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Topical Questions

Volume 624: debated on Thursday 20 April 2017

As this is the last DEFRA questions before the election, I remind the House of the Government’s twin ambitions for food, farming and the environment: to grow more, sell more and export more great British food; and for us to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. Only last week we published the first ever national litter strategy for England and announced a £10 million grant scheme to restore England’s iconic peatlands. We look forward to putting our case to the country.

What is my right hon. Friend doing to support our fisherman, in particular the under-10 metre fleet—that is 33 feet in English money?

I am glad that my right hon. Friend can still do the sums. The Government have taken several measures to make the inshore fleet more economically sustainable. For example, we have permanently transferred unused quota from over-10 metre vessels to the under-10 metre fleet, representing a 14% uplift to the under-10 metre fleet. We continue to top-slice the quota uplift, which is now more than 1,000 tonnes, in order to help the under-10 metre fleet.

Contrary to what the Minister of State said earlier, recent inflation figures reveal that food prices are rising at their fastest pace in three years, adding over £21 to the average household shopping bill in the last three months alone. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on a soaring cost of living that is affecting millions of families?

As I pointed out in answer to an earlier question, we saw the biggest spike in food prices in 2008 due to energy prices. Food prices fell by around 7% between 2014 and 2016. It is true that there has been modest increase over the last 12 months of 1.4%.

Rising food prices simply add to the burden on those with little money for food. The Food Standards Agency recently reported that one in four low-income families struggles to eat regularly, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has shown that disabled people are more than twice as likely to live in food poverty. How much longer can the Secretary of State refuse to monitor and publish figures on UK food insecurity and food bank usage?

As I said earlier, we have always monitored spending on food through the living costs and food survey, and food spending among the poorest 20% has been stable at 16% for over a decade. This Government have put more people in employment than ever before, taking more people off benefits and giving them an income. That is how to tackle poverty.

T2. It is not just the coastal areas of Lincolnshire that are particularly prone to flooding. While the Government have invested record amounts in concrete defences, inland areas are also susceptible to flooding. What role can natural flood management play in protecting properties and people? (909702)

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of natural flood management, which I saw for myself on a recent visit to Leicester when I launched a £1 million competition for natural flood protection. In the right place, it can absolutely help alongside more traditional measures. We are investing a total of £15 million to fund natural flood management schemes across the country, which will help to support many communities that are at risk of flooding, and we will continue to build the evidence.

T3. The Secretary of State will surely have the good sense to join me in speaking up for the free movement of workers as the easiest way of avoiding horrendous labour shortages in the food and drink industry. (909703)

We have already addressed the issue of seasonal workers in the agricultural sector, and it is important that we assess the needs there. As for workers who already work and have made their lives in this country, the Prime Minister has said that it is absolutely her intention to ensure that those rights are protected, provided that the EU reciprocates. It is exactly right to look after British workers who have moved to the EU at the same time as protecting the valuable contribution that EU citizens make in the UK.

T4. In the interest of customer choice and transparency, is it not about time that all halal and kosher meat products were properly labelled at the point of sale? That would benefit those people who particularly want to buy such products, as well as those who particularly do not want to buy them. (909704)

My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on that issue, which he and I have discussed on numerous occasions. The Government are committed to giving consumers as much transparency as possible and to improving labelling wherever we can. He understands that there are some difficulties—there is no single definition of halal or kosher, for instance—that make compulsory labelling complex. He is also aware that the European Union has been looking at the issue. Obviously, once we leave the EU there will be an opportunity for us to look at all these issues.

T7. The 25-year food and farming plan, the 25-year environment plan, the cycling and walking strategy: those supposedly environment-enhancing strategies were all promised to be published before the summer—summer 2016. The Secretary of State has clearly failed the environment, failed farmers and the food industry, and failed to keep her promise. People are now losing their jobs and incomes on her watch. When will those plans see the light of day? (909708)

The hon. Lady might be aware that a significant decision was taken by the people of the United Kingdom last summer to leave the European Union. We have been clear about our ambition to make a huge success of the food and farming sector, and to be the first generation to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. On what that means for our plans, it is essential that we consult widely with all the stakeholders. They have clear evidence and ideas to give us for a future outside the EU that is more successful than ever.

T5. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), will the Minister please give my constituents across north Northumberland the reassurance they need that, should the European Commission choose not to follow the EFSA recommendation and decide to ban the use of glyphosate anyway, the UK Government will ensure its continued use remains possible in the UK regardless? (909705)

As I said in response to the earlier question, the evidence is fairly clear. EFSA has studied the matter, and it believes that glyphosate is safe. It has always been the UK’s position to follow the science and the evidence on pesticide decisions, which is why we support the reauthorisation of glyphosate. We will continue to have an evidence-based, science-based approach to these issues when we leave the EU.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we need good science, good technology and good innovation? What will she do about the fact that ChemChina has taken over Syngenta, a leading scientific research company largely based in my constituency but with research centres in Jealott’s Hill? Syngenta is the fifth leading innovation company in our country that the Chinese Government have absorbed—ChemChina is not listed on the stock exchange, even in China. What is she going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that pesticides and crop protection products are quite an integrated industry across the world. It is not uncommon for foreign-owned companies to be based and operating in the UK. We have some of the world’s best scientific expertise in this area, which is why companies choose to locate here.

T6. Littering and fly tipping blight our countryside and often cause real problems for those, including farmers in my constituency, who have waste dumped on their land. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the steps the Government are taking to tackle that problem? (909707)

I am delighted that we launched our litter strategy for England on 10 April. The strategy will seek to cut the £800 million annual bill to taxpayers for cleaning up after litter louts. We have delivered on our manifesto commitment to let local councils fine small-scale fly tippers. We have also given local authorities the power to seize and crush vehicles that are involved in fly tipping, and we are ensuring that community payback is used to clear up litter and fly-tipped waste.

Food processors in my constituency operate integrated processing, distribution and packaging plants across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. What assurances can Ministers give those companies that there will be no border restrictions that inhibit their operations between the UK and Ireland after Brexit?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she wants a bold, ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement. We are looking closely at the issue of border controls, particularly in respect of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. We talk regularly to industry on the issue, and we have a meeting with some of the devolved Administrations later today in which we will be looking at precisely these sorts of issues.

Lamb is trading at significantly lower prices this year than it did last year at this time. New Zealand lamb comes in during the winter, when our lambs do not, and there seems to be too much New Zealand lamb in our major retailers and not enough British lamb. I would like the Minister to bring it to the attention of the major retailers that British lamb should now be in the shops, which should not be packed with New Zealand lamb.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. At Easter, people really want to buy high-quality west country, Welsh and Scottish lamb, and indeed lamb from every part of the United Kingdom. We faced an issue this year, in that prices were actually very good during the winter, which meant that a number of sheep producers decided to sell their lamb early and so there has been less British lamb available at this time of year.

Will the Secretary of State be pushing for a total ban on ivory sales in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, equivalent to the unrealised pledge in the 2015 manifesto?

As I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) earlier, we are working carefully on the proposals and we hope to publish a consultation in due course.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), we in the west midlands are seeing a terrible spate of fly-tipping on a commercial scale, including of hospital waste and household waste. May I ask the Minister seriously to help the farmers with the costs of deterring these serious criminals from dumping such hazards on their land?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We know that fly-tipping is a particular problem at the moment, which is why the Environment Agency is working with councils and with farmers to try to prevent waste from being dumped in the first place. We will continue to pursue waste crime as an urgent priority. People who despoil our countryside and our streets deserve to be sentenced to the full, but we need the evidence to do that, which is why sometimes these things can take time to develop.

Apart from the EU citizens already here, does the Minister recognise that food processors will need to continue to recruit employees coming to the UK from other EU countries?

Yes, absolutely. As I said, the Home Office is looking closely at future needs for businesses. We absolutely recognise that for businesses in the UK to thrive they will need access to some of the brightest and the best from around the world, and the Migration Advisory Committee and a consultation with businesses will be looking at those needs later this year.

Cleaning up the nation’s bus fleet is an important part of tackling air quality, but does the Secretary of State agree that smaller companies such as Southgate & Finchley Coaches in my constituency will need time to adapt, particularly where the cleanest vehicles are not yet available on the second-hand market?

My right hon. Friend is correct to point out that we need to work with industry. I know that the Department for Transport has been proactively working on plans for some time with manufacturers to make those improvements, so that as a nation we can make the technological changes to vehicle emissions that are important in improving our air quality.