and my constituents—as this is a massive issue for thousands of people across the country—exactly when the Government will come out and recognise both international law and the risks that we take in breaching it?

This Government believe very firmly in international law. On 9 April, the Foreign Secretary announced that our position on export licences was unchanged. We publish data on our export licensing decisions transparently and on a quarterly basis.

We have heard questions about the International Court of Justice, but I want ask some questions about the International Criminal Court. Its chief prosecutor said last week that

“all attempts to impede, intimidate, or improperly influence”

the Court over its investigations of war crimes in Gaza must “cease immediately”.

He was forced to issue that demand after a letter signed by 12 United States senators warned the ICC:

“Target Israel and we will target you.”

That letter threatened sanctions not just against the ICC’s officials, but against its employees, associates and families.

Will the Attorney General join me in condemning those Republican senators for their outrageous actions? Will she also join the chief prosecutor in agreeing that anyone who threatens the ICC simply for doing its job is undermining the very impartiality and independence on which its international mandate depends?

I thought that the ICC’s statement was worthy of note, and I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for bringing it to the House’s attention. In his statement, the independent prosecutor was also keen to point out that he welcomed active engagement by Governments and other parties on the work in which he is clearly engaged around the world to ensure that international humanitarian law is respected and war crimes are not committed. He is a British prosecutor, and we in this Government are proud to work with him; we have been very proud to support him in his work in Ukraine, for example. There are ongoing investigations of what is going on in Israel and Gaza by more than one international court at present, and I think it is difficult to speculate on specific outcomes.

The Attorney General will be aware of the Government’s grounds of defence in the ongoing case of Al-Haq v. the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, in which the FCDO lawyers admitted that the

“inability to come to a clear assessment on Israel’s record of compliance”

with international humanitarian law “poses significant policy risks”. What is the Attorney General’s assessment of that submission? Given the FCDO’s concerns about Israel’s compliance with IHL, what has she said to her Cabinet colleagues who are worried that the issuing of arms export licences could make the UK Government complicit in breaches of international humanitarian law and the arms trade treaty?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot give my specific legal advice. I cannot share that with the House—it is for the Government alone—but I can say that the Foreign Secretary has reviewed the most recent advice from the IHL cell. That has informed his decision that there is not a clear risk that the items exported from the UK might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of IHL. It leaves our position on export licences unchanged, but that position is kept under review.

Fraud and Economic Crime

Last year, the Government published a new fraud strategy to combat fraud and economic crime, and the Corporate Transparency Act 2023 received Royal Assent. Last month, the Serious Fraud Office published its strategy for the next five years, which is focused on tech, intelligence gathering and enforcement. In fact, I am pleased to report to the House that on Friday the SFO secured the conviction of former investment manager David Kennedy for his part in a £100 million investment fraud, in which hundreds of people lost their savings.

Fraud is prevalent. In fact, it accounts for a third of all crimes committed in this country, and increasingly we are seeing online scams. Vulnerable people often get caught up in phishing schemes. Will the Government consider setting up an online crimes agency to clamp down specifically on online crimes, which will become more prevalent with the use of artificial intelligence?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. This is a particularly pernicious crime. It often targets the vulnerable and, sadly, in an interconnected and digital world, it is likely to increase. We will look very closely at all such matters. A number of joint strategies are shared between agencies in any event, but I am certainly very happy to look at her suggestion.

There were 36 failed personal protective equipment contracts during the pandemic, costing over £1 billion, but only one company, PPE Medpro, has been named. If the Government are serious about tackling fraud, why are they refusing to disclose the details of the other companies? How exactly were those contracts awarded, and can the Solicitor General update the House on how many prosecutions are pending?

The hon. Member quite rightly raises a matter of particular concern to him, and indeed to the whole House. His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs remains committed to covid-19 scheme compliance, and will continue to prioritise the most serious cases of abuse. Specifically on prevention and recoveries, up to 30 September 2023, HMRC had prevented the payment, or recovered the overpayment, of over £1.6 billion-worth of grants, made up of £430 million that was prevented from being paid out and over £1.2 billion that was recovered from overpayments. By 30 September 2023, HMRC had opened 51 criminal investigations into suspected fraud within the schemes, and made a total of 80 arrests.