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Topical Questions

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

I am aware that many Members will be concerned by the reports about the availability of various horticultural products right now. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries said earlier, DEFRA is working closely with the industry to understand the issues with that supply chain, in which there was a particular issue in Spain and north Africa before Christmas and shortly after. Officials are already working with food retailers, and I think the Minister will be meeting them very early next week specifically to talk through certain aspects for supermarkets.

In mid-March, the greatest National Hunt festival will take place at Cheltenham racecourse in my constituency. It is a sport that only this week the Prime Minister hailed as a showcase for global Britain. However, to maintain this world-leading position, the international movement of top thoroughbreds to this country is essential, so what have the Government been able to do to facilitate it?

I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency on 17 March, where I will enjoy some of the racing. It is important that we have high standards of health and welfare for thoroughbreds. The Government are close to publishing our target operating model proposals, which will take a proportionate, risk-based and technically advanced approach to future sanitary and phytosanitary controls. We are still considering the approach specifically for live animals, particularly high-level equines, to understand how protecting biosecurity and minimising trade burdens can be carefully and safely managed.

Indoor air pollution is an increasing problem that poses health risks, but the Tories have no plan to tackle it. But do not worry, Mr Speaker, because help is on the way. Labour will have a standalone clean air Act in our very first King’s Speech. Before we get there, will the Secretary of State share what specific action she has taken to tackle indoor air pollution? What discussions has she had with other Departments, and what other actions will she bring forward in the coming months? In other words, where is the plan?

The clean air strategy of 2019 specifically identified indoor air pollution. Ongoing ventilation, and advice on that, is the standard approach. That is true of things such as scented candles and cleaning products. Although the chemicals are changing, a lot of the chief medical officer’s fairly recent report is already contained in the strategy. It is important that we tackle air pollution in all sorts of ways, but the best advice to improve indoor air quality is to keep windows open for five to 10 minutes a day to allow fresh air in. That will significantly help to reduce some of the impacts, and that is needed.

T2.   I thank Ministers for their continued support on coastal flooding, including the £10 million allocated to upgrade flood defences in Fylde, which is a low-lying, largely flat coastal peninsula, meaning that even inland areas remain vulnerable to flooding. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), visited Fylde and saw that for herself, but will she join me for a further visit to the affected areas, and commit to producing a long-term plan to relieve the issues? (903674)

I very much enjoyed my educational visit to Fylde to understand the benefits of our flood spending. Even in low-lying areas, there are benefits of protecting the businesses, which felt safer. Tourism and active travel on the great embankment had been strengthened. I would be delighted to come back if my diary permits it to see the further work that is being done to get even more out of the funding that the Government have committed to from our £5.2-billion budget.

T3. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) mentioned the lack of Government support for greenhouse producers. Energy costs are having a great impact on farmers, but they are not included in the new business scheme coming into place at the end of March. Given that we are about to have an urgent question on food shortages, will the Government reconsider that decision? (903676)

The UK Government have already been helping households and businesses with the significant rises in energy costs. We are now starting to see a reduction in wholesale gas prices, and the Government are confident that that will start to feed through to electricity prices. We will remain focused on energy-intensive sectors that need ongoing support, but the scheme is much more restricted, and the hon. Lady will be aware of the reasons why.

T7. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the fishing industry is not squeezed out of its livelihood by generally welcome but often conflicting factors such as offshore wind and marine protected areas? How will he ensure that the industry is adequately represented in the decision-making process? (903680)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in that sector and the representations that he has made. I meet Scottish fishermen on a regular basis, and I am aware of the challenges they face due to spatial squeeze. I am also very much aware of the great work they do to keep the country fed with high-quality fish in our food markets.

T4.   Jarrow constituents face a rise in water bills from Northumbrian Water—a company owned by Cayman Islands-registered Hong Kong CK Hutchison Holdings. It underspent its budget for repairs by 48%, yet took profits of £2 billion a year, awarded millions to shareholders and pumped sewage into north-east waterways. Will the Secretary of State commit to fining water companies up to £250 million for dumping sewage? (903677)

Northumbrian Water is also the parent company of the water company that services my constituency. I am conscious that dividends were not paid out during covid, but the point stands that we need improved environmental performance from water companies. We are doing that, and it is why we have given Ofwat powers, which they have been consulted on, to link dividend payments to things such as environmental performance. I hope that Ofwat will come forward with final proposals shortly.

If habitats can be restored to a quality in which reptiles—in particular the smooth snake—can thrive, that will be good for all wildlife. That would be a good target, would it not?

I absolutely agree on the importance of securing the habitats and the survival of reptiles. Indeed, we will halt the decline in species abundance by 2030, and increase abundance by at least 10% to exceed 2022 levels by 2042. That is all set out in our environmental plan—all 262 pages of it. On my right hon. Friend’s specific point, I very much look forward to an enlightening conversation with him.

T5. Child hunger has a significant impact on a child’s ability to concentrate, as well as on their behaviour and attainment. Labour has set out that it will provide breakfasts for children in school, and where Labour is in power it is providing lunches as well. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Education Secretary to ensure that children do not go hungry? (903678)

This is similar to the question the hon. Lady raised earlier. The Department for Education has responsibility for free school meals, and many millions of children benefit from them in this country. I am conscious that we want to ensure that food is affordable. Food price inflation is very challenging right now, and that is why we have acted to help with aspects of food production. We continue to try to ensure that we get through this challenging time. That is why there is support through things such as the household support fund, as well as other opportunities, to make sure that no child needs to go hungry.

It was a pleasure to welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) to Manor Farm in Chearsley last month, to see how farmer Rose Dale, the River Thame Conservation Trust and the Freshwater Habitats Trust have created new floodplain freshwater wetland habitats. Will she congratulate everyone involved in this hugely successful project? What steps are being taken to create further such wetlands?

It was the most enjoyable and informative visit that I took part in with my hon. Friend; I ask that he pass on my thanks to Farmer Rose. The visit demonstrated the value of bringing water into the landscape; it has value for habitats and, in many other places, for flood control. Such nature-based solutions are one of the key planks of not just our flood policy but our habitat restoration project.

T6. The Farm Safety Foundation—or Yellow Wellies, as most of us know it—has just completed a campaign to improve farmers’ mental health. Will the Minister set out what actions are being taken across Government, and at a devolved level, to develop mental health support schemes for farmers? According to the Yellow Wellies survey, farmers’ mental health is plummeting. We need a UK-wide strategy to offer more support. (903679)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to the campaign. The Yellow Wellies campaign had an action week last week; I hope he saw my contribution to that. It is very important that we recognise that mental health is a challenge in rural communities. If someone is working alone for many hours, it can lead to dark thoughts. We continue to work with charities in the sector to address the challenges those people face and to give them the support they deserve.

As my hon. Friend points out, two different schemes are proposed. We have consulted widely, in particular with industry, and that is why we have taken the decision not to include glass bottles. Glass bottles will remain in the consistent collections from the doorstep. From our consultation and stakeholder engagement, that is considered to be the best way to increase the amount of glass we recycle.

T8. The Government’s 25-year environment plan aims to deliver cleaner water for our communities. However, recent statistics show that the River Calder and the River Aire, which run through the Wakefield district, are the second and third most polluted waterways in England. The Office for Environmental Protection, the Government’s own regulator, has said that progress has fallen far short. After 13 years in power, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to clean up the waterways for the people of Wakefield? (903681)

We are picking up after the inaction of the previous Labour Government—that takes time. That is why we will continue to do the work. I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we work on a catchment-based approach, which is the approach that is being taken. It is important that we focus in on those rivers, which is why I am asking Natural England to make progress with assessments of sites of special scientific interest around the country, thinking particularly of rivers. It is important that we continue to work together with the people who have the rights and responsibilities of owning those waterways at a local level to make sure that the hon. Gentleman’s rivers are cleaner than ever before.

Is the ploughing under of perfectly good crops because there is not enough labour to harvest them efficiently a success of Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have increased by another 15,000 the number of visas available through the seasonal agriculture workers scheme. An extra 10,000 visas are available should the industry require them. We are supplying the industry with the labour it requires, and the scheme seems to be working very well at this moment in time.

Polling commissioned by the Dogs Trust found that the biggest worry of almost a quarter of dog owners is the rising cost of dog food, causing deep concern and issues of abandonment. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) raised at the previous DEFRA questions the campaign to remove VAT from pet food. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury, and will the coming Budget introduce measures to reduce or remove VAT from dog food?

Pets are, of course, very precious to people and, after children, are often their No. 1 priority. It is important to try to make sure that people are generous. I make a plea to dog and cat food manufacturers to help their customers at this challenging time. The Budget will take place soon, but I want to manage expectations. I do not expect changes to VAT rates for specific products, but let us do what we can to make sure that our pets get fed.

Given the Secretary of State’s view that the financial sector must invest in projects to prevent biodiversity loss, what steps are the Government taking to incentivise businesses to play their part?

We are working across Government, including with the Treasury, to identify opportunities for green finance. We absolutely recognise that in this country, but also all around the world, nature-based solutions and reducing the harm caused by public subsidies are a priority, as set out at COP15 in Montreal by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I am sorry, Mr Speaker. I am so used to jumping up and sitting down, I did not realise that I had been called!

Northern Ireland fishermen have received only £14 million of the additional quota of £20 million that they were due to receive. In addition, the Northern Ireland protocol poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the fishing industry. What discussions have Ministers had with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the producer organisations about the future of fish stocks in and around Northern Ireland and the Irish sea?

Of course, we have regular meetings with the devolved Administrations. We also meet the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science regularly to discuss the level of fish stocks in the sea. We want to give out those quotas in a fair and equitable way that supports the whole of the United Kingdom and all four Administrations, and we will continue to have those conversations and discussions.

I am really sorry to hear that Ministers are not prepared to travel to Teesside to face local people who are concerned about ongoing sealife deaths. Ministers say that they want to find out the cause, so will they invest in further testing now rather than stick their heads in the sand?

The hon. Gentleman will have read the scientific report that says quite specifically that further investigation is highly likely to be futile and that we are quite unlikely to find that pathogen. I can say directly that if we were to analyse all the infections within the hon. Gentleman, we would find a lot of viruses that may not be relevant to his health or condition. That is the challenge. We have to find the pathogen at the moment that it is impacting on those crabs, but that moment has passed.

Are you aware, Mr Speaker, that Shannon and Sheerman are going on a world tour shortly?

Many of us think that the tyres on our vehicles are made wholly of rubber, but research that I have come across recently shows that that is not true. There is rubber but there are also 72 chemicals, many of which have a link to cancer. That waste goes on our roads and flows into the gutters and into our streams and rivers and the sea. What are we going to do about this ghastly poison?

That is why we have increasingly high environmental standards, considering the different chemicals that are used in products every day. We have some challenges with the recycling of certain products, such as sofas and chairs. These are ongoing issues. I am not aware of the science that the hon. Gentleman has commissioned, but I am aware of how the Government have stepped up and supported companies such as Michelin with the circular economy. We made sure that it kept its factory here so that we could have retreading and remanufacturing. It is with that sort of approach—making sure that we really promote the circular economy—that we can try to tackle some of the issues that arise from plastics.