Topical Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in the House of Commons at on 6 July 2023.

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Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It has been a particularly busy week for DEFRA in a number of different ways, with not only the launch of the designated highly protected marine areas, but the House of Commons voting to support the legislation to introduce the ban on plastics, which is another way to improve the environment.

Of course, there has also been significant speculation about the water industry. I think it is important to put it on record that the Government have confidence in the financial resilience of the water sector industry. We will continue to have discussions, which are important, and I think it is critical to be aware that people who do not know a lot about the water industry, frankly, are out of their depth in making some comments and speculation. We need to make sure that we treat this situation very carefully, because it is critical to make sure that we have ongoing investment in the water industry, which everybody here relies on.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

Thankfully, my dog Sidney Pickles came from a great home, although one could complain to trading standards that his former home failed to describe him as a naughty cocker spaniel or a fox poo-rolling little tinker. Seriously, however, there has been much misinformation about the Government’s action on puppy farming from the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this Government have, in fact, been taking firm action to stop the unscrupulous selling of puppies by deceitful sellers?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Indeed, and I want to thank my hon. Friend. I have met her dog Sidney Pickles, who is delightful. As she says, it was purchased from a great breeder. One thing we need to continue to focus on is improving the laws on dog breeding to crack down on unscrupulous breeders. Regulations do require commercial dog breeders to hold a valid licence from their local authority, and it is important that people check for that licence. The regulations also prohibit the third-party sale of puppies and kittens.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Tories are sinking the water industry. Since Tory privatisation, water companies have racked up debts of over £60 billion. Every day, we see 800 sewage dumps and lose over 3 billion litres of water in leaks, and what is the biggest leak of all? The £72 billion paid out to shareholders. Now Thames Water is on the edge as the money dries up. Can the Secretary of State tell the House if she believes that this is an isolated case—yes or no?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have already said to the House that the Government have full confidence in the financial resilience of the water sector. I will point out that, of course, the gearing for Thames Water shot up in 2007, when Labour was in government. It is fair to say that, when a previous Secretary of State issued a strategic policy statement to Ofwat, one of the key focuses was about reducing the gearing, and that has not happened with Thames Water. Ofwat is still responsible, and I am still holding it to account on how that goes forward. However, it is very important that we do not have speculation and misinformed comments. It is critical that we get water companies through certain stages, and I am confident the Government will do that.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Like the industry itself, that response does not hold water. People know that Thames Water is not an isolated case: five companies are rated as being of concern by the Government’s own financial regulator. Last weekend, I wrote to the Environment Secretary setting out six key tests to safeguard bill payers, workers and taxpayers from paying the price of a failing water industry. Will she finally act to protect the national interest and commit to those six tests, and will she rule out customers having to pay twice for boardroom failures—yes or no?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have not yet seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter, but I will of course respond to it before the recess. Over £190 billion has been invested into our water industry since privatisation, through a long-standing combination of equity and debt investment by water companies. Speculation around such an important utility does not help the situation, and a measured approach is critical to getting through this difficulty. He mentions other water companies, and that is why Ofwat has acted and why new equity has come into many water companies. It is critical that we continue to have that confidence.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Hundreds of animal lovers across the west midlands have suffered the dreadful crime of pet theft in recent years. What are Ministers doing to prevent such crimes?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Stealing a pet is already a criminal offence, and we know the devastating impact that pet theft can have. We legislated to require the microchipping of cats, in addition to dogs, because that can act as an effective deterrent. The pet theft taskforce reports that dogs are mostly stolen from gardens and outbuildings, and highlights the need for owners to ensure security at home for their treasured pets.

Photo of Amy Callaghan Amy Callaghan Scottish National Party, East Dunbartonshire

Bearing in mind the escalating number of dangerous dog attacks, including the death of a dog, Sula, in Milngavie in East Dunbartonshire, whose owner felt that their life would have been at risk had they intervened, will the Secretary of State review the Government’s decision to drop the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill? If not, will she explain to the House how she plans to deliver its measures by different means?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries set out on 25 May how we intend to take through our manifesto commitments. We also have a taskforce working on this situation, and I expect a report with some recommendations later this year.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Yorkshire Water’s sewer improvement project. This £15 million scheme under the A65 in Ilkley is only happening as a result of a huge campaign by the Ilkley Clean River Group and our passing the Environment Act 2021, which the Opposition voted against at every stage. Does the Minister therefore agree that the Government are purely focused on cleaning up the water quality of our rivers?

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

I could just say yes, but I will add a bit more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is this Government who have got water quality on the radar. We are cleaning up our rivers and our bathing waters, 93% of which are classed as good or excellent. Our plan for water will ensure that we provide the clean and plentiful water we need for generations.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

Gateshead food bank and Feeding Families, both of which operate in my constituency, have seen huge increases in the demand for food parcels over recent years. With food inflation running at 18.3%, the situation will only get worse. What will the Minister do to tackle food inflation, so that people do not have to rely on those organisations?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is why we are investing in our farmers to help them produce food more efficiently and increase productivity. It is also why the Government have put forward a huge £94 billion support package—over £3,300 per household—and provided £100 million of support to charities working in the sector.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

The use of storm overflows is of huge concern to my residents in Southend-on-Sea. Due to this Government’s actions, Anglian Water was supposed to have its plan for mitigating the use of overflows on the Secretary of State’s desk last Friday. Was it there, and when will my residents be able to see it?

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

Every water company was asked to put a plan for every storm overflow on the Secretary of State’s desk. I can tell my hon. Friend that all the plans have arrived and are being analysed.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

What should I say to my twin grandsons, who are here today, about their future given that they live in Cambridge, where air quality is poisoning young people, pregnant women and many others? What will the Secretary of State really do about cleaning up the environment for that generation?

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

What assurance can the Farming Minister give my Ynys Môn farmers that this Government are doing all they can to ensure that food labelling is accurate? Will the Minister accept my invitation to the Anglesey show on 15 and 16 August to discuss the matter with my farmers in person?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is always a pleasure to visit Wales and Welsh farmers. I say to constituents of my hon. Friend that making sure there is a red tractor on their food is a very good step to make sure that their food is procured in the right way and that they are supporting UK farmers. I will look at my diary and see whether I can attend her show. I am sure it will be an excellent example of the top-quality food and farming in Wales.