Topical Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons on 17th June 2021.

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

Today is Clean Air Day. The recent coroner’s inquest into the tragic death of Ella Kissi-Debrah highlighted the importance of making progress on delivering clean air. The Government are working on a new targets framework for air quality and a range of policies to improve air quality, and in particular to reduce particulate matter. We will also do more to raise awareness of the risks of air quality in our urban areas.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

In 2007 there were major floods in Sheffield, which not only affected homes but destroyed large parts of industrial areas, including Meadowhall shopping centre, Forgemasters and other industries. A great deal of work has been done on flood defences, with the council and the private sector working together, with some Government support. However, one thing that would really help is the preservation of the peat bogs in the moorlands above Sheffield, which act as a massive sponge to stop the run-off and the cascading of water down into Sheffield. Will the Minister take action now to stop heather burning on the peat bogs and to make sure that peat does not end up in unnecessary products, such as compost for gardens?

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

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The Government are clear that we will consult on a ban on horticultural peat, and we will shortly bring forward the legislation that will implement a new ban on the burning of heather on blanket bog. It is our intention to treble the rate of peatland restoration, for all the reasons he said.[This section has been corrected on 21 June 2021, column 8MC — read correction]

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

My borough of Bexley is one of the greenest in London, with great parks and open space. Will my right hon. Friend explain what action is being taken to increase the number of trees planted in urban areas?

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

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government set out proposals in our recent England tree strategy. There will be a new urban tree challenge fund and a new treescapes fund for local authorities, and of course our policy of biodiversity net gain absolutely intends to make space for nature in new developments, which will including tree planting.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope that today is not the Secretary of State’s last Question Time, given the recent rumours from Downing Street that he is due for the chop. If those rumours are true, how will he spend his next few weeks ensuring that he is not remembered as the Secretary of State who betrayed our fishing industry and who rolled over and betrayed our farmers over an Australian trade deal?

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

Ministers never comment on reshuffle speculation, particularly when it is about oneself. In the context of fishing, we recently got an agreement with the EU on how to approach shared stocks for the remainder of this year. We of course got an increase in quota of around 25%, with 15% of that coming this year, and we have deployed that to almost double the fishing opportunities for our inshore fleet in this year.

Photo of Robert Largan Robert Largan Conservative, High Peak

The moors of the Dark Peak are staggeringly beautiful, but unfortunately they remain some of the most depleted in Europe. The case for restoring our peat moorlands makes sense on so many levels. It enhances biodiversity and improves water quality, helping keep water bills down. It reduces the risk of flooding and of wildfire, and it helps tackle climate change. I am proud that the Government are investing huge sums of money in restoration already, but we do need to go further and faster. Can I invite the Secretary of State to come up on the moors of the High Peak with me, so he can see the excellent work being done first-hand and so we can make the case for continued investment in this vital restoration?

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

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our peat habitats are vital for our biodiversity, can be a vitally important carbon store and can also help with both drought and flood risk mitigation. We will be dramatically increasing the funds available for peatland restoration. I or one of my ministerial colleagues would of course be delighted to visit his constituency in the High Peak and see some of the work being done there.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood

Further to the previous question, the Climate Change Committee warned this week that the area of land suitable for peat-forming vegetation in the uplands could decline by 50% to 65% by the 2050s through the effects of climate change alone, potentially dramatically increasing UK carbon emissions. How is the Secretary of State planning to amend the “England Peat Action Plan” to bring forward plans for peat protection and restoration in light of the Committee’s damning report?

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

We are dramatically increasing the rate of peatland restoration to get to 35,000 hectares by the end of this Parliament. It will be a big feature of the landscape recovery component of our future agriculture policy. We have great ambitions to see the natural hydrology of our deep peat habitats restored.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

Fly-tipping is a blight on rural areas. Central Bedfordshire alone issued 400 penalty notices last year, but with the fine only being £400—frequently discounted—it is treated really as just a cost of doing business if someone gets caught, does my right hon. Friend agree that the fine is too low? What other efforts can he take to improve deterrence?

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

I know that fly-tipping is a challenge. My hon. Friend says that £400 is too low. That is an immediate on-the-spot penalty fine, which was introduced just a couple of years ago. Prior to that, local authorities had to try to bring a prosecution, but we are doing more to try to improve the traceability of waste, to strengthen the waste carrier transfer system and to digitise the notes to improve the traceability and track down the criminals behind this fly-tipping.

Photo of Beth Winter Beth Winter Labour, Cynon Valley

Today marks Clean Air Day, which aims to improve public awareness and understanding of the damage caused by air pollution and to promote campaigning on this critically important issue. I am proud to say that the Welsh Government’s “Programme for Government” published this week included a commitment to introduce a clean air Act for Wales consistent with World Health Organisation guidance and to extend the provision of air quality monitoring. Will the Minister commit to following the Welsh Government’s lead at a UK level?

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

This issue is very much the subject of debate in the Environment Bill, which is currently going through both Houses of Parliament. We will be setting targets for clean air, and we will also be looking at a population exposure target, since it is not just about the absolute levels of particulate matter—we want to continue to reduce those—but about looking at the issue of population exposure, too.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

The Secretary of State is fully aware that we have an issue at the moment with customs. West Somerset Garden Centre in Minehead, which is at the far end of most supply chains, is getting a lot of these articulated lorries from across Europe, and they start their drop in Minehead, which means that customs forms are done in Minehead for the whole load, regardless of whether only a third of it is coming off there. The other problem is that when these plant trays come off—the Secretary of State knows what I am talking about—even if only three of those plants are coming off in Minehead, the rest still have to go through the customs rigmarole there. The customs officers either do not get to Minehead or do not know where it is, and there is a huge problem with this, as the Secretary of State is aware. We need an answer to this fairly quickly, because the paperwork is swamping a small garden centre in Somerset.

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

I will be brief. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this particular issue in relation to customs.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The reason why Cumbria’s farmers feel betrayed is that the Australian trade deal gives Australian farmers an unfair advantage over British farmers, because their production costs are lower due to significantly worse animal welfare and environmental standards in Australia compared with those in our country. Given that this sets an appalling precedent for all future deals, will the Secretary of State ensure that farmers’ representatives in this House get the final say and a veto before this deal is signed off.

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

Under the provisions that we have to ratify treaties, of course this House will have the ability to decline to ratify any treaty, including this particular one. On the issue of animal welfare, it is the case that we have a chapter on animal welfare co-operation. Of course, we will be seeking to address some of the welfare deficiencies in Australia and, for instance, to get it to follow New Zealand’s lead on the issue of mulesing. It is also important to recognise that this agreement does not cover pork and poultry, on which its standards also have problematic approaches.