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Bee-killing Pesticides

Volume 727: debated on Wednesday 1 February 2023

[Relevant documents: e-petition 563943, Continue the ban on the use of Neonicotinoids; e-petition 569214, Overturn the decision to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides; e-petition 590309, Ban urban and garden pesticides to protect bees, other wildlife and human health; e-petition 606788, Overturn the decision to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides; and e-petition 618926, Save the bees: cut hazardous pesticides and support nature-friendly farming.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of bee-killing pesticides in agriculture.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. It is good to see so many parliamentary petitions attached to this debate, showing the true breadth of concern about the health of these essential pollinators. I am grateful to all the petitioners, who share my passion for bees. I hope that the debate does their concerns justice.

Before we start, I declare an interest: my family keep bees on their farm in Cornwall, and I am a patron of Pollenize, a fantastic community interest company in Plymouth that champions pollinator conservation. I also thank Buglife, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildlife Trusts, Green Alliance and the all-party parliamentary groups on bees and pollinators and on the environment for their help in my preparation for the debate.

Although my remarks today will focus on bees, we should remember that moths, butterflies, wasps and beetles are also pollinators, but as I said, I will confine my remarks to bees. I bloody love bees. They might be small creatures, but a lot rests on them. Today, up to three quarters of crops globally are pollinated by bees. The decline in bee populations has led to concerns about food security as well as the impact on biodiversity and ecosystems, but just last Monday the Government issued yet another so-called emergency authorisation for the use of Cruiser SB, which contains a bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticide, thiamethoxam, for the treatment of sugar beet seed for the remainder of this year. This is the third time that the Government have granted emergency permissions for that bee-killing pesticide to be used.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. The European Court of Justice, Europe’s highest court, ruled that the use of bee-killing pesticides was not acceptable, even under emergency exemptions to protect sugar beet crops, which he mentioned. France has this year decided not to grant the exemption, but the UK Government have. Does he share my concern that the Government may be allowing our environmental standards to slip?

I thank the hon. Member for that intervention on a point that I will come to. We are in the middle of a climate and nature emergency; we need all our policies, not just some of them, to reflect that, and authorising the use of bee-killing pesticides is not consistent with the declaration that this House has agreed to.

In this debate, I want to do three things. First, I will argue that the decision to authorise bee-killing pesticides for 2023 was wrong and should be reversed. Bee-killing pesticides are environmental vandalism. Secondly, I want to back our British farmers, so I challenge the Government and industry to do more to help sugar beet farmers, some of whom face financial losses and real difficulties because of an aphid-spread disease, the beet yellows virus. Thirdly, I propose again that future authorisations of bee-killing pesticides be subject to a parliamentary vote, rather than being quietly snuck out by Ministers.

I do not believe that there has been an emergency three years in a row; this is a plan to allow bee-killing pesticides to be used, with authorisations given annually. I sense some déjà vu here, because this time last year, the Government authorised the use of bee-killing pesticides for 2022. I held a parliamentary debate on bee-killing pesticides in this very room a year ago and was told by the Minister at the time that the authorisation was “temporary” and “exceptional”, but here we are again. It is a new year, but the same bee-killing pesticides have been greenlighted by the Conservatives.

It is four years since this became the first Parliament in the world to declare a climate and nature emergency. I want all of us, regardless of party, to focus on nature recovery, rather than on having to prevent Ministers from issuing death warrants for bees and other pollinators. One third of the UK bee population has disappeared in the last decade, and since 1900 the UK has lost 13 out of 35 native bee species. Habitat loss, land-use changes and other human factors are partly to blame, but so is the widespread use of neonicotinoids in agriculture and across food production. We know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs authorisation of neonics will accelerate that decline.

Thiamethoxam, or TMX, has been found to reduce colony health by harming worker-bee locomotion and potentially altering the division of labour if bees move outside or remain outdoors. It can cause hyperactivity in bees and affect their ability to fly. It is not just killing bees; it is depriving bees of the ability to function. One teaspoon is powerful enough to kill 1.25 billion honey bees, according to Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, who is also an expert book writer on the subject of bees. I encourage colleagues to look him up in the Library. Indeed, the former Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. and learned Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), told the Commons in December 2021 that there is a

“growing weight of scientific evidence that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinators.”

Furthermore, the former Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), has said, “The evidence points in one direction—we must ban neonicotinoids”. It is rare that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, but I do here, and I imagine most colleagues in the Chamber do as well. When we left the EU, the Government promised to follow the science.

We should protect our wildlife wherever we possibly can, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to listen to the Minister on the science behind the derogation, given that East Anglia and my constituency of North Norfolk have a large and growing population farming sugar beet. We need to bring glyphosate into the argument. That is another product that we must look to ban, particularly because we know it has harmful effects for humans—it is carcinogenic—and is poor for our biodiversity. The EU is banning glyphosate later this year. What does the hon. Gentleman think about bringing the ban forward from 2025? I certainly want to hear the Minister’s response to that question. We must move to a far more natural solution than glyphosate, which is extremely harmful.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will come to the science and the process for approval based on scientific decisions in a moment, so I hope he will hold his horses on that point. He makes a strong point on glyphosate. Last year, I held a roundtable with environmental charities, farming representatives and scientists, including representatives of Cancer Research UK, to consider the impact not only of neonicotinoids, but of glyphosate. There are real concerns here, and if we are to make progress in achieving a more nature-based form of agriculture relying on fewer chemicals and pesticides, we need to consider the impact of these chemicals not only on nature, but on human health.

The issue is not only food production in the UK. Now that we have signed trade deals with countries that use neonicotinoids, glyphosate and other chemicals on a greater, more industrial scale in their food production, and we allow that food to be imported to the UK, we are seeing those chemicals in the UK food chain, and we might see even more of them in future, even though we might be taking positive steps to address them. That is an important issue, and I am glad the hon. Gentleman raised it. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as he does every year on this topic. I hope he does not have to do so next year. We are focused on agricultural use today, but there is an issue with the use of glyphosate in cities. Does he agree that we ought to create pollinator corridors in our cities and prevent the use of pesticides, so we do not damage the health of our pollinators, and that councils need to be supported to go down that route?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I agree. Bee corridors and pollinator corridors offer an incredible opportunity to green many of our urban environments, and provide habitats not only for bees, but for other insects. Insect health might not be the sexiest of topics, but it is essential if we are to reverse climate decline and biodiversity loss.

There are superb examples across the south-west—in Bristol and in Plymouth—of bee corridors. I encourage everyone to support their local council in establishing bee corridors, especially at the point in the year when bee corridors do not look their best and plants start to brown; that is precisely when the biodiversity boost is greatest. How can we explain that to residents?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has referred to the benefits of pollinator corridors, but in Torbay we have the wild flower garden, which used to be very formal planting right on the seafront. The wild flower garden was extremely popular with tourists and visitors.

It is a great loss to Government that the hon. Gentleman is no longer a Minister, but a great benefit to these debates that we have double the west country Members from Devon speaking on such matters. Wild flower meadows, however we brand them, are a really important part of restoring ecosystems. They demonstrate that the interventions needed to support biodiversity recovery are not always large or expensive. They can be in every single community where there is a patch of ground that can be planted with wild flowers, and are a good way of signalling intent, especially as regards the recovery of pollinators.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. Brighton also has lots of lovely bee-friendly verges and so forth. Are we not just asking the Government to implement their own approach? Yesterday in their environmental improvement plan, they said that they wanted to put nature friendliness at the heart of all their policies. How is that coherent with the decision taken a few days ago? If the Government want to be consistent, they need to look again at the decision on bee-killing pesticides.

That is exactly right. If we are to have a proper nature-based recovery, and if the Government are to achieve their ambitions as set out in not only the Environment Act 2021 but the associated piece of legislation that this House has passed, we need them to follow their own procedures, and I do not think that they have in relation to the authorisation. I will explain why.

When we left the European Union, the Government promised to follow the science on bee-killing pesticides. How is that going? On 6 September 2021, the right hon. and learned Member for Banbury, then a DEFRA Minister, told the Commons:

“Decisions on pesticide authorisation are based on expert assessment by the Health and Safety Executive.”

Another DEFRA Minister, Lord Goldsmith, gave the same commitment, word for word, in the Lords that month. That surely means that bee-killing pesticides will be used only when the science shows that it is safe to do so. Right? Wrong.

The Government’s own expert committee on pesticides concluded on 30 January this year, in a report that can be found on the Government’s website, that the requirements for an emergency authorisation of bee-killing pesticides had not been met. It stated:

“On the basis of the evidence presented, the Committee agreed it supports the Health and Safety Executive’s Chemical Regulation Division’s assessment that it is unable to support an emergency authorisation, as potential adverse effects to honeybees and other pollinators outweigh the likely benefits.”

How can the decision have been made through expert assessment—on the science—as Ministers claim, if those very same experts say no to bee-killing pesticides? The decision to authorise bee-killing pesticide use is not supported by the science, the politics or the public, so why are Ministers allowing bee-killing pesticides to be used again this year?

If Ministers are serious about neonic use being temporary and exceptional, I want the Government to provide more support for sugar beet farmers, so that they can invest in other reasonable control measures, such as the greater use of integrated pest management. I back our British farmers, and I know my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), will say something similar. They have had enormous upheaval over the past few years. The withdrawal from the European Union, the change in subsidy regimes, and the fact that it is now harder to export have hit our farmers hard, so we need to find support for them. While critiquing the Government’s authorisation of bee-killing pesticides, I want to lend my support to those beet farmers, who, I recognise, face financial hardship if there is an aphid-spread infection in their crops.

How is best practice on crop hygiene, establishment and monitoring being shared with beet farmers? What investment are the Government making in the development of pest-resistant varieties of sugar beet and other crops? Why did Ministers previously say that the use of bee-killing pesticides would be temporary as new crop varieties would be coming up? What steps is the Minister taking to encourage industry to pay its fair share of the cost of transitioning away from neonic use? Sugar is big business and it is a high-value crop. We have heard before of funds designed to help farmers affected by aphid crop loss, so why grant authorisation again now if there are resources available for the farmers who are suffering from it?

The public will find it hard to believe that this granulated money-making machine is unable to give the sugar beet farmers that it relies on a fairer deal, so as to help them with crop failures, and so that they can develop a robust system of integrated pest management. It is welcome, and perhaps slightly curious, that although DEFRA last week gave a green light to the use of bee-killing pesticides, it simultaneously announced a new subsidy for farmers—the sustainable farming incentive—to encourage them not to use bee-killing pesticides. There is an easier way of preventing the use of bee-killing pesticides: instead of paying farmers not to use them, we could ban them, as Ministers promised to do, as we should be doing, and as other nations are doing.

I think we have stumbled on a new political truth: as long as the Conservatives are in power, whatever the science and their approval process says, they will approve the use of bee-killing pesticides. I challenge the Minister to prove me wrong on that. I did so last year in this very Chamber, and here we are again; bee-killing pesticides have again been authorised for use. More bees will die, and I predict we will be here again in 2024 unless Ministers have a change of heart. Each and every year until we get rid of that political truth, more bees will die. This is not temporary or exceptional; it is now a firmly established annual authorisation of bee-killing pesticides. This is my challenge to Ministers: prove me wrong by not authorising them next year.

Ministers need to provide more evidence of the impacts to inform the science. The reports from the Health and Safety Executive and the Government’s own pesticides committee—the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides— highlight a number of science holes in the evidence that they require in order to understand the impact of this authorisation on bees. Will the Minister respond to that?

Will the Minister report how much of the sustainable farming incentive has been used to lower the use of neonicotinoids? Will he ensure that there is not only catchment area science for any use of neonicotinoids, but field-edge studies for every field they are used in? At the moment, the evidence relates to selected fields and catchment areas, which are often too large. Will he ensure that there are catchment and field-edge water studies for every field that neonics are used in? Will he ensure that the cost of science is billed directly to any farmer using Cruiser SB, so that the taxpayer does not lose out?

The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides said that it would be beneficial to have an assessment of the quantity of active substances deployed in the environment as part of the suite of information used to determine whether the benefits of insecticide use outweigh the environmental risks. Will the Minister agree to do that?

The economic value of pollination to UK crop production is approximately £500 million a year. Does the hon. Gentleman think that the use of these toxic pesticides is short-sighted, particularly as bee numbers rapidly decline?

The use of bee-killing pesticides is short-sighted. It is designed to be a quick fix to help farmers who are in a real pickle. I do not doubt the seriousness of the problem, but the longer bee-killing pesticides are authorised annually, the easier it will be to authorise them annually for evermore, and the easier it will be to extend their use to other crops, because the precedent has been set. That is why this House must be firm that bee-killing pesticides should not be used and should be banned.

I would also like the Minister to look at the datasets available for the monitoring of the use of Cruiser SB. The UK Expert Committee on Pesticides highlighted that it can see evidence and data only from selected months, not for the whole year. Will he commit to providing data for the whole year to the experts scrutinising this policy? Will he update the House on the development of alternative resistant varieties of crops before any future authorisations are made?

Will the Minister publish in written form whether the Conservative party has received any donations from sugar companies that want to use Cruiser SB? I do not believe the accusation sometimes levelled at Ministers that there is a link between this decision and donations, but the accusation is made in debate on the subject, and the matter would benefit from the full glare of public scrutiny.

I do not want bee-killing pesticides to be used. I do not think they carry public support or confidence, and I want the Minister to explain why he has overruled the scientific bodies that the Government previously relied on for the rigour and relevance of their evidence on the use of bee-killing pesticides. The gap between green rhetoric and green delivery is now a gaping chasm when it comes to bee health.

My final ask is for a parliamentary vote on the use of bee-killing pesticides. I believe the Government do not have the public support for bee-killing pesticides. The majority of beekeepers and farmers, and all MPs, want greater scrutiny of that decision. My proposal to the Minister is that future authorisations of bee-killing pesticides should be subject to a parliamentary vote, in which MPs should have the genuine opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons of using neonicotinoids. If the Government want to continue the use of neonicotinoids—I believe that Ministers have now set out an automatic annual approval process—we need to make it politically impossible for that to happen without Parliament approving it.

Last year, I warned Ministers that, just as decisions to approve bee-killing pesticides are annual, this debate will also be annual. This is now the annual bee debate; it might not always be called by me but, as long we have Ministers in power who believe that bee-killing pesticides have a place in agriculture, it must be part of the annual political calendar, and it must be a day of shame for Ministers who authorise bee-killing pesticides.

MPs from all parties have received correspondence from constituents, asking them to speak in this debate. Lots of colleagues in all parties wanted to speak but are unable to be here. The message about saving bees is cross-party, and it needs to be one that the Government hear loud and clear.

If we are to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, we need more than words—we need action. We need an annual moment of action: a vote to determine whether bee-killing pesticides can and should be used. If we do not have that, it will make securing a net zero, nature-positive future so much harder. Bee health is non-negotiable; our planet depends on it. We must ban the use of bee- killing pesticides.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on—once again—securing this important debate, having also secured last year’s Westminster Hall debate on neonicotinoids in response to the Government’s previous so-called emergency authorisation.

I am deeply sorry that we keep needing to have this debate, particularly when the Government’s rhetoric should mean that greenlighting highly toxic pesticides is unthinkable. Yesterday the Government published their environmental improvement plan, which aims to provide

“a comprehensive delivery plan for the Government’s approach to halting and then reversing the decline in nature.”

That goal is very welcome and should align domestic policy with a commitment in the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework, agreed by almost 200 countries in December. However, it is in precisely that context that last week’s decision on neonics is so utterly incoherent and inconsistent.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case of Ministers failing to live up to their own greenwash. Just last month, the Office for Environmental Protection reported that not one of the 23 environmental targets examined was on track to be achieved, and 14 were clearly off-track. We also have the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill risks, under which we risk scrapping a staggering 1,700 environmental regulations overnight—vital laws that cover areas such as pesticides, food, nature, air and water quality, to name just a few.

Now we have the so-called emergency approval in England of this banned pesticide—a type of neonicotinoid —for the third year in a row. It is a poison so powerful that some have said that a single teaspoon is enough to kill 1.25 billion bees. It has been said that neonics affect the central nervous system of insects and bees’ ability to forage and navigate. A recent study showed that just one exposure could affect a bee’s ability to reproduce in future years.

Nature’s decline is no more alarming than when it comes to insects. As we have heard, the UK has lost half its insects in the past 50 years alone. I say “lost” but I do not like that word, because we have not lost them; we have destroyed them—let us face up to what is going on here. More than 40% of the earth’s remaining 5 million insect species are now threatened with extinction. The loss of these vital pollinators is truly terrifying to comprehend. It raises the question of how on earth the Government can say in one breath that they are halting—let alone reversing—biodiversity loss, when they are also pursuing such wanton destruction.

Of course, it is particularly alarming that this approval comes, once again, against the advice of the UK Expert Committee on Pesticides, which maintains that the risk to bees and other pollinators did not warrant the authorisation. As we have heard, the committee said:

“the requirements for emergency authorisation have not been met”.

It could not be much clearer. The approval is also contrary to guidance, which is clear that emergency applications should not be granted more than once—the clue is in the name.

The Minister may attempt to argue that sugar beet does not flower, so there is no risk to bees, but that is plainly false. Neonics were banned for use on flowering crops in 2013, but were also banned for use on non-flowering crops such as sugar beet in 2018, when it became clear that their use was contaminating soils, streams and hedgerow wildflowers and, by extension, affecting bees. Flowering so-called “weeds” also grow in fields that attract bees, not just in the current year but in subsequent years, when neonicotinoids are still present in the soil.

I remind colleagues of the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee report on pollinators and pesticides from 10 years ago. I sat on that Committee and was involved in taking the evidence that went into the report. I particularly recall this recommendation:

“Defra policy on pesticides must be evidence-based. Where the available scientific evidence is either incomplete or contradictory, Defra must apply the precautionary principle.”

Actually, I would argue that the evidence here is not incomplete or contradictory. Even if it were, DEFRA should apply the precautionary principle, but I think we can all agree that that the precautionary principle has been chucked out of the window when it comes to this decision and many others. So I ask the Minister quite simply: what is the point of the environmental principles policy statement, which was published just yesterday, if environmental principles are not applied in practice? I urge him to look again at this decision.

Before we left the EU, Ministers waxed lyrical about a green Brexit. The Minister is no doubt aware—and we have heard this from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier)—that the European Court of Justice ruled on 19 January that emergency derogations for neonics are illegal, so the rest of Europe will not be using these bee-killing chemicals. Is that what the Government mean by the so-called opportunities that Brexit provides? Will he now reassure me that the existing restrictions on neonics and other harmful pesticides will be maintained as part of the Government’s review of retained EU law? They very clearly must be.

In conclusion, I want to probe the Minister on long-term solutions. As is patently clear, when we are the midst of a nature emergency, so-called emergency approvals of neonics every year are inappropriate and unsustainable, and they have to stop. We need an approach that safeguards both food production and biodiversity for the future. These things are not separate; they are intimately connected and dependent one on the other.

I welcome the inclusion of integrated pest management in the new sustainable farming incentive, with payments for insecticide-free farming. However, I am concerned that it could just end up being a tick-box exercise, where farmers complete an IPM assessment and produce a plan but are under no obligation to take practical action. Will the Minister commit to remedying that issue, too?

We need a much more concerted move towards IPM, where we use chemical pesticides only ever as a last resort, if at all, rather than continuing our current reliance on banned neonics. Will the Minister therefore commit to further support for IPM? Will he explain what alternatives are being trialled to prevent emergency authorisations in the future? And will the Government bring forward more investment in farmer-led research, practical advice and peer-to-peer learning?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this really important debate and on his excellent speech.

As we know, last week the Government yet again approved an emergency authorisation for the use of Cruiser SB, which contains a neonicotinoid, on this year’s sugar beet crop. That is despite the Health and Safety Executive saying that the risks posed to bees foraging on the pollen and nectar from flowering crops planted in fields of treated sugar beet posed “a potential concern”. Furthermore, the independent UK Expert Committee on Pesticides has said:

“In light of the risk assessment conducted, a reduction in survival of honey bees and impacts on homing flight ability (which also influences survival of foragers) could occur.”

The Government are ignoring the advice of their own experts, and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us why.

It was the same last year when the Government granted authorisation for Cruiser SB, and a number of constituents who have written to me with their concerns were keen to point that out. Wirral West residents who have been in contact with me have also highlighted that this latest move is completely at odds with the pesticide reduction targets the UK advocated less than two months ago at COP15, which aim to reduce by half the overall risk posed by pesticides and highly hazardous chemicals by 2030. The Minister has even accepted that there is a degree of uncertainty as to the benefits of using Cruiser SB to address the identified danger to sugar beet production, and that there is a degree of uncertainty in relation to the risk to bees.

It is no surprise, then, that Friends of the Earth has described the decision as “incredibly brazen”. It has rightly pointed out that the

“health of us all and the planet depends on”

the survival of bees and other vital pollinators. Just last month, a scientific study estimated that the sharp decline in the populations of many pollinators is already causing about 500,000 early deaths a year by reducing the supply of healthy foods. That is extremely concerning. As the Pesticide Collaboration points out, even minor traces of toxic neonicotinoids “play havoc” with the ability of bees to forage, navigate and reproduce, which has “catastrophic consequences” for the survival of their colony or populations. Its statement continues:

“A recent study showed that even one exposure of a neonicotinoid insecticide had significant impacts on their ability to produce offspring in future years.”

Just one teaspoon is enough to kill 1.25 billion bees. It is even more concerning, therefore, that even with that knowledge the Government have gone against the advice of their own experts. Will the Minister set out what alternatives were considered before the decision to approve the use of Cruiser SB?

I praise the fantastic work done by all those involved with Flourish at Ford Way community garden project in Upton, in Wirral West. They keep hives that produce delicious honey, and all their gardening is done in a bee-friendly way. I thoroughly enjoyed a recent visit, when I was fortunate enough to witness at first hand how the beekeepers work with the bees and maintain the hives, and I gained an insight into the overall process of how they produce the honey. Flourish has been working with a local Upton women’s group, which has been using Flourish’s polytunnels to grow plants and flowers that are then placed in the village centre in Upton; bees visit those flowers to collect nectar and pollen, which they use as food for themselves and their larvae. When they move from flower to flower, they transfer pollen, which helps plants to grow, breed and produce food, thus keeping the cycle going. That is a great example of two groups coming together in Wirral West in a responsible way to benefit the local community and our environment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate. We all agree that bees are vital for the ecosystem. Bees have been the symbol of our city, Manchester, for 150 years. We have beehives all around the city, including at our cathedral, Manchester Art Gallery, homes and lots of other places, and they play their part in encouraging pollination. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) agree that supporting bees and pollinators in urban areas is also important in providing locally sourced food?

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent contribution. He is absolutely right that it is important to encourage urban bees, but he also reminds us of the historic role and ancient history of beekeeping, which I discussed with the beekeepers in my constituency. It is important that we keep that in mind.

Finally, the Government should listen to the advice of their own experts and think again about their decision to authorise the use of neonicotinoids, which are so harmful to bees. I support the ban.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this important debate—my first in Westminster Hall.

As Members on both sides of the Chamber have mentioned, it is well known that neonicotinoid pesticides can be very harmful to a wide range of insects and invertebrates, including, of course, our beloved bees. They are essential to the future of our planet, to the pollination of our crops and to our rich tapestry of biodiversity, yet in the UK, as we have heard, 13 bee species are extinct and one in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species are under threat.

The Government’s announcement of an exemption to the ban on neonicotinoids to treat sugar beet in England was ill-judged and wrong. I am concerned that the Government went against the advice of their own expert scientific advisers. Our understanding is that the use of neonicotinoids is mainly associated with sugar beet production in the east of England, but it is important to note that the chemicals can be washed into watercourses and can work their way into the food chain. As with most things in nature, there are always the ripple effects of consequences, chain reactions and things interlinked with one another. There is also a serious concern that the exemption for sugar beets will simply open the floodgate to the wider use of harmful pesticides.

Neonics can have consequences well beyond their site of application and, if used more widely, can put in danger vital efforts to recover threatened native species, including in my own constituency, where Chester Zoo is working hard with partners to create new habitats that encourage bees and other pollinators as part of its nature-recovery corridor in Cheshire. Similarly, the impact would be felt across the north-west region, where the zoo is assisting with the introduction of locally extinct species, such as the large heath butterfly.

I back our farmers, and I am concerned that sugar beet farmers are experiencing a difficult time. However, lifting the ban is not the answer. We must find a science-led way forward that protects our bees and safeguards our future biodiversity, but that also includes better support for the farming sector. In the middle of a climate and nature emergency, there should not be any ifs or buts when it comes to the health of bees. We must be prepared to make tough calls to address the ecological crisis and showcase environmental best practice, rather than allowing more bees and pollinators to be killed by neonics.

I lend my support to the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for parliamentary approval for any future use of bee-killing pesticides. Will the Minister comment on the impact the exemptions to the ban have had since its introduction and on the expected impact in the next few years? More importantly, will he admit that any lifting of the ban is a huge mistake and that the use of such harmful pesticides should be banned for good, especially in the light of the environmental challenges we face?

I am pleased to participate in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for comprehensively setting out the issue before us—the use of bee-killing pesticides in our agriculture.

The issue matters very much to my constituents, and I know it matters to constituents across the UK, because we all receive large amounts of correspondence about it. The reason for that concern is that bees play a crucial part in our ecosystem; we must do all we can to protect them from the detrimental impacts of environmental alterations and climate change.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature list shows that as many as 24% of Europe’s bumble bee species are now threatened with extinction, despite being worth a staggering £690 million per year to the UK economy. Bees are vital to our agriculture. One out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat exists because of pollination. Bees pollinate an array of crops, including apples, peas, courgettes, pumpkins, tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries. If we lose bees and other pollinators, growing many types of food would be extremely challenging. Our diets would suffer tremendously. The variety of food available would diminish and the cost of certain products would surge. Many argue that pollination provides one of the clearest examples of how our disregard for the health of the environment threatens our very survival.

Since 1900, the UK has lost 13 species of bee, and a further 35 are considered to be under threat of extinction, not least because of toxic pesticides, which we are talking about today, and climate change. No species of bee is protected by law. The contribution of honey bees to nature and food products is significant. As we have heard from a number of Members, up to three quarters of crop species are pollinated by bees and other pollinators, so bees are the ultimate symbol of a healthy environment in terms of our climate, our food security and our natural world. Bees could not be a more important factor in those areas.

When we look at what is happening in Scotland and what is happening in England, this is again a tale of two Governments. The Scottish Government launched its “Pollinator Strategy for Scotland 2017-2027” to make Scotland a more pollinator-friendly and sustainable place by protecting indigenous bee and butterfly populations. The strategy sets out how to make Scotland a place where pollinators can thrive and how those objectives can be achieved. Importantly, it raises public awareness about the value of Scotland’s pollinating insects and the regulation of non-native species.

While that is going on, we have a UK Government who, as we have heard today, have no real sense of urgency about this important matter. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport pointed out that the UK Government have retained the pesticide, along with other neonicotinoids, banned in the EU in 2013, using the EU temporary emergency exemption. Measures in the EU to protect pollinators, including bees, are in place, but the UK opted out of them. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who is no longer in his place, about the impact of glyphosate and the need to address that issue.

For the third year in a row, the Government have authorised the continued use of thiamethoxam—I hope I pronounced that properly. The European Court has ruled against its emergency use, because it is known to be lethal to bees, wasps and other pollinators. It poses a danger not just to wild bee colonies, but to humans, as it is linked to a wide range of health challenges.

It was not so long ago that the former Environment Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), declared:

“We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk”—

yet here we are. Members have reminded us that one teaspoon of pesticide is enough to kill 1.25 billion bees. The sensible way forward, in the face of the facts that we have heard today, is surely a total ban on bee-killing pesticides.

Many people, including SNP Members, encouraged the UK Government to make the Environment Act 2021 stronger by following Scotland’s example in areas such as air pollution, outlawing harmful pesticides and independent oversight of environmental protection, but sadly, that was to no avail. The reality is that legal requirements set out in the Act to halt species decline by 2030 will be as written on water if the UK Government do not step up and protect England’s natural environment and preserve its biodiversity. This matters very much in Scotland, even though it is a matter for the UK Government, because bees do not recognise borders, so bees across the rest of the UK are potentially harmed by what is going on.

I will just finish this point. It is important that the Government prioritise the environment and protect farmers in international deals, because improving trade is one thing, but our natural environment must not be jeopardised by poisonous chemicals that result in the death of invaluable pollinators. There must be no regression on environmental standards and protections. I urge the Minister to follow the direction and example of both the Scottish Government and the EU in banning pesticides and protecting pollinators. During the Brexit debate, many of us warned of a divergence in standards between the UK and the EU over time, leading to—as everybody feared—the lowering of standards in the UK over a range of areas. We were told that that would not happen, that it was nonsense and that the UK would be liberated to make even greater progress, but today we see our fears about protecting bees coming true.

As the hon. Member mentioned, we have some good initiatives in Scotland for bee protection, such as the Cambuslang apiary project in my constituency. Does she agree that the project does incredible conservation work for bee pollination and populations?

Absolutely. Local initiatives like that must be applauded and supported, but we need a lead from the UK Government on the level of pesticides and pesticide use, so that we can support the very important work that bees do on our behalf, which many of us probably take for granted.

That brings me beautifully to my next point because, although many of us might take the work that bees do for granted, we have to remember the impact that they have on our crop production. We do not want to find ourselves in future in the same position as some fruit farmers in China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and the lack of natural habitats. That has forced farmers to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots and paintbrushes to individually pollinate every flower. It is simply not possible to hand-pollinate every crop that we want, but it shows the kind of nightmare scenario that we could end up in, and the impact that that would have on the food that we eat and on our survival.

This issue becomes more pressing with every passing day, as our bee numbers continue to diminish. I hope, when the Minister gets to his feet, that he will agree that it is indeed time for his Government to get busy and start saving bees, and to ban noenicitinoid pesticides before it is too late. As he has heard today, his Government need to follow the signs and remember bees and the Government’s environment improvement plan. Let me end by saying: the Government need to get themselves into a hive of activity and save our bees.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I am grateful, as ever, to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) for securing yet another debate on this important topic, and for drawing attention to the attached petitions. As ever, his introduction was full and thorough, and I will echo many of his points.

I commend other Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) hit the nail on the head in highlighting the contradiction between this decision and the Government’s wider aspirations. I very much enjoyed the account from my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) on the work done by Flourish, as well as hearing about the urban bee corridors that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned. A lot is being done on that in many places, including in my city of Cambridge, where Cambridge City Council is doing important work on it.

I was very pleased to hear the first Westminster Hall contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon). I must tell her that this is not an entirely typical Westminster Hall debate, because we did not hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—I am sure that he will not mind me saying that—but we normally do. My hon. Friend made important points about run-off, which must be taken seriously.

So here we are again, Minister—last week, he was a great advocate of following scientific advice, but this week, it is all different. As many here have pointed out, the Government’s decision to issue an emergency authorisation to allow for the use of Cruiser SB—which contains thiamethoxam, a type of neonicotinoid—on sugar beet goes against the advice from the Government’s expert committee on pesticides and the Health and Safety Executive.

While the UK Government turn against the science, it is ironic that that comes just days after the European Court of Justice ruled that authorising derogations for the use of banned neonicotinoids was prohibited, stopping further applications for emergency use. That means that we are now an outrider, with lower standards than our neighbours. That is not a place that we should be, and it is not a place that Labour would be, because, for us, pollinator health is not negotiable. I said that last year and the year before, and it was as true then as it is now.

People will look back and ask why on earth this Conservative Government were so slow to act on the damage that is being done. Never mind worthy targets, never mind environmental improvement plans—this decision has been taken here and now. The attack on nature continues for as long as the Conservatives remain in power.

This is a long-standing debate and, as colleagues have pointed out, the Government have ignored the advice of the panel for three years in a row—they have ignored the science and the advice of the expert committee for three years. We have heard the advice, but I will repeat it: the committee advised against authorising a derogation on Cruiser SB because

“potential adverse effects to honeybees and other pollinators outweigh the likely benefits.”

Last week, the Minister said that he believed in science and supported the work of experts, but now that advice is being ignored. I simply ask: why, Minister? I suspect that part of his answer may be the rules that go alongside the use of the Cruiser SB neonicotinoid-treated seeds. A period of time has been specified that must elapse before flowering crops can be planted in the same field. Herbicides must also be used to remove weeds in the field to reduce the exposure of pollinators to insecticides—I am afraid that that provision also adversely impacts pollinators through the reduction of available flowers, but we understand the goal to reduce overall potential risk.

It will probably be said that the threshold that will allow for its use has been increased this year, from 19% to 63%.We all hope that that threshold will not be reached—it was not the year before last. The truth is, however, that we genuinely do not know whether that will happen or not; it will depend on the weather.

But we do know for sure that neonicotinoids are extremely harmful to the environment. They affect the nervous system of bees and other insects, leading to their death. I cannot resist repeating what everyone else has said about the 1.25 billion honeybees that can potentially be killed by one teaspoon of the chemical. We all know how critical bees are for pollinating crops. As the brief provided by the all-party parliamentary group on the environment pointed out, wild bees are responsible for pollinating between 85% and 95% of the UK’s insect-pollinated crops. We also know that run-off into waterways and leaching into the soil and nearby wildflowers is a real threat, as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust highlighted in its brief on the impact not just on bumblebees, but on other animals and aquatic life.

We also understand the wider context, which is very difficult. Virus yellow is a cause of significant yield losses. The National Farmers Union reports that, for some, it is up to 50%. The most complex and serious is that spread by the peach potato aphid, and it is hard to control. In 2020, the sector lost 40% of the national sugar beet crop, bringing down the five-year average yield by 25%.

Frankly, the weather over the past few months has been really difficult. We all remember the searing heat from last summer—the drought—that hit particularly hard in key beet areas along the A14 and around Bury St Edmunds. And then, just before Christmas, there was a very harsh frost followed immediately by a big temperature rise, resulting in a rapid, rotting thaw. It has been really difficult, and that has been added to by a new pest, the beet moth, which seems to be attracted from Europe by the warmer temperatures here.

The overall result is that we are short of beet sugar this year, with beet having to be imported by the processor. That is tough on the growers, tough on the processor and adds more costs up the supply chain. With beet becoming a less attractive prospect to many growers, British Sugar already had to pay more to encourage people back into production. None of that is easy, and there are consequences and costs to any decision. I appreciate that, for farmers, it too often feels as though the tools that they need for the job are being systematically taken away. That is very difficult, because nature does not compromise.

We have to look at alternatives, as British Sugar and the NFU acknowledge in their helpful briefings. There are high hopes for varieties resistant to virus yellows and there is potential for the use of gene editing to secure that resistance. I hope that the Government follow our advice on the regulatory structures needed to make that happen. I am told that there is already a variety resistant to two virus yellow strains, but it is expensive and there is a yield penalty. I am also told that yield protection insurance is available, but again, that incurs more costs. Those are difficult decisions.

There are things that we can do, some of which have been outlined by other Members. We can develop non-chemical approaches, such as boosting beneficial insects, cover crops, better rotation and maintaining good farm hygiene. There is evidence that some farms have had success by adopting such measures. We should move much more quickly on adopting integrated pest-management systems. Ironically, as has been explained, that was part of the sustainable farming incentive package that the Government announced last week, and we welcome that. So I say to the Minister: be bold on that, listen to the scientists and get away from falling back on neonicotinoids, which we know do so much harm.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this debate, and I welcome the hon. Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) to her first Westminster Hall debate. I also thank all Members who have made a contribution today.

The decision to grant the emergency authorisation has not been taken lightly and is based on robust assessment of the environmental and economic risks and benefits. Emerging sugar beet seedlings and young plants are vulnerable to feeding by aphids. Those transmit several viruses, known collectively as virus yellows, which lead to reduced beet size, lower sugar content and higher impurities. Overall sugar beet yield can be reduced by up to 50% by the viruses.

We withdrew authorisation for use of pesticide products containing the three neonicotinoids on outdoor crops in 2018, in line with the EU decision. Since then, sugar beet growers have been adjusting to new conditions. In 2019 and in 2021, the virus threat was low and the crop was not significantly impacted. However, 2020 saw severe damage, with up to 24% of the national crop being lost. Imports were needed to enable British Sugar to honour its contracts.

The emergency authorisation has been issued with a strict threshold for use, so that Cruiser SB will be used only if there is a likely danger to the sugar beet crop. This year, the threshold has been set at a predicted virus incidence of 63% or above, as forecast by an independent model developed by Rothamsted Research. That increase reflects our improving understanding of the fit between the model used to predict virus incidence and real-world outcomes, and it means that the product is less likely to be used. The aim of the threshold is to ensure that Cruiser SB is used only if there is a likely danger to the sugar beet crop.

The forecast will be made on 1 March this year. It is only then that we will know for certain whether the seed treatment will be used this year. In 2021, the model predicted that the virus level would not meet the threshold, so the seed treatment was not used.

The decision will not be made by Ministers; the decision will be set by a threshold. Rothamsted Research has set that threshold and that model, and it will take into account weather patterns and levels of aphids and virus within the environment. The decision will be made based on that model, so I will not be involved in that decision, nor will any other Minister.

Members will be aware of the strict conditions of use that have been set as requirements for emergency authorisation. If that threshold is met and if neonicotinoid- treated seeds are planted, conditions will be put in place to mitigate risk to the environment, including to pollinators. The conditions include the prohibition of any crop that flowers before harvest being planted in the same field within 32 months of a treated sugar beet crop and compliance with a stewardship scheme, which requires monitoring to be performed to determine the levels of neonicotinoids in the environment. Full details of the key conditions of use have been published on

Will the Minister tell us whether there has been any assessment of the success of the mitigation measures adopted in previous years?

We take into account all of that data when making these decisions. We take the best advice from the best scientists and make these decisions on their advice. My decision was informed by the advice of the Health and Safety Executive and by the views of the UK expert committee on pesticides and DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser on the scientific evidence. I also considered economic issues, informed by analysis from DEFRA economists.

Looking to the future, we do not wish to see the temporary use of neonicotinoids continue indefinitely. The development of alternative and sustainable approaches to protect sugar beet crops from these viruses is paramount. That includes the development of resistant plant varieties, measures to improve crop hygiene and husbandry, and alternative pesticides. British Sugar and the British Beet Research Organisation are undertaking a programme of work to develop these alternatives, which include yellows virus-specific integrated pest management techniques. The Government are closely monitoring the progress of that.

The Minister will know that, since 1970, the UK has lost 50% or more of our insects. Whatever he is saying to us this morning, I do not think he is saying that risk is completely absent; he is balancing risks. Where does the precautionary principle come into his analysis and assessment, given that the risks that we face are so huge? Even if he thinks that the risk is small, none the less, if it happens and there is yet more of a collapse of our bee populations, we are in deep trouble.

That is one of the reasons why we have introduced the new environmental land management schemes, whose purpose is to change the way farmers grow crops and make them adopt those practices. We recognise how important bees are, and we want to work with farmers to improve the conditions for pollinators. We want to work with nature, rather than against it.

As hon. Members know, we continue our work on the agricultural transition, and we are repurposing the land-based subsidies we inherited from the EU. The hon. Lady makes the point that they did little for the environment and little for farmers. We will now have a new, ambitious system that rewards farmers and land managers for their role as environmental stewards, and that starts with the sustainable farming incentive.

Will the Minister specifically address the precautionary principle? How did he apply it to the decision he made?

We have to balance all those factors and all the scientific advice, including the precautionary principle, in coming to this decision. It is not an easy decision to make. We have to consider lots of scientific advice on the risk to pollinators and to the sugar beet crop.

We have just published our indicative plan for the roll-out of the sustainable farming incentive standards, which includes the introduction of paid integrated pest management actions. That includes paying farmers to carry out an assessment and produce an integrated pest management plan; introduce natural methods of pest management, such as flower-rich grass margins or field strips, or companion cropping; and take steps to move towards insecticide-free farming. That will support farmers to minimise the use of pesticides and will incentivise the uptake of alternative ways to control pests.

Integrated pest management is at the heart of our approach to support farmers to practise sustainable pest management. We have already commissioned a package of research projects that will enable farmers to access the most effective IPM tools available, and ensure that we understand changing trends in pest threats across the UK.

As I have outlined, the decision to allow the limited and controlled use of neonicotinoids on a single crop has not been taken lightly and is based on robust scientific assessment. We will continue to work hard to support our farmers and protect and restore our vital pollinator populations.

It is great that so many Members contributed to this debate and shared concerns about the Government’s approval of Cruiser SB. I have to say I am a little disappointed that the Minister managed to avoid answering nearly every question posed to him. He did not say why he ignored the science in approving Cruiser SB. He did not say how he applied the precautionary principle to his decision. He did not answer any of the questions I posed to him about the science relating to field edge margins and catchment areas, and nor did he address the concerns about run-off raised by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon).

I say gently and politely to the Minister that this problem and this scrutiny are not going away. Bee-killing pesticides are wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) said, the time is running out for the Government to do the right thing before the next Labour Government do the right thing and ban bee-killing pesticides.

I say to the Minister politely that I do not think he has made a very good case for the Government’s approval of bee-killing pesticides, but there is still a chance to put a letter in the House of Commons Library setting out why the decision was taken, why the science was ignored and, importantly, how the standards and principles set out in the legislation that his own Department passed in recent months apply to the decision. Why bee-killing pesticides have been authorised in the way they have been is incomprehensible, given the body of legislation, the documents published by DEFRA and the huge number of press releases issued by his Department talking about a nature-based recovery and nature-based solutions, which stand in stark contrast to the decision.

I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I think we have started an annual bee debate. I really hope that, this time next year, we will be able to talk about the other issues affecting pollinator health, such as the neonicotinoids in flea treatments for cats and dogs that pollute 99% of English rivers, rather than talking about a decision by Ministers to authorise yet again what seems like an annual and automatic approval for Cruiser SB in the face of Government advice that says they should not do that, public support for not doing that and political opposition to the decision. I really hope we will see better from the Government over the coming 12 months.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the use of bee-killing pesticides in agriculture.

Sitting suspended.