Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 30th March 2023.
If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.
I am pleased to say that today, alongside the launch of our net zero strategy, we are launching the nature markets framework. We need a healthy and thriving natural environment to meet our net zero goals and build our resilience to climate change. The announcement today on the investment we are seeking, alongside the £4 million we will use to boost that private finance, sends a signal that the opportunities for investing in our farmland, forestry, peatlands and marine areas are great and can offer long-term rewards for both people and nature.
We are very proud that the Canal & River Trust has its headquarters in Ellesmere Port, but like everyone else it has been struggling with increasing costs relating to covid and energy. It is waiting for an answer from the Government about what will happen with its grant funding, so will the Secretary of State give us a date by which a decision will be made and guarantee there will be no cuts to its grant funding?
I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but I missed the name of the company the hon. Gentleman referred to. As he will know, support has been provided in different ways to all businesses with regard to energy costs.
Insect protein is increasingly being pushed on social media as an alternative food, despite concerns about contamination. Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Government intend to label this type of protein, so that consumers can make informed decisions?
Food is assessed before it is allowed to be placed on the UK market, and that assessment includes whether it is safe. As with any other food, any producer has to be registered with its local food authority to meet strict food safety requirements. Food derived from or including insect protein must be properly labelled, with ingredients clearly indicated and any warnings, such as the presence of allergens, included on the label.
Last night, Abi Kay of Farmers Weekly posted a piece detailing allegations of a major fraud in the meat processing sector. Her investigation revealed that
“up until at least the end of 2020, a food manufacturer was passing off huge quantities of foreign pork—sometimes tens of thousands of tonnes a week—as British”, as well as passing potentially unfit food into the food chain. We had hoped that Ministers might make a statement this morning to reassure the public. In the absence of that, will the Minister tell the House what action he is taking, how often he has met representatives of the meat processing sector in the last month, and whether he is confident that adequate whistleblowing and trade union representation structures are in place to ensure that such malpractices cannot go undetected?
As the hon. Gentleman indicates, this is a very important issue. We have not made a statement today because there is an ongoing criminal investigation. I do not want to jeopardise that criminal investigation, because these are very serious allegations. The Food Standards Agency has responsibility in this area. I met the chair of the FSA last week. I continue to meet representatives of the meat industry—I met them this month and do so on a regular basis. We will keep a close eye on the investigation and leave it to the FSA to deliver criminal prosecution.
Some people particularly want to buy halal and kosher meat and some people particularly do not want to buy halal and kosher meat, so will the Government ensure that it must be properly labelled at the point of sale, so that people who particularly want to buy it or particularly do not want to buy it are able to make an informed decision?
The fundamental principle of food labelling rules is that information provided to consumers must not mislead. Based on evidence provided from a 2021 call for evidence on food labelling for animal welfare, we are still considering how to move forward.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State said that she likes information and facts, so here are a few statistics for her: the Dogs Trust alone has cared for 250,000 illegally imported puppies. If sold, those puppies would have netted £3 million for criminals. More than 40,000 people have written to the Government asking them to fulfil their manifesto commitment and pass the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Will she tell me how many more days they will have to wait for an answer?
My first rescue dog was from the Dogs Trust, which is a very important charity. On animal welfare, the hon. Lady will be aware of our good record, including Bills that have been going through this place. Business managers are aware of the manifesto commitments that we want to fulfil, and they are in charge of scheduling Government business. The Leader of the House will announce business in the usual way.
Will the Minister explore with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities the implications for national parks of proposals to extend permitted development rights to pop-up campsites?
Yes, I absolutely will. I understand the proportionality required on this issue to protect nature and improve the lives and livelihoods of people living in protected landscapes.
Wakefield suffers from the second and third most polluted rivers in England. I was really concerned by reports this week that the Environment Agency still does not have a full-time team dealing with this crisis. It is clear that the Government are all talk. This is not a part-time issue, so when will the Government finally give this crisis the dedicated attention that it desperately needs?
The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about the quality of rivers. The Environment Agency is funded through its licensing in order to do the necessary inspections. The Government increased the amount of money available to the Environment Agency to undertake criminal investigations. He should be aware that there is a live criminal investigation right now into water companies and what is happening to sewage.
I call the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
I was appalled to read in this week’s Farmers Weekly that food labelled as British has actually come from South America or even Africa, and that meat not fit for human consumption has been going into the food chain. The Food Standards Agency’s report makes it clear that it has been misled and hoodwinked by these operators. Is there a case to bring the FSA within DEFRA rather than the Department of Health and Social Care, where it is now?
The Select Committee Chair is right that the Farmers Weekly has provided an interesting investigation.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries said, the investigation is under way. It is true that the Food Standards Agency is a non-ministerial Department and is accountable to the Department for Health and Social Care, but as my right hon. Friend said, there is active engagement. The machinery of government change that Select Committee Chair proposes is of interest, and I will consider it with the Prime Minister.
I would like to add that in my comments to the Select Committee the other day, I said that I do not read editorials in some of the magazines. I really enjoyed the article in this week’s Farmers Guardian about Angus herd fuel efficiency gains of 41p per kilo, and in Farmers Weekly about the trials of replacing insecticides, a Scottish pilot that was very interesting indeed.
When my constituents do their food shopping they are faced with price increases of between 10% and 15%, or even more, compared with last year. But farmers in my consistency are certainly not getting paid 10% or 15% more for their produce—they are lucky to even get paid the same as last year. If the farmers who produce the food are getting ripped off, and the customers who eat the food are getting ripped off, who is doing the ripping off? What are the Government going to do to stop it?
We have regular conversations across the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify that the supply chain needs fairness to be built into it. There needs to be a sharing of risk, responsibility and reward. We have regular conversations with retailers, processors and primary producers to try to encourage fairness across the supply chain.
Welcome support for farmers in Dorset and across the country would be for the Department and Government as a whole to learn the lessons on trade deals, as pointed out by the Secretary of State’s predecessor but one, my right hon. Friend George Eustice. Can the Secretary of State set out the discussions that she has with Ministers about trade deals, to ensure that UK farmers’ interests, food production and security are at the heart of the discussions?
I assure my hon. Friend that I see my role as Secretary of State as ensuring that we have productive trade agreements, which include exports as well as potential imports. It is important, and it has been a key part of our negotiations, that we not only protect our sanitary and phytosanitary and animal welfare standards but ensure that any impact on the domestic market is sufficient that British farmers continue to grow, and rear, their brilliant British food and livestock.
I know the Government and the Minister, in particular, take a deep interest in fisheries issues, specifically about spurdog fishing; I asked the Minister a question about that some time ago. Will the Minister confirm that the total allowable catch for spurdog will be announced? That will create a significant boost for all local fisheries, especially those in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates again how informed he is on this matter. From Saturday, it will be possible to catch spurdog. The statutory instrument has now been laid. That species is now open to fishermen across devolved Administrations and the whole of the United Kingdom to go and catch from Saturday. We will be allocating quota in the very near future.