Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

Agriculture Bill
 
I understand the Government is currently reflecting on concerns about the Bill raised during Committee Stage, as well as those raised by colleagues and interested parties.  I look forward to the Bill coming back to the House, at which point I will have the opportunity to vote on any amendments brought forward there. 
 
Food and farming is a bedrock of our economy and environment, generating £112 billion a year and helping shape some of our finest habitats and landscapes.  I am pleased that the Government will continue to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament in 2022.  Once we have the freedom to move away from the Common Agricultural Policy, the proposal is for an 'agricultural transition' period in England, allowing farmers to prepare for a new system.
 
Whatever your view on leaving the EU, it does present a rare opportunity to design a domestic agricultural policy that will stand the test of time.  We can bring in innovative new ideas to support investment in healthy, sustainable British food production and do much better for farming, the environment and animal welfare.  The Government proposes to move to a system of paying farmers public money for public goods: principally environmental enhancement.
 
Ministers have consulted widely with farmers and others, and have published the Agriculture Bill alongside their response; it focuses mostly on England because they recognise that devolution provides each administration with the powers to decide its own priorities. 
 
We must take this opportunity to use public money to reward environmentally-responsible land use, as well as maintaining and enhancing high standards of animal welfare. I am convinced that we will harness this opportunity and ensure that our best days as a food and farming nation lie ahead of us.

Agriculture Bill - Amendment NC4 (Food Standards)

Thank you for contacting me about food safety standards and the Agriculture Bill. 

It is absolutely vital that people across the UK have confidence in the food they eat.  I therefore welcome the Government's very clear commitment that any future trade agreements must uphold the UK's high levels of food safety, animal welfare standards, and environmental protection. Ministers have made clear these standards will not be watered down in pursuit of any trade deal once the UK leaves the EU.

Public consultations will be run ahead of any negotiations for new trade agreements, while any final agreement will be scrutinised and ratified by Parliament.  These measures will ensure that both Parliament and the public can have their say on the content of any potential new trade agreements, including in the area of food standards.  I am aware consultations have already taken place in the US, New Zealand and Australia, as well as with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

I am particularly pleased that a future trade policy which works for the whole of the UK will be developed by working closely with the Devolved Administrations.  The Government has committed to establishing a new Ministerial Forum on International Trade to provide a formal mechanism for Devolved Government Ministers to discuss and provide input to future trade negotiations. 

Animals as Fairground Prizes

Having looked into this matter I understand that when the Animal Welfare Act (2006) was being considered, there was a proposal to ban giving away live animals as prizes.  The government of the day consulted on this proposal and eventually decided against an outright ban, instead making it illegal to give such prizes to unaccompanied children under the age of 16.  There are no current plans to revisit this legislation.
 
Fairgrounds are, however, licensed by local authorities, which have the power to impose conditions before allowing the event to go ahead.  This could include a prohibition on giving away live animals as prizes.  If you are concerned about this practice happening locally, therefore, you may wish to raise the matter with the council.
 
Goldfish, like all other vertebrate animals, are protected under the Animal Welfare Act.  This means it is an offence to cause them unnecessary suffering or fail to provide for their needs when responsible for doing so.  Breaches of this law can be investigated and prosecuted, so I would encourage anyone who comes to own a goldfish to ensure they look after it properly.  The RSPCA makes guidance available on its website about how to care for freshwater fish, so this could be a helpful place to start.

Animal Cruelty Sentencing

It is entirely right that the UK has a robust legal framework to tackle this vicious behaviour in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal.

The courts must decide what the penalty should be for each individual case, taking into account its circumstances and the guidelines laid down by the Sentencing Council.  Currently, in addition to the maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, the courts can also disqualify offenders from keeping animals for as long as they consider appropriate.

The Government routinely monitors sentencing policy for all offences, including animal welfare offences.  I am therefore pleased that the Government is bringing forward legislation to increase punishments for the most horrific acts of animal cruelty to five years.  I note that you feel this should be introduced as a priority, but I am confident that legislation is proceeding at the proper pace when considering the other priorities currently being debated.  

Animal Sentience after Brexit

First and foremost, I believe animals are sentient beings who can feel pain and suffering, and I would like to reassure you that strong action is being taken to reduce their risk of harm.
 
The Prime Minister has confirmed that the UK Government recognises animals as sentient and is committed to making any necessary changes to UK law in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is legally recognised once the UK leaves the EU (this also includes ensuring the UK has an effective means of making sure that animal sentience is reflected in future policy decisions).  Ms Lucas' sentience amendment to the EU withdrawal bill was not supported in Parliament as the Animal Welfare Act 2006 already recognises the principle of sentience.  I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently engaging closely with relevant organisations and authorities to further enhance its policies on this issue. 
 
Encouraging action is being taken to improve animal welfare at home and abroad by increasing maximum sentences for animal cruelty, banning third party sales of puppies, and introducing one of the world's toughest bans on ivory sales.  I believe these very welcome steps demonstrate exactly how seriously this Government takes animal welfare.  Once we have left the EU, we could do even more.  The UK's current position of full harmonisation with EU rules on pet travel means the import of puppies under 6 months cannot be banned, and the cracking down on puppy smuggling is a challenge.  This is because of the difficulty in accurately identifying underage puppies at the border.  EU rules also restrict our ability to control live animal exports. 
 
We are a nation of animal lovers and I am pleased with the commitments to make Brexit work not just for citizens, but for the animals we love and cherish too.

Climate Change

Concern about climate change is growing to unprecedented levels and I can assure you that I recognise the importance and urgency of public debate on this issue.  I take a great interest in environmental matters and speak on them regularly in debates in the House, frequently calling on the Government to move more swiftly.  Whilst DEFRA currently has a number of very laudable and ambitious projects ongoing, I will always encourage a faster pace!
 
The threat of global warming has never been more apparent, as highlighted by the sobering conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report on global warming of 1.5°C.  However, I am encouraged that we are also now witnessing an unstoppable momentum towards a more ambitious global response, most recently demonstrated by agreement on a 'rulebook' for the Paris Agreement late last year.
 
I am also proud of the UK's world-leading role in tackling climate change and the transition to Clean Growth, with the UK being the first country to introduce legally binding long-term emissions targets under the landmark Climate Change Act in 2008.  Since 1990, the UK has cut emissions by more than 40 per cent while growing the economy by more than two thirds, the best performance on a per person basis than any other G7 nation.
 
To continue this momentum, the Government published the Clean Growth Strategy in 2017, setting out its plans for meeting the UK's carbon targets and the ambition to legislate for a net zero emissions target.  This has been boosted by significant innovation funding made available through the Industrial Strategy.  At the same time, the ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan outlines the Government's commitment to supporting and protecting the world's most biodiverse forests, supporting sustainable agriculture and enhancing sustainability, and supporting zero-deforestation supply chains.  I recently asked a question of the Minister in relation to post-Brexit funding of the 25YEP and was assured that it would continue to be supported come what may.  
 
Despite all the above, we must do more.  I know the Government will do more, and it has asked the Committee on Climate Change to advise on how and when we could achieve net zero.  Their report published earlier this month sets out a path for the UK to become the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming entirely.  As I understand, Ministers will consider its advice carefully and aim to respond in a timeframe that reflects the urgency of the issue at hand.

'End the Cage Age' Campaign

I understand your concerns on this matter, however I am proud that the UK has some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world.  There is comprehensive legislation to uphold these standards, as well as guidance on how best to protect the welfare of specific animals living on farms, such as hens, pigs and cattle.  The Government has already banned cages or close confinement systems where there is clear scientific evidence that they are detrimental to animal health and welfare.
 
The new statutory Code of Practice for the Welfare of Laying Hens and Pullets came into force in August 2018.  The Code provides improved and up-to-date guidance on welfare legislation and reflects the latest scientific and veterinary advice.  I am also aware that all major supermarkets have said they will stop selling eggs from hens kept in enriched cages by 2025.
 
On pig welfare, the aim is to get to a point where traditional farrowing crates are obsolete and where any new system protects the welfare of the sow, as well as her piglets.  As I understand it, important steps have been made on the use of free farrowing systems, but more advances are needed before compulsory replacement of farrowing crates can be recommended.
 
The Government is committed in making the UK a world leader in protection of animals as we leave the EU. nThere are plans to increase maximum penalties for animal cruelty from six months' to five years' imprisonment and statutory welfare codes are being updated.  These codes strengthen guidance on how to meet the needs of livestock animals and enhance their welfare.

Fracking

I fully understand and appreciate people's concerns about fracking.  However, it must also be recognised that the safe development of shale gas will be good for jobs, good for our energy security, and help the UK to decarbonise its economy.  I believe that we need a diverse energy mix, and that shale gas can play a part in that. 
 
I have been assured that the right protections are in place to ensure that fracking can go ahead safely without risk to our most beautiful and important natural sites.  I have confidence that the UK's world leading environmental regulations will deliver clean, safe shale gas extraction.  Regulations now protect some of the country's most beautiful areas, including National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, meaning shale gas exploration cannot take place at depths of less than 1,200 metres in these areas.  The Government is also committed to banning wells drilled at the surface of these areas or within Sites of Special Scientific Interest. 

Horse Tethering
 
I support the highest standards of animal welfare and agree with you about the importance of protecting these gentle, sensitive creatures.  The Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to animals, or for a responsible party to fail to provide for their welfare. 
 
The statutory Code of Practice for the Welfare of Horses, Ponies, Donkeys and Their Hybrids also includes advice on how to tether these animals where necessary in a manner that meets their welfare needs.  It outlines that tethering is not suitable for long-term use, but it can be used exceptionally in the short term on suitable animals given an appropriate site and equipment.  Any failure to adhere to the Code can be used in court to demonstrate neglect.
 
On 20th February 2019, this issue was discussed in the House of Commons.  I am pleased David Rutley, the Minister for Animal Welfare, concluded the debate by saying he would call for a meeting with key organisations to discuss what more can be done in sharing and documenting best practice on horse tethering and more actively distributing this information to horse owners.  Of course, if anyone is concerned about the way a horse is tethered, I would urge them to report it to the local authority, which has powers under the Animal Welfare Act to investigate such matters.  The RSPCA and World Horse Welfare can also investigate.

Live Animal Export

All animals deserve to be respected and cared for at every stage of their lives.  The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and I am pleased that my Party's General Election manifesto included a commitment to take early steps to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter once we leave the European Union.
 
A call for evidence was launched in 2018 by the Environment Secretary on improving animal welfare in transport and controlling live animal exports.  This sought views from across industry, charities and the general public on how the Government might raise standards of animal welfare during transport, and the evidence was passed to the Farm Animal Welfare Committee who are carrying out a review of existing transport standards.  They will make recommendations for improvements for when we leave the EU in a report which is expected to be published later this year. 
 
Although much of the discussion has focused on the export of live animals for slaughter, I am assured that all options for future improvements in the matter of export for fattening are being considered.  I hope those supporting a ban on the export of animals for fattening took the opportunity to respond to the call for evidence and make their views heard.  Taking action on live animal exports forms part of the Government's programme of reforms to cement the UK's position as a global leader in animal welfare as we leave the EU, and deliver a Green Brexit.  Other measures include making CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses, increasing the maximum sentence for animal abuse from six months to five years and writing the principle of animal sentience into UK law.

'Protect our Rivers' Campaign

I am keenly aware of the amount of plastic in our rivers, seas and oceans.  Indeed, I spoke at length on this subject last month in a debate on plastic waste:  https://www.billgrant.org.uk/news/debate-plastics-recycling.

The Resources and Waste strategy, published last year, sets out plans to reduce plastic pollution with a target of eliminating all avoidable waste over the lifetime of the Government's 25 Year Environment Plan.  The majority of aquatic litter originates from land based sources, and I therefore believe the best approach to stemming the flow of plastic is by taking action on land.  The UK's world-leading ban on microbeads will help stop potentially billions of tiny pieces of plastic from entering the aquatic environment every year.  As well as this, 15.6 billion fewer bags have been handed out to shoppers by the seven main retailers since the introduction of the plastic bag charge in 2015.  I am also pleased that following an open consultation, a ban on the supply of plastic straws - excluding those needed for medical purposes - drinks stirrers and cotton buds will come into force in April next year. 

Ministers have also consulted on a number of key policy measures which will significantly change the way we manage our waste.  These include: reforming existing packaging waste regulations; exploring the introduction of a deposit return scheme for drinks containers; and increasing consistency in the recycling system; with a parallel consultation on the 'Plastic Packaging Tax' which the Chancellor announced in the Budget last year.  The responses to these consultations will be published in due course.

On the Environment Bill, draft clauses on environmental principles and governance have now been published.  I am encouraged that these clauses are only part of a broader Bill, which will include legislative measures to take direct action to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age: air quality, nature recovery, waste and resource efficiency, and water resource management.

Racehorse Welfare

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is the independent body responsible for regulating the sport of horseracing.  It works closely with animal charities such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare to ensure that the highest of standards are upheld.  As a consequence, Britain is regarded as having one of the best regulated racing environments across the world, and I am not aware of any current plans to replace the BHA's welfare role with a new body.
 
It is always upsetting to hear about the death of a horse during a race, but I have been assured that the BHA has a number of policies to ensure that racing is as safe as possible for horses.  These include not licencing any racecourse in the UK which is not welfare approved, ensuring all races have veterinary surgeons on hand to administer treatment and investigating any course showing an increase in fatalities.  I am encouraged that in the last 20 years horse fatalities during races have fallen by a third, to 0.2 per cent of runners.
 
I understand your concern about life after racing for these horses.  The Retraining of Racehorses is the official charity dealing with the welfare of retired racehorses.  It raises funds through regulatory and licence fees from racing, as well as from donations, and runs a nationwide programme to find new homes and roles for these horses, including in other recreational activities.
 
Toxic Air

I understand your concerns about the impact of air pollution on young children. Air quality has improved significantly since 2010, but sixty years on from the Clean Air Act air pollution is still making people ill, shortening lives and damaging our economy and environment.

I welcome the Government’s new Clean Air Strategy which aims to cut air pollution and save lives, backed up by new primary legislation. The Strategy details how the UK will go further and faster than the EU in reducing exposure to particulate matter pollution. 

The Strategy has been consulted upon and forms a key part of the 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. It sets out a goal to halve the number of people living in locations with concentrations of particulate matter above WHO guidelines, legislate to give councils more powers to improve air quality and ensure only the cleanest domestic fuels and stoves can be sold.

Other measures include requiring and supporting farmers to invest in reducing emissions of ammonia, working with international partners on new standards for tyres and brakes to reduce emissions of harmful microplastics, investing in research and innovation and a personal air quality messaging system to keep the public informed.

This action supplements the £3.5 billion plan to reduce air pollution from road transport and diesel vehicles as set out last year. The investment includes £1 billion to support the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles, nearly £0.5 billion to help local authorities implement local air quality plans and about £90 million through the Green Bus fund.

I believe that together, these plans will help us grow a stronger and cleaner economy.

Cocoa Production

I very much share your concern about ensuring that cocoa is ethically sourced and sustainable, which is why I am pleased that steps are being taken to promote transparency in supply chains.

The Modern Slavery Act, passed in 2015, requires large businesses to publish an annual statement explaining what they have done to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains. Ministers are also working with Fairtrade to develop "Fairtrace", a supply chain mapping tool that gives consumers more information about where the products they buy come from.

As you rightly point out, it is vital that cocoa farmers are paid a fair living income. I welcome Fairtrade's recent announcement that, as part of a wider strategy to work towards a living income for producers, it is introducing a higher Fairtrade Minimum Price for cocoa and will increase the Fairtrade Premium that goes to farmers. 

I am glad that our country also funds the Cocoa and Forests Initiative, which tackles deforestation. Already, governments together with cocoa industries in Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Colombia have joined the Initiative and made a public commitment to end deforestation associated with cocoa production. 

I hope this reassures you of the UK's continuing commitment to driving out slavery from supply chains, and ensuring a fair, sustainable cocoa industry.