Oral Answers to Questions

Mark Spencer Excerpts
Thursday 1st February 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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2. Whether his Department is taking steps to help ensure profits in the food sector are fairly distributed.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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Powers in the Agriculture Act 2020 allow us to introduce statutory codes of practice to improve market transparency and ensure fairness in the supply chain. We will use these powers whenever we find clear evidence of unfair practices, so that all farmers get a fair price for their products.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman
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When will the Minister wake up to the fact that, since Brexit, food prices have rocketed? My constituents cannot afford to buy staple foods. Is it not the truth that farmers are struggling? They are getting almost nothing for their milk, their potatoes and the ordinary things that men and women buy in this country. Where is the money from these higher prices going, because it is not to the farmers?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I can tell the hon. Gentleman where the higher prices are: they are in France and Germany. If we look at the value of a basket of goods, we see that in the UK they are lower than they are in the European Union. If we had followed his model or his advice, we would still be in the EU. Our retailers, our farmers and our processors are working together, and we want to see fairness in the supply chain. We want fairness for the consumer, and also for the farmer, the retailer and the processor.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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Ynys Môn farmers and the farming community are important to food production, and their profits are vital to our Anglesey island economy. Does the Minister agree with Aled Jones, the president of National Farmers Union Cymru, that Welsh Government sustainable farming schemes will have “damaging consequences”, including the potential loss of 5,500 jobs in the sector?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for how she campaigns on behalf of her constituents. I know that Welsh farmers are very concerned about the Welsh Government’s approach to Welsh agriculture. Here in England, we are trying to support farmers in producing top-quality food and looking after the environment, and I think the Welsh Government need to reflect on how they should influence their farmers to do exactly the same.

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Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison (Copeland) (Con)
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7. What steps he is taking to support farmers through the environmental land management schemes.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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This year, we are increasing payment rates under environmental land management schemes, through a 10% average uplift, and we are adding about 50 new actions, so that farmers can access the most comprehensive offer yet. The sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship mid-tier application process will be streamlined, making it easier for schemes to slot into farm businesses.

Trudy Harrison Portrait Trudy Harrison
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I thank my right hon. Friend the Farming Minister for meeting my farmers in Wasdale last year. I am sure that sure the journey through the English Lake district was inspiration to provide those payments for stone walls.

I have continued that conversation in a succession of farming policy information suppers. There is a keen desire among farmers to take advantage of ELMs; what they are overwhelmingly asking for, though, is clarity about what to go for and when to go for it to achieve the most successful, sustainable and profitable farm business.

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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My hon. Friend is truly privileged to represent such a beautiful part of England. We are collaborating with stakeholders to ensure that our schemes work for them. We regularly communicate with them through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s farming blog, by meeting them at trade shows, through ministerial visits, and through stakeholder organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Tenant Farmers Association. We are also providing free business support to farmers and land managers in England through the future farming resilience fund. Grants and schemes for farmers are published through our single funding page.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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Last week’s report from the Government’s environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, was a damning indictment of the Government’s record. It said they were “largely off track”, with just four of the 40 targets being achieved. When it comes to the environmental land management schemes, can the Minister tell the House just how much environmental improvement they have helped farmers to deliver so far?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I think that two months into a 25-year plan is probably too soon to judge that plan. We are making huge strides with our stakeholders and farmers, who are working up and down the country to improve the environment. They have spent generations creating that environment. We should celebrate what they have achieved, and we should encourage them to do more. That is what the sustainable farming incentive is designed to do, and what the scheme is delivering.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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The Minister doesn’t know, does he? The Government are spending large amounts of public money, but they did not set up a system to measure it. The new Secretary of State is generally on the money, so I am sure he has asked this question: what we are getting for the money? Let me try a simpler version of the question. With ELMs so far, has there been environmental improvement or environmental degradation, or is it simply “Don’t know”?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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These things are actually quite easy to see and to measure. If we look at the hedgerows planted in England in the last decade, we see that thousands of kilometres of hedgerow have been planted. Large areas are being dedicated to biodiversity and creating food for wild bird populations. That is what the SFI is delivering; it is there to see. All the hon. Member needs to do is get out of Cambridgeshire and look at some of those farms.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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8. Whether he has had recent discussions with horticultural businesses on the operation of the Windsor framework.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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DEFRA officials met Kings Seeds on 19 January. The Department regularly meets a range of businesses, including through the working group established with the Horticultural Trades Association, which met most recently on 18 January.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel
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The Minister will know that Kings Seeds is what is known as a well established local business, having been based in Kelvedon since 1888. It trades in horticultural seeds and is known for its sweet peas, but as he will be aware, it cannot send its products to Northern Ireland, which it says is because of barriers related to the Windsor framework. Will he clarify whether the announcements made earlier this week—we will discuss the statutory instruments relating to them later today—will resolve the issue? If not, will he work with me and teams across Government to ensure that we deal with the issue? Perhaps he would like to come to Kelvedon to meet the company.

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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As I said, DEFRA officials met Kings Seeds on 19 January. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend and the company to discuss its concerns and see how we can support it in all its excellent work in her constituency.

We appreciate the concerns of Kings Seeds. We are inviting it to the new horticulture working group announced in yesterday’s Command Paper, along with industry representatives. The Government will ask the group to address the movement of seeds to consumers in Northern Ireland as a priority. I look forward to hearing its recommendations.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I apologise for my earlier misdemeanour, Mr Speaker.

Now that we have significant progress towards the restoration of devolution, will the Minister agree to work with DUP Members and his ministerial colleagues to ensure that issues such as the horticultural one continue to be resolved, so that we have maximum efficiency across the North channel?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I am delighted to work with the hon. Gentleman. We have a track record of working with our DUP friends to solve the challenges that we face. That conversation can continue, and I look forward to working with him to continue to solve those challenges.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)
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9. What steps his Department is taking to help reverse biodiversity loss.

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Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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Arrangements are in place through to the end of 2025 to support the continuity of the supply of veterinary medicines into Northern Ireland. We are clear that we must also ensure a long-term solution to safeguard those supplies on an ongoing basis, and we will continue to engage with the EU on all aspects of the operation of the Windsor framework.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart
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Continued restrictions to veterinary medicines remain a very real threat to local agriculture. The British Veterinary Association Northern Ireland Branch president has said that a serious risk is posed to public health and animal welfare if a permanent solution for access to veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland is not found. While the Command Paper signals a welcome focus on this issue, with a working group to deal with it, can the Minister confirm that the Government will act unilaterally by spring if it is not resolved?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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We will continue to work with the EU to try to find a long-term solution. Of course, we have to find that solution. Those negotiations are ongoing, and I do not want to pre-empt any of those discussions from the Dispatch Box, but we do recognise that we need a long-term solution to solve this challenge.

Mark Menzies Portrait Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con)
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T1.   If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

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Steve Tuckwell Portrait Steve Tuckwell (Uxbridge and South Ruislip) (Con)
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T5. My constituency is home to many international food and drink manufacturers, including General Mills and Coca-Cola, both of which are seeking to expand their operations here in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the work being done to help such manufacturers to expand and grow for the benefit of our local and national economies?

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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We have regular meetings with the food and drink sector to ensure that we are in tune with its concerns and aspirations. Those discussions will continue, and we will continue to support great businesses such as Coca-Cola in my hon. Friend’s constituency, support British jobs and generate benefit for the UK economy.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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Towns and villages such as Maulden and Shefford in my constituency have seen their flood risk profile change dramatically over the years, partly owing to housing growth. How will the Minister ensure that funding for the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards adequately reflects the way in which that risk has evolved?

John Whittingdale Portrait Sir John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend recognise that drift net fishing for bass is more sustainable, targeted and efficient than fishing with set nets? Will he reconsider the ban, which was introduced as a temporary measure, in order to allow those with an existing bass entitlement to undertake drift net fishing?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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Bass stocks are still recovering from poor spawning periods and overfishing. The bass fisheries management plan commits to review existing commercial access, including gear types such as drift nets, which pose a higher risk to sensitive species and bass fishes. A careful balance must be struck between increasing fishing opportunities and protecting vulnerable bass stocks, but I assure my right hon. Friend that these matters will remain open.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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Since April last year, thousands of homes in my constituency have suffered from a fly infestation assumed to originate from a recycling plant. Will the Minister meet me and the Environment Agency to get this resolved?

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Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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Food price inflation remains twice as high as general inflation in the UK, and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit warns that it could rise even higher next year. What assessment has the Secretary of State made, with his colleagues, of the impact of soaring food prices on those we represent?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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Of course, we continue to monitor food price inflation and work with the sector to reduce it as much as possible. We co-operate with not only farmers, processors and retailers, but all those involved in the sector to try to make sure that we provide a reasonably priced food basket for our constituents. The good news is that the cost of our food basket in the UK is lower than that found in many parts of the European Union.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In response to Question 1, the Secretary of State attributed another party’s position on Europe to my party. The Alba party’s position on Europe is to opt for the European Free Trade Association, thus maintaining sovereignty over fisheries and farming. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State would correct the record.