Richard Benyon debates with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There have been 21 exchanges between Richard Benyon and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Mon 28th October 2019 Environment Bill 3 interactions (602 words)
Thu 17th October 2019 The Climate Emergency 3 interactions (576 words)
Thu 25th July 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (39 words)
Mon 22nd July 2019 Degraded Chalk Stream Environments 13 interactions (1,583 words)
Wed 15th May 2019 Trophy Hunting (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (80 words)
Wed 1st May 2019 Environment and Climate Change 7 interactions (877 words)
Tue 9th April 2019 World Health: 25-Year Environment Plan (Westminster Hall) 15 interactions (288 words)
Thu 28th March 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (70 words)
Thu 21st February 2019 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (62 words)
Tue 22nd January 2019 Water Industry (Westminster Hall) 37 interactions (2,483 words)
Thu 10th January 2019 European Union (Withdrawal) Act 9 interactions (1,274 words)
Wed 21st November 2018 Fisheries Bill 3 interactions (68 words)
Wed 10th October 2018 Agriculture Bill 7 interactions (866 words)
Wed 4th July 2018 Sustainable Fisheries 3 interactions (109 words)
Wed 27th June 2018 British Flora: Protection from Imported Diseases (Westminster Hall) 7 interactions (934 words)
Mon 4th June 2018 Ivory Bill 3 interactions (91 words)
Tue 27th February 2018 UK Fisheries Policy (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (460 words)
Tue 14th November 2017 Marine Environment (Westminster Hall) 3 interactions (818 words)
Thu 26th October 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (68 words)
Tue 17th October 2017 Lowland Curlew (Westminster Hall) 8 interactions (2,317 words)
Thu 20th July 2017 Oral Answers to Questions 3 interactions (69 words)

Environment Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons)
(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons)
Richard Benyon Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 7:59 p.m.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is utterly inexcusable that one Department that has so much impact on our environment is excused from its responsibilities in this way. I certainly remember reading about the 1995 incidents when explosives were washed up on the Clyde coast—a shocking occasion. The largest of those munitions dumps, at Beaufort’s dyke in the Irish sea, now has a gas pipe running through it, and none of it is even monitored, let alone tidied up. I know this because I have asked. How can that flagrant disregard for the marine environment align with this vague promise to look after the seabed? And how does that match up with excusing the MOD of any responsibility under the Bill?

There are other MOD sites, of course: the ship refuelling stations, the bases handling nuclear weapons and nuclear subs and the ranges were live firing is practised. We already know about the damaging health effects on former soldiers of some of the munitions they have dealt with, but we do not know anything about the weapons that are fired on those ranges. The MOD has told me that it does environmental audits with its “industry partner”, whatever that is, but that it will not publish them. We are not to be told about the environmental impact of this massive polluter, and it is being excused responsibility under the Bill. I do not think that is good enough. There is no such thing as acceptable environmental damage, and there should be no such thing as a Department with an environmental “get out of jail free” card.

Of course, this thing will ultimately pass—no one is going to vote down an environment Bill—but it really is not what is needed. Serious action to limit emissions and clean up the messes that have been left would be more worth while. For example, what about legislating so that English water companies cannot pay dividends to their shareholders while they are still pouring a precious resource into the ground? Or even better, why not copy the Scottish system and have a publicly owned water company that can spend on infrastructure because it does not have to make a profit? How about taking the power to close down companies that refuse to comply with best practice? How about telling them that their days of pouring pollutants into other people’s air and water are over? No soft touch, no more, “Come along now, play nicely”; instead, we need to say, “You do not get to do this any more.” And here is another thought: what about refusing to allow the import of products that can be shown to have a poor environmental footprint? None of that is in the Bill.

There is some target setting in there, but no indication of taking any power that might allow those targets to be met. Just last week, Ofgem refused to allow a subsea cable to be laid from Shetland to the mainland to allow the output from a large wind farm to get to potential customers. That was refused on the basis that subsidies have been withdrawn by this Government under its previous guises since 2010. Where is the provision in the Bill to put those subsidies back or—given that Shetland would like to press ahead anyway—to force the provision of the connection to the grid? Where is the ambition?

The creation of a clunky and unwieldy Office for Environmental Protection is a major disappointment. It will involve enforcement provisions that give weakness a bad name. Where are the prosecuting powers it needs? Where is its ability to act independently and develop the principles behind environmental law? There is nothing in the Bill to protect the Aarhus convention rights. Back in July 2016, I asked the then EFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), whether the UK would continue to abide by Aarhus after leaving the EU, and she replied:

“Until we leave the EU, EU law continues to apply so the UK continues to comply with EU law that implements obligations in the Aarhus Convention. The UK remains a Party to the Aarhus Convention.”

In November last year, I asked the next EFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), whether he planned to maintain compliance with the Aarhus convention on access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters after the UK had left the EU, and he replied, “Yes”. So where are those commitments, and why are they not in the Bill? Will the Secretary of State undertake to bring forward amendments that will satisfy those commitments, and can we be assured that amendments will be tabled in Committee that will beef up the OEP? Can we at least give the tiger a set of dentures, if it is not going to have serious teeth?

I would like to ask some further questions about devolved issues. It would be helpful if Ministers set out how they developed their thinking on the need for the climate change measures and legislation to be covered by the OEP, and how they decided that this was needed. Also, do Scottish Ministers support the proposals? What consultation was undertaken with them prior to their inclusion? Will the Secretary of State set out what resource has been made available to date for the OEP? It is suggested that the OEP’s remit covers all UK climate change legislation. Are the Government proposing that it has oversight over Scottish legislation, which is devolved? If there is a need for a UK-wide approach, would that not logically suggest that the remit for doing this should be given to the Scottish Government, given that they already have world-leading legislation and more ambitious targets in place? This is surely something that the UK Government should be seriously considering.

Every Member here will have had the same representations from environmental organisations that I have had. We all know that they are unhappy that there is no protection in the Bill against regression and that they fear that the legislation could be watered down in the future. I know that there will be armchair constitutional experts muttering into their port that one Parliament cannot bind another, but we all know that politics makes that a lie. We all know that confident, positive action arising from having the political will to deliver has a binding effect on future Parliaments and Governments. If it did not, the NHS would have disappeared decades ago. Strong action now to protect and enhance the environment, and repercussions for those who transgress, will set a tone that a future Government or Parliament would find it hard to undo.

We need to see changes in the way we see waste. We must no longer think that we will deal with it when we come to it; rather, we need more planning not to create it in the first place. A bit of Government encouragement could do that, and plastics are not the only waste we should be concerned about. I am young enough to remember a time when aerosols were innocent cans that people used every morning, and most people never knew the damage that the gases could do. Well, we all ken now, and the question is: what else are we blithely ignorant of as we go about our comfortable, modern life? Cut the waste; do it in legislation; and do it now! Have courage! Take that courage in both hands and give us legislation that is fit for purpose. Do something stunning this year instead of something that could be described as stunningly stupid.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Ind) Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 8:08 p.m.

I always think that we get listened to better in this House if we can find something in what we say that is generous to the other side, so I will be generous and say that I welcome the Bill. I have come straight from the West Berkshire climate conference, which nearly 300 people attended. People from the community spoke with real passion about their interest in more than just dealing with greenhouse gases. They spoke about the need to reverse the declines in biodiversity, about addressing a resurgence in the value of our natural capital and of our rivers, about the wider aspects of land use that could see greater amounts of carbon sequestered, about flood protection and about policies with human wellbeing at their heart.

I see many positives in the Bill. I like the sound of the biodiversity net gain. I like seeing the 25-year plan being put on a statutory footing in the Bill. I also like the nature recovery strategies and many of the proposals on waste and plastic. I applaud my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for her introduction of the Bill. Having been involved in many negotiations with her Department, I know that clauses 16, 17 and 18 have taken a lot of work, and I am delighted to see how they have turned out. I implore hon. Members on both sides of the House and some of the organisations that are advising us to see the value of what is in here. It is this House and the national policy statement that the Secretary of State will make at the Dispatch Box that will be held to account, and that is crucial. That is in the wording of those clauses. It is this House and the democratic institutions that support us that will decide the future environmental direction of this and future Governments, rather than putting it in the hands of the courts, which would perhaps too often see it in a rather dry, legalistic sense. People can make these cases in Parliament with emotion and passion.

Clauses 73 to 87 relate to water, and I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a great fan of regulation in this area. The water framework directive sets out demanding standards which, if not met, result in infraction fines from Europe. We are trying to encourage the Government to emulate that as best we can in this piece of legislation. It is worrying that England is behind on its targets to achieve good ecological status for all waterways by 2027, and the concern is that this Bill allows the Government to give themselves powers to amend difficult targets or the way in which they are measured. I hope that we will be able to tease out the Government’s precise intentions during the Bill’s passage, because there is bold ambition across the House to address the failings of past years on our waterways.

I also want the Bill to do more to tackle water consumption. We are able to have targets for reducing particulate matter, so why can we not have targets to tackle water consumption? Abstraction is a major problem for our environment, and I want greater measures to address it.

In totality, there is much to applaud the Government on, and I hope we will hear from Members on both sides of the House at least an acceptance that the Government are noble in their intention to create something that will have a lasting effect down the generations. I applaud the Secretary of State for bringing in this Bill.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab) Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 8:11 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I share some of his concerns about the potential watering down of targets made by Ministers and then enacted or judged by a body that is appointed by Ministers.

It is important to remember why we are here. We are here because of Brexit. We are here because, in the 1970s, the UK was the dirty man of Europe—or the dirty person, as I think we should probably call ourselves—and we pumped raw sewage into the sea. Thanks, however, to the European Union’s level playing field provisions, which allow no member state to race to the bottom and compete on the environment, we now have cleaner beaches, drive more fuel-efficient cars and have reduced our waste going to landfill.

I see Brexit as a clear and present danger to the UK environment. Yes, the Government have, through the original European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, copied and pasted some EU law into UK law. The danger is that it will become zombie legislation that is no longer monitored, enforced or updated. There is a troublesome third that cannot be cut and pasted that this Bill is designed to address, but there is nothing to stop those targets, as the right hon. Gentleman said, being quietly reversed by a future Government. Leaving the EU means that we risk losing those key protections and an entire system of the regulation of chemicals under REACH, which means that UK companies that sell right across the European Union that have already spent hundreds of millions of pounds registering thousands of chemicals with the European Union now face a double regulatory burden if and when the UK Government set up its own chemicals regulator.

Food safety could be compromised, and we could end up with higher pesticide residue in food if protections are negotiated away to secure a trade deal with the United States. Our farmers are the custodians of our environment—I pay tribute to the amazing farmers doing such a brilliant job in Wakefield—but they face a triple whammy through loss of subsidies. For example, the CAP subsidies are only guaranteed by the Government until the end of 2022.

The Climate Emergency

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 17th October 2019

(9 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard
17 Oct 2019, 2:20 p.m.

As colleagues can see, there is massive interest in this debate. I will therefore impose a four-minute time limit. It will apply after the Scottish National party Front-Bencher, but I am sure the next speaker will bear it in mind.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Ind) Hansard
17 Oct 2019, 2:22 p.m.

I will, Madam Deputy Speaker. Every time I stand up in this House now I am conscious that it could be the last time I speak here, but if it is, I cannot think of a better subject. There is something worth celebrating: the degree of cross-party consensus on this global issue. Although there are different nuances as to what the solutions are, what more the Government should be doing and what the record of the other side was, we should think about what happens in the United States, where this is a deeply partisan issue that divides on political grounds. We must welcome the fact that we agree with so much of the science behind this.

This is an international problem; the United Kingdom is responsible for 1.2% of global emissions, whereas China is responsible for 27.5%. In recognising the international nature of the global problem that we face, I celebrate the Prime Minister’s announcement at the United Nations General Assembly in New York of a doubling, to £11.6 billion, in our contribution to the international climate fund. We are helping other countries to achieve the level of decarbonisation that we have achieved here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who was the climate change Minister, told me that she would frequently sit in Council meetings in Brussels looking across the table at people talking nice talk about carbon emissions but not achieving even half of what this country has achieved since 1990. We have decarbonised by 37% whereas France has done so by just 13% and Spain has actually increased its emissions over that period.

Yesterday, I met a senior member of Extinction Rebellion and when discussing things with him and many of his colleagues in recent weeks around this part of town I have tried to understand what is going on. Is it a revolution? Is it a movement? I am with them in spirit, but not in effect. My worry is this: our constituents are, broadly speaking, sympathetic to what ER wants to achieve, and what we are trying to achieve here in the new legislation and on the other subjects we talk about relating to climate change, but they will soon start to turn a tin ear to an organisation that stops people travelling by public transport. I know this is a wonderfully free-flowing, slightly anarchic organisation, and there is something glorious about seeing it, but there is also something deeply worrying if it is going to turn people we need to be supporting our cause away from it.

I wish to make one final point. The ambitions in the Environment Bill are very high indeed. I have been involved in some aspects of it, and I am pleased to see that it has survived mauling by other Departments, Bill Committees and all the things that usually weaken legislation, and that it is strong. I am sure it will be improved as it goes through its process. I shall leave the House with this thought: we face a global problem, and Britain is currently a leader in decarbonising, in ocean protection and in trying to address the declines in biodiversity, but if we do that just within England and the UK, we will have failed. We need to keep the international focus and make sure that we are working with others. I hope that I will have the chance to vote the Environment Bill into law before the next election.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
17 Oct 2019, 12:55 p.m.

The climate emergency seems to be the kind of emergency where a lot gets said and a lot less gets done. We meet here in this leaking, cavernous, old museum to discuss this climate emergency while outside it people have been banned from protesting about the possible extinction of us as a species. That is an interesting juxtaposition—one to note for our memoirs, should any of us ever get to write them.

I was in Aberdeen at the weekend, for the social event of the season, of course. There is something about the granite that whispers about the enormous length of time that this planet has been spinning around, changing, developing and surviving. You get to thinking about the species that no longer exist, about how some of the extinction events were on a massive scale and about how no species is guaranteed to survive any of those events—that means us too, whether the protests have been banned or not. But we would never know it from looking at the political and governmental response—or inaction—to this emergency.

This is not something that has been sprung on us, either. It is not as though this is news that no one saw coming. The man with the cleft stick has not just arrived, out of breath and anxious, with the news that we are all stuffed. Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring” nearly 60 years ago—something that we mark as one of the base cases of the modern environmental movement, but she was not the first voice. George Perkins Marsh spoke about the urban heat island effect and the greenhouse effect, and called for a more considered and sustainable development. That was in 1847, three weeks and 162 years ago. In his lecture, he commented that the ideas were not new even then and that he had borrowed them from Peter Pallas, a Prussian zoologist of the 18th century.

The Irish physicist John Tyndall proved the link between atmospheric carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect in 1859. Later that century, 1896 to be precise, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated how much atmospheric carbon dioxide contributes to global warming and published the first calculation of the global warming effects of human emissions of CO2. His work inspired the American Thomas Chamberlin, who published the next year on the CO2 feedback loop that drove the ice ages and might now be driving us to a tipping point. In 1934, the US Weather Bureau issued its first analysis of temperature change, which inspired the Englishman Guy Callendar to analyse historical temperature records and calculate a half-degree warming between 1890 and 1935. From there, he built the theory that burning fuel increases atmospheric CO2 and he coined the term “greenhouse effect” in 1938. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee said that pollutants were causing climate change and time was running out to turn it round.

The science is not new; it has been there for 250 years or so. It has, for sure, been developing, but it is not some fad; it is not a crazy fashion that the kids are all getting down to. It is dusty old stuff from the history tomes. But here we are talking again about the climate emergency, and protestors have been banned from London. There is a massive irony in the failure of this UK Government to take any sort of effective action, in that the greatest hero for many of them would be Margaret Thatcher, and she was the first leader of a major state to call for action on climate change. The 1988 Toronto conference was treated to some stark evidence produced by scientists. Thatcher, perhaps because her training as a chemist made it easier for her to understand the language, took up the baton and issued the call. She said it was a key issue and her Government allocated additional funding to climate research. It was, however, mainly relabelled or redirected from elsewhere—they were Tories, after all. Thatcher made that call 31 years ago, yet here we are once again talking about the climate emergency and the protests are banned.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 and in 1990 issued its first report, which confirmed the past scientific findings and issued warnings for the future. Those warnings have continued ever since, but I am starting to wonder whether familiarity is breeding contempt, because the warnings are getting starker and the flash headlines are getting scarier, but the action is not getting any more urgent.

The Environment Bill, which we finally got a sniff of this week, appears to be a howler of a missed opportunity. Apart from the toil of reintroducing EU protections into UK legislation, it misses the chance to be ambitious and claim a future worth having. It promises net zero emissions in 31 years—so, incredibly, we are at the halfway point between Thatcher pledging that the UK would get serious about the environment and the Government actually doing something. If the captain of the Titanic had been warned about the iceberg well in advance and started a discussion about what to do that carried on long enough to watch the thing tear a hole in the side of the ship, while the debate was still about which way to turn, he would be in about the same position we are in now. It is past time for talking and long past time that we should have been doing. It is time to inject a sense of urgency into the climate emergency.

The House can take it as read that the Scottish Government are doing things better, but this should not really be about party political point scoring or engaging in the constitutional debate. Let us see what the UK Government could offer to help to address the problems we all face. It is time the Government introduced some real measures to address the UK’s greenhouse gas output. They could copy Scotland by being guided by the Committee on Climate Change. Members may have heard of that committee; it was set up by the UK Government, although its calls to action are little heard by Whitehall. They are heard in Scotland, though, and the Scottish Parliament and Government have taken action. The climate change Act kicked off a serious attempt at addressing the problems, and it has not abated since. That is why the United Nations climate action conference will be in Glasgow next year.

Oral Answers to Questions

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 25th July 2019

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mr Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill - Parliament Live - Hansard

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The Committee on Climate Change assessed 33 sectors, and we welcome its report. We are committed to taking robust action to improve resilience to climate change. We will formally respond to the Committee’s detailed recommendations in October, in line with the timetable set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, and that will include the way climate change affects communities.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
25 Jul 2019, 9:36 a.m.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that tackling and adapting to climate change has the virtue not only of being the right policy—making sure that we continue to be a world leader in this regard—but of being popular?

Mr Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill - Parliament Live - Hansard
25 Jul 2019, 9:36 a.m.

As we switch the way we support our farmers from the basic payment system to paying public money for public goods, getting action on climate change will be just one of those public goods that we can deliver outside the European Union.

Degraded Chalk Stream Environments

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Monday 22nd July 2019

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:28 p.m.

I like the cut of the hon. Gentleman’s jib, as they say. I am going to get on to HS2—I tried to get on to HS2 earlier, but I was admonished—because it is important.

I want to make a couple of points, particularly about my own constituency. In the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, we have nine chalk streams. The River Chess and the River Misbourne sit within my own constituency, and I am afraid the problems are identical for both. When we talk about the term “over-abstraction”, I think that is to use the phrase quite mildly. To put this crisis into context for the Chilterns specifically, the average person there uses about 173 litres of water a day, which is 32 litres above the national average. In the Chilterns, we are also facing unprecedented levels of infrastructure development.

Being at the end of the Metropolitan line, we are obviously a popular place for people to live out of London, and we now have the arc of innovation joining Oxford to Cambridge. We will face housing pressure down from the north of the county and across the middle, which will bring hundreds of thousands of houses and more pressure on our precious environment. London and Slough are also expanding, so we have more and more demand coming up from the south of the county for housing and therefore water. The Chilterns AONB is being squeezed in the middle, yet it is the lungs of London. It is the nearest easily accessible area where people can enjoy the pleasures of walking in the hills and by the chalk streams, watching the red kites soar above, yet we will lose all that unless we try to protect it.

The Chess and the Misbourne are unique in finding themselves in the unfortunate position of being in the HS2 route and therefore part of what was a £55.7 billion taxpayer crisis—what I gather is now more likely to be an £85 billion crisis, according to the chairman’s internal review, if the rumours are correct. I believe the figure will be even higher. This is not just about the financial cost of HS2, but about the damage done to our chalk streams, which will cause a loss of environment and habitat that is irreplaceable.

For years my constituents have sent me pictures of the Chess and the Misbourne when the flows are low. They come back, but one day they will not. The River Chess in particular is one of the most important areas of wildlife. I have mentioned the brown trout and the water voles, but we also have stream water-crowfoot there. We get fishermen, photographers and the wildlife enthusiasts coming out. The Chess is also an important educational asset as a chalk stream, and we get universities gathering data and people coming to study there. It used to be very active, with amazing water mills, but that would not be possible today. The Chess was a productive river; we could not find that today. Those water mills are now private houses. The weather and the climate becoming drier, interspersed with some very wet periods, has done the chalk streams no good at all. The river also faces other threats, including from invasive species such as the mink and Japanese knotweed, and that is on top of the extraction for public water supply and the pollution that results from the concentration as the flows become lower.

I very much hope that this debate, which was called by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, will stimulate a greater interest in these chalk streams and a greater will on the part of the Government to protect them. We are pleased to see that Thames Water and Affinity Water are planning to work together on a new reservoir project near Oxford, which now features strongly in both their new water resource management plans and in Thames Water’s revised business plan for 2020 to 2025. The south-east region of the UK is one of the driest and most populated corners of the country and has the highest demand for water. If we do not increase our reservoir capacity, it will become the desert of the United Kingdom.

This excellent report, which we have all had the opportunity to read, contained a number of recommendations and actions. I will not read them out, but I recommend that the Minister reads them carefully and studies what could be an important way forward in giving vital protections to this part of our environment. It is unique, and the status of these chalk streams is important not just to the environment in the United Kingdom, but to the world. Once we have lost them, we will never ever get them back. If there is a climate change crisis, there is certainly an even bigger crisis in the state of our chalk streams.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:33 p.m.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.

I have the honour and privilege to represent a large part of the Berkshire downs, which feed the chalk streams of the Kennet, the Dun, the Lambourn and the Pang. These are very special riverine ecosystems. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), whom I congratulate on calling this debate, chalk streams are hugely important not just for the area where the river flows, but for the entire catchment. They are extraordinary features of our natural world. Areas such as the Berkshire downs, and others that hon. Members have spoken about so eloquently, are the water towers of communities such as London, where we sit tonight, and they are under threat as never before.

In a brief moment of relevance in my parliamentary career, I held responsibilities not dissimilar to those held by my hon. Friend the Minister. We had had a number of years of drought, and that year we faced the Olympics and the Queen’s jubilee. The fifth largest economy in the world was literally at risk of having people in the south and south-east of England filling their water from standpipes in the street—an extraordinary moment. We were on the point of having Cobra meetings. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, said to me in the Lobby, “Just make it rain.” That gave me powers of the divine, because you will remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as the Queen and Prince Philip stood by the Thames, the heavens opened.

I do not take any responsibility for that, but the problem was not that it rained—that was very welcome—but that it rained for three years. All the work we had been doing in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on drought management, fantastic work across a whole range of different trade bodies, other organisations and agencies of Government, was subsumed by having to deal with too much water. We have terribly short memories in this place and in Government. I hope that what is happening now is starting to cause real concern, because if we have another dry winter my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues will be contemplating a real emergency.

Mention has been made this evening of the great naturalist and broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman. In his foreword to the river fly census, produced by Salmon & Trout Conservation, he mentions what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) referred to: insect armageddon, the really quite staggering reduction of insect life in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne made the point clearly that we have to understand where those insects come from and what they depend on. Jeremy Paxman says in his foreword:

“No-one much cares about it, because creepy crawlies find it harder to make allies than do soft and cuddlies. Ludicrously, even pests like grey squirrels have more friends.”

We in this House have to be a friend to the insects. Some 80% of species on our planet are invertebrates and the foundations of food webs.

The river fly census shows some alarming facts. Species loss in any environment indicates ecosystem distress. Across 12 chalk streams in England there has been a 75% decline in caddisfly species, a 54% decline in stonefly species, a 44% decline in dragonfly and damselfly species, and a 40% decline in mayfly species. A river in my constituency, the Lambourn, a most beautiful and precious river with overlaying European designations—a site of special scientific interest, an area of outstanding natural beauty and every conceivable designation one can think of—is effectively in crisis.

My contribution tonight is really this: the management of our rivers, particularly the fragile ecosystems that are chalk streams, needs to be perfect. There is no margin for error in how we manage chalk streams. I am therefore concerned when I read that a salad washing company in the upper Itchen, Bakkavor Salad Washing, has found itself in difficulties with the Environment Agency over its own sewage works. I gather that it has now addressed them, following discharges that were reported to the Environment Agency. The EA’s investigation, however, also exposed a potential pesticide threat. The EA has not been able to rule out damage caused by traces of pesticide present on the salad leaves used by Bakkavor, which were subsequently being washed into the upper Itchen. I understand that the EA is monitoring the situation, but that cannot be allowed to happen. In an ecosystem as precious as this, which is suffering from really low flows, there is no justification whatever for a company to be polluting an environment as rare as this.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford - Hansard

I have heard stories from fishermen about salad washing. They tell me that the salad is not even grown in the UK, but has been brought to the UK for washing in our rivers and then packaging. If that is true, that is even more shocking, but maybe it is a fisherman’s tale.

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:39 p.m.

I have heard similar stories, and I do not know the circumstances of this. I wrote to the company before this debate asking for it to give its side of the argument, but I did not hear back. I am not necessarily criticising the company, as I approached it only at the end of last week.

My point is this: in our management of these rare systems, we need not just to be getting the sort of thing I was just discussing right, but to be looking at agriculture. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire was so correct in what he said about that. Min-till—minimum tillage—agricultural systems are vital, not least because of the worms that are allowed to prosper in the soil, which affects the permeability of that soil crust so that water goes through to the aquifer, rather than running off and taking with it a lot of the topsoil. We have a wonderful, rare and special opportunity that we can now deliver through the Agriculture Bill and the environment Bill. We are talking about changes that can make sure we are incentivising farmers and working with them right across a catchment to deliver extraordinary benefits.

Sir Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:40 p.m.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend would wish to comment on the state of the River Kennet, which is a precious chalk stream close to him. Where does he think the Kennet is going—is it improving? Some attempts were made to improve its condition. Secondly, when he was preparing the water White Paper, I think he was hoping that it would be possible for water companies to move water more easily from one area to another. Has he any take on how that has been going?

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:43 p.m.

One of the most enjoyable things I did in government was writing the water White Paper, and I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to page 35—I think that was the one. It showed a scene of good farming on one side of a river and bad farming on another, so that figuratively laid out before us was what we needed to see more of and what we had to stop happening. I bored my civil servants with that and I bore most of my family, with my wife referring to the River Pang as my mid-life crisis, but the River Kennet is in such trouble. A few years ago, someone spilled about an egg cup-worth of Chlorpyrifos into the system somewhere and it effectively killed several miles of life. That shows us just how extraordinarily vulnerable these ecosystems are.

We can debate great matters of state in this place, and we often do, but rivers are about people’s sense of place. As has been said, we can hold our heads high internationally if we are getting it right on rivers and we cannot if we are getting it wrong. What is shaming is that, while 85% of the chalk streams in the world are in the UK, we are getting it wrong. Wonderful things are done by organisations such as Action for the River Kennet and many of the other organisations that hon. Members in all parts of the House have talked about, but I believe the recommendations at the end of the river fly census are really worth reading.

In the context of the water framework directive, which we are transposing, correctly and with more ambition than exists in that directive as it stands, we should have a special designation for chalk streams. We should also look at the impact of phosphorus spikes and recognise that after we leave the European Union the world is our oyster and we do not have to be stuck by the same rules that govern rivers in southern France and northern Spain. This is our ecosystem, and we have to get it right.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:43 p.m.

rose—

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:43 p.m.

I will give way for a final time, then I will conclude.

Dame Cheryl Gillan Portrait Dame Cheryl Gillan - Hansard

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. We are currently reviewing the position on national parks and the designations that we make around the country. I have asked for the Chilterns AONB to have a stronger designation in order to give it protection. Does he agree that we should see whether the chalk streams in our country could get a higher designation for protection? Does he agree that this would be a golden opportunity to lift that level of protection, particularly for this rare habitat and environment?

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:44 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is right. We look forward with interest to what the Glover review will deliver, because it is an opportunity to look at our most precious landscapes and to see whether we are protecting them in the right way. We have an enormous number of designatory tools at our disposal, but they do not seem to stop the problems happening or result in our Environment Agency and other organisations cracking down on wrongdoing as much as they should. This is an opportunity to stand up for what we believe in on the natural environment and say, “Here is something really special, and we are going to get it right.”

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:45 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman, I and many others in the Chamber agree on and appreciate the wonderful work of the National Farmers Union and the Northern Irish Ulster Farmers Union on habitat, climate change, their commitment to carbon zero and many things. Should we not have on record in this debate the good work of the NFU and farmers who are committed to changes to make things better and preserve the environment for the future, which he and I believe in?

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:44 p.m.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Perhaps I can conclude by entirely endorsing what the farming unions of these islands have agreed, and Minette Batters’ very brave and clear statement about moving to net zero considerably before the rest of the country and making sure that agriculture fulfils its responsibilities. Part of that is about looking at catchments and saying, “How can we lock up more carbon?” The clear, easy way of doing that is to have a more broken-up mosaic of land use, which includes grass as part of the rotations. With encouragement for minimum tillage, not only can we start to see more carbon being locked up, but our rivers will be protected from many of the things that are causing problems at the moment.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) - Parliament Live - Hansard
22 Jul 2019, 8:49 p.m.

I genuinely apologise to the House for not being here at the start of this important debate, because I know how passionate right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken about this issue are. One of the joys of being the Minister responsible for the Environment Agency is seeing that the environment matters to so many people in different ways and seeing the important role of the Environment Agency. I hope, by the end of the debate, that I will have been able to persuade hon. Members and those still watching—there were four people in the Public Gallery at the start of it—on this matter, including Feargal Sharkey who is a great advocate of what we need to do to support chalk streams. The Environment Agency also has other roles and I was stopped on the way here to talk about Grenfell and some of the situations in which we are involved there. I apologise to the Chamber for that.

I have had three years in this very special role as Minister for the environment. I am very fortunate that, by and large, neither an official drought nor an official flood has been declared. I am conscious of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on what happened recently in Wainfleet; I visited his constituency to discuss floods. The issues that have been raised about drought worry many of our farmers around the country, who are also considering the impacts of abstraction reform. I am very conscious that my constituency of Suffolk Coastal is one of the driest in the country. That said, at the Latitude festival, which was held this weekend in my constituency, they had a hailstorm, in the middle of July. Who would have thought that in Suffolk, when we are all having a heatwave? It just shows how important it is that we look after the habitat that is special to our country and to our world, while the impacts of climate change do what they do.

I will come to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) shortly, but I want first to refer also to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who was in the Chamber for much of the debate, because he has one of the most special chalk streams in his constituency—the River Test, which many people have mentioned and in fact fished in, including my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). The Test is regarded as one of the most special chalk streams in the country, as right hon. and hon. Members will recognise. I used to live in Whitchurch, which is 2 miles from the source of the river, so I am well aware how special it is.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne on securing today’s debate. It is well known in the House that he is an active champion of chalk streams and that he recognises their importance for nature and for good fishing. I will never forget the day after the 2017 election, when I was not sure if I would be reappointed to this role, when I joined him in Hampshire on the River Itchen. He had a good day’s fishing and I had a good day being shown around by the WWF and being told about the importance of chalk streams. Having lived in Hampshire, I was aware of this, but it brought to my attention some of the particular challenges that the Environment Agency regularly faces from water companies wanting to abstract more water further upstream, which has a damaging impact on the environment and the flow, as others have mentioned, as well as on the quality of fishing. That is when I met the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas), who was also very passionate on this topic, which is why he contributed to the debate on 12 December 2018 on the Thames Water reservoir in Abingdon and why he strongly supported that measure.

On this matter, I have been given a very strong message by my civil servants, who are in the Box and provide excellent advice, and I am conscious that the water resource management process has not yet been finalised, but I can genuinely say, even though the Secretary of State has not yet agreed the plans, that I believe that Thames Water and Affinity Water, both of which are promoting the reservoir in their preferred plans, will receive a very warm welcome when they are put forward, so that, as many others have mentioned, we can finally get on with the Abingdon reservoir, which will do a lot of good for the people of south-east England. I am conscious that when speaking in the House I have some leeway with parliamentary privilege and that my comments will not prejudice any quasi-judicial decision that the Secretary of State might take in the future.

I return to the main topic of the debate. While chalk streams contribute to our health and wellbeing, they are principally unique habitats supporting a diverse range of invertebrate and fish species and have long been held in high regard for the quality of the fisheries they support. Only 200 chalk rivers are known globally, and it is amazing to think that 85% of them are found in the UK in the southern and eastern parts of England. It is well recognised, however, that our water resources are under pressure and that this pressure is growing as the climate changes and the demand for water increases from a growing population and greater housing need. As my hon. Friend outlined, our chalk streams are facing an unprecedented challenge, having been heavily affected by human activity, including abstraction, pollution and historic modification.

Trophy Hunting

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 15th May 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Zac Goldsmith - Hansard
15 May 2019, 4:39 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is right that there is no conservation value in that whatever. Colleagues will raise that issue in more detail, but I will touch on it shortly.

My fear is that the existence of some small-scale examples of better practice is driving our policy generally on trophy hunting, without recourse to the wider evidence, which suggests that the real story of trophy hunting is a lot less rosy than those advocates would have us believe. Indeed, on almost every level there is reason to doubt the arguments in favour of trophy hunting.

When it comes to the claim that sustainable hunting supports local people, a report prepared for—not written by—the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which is the global authority on nature, said that hunting

“serves individual interests, but not those of conservation, governments or local communities.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation, around 97% of hunting revenues stay within the hunting industry. Incidentally, just 0.03% of African GDP derives from hunting, when the prospects for expanding tourism are clearly far greater, and likely far more profitable for local communities. Another report written for the IUCN noted that 40% of the big game hunting zones in Zambia, and 72% in Tanzania, are now classified as depleted because the big game has simply been hunted out of those areas.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
15 May 2019, 4:39 p.m.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest threats to some of those species is the growth of populations in continents such as Africa? Will he applaud work done by non-governmental organisations, such as one I have seen for myself at Amboseli, where IFAW has put people in place to co-ordinate the interface between wildlife and human beings, which has caused threats particularly to species such as lions? It is really important that that is where resources go.

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Zac Goldsmith - Hansard
15 May 2019, 4:39 p.m.

I could not agree more strongly. The best conservation projects harness the power of people at the grassroots—people who then directly benefit from an emerging economy in conservation. There are so many examples—not enough to buck the trends that I mentioned at the beginning, but some really inspiring ones that I could spend hours relaying. However, I will not do that, as I am going to allow another intervention.

Environment and Climate Change

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 1st May 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
1 May 2019, 2:27 p.m.

I repeat my gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman for all the work he did. There are a number of multilateral institutions through which we work, and this Government are committed—I am grateful for the Opposition’s support—to bringing the conference of parties on climate change to London in 2020, to ensure that this country can build on the achievements that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) helped to secure at Paris and so we ensure that Britain can show global leadership on the environment and climate change.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
1 May 2019, 2:28 p.m.

My right hon. Friend will know that he and I were on different sides in the referendum, but does he agree that it was deeply frustrating, as Environment Ministers, to have to sit in EU co-ordination meetings lowering the standards and ambitions of the United Kingdom Government to reach a single point of agreement? It is not a binary issue. Britain has a very ambitious international commitment, and I found myself constantly having to lower those ambitions to maintain one point of agreement.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 May 2019, 2:28 p.m.

My right hon. Friend knows how important it is to negotiate hard in every international forum, but he also knows, as a former Minister who is committed to the environment and who supported remaining in the European Union, that there are committed environmentalists who are strongly in favour of our membership of the European Union and committed environmentalists who welcome our departure. Nobody could say that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) or Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb are, in any way, anything other than sincere campaigners for environmental enhancement, and they both feel—I think this is completely open to debate—that we can achieve those goals as effectively, if not better, outside the European Union.

Break in Debate

Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 May 2019, 4:35 p.m.

In the short time I have, I want to make three simple points in support of the motion. The first is that it is essential that this House formally declares an environment and climate emergency. I listened to the Environment Secretary, and I do not believe that he formally committed the Government to doing so, but he did recognise that the situation that we face is an emergency—by contrast to what the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth said last week. I will quote what she said, because it struck me at the time:

“I do not see the point of saying anything unless we take action”.—[Official Report, 23 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 612.]

I do not think that she could have been more wrong, because language matters. Of course deeds must follow words, but the manner in which we define problems in turn shapes our conceptions not only of the range of possible solutions, but also of what is necessary.

We have to stop talking about climate change as though it were some benign force and start talking about what we are really confronting: an ongoing and accelerating crisis from which no one will escape and which will have profound and potentially existential consequences for everything that every one of us holds dear. That is arguably a reason that the Extinction Rebellion movement has struck a chord and it is why—at least to my mind—a degree of alarmism is entirely justified, as long as that fear acts as a clarion call to act, rather than merely provoking a sense of hopelessness. Complacency remains the greatest barrier to the response that is required. We must therefore do everything we possibly can to bring home to the public the nature of the threat we face and to build consensus for the kind of disruptive change that will inevitably have to take place as we respond to it.

My second point is that the unique situation in which we find ourselves demands a far more vigorous response than the Government have provided to date, and it demands that that response begins now. There is no doubting that there is cause for pride in the UK’s record when it comes to climate action, but it is also undeniably the case that the reductions achieved over recent years are largely the result of having picked the low-hanging fruit, that our annual rate of emissions reduction is slowing and that we are not on track to meet our binding emissions targets.

Where, then, is the commitment from the Government to bold policies of the kind that would drive deep decarbonisation across the whole economy and get us back on track? Given all that we know—the fact that the Paris pledges will still amount to 2.7 °C of warming and that we are not on track to meet those pledges—our collective response cannot simply be business as usual. Legislating for net zero emissions by 2050 should be the absolute minimum that we are aiming for, and it should spur a far more ambitious policy agenda.

My third and final point is that the institutions of government as they are currently organised are simply not set up for the scale and pace of the transition required to avert catastrophic climate breakdown. The abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change three years ago was a serious mistake, but it was also emblematic of a more deep-seated failure on the part of the Government to accord emissions reduction the status it requires. When I was a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, I remember repeatedly pressing the then Secretary of State on the inadequacies of the clean growth inter-ministerial group, but at least a body of that kind existed at that time; it does not now. If the Government were really serious about this crisis, their response would be driven relentlessly from the centre, with the institutional architecture put in place to co-ordinate and drive progress across all Departments, with emissions reduction woven throughout Government policy; it is not.

In all likelihood, we have probably already squandered the opportunity to avert an unprecedented degree of warming, but what we do in the coming 10 to 15 years will determine whether we avert even more drastic change and the suffering that will surely define a world where emissions continue to rise unabated. We must declare an environment and climate emergency, act in a way that is commensurate with such an emergency and reform the machinery of government so that we are able to drive forward this agenda. That is why I will wholeheartedly support the motion this evening.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
1 May 2019, 4:38 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook). I agree with him that the architecture of government needs to change to reflect the dire urgency of the issue. I want to ensure that any changes that this or any future Government make are not just about moving the deckchairs on the Titanic, but that they are actually part of a coherent strategy that goes through every single Department and every agency, and that that urgency is reflected in them.

I commend the Opposition for what is, I think, a perfectly reasonable motion. I would have improved on it—it could have been a little more congratulatory—but essentially it is a quite a mature bit of opposition. However, I want to reflect for a moment on what the key point about creating a climate and environment and emergency is really saying. As far as I am concerned, of course we have an emergency. Seven years ago, I attended the Pacific Islands Forum, representing Her Majesty’s Government, and there I met the leaders of island states who are buying leaseholds on other islands because theirs are practically uninhabitable. The land where they have grown the food on which they depend is salinated because of rising seawater, and there are whole hosts of other reasons why they look one in the face and say, “We have, now, a climate emergency.”

The IPCC has given us 12 years. In climate science, that is a heartbeat. We have to get this right. The ice shelves are melting at 10 times the predicted rate, last year 39 million acres of tropical and rain forest were lost, and it is predicted that one third of the species we have on this planet now will be lost by 2050 unless we do something. The crucial question is whether the UK is doing its bit. It sterilises the debate if Opposition Members just attack us. I am looking forward to some generous comments from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who, no doubt, in the balanced nature of this debate, will applaud the Government for what they have done to be a world leader.

But let us talk about more important things: about where we are going in future. I want to reflect on the very good speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and the really inspirational words from the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). Can Parliament reflect the nation’s concerns? Can it raise its game to talk about this in a way that does not make people out there turn a tin ear to our deliberations? It can, of course, by welcoming the fact that there is a fair degree of cross-party consensus. I entirely recognise the point made by the right hon. Gentleman that there will be socialist tinge to this, and there will be a free-market tinge on the Conservative Benches, but essentially we all want the same outcome and we all accept the science. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the United States, where it is an entirely polarising issue. Let us be glad that it is not that way here.

We have to be honest with our constituents. Young people come to my door and say that we need to be at net zero by 2025. Well, we would all like that, but let us explain to them, using the data, what it would actually require. I hope that tomorrow we will have a very clear steer from the Committee on Climate Change about what is going to be required to get there by 2050, and by 2045 in the largest amount. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in saying, “For goodness’ sake, let us be positive with our constituents.” It is one thing to scare the pants off them, and there is a perfectly legitimate reason for doing that, but let us also be positive and explain to them that mankind has an extraordinary ability to overcome the most appalling problems, and we have the ability to do that now. We can use the power of market forces. This is where I would slightly differ from the Leader of the Opposition. Properly regulated, properly incentivised market forces can achieve enormous amounts, as my right hon. Friend said—particularly in the area of electric vehicles, for example.

While most people support what we are doing, they are also taking their children to school, trying to keep their mortgage paid and trying to keep the roof over their head. They want to know that we are on it, that we have a real sense of purpose and that, across the political class represented in this Chamber, we are going to get this sorted.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard
1 May 2019, 4:44 p.m.

Order. I have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) should not be surprised, because he can count as well as I can how many of his colleagues want to speak and how little time is left.

World Health: 25-Year Environment Plan

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Tuesday 9th April 2019

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas - Hansard

I completely accept that. We must find stronger methods to manage that practice, and I wrote to the Secretary of State in the last two weeks or so to ask him how we can toughen up on it. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise it, and I am glad that she has had the opportunity to do so.

I mentioned how important west Cornwall and Scilly is. It boasts some of the most important and precious parts of natural England. For example, due to careful management we are seeing the recovery, as I said earlier, of the Manx shearwater, a rare seabird, and the storm petrel on Scilly. That seabird recovery project has brought members of the community together to rid some of the islands on Scilly of litter and rats, which has led to the survival and remarkable recovery of these rare seabirds. There is a need to continue that work and to expand it to other islands on Scilly—as I said, there are just two places across the UK where the birds nest—and I would welcome a commitment from Government to fund this valuable and successful initiative.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard

The debate title contains the words “world health”, so we are not talking just about the United Kingdom. Would my hon. Friend therefore welcome the financial investment that the Government have made in the island of South Georgia to do precisely what he was just talking about? Thanks to the RSPB, we have annihilated the mice that were destroying the birdlife. The birdlife on that extraordinary ecosystem is now returning to the vibrancy that existed before the whalers arrived more than a century ago.

Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas - Hansard

That is a really valuable point. As my right hon. Friend described, and as I described in relation to Scilly, managing the rat and mice population to protect ground-nesting birds is essential. We must look at how we can develop new schemes, particularly as we leave the EU, to ensure that we fund such work properly.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) I have been applying for this debate since July of last year. I stumbled on World Health Day, and I thought if I included those words in the title I might get the debate. That is a tip for the future. As I said to the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), there is an opportunity for global Britain; that was my reference to the world.

We are also seeing the recovery of the Cornish chough in west Cornwall—another reason to visit. When we protect and enhance those natural habitats, the benefits are widespread. Wildlife, the natural vegetation and humankind all win when we get this right. I thank the RSPB, which has already been mentioned, in particular for the time that its representatives have taken to show me around some of the remarkable work that is being done to support natural habitats. I call for Government support so that that work can thrive.

As has already been said, the Government should be commended for the 25-year environment plan, which sets out the approach to protecting and enhancing our natural landscapes and habitats, leaving our environment in a better state than we found it. As we know, the plan sets out goals to create greener, cleaner air and water, goals to support plants and animals to thrive, and goals to provide a cleaner, greener country. That is the right course of action. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world.

The truth is that, unlike the Prime Minister and I, many have little access to clean and green countryside. The lack of access to nature is a significant factor in health inequalities. Those living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas, according to the Wildlife Trusts. Increasing access to wildlife-rich natural surroundings can help to stop the rise of preventable, life-limiting and costly illnesses, and reduce avoidable health inequalities.

Despite all the benefits of the natural environment that I have set out, public engagement with nature is low. Nearly 40% of the English public do not visit nature even once a month, with 13% of children reported as not spending any leisure time outside. I call on the Government to act quickly, and implement the nature and wellbeing policies promised in chapter 3 of the 25-year plan.

Those policies include progressing the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, and delivering environmental measures through planning—for example, by making environmental net gain mandatory. For the Duchy of Cornwall, which has committed to becoming carbon-free by 2030, these tools are essential if we are to achieve our carbon-free ambition. Local authorities must be supported by Government and given the right resources for the right ecological expertise to ensure the greening of our towns and cities—or, in our case in Cornwall, a single city.

I am asking Government to provide an update on the progress of the commitment to incorporate nature-based, health-interfaced interventions in the NHS and the three-year natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, all of which feature in the environmental plan. GPs in my constituency have led the way in the innovation of social prescribing, as we discussed just a moment ago. It is important for the Government to clarify the timeline of the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, so that the good work being done is adequately funded and replicated.

For the ambition of the 25-year environment plan to be realised, it is essential that the Government introduce an environment Bill that contains a legal obligation on this and future Governments to take action for nature’s recovery. As has already been mentioned, we need a nature recovery network to bring nature into every neighbourhood, and to ensure that everyone—whatever their background—has access to wildlife-rich natural green spaces every day. All this should be underpinned by statutory targets and a robust, independent watchdog that will uphold the law and stand up for the environment. I would be glad if the Minister can set out when she hopes to bring forward the environment Bill.

Break in Debate

Mary Creagh Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 4:56 p.m.

One of the shocking things that we discovered in our microbeads inquiry was that if someone eats a plate of oysters or mussels, they consume 30 microplastic particles. It is particularly into those bottom feeders—that seafood—that this material goes. There is evidence, I think, that it can pass through the fish gut, so as long as the fish is cleaned, people will be okay, but we know that it is accumulating in the guts of seabirds, and we do not want our marine life to be choked, entangled and starved to death, whether that is by large plastics or smaller plastics, so I welcome anything that is done on this. We do not know whether the plastic particles act as vectors for chemicals such that the pollution that exists in the sea, that persists in the environment, attaches to these plastics and then potentially is delivered into our bodies. These are big emerging areas of science, and I am grateful to the chief medical officer for commissioning research on the matter.

We know that insects are the canary in the coalmine. That is a slightly mixed metaphor, but there is the issue of insects and insect loss. They make up two thirds of all life on Earth, but they are almost invisible and are being lost at alarming rates. Forty per cent. of species will be at risk by the end of the decade, and there is a 2.5% decline in insect biomass each year.

As the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, this has to do with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report entitled “Global Warming of 1.5°C”, published last October, warned that we have just 12 years to avoid catastrophic climate change. It warned that the rate of biodiversity loss will be twice as severe in a 2° warmed world as it will be in a 1.5° world. The difference that that makes is that in a 1.5° world, 90% of the coral reefs will be lost, so our children will be able to see the remaining 10% of coral reefs, whereas in a 2° warmed world, our children will never see a coral reef. That includes the cold-water coral reefs on the southern border of the UK as well.

Richard Benyon Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 4:57 p.m.

Does the hon. Lady share my increasing anger that our conversation in this place and the conversation in this London postal district of SW1 among the commentariat is obsessed with one issue, which will pass and will be, in history terms, a blip in the road? What we are talking about in this debate is an existential issue, and we have to wise up to that. The young people who campaigned recently on the doorsteps of MPs need to be listened to. This is their future. We as a Parliament have to start reflecting the anger that people are starting to feel about their future, and we have to start doing something about it.

Sir Charles Walker Portrait Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 4:57 p.m.

Order. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) that I would like to get one more speaker in, so if she could finish at three minutes past 5, I would be very grateful.

Break in Debate

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:02 p.m.

Thank you for squeezing me into today’s debate, Mr Walker, and I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing it. At the outset, I will welcome the 25-year environment plan, which is a great step forward for this Government, and the environment Bill, which is the most exciting piece of environmental legislation that we have had in this country for decades. I am so proud to be part of a Government that will be bringing that Bill forward, and I hope that I can get involved in doing so.

As has been touched on, that Bill is much needed. We have had terrible crashes in biodiversity, not just in the UK but internationally. I will quote a couple of statistics. First, we have had a 75% crash in the number of farmland birds in the UK since the 1970s. I grew up on a farm, and I used to see yellowhammers every day as I went to school. I have not seen one in years and years; I do not know who else has.

Richard Benyon Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:04 p.m.

Come to my farm.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:04 p.m.

I will go to my right hon. Friend’s farm in Berkshire, but there are certainly very few yellowhammers left in Somerset.

There has also been a two-thirds crash in the global population of flying insects. Insects are our friends: we need them, and we cannot survive without them. I did entomology as part of my university course, and people probably thought that was amusing, but it is proving very useful. Insects pollinate our crops, and we need a world in which they can thrive. It is very important that we put legal obligations into the environment Bill that commit us to achieving all the things that are stated in the environment plan and that will hopefully be put into that Bill.

Nature recovery networks have been mentioned. I have been involved with the Somerset Wildlife Trust, which has a very good model for those networks; I believe the Minister knows about them. They are like a framework for all land use and all the things that go on to a piece of land, so that we can work out what is important, what to concentrate on, what has disappeared, what we can add and what we need to work on. They are very important.

I would also say that our rural areas will be important to us in the future, because they are like the lungs for the urban centres. They provide us with green space, places for tourism, places to grow food, flood control and all those things. We need a much bigger agenda to bring the rural area into helping us to solve our biodiversity problems.

Break in Debate

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:32 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. He spoke eloquently about the beautiful part of the country that he represents. Of course I have visited it more than once, and for me Mousehole stands out particularly. It is right that we should talk about elements of the countryside, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we also need to tackle the urban environment, recognising that more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities.

The 25-year environment plan sets out how we will deliver our commitment to pass our planet on to the next generation in a better condition than it was in when we inherited it. As I said last week to the Environmental Audit Committee, during its inquiry into planetary health, the 25-year environment plan is one of a growing set of strategies intended to have a positive impact on the health of humans and the planet that sustains us. It may be a plan for England, but its ambition extends to the world beyond. It commits us to taking on an even more prominent international role in protecting the planet, whether by pushing the agenda on climate change, tackling biodiversity loss, or leading by example through the development of innovative approaches such as natural capital accounting.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) is right to say that Scotland is playing its part—certainly with respect to biodiversity. He mentioned littering from vehicles, and the Government have already taken the power in question. The legislation is in place and councils have powers to make it easier to find the owners of vehicles from which littering takes place. I look forward, on this occasion, to the Scottish Parliament and Government catching up.

A key component of the 25-year environment plan’s domestic strategy is connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing. There is increasing evidence, which has already been widely discussed in the debate, that spending time in the natural environment improves our mental health and wellbeing. It can reduce stress and depression, boost immune systems and encourage physical activity. It may even reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Several Members referred to a mental health programme, the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme. DEFRA, NHS England, Public Health England and Natural England, along with the Department of Health and Social Care, are already working together in alliance, and more information will be made available later in the year. However, I want to stress that this programme has already launched two evidence-gathering projects to inform the design of the programme. We have also established a board to oversee the implementation and, once the evidence-gathering exercises have been completed, more information will be available.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced last year a £4.5 million investment to boost social prescribing. As the hon. Member for Totnes said, that is an important part of what can be done. I know that several Members recognised that in the debate.

In terms of our youth, the Government have committed £10 million to our Children and Nature programme. That programme will make school grounds greener and make it easier for pupils to visit green spaces, particularly those children from disadvantaged areas. It is also intended to increase community forest and woodland outreach activities and to transform the scale and scope of care farming.

Richard Benyon Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:35 p.m.

Is the Minister, like me, pleased that, when she was working in 2011 with her boss, the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he was Secretary of State for Education, the natural environment White Paper reduced the health and safety guidance for schools for learning outside the classroom from more than 100 pages down to just 11 pages? It is that kind of change, right across government, that can make a difference to getting people out into the countryside—particularly the young.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:37 p.m.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, he authored that paper, which is why it is so excellent and long-standing. He is right to push that particular issue. He should not be modest. I am sure that he will give credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); but I know that he was the driving force.

As has been said, 2019 is the year of green action and is providing a focal point for organisations, individuals, communities and businesses to learn more about their environmental impact and take action to reduce it. That is why we have partnered with the charity Step up to Serve, to help encourage environmental youth social action through their #iwill4nature campaign. I also met with the Minister for Civil Society and know that she will be taking this up with the National Citizen Service, to make sure that they are also fully involved in these projects, not only this year but, I hope, going forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives referred to the benefits of tree planting. Besides the social benefits of community forests, to which I have already referred, it is true that trees benefit us economically and environmentally, in particular in sequestering carbon dioxide. That is why the 25-year environment plan sets out our ambitions for tree planting. In addition to the 11 million trees that we have committed to plant across the country, we will ensure that 1 million more are planted in our towns and cities. We have also been consulting on the rules that we want to see in place to make it harder for councils to cut down trees when they become a nuisance, rather than being cherished for what they are.

Oral Answers to Questions

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 28th March 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Mr Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill - Parliament Live - Hansard
28 Mar 2019, 9:44 a.m.

I have to say that that is a load of nonsense. British consumers rely on geographical indicators to ensure that products they buy from the continent are kosher—are the right thing—and I think they would expect the same from us. I think there would be very productive negotiations, and I hope that we would reach quite rapid decisions on most of them.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard

There is a crisis of species decline in this country. While we can all see the virtues of operations like rewilding and species introduction, it is in the farmed environment where we will turn it around. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that in the Agriculture Bill and in Government policy, there will be a drive towards the right incentives to protect species and reverse the decline in biodiversity?

Mr Robert Goodwill Portrait Mr Goodwill - Parliament Live - Hansard
28 Mar 2019, 9:44 a.m.

It is not just that that is within the Agriculture Bill; it is front and centre within it and central to the way we will continue to support the agriculture industry and deliver the public goods that taxpayers want.

Oral Answers to Questions

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 21st February 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
21 Feb 2019, 9:35 a.m.

We have had extensive discussions with the Local Government Association and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We want to move towards mandatory food waste collection across all local authorities, and we intend to ensure that resources are available to help them to do just that.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
21 Feb 2019, 9:36 a.m.

Anaerobic digestion of food waste used to be prohibitively expensive for local authorities, but now there has been a massive drop in the cost so savings are available for local authorities and businesses if they opt for this kind of food waste disposal. What measures can the Government take to promote this as a really good green method of reducing food waste?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
21 Feb 2019, 9:36 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Anaerobic digestion can play an important part in dealing with food waste and making sure that we have a truly circular economy. We want to work both with local authorities and with farmers and land managers to make sure that, where appropriate, anaerobic digestion can be expanded.

Water Industry

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Tuesday 22nd January 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas - Hansard

I find myself in the slightly unusual position of agreeing almost completely with the hon. Lady. Leakage is a huge problem. Much tougher regulation by Ofwat in particular, and ultimately an increase in the regulator’s powers, are required to bear down on the shocking levels of leakage, not least because the Environment Agency has said publicly that England and Wales could suffer major water shortages by 2030. The agency also noted that enough water to meet the needs of 20 million people is lost every day through leakage, which surely further supports her significant point.

To be frank, in the past Ofwat has not demanded enough investment from water companies, given the scale of the rise in customer bills. It appears to have been asleep at the wheel under various leadership teams. The Public Accounts Committee, which looked at regulation of the water industry as far back as 2015, criticised Ofwat for overestimating costs and poor benchmarking of efficiency, resulting in higher bills for customers.

The hon. Lady also made the point that even the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested in March last year that water companies have not been acting in the public interest. Granted, the Secretary of State’s criticism came a month after a detailed critique of the water industry by the shadow Chancellor; nevertheless, the Secretary of State’s criticism is welcome.

As I indicated earlier, the latest price review is under way and already the Consumer Council for Water is concerned that Ofwat’s grand promises are unlikely to be met, with

“companies bidding for significant rewards for performance levels that aren’t particularly stretching”.

In part, prices are decided by the cost of equity and the cost of debt, plus investors’ expected UK tax burden. In my view, Ofwat should reduce the cost of equity in its calculations while maintaining fair treatment on debt finance for genuine capital investment. In short, Ofwat should drive down the profit that the owners of water companies make. It should also scrutinise the tax behaviour of those owners, to crack down on tax avoidance, and demand that owners do not use tax havens to receive the profits from our water companies. Lastly, every English water customer should see their bills reduced after 30 years of being used as cash cows by the owners of water companies. It is time that consumers and their pockets were treated better.

In October last year, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested that an independent review to determine whether the water industry was fit for purpose was required. The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management went further, suggesting that such a review needed to examine the ownership of water companies. The Select Committee also raised concerns about the powers available to Ministers and Ofwat to improve governance and prevent pollution. With climate change approaching and a creaking infrastructure, the Committee argued that the need for change was urgent.

For some of the reasons that I have set out, there is growing concern about the ownership model in the water industry, and there are alternatives to the current privatised system. Long-term alternatives that the Government should consider include, in particular, a mutual approach, with democratic public ownership by consumers and employees, modelled on the success of Welsh Water and inspired by other similar success stories. Welsh Water, or Glas Cymru, does not pay dividends to shareholders, and yet it operates in the private sector. It has an ownership model that forces it always to operate in the interest of its customers and it has changed the way in which it raises finance, in order to reduce the cost of credit.

Welsh Water now has the strongest credit ratings in the water industry, which reduces its financing costs and allows for even more future investment in its infrastructure and services. Customer bills have been reduced steadily in real terms and so far it has returned about £180 million to customers in the form of customer dividends. In addition, it has provided some £10 million of support for vulnerable and low-income customers, through social tariffs and an assistance fund.

The first step on that path for the water industry in England, so that it can match and then go further than Welsh Water, would be the formation of consumer and employee trusts. These trusts would have the power to appoint non-executive directors to water company boards, and they would have access to independent advice from management, so that they can make well-informed and independent decisions.

Ofwat should discourage investment in the water industry that requires a fast return to the owners of expensive equity. Instead, it should steer water companies towards the lower-cost debt market, with responsible investors such as public sector pension funds, whose interests are aligned with those of the water sector and whose investment could help to ensure that there is a modern, resilient water infrastructure.

Over the longer term, as equity investors seek to sell up because they recognise that they can no longer make a fast buck, consumer and employee trusts could use bond issues to buy those equity investors’ stakes in the business. These trusts would need to be underwritten by a buffer, or internal equity reserves, to borrow against. That could be achieved through a Government guarantee on loans or debt, to ensure that any large unexpected investment needs will be met, and to ensure that if anything should go awry, lenders are in a first loss position. Similar initiatives already take place in other areas of Government policy. Government guarantees could be replaced over time through the accumulation of non-distributed reserves, or of retained profit, by the trusts.

As the ownership of water companies changes, legislation should be passed to embed the not-for-profit principle. The new not-for-profit water companies would also require protection, with an asset lock to prevent demutualisation in the future. Consumer and employee trusts—like those at Nationwide, John Lewis and other mutuals—would enable customers and the workforce to have an active role in the key decisions taken by their organisation. The board would include employee and customer directors, and the trust membership would enable members—including consumers—to vote for board members, and to agree audit, remuneration and company governance decisions, as well as how profits are invested or distributed.

Ofwat should be given new powers to ensure that water companies encourage employee and customer participation in the democratic process. The new employee and consumer trusts should also have a role in the scrutiny and decision making of Ofwat, with a scrutiny panel that reviews the operations of the regulator, led by consumers, and also playing a role in Ofwat’s appointments to its board.

In conclusion, comparisons of public ownership and private ownership of the water industry do not come out favourably for England’s privatised water companies. They do not look like they are committed to environmental investment and the other challenges facing the water industry. The latest price review should herald the beginning of the transformation to new not-for-profit owners—the very consumers and employees who depend on the services of the water industry. Public ownership works in Scotland and the model for mutual transformation of the rest of the water industry works in Wales. It is time that there was new ownership of the water companies in England, and I commend the mutual model to the House.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard

If hon. Members check my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, they will see that I chair an organisation called the UK Water Partnership. As the Leader of the Opposition claimed that I was some sort of stooge for the water companies, I put on the record that the UK Water Partnership is a public-private partnership, and that I was asked to chair it by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It brings together industry, policy makers and the research community to try to provide the key to unlocking a $500 billion global marketplace, as well as tackling water security issues through a strategic approach to research innovation and global clients. It effectively works right across the water sector, helping British companies to do better in a global marketplace. I very much do not speak for water companies.

As the water Minister who introduced more competition, changed Ofwat’s prioritisation of environmental protection, introduced the catchment approach to upstream water management and oversaw the Thames tideway tunnel in its initial phase, I have a fair degree of insight into how private water companies work and what they deliver for customers.

I appreciate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) bringing this matter to the House. I suppose it all depends on which end of the telescope we look down. It is easy to pray in aid companies and organisations that fail, and so give a malign picture of the whole operation of our water sector. I will try to give a more balanced view, but I totally accept some of the points made, as there are good players and bad players in every sector.

As in any field that involves a number of organisations, we will of course come across ones that are good and others that are bad, but I am absolutely certain that we have benefited from privatisation. It is wrong to turn the clock back and pretend that there was some halcyon era of cheap water, exemplary customer service, massive investment and great environmental activity by companies in the days when they were publicly owned. To those who say, “Ah, but we would do it better this time”, I say that that is the Venezuela defence. Socialists say that Venezuela has not done socialism right and that they would do it differently here, that nationalisation would be different from in the past. Those years of bad service, under-investment and environmental degradation must not happen again.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas - Hansard

I am enjoying the trip to Venezuela that the right hon. Gentleman is taking us on. May I draw him back to my remarks about the mutual model of democratic public ownership, which would see the water companies remaining in the private sector, albeit run by their customers and employees, a bit like at John Lewis and Nationwide?

Richard Benyon Hansard

I can come on to talk about suggestions that I think have some virtue, particularly employee share ownership schemes. As with everything, there is no perfect right or absolute wrong; there is a massive area of grey, and I will explore some of the nuances, on which I think we can perhaps find some agreement.

On the model of nationalisation I have heard certain individuals speak about at Momentum rallies, I think about the head of a nationalised utility company going to see the Chancellor to plead for more infrastructure investment funds, only to be told, “Get in the queue behind the NHS, welfare, policing and schools”—the long list of public spending priorities that come before something that is now funded privately and by institutional investors. Let us consider some facts. Since privatisation, water companies in England and Wales have spent about £150 billion on improvements to the water service. That is infrastructure that had been absolutely ignored by public expenditure before it was put into the private sector. The companies now spend about £8 billion a year continuing with those improvements.

When I was water Minister, I met institutional investors and saw that the regulated utility sector is an extremely popular place for people to invest, including for pension funds—the people who pay the pensions of people in the public sector. I welcome the fact that sovereign wealth funds and overseas investors want to invest in the United Kingdom. They do so because it is a stable and relatively low-yielding but relatively secure investment.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard

Does my right hon. Friend agree that water companies are already getting involved in good environmental projects, to clean the water, work with landowners and make it so that the water needs less treatment? With that interest in sustainability and many more people wanting to engage in green investment, does he foresee the opportunities expanding, particularly as under the Agriculture Bill, we will be paying for public services, the public good and the need to protect our land more?

Richard Benyon Hansard

As water Minister, I pushed the concept of payment for ecosystem services, which was against Ofwat’s institutional view at the time, though I am happy to say that it has moved on. It liked the idea of a regulated asset—of measuring the quality of the water coming in at one end and going out at the other, and judging whether the asset was working. I would say, “Try to let a thousand flowers bloom”. Some of them would fail, but building that relationship between a water company and land managers upstream, and paying them to help to produce better quality water, is the sort of thing I am glad to say is now becoming the welcome norm across the sector.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard

I meant to mention an excellent project I have visited. Upstream Thinking, run by South West Water, is a phenomenal example of exactly how that is working.

Richard Benyon Hansard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention that project, which was initially developed around Dartmoor. It is an extraordinary scheme that is really working, and that I hope will become even more mainstream in the near future.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard

The right hon. Gentleman’s points are similar to those brought to my attention by Anglian Water, which services my region. I do not think that anyone disputes that good work is being done, but the unhappiness is with some of the extraordinarily labyrinthine financial arrangements that sit behind the companies. Does he agree that if that could be resolved, in many of the ways my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) suggested, it would solve some of the dilemmas? No one is challenging the good work that is being done.

Richard Benyon Hansard

There has absolutely been bad practice. I have had my concerns about Thames Water in the past, but today the company has capped its dividend payments, is investing more in resilience and is doing a whole new range of different activities, and my concern is that we risk cutting off an enormous amount of infrastructure investment if we do not get this right. I think there is a way forward, and I will touch on it in a moment.

Compared with 30 years ago, customers are now five times less likely to suffer from supply interruptions, eight times less likely to suffer from sewer flooding and 100 times less likely to have low water pressure. The hon. Member for Harrow West talked about Welsh Water; he is right that people sometimes suggest that it is a mutualised organisation, when it is a private company. Welsh Water loses 121 litres per property in leakage, which is more than nearly every other water company. Its average combined water and sewage bill is £439, which is 8% higher than the average English and Welsh bill, at £405. It is higher than the bill in six English companies, and that is in a country where there is no shortage of water. I come from the Thames Water region and we are short of water there, but in Wales they are not so I cannot understand why the bills are so high. In Welsh Water, the average number of minutes lost due to supply interruptions is 43 minutes, which is about 400% higher than in most other companies, where fewer than 10 minutes are lost.

The picture is not universally wonderful, and there occasionally needs to be a bit of balance in the subject. Water companies have reduced leakage by a third since the 1990s. We are about to see an incredible increase in innovative methods of detecting leakage, and it is right that in the current price review round there is an enormous driver on those companies to crack down on it further.

On the environment, standards have dramatically risen, with the welcome return of wildlife to rivers that had been biologically dead since the industrial revolution. Otters rely on healthy rivers and were thought to be on the verge of being wiped out 30 years ago, yet they are now seen in every county in England.

The average domestic water bill is just over £1 a day—that is £1 a day to get all the water we need into the household, and all the sewage and waste water out. Although bills went up immediately after privatisation to help deal with decades of under-investment when the industry was owned and run by the Government, bills have stayed pretty much the same in real terms since 1994 after inflation, and are set to fall in real terms over the next few years. By 2025, bills will have fallen in real terms for a decade. The industry’s independent regulator Ofwat—which has just come in for some stick—has calculated that bills are £120 lower than they would have been if the combination of privatisation and tough independent regulation had not happened. Bills would have been £120 more per household if the industry had remained in public ownership.

On the subject of customer satisfaction, the hon. Member for Harrow West has said that people are terribly dissatisfied with their water companies. I went on the internet last night to look at what Ofwat, the Consumer Council for Water and individual water companies are saying, and customer satisfaction levels for water and sewerage services are around 90%. As politicians, would we not love to have a bit of that, particularly at the moment?

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas - Hansard

I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would comment on two things. The first is the National Audit Office’s calculations, which suggest that there has been a 43% increase in real terms in water bills since privatisation, and the second is the significant difference in water prices between publicly owned Scottish Water and the privatised water companies in England, which I mentioned.

Richard Benyon Hansard

I do not know the circumstances in Scotland, so I can only speculate, but that is another country that is not short of water, as many parts of this country are. I just think that we need to look at what the customers are saying, and my impression is that customers are not shrinking violets. When I came into this House in 2005, my inbox was overflowing with complaints about Thames Water’s customer service, which made me realise that water is an absolute necessity of life. It is the first thing that people will complain about; it is something that we perhaps rely on too much, and use too much of, in the area of the country in which I live. However, the idea that customers are somehow not involved in and concerned with raising these issues is wrong. When they are asked about them, they give quite interesting responses.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Richard Benyon Hansard

Let me just finish this point. A recent ComRes survey shows that 86% of customers trust their water company overall, with 89% trusting it to provide good-quality water and 87% trusting it to provide a reliable service. Those are levels of satisfaction that we as a political class can only dream of.

Will my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) be very quick? I know that other Members want to speak.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard

Does my right hon. Friend think that there is still a role for customers in reducing their water consumption? Water is a precious resource, and we are probably using more than we ought to.

Richard Benyon Hansard

Yes, we need to do more. When compared with other European countries, we are absolute laggards: we use much too much water, wash our cars with potable, drinking-quality water, and do all kinds of things that we should not. We have to change our lives, and I hope the Minister will be able to inform us about what will be happening in that area in the future.

On the topic of dividends, which is a key point, Ofwat says that each company’s licence requires it to declare or pay dividends

“only in accordance with a dividend policy which has been approved by its Board and which complies with both of the following principles.

The dividends declared or paid will not impair the ability of the company to finance the regulated water and sewerage business.

Under a system of incentive regulation, dividends reward efficiency and the management of economic risk.”

In the past, some companies have certainly played a bit fast and loose with those principles, and have developed levels of gearing that I, as a manager of a small business when I entered DEFRA, found quite eye-watering. However, the hon. Member for Harrow West does tend to pick on the bad players, and in talking about Thames Water, he was perhaps not talking about the Thames Water of today. He might have been talking about a model that applied under previous ownership, and I urge him to look more closely at what Thames Water is trying to achieve today.

We should encourage companies to look at employee share ownership schemes. That whole concept of finding ways to democratise capital is a huge, rich seam that we could collectively work on. Water companies are good places to encourage not just employees, but customers, to develop a higher interest in the ownership of that company, which is a better way to get more people involved without damaging any investment potential. I worry about Labour’s proposals for nationalisation right across the sector. It recently published its plans in a publication called “Clear Water”, but stopped short of explaining how the big challenges faced by the water industry, such as climate change and an increasing population, would be addressed by its substantial re-organisation of structures and ownerships. That publication makes no attempt to acknowledge the many improvements made since privatisation in 1989, let alone the further benefits such as falling bills, improved services and increased investment that companies have set out for the future.

If water is nationalised, it could seriously damage the service and quality of water in England. It could create a future in which decisions are driven primarily by short-term political expediency rather than the needs of customers, and in which the high levels of investment needed to improve services are not sustained. The result would be bad for customers, bad for the environment, and bad for the economy.

John Grogan (Keighley) (Lab) Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:06 a.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has displayed his knowledge of not just the water industry but Momentum rallies, Venezuela and so on. His remarks put our party and our Front Benchers on notice that we have to get the detail of this policy right. It is a very radical policy, and I support changes in the water industry, but we will hear many mentions of Venezuela and Momentum rallies in any election campaign in which this is an issue. It is also a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who opened the debate in a typically urbane and knowledgeable way. He is a great loss to our Front Bench, and I hope that one day he will be a Minister again in a future Labour Government.

Break in Debate

John Grogan Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:07 a.m.

I do not know whether that is a “thank you” or a bet.

I will speak briefly, but perhaps a little explicitly. I think that part of my hon. Friend’s speech was directed at our party’s own Front Benchers. At the moment, we are consulting on our plans for the water industry, and I hope nothing is set in stone. In developing our policy, we need to learn as much from Scotland, Wales and—if I may say so—Northern Ireland as we do from experts who reside in the north of London. My hon. Friend referred to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the shadow Chancellor competing, about a year ago. It was last spring—spring was in the air—and one of those gentlemen said:

“Far too often, there is evidence that water companies—your water companies—have not been acting sufficiently in the public interest.”

It could have been either of them; in this instance, it was the Secretary of State. On that occasion, he was as cruel and as vehement in his speech about the water industry as he was about the Opposition last week, so this is an open goal for the Opposition.

I will not repeat the statistics that my hon. Friend referred to when opening the debate, except for the basic statistic that the privatised water industry has taken out about as much in dividends as it has put in as investment, so the idea that the privatised water industry has brought new investment into the industry that would not have been made otherwise is wrong. However, what should be a Labour Opposition’s policy on changing ownership? I hope that the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), can confirm that the submissions that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West has made will be considered very carefully in our current review of policy in this area.

I share with the right hon. Member for Newbury a love of employee share ownership schemes, particularly if they involve the whole of the company. I chaired such a scheme, which ran Hatfield, one of the last two deep mines in our industry. It has a different feel from any other form of capitalism. I hope we will consider that. I hope we will also consider the role of regulation, because any reference to external regulators seems to have gone from our paper. I do not want civil servants making all the decisions on the regulation of the water industry. It is a specialist role.

In Scotland, there is a publicly owned industry, but there is also an independent regulator. Incidentally, there is also competition in the business retail market in Scotland, which exists alongside public ownership of the industry. We have had some debate already about the precise form of ownership, but as I understand it, in Wales it is not employee-owned, but a not-for-profit model. I understand that the cost of debt for the Welsh industry is less than for any other industry in the public or private sector in the whole United Kingdom. I hope we learn from Wales, too.

If we are to take some of the water industry at least into the nationalised sector, why not let a thousand flowers bloom? I hope our Front Benchers will consider that. Why not have some on the model that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West mentioned and some where there is demand in the public sector? That would be one way of doing it, but it will be more costly to have all the water industry in the nationalised sector, as compared with my hon. Friend’s suggestion. We have to face up to the question of compensation. It is not good enough for an academic in north London to refer to how the banks were taken in distress into the public sector. Certainly they were, but they had virtually no value in their assets, and that would not be the case with the water industry.

Some of the water industry shares are owned by the workers of the water industry, and some are owned by the pensioners. I have had an interesting dialogue with an organisation called We Own it, which is contributing to the field. When I asked it about this question, it said—I paraphrase—that it did not really believe in compensation, but that it recognised that workers and pensioners somehow have to be looked after. We have to do better than that if we are to stand up with a general election campaign.

Richard Benyon Hansard

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Polls are often cited to say that an enormous percentage of people want to take the companies back into national ownership. Of course, it depends on which way the question is asked. When it is phrased, “In order to do that, the Government would have to spend £90 billion of taxpayers’ money. Do you not think that could be better spent on other areas of the public sector?”, they nearly always agree. It depends on the question.

John Grogan Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:12 a.m.

It does, but obviously if a Labour Government went down that road, they would then have assets on the public sector books to match that spend, as the right hon. Gentleman is well aware. The arguments are not black and white, as he admitted in his speech. We do have to think out the policy very carefully. I am a great believer in radical policies. I voted from the Back Benches in favour of some of them under the last Labour Government when those were perhaps not the flavour of the month. We have to get it right.

I will mention one other issue and then finish. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, did a report on the water industry. I commend some of the detail of that, and one detail in particular. The overflows from combined sewers owned by the water industry are a national disgrace. We have cleaned up our beaches in the past two or three decades, largely, dare I say it, because of European regulation.

We now need to clean up our rivers. Ilkley in my constituency is a great tourist destination, with swimmers in the Wharfe all the time. It connects downstream with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) at Otley. We should not have sewage being discharged on a very regular basis. While I understand that various other things are going on in Parliament next Tuesday, I will be concentrating on the afternoon drop-in session of the chief executive of Ofwat and the Environment Agency. I hope they will address the issue of sewage and commit to cleaning up our rivers, just as we have cleaned up our beaches.

Break in Debate

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:19 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. First, I thank my hon. Friend from my namesake constituency, the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones). He gave a great technical speech and we all learned a lot about how we can improve the data analytics and dynamics of the water industry.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), who made a number of important points on which I will elaborate. Most informatively, he said that we should not rely on expert academics and opinions from north London. Perhaps in this debate we will hear some expert advice from west Yorkshire that the Labour Front-Bench spokesman and the Minister can act on. Lastly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for securing this debate. He chairs the Co-operative Party with some panache. We have been waiting for this debate for some time, and I declare an interest as a Co-operative Member of Parliament.

I want to commend the publicly-owned Scottish Water, which, over the past 16 years, has managed to save consumers an average £42 a year when compared with English consumers, and is ranked as one of the UK’s most trusted companies. I also want to highlight the success of Welsh Water, as many others have. Glas Cymru, established under the then Labour Government, has managed to return £180 million to customers in the form of customer dividends, while providing £10 million to assist low-income families and individuals by offering them lower tariffs.

An increasing body of support shows that the Tories’ ideological obsession with privatisation, which the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) is a great exponent of, has done nothing to improve services and has only raised the cost to consumers. Water is water, whether you are English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish. But under the English privatised system it is more costly, even though both Scotland and Wales have very difficult topography and are sparsely populated in large areas.

When English people turn on their taps, they pour money down the drain—except that it is not down the drain, but into the pockets of the wealthy and into the wealth funds of foreign investors in countries such as Canada, Australia and Singapore. That makes up the £6.5 billion of dividends paid out to shareholders in the past five years: the same amount of money that goes into the pockets of the people of Wales. Do we really think that is good enough? Do we really agree that in our Union there should be a two-tier system for our most fundamental services? And do we think that an individual or family should pay more for water because they live in one part of the Union and not another?

The ideological mindset of those obsessed with the privatisation agenda is such that this Government cannot see the evidence in front of their eyes. Privatisation does not necessarily, as promised—

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:21 a.m.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:21 a.m.

I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure will defend privatisation.

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:22 a.m.

I am very fond of the hon. Gentleman. He and I agree on other things, but I cannot resist responding to being attacked for being ideological when I feel I am combating an ideology here. We have a system that works and it is being attacked by ideology.

On another point, of course 380 or 400 quid a year is a lot of money to people on low incomes and we have systems to support them, but for people on average incomes, compared with other costs in their lives, getting water that is 99% drinkable and of good quality and getting sewage away for about £1 a day is quite a good deal for most people, particularly if we protect the poor.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:23 a.m.

I was not completely embodying all the faults in the right hon. Gentleman’s arguments. To repeat his point, it is good value, but why is it better value in Scotland and Wales than it is in England? We should surely aim for best value.

At this crucial time, when living standards across the UK are being decimated and individuals and families are struggling to stay afloat, we need to reassert both sense and our fundamental obligation to the people we represent. We need to assert that the market has limits, that not everything in this world should be up for grabs, and that privatisation does not necessarily equal value for money. The market has its place as a means of exchange for goods and services, but a basic selling principle of marketisation is the offer of genuine choice, lower costs and better services. I am a customer of Yorkshire Water. The only way I can get Harrogate water is to buy it in a bottle. I cannot get it through the tap and cannot change provider as I can in other utility markets. None of those things apply to the case of England’s regional water companies, so I suggest it is time to look at the example of our Welsh and Scottish compatriots and to change our—literally—leaking system.

With no competition and no realistic prospect of withdrawing consumption, water bills can be best conceptualised as a tax, because everybody needs to have water through the tap. Indeed, other systems, such as that in Scotland, account for water within council tax. It is not a matter of theory, but of practice in Scotland. Under our system, however, there is no differentiation between households. Our flat, regressive tax hits those on low and medium incomes hardest, particularly those on medium incomes who have no redress. Shareholders skim a dividend from UK taxpayers who have no choice but to purchase water from monopolistic regional providers.

We have only to look to Welsh Water, which operates on a not-for-profit basis within the private system, to see how well a mutual approach can work. The company serves 3 million people every day and has the strongest credit rating in the industry, as we have heard from my hon. Friends, as well as sector-leading levels of customer satisfaction. Its success does not benefit a few wealthy shareholders. As I have said, £180 million has been returned to customers.

The idea that a select few own and profit from something that falls literally from the sky—something that makes up 70% of our bodies—is absurd. The arguments for privatisation of our most basic assets and infrastructure have been lost. It is not about competition, which implies choice. No, it is the same faith in the market that means people in this country pay through the nose for their gas, electricity and train travel, often receiving a worse service where it is privatised than where it is in the public sector.

Last summer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley mentioned, Yorkshire Water allowed sewage to flow through the River Wharfe, which starts in his constituency and flows right through mine in Otley and Pool. As was said, swimmers in the River Wharfe had to swim through the sewage. Private companies do not face the level of accountability that the system demands.

For mutualisation to happen, the water companies must first be taken into state ownership and the shareholders compensated, and then the companies can be put into the hands of consumers. Our basic infrastructure can be truly owned by the public without the need for direct state ownership, which MPs of all parties should support. Then we come to the question of governance. Wales has a company limited by guarantee. It has no shareholders, so its corporate governance functions are the responsibility of its board, which has a majority of independent non- executive directors, and its members, around 70 individuals, are appointed following a process undertaken by an independent membership selection panel. Those 70 people are the customers: the people of Wales.

There are alternative forms of governance, with a water company in a defined geography, as we have in England, being a good fit for a consumers’ co-operative model. Consumers’ co-operatives utilise the co-operative principle of democratic member control—or, as we call it in the Labour party, one member, one vote. Most consumers’ co-operatives have a board of directors elected directly by and from the membership. Unfortunately, water in England drips with right-wing ideology, draining the public purse and rinsing out our most valuable resources, while drowning customers in debt. That money-making monopoly and the two-tier UK system must end. We must instead look west to Wales and replicate a model that brings water—the most basic of human needs—back into the hands of the public.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP) - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:27 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I do not have long, so I cannot dwell too much on some of the valuable contributions made by hon. Members, but I commend the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) for securing this debate. He raised very important points, and I am delighted that they are being addressed in this forum. There was quite a contrast between some of his comments and those of the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who painted a glowing picture of water privatisation that I find it difficult to recognise.

The right hon. Member for Newbury admitted that he knew little of what was happening in Scotland, which is a surprising admission for a former water Minister, who should surely be prepared to learn best practice from wherever it can be found. After all, we are only up the road, geographically speaking. I hope he will be interested to hear some details in my speech. He also spoke of water being a necessity of life, and I wholeheartedly agree. It is far too important to be subject to a privatised system that gives, as we have heard, a worse service, and that seems to be largely driven by right-wing ideology, rather than what is best for customers.

There has been a lot of enthusiastic talk in this place about taking back control. That sounds strange coming from people who are, by and large, wholehearted supporters of stripping democratically elected Governments of control over the delivery of public resources, instead preferring essential services to be fractured and put into the hands of the private sector. Taking back control of England’s water supplies is an argument that makes a lot of sense to me. People are rightly scunnered by a system that services debt and pays disproportionate dividends through increasing bills for customers. There should be an outcry over the findings of the recent Greenwich University research, which suggested that a staggering £56 billion in dividends was funded through £51 billion, or potentially more, in debts.

Supporters of the privatisation cannot even claim real competition benefits, with most of the water companies operating as regional monopolies. The leakiest pipe in England’s domestic water supply is seemingly one that drains money away to a private stream. A public company, run for the public good, is the best way to end that scandalous rip-off. I welcome the contribution of the campaign led by We Own It to make that happen.

Luckily, as has been mentioned, there is a model close to hand that is working very well—I appreciate the hon. Member for Harrow West mentioning it often—which the UK Government would be very welcome to emulate. As with so many other public services being delivered under devolved Government control, such as the running of prisons or the procurement of NHS contracts, Scotland has chosen a more sensible path wherever it has the powers to do so.

We did not privatise domestic supplies of water, and Scottish Water was established in 2002 as a publicly owned company answerable to Scottish Ministers. Under the Scottish Government’s watch, there has been a focus on driving up standards and keeping charges affordable. We are now reaping the benefits in drinking water quality, environmental performance and customer service.

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:30 a.m.

One thing I know about Scottish Water is that its leakage level is way above that of the rest of the United Kingdom—I think just shy of 40% of water is lost, compared with about a fifth in England. I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to comment on that.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:30 a.m.

It is interesting. We are, of course, spending considerable amounts of money on addressing that. As I understand it, and I will speak about this later, our service performance is now comparable to the leading UK water companies; on some measures, we outperform them. As we continue to invest, water loss will be driven down. English water companies are having to resort to debt; that is what their investment in infrastructure is largely based on.

Break in Debate

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:35 a.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). As a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament, I listened intently to what he had to say with great interest and much nodding. He has been a real champion of the Co-operative movement over many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and I, as young Co-operative MPs in this place, have a lot to learn about the championing of the Co-operative cause from the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Co-op party— my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West.

This debate has long been due. As someone who has worked for a water company, I believe we do not talk enough about water policy in this place; we need to talk more about it if we are to meet our Paris climate change commitments to create a fundamentally sustainable water industry, in terms of water usage, the chemicals used in it, and the contribution to the natural world.

Clearly, some serious and genuine concerns are being raised by members of the public and Opposition Members about the way that our privatised water system is run. The privatisation of water has not worked to deliver the benefits that it should in 2019. Too much money is being paid out in dividends and not enough investment is being made in fixing leaks and reducing water usage. Not enough is being spent on climate change mitigation or fundamentally fixing the broken system. We need better water resilience and better value for money for our customers.

The water companies are only part of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) was right when he talked about the need to look at regulation as well. I am certain that he and the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) will read carefully the water policies that I hope to publish, as Labour’s shadow water Minister, in the next couple of months. They will describe how we should deal with the fact that we need a better, reformed system, and additional policy levers to address climate change.

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:37 a.m.

Can the hon. Gentleman give us a taster of those policies by saying whether he will compensate shareholders for the £90 billion that they own, and where he will find the money?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:37 a.m.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. As his intervention came only on page 1 of my 12-page speech, perhaps he is pre-empting some of it. I suggest that he looks at the proposals that the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and the shadow Business Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), have published that talk about replacing the share capital ownership with bonds. There are already details of that available.

It is important to consider the debate in context, because large parts of the UK, as well as the rest of world, are experiencing a water crisis. We like to think of England as a notoriously damp place where water is plentiful, but that is not the case for large parts of the country. We need to recognise that England is in fact in the lower quartile globally of available water resource per capita. More people are living in areas of water stress, and more population growth and house building is planned in areas of water stress—especially in the east of England, London and the south-east of England; we will need to not only reduce water use but transfer more water there. That suggests that we need a different system to handle some of those challenges.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley hinted, droughts cause hundreds of millions of pounds of damage, and have led to hundreds of thousands of fish dying from over-abstraction and to serious decline in our wetland species. Sewage has also been pumped into our rivers. It is worth saying that thankfully that is less common than it was. Indeed, when I was a boy growing up in the west country, at one of our glorious beaches, swimming past floating turds was commonplace. It is not anymore, thanks to the investment that has been made, but more needs to be done on that with regard to our rivers. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Newbury throws his hands in the air, but bill payers in the far south-west know about that investment, because we paid for it with what for many years were the highest bills in the entire country—not just a wee bit higher, but double the nearest amount. We have paid for what has gone out in dividends, as well as for what has gone into the system.

We need better water resilience, because there is simply more demand. The latest statistics show that there will be 4.1 million more people in the south-east by 2045, and by 2080 there could be an extra 10 million. We need to think about how to deal with the amount of water used, where it comes from and how it is treated, to ensure that we minimise the effect on our climate. We are also facing increased flooding. That context is really important; it is why we need more debates about the structure and operation of our water industry, and why today’s debate is so important.

I have to say that we have seen moves in the right direction under this Government, but they frequently come from DEFRA press office announcements rather than from policies being fully implemented. I do not think that Ministers are cranking the handle sufficiently to achieve the change that could be delivered to our water industry if we showed greater concern about pricing and about investment in climate change, flood and drought mitigation. We know that more can be done, because in the latest round of price reviews and business plans, companies have published proposals that hint at a slow move in the right direction. One such proposal, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West will have seen, is in the south-west: South West Water has proposed an element of mutual shareholding as part of its wider ownership base. If it can be done in the west country, it can be done elsewhere, so that could be encouraged as part of the wider debate.

Labour’s water proposals are pretty clear—and pretty popular, as it happens. Some companies have engaged in good practice, but not enough; as the right hon. Member for Newbury says, there are bad players and bad behaviour in our industry. Thames Water is the poster child for such bad behaviour, but sadly it is not the only one. We need better regulation and better ownership, so Labour has set out plans to take our water companies back into public ownership.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington and my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles for putting together Labour’s clear water proposals, which set out our plan for public ownership of water companies. As our September 2018 booklet “The Green Transformation” states,

“Labour will…bring water back into democratic public ownership, lowering bills and providing levels of investment needed to drastically reduce leakage and tackle major sewage pollution incidents, which are still rising.”

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Member for Newbury that we need to guarantee the investment stream. There is a role for investment in our water companies, but our proposal is that the role of private ownership should come to an end.

Our “Clear Water” plan states:

“To ensure maximum openness, transparency and scrutiny, RWA boards will have a statutory duty to make information widely available and hold monthly public meetings in different locations each month. Meetings will also be broadcast live on the internet and all papers will be made public.”

Many good lessons can be learned from the operation of mutuals about how customers and employees can be brought into running better businesses. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said it well: we need better value from our water industry. We also need to look at regulatory responsibility. Our plan further states:

“Regulatory responsibility…will be absorbed into Defra, which will form a new public regulatory system in the form of a National Water Agency responsible for economic and performance standards and capacity-building.”

As we get closer to publishing further details, more information will become available.

Labour is suggesting that our new water system needs to consider sustainability and the public interest, not just private profit. The shadow DEFRA team is exploring what other water policies should accompany our proposal, so that we can tackle climate change, flooding, water scarcity, water usage, water pollution from plastics and microplastics, lead pipes—an issue of particular interest in some parts of England—and water affordability. When the next election comes—many suspect that that will be very soon—our manifesto will offer a full suite of policies not only on public ownership, but on a better system.

I am aware that the Minister needs to sum up soon. This has been a good debate, and I hope there will be many more to come as we make our case. The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who is no longer in her place, spoke very well about the need to address personal water consumption—one of the reasons I carry around my own water bottle, rather than using the House of Commons’s supply of bottled water. Indeed, it seems ironic that in a debate about the water industry, we are still using bottled water in this place, so perhaps the House authorities could look at that. We can all do things to address the challenge in our water industry. Ownership, management and our own consumption are all part of the mix.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:45 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing this debate through the Backbench Business Committee, and I thank Mr Deputy Speaker for selecting it.

The hon. Gentleman and many others raised a huge number of points, which I intend to address. However, I think I will have to edit my reply to add a few facts about dividend payments, leakage and other matters, because there seems to be a complete lack of understanding and an attempt to use averages everywhere. I appreciate that that may be beneficial at times, but we need to get into the granularity of these points as well.

Water is key to life, which is why it features so prominently in our 25-year environment plan. The long-term view for the industry is clear, including on matters of supply, leakage, demand, consumption, environment and the necessary investment in infrastructure. Those matters are well set out, and companies have to consider the 25-year environment plan when producing their own future plans.

The Government support a private water sector model, underpinned by strong, independent economic regulation. It has been 30 years since the privatisation of the water industry in England and Wales, but the industry has continued to evolve and has always been underpinned by regulation through Ofwat—particularly as the provision of water, unlike that of other utilities, was not opened up to the market for consumers. We have introduced competition for business customers, but all the evidence that I have seen as water Minister predicts that opening up the market causes bills to go up rather than down, at least initially. One of the reasons we support the model as it is—which is not to say that policy may not change in future—is to ensure that Ofwat continues to effectively challenge water companies. Back in 2009, Welsh Water was challenged by the regulator to reduce its bills, and indeed it did—it reduced its operating costs by 20% to make that happen.

Since privatisation, approximately £140 billion has been invested in infrastructure. That is equivalent to £5 billion per year—almost double the level prior to privatisation. Customer satisfaction levels have risen to about 90% and customers are now five times less likely to suffer interruptions to their supply, eight times less likely to suffer from sewer flooding, and 100 times less likely to experience low flow pressure than in the days when water was a nationalised industry. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) points out, they pay just over £1 a day on average for water to be delivered, treated and returned to the environment in a good state.

I recognise that bills increased significantly, especially in the first 10 years after privatisation. A lot of that was to gather the necessary investment. Average bills have remained flat over the past two decades, however, and are planned to fall by 4% in England by 2025. Some companies, such as Yorkshire Water, are keen to increase prices because they want to invest considerably more from an environmental angle, but that is a decision for Ofwat to agree or disagree to.

We are not complacent. I am very conscious that too much water still leaks out from our system. Significant investment is needed to improve the resilience of our water supply, and corporate and financial behaviours need reform. We have therefore challenged and will keep challenging the industry to continue to improve for customers and for the environment, as well as for shareholder returns.

People talk about dividends, but I am very conscious that the average dividend paid out has fallen: in 2008-09, under a Labour Government, I think it was £2.5 billion, whereas in the past year it was less than £1 billion. We are often accused of being ideological, but—dare I say it—when Labour was in charge, returns to shareholders were a lot more. We have taken action against that.

The hon. Member for Harrow West focused in particular on changing the ownership model of water companies. Although he did not seek to suggest that we nationalise the water industry, he is clearly a supporter of social enterprise and mutual organisations. I am very conscious of the experience he has had with Thames Water, particularly on dividends paid out and with the former owners. The owners have changed and I believe there has been a significant step change in approach, which is most welcome.

A lot has been said about what is happening in Wales. Following the original privatisation, the company covering Wales, which was called Hyder, had expanded into other sectors. After the new Labour Government’s windfall tax in the late 1990s—and other economic challenges—the company effectively collapsed and was acquired by Western Power Distribution. That focused the business and it sold the water division to the two founders of Glas Cymru for £1, with £1.85 billion of debt, and that resulted in Welsh Water.

As has been pointed out, the key difference for that company was that it was created by a small number of people. It does not have shareholders but is limited by guarantee and funded by the bond market, so it still has external financing. One of the ways in which it has adjusted its gearing is to hold very high cash reserves, which helps reduce borrowing. However, I do not think that we necessarily get better value for customers just through every provider having a not-for-profit system. I think it was the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) who complained to Ofwat a few years ago that customers across the border in Herefordshire, who were supplied by Severn Trent, were paying a lot less for their water bills than people in Wales. While I am conscious that there is not the same pressure on water supply, I am aware that there are particular challenges in the network when it comes to sewerage. It is important to recognise the different catchments, river basins and sources of water on which different water companies rely. Some rely more on water that is gifted from the clouds; others, such as those in the east of England, extract more water. Getting that balance on what is needed right will vary around the country.

As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) was correct to point out, traditionally South West Water has had the largest bills, which is a reflection of the amount of ongoing investment that that area still needs.

Richard Benyon Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:53 a.m.

The Minister is making an extremely good point. People in the south-west had been pleading for years about the cost of cleaning up beaches and other infrastructure problems, but of course the Labour Government ignored those pleas. It was the coalition Government who got a £50 reduction for every single bill in the west country, which was extremely valued by water customers in the south-west.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey - Hansard
22 Jan 2019, 10:53 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is correct, and that has been considered. The balance is very important. However, we need to continue to challenge South West Water to make sure its investment is effective. The hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) talked about the challenges on sewage, and there are particular challenges in the south-west on aspects of combined overflows. We continue to press the company to make sure that it is maximising the investment on improvements.

European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 10th January 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 12:14 p.m.

I absolutely can. One of the opportunities that the citizens of Northern Ireland would have as a result of the deal is unimpeded access not just to the rest of the UK market, which is essential for the maintenance of our Union, but to the rest of the EU. That is why the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Ulster business and so many in Northern Ireland’s civil society have said that, with all its imperfections, the deal protects not only the integrity of the UK, but their livelihoods, jobs and futures.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 12:14 p.m.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Ulster Farmers’ Union. Has he had time today to see the letter written by the presidents of all four farmers unions to every Member setting out quite clearly why no deal would be so damaging to the interests of rural communities?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 12:19 p.m.

I have read that letter. It has been sent to every Member, and I would ask every Member to give it close attention. Our farming communities, like our country, were split over whether to leave. A majority of farmers voted to leave, recognising the opportunities that being outside the CAP would present, but I have yet to meet a single farmer who believes that a no-deal Brexit would be the right option for this country when the withdrawal agreement in front of us provides the opportunity for tariff-free and quota-free access for agricultural products to the EU.

I will say a bit more about the specific challenges of a no-deal Brexit. It is an intellectually consistent position, but it is important, even as we apprise it and pay respect to its advocates, that we also recognise the real turbulence that would be caused, at least in the short and medium term, to many of our farmers and food producers.

Break in Debate

Mr Speaker Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 2:49 p.m.

What I would say to the right hon. Lady is twofold. First, I do not control the Government Chief Whip any more than the Government Chief Whip controls me. I think we ought to be clear about that. I cannot comment on his whereabouts and they are not a matter of any great concern to me. Secondly, if the right hon. Lady or other colleagues want to explore these matters in the debate in the coming days, they absolutely can do so. All I can say is that, in support of Members in all parts of the House and of all shades of opinion, I will always have regard to the opportunities for Members to put their points and to advance their causes. These are not matters purely for the Treasury Bench. I think we are clear about that.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 2:52 p.m.

I should start by reflecting that the speech by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) was one of the finest analyses of what happened in the referendum. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) also absolutely hit the nail on the head about where we are today and how we need to progress.

We have heard, and will continue to hear in this debate, reasons why people feel they cannot support the Government’s deal. We will hear hon. Member after hon. Member describe in gruesome detail what precise strand of Brexit or non-Brexit they will support. That will be all very fascinating for their local paper or grist to the mill for their next blog, but in the context of what Parliament is doing in this debate and in next week’s vote it will be utterly irrelevant. What matters is not what any of us individually think of the deal; what matters is what Members in the Chamber decide. What matters is the maths of who makes up this House.

I am happy to give detailed reasoning to the House for why I am prepared to support the Government. That would be of interest to some of my constituents. It would be welcome news to my constituent who runs a business which employs over 20,000 people and is pleading with us to agree the deal. It would be interesting to the small businesses in my constituency that wrote to me about why ideological Brexiteers are playing with fire when they breezily claim that no deal would be just a bit of mid-air turbulence. We should listen to such people and ask ourselves who is more likely than them to understand the complexity of supply chains or the competitive pricing of their products.

For some in this House the word “compromise” is a pejorative term: a sign of weakness and a word which is too quickly followed by other words like “betrayal”. For me, compromise is almost always a virtue. I compromised as a soldier serving on operations. I compromised as a businessman in every negotiation I did. I compromised as a Minister when negotiating in Europe for this country. I compromise almost daily in this place trying to get some of what I want through, rather than getting nothing. Perhaps the best analogy I can use is that I compromised when I got divorced. As one hon. Member said outside this Chamber the other day, “At least his divorce was with only one person, not 27.”

As the leading Brexit campaigner Dan Hannan wrote recently, if a 52% to 48% referendum result is a mandate for anything, it is a mandate for compromise. That said, like most in this House I am a democrat and I concede that my side lost. Like about 85% of this House, I was re-elected in 2017—I might add, with the highest ever popular vote in my constituency in any general election—on a manifesto that pledged to respect the result of the referendum. If we look at the bell curve of public opinion on this issue, we see the edges of the bell curve showing the irreconcilables, the small percentage at either end who are either inexorably grieving at the result of the referendum and will do anything they can to undo it, or those for whom the cleanest of breaks with the EU is a theocracy and an ideology on which, as with the other end of the scale, compromise is impossible. And then there is the rest of the country. Here we find an understanding about what we want to achieve: to move from being a country inside the EU with some opt-outs, to one being outside the EU with some opt-ins. For many of them, this deal is fine. I support the Prime Minister if she can bring forward any changes and tweaks that will encourage more of our colleagues to join. I also give notice that if that fails I will seek, with other colleagues right across the House, to find a way forward. If that takes me down an EEA or EFTA route, then I will look at that. That would be sub-optimal, but it may be the only thing the House can agree. What I do feel is that there is no majority in this House for no deal. I really urge people to listen to industry and to the letter we received today from the four presidents of the NFU. If one represents a rural area and minds about our food industry and the rural economy, that letter is calm, deliberate knowledge.

In the spirit of compromise, and to ensure there is something for all of us, I am really attracted by the idea that, perhaps on workers’ rights, the environment, and health and safety, we could provide a sort of triple lock where if Europe decides to raise standards above where we are today we can say that we will put them to this House. We are a sovereign House of Commons. We can make a decision on whether to support them. I am interested in that.

I wish to say a word to those who want a second vote. If someone is calling for it because they see it as the best way of reversing the first referendum, say so—be honest with the public and do not dress it up with some higher purpose. In passing, I would also say: be careful what you wish for. The further one gets from London and its bien pensant elites, the more one detects an anger and belligerence towards the campaign for a second referendum. The Institute for Government has said it would take four to five months to have a second referendum. We would be putting this poor country through another four or five months of the kind of divisions we saw in the last one. Is that what we really want? The Electoral Commission, the independent body that oversees such votes, has very strong views on some of the points being made about the kind of questions that might be asked.

My discussions with some of the 97% of my constituents who have not written to me on this issue can be condensed down to one simple message: get on with it.

Mr Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 2:59 p.m.

Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept, though, that if the House were to support the Government’s deal, along with the political declaration, it would be a sure fire way of ensuring that this uncertainty and political wrangling continue for years to come?

Richard Benyon Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 3 p.m.

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It will give certainty. It would certainly give certainty to many of the businesses I have talked about. I think there is a dam holding back investment in the economy. We all see it in our constituencies. If the deal were to go through, I think we would see a mini-boom in this country, as well as a determination to close this off in the minds of the electorate by trying to speed through the final stage of negotiations. If there is another emotion I detect in my constituency, it is one of admiration for the tenacity of the Prime Minister. While not everyone will agree with what she has come up with, I think we can all accept that.

I will finish with a heartfelt plea to people right across the House not to stand absolutely on the principle and clear position of what they would accept, but to recognise that the House of Commons has to raise its game, understand that compromise is not a dirty word and find a solution that we can all agree.

Mr Speaker Hansard
10 Jan 2019, 3 p.m.

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), I must advise the House that, after she has spoken, the time limit will have to be reduced to six minutes. [Interruption.] Yes, I recognise that it is a pity, but very many Members wish to take part.

Fisheries Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
(Ways and Means resolution: House of Commons)
Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 21st November 2018

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Bill Main Page
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
21 Nov 2018, 2:33 p.m.

My hon. Friend knows what she is talking about, and she is absolutely right. It is the case that the Scottish National party wants us to stay in the European Union, and therefore in the common fisheries policy. It is also the case that the Scottish National party’s MEPs, when given the chance to vote in the European Parliament, voted to stay in the common fisheries policy. However, I do want to acknowledge that there are independent members of the SNP who do not toe the line of their leadership. There are individual voters who have lent the SNP their votes in the past but who do not agree with that view. Also, to be fair, the Scottish Government and the Minister responsible, Fergus Ewing, in helping to ensure that this legislation can work for Scotland, have operated in a constructive manner, as indeed have officials in the devolved Administrations—sadly, we do not have the Executive in Northern Ireland, but the officials there have negotiated in good faith, as have the Labour Administration in Cardiff. I want to underline that the legislation we bring forward will see powers moving to the devolved Administrations. It will be a diffusion of power and a strengthening of devolution.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
21 Nov 2018, 2:34 p.m.

Many individuals and organisations campaigned very hard to get the firmest rules on sustainability as part of reform of the common fisheries policy. Will my right hon. Friend give them an assurance that any vessel fishing in British waters after we leave the European Union will be required to maintain the highest levels of sustainability for those fish stocks, and to work with the Government to do so?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
21 Nov 2018, 2:34 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Bill makes it clear that there are principles, to which the Government will be held, that ensure that fishing will be sustainable and that our marine environment will be restored to full health. The Bill also gives the Government powers to ensure that no vessel can fish in our waters unless it adheres to those high environmental standards.

Agriculture Bill

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 10th October 2018

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD) - Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Oct 2018, 2:44 p.m.

This is a Bill that I hoped we would never have to discuss. No Russian cyber-attack could ever do as much damage to the UK as we are about to do to ourselves by leaving the world’s biggest market. The best deal we can get could only ever be second best to what we already have. However—and here I agree with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—if there was one aspect of leaving the European Union to which I could see a silver lining, it would be the ability for the United Kingdom to design and deliver its own policy for supporting agriculture, food security, and the productive and environmentally sustainable management of land.

Westmorland and Lonsdale is not just my home but the home of upland farming and of our most spectacular natural assets—the lakes and the dales. After London, it is Britain’s biggest visitor destination and a vital centre of high-quality food production. How we support agriculture is of colossal importance to me and the communities that I am proud to represent.

The Bill aims to do a lot of good. The commitment to having public money for public goods is commendable and to be encouraged. Moving to enhance the already significant environmental benefits of agriculture is also right. But the detail is everything: the Bill has good potential, but it also contains the potential for some of the most disastrous unintended consequences if this House fails to act wisely and long-sightedly.

I welcome the Bill’s commitment to maintain our environmental and animal welfare standards in farming, but it makes no mention of standards for imported food from trade deals. If standards on imports are not guaranteed, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage. The Secretary of State must therefore ensure that all food imported into the United Kingdom is produced to at least equivalent standards on animal welfare, environmental protection and production quality.

When UNESCO granted world heritage site status to the Lake District last year, it did so in large part in recognition of the landscape management of our hill farmers. I am proud of them and I fear for them. Perhaps the biggest blind spot in this Bill is a failure to ensure that those who farm the uplands and other less favoured areas get a sustainable deal that will guarantee them a future and, crucially, draw new entrants into the industry.

The Federation of Cumbria Commoners has asked me to express its concerns about the Bill’s failure to provide an effective framework for Government to support its members. Their collective stewardship of common land has helped to create and conserve the landscape, wildlife and archaeology of the Lake district, the Pennines, the Howgill fells and the western dales.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Oct 2018, 2:47 p.m.

When I was a Minister at DEFRA, I was quite shocked by some people—even those who were quite senior in the local national park—who had an aggressive attitude towards precisely the kind of farmers that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Rewilding has its place in certain areas, but a landscape that has been farmed and created by human beings since the time of the Norse people surely needs to be supported, not attacked, by those who have responsibility for it.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron - Hansard
10 Oct 2018, 2:47 p.m.

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The importance of recognising that our landscape is as diverse as it is because it is managed and maintained is huge. He makes a very good point.

In my view, the Bill should state that traditional hill farming and commoning are a public good. This finely balanced system is at risk and will disappear without explicit public investment. When hill farmers have made changes to how they work to benefit the environment they should be rewarded for that too, but there must be a baseline payment, equivalent at least to the old hill farm allowance, so that they can have security and stability in the long term.

I want the Government to understand not just what farmers do but why they do it. Their chief motivation and purpose is to produce food. We think too little about food security: some 45% of the food we consume today is imported, whereas 20 years ago that figure was more like 35%. That is a very worrying trend. If UK farmers’ ability to compete is further undermined, that will only get worse.

If farmers got a fair price for their produce, there would be no need for direct payments and farmers would not want them. That is not the case—not even close. The food market is so warped by the power of supermarkets that removing direct payments to farmers could leave them entirely at the mercy of the forces of that skewed market, so the powers and scope of the Groceries Code Adjudicator must be vastly expanded to ensure an effective referee on this extremely uneven playing field.

I know it is not an either/or, but the Government should be strengthening the Groceries Code Adjudicator, not, as they propose to do in the Bill, strengthening the failing and discredited Rural Payments Agency. The Government’s proposal to phase out direct payments without a guarantee of an immediate and equivalent replacement is unwise and will not work, either for hill farmers or the country.

Break in Debate

Ruth George (High Peak) (Lab) Hansard
10 Oct 2018, 5:06 p.m.

Were the Minister in his place, I would remind him that many of us have been attending agricultural shows and sheepdog trials for many years, and not just in our role as MPs. Our farms and our farming communities are part of our way of life in areas such as the Peak district. It is important to remember that when we examine the Bill. Promoting agriculture and the proper management of our land is important not only to tourists and visitors, but to those of us who live in rural areas and want our communities to be maintained.

Farming is important not only to our economy but to ensuring that we can continue the rural way of life. I am talking not just about upland farmers, but lowland farmers—in the Peak district, we have both the hills and the dales—sheep farmers, dairy farmers, beef farmers and smallholders. Most farming families have been farming for generations. They understand animal welfare, looking after the land, and how to put together a dry stone wall—a skill that takes years of dedication to acquire.

The rural way of life needs to be sustainable for future generations. The Bill is being introduced at a time when the average age of a UK farmer is 59, 30% are over 65 and only 3% are under 35. The Bill needs to be able to give the new generation the certainty to carry on in farming. At the moment, it is hard for them to see a way forward. The number of farmers in the UK has dropped from 141,000 in 2011 to 126,000 now: a drop of 11% in just seven years. The average income is about £20,000 a year—for lowland sheep grazing, it is about £16,000—and that is for all the hours farmers put in. They work 24/7 in many cases, particularly during the sort of weather we have had this year. Farmers have been out in the freezing weather and out taking water to the uplands when the water pressure has dropped and the supply has not been able to continue. Farming is a way of life and farmers want to be able to continue living it, but they are very concerned that the proposals in the Bill may mean—we have not seen any figures yet—that that is impossible.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), who set out clearly the problems that lots of farmers are having with the Rural Payments Agency and the bureaucracy involved in trying to claim a lot of the agri-environment payments on offer at the moment. The thought that their whole income has to be derived from those sorts of projects—the filling out of huge forms, all the bureaucracy, taking photos, reporting everything online and having multiple visits—does not fill them with confidence for the future. One of my local farmers reported that the RPA had asked him whether he was measuring his dry stone wall in metres or acres, and that was when he started to worry that RPA staff really do not know about farming and are far too remote from the farms and what is actually going on.

At the moment, farms are supported with nearly £3 billion via the CAP. Fortunately, we are going to see that continue, but direct payments make up 78% of that amount, so they are incredibly important to grazing animal farms, which actually make a loss. The direct payments are a source of sustained income on which they can rely when they are looking to invest. We need to make sure we have a system that recognises different types of farms, as has been said by Members from across the House. It may well be that we can have different systems of payment for different types of farm, and that that will take away the problems that farmers have having, but the Government need to make sure they set that out clearly for farmers for the future.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
10 Oct 2018, 5:08 p.m.

I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Bill. When the coalition Government were formed in 2010, I recall that the Government’s chief scientific officer spoke to us about the possible perfect storm of shortages of food, energy and water all at the same time. Farmers are in the lucky position of being able to provide all three, and the medium to long-term opportunities for agriculture in this country are very good. I hope that the Bill will set us on a path to farmers being able to achieve that in a way that is connected to the market as much as is possible, rather than requiring recourse to the taxpayer.

Let me start by talking about clause 1. Many hon. Members have made the good point that it contains no mention of food production as a public good, but I urge a bit of caution there, as the argument of agriculture can be weakened in terms of other parts of the food industry and other sectors in the economy. It is much more important to talk about food security, and the public good of producing healthy food with high animal welfare and environmental standards. That is much more connected to the aspirations of the public than talking about just the production of food.

The Government should take credit for the 25-year environment plan, which is an excellent document. I want to see its themes running right through this Bill as we get into its detail and the statutory instruments that flow from it. I am also extremely proud of the natural environment White Paper, which was produced in 2011. It did a number of things, including hard-wiring the concept of natural capital into our thinking right across government. Natural capital is not only something that should appeal to the environmentalists among us, but good business. As a farmer, I am carrying out a natural capital audit of the land for which I am responsible not just because I want to know what I am doing well and whether there are improvements to make, but because I want to use it as a baseline from which I can show the public that I am making the improvements that they need.

That brings me on to one of the most important factors: the concept of “water first”. DEFRA asked me to chair the UK Water Partnership, which we are taking forward. Basically, if we are doing the right thing for water, everything else environmentally and for those businesses that depend on the environment falls very quickly into place. I commend the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), the Chair of the Environment Audit Committee, for mentioning the four parts per 1,000 initiative. If we are doing the right things for water, we are doing the right things for soil. That means that soil is locking up carbon and being retained for future generations. That is good business as well as good environmental management.

In the short time that I have left, I want to refer to a very important theme in the Bill. When we talk about agriculture, we need to remind ourselves that the second part of that word is “culture”, and culture is all about the human element of farming. We have heard eloquent speeches today about the beauty of the landscape. Many billions of pounds are made by industries such as tourism on the basis of human interventions in our countryside that go back centuries. That is apparent even in our wildlife. Barn owls, corn buntings and field mice are species that developed because the landscape was managed. We need to encourage the next generation of farmers to be the great land managers of the future.

I hope that I have read the Bill correctly and that it includes an element that will allow those who have come to the end of their farming career to make way for the new generation. I am hugely impressed by the young generation of farmers I meet. The people whom I met at the south of England show last Sunday were getting awards for really innovative thinking. They are the ones I want to see managing the land in the future. It is unkind to call farmers “bed blockers”, but there are some who want to retire and to be given the incentives to do so. If I have read this Bill correctly—I hope the Minister will give us some assurances—it implements mechanisms that will allow long-term farmers to retire with dignity, making way for a new breed of entrepreneurial land managers who can cope with the difficult environmental problems of the future and make a contribution to agriculture in our country.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab) Hansard
10 Oct 2018, 5:12 p.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speeches of the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). We have heard quite a lot in general about the sunlit uplands of Brexit, and about a rosy bucolic Brexit Britain, but much of the debate has missed out the red meat—questions such as what the quantum of funding will be, what powers the Secretary of State will have, and what outcomes we are seeking to achieve.

Two years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee warned that UK farmers faced a triple whammy from Brexit: first, the loss of subsidies; secondly, the potential for tariffs on exports; and, thirdly, the threat of being undercut by cheap imports from countries with lower standards in food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards. Today, I want to talk about my two concerns with this Bill. First, it gives Ministers the power to spend taxpayers’ money with no accountability. I can think of no other area of public policy where we would be discussing the expenditure of £20 billion to £25 billion of public money without demanding some very detailed answers. The second area of concern is the lack of ambitious targets for the restoration and recovery of nature, which need to be linked to those payments.

We know that the CAP has shaped and underpinned British farming for the past 40 years. Each of us is only one or two generations from people who grew up and managed land. Basic payments from the CAP make up between a third and a half of the average farmer’s income, and 60% of profits for average farms and 90% of profits for grazing livestock farms. They are a very, very important part of the farm business.

The CAP currently has a seven-year budget cycle, which provider farmers with the long-term certainty that they need about what they will receive, and allows them to plan and invest. We have heard from Ministers that they will match current levels of EU funding until 2022, but farmers are asking, “What next?” and the Bill provides very few answers. It fails to say how much funding there will be, whether funding security will be guaranteed and who will administer the money. Its vague list of purposes risks policy inconsistency.

My Committee has called for an agricultural policy with clear goals, but the Bill says that payments can be made for anything from

“mitigating or adapting to climate change”,

which is obviously very welcome, to restoring or enhancing

“cultural heritage or natural heritage”—

I am not entirely sure what that means or how we measure it—through to

“improving the productivity of…an agricultural…activity”.

That leaves open the possibility of taxpayers incentivising intensive farming, and incentivising and paying for activities that harm the environment. We must not get into a policy pickle with the Bill.

Budgets could also be subject to the dead hand of the Treasury coming in halfway through, as we have seen with the abolition of various other environmental initiatives in other parts of the economy, so where is the Government’s accountability to farmers, the public and this place?

I am concerned that there is no obligation for people in receipt of so-called delinked payments to continue farming. Clause 7 gives the Secretary of State powers to make a lump-sum payment. As I said in an intervention, it would be possible for a farmer to quit farming and pass their farm on to their children, and for their children then to receive financial assistance under the new scheme. This sort of double accounting must not be allowed.

Clause 2 states:

“Financial assistance may be given by way of grant, loan, guarantee or in any other form.”

What “any other form” are we talking about? If we cannot define it on the face of the Bill, what are we signing up to? This is the beginning of an administrative nightmare. We know that problems at the Rural Payments Agency have brought down fines under both the Labour Government and this Government. Subject to conditions, as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, we need to ensure that this money is spent responsibly and well.

I will conclude by mentioning the lack of environmental targets. We need to stop and reverse the decline in species and soil health, which we will hear a lot about in the new environment Bill. That Bill will contain the targets; this Bill contains the money. Having two Bills risks policy incoherence, so we should start with the targets and design an agricultural policy around them, if we are to meet our international obligations on soil carbon content and reversing species loss in this country.

Sustainable Fisheries

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 4th July 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
4 Jul 2018, 2:01 p.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her generous welcome of so much of the White Paper. I thank her, too, for reflecting on its optimistic tone, which reflects the sunny disposition that is always there in DEFRA Ministers’ statements.

The hon. Lady asked what we have already achieved. Not only have we already achieved withdrawal from the London fisheries convention, but we have made it clear, as has the European Union, that although we of course will have a transition process, in the December 2020 Council—that is, even before the transition process ends—the UK will be treated as an independent coastal state and will negotiate as a third country. The European Union acknowledges that we will be leaving and negotiating separately at that point, and that is something that the whole House, and certainly the Opposition, can welcome.

The hon. Lady referred to the fact that 70% of the fish that we catch is exported, and of course it is, because, as I mentioned in my statement, it is high-quality fish caught by the brave men and women who go to sea. We will of course ensure through our future economic partnership, which is being negotiated separately, that we continue to have as-frictionless-as-possible access to European markets. Michel Barnier, someone whom I hugely admire, has himself pointed out that he wants to ensure that the free trade agreement that is concluded between the UK and the EU has neither quotas nor tariffs, so we can look forward to a bright future there, as well.

The hon. Lady mentioned national marine parks. That sounds like a great idea, but while Labour has been talking in the abstract about national marine parks, the Government have been getting on with the hard work of designating and protecting new marine protected areas around our coastline. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) has built on the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) to show how a Government who are absolutely committed to instituting appropriate protection for our coastline can make a real difference.

The hon. Lady was quite right to mention the under-10 metre fleet. As I mentioned in my statement and as is made clear in the White Paper, we want to ensure that new fishing opportunities are allocated in a way that supports that fleet, but, again following the steps undertaken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury when he was Fisheries Minister, quota has already been reallocated to support the under-10 metre fleet.

I wish to make one final point, which I suspect I may make a couple of times this afternoon. These opportunities arise as a result of our departure from the common fisheries policy. When an opportunity was given to vote for absence and departure from the common fisheries policy in the European Parliament, Labour Members of the European Parliament voted against it. It is all very well to will the end, but unless someone supports the means, which Labour has not done, they are not a true friend of our fishermen.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
4 Jul 2018, 2:04 p.m.

My right hon. Friend will know that there is no greater critic of the common fisheries policy than me, but I am sure he would agree that even had we not gone into it, we would probably still have a problem, because man’s technical ability to harvest vast quantities from the sea has been a problem the world over. I very much hope that the White Paper contains a firm commitment to an ecosystems approach to fisheries management and that within that there is the possibility of rebalancing fishing opportunity to try to assist the smaller, more local fishing fleet and give it a fairer cut of the opportunity.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
4 Jul 2018, 2:04 p.m.

When my right hon. Friend was a DEFRA Minister, he contributed significantly to improvements to the common fisheries policy, and fishing and coastal communities throughout the United Kingdom owe him a particular debt. He is right on both his points: in or out of the CFP, we have to make sure that conservation measures are at the heart of our future policy, and it is also right that we do more, particularly for coastal communities where they use inshore vessels, to ensure that opportunities are reallocated to benefit them and the communities and businesses built around them.

British Flora: Protection from Imported Diseases

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 27th June 2018

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con) Hansard
27 Jun 2018, 2:15 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the protection of British flora from imported diseases.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am extremely grateful to have been granted this debate, particularly as this is such a pertinent issue; the Forestry Commission recently stated:

“The threat to our forests and woodlands has never been greater.”

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and former Mayor of London pledged that 2 million trees would be planted in London between 2009 and 2025. By 2012, I understand only 100,000 had been planted. The current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, promised before his election in May 2016 to plant 2 million trees in his first term, but for some unknown and unwise reason, he abandoned that policy just five months later, in October 2016. Can the Minister cast light on any of that? Can any pressure be brought to bear on all our city mayors to plant more trees? Should that not form part of the Government’s plans to tackle pollution, particularly in our inner cities?

UK imports of live plants have increased by 71% since 1999. There are now more than 1,000 pests and diseases on the UK plant health register. The Royal Horticultural Society has, however, clamped down on imports. All imported semi-mature trees will be held in isolation for 12 months before they are planted at RHS gardens and shows, and evaluation of plant health risk will be incorporated into judging criteria at RHS flower shows. Services relating to our almost 9.3 million acres of forests, woodlands and other trees are estimated to have an annual value of £44.9 billion to the UK economy. Such services include wood processing, recreation and landscaping, as well as biodiversity.

In my part of the world, the beautiful county of Devon in south-west England, a number of diseases have already been found in trees, including phytophthora ramorum, a fungus-like pathogen called a water mould, which has infected large trees widely grown in the UK for the timber market and rhododendrons. Phytophthora ramorum causes extensive damage and death to a large number of trees and other plants.

Red band needle blight, which particularly affects the Corsican pine, is found in most parts of the UK. A five-year moratorium on the planting of the species has been established for Forestry Commission plantations. Here I pay tribute to a fellow Devonian, Sir Harry Studholme, who does such important work as chairman of the Forestry Commission.

Ash dieback is an extremely serious disease of ash trees caused by a fungus. It causes wilting leaves and crown dieback, most usually leading to tree death. Ash dieback was discovered in Devon by the county council, and in February 2016, Natural Devon published a strategy entitled, “Devon ash dieback action plan: an overarching plan to identify and address the risks of ash dieback disease in Devon.” The plan states that there are more than 1.9 million ash trees in Devon, and goes on to say:

“Today we probably have more such trees because many hedges have been permitted to develop into tree lines. The 2012 estimate of nearly half a million roadside ash trees bigger than about 7.5 cm in diameter…confirms that the 1.9 million figure represents only larger trees, and that the true number of non-woodland ash in the county is much greater.”

Finally, sweet chestnut blight was discovered in Devon in December 2016. It is a plant disease caused by the ascomycete fungus, which causes death and dieback in sweet chestnut plants. Restrictions are in place in Devon on the movement of sweet chestnut material.

All of that comes on the back of the change to our landscape. We all remember the devastation that Dutch elm disease caused to the English countryside in the late 1960s and 1970s. That in turn preceded the unprecedented storm of 1987, which uprooted and killed so much woodland. It is unthinkable that we might lose any more of our flora. Act we must.

However, we must give the Government credit here. The Minister will make his remarks later, but I welcome some of the actions taken by the Government and his Department, not least under the stewardship of my former boss in the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I am extremely pleased to see him in his place. I believe he intends to catch your eye later, Sir Henry.

The appointment in 2014 of Professor Nicola Spence as a chief plant health officer was a huge step forward. She has invested £4.5 million in new patrols and inspectors, which hopefully will stem the flow of diseases entering the United Kingdom. I also very much welcome the appointment this month of Sir William Worsley as the Government’s tree champion. That appointment meets one of the key commitments in the Government’s 25-year environment plan.

Sir William’s task of driving forward planting rates will help raise awareness of the impact our flora have on our planet. Such action by Government will teach us all further about the impact that diseases have on our environment and our economy. When the Minister gets to his feet, I hope he will confirm that Sir William will be fully resourced—or is he to be just another Government tsar with no power? How will his success be measured? Will he have full access to Ministers? I hope to hear positive answers to those key questions on the role of our excellent new tree champion.

I also very much welcome the work of the Action Oak partnership, supported by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, a man who is always ahead of the curve on all matters environmental. The partnership will, among other things, fund research to improve the understanding of the threats to our oak trees and inform best management practices. I understand that it is looking to raise £15 million. Can the Minister confirm how much has been raised since its launch at last year’s Chelsea flower show and say whether the Government will make a financial contribution to that important project?

One of the common threats is xylella from continental Europe. I pay tribute to Country Life magazine and the RHS for bringing it to my attention. Xylella has not yet reached our shores, but it could pose a severe threat to our flora if it does. It was found in the United States, Taiwan and Italy, where it has destroyed olive groves in the southern part of the country. Subsequently, it has been discovered in Spain, Germany and France, along with some of the Baltic states. According to Mark Griffiths in Country Life, the EU’s reaction to xylella has been “authoritarian”; its vectors have been

“subjected to mass insecticide, an action that has turned plant disease into an ecological disaster”,

through a policy of fighting the disease by eradicating everything that might possibly succumb to it.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
27 Jun 2018, 3:19 p.m.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reasons for many of these diseases reaching us are twofold: climate change and the movement of people? Her Majesty’s Government should understand that it is in our economic, social and environmental interest to have as much early warning as possible of such diseases moving up through Europe. Does he agree that we should require our embassies and other agencies to give much earlier warnings as diseases approach, so that we on these islands can develop strategies to tackle them before they get here?

Sir Hugo Swire Hansard
27 Jun 2018, 4:40 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is precisely right. Forewarned is forearmed, and the more we can publicise these impending diseases coming to our islands, the better. He will acknowledge, as a former Environment Minister, that in some respects the problem is already here. It is about how we stop it from spreading and try to contain it where we can. He has a record second to none on environmental matters, and I am extremely pleased that he is here and taking an interest in the debate.

This rather follows on from what my right hon. Friend said: there have been reports that if the British Government were presented with the problem of xylella, they would destroy not only the infected plant, but all plants within a 100-metre radius. I am concerned that that would amount to uprooting parks, gardens and the greenery of entire neighbourhoods. I would appreciate it if the Minister could confirm what action the Government would take in the event of a xylella outbreak in the UK, and what precautions he is taking to prevent such an outbreak.

As in many of our discussions nowadays, the Commonwealth has its part to play, with the invention of the Queen’s Commonwealth canopy. That initiative, which aims to involve all 53 Commonwealth countries and was first conceived by, among others, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), will hopefully save one of the world’s most important natural habitats, forests. Three UK projects are involved: Epping forest, Wentwood in Wales and the national forest, which covers parts of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Those of us who saw it enjoyed the ITV documentary in April, “The Queen’s Green Planet”, with the legendary Sir David Attenborough, in which Her Majesty the Queen and Sir David discussed the importance of the Queen’s Commonwealth canopy. I particularly look forward to planting a tree in the name of the canopy in Devon in the near future. Will the Minister say what the British Government are doing to raise awareness of and support this Commonwealth initiative?

That leads me on to the defining issue that the United Kingdom faces: leaving the European Union. I am well aware that there is a small amount of irony in the fact that while this debate is about indigenous British flora, many trees and plants in this country are not originally from these shores. Indeed, without our great plant-gatherers of the 18th and 19th centuries, we would not be enjoying many of the trees, shrubs and plants that we have come to know and love. However, I believe that we have a real chance to deliver a green Brexit by ensuring that trading incentives are used to improve biosecurity in trade, including green trade deals. We have a chance to be a pioneering force in having the greenest possible free trade deals, and I hope the Minister will have a positive view of that suggestion.

I commend the millennium seed bank at the royal botanic gardens, Kew, which achieved its initial aim of storing seeds from all the UK’s native plant species in 2009, making Britain the first country in the world to have preserved its botanical heritage. The current phase of the millennium seed bank project is to conserve a quarter of the world’s plant species by 2020. I hope that the Commonwealth, and in particular the Queen’s Commonwealth canopy, will help with the project through their extensive global contacts, and that the British Government will support those efforts.

My hon. Friend the Minister, who represents another wonderful constituency in the south-west, a bit further to the west than mine, will be aware that I always approach these debates with a shopping list. I have some key asks of him this afternoon, which I hope he will address. I welcome the Government’s announcement of £37 million in funding through the tree health resilience strategy. However, how will it be divided up? How much of that money will go to the new tree champion?

Will the Minister commit to tightening up and enforcing more strongly the rules concerning which plant materials can be imported into the UK from the EU and further afield, and how will that be affected once we leave the European Union in March 2019? Could biosecurity be incorporated into any transition deal that the Government agree with Europe? Further to the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), what instructions can be issued to our embassies and high commissions around the world to identify the threats to the United Kingdom, and some of those plants and trees, to prevent people from trying to export them to the UK?

I am much heartened by the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee’s inquiry on plant and animal biosecurity after Brexit. Will the Government implement the Committee’s recommendations when the report is published, if they are in line with the stated ambition under the 25-year environment strategy and the tree health resilience strategy?

I could go on much longer on this extraordinary subject, but those with greater knowledge of the subject wish to contribute to the debate. I will conclude by saying that many of us spend our recreational time walking the British countryside. It is the envy of the world. How distraught would we be if it were to be further decimated by diseases that killed our flora? I call on us all to act now to protect our green and pleasant land.

Break in Debate

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard
27 Jun 2018, 4:56 p.m.

I will adhere to the five-minute limit, Sir Henry. First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on presenting the case so well. He said others with expertise would speak after him, but he spoke at the beginning with a lot of expertise, as did the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), and we appreciate that. I have not held any of the positions that the right hon. Gentlemen used to hold, but I come as an MP from Northern Ireland, so perhaps that gets me into the club. I am not sure whether it does or not, but there we are. It is always a pleasure to speak on these issues. In his introduction, the right hon. Member for East Devon referred to the beauty of his constituency, but my constituency of Strangford, which the right hon. Gentleman has visited on numerous occasions, is equal to his, if not better.

The issue of protection for our habitats is something that I have a great interest in. Whenever I get off the plane from Heathrow to Belfast City, the advertising on the walls clearly states, “No plants and no food”. It is very strict. That is what we see displayed at Belfast International airport, Belfast City airport and also Londonderry airport, so it is clear that we have a policy in place.

On my farm I have planted some 3,500 trees and created duck ponds. My sons and I are fastidious about pest control to encourage a thriving fauna haven, and I am not alone, as many country sports enthusiasts have the same passion for conservation and the issue of protection, as does the right hon. Gentleman. I was pleased to learn that there would be tighter controls on importing plants to prevent pests and diseases from damaging our native trees. The right hon. Gentleman has said that, and I will say it from a Northern Ireland perspective.

We have had numerous ash dieback outbreaks in Northern Ireland, some in my constituency. In Ballywalter, not too far away, Lord Dunleath’s estate has had an outbreak in the past. Oak and ash trees are among the species at risk from imported diseases and pests such as xylella and the emerald ash borer beetle. Xylella was first detected in 2013 when it destroyed olive trees in southern Italy. It spread to France, Spain and Mediterranean islands. It could arrive in Britain in imported plants such as rosemary, lavender, olives, oleander and almond.

In my constituency, Japanese knotweed is a major issue with people not understanding that trying to pull it out or cut it down merely spreads the problem. We must do more to educate people about the dangers of dealing with foreign plants, along with our own. Although the nurturing of Japanese bonsai trees for 50 years is a lovely thought, try dealing with Japanese knotweed that attacks plants and undermines the very foundations of homes and buildings throughout the Province. Japanese knotweed has become a real problem in my constituency around some of the houses, and land has been blighted. An area in the centre of Newtownards cannot be developed for six years because of the presence of Japanese knotweed. Weed killing has been undertaken, but a period of time has to be allowed to make sure that the incubation has not arisen again.

When I tried to help a constituent address their knotweed issue, I ran into problem after problem with Government Departments unwilling to step in and stop the spread. Instead of one garden being sprayed by a specialist at the right time of year for the prescribed time, a row of houses is now literally infested and losing their plants, and possibly their foundations. We were told that the weed killer was reasonably priced and the constituent could do the job themselves, but that did not really work. We need a targeted effort from Government Departments and the local councils to address the diseases and stop them destroying our beautiful UK.

I want to ask the Minister a quick question. There is a farmers’ market event today in the Members’ Dining Room, and I spoke to some of the people there. Different regions of the United Kingdom are represented, including Northern Ireland. I understand that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, in Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland have a cross-border body that involves the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other Government bodies. However, although the framework is in place, there is no financial assistance for that cross-border body so that it can move forward and address the issue of invasive species coming to Northern Ireland, but also to the Republic. We need to dedicate funding to that purpose for the greater good of all our plants and fauna. I ask the Minister whether there is any intention to widen the attack on the invaders in our gardens.

I fully support the Department’s decision to implement stricter controls, yet it is a matter of closing the gate after the horse has bolted—we have all these foreign invaders already attacking our trees and wildlife and we must defend them. That needs to be targeted and done on a UK-wide basis. Across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we need to encourage the growth of our own beautiful plants and wildlife, free from attack by other plants that have no right to be thriving on our shores.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
27 Jun 2018, 5:01 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to be involved in this very important and timely debate. I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I should also say that I am a trustee of a charity called Plantlife, which is doing a lot of work on invasive species and plant health and trying to encourage wildflowers.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), a former Secretary of State, said, invasive species are costing our economy at least £1.7 billion a year. I remember the plant retailers coming to me, when I was in his Department, to whinge about the increased biosecurity measures that he was rightly implementing. I listened to them, but I am afraid that I just said to them, “Look, you really have got this wrong. Your industry is in part responsible for a devastating effect on our natural environment. You have to face facts: we are now moving into almost a military-style campaign to attack the invasive species and the diseases that are coming to this country, and you have to wise up to it.” They were quite shocked, but I was in turn quite shocked at their lack of biosecurity over decades, at the failure of Governments over decades to implement proper biosecurity, and how we were happy to import nearly all the stock of young trees of certain species that we were planting.

As my right hon. Friend said, we have followed the progression of Chalara as, like Schmallenberg disease and blue tongue, it has progressed across the country. At the weekend, I was looking at a wood in Berkshire and I estimated that about one third of the canopy was ash, and that will be gone in a very short space of time. We can learn from this. We can prevent other diseases that could be devastating to the remaining stock of trees and plants, if we learn from our mistakes in the past. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is absolutely right to say that.

I hope that the Minister will, in his reply, comment on Action Oak, which is spearheaded by Woodland Heritage. It is based quite near Alice Holt forest, and there is good reason why it should be there and able to build on the information at that centre of excellence. But funding is the key. We welcome the £500,000 that DEFRA promised, but £15 million is needed, and it would be great to know how close we are to getting to that.

Plantlife has identified what it calls its dirty dozen of invasive species, including American skunk-cabbage, broad-leaved bamboo, giant rhubarb, cotoneasters, Himalayan balsam, the Hottentot fig and Japanese knotweed. These invasive species are not only causing huge environmental damage, but creating a huge cost for us to deal with. What my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire did at DEFRA was quite right. He applied a logistician’s approach. I can remember that as a result of foot and mouth, when we had a very serious drought—this was before he was Secretary of State—we developed the same concept as was applied at the time of foot and mouth. It was called birdtable meetings. All the experts were brought in on a regular basis. They were very executive: they were called birdtable meetings because no one sat down—rather like the Privy Council—people just got the business done and then everyone went away and got on with it. I think that that kind of approach is required now to deal with this issue.

Of course, one measure that we need to talk about is husbandry. If dealing with Chalara requires the ash tree to be cut down and burned or taken away, or just cut down at the first sign, that is easy for a larger state or an organisation such as the Forestry Commission, but it is hard for a small farmer or someone with a few ash trees in their garden. Who will take responsibility for encouraging people to do the right thing? It requires a logistician’s approach to dealing with it.

We should beware easy solutions. I remember people coming to see me and saying that we should spray acres of woodland with copper sulphate. Instead of listening to those people, who seemed to have lifted their solutions off the internet, I listened much more readily to the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said that that would have a much more malign effect on our biodiversity and plant life.

I, too, have visited New Zealand and Australia. While I was still many thousands of miles away from arriving, I was hit by how hard-wired biosecurity is into every aspect of the travelling experience. The airline and the airport staff are tuned in to it, and there is signage, so it is impossible to move without it being apparent. We need to develop a much more overt and proactive form of biosecurity. I hope the Minister will give us some reassurance about that.

Neil Gray Portrait Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP) - Hansard
27 Jun 2018, 5:06 p.m.

It is a pleasure to sum up for the Scottish National party with you in the Chair, Sir Henry. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) on securing this debate and on his speech, which I will come to. Given the subject of the debate, it would be remiss of me not to put on record my congratulations to Mairi Gougeon MSP on her nomination to the Scottish Government as the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment. It is a nomination because it is the practice in Scotland that Government nominations to ministerial office must be passed by Parliament. One of her early introductions might be to read the Hansard of this debate to get a sense of some of the challenges that she will face in her job, not least from the likes of ash dieback.

The right hon. Gentleman made a typically forthright and challenging speech to the Minister. He spoke of the rate of planting trees elsewhere in these isles, but he did not mention that Scotland created 73% of all new woodland in the UK in 2016-17. Its target is now 15,000 hectares of new woodland by 2024-25, which is ambitious but achievable.

The right hon. Gentleman obviously spoke about ash dieback, which is a considerable problem in Scotland. Some 20% of all 10 km grid squares in Scotland have confirmed ash dieback. It appears that some ash trees may have some tolerance or resistance to infection, so it would be interesting for scientists to get to the bottom of how that came about. I take the point that mistakes were made in how we targeted prevention, but we need to ensure that a new strain of ash trees can be bred for the future.

The right hon. Gentleman also spoke about xylella, which I understand is the subject of EU emergency measures to control the movement of affected species such as plane, elm and oak. He also posed some questions to the Minister about strategy should it arrive in this country. He made a forthright and knowledgeable speech, to which I am sure the Minister will seek to respond.

The speech by the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) was obviously partly influenced by his time in ministerial office and the knowledge he gained there. He also posed several questions to the Minister, and we look forward to hearing the answers.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke of his contribution to the flora of Northern Ireland. He rightly spoke about the pervasive problem of Japanese knotweed, which is a horrendous issue. From personal experience of constituency cases in Airdrie and Shotts, I know that it is expensive and challenging to deal with. The right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) described a military-style campaign, and that is exactly what is often required to deal with Japanese knotweed. It is a horrendous issue. He also spoke of the major challenges of ash dieback, and not just for larger organisations. He rightly emphasised the challenges faced by smaller landowners in ensuring that they can respond if an outbreak sadly arrives in their area.

I should mention briefly some of the areas that we are working on in Scotland. Plant health is at the heart of Scotland’s thriving natural environment, our rural economy and our wellbeing. The aim of the Scottish plant health strategy is to safeguard agriculture, horticulture, forestry and the wider environment from plant pests, from 2016 to 2021 and beyond.

One of the greatest threats to biodiversity worldwide is invasive non-native species. That threat is particularly pronounced for fragile island ecosystems—I am not just talking about the British Isles, but the islands within the British Isles. Disease has already been spoken about by the right hon. Member for East Devon and the hon. Member for Strangford, and I think particularly of Japanese knotweed.

Scotland has led the way in the UK in creating a statutory framework to prevent the introduction and spread of non-invasive species, but we have concerns about the UK Government’s Brexit strategy and the power grab, including over environmental protections. We are not opposed to UK-wide frameworks when they are in Scotland’s interests. However, they must be agreed rather than imposed, and they must happen in a manner that respects and recognises devolution. The Scottish First Minister has been clear that any threat to Scotland’s distinctive and ambitious approach to environmental standards and climate change would be completely unacceptable. Imposing a UK framework could result in substantial damage to the work that has already been done by the Scottish Government.

For example, we used EU rules to ban genetically modified crops in Scotland to protect our environment and support Scottish agriculture, and there is no such ban in England. A UK-wide framework in that area could see the ban lifted, thereby threatening Scotland’s clean, green brand and the future of Scotland’s £14 billion food and drink sector. Scotland has gained international recognition for our work on climate change and the circular economy, so we clearly do not want to put that at risk.

Ivory Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Money resolution: House of Commons)
Richard Benyon Excerpts
Monday 4th June 2018

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
4 Jun 2018, 7:22 p.m.

I absolutely will, because it is incumbent on all of us across the globe to take action. The specific request from African nations could not be clearer, so it is incumbent on us in the United Kingdom, countries in the far east—which often constitute the biggest market for ivory—and also countries like the United States, which has a distinguished global leadership role, to take action; it is incumbent on all of us to play our part as well.

I think there is an appreciation across the House of the importance of the elephant as a species. I mentioned earlier that it is a keystone species: if it were not for the elephant we would not have the means by which we maintain balance in the savannahs and grasslands of Africa. That is in the nature of the role the elephant plays, by the way in which it feeds and—without wanting to go into too much detail in the House—the way in which it excretes. It is important that we make sure that the elephant survives, because without it savannah and grassland would not survive, and without it we would not have species like zebra or like antelope, and without them we would not have the magnificent predators—the charismatic megafauna, the lions and others which feed on those creatures. So by removing the elephant we would not just see one of the most iconic, beautiful and awe-inspiring species with which we share this planet disappear; we would also unloose upon Africa a cascade effect of environmental degradation and damage that I think none of us could possibly countenance.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
4 Jun 2018, 7:22 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is making a very important point about the pyramid of biodiversity that is protected when one protects the megafauna at the top, but does he agree that conservation of the elephant is essentially a human interface that we have to get right, and that organisations such as the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya have been extraordinarily successful in making sure that local people see the value of wildlife? We can assist in that through our role as an international mediator, although we are not a range state.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
4 Jun 2018, 7:24 p.m.

My right hon. Friend, who played an immensely distinguished role as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in leading on the defence of biodiversity and support for wildlife, is absolutely right. As well as acknowledging the role that elephants play as an iconic species in their own right and as a keystone species in guaranteeing biodiversity, the successful co-existence of elephants alongside man is a sign of an effective and functioning nation in Africa which is on the right path for the future. It has been so encouraging that enlightened leadership across African nations recognises the vital importance of ensuring that man and the elephant can live alongside one another in appropriate harmony.

It is also the case, of course, that there are forces within African nations that can see in the ivory trade an opportunity to make money, to feed organised crime and to support terrorist and other activity, and it is precisely because ivory poaching and the illegal wildlife trade sustain organised crime and subsidise terror that it is in the interests of all of us who not only want to protect nature and biodiversity, but want to see human societies and other states flourish, to take action to stamp out this crime, and that is what this Bill seeks to do.

UK Fisheries Policy

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Tuesday 27th February 2018

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Andrew Bowie Portrait Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (Con) - Hansard
27 Feb 2018, 3:21 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), on securing the debate.

Like many other Members taking part in this afternoon’s debate, I represent a coastal constituency—31 miles of magnificent North sea coastline from St Cyrus to Portlethen. However, I am unlike most of those Members, in that I do not represent much of a fishing industry—certainly not as much as my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) or the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) represent. But the fishing industry is important to me, and should be to all Members, not just because of its impact on the communities that immediately rely on its success, but because fishermen are the best of British. The audacity, ingenuity and energy shown by individuals in the industry in the face of overwhelming odds, regulation, legislation, bans, plans and forced decommissioning should be commended. It is through their sheer determination and innovation, not the words of politicians and civil servants, that record landings are being made at Peterhead. Amazingly, last year North sea cod was recertified as sustainable. That is why we cannot let fishermen down now, and why before my election I signed a pledge committing me to do what I can to ensure that the UK is taken out of the common fisheries policy at the earliest available opportunity. That means 11 pm on 29 March 2019.

I voted remain in the referendum in 2016, but I have no reservations in saying that exiting the European Union can only be a good thing for our fishing industry. It will allow us to forge a new fisheries policy, freed from Brussels diktats and overseas interests, and away from that most harmful of European directives, on equal access to a common resource—a phrase invented only on Britain’s entry to the European Community. We will be able to drive and implement policies that work for our fishermen and our fishing industry.

To those—and they are out there—who think that fishermen do not care about the environment or sustainability and that somehow an independent UK will abandon our commitment to sustainable stocks and good management, I say that is nonsense. No other industry is as invested in protecting its future, the sustainability of its stock, and its environment as the British fishing industry. As one fisherman said to me not long ago, of course fishermen want sustainable fisheries: no fish, no industry—it is simple.

The Brexit vote has led to great optimism in the Scottish fishing industry, and not without good reason. Brexit offers a host of opportunities for reviving our fisheries and our coastal communities in general. It now falls to us to deliver it for them.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
27 Feb 2018, 3:19 p.m.

When I think of the time I spent in Brussels, sitting in sweaty rooms negotiating the reform of the common fisheries policy, I sometimes think, “Was that time all wasted?” I suggest that it was not, because the principles that we secured in the reforms are absolutely valid for the measures we need in future, to manage our fisheries after we leave the EU. The core theme that runs through the 25-year environment plan is the desire to leave the natural environment in a better state than the one in which we found it.

The marine environment is every bit as important as the terrestrial one, and key elements of the common fisheries reforms are consistent with that approach. A legal requirement to fish according to maximum sustainable yield, an end to discarding and to the top-down management of fisheries, and putting management of fisheries on a more local basis are key themes that should continue. The key principles should also be grounded in an ecosystems approach. Fish shoal in one area of sea, spawn in another and chase seasonally-dependent nutrition in another. Many of those areas cross national boundaries, so co-operation across those boundaries is vital. I want to hear what the Minister says about the Government’s thinking about that.

There is a cumulative effect from human activities. Overfishing, acidification, increased water temperature, cables and windfarms all have an impact on the management of our waters. There can be opportunities that come from that, and, in relation to marine planning as well as fisheries, I want a holistic view to be taken of the management of our seas. The fishing industry is a key part of that.

I join with every other Member of the House who has dissed the common fisheries policy, given the problems that it brought on our seas and coastal communities; but even if we had never gone into it, we would still face problems, because man’s ability to harvest from the oceans through increased technology has grown exponentially. We should still have faced the same problems of under-abundance that we face, to an extent, now—added to which the CFP made things much worse.

It is very important to consider how a legal requirement to fish sustainably, imposed under a pan-national organisation, is to be replaced by us as an independent state outside that organisation. The Secretary of State has spoken about the new body that will administer the environment, and what he said about that and about the process is also important. The Government will lay a national policy statement before Parliament, and that may require a separate marine policy statement. I hope that that, too, will be fundamentally linked to science and evidence, and that we shall produce a coherent, holistic system of management of our seas.

John Redwood Portrait John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con) - Hansard

The phrase I now hear most commonly, by a big majority, from UK voters on the issue of Brexit is: “Get on with it.” They are amazed at how long it is taking. I take some comfort when Ministers assure us that the two years and nine months that will elapse between our decision and our departure will be sufficient to prepare everything needed for a smooth transition in the event that there is no agreement. I know that the Government want an agreement, and I wish them well with their negotiations, but it is important for us to learn that everything will be ready. I am sure that the Minister, an enthusiastic supporter of a UK fishing industry, is up there with the best in making sure that things are ready. I should like him to confirm that, because the Government assure us that everything will work on 30 March 2019, that will certainly be true of an independent fishery, if the general negotiations go badly.

Like many others who represent fishing communities, I urge the Minister not to allow the fishing industry to be sucked into any agreement over so-called long transition or implementation. Two years and nine months is quite long enough to work out what we are going to do, and to put in place the things that are needed. Will the Minister promise us, in the next year and a month remaining before our exit from the common fisheries policy, an early White Paper? It is time now, after extensive consultation and study, for us to have a statement of Government intent, to which fishing communities can respond promptly, so that we have a firm and settled policy that will indeed be kinder to our fishermen, fishing grounds, economic interests and fish stocks, as many have described.

Will the Minister promise that we shall then go on to legislate this year, so that any legal powers necessary for the new framework will be up and running in good time, by the time we leave on 30 March 2019? Does he agree with me, and with the sense I get from the debate, that the fishing industry is perhaps the worst damaged of all the many industries that have been damaged by various EU policies—although time does not allow us to talk about that—and that therefore it is even more urgent for fishing to be extracted from EU controls and direction, so that we can again give priority to local and UK interests, and to conservation interests? That is my challenge to the Minister: White Paper, legislation, independence, victory, better industry, conservation of fish stocks. A simple task—I know he is up to it.

Marine Environment

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Tuesday 14th November 2017

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP) - Hansard
14 Nov 2017, 3:12 p.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for securing this debate. As we have heard today, we do not own the, seas; we are simply caretakers of them. It is important that we bequeath a rich and healthy marine environment legacy to future generations, and do so to the best of our ability. Some progress has been made. The UK and Scottish Governments are working together, as we heard earlier, to deliver on a commitment to implement a ban on microbeads in personal care products to tackle the scourge of microbead pollution.

Marine protected areas have now been established in waters around the United Kingdom with the Scottish marine protected network covering around 20% of the seas around Scotland. Those protected areas are important since this means that any proposed development or use of such areas will have to take into account the need for recovery.

Scotland’s seas are a vast and rich natural resource. It is our sacred duty to keep them healthy and protected for current and future generations. Much of our coastline and surrounding seas are globally important habitats for many bird species, providing food, a place to rear young, and winter refuge. The future of our marine environment must be sustainable for our precious yet vulnerable marine habitat. The national marine plan in Scotland was adopted in March 2015 and provides a framework for consistent decision making that takes account of the marine environment. Work is now ongoing to implement marine planning on a regional scale.

Marine protected areas provide additional protection to important locations in our seas, and the network covers 20% of our marine area. The marine protected area monitoring strategy monitors and surveys some of Scotland’s most vulnerable marine habitats. It ensures that detailed information is collected from the marine protected area network to create a more accurate picture of the health of marine environments. In addition, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first ever marine litter strategy for Scotland, which details almost 40 new actions to minimise coastal and marine litter. Yet the challenges we face are ongoing.

The fish farming industry has admitted that it has to discard significant numbers of its stock because of disease. Some are now calling for a shift to a closed containment system that would protect the fish and the marine environment. The same demand has been made by the wild fish campaign group, Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland. That seems at least worth examining. Fish and shellfish farming contribute £620 million to the Scottish economy every year, supporting more than 12,000 jobs. We have a duty to protect Scotland’s marine environment, and the health and welfare of farmed fish is of utmost importance to the industry. The Scottish Government are committed to working with the aquaculture sector to develop a strategic health framework that ensures we make progress in tackling major problems, including emerging disease. That is essential for the future and sustainability of our marine environment.

There is also concern about the need to protect vulnerable habitats from scallop dredging. Indeed, an investigation by the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage into claims that the vulnerable habitat in Loch Carron had been damaged by scallop dredging has confirmed that damage to the flame shell beds was consistent with the impact of scallop dredging. Subsequently, the endangered sea bed habitat of the north-west coast was designated as a marine protected area by the Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham MSP. The investigation found there was a viable prospect of recovery because part of the bed had survived and another bed had thankfully remained intact. It is right, as I mentioned in the House today, that such matters are investigated comprehensively and that all options are considered to militate against such an occurrence in the future, in the light of the damage and marine devastation it can cause.

However, the marine environment does not recognise borders or boundaries. It is essential that all Governments across the United Kingdom work together co-operatively to ensure that the health and sustainability of our waters and marine life are secured. Our marine environment is extremely important. We must be able to enjoy the benefits that the sea offers us, but we must also respect the need for sustainable use. We owe that to future generations.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
14 Nov 2017, 3:17 p.m.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) spoke of his love of the poet John Clare. He was a great poet whose poetry is uplifting to read, but he could at times verge on the pessimistic. He once said,

“I am the self-consumer of my woes.”

That is a particularly apposite quotation for this debate because we—humankind—are the self-consumer of the woes we have created in terms of our management of the seas. There is a massive lightbulb moment going on around the world. We are seeing at last, as the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Huddersfield pointed out, marine conservation on a global scale, which is something to applaud.

I was extremely pleased to see President Obama with John Kerry, his Secretary of State, at his side announcing a marine protected area around Hawaii. It was fantastic that they did that. By comparison, Britain announced an area the size of India, vastly larger than the United States marine protected area, but it was sort of put out as a press release on a Friday night when no one was looking, as though it was the love that dare not speak its name.

Blue Belt is an outstanding policy that we should all be hugely proud of. I am glad that senior members of the Government, including the Foreign Secretary, came to the launch of my pamphlet, “Blue Belt 2.0”, which shows that the Government have at last grasped the fact that they have in their hands something really extraordinary. We can create a gift to the world from our imperial past; a necklace of marine protected areas around our overseas territories—or the confetti of empire, as somebody once called them. We can be extraordinarily proud about that.

I do not have time to go into all the many recommendations in “Blue Belt 2.0”, but it suggests to the Government how they can take things further, and address issues affecting the South Sandwich Islands. Britain is responsible for a quarter of the world’s penguins. That is a bit of information to win a pub quiz with. There are problems with what we are doing in areas such as Ascension Island. Our ambitions must keep in parallel with the innovation we have seen with the Catapult system that monitors those overseas marine protected areas. Then we can really succeed in the delivery of a proper marine conservation.

More than that, as with President Obama, what we do can be more than an act of environmental responsibility; it can be an act of global leadership. We can start to re-engage, post-Brexit, in organisations such as regional fisheries management organisations, from which Britain has had to withdraw, because the EU—rather badly—takes part in them. I have the scars on my back from the International Whaling Commission. I had to sit in EU co-ordination meetings, where I found that Britain’s very pro-whale conservation measures were watered down so that there could be a single EU view. Now we can open our shoulders like a batsman at the crease, and start to make a difference to the delivery of marine conservation.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) about the On the Hook campaign. The Marine Stewardship Council is the only show in town in terms of accreditation of sustainable fisheries. It is a UK-registered, UK-based charity, so we are right to hold it to account. It has messed up, and there is a good chance that it could re-accredit an unsustainable fishery. That must stop, and I applaud colleagues who are taking part in the On the Hook campaign; we must continue to raise that.

There are many other areas where we can and should do more. The clean growth plan recently announced by the Government, with its real understanding of the need for a proper circular economy, addresses many of the issues that we have concerns about. It is vital to encourage industry to be innovative and to create markets that do not currently exist for recycled plastics in particular, but also for other manufactured products that end up in the oceans and the food chain, destroying the quality of the marine environment and our health. Government must nudge industry to deal with those things, and to get an understanding of what a circular economy is.

My final point is to ask, please, in the remaining months for which we are in the EU, that we hold it to account to make sure that pulse fishing is banned. It is a bottom trawling system using electrical pulses and is not at all selective. I applaud the Bloom Association and other NGOs that are campaigning hard on it.

I shall finish where I started, with John Clare. He said,

“I found the poems in the fields

And only wrote them down”.

He was saying that the natural world can influence our cultural and societal beliefs and values. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the oceans.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd (Rochdale) (Lab) - Hansard
14 Nov 2017, 3:23 p.m.

It is interesting to follow the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has always considered John Clare to be an early socialist; but we will return to that theme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield mentioned “Small is Beautiful”. I of course remember the publication of Schumacher’s book, but of course the ocean is also beautiful, and very large. The problem is that for decades we have believed it to be effectively infinite, but it is not and we have now reached its capacity, or perhaps beyond it. I applaud and agree with the steps taken by the Government to reduce plastic use, which is important; but there is in reality no one-nation solution. We are not unilateralists as far as the protection of the marine environment goes. Threats to the marine environment cannot be solved in one country, whether they are littering, plastic pollution, fertiliser run-off or bottom trawling. I agree with the right hon. Member for Newbury that pulse fishing should be banned, but the validity of any bottom trawling has to come under consideration, because of the damage it does. Acidification is another major issue. It is right, as one country, to extend the role of marine conservation areas. We must do considerably more on that, as I hope hon. Members present for the debate would agree; we must press on with real action. However, even those efforts will be undermined if we do not do something about the overall quality of the oceans.

I want to speak briefly about coral reefs. They represent only 0.25% of the ocean floor, but they house probably half of marine life. An astonishing amount of ocean life lives on coral reefs—not only the romantic warm sea corals, which people are aware of, but the cold sea corals. They are fundamental to life in the ocean, and probably they are important to life on the planet as a whole, because of the impact on the food chain. Preserving coral reefs is vital. Bottom trawling destroys soft and hard coral, but perhaps the biggest threat is acidification. Half the carbon dioxide in the world disappears into the seas. They are becoming not simply warmer but more acidic, and we do not know what the impact will be on sea creatures with calcium-based shells; but we must operate on the precautionary principle. The position is critical for oceans now. If we get things right, there is a really exciting possibility that, as well as protecting the shoreline, coral may have medical research potential, which could be unlocked for humans in the future. That would be a more rational exploitation of the sea than some of the things that have happened so far.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that we need a different international legal framework. The law of the sea is massively important, but we must transcend what it has done. It must be global and must have an impact on the things that are threatening not only marine life but probably life as we know it on the planet. The Government are well placed to take such international action—including within the EU, for the remaining time we are members of it. Who knows where we will end up, but internationalisation of the process must be fundamental, and I look to the Minister to say how the Government will approach the international agenda.

Oral Answers to Questions

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 26th October 2017

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
26 Oct 2017, 9:30 a.m.

I completely agree. We lose 20,000 of these magnificent creatures every year. It is simply not good enough for the world to wash its hands and say that this is a responsibility of only developing nations. We have to act together globally to ensure that the threat to this magnificent animal is properly met.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
26 Oct 2017, 9:30 a.m.

As my right hon. Friend examines the answers to the welcome consultation, will he disregard the scare stories being put about by certain parts of the antiques industry that say that old and much-valued artefacts will be destroyed under his proposals? That is not the intention. The intention is much more important—it is to help an iconic species that is on the verge of the risk of extinction.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
26 Oct 2017, 9:30 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. His campaigning has been inspirational, and he is right to call out the one or two isolated voices who have attempted to generate scare stories about our consultation. Significant organisations across the cultural, antiques and art market sector have welcomed the nature of the consultation, and I am grateful for their constructive approach.

Lowland Curlew

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Tuesday 17th October 2017

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11 a.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered lowland curlew.

It is a pleasure to talk about the natural environment under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, as you have spoken out forcefully for animal welfare and the natural environment during your time in Parliament. One of the great things about this forum is that is allows Members of this House to indulge their passions. I am proud to call myself a passionate bird lover.

I applied for this debate in the context of a crisis of species decline across these islands. For me, the curlew is special. It is one of our largest waders, with a beautiful, haunting call, but this species of bird is in serious trouble across large parts of Britain. Across many counties, species of birds, mammals, invertebrates and plants are going extinct. The curlew is already extinct in my county of Berkshire, and it is estimated that there are just 300 pairs of breeding curlew left south of Birmingham. At the current rate of loss, they will disappear from southern England in the next eight years. Like the nightingale and corncrake, these once-common and much-loved birds are silently vanishing. The reason is simple: curlew chicks are being killed by predators. In one study site in Shropshire, 63 eggs in 19 curlew nests were monitored by volunteers, and not one chick fledged. The majority were predated by foxes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has just left the Chamber, is extremely proud of the volunteer operation to protect curlew in Shropshire and is desperate to know more about what can be done to protect the remaining curlew in his county. Sadly, those facts about predation are not unique to Shropshire. Sites in Hampshire and Devon reported 100% nest failure last year. Those dire results prompted me to request this debate about the failure of existing conservation approaches to face tough decisions.

We need to recognise that this species is slipping away because our national approach to conserving species does not work well enough. Ten years ago, the Environmental Audit Committee identified that a new approach was required to address the dramatic biodiversity loss that is occurring in England, but that never happened. I thought that I was helping it to happen with “Biodiversity 2020”, which was published under my watch at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2011, but it was not enough.

Over the past decade or more, politicians and large conservation organisations have become locked in a doomed pact. Both want to achieve change through legislation and increasing regulation. The logic is simple enough, and it suits both sides: they can both take the credit for acting without ever having to undertake a day’s conservation themselves. Should that approach fail, they can demand a further increase in regulation and take more credit. The problem, as the curlew illustrates, is that it does not work. The music has stopped, and as last year’s “State of Nature” report highlighted, 56% of UK species have declined. The curlew declines are a reminder of that failure.

As a DEFRA Minister, I experienced lobby groups proposing that regulation would reverse losses. They were naive. In every area of life, regulation is important—I am the first to agree with that—but we never expect it to deliver success on its own. Yet some conservation lobby groups suggest that it is possible; it is not. With the exception of some coastal areas, to which upland curlew migrate, curlew are vanishing from southern England because the young are being eaten by predators such as foxes and crows. Predators do not comply with regulations. Even putting electric fencing around nests does not yet work. In the Shropshire study, volunteers watched as foxes simply waited for the chicks to walk outside the protection of the electric fence—we can imagine the rest.

If we want to increase curlew numbers, we need to stop being squeamish and start killing some of the predators that eat the curlew young. A few will be uncomfortable with that, but it is time to focus on what works, not on what we like. I am not squeamish about killing animals such as foxes. I do not want to do it myself, but I would if I had to. I get no pleasure from it, save the satisfaction of protecting a rare and threatened species.

Some lobby groups have been incredibly successful in building their income through recruiting a large membership and then seeking to use it to influence policy. For the curlew, that has not worked. That is because, to maintain their popularity, big membership organisations avoid acknowledging that the approach they have been advocating for decades does not work, and they do not like the approaches that do work.

That lack of flexibility has resulted in farmers being paid to manage beautiful grass meadows for nesting curlew, but not to kill the animals that subsequently come along and eat the chicks. We would never allow that failure to continue for decades in other areas of Government spending—money being paid to people for no effect. Why should any conservation organisation want to use its significant lobbying power to block what works, just because it might lose a few members? One farmer in Kent said that

“predator control does seem to raise strong feelings as some policy-makers have, over the years, become separated from the realities of conservation management”.

In Ireland, which faces a similar crisis, this problem is being gripped. Plans have been announced to employ staff to cull foxes, mink, crows and magpies in the vicinity of curlew nests. How refreshing to hear that that will be happening alongside habitat management—the other key factor in species conservation.

Julian Sturdy Portrait Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con) - Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11:08 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful argument. I want to bring his attention to my own experience on farmland. We allowed patches in fields where we know we get a lot of ground-nesting birds left among crops, but to our dismay we found, a few weeks later, that carrion crows came in, took the eggs and destroyed the nests. Those areas stood out like a sore thumb, so the crows prioritised and attacked them.

Richard Benyon Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11:09 a.m.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Sometimes the spatial measures that one tries actually draw the attention of the predator. As a Minister, I went up to Northumberland, where I saw layer upon layer of conservation designation, and lots of public money and public bodies protecting a very special site, but nothing had been done about the cloud of crows that were going to wipe out the lapwing they were seeking to protect. We need to reassess how we do this.

The contrast between Ireland and the UK is stark. The 50 organisations that published the comprehensive “State of Nature” report last year did not mention the curlew once in its 88 pages. I do not know whether that is because the plight of the curlew is too embarrassing; it is unlikely that they simply forgot. Only a year earlier, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others published a paper suggesting that curlew are our

“most pressing bird conservation priority”.

They were right to flag that up. Our Eurasian curlew are classified globally as “near threatened”, and since we are home to 25% of the global population, we have to look after them. We should not forget that two of the other curlew species—Eskimo and slender-billed—are already assumed to be globally extinct.

Twenty years ago, English Nature, as it was then called, produced the first curlew nesting study, which reported that 64% of chick mortality was caused by predation. Study after study kept making similar observations. As the studies continued, the curlew population fell slowly and silently by 46% in just 15 years. Regulation and legal protection were not enough. The drop would have been even more dramatic if the curlew were not thriving in the north of England on driven grouse moors. On those moors, the population is maintained because fox numbers are controlled by gamekeepers. There are actually more curlew on one grouse moor in Yorkshire than there are in the whole of Wales. On farms in the south of England it is an equally bleak story.

One organisation, of which I am proud to be a trustee, has undertaken much of the available research on controlling predators and recently launched a website offering information and practical advice for those who have curlew on their land. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is a charity bucking the trend. It is part of a groundswell of smaller organisations that believe the curlew will be saved only by putting farmers, not big organisations, back in control. If we do not, it fears the only place we may soon be able to see curlew in southern England will be on nature reserves where someone is paid to control predators. Those are some of the same organisations that object to the Government funding of fox control on farmland. I would go further and suggest that we should stop funding curlew conservation projects that do not include effective predator control options. We have to do what works, not what is popular, before those wonderful birds vanish completely.

Research carried out by the GWCT revealed that predicted populations of curlew will increase by 91% where predation control takes place, and populations will reduce over the same period by 64% where it does not. So please, no more research; we need action.

I am pleased to hear of the various workshops and meetings that have taken place in recent months that have brought together many of the different groups that share my anxiety about the potential extinction of the lowland curlew. I was pleased to hear from the RSPB:

“We are investing £1.8 million in an ambitious five-year Curlew recovery programme... One of our main objectives is to test the response of breeding Curlew to a combination of habitat and predator management work.”

It specifically links foxes and crows. It stated:

“Working with a range of partners, the trial management is happening across six key sites in upland”—

not lowland—

“areas of the UK: two in Scotland, two in Northern England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. This will help us identify what we need to do (and how) to help Curlew breed more successfully in the wider countryside. This might include developing policy and practice to reduce the numbers of predators in the landscape and shaping new agri-environment options to support land managers who want to do positive things for birds like the Curlew.”

That is great, but it means more research and I do not think we need more research. I do not think we need to demand more money, as some are. It seems that some want more money from a post-Brexit agricultural support mechanism that is targeted towards species such as the curlew. That is fine, but I suspect some sort of agri-environmental plan that a curlew project could slot into is already on the cards and being worked on by my hon. Friend the Minister and her team. Anyway, if we wait until 2022 when the current arrangement for farm support ends, that might be too late for the curlew in lowland England.

Then there are some who want Government money to support the voluntary work currently happening in certain areas. I am happy to support that if it is focused in the right way, but what would it be for? I would not advocate money for project officers to go around telling farmers what they should or should not do. Farmers, landowners and land managers are key to the success of any recovery project. Most already buy into plans, even at their own expense.

After 20 years of studying curlew, we know enough to take action. We need to empower, not criticise, farmers. The recent highly successful conference last week on cluster farms showed how an enlightened non-governmental organisation and charity can get huge environmental results by getting farmers to work together to pool resources and deliver real conservation in a short space of time across large landscapes.

Simon Hart Portrait Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con) - Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11:15 a.m.

By way of an example and to reinforce my right hon. Friend’s comments on predator control, on the island of Caldey, just off Pembrokeshire, it was decided to simply eliminate the resident population of rats. It cost £75,000 of private money and was a straightforward operation. No permissions were necessary. Within less than a year, puffins have returned and the skylark population is improving. A relatively modest investment has brought about a transformation and, most importantly, the pest control has been profound. It has come at no social or economic cost, but I suspect that is because the problem concerned rats rather than foxes.

Richard Benyon Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11:16 a.m.

My hon. Friend talks my language. When I was briefly relevant, I managed to shoehorn some money out of the Treasury to assist the RSPB, which did a superb job in annihilating mice and rats on South Georgia and other islands. As a result, South Georgia is on the fast track to returning to the pristine environment it was before the whalers arrived at the end of the 18th century, but I digress.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I stop when I see a fox. I love looking at them in the context of the environment, but when a species is threatened we have to treat all animals in the same way. We have to do things humanely in an understanding way and try to maintain a balance of nature. We cannot see species wiped out. We have to face the facts of the research that we know exists and take action.

Most land managers, like me, love their wildlife. Since they do not have large memberships to please, let us give them the practical tools and support that they need to take action. Only our farmers and land managers can save our southern curlew now. I have the highest respect for the Minister and look forward to hearing what she says. She has proved to be a fantastic listener in her role and also a fantastic doer. I hope the combination of what we say today will be a cause for celebration.

I have had the rare pleasure of lying in a meadow in Fermanagh listening to the rasping call of the corncrake. I will never hear that in Berkshire because the species now lives only in an existential state in the margins of these islands. We must not let that happen to the curlew. We owe it to future generations to do whatever we have to do to save this rare and special bird.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) - Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11:17 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate. He has set out a compelling and passionate case for saving, preserving and enhancing the life of the curlew in this country. As we know, he was one of my most successful predecessors. I appreciate his years of valued service and experience, and indeed the advice he has given me from his time when he was the Minister responsible for the natural environment.

As my right hon. Friend highlights, the curlew is among the UK’s most widespread wading birds, but its breeding range has contracted substantially in the past 50 years. As a result, and as he set out, 10 years ago the species was moved to the globally near-threatened category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species. As was noted earlier in the debate, in the past 20 years the curlew population has decreased by about a half.

Supporting a quarter of the summer breeding population and a fifth of the overwintering population in global terms, the UK has an important role to play in protecting curlew. This is reflected in the fact that declines in the UK have a greater impact on the global population than in any other country. As my right hon. Friend knows from experience, the Government are absolutely committed to reversing the declines in bird populations, including curlew and other wading birds.

Declines in the curlew have been caused by a reduction in breeding. Although adult curlew are long-lived birds, very few breed successfully, and the few remaining lowland populations that have been studied show that very few, if any, chicks are produced each year. There are two principal causes of the decline in production in lowland areas. My right hon. Friend set out very clearly the predation of nests and chicks, but there is also the intensification of grassland management, especially earlier rolling and cutting of grasslands, which crushes nests and can kill chicks.

On protection, the curlew is a migratory species and there is an obligation to classify special protection areas under article 4 of the birds directive, which requires the provision of SPAs. The UK network of more than 270 SPAs covers about 2.8 million hectares of key habitats. There are currently 87 SPAs in England, of which 13 have been classified for non-breeding curlew. There are currently no SPAs classified for breeding curlew in England or elsewhere in the UK, but reviews of the network show that the north Pennine moors—admittedly not lowlands—are the single most important site in England for breeding curlew.

A third of curlew overwintering in Britain use habitat provided as part of those SPAs. I recognise that that is only part of protecting the species, but increasing that suitable habitat and then focusing on breeding success in upland and lowland grasslands is vital. We have to have an international action plan for curlew. We are contributing internationally to actions to address that in our role as a signatory to the African-Eurasian migratory waterbird agreement, notably through the national implementation of our international action plan for the species, which was adopted two years ago. The long-term goal of that plan is to restore the favourable conservation status of the Eurasian curlew throughout its AEWA range, and for it to be assessed by 2025 as “least concern” against the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list criteria. The short-term aims are to stabilise breeding population declines, to improve knowledge relating to the population and conservation status, and for any hunting activity to be sustainable.

In spring last year, an Ireland and UK curlew action group was formed by a range of organisations, including our country’s conservation agencies, the RSPB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to co-ordinate conservation measures. The group is meeting for the third time, but as my right hon. Friend points out, talking is challenging when it is time for action.

Activities already under way include Natural England working with the RSPB on a recovery programme aimed at providing a co-ordinated approach to the management of curlew habitats, including predator control, to increase breeding numbers. That forms part of the international action plan to address the “near threatened” status of the curlew.

My right hon. Friend argued passionately for the increased use of predator control in the protection of curlew, and was reinforced in that by my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). I absolutely agree that control of predators such as foxes and stoats has a role to play in the recovery of rare or declining species, particularly ground-nesting birds.

As my right hon. Friend knows, predator control already takes place throughout the countryside as part of normal farming and game-keeping practice. It is true that predation at the egg stage is common in some areas and control of those predators has a role to play in their recovery. However, that control should be effective and not lead to making the predators themselves extinct.

A number of species predate curlew nests and chicks in the lowlands, including red fox, carrion crows and badgers. The relative importance of different predators differs locally. Land-use changes can have an impact on curlew populations through support of predators, so there is sometimes the interesting challenge of fragmented landscapes—where we may introduce patches of woodland —that have often been shown to support greater numbers of predators, but can be beneficial in other aspects of biodiversity.

Areas where predators are managed, such as areas managed for grouse shooting, have higher rates of breeding success, as my right hon. Friend illustrated, and we have seen a threefold increase in curlew abundance. The question of predator-prey interactions, however, is not straightforward. A variety of research shows that predators are part of a complex mix of factors that can influence prey populations. I am assured by my scientific advisers that the research shows that, although predation is the main reason for egg and chick losses in many bird species, most can withstand high levels of predation. There may be local short-lived benefits and we need to consider long-lasting measures.

Richard Benyon Hansard
17 Oct 2017, 11:20 a.m.

Will the Minister go back to her officials? I entirely accept that populations of certain species can withstand levels of predation as long as there are plenty of them, but when there is a very small number of a declining species, there is no margin for error. We can do as much habitat preservation as possible, but if we do not include this part of the piece—predator control—then that margin for error means that we will continue to see a decline.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey - Hansard

My right hon. Friend, dare I say it, needs to wait for the conclusion of my speech, which I have rewritten during the debate.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to empower farmers. He will know that our agri-environment schemes have been designed with the aim of encouraging habitat management to promote conservation in targeted areas, whether that is about suitable nesting or foraging conditions. We are delivering significant areas of habitat for wading birds, including the curlew. About 600,000 hectares from the predecessor schemes are managed for wading birds, and since 2016 Countryside Stewardship has provided 10,000 hectares under the new schemes.

A payment-by-results approach currently being piloted in the Yorkshire dales includes looking at habitat, but I want to stress to my right hon. Friend that farmers are able to manage the land as they wish. They are paid on the suitability of the habitat that they provide, but they can undertake predator control. That is farmers’ choice. It is important to stress that they have absolute clearance from the Minister responsible. It is about managing habitat, but they are also free to use techniques to ensure that predator control does not undermine the intended outcome of the project.

In highlighting projects to help curlew decline, my right hon. Friend rightly praises the work of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, including their action for curlew project launched earlier this year. However, GWCT states that it is not just about predator control. We have to make sure that we get a balance of dry nesting areas, wet foraging areas and insect-rich grassland for chicks in spring and summer. Through that combination of proactive habitat management and predator control where required, we can bring about positive change for curlew.

I am also conscious of the RSPB’s upper Thames wader project, which is working with more than 200 farmers to create, restore and manage wetland grasslands to support species including curlew. That area now supports the largest population of curlew on lowland farmland and again demonstrates the importance of providing habitat and feeding resources for birds and chicks.

My right hon. Friend may well be aware of the curlew country project in Shropshire, which brings together local communities to raise awareness and monitor local curlew populations. I understand that, although they may not be having quite the impact that he rightly demands, in raising awareness and bringing communities together to work to preserve the curlew, they do valuable work that we should not underestimate.

I am genuinely grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this issue. He will be aware, from his time as a Minister, that in a portfolio as wide as the natural environment, it often does take debates to get some focus on a particular topic. He has passionately set out why we need effective action, and I agree. That is why I will be asking Natural England and policy officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to include the use of predator control in all current and future projects that we fund. It is important to me that it is at least considered, and that reasons are given for why it is or—equally importantly—why it is not included in a particular scheme.

My right hon. Friend will understand that we need to undertake an appropriate mix of actions, including protecting important sites, working with farmers and other land managers to manage these habitats carefully, and targeting legal predator control to halt, and then reverse, the decline of this iconic species. The curlew is too important to be lost from our world’s biodiversity. As I set out earlier, our actions matter because a substantial proportion of these birds winter or breed in the United Kingdom. We need to make this a success, so that England and lowland curlew can continue to have the bright future for which my right hon. Friend hopes.

Question put and agreed to.

Oral Answers to Questions

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Thursday 20th July 2017

(3 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
20 Jul 2017, 10:13 a.m.

As someone who grew up with the scent of smoked fish in their nostrils, because that is what my father produced, I am committed to making sure that we have the best protection. Only last week, I visited H. Foreman & Son, who now enjoy a designation as providers and producers of London cure smoked salmon. As we have just discussed, we will have the opportunity outside the EU to ensure that British food can be more effectively branded as British and best.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
20 Jul 2017, 10:14 a.m.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the thought that must sit in his head as he plans a new management system for our fisheries is that it has to be on an ecosystems basis? That will allow him to ignore the simple blandishments of so many people who claim that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to fisheries management, which was the big failing of the common fisheries policy.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard

My right hon. Friend is right. He was a brilliant fisheries Minister, who was responsible within the EU for ensuring that the common fisheries policy, imperfect as it is in so many ways, was reformed to deal with discards and to develop our fish stocks on a more sustainable basis. Outside the EU, as an independent coastal state, we can do even more, but he is right that conservation must be at the heart of our policy.