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Topical Questions

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

The Government are taking action to help farmers to manage low prices and market volatility, which is why we have ensured that all eligible farmers have now been paid their full basic payment or a bridging payment for 2015. To help farmers in the future, we have extended the period of tax-averaging from two to five years, and this month I am convening farmers, food producers and the European Investment Bank to seek further investment in improved productivity and processing capacity.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Can she confirm that any grant money from the EU solidarity fund will be additional money to be spent in the communities that have been affected by floods, and that it will not be swallowed up by the Treasury as payback for money already spent?

I can confirm that that is additional money that is being applied for through my colleague, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

T2. In a written answer to me today, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), has told me that restaurants in England are encouraged to show their hygiene scores on their doors. However, the truth is that those that have a very low score—one or two out of five—do not display their scores. In Wales, it is mandatory to show hygiene scores on the doors. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage the Department of Health to make it mandatory, as it is in Wales, to show scores on the doors? This practice has been shown to raise hygiene standards in restaurants in Wales. (904809)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. Food safety standards are one of the reasons why British food is so respected around the world, and our exports are growing because people respect the work of the Food Standards Agency. It is important for consumer confidence that we have transparency in the safety of food, and I look forward to hearing more about my hon. Friend’s discussions with the Department of Health.

The Secretary of State will be aware that our largely foreign-owned water companies made £2.1 billion profit in 2014-15 and paid out £1.8 billion in dividends, but fell well short of paying full corporation tax. She will also be aware of the complicated structures that the companies operate, which can bamboozle us all. Does she agree that the expected water Bill to introduce competition into the domestic market could be used to ensure that companies are more open and transparent, and pay more tax in the UK?

We are introducing further measures to improve competition in the water industry and to carry on driving efficiencies. Under the Labour Government, water bills rose by 20%, whereas Ofwat’s most recent decision will lead to a fall of 5% in customers’ water bills.

I had hoped that the Secretary of State would have proved a greater water, consumer and taxpayer champion, so I will give her a second chance. Water UK, which represents the water companies, told the weekend media:

“Water companies are also providing more help than ever before for customers in vulnerable circumstances including social tariffs and other schemes to reduce bills.”

She will know, as I do, that such schemes are arbitrary and variable. Does she agree that the next water Bill could provide an opportunity to introduce a fair scheme for all vulnerable customers?

More social tariffs are being introduced right across the country, but the key point is that everybody is seeing a reduction in their water bills overall, because we have a good regulator and an efficient industry, and we are introducing further competition.

T4. Dairy farmers are suffering due to low prices—there is a lot of milk in the market. One of the markets that we still cannot get into is Russia. What is happening? Is there any chance that we can get back into that market? European and British dairy farmers are paying a high price for the ban on exports to Russia. (904814)

My hon. Friend makes the important point that the Russian trade embargo has exacerbated the challenges facing the dairy sector and others, such as the pig sector. However, we put in place sanctions against Russia because of its totally unacceptable conduct against Ukraine and its incursions into Ukrainian territory. It is important that we show solidarity with other European countries and do not accept how Russia has behaved towards Ukraine.

T3. We have already heard about the £1.6 billion profits of water companies and their £1.8 billion payout to shareholders. They are rich organisations, and some, to their credit, are already living wage accredited. Does the Secretary of State therefore back Unison’s campaign for the current living wage to be paid throughout the industry? (904812)

We have to tackle such issues directly with Ofwat. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is extremely important for the industry to ensure that there is a predictable future in which politicians are not micromanaging. We are going through a price review process and dealing closely with Ofwat, but we must ensure that neither I nor the Secretary of State try to micromanage an independent regulator from the Dispatch Box.

T5. The recent Groceries Code Adjudicator report showed that Tesco breached the code of practice by delaying payments to suppliers and demanding extra fees, which has been raised with me by farmers in my constituency. What are the Government doing to ensure that further such breaches do not occur? (904816)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we introduced regulations at the end of the previous Parliament to make it possible for the Groceries Code Adjudicator to levy fines against retailers that breach the code. The action that she took against Tesco was evidence that that is starting to work, and that she is beginning to pick up on and deal with bad practice. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will shortly be leading a review of the role of and our approach to the Groceries Code Adjudicator. As part of that, we will be looking at ways in which we might be able to improve the code.

Recently, two of my constituents were sentenced to just six months’ electronic tagging for the brutal and horrific abuse of their pet bulldog. The community has been rightly outraged by the leniency of the sentence, because these people also videoed the abuse and were laughing as they carried it out. The dog was subsequently put down. I have written to the Secretary of State for Justice, but may I ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to chase up my letter and to review animal sentencing, given that the maximum sentence for animal cruelty is just one year?

We have looked at the issue of animal sentencing; there can be an unlimited fine, and my understanding is that the sentence can be up to five years for animal cruelty. I will check that point and write to the hon. Lady if that is incorrect. The evidence shows that for most offences the courts are not using the maximum sentence, so we do not believe there is a case for changing it. We have looked at the issue of fighting dogs and organised dog fights, where there is some evidence that the courts are restricted by current sentencing guidelines. The hon. Lady will be aware that this is an issue for the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure that its Ministers will want to discuss it with her.

As a keen rambler himself, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), will be familiar with the coast-to-coast walk, which runs across both our constituencies. It is one of England’s most popular long-distance walks, yet it is not an official national trail. Will he meet me to discuss my campaign to give the coast-to-coast the formal recognition it deserves?

I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend, and in fact I propose that we meet by walking the national trail together.

There is growing concern about the environmental impact of microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic that are found in many consumer products and are now swilling around in our oceans. The Americans and Canadians are moving to ban them. What are the UK Government doing?

We are very clear that microbeads potentially pose a serious threat, because the stuff does not biodegrade and it can collect toxic material. We have run a research programme and have been working very hard to make sure that the full 500 million members of the European Union sign up to a common position, but if we cannot get a common position out of the EU, we are open to the possibility of the United Kingdom acting unilaterally.

Part of the fantastically successful national forest falls in my constituency. Its benefits to the community are clear, as are those of woodlands and trees more broadly to the community and to air quality. What steps are the Government taking to encourage the planting of more trees across the UK, building on their success to date?

I had the privilege of being in the national forest, and I can tell any Members who have not seen it that it is an extraordinary project, found between Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. It has regenerated 200 square miles of brutalised countryside and created one of the great new forests in Britain. We will be looking at taking forward ideas like that in the 25-year plan, and of course we are committed, as a minimum, to planting another 11 million trees between now and 2020.

Will the Secretary of State please tell the House when the Government will deliver on their promise to ban wild animals in circuses?

That is a manifesto commitment and I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are committed to doing it.

Log-burning stoves are one of the pleasures of living in the countryside and for more fashion-conscious townies. They tend to be produced by family-owned businesses, almost all of which are in rural areas in the UK. The industry is very concerned that this great way of life and tradition might be under threat because the stoves are needlessly brought into air-quality regulations. For the sake of everyone who enjoys them and for everyone who manufactures them in rural areas, will the Minister meet the industry to try to protect them?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; we certainly would be very happy to meet the industry to discuss that issue. I am absolutely clear that making sure we have cleaner air is a vital priority for this Government.