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Topical Questions

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 17 January 2019

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to progress plans for our departure from the EU, including preparing a comprehensive set of statutory instruments under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to ensure we have a functioning statute book on day one. We are also progressing the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, which have cleared Committee stage recently.

May I just say to the Minister that it is such a shame that his Government are not willing to rule out a no-deal scenario?

The EU pet travel scheme currently allows pet owners to travel between EU countries with their animals with minimal forward planning. That is especially important for guide dog owners. But the Government are now saying that, under a no-deal Brexit, guide dog owners will have to plan their travel at least four months in advance. This is totally unacceptable, so what are the Government doing to ensure that assistance dog owners do not see inferior travel arrangements in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

The guidance that the hon. Lady cites is obviously for a worst-case scenario, but the reality on pet travel schemes is that we would have the freedom to adopt a risk-based approach, and we would anticipate that the EU would do the same. We already have provisions with Norway, for instance, that enable a pet travel scheme to operate even though Norway is outside the European Union. We are in discussion with guide dog charities to address the issue.

T2. I recently spent a day with Sussex police and the Environment Agency checking permits on vans and lorries carrying toxic waste. Although these efforts are a step in the right direction, fly-tipping incidents in Chichester almost doubled in 2018 compared with the previous five years, and they cause considerable cost to local landowners and the council. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to tackle serious and organised waste crime? (908637)

As I outlined to the House earlier, we recently published our resources and waste strategy. It is a key point that we need to tackle this serious and organised crime. We have already given the Environment Agency powers that it is using to do so, and indeed given powers to local councils, but there is more to do. We hope to bring forward future legislation to tackle outstanding issues.

On Tuesday, the National Audit Office published a highly critical report on the Government’s monitoring of the natural environment. The report states that DEFRA

“has not…done enough to engage other parts of government with its approach”.

So what confidence can we have in the Secretary of State, who is clearly busy doing other things today, to deliver his promised green Brexit?

We are currently working on the metrics and targets, as set out in our 25-year environment plan, to have something that is sustainable going forward. It is also important to note that we have laid draft clauses of the environmental governance Bill. In them we refer to a policy statement, which will operate right across Government, embedding into what we do as a Government the need to ensure that we leave the environment in a better place than when we inherited it.

That is all very well, but what we need is not warm words. We get many, many warm words from this Department but very little real action, and we need action to protect our natural environment and to bear down on climate change. So what is actually happening in response to this report?

The report was published only yesterday, so we need to consider it and will then reply. Only this week, we launched the clean air strategy, which was recommended by the World Health Organisation as something for other countries around the world to follow. We are going through with a new Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill. We are preparing an environment Bill. These are all examples of action, which the House has asked for, on issues such as clean air. There is also what we are doing with our local nature recovery networks, and we are doing all sorts of things to try to improve biodiversity. The hon. Lady will be aware of our commitment to make sure that we achieve a target of 30% marine protected areas around the world by 2030, and we will be launching our final decision on marine conservation zones shortly. So frankly, this Government are acting to make the environment a better place.

T4. The Greater Manchester combined authority is in the process of producing a clean air plan for the region to reduce harmful emissions. The Mayor, who has previously ruled out a congestion charge, is now apparently considering a charge on older cars, as well as taxis and vans, which is clearly a concern for small businesses in my area that may be impacted by it. Will my hon. Friend outline whether any funding could be made available from central Government for the retrofitting of non-compliant vehicles so that small businesses in Cheadle will not be penalised should the Mayor press ahead with those plans? (908640)

It really matters that we work with local authorities to make sure that we improve air quality as quickly as possible. There are broader issues with particulate matter and similar, but we are still behind on nitrogen dioxide. The Greater Manchester area is late in presenting its plan to the Department, and we are continuing to work with it. Where there are those sorts of measures—not a congestion zone but a charging zone for more polluting vehicles—we will work on, and try to fund in the best way we can, the measures needed to mitigate that.

T3. Paterson Arran Ltd is a major, important employer in my constituency, and arguably produces the best shortbread in the world. It has written to me raising serious concerns about the impact of a no-deal Brexit. It imports a significant number of commodities, and its business would be seriously damaged by a no-deal Brexit. Will the Minister and the Cabinet now take a no-deal Brexit off the table, extend article 50, and take the vote to the people? (908639)

As I have said in reply to earlier questions, we are working very hard to ensure that there is a deal. We want to work with all parties to do that. I was impressed when I met businesses in Scotland with the Food and Drink Federation Scotland. We need to take these steps, and I understand where the company is coming from on those issues.

T6. May I thank the Minister for meeting me and a delegation of farmers from North Devon before Christmas? I am meeting those farmers again tomorrow evening. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are considering their concerns—indeed, our concerns—about the Rural Payments Agency and the Agriculture Bill in particular? (908642)

It was a real pleasure to meet my hon. Friend and a number of his constituents. We will give careful consideration to the amendments tabled to the Bill on Report and also to representations from organisations such as the NFU. The Rural Payments Agency has made significant improvement this year to the delivery of payments under the basic payment scheme, with 94% being paid by the end of December.

T7. Unlike others, I was pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), in his place, because he too represents a Cheshire constituency. I am sure he shares my concern and that of local people who have been getting in touch with me that current legislation appears to be doing little to prevent foxhunting from taking place in Cheshire. Will the Government do the right thing and strengthen the Hunting Act by adding a recklessness clause, to end the ridiculous situation where a hunt can avoid prosecution simply by claiming that the chasing and killing of a fox by their dog was an accident? (908643)

The Hunting Act is already tightly drawn, and there has been a mixture of successful and unsuccessful prosecutions so far. It really matters that the police have the evidence presented to them, so that they can make a stronger case to the Crown Prosecution Service to tackle illegal hunting, which we all deplore.

Thank you very much for calling me, Mr Speaker.

One of the most exciting developments of recent times has been the announcement from the University of Manchester of a way of desalinating water through graphene sieves, which can turn it into drinking water. That has huge implications around the world. Does the Minister agree that one of the greatest possible benefits is the decrease in the number of water bottles, which so often find their way into the marine ecosystem?

I also saw that interesting announcement by the University of Manchester, which just shows the benefits of this Government having invested in the university to develop graphene. There are a number of ways in which we can try to reduce the impact of plastics, and we will continue to support water companies in their long-term plans, including on desalination.

Yet another report has been published this morning—this time in The Lancet—highlighting the damage that our food systems are doing to not only public health, with 11 million avoidable deaths, but the climate. I have been banging on about this for more than 10 years in this place. Is there any chance that the Government will ever listen to these reports?

It was a pleasure to have the hon. Lady on the Agriculture Bill Committee, where she raised some of those issues. In particular, we discussed the impact of imported soya on our environment and the steps we are taking to reduce that.

“Banging on” in this place tends to be a prerequisite of achieving anything. It is the colloquial version of my “persistence pays” principle.

Would a Minister be willing to meet me to discuss banning the use of bolt guns as a method of putting down greyhounds that are no longer used in the racing industry?

We need to tackle in a humane way however animals are put down, whether they are wildlife, domestic animals or racing animals. I am sure that a Minister will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.

City of York Council is planning to develop the land adjacent to Askham bog, which is a site of special scientific interest. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about development next to SSSIs?

The hon. Lady will be aware that SSSIs have an exceptionally high protection status under the national planning policy framework, which was updated last year. It is really important that these matters are considered carefully and that such development is avoided, but it will come down to a local decision for the local planning authority.

The Minister has talked about amendments to the Agriculture Bill. Will he and the Secretary of State really look at those amendments, and especially those that maintain high standards for imported foods, so that we do not put our own farmers out of business?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that I have already looked closely at some of the interesting amendments he has tabled.

Last week, Heathrow announced that it wanted another 25,000 flights a year through the airport, irrespective of runway 3’s development. What advice has DEFRA given the Department for Transport on the noise and air quality implications of that unwelcome development?

As with any development, an environmental impact assessment will be needed to cover those particular items, which will need to be considered with what is regarded as illegal.

“Oh, very well”, Mr Speaker? I am actually going to ask a topical question, unlike some of our colleagues.

May I remind the ministerial team that until we came under European regulation, we were the dirty person of Europe? We filled our seas with sewage, and we buried our waste in holes in the ground. Did the Minister see the wonderful BBC programme only last Sunday showing the real curse of agricultural plastic waste, which we are doing very little about? Will she and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food get together with others, on an all-party basis, to try to clean up the environment and get a good deal from Europe?

That was nearly as long as a speech in an Adjournment debate, but the last one of those that the hon. Gentleman secured for me to respond to was about the circular economy of left-over paint, and he did not even show up for that.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I would say that he should read the resources and waste strategy. I have already answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham): I said that we are working on this. We need to work with farmers to make sure there is a secondary market for that sort of plastic bale.

I do not know whether the Minister managed to see the programme, but I dare say it is available on catch-up TV.

At the last EFRA questions, the Secretary of State was in his place and he was typically effusive in his praise for the glorious north-eastern countryside that so many of my constituents enjoy. However, he refused to say how he would protect small-scale farmers, on whom the beauty and variety of our landscape depend, from the massive American agro-industrial machine. Will the Minister now set out his red lines to protect our landscape post Brexit?

Clause 1 of the Agriculture Bill makes explicit provision to support and incentivise our landscapes and countryside to help some of those smaller farmers. The modelling that has been done suggests that the issue is not actually all about size: some of our smaller family farms are technically the most proficient.