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Topical Questions

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 23 June 2022

I take this opportunity to welcome the confirmation this week that the UN convention on biological diversity, COP15, will now be going ahead at the end of this year in Canada under China’s presidency. This week, in preparation for that, the UK will lead ambitious calls to protect nature at Nairobi in the run-up to building ambitious biodiversity targets.

This week I met the US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture to discuss many issues around sustainable agriculture and trade. I am pleased to announce today that the UK will join the Sustainable Productivity Growth Coalition convened by the United States. I look forward to working with our international partners in this dialogue on innovation, science and sustainable agriculture.

The wine trade, and particularly wines produced in the UK, plays an increasing important role in Southport’s food and drink industry. Will my right hon. Friend meet some of these businesses to listen to how the proposed duty reforms will affect their trade?

My hon. Friend will know that duty and tax is a matter for the Treasury, but I am more than happy to meet his constituents. The English wine industry has been a fabulous success story in recent decades.

Given the impact covid has had on mental health and wellbeing, for many, access to the outdoors was a vital escape, but the Secretary of State will know that access is not equal. Research by Wildlife and Countryside Link highlights that the poorest communities are twice as likely to live in a neighbourhood without access to nature. What are the Government doing to ensure that every neighbourhood in every corner of England finally has access to a green and pleasant land?

We have set out some detailed proposals on this, both in our response to the Glover review, but also under the Environment Act 2021. Local authorities will be required to have local nature recovery strategies in future, and that will include commitments around public access in particular locations. We have also opened a new farming and protected landscape scheme, which is all about supporting public access to the countryside.

T2. Residents in Gedling have recently received letters regarding a nearby outbreak of avian flu, and I am grateful for the work of DEFRA officials in combating that, but might my right hon. Friend be able to offer any update on when restrictions are likely to be lifted? I am particularly thinking of my constituents who race pigeons. There is a short pigeon racing season from April to September, and they are currently prevented from doing so. They would like to get on with their hobby. (900690)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has highlighted, we have witnessed the worst avian flu outbreaks on record in recent months, having sustained 122 cases this year. We will lift restrictions in disease control zones, including those on racing pigeons, as soon as we are able to do so, because of the biosecurity need. This week, we have announced that scientists across the UK will join forces in a major new research consortium to fight against avian flu. I note that my hon. Friend has written to me, so he will get a fuller answer.

T3. Almost 343,000 meals were redistributed in Glasgow South West thanks to FareShare and other charitable organisations, yet FareShare says that its Government funding has been cut. Does the Secretary of State intend to meet FareShare and concerned Members of the House to discuss its funding, so that we can support its #FoodOnPlates campaign? (900691)

I met FareShare recently to discuss a particular proposal it had around trying to ensure that waste on farms was redistributed where possible. We did increase the funding for FareShare temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic, and we continue to support it, but obviously I will look into the specific case he raises.

T4.   The UK’s dependence on food imports makes it vulnerable to food insecurity and soaring prices. I know that the Minister will be joining me next week to welcome Infarm, which is bringing one of Europe’s largest vertical farming facilities to Bedford. Can she reassure me that these innovative urban farming methods will supplement, not replace traditional farming methods to ensure that Britain and indeed the world is more food secure? (900692)

I am very much looking forward to visiting next Monday, and I reassure the hon. Member that while there is no silver bullet, it is important that we use everything we have available. The innovation that is coming in vertical farms, in greenhouses and so on gives us the opportunity to produce more food in the UK to feed ourselves.

T5. I recently joined my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) on a visit to the Colne Valley regional park, which covers a number of Members’ constituencies. It is an important haven for agriculture, aquaculture and leisure. Will the Government support our campaign to improve the protections for this vital green space on the edge of London? (900694)

Our landscape review highlighted that areas of outstanding natural beauty are often just as important as national parks to their local communities, as my hon. Friend is demonstrating. We will be working with the National Association for AONBs to better reflect AONBs’ significance through their name and their purposes, and we have allocated additional funding to support that this year. In terms of new AONBs, we are always happy to consider applications from interested parties.

With prices spiking for fertiliser and vital fuels such as tractor diesel, farmers in Lincolnshire face extreme pressure on cash flow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving farmers the support and confidence they need to plan for the future is vital to our food security?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is why we have decided this year to give the industry the confidence needed by bringing forward half of the BPS payment to July from December. That will help ease those cash-flow pressures. In the context of Lincolnshire, which has a particularly strong horticultural background, we have increased the number of visas so that farmers can have access to the labour they need.

T6. On Tuesday, at Foreign Office questions, the House paid tribute to the activists Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, who were killed while working on the book “How to Save the Amazon”. Does the Secretary of State agree that our food chain is contaminated by products linked to deforestation, in particular livestock feed from imported soya that is grown in the region, and that we need to do much more to stamp that out and protect the work of activists seeking to expose this? (900695)

The hon. Lady raises a sad and tragic case, and our thoughts are with the affected families. On her specific question, she will know that we have introduced legislation to push for due diligence in supply chains; that will require producers in the UK to ensure there is due diligence right through their supply chain, in particular for forest-risk products.

Following last year’s mass shellfish mortality off the Yorkshire coast, the problem has still not gone away: catches of lobster are 50% down despite vessels venturing further out to sea. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has attributed this to algal bloom, but other theories are circulating. Will the Minister publish all the toxicology data available for sediment, sea water and dead crustaceans to independent scrutiny? Is it true that the recent extensive dredging of the River Tees is based on just one silt sample taken in February last year?

My right hon. Friend and the neighbouring MP are very concerned, as am I, about what happened last year, and I have been to see some of the crabs affected. As he said, we are not entirely sure of the cause of the mortality but algal bloom seems the most likely explanation. I have made it clear that we should publish every single piece of information available, and academics must work together on this.

Last Friday I was able to celebrate with the Environment Agency the investment of £45 million into flood resilience in York and the £38 million on the completion of the flood barrier. However, that came with a 17-year warning that unless investment is put upstream we could be here again by 2039. What steps is the Minister taking to address the upland resilience we need for the future?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes that funding on the Foss barrier; it is a tremendous project and well done to everyone involved. She also mentioned upstream work: we are investing £200 million in projects to investigate innovative and creative ways to deal with upstreams so we can stop the water before it gets to where it is causing the problem.