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Topical Questions

Volume 635: debated on Thursday 25 January 2018

The House will have heard the very sad news earlier this month that the Nancy Glen, a fishing vessel, was lost off the west coast of Scotland while fishing in Loch Fyne. Two fishermen lost their lives. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association is running an appeal to raise money to recover their bodies and support their families. We all know the inherent risk in fishing. The DEFRA Ministers, on behalf of the whole House, would like to thank all those who risk their lives every day to ensure that we can eat fresh fish. Our hearts go out to the families so sadly affected by this tragedy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said. Can he assure constituents right across the United Kingdom that the new UK-wide frameworks that will be brought in as a result of our leaving the European Union will work for all farmers, whether arable, livestock, dairy or hill, and wherever they live in the UK, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He does an outstanding job working for his constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire, and I am looking forward to visiting his beautiful constituency next week. We must absolutely continue to work across the United Kingdom to ensure that the interests of all farmers—Scottish, Welsh or English, and arable or livestock—are respected by a new UK-wide framework.

The 2016 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bird crime report stated that there were 81 confirmed cases of raptor persecution, yet not one prosecution followed. Can the Minister explain why, and what is she going to do about it?

We take this issue very seriously, which is why it is one of National Wildlife Crime Unit’s six crime priorities. It is important that we continue to get evidence so that we can have appropriate prosecutions. The Government cannot direct the police or the Crown Prosecution Service to launch those prosecutions, but we encourage everybody who cares for wildlife to bring evidence to the police.

I call Rehman Chishti. Where is the fellow? He is not here—oh dear, oh dear. Never mind. All is well with the world; the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) is here.

I was in Hampshire recently, visiting six different constituencies, and I would be delighted to return to the wonderful New Forest in due course to look at the matter.

We remember the crew of the Nancy Glen, and the Secretary of State’s words are appreciated.

Farming expects the Secretary of State to continue his support and to maintain standards, of course, but the question for fishing, given all the tonnes he will take from the European Union, is this: where is it going, and when?

On to the plates of people from the Western Isles to the south-west of England, who can enjoy the fantastic produce that our fishermen catch every day.

I am delighted that Doddington has been granted permission for 600,000 trees to be planted as part of our future environment plan. This is the largest planting scheme in England for a generation. Doddington is a great example of modern mixed forestry, but we need to ensure that this is not the end but the beginning. It is vital that the Forestry Commission supports those who want to plant more trees for reasons such as supporting sustainable river basins. I hope that the Secretary of State will undertake to make sure that this happens. I would be delighted if he would come and visit.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, the Doddington North Moor development will be hugely welcome, not just in ensuring that we have more woodland cover but in providing a valuable habitat for the red squirrel—a native species that I think we all want to see better protected. We will be working with landowners, the Forestry Commission and others to ensure that there is more forest cover in the years ahead.

T2. The Royal Bank of Scotland’s decision to close over 60 branches will devastate rural communities, and farming communities are really worried about it. The Prime Minister has completely washed her hands of this, but will the Secretary of State at least meet RBS and make the case for rural communities? (903555)

Access to banking and other services is vital for the future of rural communities. I commend the Press and Journal newspaper for the campaign that it has been running, which has been enthusiastically backed by my hon. Friends the Members for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). All those fine Scottish Conservative colleagues have been leading this campaign. The Scottish Government have a responsibility to do more with regard to safeguarding the interests of Scottish farmers, and it has fallen to Scottish Conservative colleagues to be in the lead in the campaign. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is a most eccentric denizen of the House. There is a lot of arm-waving and gesticulation of a very rarefied character. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he now holds an illustrious position in the House, because he chairs a Select Committee. He is trying to become a senior statesperson. A little less finger-pointing would enhance his statesmanlike credentials no end.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the vision for the new 50 million tree northern forest and share my delight that the first tree planting will be at the Woodland Trust’s Smithills site in Bolton West?

Indeed. This ribbon of woodland and forest along the M62 will be welcome, and the Government are kick-starting the project with a £5.7 million grant. We will continue to work with the Woodland Trust and other community forests in making this a reality. I am particularly pleased for my hon. Friend, and I look forward to heading to Bolton to see where the first tree is planted.

T3. There is strong cross-party and public support for increasing the penalties for animal cruelty to five- year prison sentences. Could that be done forthwith rather than waiting for the draft animal welfare Bill, which is still subject to consultation? (903556)

I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s support—of course, she has a distinguished record as a Home Office Minister. We will look at any proposals that come from any part of the House to try to make sure that we can expedite this legislation.

I understand the Secretary of State’s concerns about what happens to plastic waste once it has been used, but does he agree that its use by retailers in particular gives consumers the widest possible choice and prevents food waste? It is important that any measures that we introduce do not reduce consumer choice and do not cause more of our food to be wasted.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Although we need to reduce demand for plastic and increase recycling, plastic does have a role to play in the preservation of fresh produce and in helping us to tackle food waste, which is in itself an environmental and economic mistake.

T6. Across Dulwich and West Norwood this winter we have once again seen a huge number of Thames Water leaks, many of them at sites where there have previously been repeated leaks. Last year, Thames Water reported operating profits of £650 million. It has a corporate structure involving offshore companies. The chair of Ofwat has highlighted the“urgent need for…a step change in the way”Thames “operates and behaves.” Will the Secretary of State tell my constituents when they can expect to see a winter without the disruption caused by an organisation that is clearly not fit for purpose? (903559)

The hon. Lady is angry on behalf of her constituents, and I share her concern. That is why the chairman of Ofwat, Jonson Cox, has been doing such a good job in holding Thames and other water companies to account. Change is coming, but of course I want it to come faster.

As the Secretary of State said, it is vital that we educate our young people about the dangers of plastics in the seas in particular. Will he join me in congratulating Alfie from New Waltham Academy in my constituency, who has done so much to promote this issue? When he visits the area in the not too distant future to meet the fishing and seafood community, as I know he intends to, will he perhaps visit the academy?

T7. In reference to air pollution, not a single area of London meets the World Health Organisation standards for the damaging type of particle known as PM2.5, and 95% of the capital exceeds the guidelines by at least 50%. The clean air action to which the Minister referred needs resourcing. When will the Government, instead of passing the buck to local and regional authorities, put some money on these fine words? (903560)

I think the huge amount of investment in improving transport infrastructure and helping local councils has certainly done that. When it comes to PM2.5, this issue affects everybody, and that is why it is a key part of what we will be addressing in our clean air strategy. I encourage people to do the right things under the strategy—do not burn wet wood, and think about switching to smokeless coal. These are the kinds of things on which we can take immediate action now, as well as acting on the long-term issue of improving infrastructure.

One reason why our countryside is so admired and so respected by urban dwellers is the way it is looked after and managed by our farmers. When will the Secretary of State be able to build on his Oxford speech this month, and say more about long-term support for agriculture?

When we think of admiration and respect, it is the admiration and respect due to my right hon. Friend. He has been an outstanding Minister and a fantastic constituency Member for the Derbyshire Dales, which is one of the most beautiful parts of England. He is absolutely right that, building on the speech I gave to the Oxford farming conference, more needs to be said and done to outline the framework for farming in the future. I hope to do so at the National Farmers Union conference, when I can celebrate our farmers, who are the best in the world.

Haggis production depends on a strong Scottish sheep farming sector. Hill farming and crofting are vital for the local economy of my constituency. The Secretary of State may say that this is a devolved matter, but come Brexit will he work as closely as possible with the Scottish Government in sharing best practice and knowledge to make sure that my constituents’ livelihood is safeguarded as far as is humanly possible?

We are already working incredibly closely, obviously, with all the devolved Administrations, and indeed we have been doing so to discuss these very matters ever since the referendum decision.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), will the Secretary of State ask those involved in building on and encouraging the work on the northern forest to look at the national forest in the midlands as an exemplar? Some 8.5 million trees have been planted there since its inception.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) makes an admirable point. I hope to visit her constituency and others to see the wonderful work that has been done. A comment was made from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and I am very happy to acknowledge that leadership has been shown by Labour politicians as well. [Interruption.] Forgive me, it was the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). Labour speaks with one voice on this matter—though not on any others. Coalfield communities have been helped on their journey towards revival by the investment in woodland cover, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has been a hugely effective champion of that.

I know it will be hard, but will the Secretary of State sign a pledge to give up on any gimmickry or tokenism in tackling things such as plastic pollution? He will need a lot of allies and a lot of expertise for the radical revolution that he needs. Will he be serious about this and get on with the job?

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the excellent work he has done on the environment, but will he reassure the farmers of the UK that it is not a case of either the environment or food production, but a partnership of them both?

I could not have put it better myself. Our farmers are the original friends of the earth, and we will not have a healthy environment unless we also support those who are our primary food producers and the stewards of our beautiful landscapes.

How can we be confident of the Government’s intention to be robust on air quality if we leave the EU, when they refuse to introduce a decent scrappage scheme for vehicles and persist in promoting runway 3 at Heathrow?

Air quality is actually improving. We have made good progress and we want to do more, particularly on roadside NO2 concentrations. The hon. Lady should welcome the initiatives we have taken. Just this week, the House has approved extra powers to make sure that we get rid of or reduce the capacity of diesel generators, which will do a lot to improve air quality right across the country.