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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Sewage Discharges: East Devon

1. What steps her Department is taking to help reduce sewage discharges in East Devon constituency. (903648)

My hon. Friend will know, regrettably, of the poor environmental performance of South West Water, with the second highest number of pollution incidents in the country. That is completely unacceptable for his constituents, and South West Water can, and must, do better. Meanwhile, it is subject to an ongoing criminal investigation led by the Environment Agency, which must be allowed to run its due course.

The Conservative party and Government have brought in the toughest ever crackdown on sewage spills. We are holding failing water companies to account, including the one-star rated South West Water, which was fined £13 million last year, and rightly so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that South West Water must clean up its act and our water?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. South West Water continues to be a poor performing company, which is unacceptable. That is why I called in the worst performing water companies at the end of last year, including the chief executive of South West Water. Those companies must take urgent steps to significantly reduce their pollution incidents, and we will ensure that they continue to be held to account. That is why I have asked water companies to provide individual reduction plans for each of the combined sewer overflows.

Sewage discharged into the River Otter flows through east Devon and my neighbouring constituency. The Government have adopted a Liberal Democrat amendment to the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill, which will make water companies produce costed, time-limited plans to stop sewage discharges before they can borrow taxpayers’ money. Although I am pleased that the Secretary of State and her colleagues have adopted my amendment, I wonder why they did not think of it themselves.

I do not think it is the intention of the UK Infrastructure Bank to be investing in the water companies —that is not expected to be its purpose. The amendment—dare I say it?—was perfectly nice, and of course the Government were happy to recommend it. This is important. It has been an ongoing issue for some time, and Liberal Democrat people have been water Ministers as well. We need to face these issues, and the fact that stuff has not been tackled. I am pleased that this Conservative Government are getting a grip and making a much harder effort to ensure a reduction in sewage pollution incidents.

The Environment Secretary first said that it was not a priority to meet water bosses, and then she said that it was and that she really did care—or words to that effect. She then said that she would come forward with a plan and big fines, but there were no plans and no fines. She then said that there would be a plan, but that the water companies will do it, not the Government, and that there might be fines, but only if the water companies agree to that. We now discover that Ofwat has watered down the rules intended to hold water companies to account, actively removing any reference to the consideration of local communities and local economies. On a scale of one to 10, how does the Secretary of State rate her Government’s record on ending the Tory sewage scandal?

I have great confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who continues to meet water companies, as do I. If the hon. Gentleman goes back and looks at the record of the Labour Government, he will see that they failed to deal with the urban waste water initiatives. The European Commission contacted them, took action against them, and took the Labour Government to court for failing to deal with sewage. That is what happened; that is the real history. When the Conservatives and the coalition Government came into power, we started working on leaks and making strategic policy statements, and we started the monitoring. None of that happened under a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman can spew out as much rubbish as he wants, but the reality is that the Labour Government did nothing about it. This Conservative Government are fixing it, making it harder, and that is what we will continue to do.

Oh my God. I have confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is doing a good job in very difficult circumstances to try to make progress, but I do not agree with the Environment Secretary passing the buck to a junior Minister, which is not on. Ultimately, those at the top take responsibility. It is high time the Secretary of State did just that.

I am proud of the Labour Government’s record. We had the cleanest water and the cleanest air since the industrial revolution. That is the Labour record, and it is a scandal that it was not built on further. The abuse of water does not stop there. Let us hear from the North East Fishing Collective, which had the door slammed on it on the scandal of crustacean die-offs on Teesside. It is concerned that livelihoods, jobs and generational pride have been impacted by the Government’s indifference:

“The entire fishing fleet in Hartlepool is finished. There’s no business left. They failed us when we begged them to listen, so now we will have to fight”.

I ask the Secretary of State, for the second time, to rate her Government’s performance on the water scandal that is polluting our country.

The hon. Gentleman should withdraw his earlier comments, because he has, perhaps unintentionally, misled the House. I hope he has the grace to withdraw.

Leading scientific advisers reviewed the crustacean die-offs, and it was published to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the House. We understand that a novel pathogen is the most likely explanation for what happened in the north-east. I continue to work with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and I take this matter very seriously, but I am conscious that, unlike the Labour Government who in their responses to the European Commission denied that there was a problem and were successfully taken to court, this Government have continued to act and will continue to do so.

Food Costs

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs works closely with other Departments and industry to keep abreast of price trends for food products. We are monitoring the situation and taking relevant action to maintain an efficient food supply chain by mitigating against potential burdens or frictions that could otherwise drive up food prices.

I am tempted to ask the Minister the price of a pint of milk, but no doubt his officials have put that in his brief.

As UK supermarket price inflation hits record highs, consumers are paying just under £800 more on their annual shopping bill, which is in part due to Brexit and the rising cost of animal feed, energy and fertiliser, with agricultural costs rising by almost 50% since 2019. Although farmers are fundamental to food production, they are bearing the brunt of the cost of the food crisis. Farming is an energy-intensive industry, so why is it not getting the same level of support as less energy-intensive sectors? Has the Minister met the Chancellor to discuss how better to support domestic farming?

The hon. Gentleman tries to blame Brexit, but even he will recognise that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine caused enormous ripples around the world, not only in energy prices but in food prices. Ukraine was the breadbasket of Europe and supplied huge volumes of cereals. Of course, rising global gas prices caused a rise in the cost of fertilisers. The Government recognised all that and tried to help farmers through this process and to assist them to produce great-quality food.

I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a major share- holder in a food production company.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the National Farmers Union’s call to protect home-grown food production?

We have been at this week’s NFU conference to talk directly to the NFU and to listen to farmers’ concerns. We recognise that there are huge pressures on UK domestic food producers and farmers, which is why we are helping them with grants to invest to make their businesses sustainable for the future.

Farmers from across the country met in Birmingham this week—the right hon. Gentleman and I sat on the same table for dinner—at an unprecedented time, with pressures seemingly coming from every direction to create a perfect storm. Although there might have been differences about the scale of the impact, there was consensus that the Environment Secretary had a pretty bad day at the office. Some described it as a “slow-motion tractor crash” or “calamity Coffey.” Joking aside, it was an insult to the very foundation of our food security and hard-working British farmers.

Everyone has the right to have a bad day at the office —I have had a fair few myself—but we have a responsibility to reflect on it and to right the wrong. Will the Environment Secretary, not the Farming Minister, use this opportunity to apologise?

I am very happy for the Farming Minister to apologise on the Secretary of State’s behalf for her outrageous display at the NFU conference in Birmingham yesterday. Will he use this opportunity?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State cannot answer this question, because of parliamentary procedure; I am obliged to answer, because I am answering—

Let me help. The Secretary of State will be coming in at topical questions, where she can open with a statement and can respond to anything she wants to then. I also say to both sides that I am really bothered that it is nearly quarter to 10 and we are still only on Question 2. Let us make progress.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State can speak for herself, but we had a successful meeting with farmers in Birmingham. There were some robust exchanges, but that is what we welcome and we engaged with. We continue to work with the NFU and other groups that represent the farming industry.

We are going to have the urgent question on food security a bit later, so I will not labour that at this point. I also thank you for granting the UQ, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have convened a cross-government committee to look at food security in this country and, in particular, the levers they can deploy? I am referring to financial support for farmers, support for energy-intensive food producers, and dealing with labour shortages and all the other issues about which, as he would have heard in Birmingham, farmers feel very frustrated, as it does not feel as though progress is being made on them.

Of course, there are Cabinet Office committees that look at all these challenges, but we in the Department continue to meet retailers on a regular basis. We are convening a roundtable with supermarkets to see how we can assist with those supply chain challenges that we face. We are gripping the situation and trying to assist where we can. It is down to the market to supply where it can, but there are huge challenges, including those in Morocco and Spain that have caused disruptions to food supplies in the UK at this moment.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the consumer prices index rose by 9.2% in the 12 months to December last year. Food inflation is at its highest since the 1970s, reaching 16.9%, making daily essentials such as butter, milk, pasta, eggs and cooking oil, unaffordable for those who are struggling in the cost of living crisis. Of course, that comes alongside the prospect of rationing. Food inflation is not going to fall for the foreseeable future, so what plans will the Minister put in place to ensure that affordable supplies of food can be made available? What steps will he take to make sure that food inflation falls?

The hon. Lady will be familiar with the huge package of support that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has put in place for families across the country, including in her constituency in Scotland, to help people with the rising cost of energy and food. That is the right thing to do; it supports those families with those challenges. There is also cash available for local authorities to try to help where the situation is very challenging.

Withdrawal from EU Single Market: Food Production

3. What recent assessment she has made of the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU single market on trends in the level of food production. (903651)

The Government have delivered the first free trade agreement the EU has ever reached based on zero tariffs and zero quotas, and our recent food strategy sets out how we will support a prosperous agrifood sector.

National Farmers Union of Scotland president Martin Kennedy recently highlighted the unprecedented period of change, cost and uncertainty for Scotland’s farmers and crofters driven by Brexit and now compounded by energy costs and fertiliser costs. Last year, I met farmers from across my constituency. They were frustrated by a lack of clarity on a replacement for the common agricultural policy, and our beef herds are now decreasing in numbers. This Government were elected on a pledge of matching EU funding pound for pound, but that has not materialised. Where is the money and when is it coming?

That simply is not true; £2.4 billion is the budget we have committed to in the manifesto, and we are making sure, through this Parliament, that that money continues to go to farmers. Lots of the issues the hon. Gentleman raises are devolved; his own Government are not delivering for the farmers in Scotland. In England, we are rolling out those plans—grants for farmers to invest in their businesses, and help to assist with their environmental schemes and to make sure that they are prosperous. I only hope that he can influence the Scottish Government to give the same level of support to his farmers.

Climate Change: Nature-based Solutions

4. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero on her Department’s future role in promoting nature-based solutions to climate change. (903653)

Throughout our net zero strategy, and in more detail across the 10 goals and 262 pages of our environmental improvement plan, we have clearly set out that nature-based solutions to net zero are at the heart of everything we are doing.

Coastal wetlands have huge potential both in terms of biodiversity and as carbon sinks, but there is an evidence gap that means we cannot exploit their potential by attracting full private and public sector investment. The right hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) said in his recent net zero review that that needs to be part of the greenhouse gas inventory, but we need the evidence base. Can the Minister clarify whose job it is to conduct that work so that we can fully maximise the potential of wetlands? Is it her Department, or is it the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero?

I reassure the hon. Lady that I whole- heartedly agree with her on the value of wetlands. I recently attended the Slimbridge Wetland Centre with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and saw for myself how beneficial wetlands can be. In direct response to her question, the responsibility in DEFRA lies with me. I look forward to meeting her to explain exactly how we are creating more wetlands and how nature-based solutions will feature throughout our net zero and other strategies.

Rural Farmers

Our environmental land management schemes are now open to farmers. The schemes collectively pay farmers to deliver climate and environmental outcomes alongside food production. We continue to evolve those offers, recently updating the countryside stewardship payment rates and bringing forward six new sustainable farming incentive standards.

The right hon. Gentleman is, I know, a horny-handed son of the soil, so he will know that some of the finest seed potatoes are grown in Easter Ross in my constituency. Many of those seed potatoes are in turn sold to English farms in Lincolnshire and suchlike—I might say that is one benefit of the Union. May I press the Minister to tell me what support can be given to those farmers in England to encourage them to grow more spuds such as Maris Pipers and hence to buy more seed potatoes from the farmers in my constituency?

I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Scottish seed potato producers. They are undoubtedly the best seed potatoes available anywhere in Europe, and I know that is recognised throughout the industry. That is why we are supporting farmers across England to continue to grow great British potatoes based on Scottish seed potatoes.

A tight labour market is a reality in agriculture and has been for some time and, although there may be other factors, we know Brexit is at the heart of it. That is why we have a seasonal agricultural worker scheme, but the Government continue to make decisions on that scheme on a short-term basis, too late for farmers to plan, so that they cannot invest in crops or machinery. When will the Government commit, working via the Home Office, to a five-year rolling programme so that farmers can make the right decisions for their staff?

The hon. Lady will be aware that this year we have granted an extra 15,000 visas through the seasonal agricultural worker scheme. We have also committed to those people being guaranteed a minimum of 34 hours a week, paid at the national minimum wage. There is also the option of an extra 10,000 visas if the industry requires them. We will continue to monitor, with the industry, how the scheme is working and to support the farmers who require that labour.

One of the most important roles for rural farmers is their ability to offer up land for affordable housing for rural people. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the new housing Minister about the more vigorous implementation of the Self-build and Custom House- building Act 2015—and if he has not yet had any, when does he plan to do so?

My hon. Friend is very astute at getting his pet topic into DEFRA questions; I pay tribute to the work he has done on self-build. Of course, we always have discussions with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, whose responsibility it is, about land use and we will be producing a land use framework later this year.

The Minister sometimes characterises my line of questioning as a touch gloomy, so I will try to cheer him up this morning by saying how pleased I was to hear his announcement at the NFU conference that the £2.4 billion per annum of agricultural support would be ring-fenced and that, if there was underspend in one year, it would be carried forward into future years. I am sure we are delighted that the Treasury has become such a kind, benevolent, caring organisation, but will he just repeat that promise in the House this morning, and maybe get one of his officials to write to me to point to where in his Department’s accounts that money is, so we can all keep an eye on it?

I am glad that we are making progress. If the hon. Gentleman had only read the Conservative party manifesto at the last election, he would have known that and would not be as gloomy. I encourage him to continue monitoring the Conservative party manifesto.

I am happy to confirm, as I did for the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), that £2.4 billion is ringfenced for the support of farmers—[Interruption.] Where is it? It is being spent at the moment, as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) will know. Some of it is being spent on the basic payment scheme, which comes down over seven years, and we are increasing payments through environmental land management schemes as the basic payment comes down. It is a very simple graph: as one comes down, one goes up. We are supporting farmers up and down this country.

Brexit barriers are impacting on exports, and labour and skills shortages across the economy have exacerbated underlying inflation, worsening the economic outlook for farmers, who are already grappling with labour shortages, rising energy and annual feed costs, and the appalling spectacle of unpicked food rotting in fields. A one-size approach to labour shortages does not fit Scotland, whose population is actually falling. What consideration will the Minister give, with Cabinet colleagues, to the Scottish rural visa pilot scheme, which is desperately needed to address Scotland’s specific needs?

As I said to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey), the Government recognise that there are challenges with labour supply. That is why we increased the number of visas to 45,000, with the option of an extra 10,000 if required. The industry has not called on the extra 10,000 visas at this time, but we remain ready to deploy them if the industry can demonstrate that they are required.

Bathing Waters: England

As a keen wild swimmer in Devil’s Point and Firestone bay in Plymouth sound, which is the country’s first national marine park, I have been working with Plymouth City Council to declare that really special piece of water a designated bathing water. May I ask the Minister to don her wetsuit and join me in the sea, where I can show her not only that incredible piece of water and the expanding access to it—especially for people from poorer communities—but, importantly, the raw sewage pipe that occasionally emits appalling human waste into a special and environmentally important bit of our sea?

I do wear a wetsuit when I go swimming in the sea—I am a bit of a coward, but I love to put my wetsuit on and go swimming in the sea.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he will have to wait until May to see where we go with that particular designation, but we already have 421 designated bathing sites in England as of last year—that number has gradually been going up. The good news about those sites is that 93% of them are classed as “excellent” and “good”, so their record is extremely good. I will take a rain check on whether I join him for a swim.

Why are there only 421 such sites? People can go wild swimming anywhere in England and other parts of the United Kingdom. Is this whole designation scheme not essentially a rationing scheme? Why do the Government not abandon it and enable people to swim in bathing waters anywhere?

To be quite honest, one can swim wherever one wants; it is just that there is a process for what we call designating bathing waters. In the application for that, one has to demonstrate that there is sufficient interest in using that site—that high numbers of people want to use it—and that there are car parking facilities and public facilities, including loos and so forth. That is all part of encouraging designated sites, but it is not to say that people cannot choose, in their own right, to swim wherever they want.

Fish Stocks

Our landmark Fisheries Act 2020 sets out the legal framework within which we manage fish stocks in UK waters, including fisheries management plans for key stocks. We work with industry and stakeholders, ensuring that precious fish stocks are managed to benefit our marine environment, fishing industry and coastal communities.

I recently hosted the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations in Parliament, as the Minister will know, so that it could launch a report highlighting concerns within the fishing industry across the UK about the loss of fishing grounds to an array of pressures, of which offshore wind and marine protected areas topped the list. What assurances can the Government give that they will speak to the NFFO and ensure that fishing is an important factor?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all that she does for the fishing sector. We welcome the NFFO’s “Spatial Squeeze in Fisheries” report, which highlights the need for a holistic approach to spatial planning. I meet regularly with the NFFO to discuss a wide variety of issues, including spatial prioritisation and the concerns outlined in that report.

The Secretary of State and the Minister need to travel to Teesside to meet people from the fishing and wider community who are still looking for answers to the ongoing deaths of crustaceans, fish and other sea life off the coast. If I set it up, will they come to Teesside and explain what they are going to do next to find out what is causing this ongoing crisis?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to know the cause of that terrible disaster. The scientists have looked at this, done a report and come to the conclusion that it was probably a pathogen that is very difficult to detect. Unless there is another event, which I sincerely hope there is not, we may never know the cause of this event.

Global Food Security

The Government are supporting Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, to export grain to countries most in need, including contributing £5 million to President Zelensky’s Grain from Ukraine initiative. The Government are also focused on the long-term drivers of global food insecurity, including climate change and biodiversity loss. We are supporting international programmes to improve the sustainability and resilience of global food systems.

The best form of food security is to grow more of our own food. Lincolnshire is the breadbasket of England, so it makes no sense that there are planning proposals to cover 10,000 acres of my constituency of Gainsborough with solar panels. We are all in favour of solar panels, but there are millions of acres of flat warehouse roofs they could go on. Will the Minister change the planning guidelines so that there is a presumption against building solar panels on 3b as well as 3a land? In reality, there is no difference in growing good wheat and barley between 3a and 3b land.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is responsible for planning. The best and most versatile land is defined as land in grades 1, 2 and 3a of the agricultural land classification, and the national planning policy framework sets out that local planning authorities should consider all the benefits of the best and most versatile land when making plans and decisions on development proposals. Where significant development of agricultural land is shown to be necessary, they should seek to use poorer-quality land in preference to higher-quality land.

Of course. We continue to work closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency and Government Veterinary Services to monitor this. We are working with the sector to make sure we have the best biosecurity available. There has been a fantastic response from the sector to improve its biosecurity, but we continue to face the challenge of avian influenza. The long-term solution to the challenge is a vaccine, which is not currently available, but we will give all the support we can to the scientific sector to try to develop such a vaccine.

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

9. What discussions she has had with the Leader of the House on the parliamentary timetable for the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. (903659)

The Bill contains a variety of manifesto commitments that we are committed to progressing when parliamentary time allows, but the Leader of the House will continue to announce business in the usual way.

The 2021 commitment to tackle puppy smuggling via the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was welcomed by a number of my constituents, but many of them are now concerned, because the secondary legislation being considered under the frozen Bill includes provisions to restrict the movement of heavily pregnant dogs, young puppies and dogs with cropped ears, and the level of puppy smuggling continues to rise. Can the Secretary of State provide assurances that the Government will continue to work towards ending this horrible practice and the movement of these poor animals across the border?

Yes, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. It is our intention to deliver the manifesto commitments, and we are doing that in a number of different ways and have provided legislation to support a number of those commitments through private Members’ Bills. But as I say, the Leader of the House will continue to be responsible for announcing how the business of Government Bills will progress.

For years, we have told people that we could not do anything about the cruelty of live export. The Secretary of State will understand those people’s frustration now that it is in our gift and in the Bill, won’t she?

Indeed. That is why it was a commitment in our manifesto: it is a freedom that we will be able to deploy having left the European Union. I am conscious that people are very interested in the progress of the Bill, but I stand by my earlier answer.


We are increasing levels of peatland restoration through our nature for climate fund, in order to restore approximately 35,000 hectares of peatland by 2025. To date, we have committed £33 million to restore 20,000 hectares of peatlands, with a further bidding round in 2023.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Well-maintained peatlands are a crucial nature resource in fighting the climate crisis. The Somerset levels near Bath contain 231 square miles of peatland, storing nearly 11 million tonnes of carbon, but 80% of the UK’s peatland is so degraded that it is acting as a net source of greenhouse gas emissions, doing the opposite of what it is meant to do. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says that part of the problem is the lack of available contractors with the necessary skills and capacity to allow for rapid restoration work. What is the Secretary of State, or the Minister, doing to increase the number of contractors?

We have set out in our peatland action plan the measures that we will be taking. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to recognise the value that England’s peatlands provide: they are our largest terrestrial carbon store, and also provide homes for rare wildlife, regulate our water supply and provide a record of the past, all of which are incredibly important. In the net zero strategy, we committed to restore approximately 280,000 hectares of peatland in England by 2050.

Single-use Plastic

13. What recent assessment her Department has made of the feasibility of ending the use of non-essential single-use plastics. (903664)

Apologies, Mr Speaker; I was told that the right hon. Gentleman had withdrawn his question.

We have banned single-use plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers, and have recently announced that additional items will be banned from October 2023, including plastic plates and cutlery and polystyrene food and beverage containers. Through our 25-year environment plan, we are committed to an ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

The Minister has a long-standing record in this area; I thought she might be jumping to get to the Dispatch Box to answer my question. We have to accept, though, that although we were making very good progress on reducing and eliminating the use of single-use plastics before covid, the measures that were necessary during lockdown did see a lot of that progress reversed, and there is now a need for a renewed and reinvigorated approach. Unfortunately, in Scotland we have a rather poorly designed deposit return scheme that risks further damage to the cause of reducing single-use plastics, so will the Minister join me and other Members across the House in designing a strategy for the eventual elimination of single-use plastics that can enjoy everyone’s support?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am always very keen to talk about these issues. Frankly, I believe this Government are doing a really great job in setting the direction of travel for reducing our use of plastics and, indeed, pressing on with all of our schemes—not just the individual bans that I have outlined—as well as the extended producer responsibility scheme, the data reporting section of which has already started; the deposit return scheme; and our consistent collections. I am sorry to hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Scottish deposit return scheme, but certainly, we in this place are pressing on with all our commitments and targets to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste.

Plastic Pollution

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. On a similar note to my answer to the previous question, the resources and waste strategy sets out our plans to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. To do that, we have introduced a range of bans on certain plastic items, as she will know, and the extended producer responsibility scheme, for which data gathering has already started. The deposit return scheme and consistent recycling will also come on board.

There is huge support for banning plastic in wet wipes from hon. Members on both sides of the House, retailers, producers and water companies. The Government’s consultation on the issue ended more than a year ago, but it was not included in the recent plastic announcements—the Government’s action on the issue is so slow. Will the Minister support the campaign of Water UK and the water companies to bin the wipe? Will she meet me to talk about when the Government will finally bring in that ban on plastic in wet wipes?

I know how passionately the hon. Lady feels about the issue—I do too—but we have to get it right. We are still analysing the responses to that call for evidence. Great care has to be taken when considering something flushable, even if it does not have plastic in it—where does it go, where does it end up and what happens to it?—so we have asked for extra information about that. It is critical for wipes to be flushable, but I urge people not to flush things down the loo, because that is how we get blockages and fatbergs. I recently went to a nursery where they were making homemade wet wipes out of kitchen roll, none of which went down the loo. If hon. Members want to see my video on that, they should go on to my Instagram.

Environmental Land Management Schemes

15. What steps her Department is taking to support farmers through environmental land management schemes. (903666)

We published an update on our environmental land management schemes on 26 January. We have worked to ensure that there is something for everyone; we are expanding the sustainable farming incentive offer and launching a new round of the landscape recovery scheme this year. We will expand and enhance our popular countryside stewardship scheme later.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. The £168 million farming investment fund, the six new standards in the SFI and the ELMS prospectus are good news and good progress, but I know from the National Farmers Union conference this week and from conversations with the Buckinghamshire committee of the Country Land and Business Association that detail is still missing that would give farmers the long-term certainty they need. I urge him to get the full detail of the schemes on the table as soon as possible.

We will continue to publish more information on our environmental land management schemes this year. That includes further details by the summer on the new actions that will be made available through the sustainable farming incentive and the countryside stewardship scheme.

I am not usually a fan of Jeremy Clarkson, but I have been absolutely addicted to his television programme and the ventures of Diddly Squat farm. Does the Minister agree that that programme gives people a real insight into the bureaucracy and complications of the schemes? It is very complicated for farmers who want to earn a living and feed the nation. Will he visit Clarkson’s farm to give him a bit of support?

I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Mr Clarkson and what he is doing to advertise what is happening in the agricultural sector and some of the challenges it faces. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the series was filmed before we announced lots of the detail about our ELM schemes, so some of the criticisms that are levelled at the Department have now been resolved and that information is out there. Mr Clarkson is, however, communicating with a different generation about the challenges of food production.

Food Insecurity

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs leads on food supply and we are working closely with the Cabinet Office to ensure that food supply is fully incorporated into emergency preparedness. The UK has a highly resilient food supply chain that is well equipped to deal with situations with a potential to cause disruption. Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources, strong domestic production and imports through stable trade routes. DEFRA has a collaborative relationship with industry, which allows us to effectively respond to disruption, should it occur.

With the Office for National Statistics highlighting a 16.8% increase in food prices in the year to January, the Government have built their food poverty infrastructure on dependency on voluntary donations and retail waste donations. However, due to demand, food banks in York are running out and are eking out their food supplies. For my part, I am holding a city-wide donation day so that those who can give do so and those who are in need receive. We call it York Together, as we support one another. What are the Government doing to ensure that no one goes without?

The hon. Lady is right to praise the initiative with her constituents in York. That is very welcome, and it is an element of what can be done locally. We have talked about aspects of food pricing, and there is no doubt that inflation is really tough at the moment, but I am conscious that we still have a situation in which, generally across Europe, we have one of the lowest proportions of incomes being spent on food. Supermarkets have been very competitive, and we may discuss some of that later. I encourage her to also support of the household support fund, which is intended to go to people who are particularly in need. However, we know that one of the best ways for people to boost their income is not only to get into work if they are not in work already, but to work more hours or get upskilled to get a higher income. The local welfare grant, which was given some time ago by central Government to local councils, is there for them to use as well.

In the Secretary of State’s first answer, she talked about domestic security and domestic growing, but it is being made clear across broadcast media this morning that the UK Government have refused to give support to greenhouse growers across the winter season, which has added to the shortages we are seeing and the restrictions in supermarkets. Why are the Government refusing to help those farmers, and to ensure that we have domestic food security and do not have these shortages across the supermarkets?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. At this time of the year, we normally import about 90% to 95% of our food, because we cannot grow it in our soils, although I appreciate that there are industrial greenhouses that could grow some of these materials. We do know that energy prices have been going up, and the Government have been supporting businesses. It is when the change happens in April that I understand there may be an impact on greenhouses, which is why we will continue to work with the industry. However, we have always been a significant importer, particularly of things like tomatoes, recognising that farmers will choose to use the land in the way that they think is best to have a sustainable farming business in the UK.

Topical Questions

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.