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Topical Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Labour, Blaydon

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Since the last EFRA oral questions, the Government have: introduced a major Environment Bill; committed to plant 1 million trees in Northumberland; pledged £11.6 billion for climate measures abroad; published proposals to restrict the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals; banned the sale of primates as pets; and introduced cat microchipping. We have made clear our determination to improve the welfare of live animals in transport, with a view to choking off live exports for slaughter or fattening. I have also had the chance to make visits around England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to talk to farmers, fishermen and those involved in the food sector.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Labour, Blaydon

May I join colleagues in thanking you for your help, Mr Speaker? I am going to once again try to avoid your eye while I ask what should be a very short question.

Blaydon Quarry landfill site in my constituency causes a huge nuisance for the communities surrounding it, particularly from the regular bad smells, as residents tell me there are at the moment. I think it is time for the site to be closed—safely. Will the Secretary of State join me in that call and put an end to the absolutely misery caused to local residents by this landfill site?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is worrying to hear the reports of the odour from the site. I understand that an odour suppression system has now been installed in the waste tipping bay and that further engineering works are under way to try to tackle the problem. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Environment Agency continues to take this issue very seriously and is working with the community and the local authority. Earlier this year, it took regulatory action preventing the site from accepting waste until remedial work has been undertaken.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

May I add my personal words, Mr Speaker? Thank you for your friendship, your support and your guidance to all new Members as you have helped us to navigate our way through what, at times, feels like a very turbulent Parliament. From my family to yours, I look forward to seeing much more of you in your retirement. It has been a pleasure to serve with you for a couple of years.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Thank you very much, too, to Oliver and Freddie. I look forward to seeing very much more of you.

Pagham Harbour in my constituency is one of the best places to see wildlife in the UK, covering 600 hectares of salt marshes, mudflats, reed beds and lagoons. It is an important natural store of carbon and it absorbs up to 310 tonnes per hectare. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that carbon-rich natural habitats are protected to improve biodiversity and help us to reach net zero by 2050?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Protecting nature is a key part of the Environment Bill. It supports the nature recovery network envisaged by our 25-year environment plan. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done in relation to this wonderful site. She is right to say that nature-based solutions, with natural storage of carbon in such locations, will form a key part of becoming a net-zero economy.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

May I first say, Mr Speaker, that I was one of the early adopters of Bercow for Speaker, as we called the campaign in 2009? Unfortunately, I am part of a much diminished band in that regard now. While I think we would all occasionally have found ourselves wondering in quiet moments just exactly what we had done, I am also confident in saying that at the end of the day none of us who backed you in 2009 have ever, as parliamentarians, regretted the decision that we took then. I thank you and your family for the service that you have given.

The December Fisheries Council this year will be on the Monday and Tuesday following the general election. There is every indication that it is going to be a challenging negotiation, so what are the Minister and his officials doing now to ensure that the voices of our fishing industries are heard and properly represented at that Council?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thought for a moment that for the first time in six years we might not get on to fisheries and agriculture at DEFRA orals. May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, along with others, to thank you for your chairmanship and stewardship of these occasions and wish you well for the future? May I also record a tribute to Reverend Rose, who is also leaving us? She not only presided over my marriage in St Mary Undercroft but baptised my daughter. Many Members have benefited from her pastoral support and advice.

I had a meeting with officials yesterday to discuss the issue of cod and the EU-Norway negotiations. Those negotiations will take place during November. I remain Fisheries Minister during the election period and will continue to monitor events. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the December Fisheries Council that formally adopts these proposals will be about three days after the general election. I hope still to be in place and to go there, but if I am not, I am sure that whoever my successor is will have a steep and enjoyable learning curve in coming to terms with the complexities of the December negotiations.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

Mr Speaker, may I also thank you for your many hours and years of dedication in the Chair? But there is one issue that still has to be resolved, which is the harassment of and threats to female colleagues. I was particularly concerned to hear that a female candidate has already received a death threat this week. Could you use your last few hours and days in this position to urgently look at what more we can do to ensure that everybody is kept safe at this election? No one should be discouraged from standing because of their sex, their race or any other reason.

It is a great honour to be in this place. One of the things that I have most enjoyed doing is cajoling so many colleagues to take part in the “give up plastic for Lent” challenge, which opened our eyes to the fact that we need action by Government and across society to deal with the scourge of plastic waste. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Environment Bill is a step change in how we deal with plastics and that one of the first actions of the next Conservative Government must be to bring the Bill back and get it through Parliament?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We will do exactly that, because the Environment Bill has a really strong package of measures to respond to the grave public concern about plastics pollution. The public are determined to tackle this issue, and so are the Conservative Government.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady SNP Chief Whip

Despite the Prime Minister’s bluster, we are not leaving the European Union today. If we were, his deal would mean that tomorrow, Scotland’s fishing fleet would still be subject to the common fisheries policy, but with added red tape and bureaucracy to get its catch to market. Should Scotland’s fishermen not use the upcoming election to stop this dreadful Tory deal?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Scottish fishing industry wants to leave the CFP and take advantage of the sea of opportunity that we will have when we become an independent coastal state. It is his party that is standing against the interests of the Scottish fishing industry by wanting to remain in the European Union.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Conservative, Harrogate and Knaresborough

I am keen that the next generation are engaged with why climate change happens and what they can do to prevent its impact. Harrogate Borough Council is putting in place a scheme that gives every schoolchild in the borough the opportunity to plant a tree, which will be both fun and educational. Will the Minister encourage other authorities and bodies to offer that opportunity to every schoolchild in our country?

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith The Minister of State, Department for International Development, The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I commend Harrogate Borough Council. The National Trust has said that a child today is three times more likely to go to hospital for falling out of bed than falling out of a tree. Obviously I do not recommend either activity, but there is no doubt that children who are insulated from nature are losing out; I very much agree with him. Working with the Woodland Trust and community forests, we are on track to meet our target of planting 1 million trees at English primary schools by 2020, and we committed in the 25-year environment plan to encourage children to be closer to nature in and out of school. The last week of November is National Tree Week, and I strongly encourage Members to plant trees with their local schools, so that we can all celebrate together.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Mr Speaker, our careers have been somewhat in parallel. I had a slight interregnum in the middle of your speakership, but I am pleased to be here today, to top and tail it. We have remained good friends throughout.

The Government committed to keeping the current level of farm spending until the end of this Parliament, which will be in the next couple of days. The Labour party will commit to keep that level of spending and, indeed, even spending more under the new system, which will be expensive to introduce. Will the Government make that commitment?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is right; the Government are committed to keep spending exactly the same until the end of this Parliament. He will have to wait to see our manifesto to find out what will happen in the next Parliament, but I will simply say this. It is implicit in the Agriculture Bill that there will be a transition over a period of seven years, during which we will roll out the new policy, and we have already committed to fund the objectives of the Agriculture Bill.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The Woodland Trust, of which I am a keen member, believes that we can increase the amount of tree coverage by natural regeneration. That seems to be the best way of doing it, so how can we incentivise that within the new environmental land management scheme?

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith The Minister of State, Department for International Development, The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right. Much of what we need to do to tackle climate change and restore nature involves rewilding or natural regeneration. A growing number of projects around the country are already delivering vast benefits. For example, at Knepp Castle in West Sussex, agri-environment funding has helped to create extensive grassland and scrub habitats, with huge benefits for declining bird species such as the turtle dove and the nightingale. As he says, the new environmental land management scheme will be transformative, because it will make subsidies conditional on the delivery of public goods such as biodiversity, woodland and flood management. It really could be the big thing that improves biodiversity in this country, which of course means increasing tree cover and encouraging natural regeneration.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

May I join colleagues in thanking you, Mr Speaker, for everything that you have done to stand up for our democracy?

The Government’s Environment Bill does not actually include targets; it only requires Ministers to set them. Those targets could be 15 years in the future, they could be lower than current standards and they need be nothing more than aspirations. The Prime Minister has said that he would “enshrine the highest standards” in law. Obviously, nobody believes a word that the Prime Minister says, but does the Minister agree that there should be a legislative commitment to non-regression from current environmental standards?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Environment Bill sets out a duty to set targets—actual targets will all be set in secondary legislation, as has been quite clearly stated—and it has had a lot of support from many organisations across the board. The whole system will be overseen by the Office for Environmental Protection, which will have to look at the five-yearly targets and review them annually. There is a very strict set of regimes in there. The Government have given very clear indications about not reducing our environmental standards—that is absolutely not the direction this Government would ever intend to go in—and that includes comments made just last week by the Prime Minister about non-regression.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright Conservative, Kenilworth and Southam

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kindness in calling me today, for your broader kindnesses to all of us and for all your service from the Chair.

I want to raise an issue again that I know is also of concern to you, Mr Speaker. Ministers know that HS2 and its construction will affect a good deal of farmland. They will also be aware, I hope, that HS2 Ltd has not been as effective as it should have been either in providing full and timely financial compensation for land lost or in making the practical arrangements necessary to allow farmers to farm properly the land they have left. Will my right hon. Friend and her colleagues please make sure they engage with colleagues at the Department for Transport to ensure that the financial and psychological consequences for the farmers affected by HS2 are properly mitigated, if this project is to continue?

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Of course I am happy to give a commitment to engage with colleagues in the DFT on these important matters. It is of course vital that HS2 Ltd does all it can to ensure that it meets its obligations in a timely way in relation to farming and environmental concerns.

Several hon. Members:

rose—