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Westminster Hall

Thursday 27 November 2014

[Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

Food Security

[Relevant documents: Food Security, Second Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, HC 243, and the Government response, HC 702.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(George Eustice.)

1.30 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Hood, and to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and colleagues on the Select Committee to their places. We are very pleased to have the opportunity presented by this debate. On a personal note, I represent what is probably one of the most rural constituencies in the country, not just the north of England, of which livestock production and farming form a vital part.

The Select Committee decided to inquire into and report on food security, looking at food production and supply, for a number of reasons. There are particularly challenging and changing—volatile—market conditions at the moment. The inquiry took place against the backdrop of “Horsegate”, as I shall call it for short. I am referring to the adulteration of food with horsemeat that took place. Also relevant are the current global economic conditions, as witnessed by the sanctions against Russia, and the emerging markets—new markets—in China and elsewhere. Also, after a brief visit to Brussels last week, a number of us are better informed about how the European market is changing, with the removal of quotas for milk and the sugar regime facing change as well.

I should like to highlight one or two of the main aspects of the report and to thank those who contributed to the inquiry, which we launched in October 2013. We received 50 written submissions and, earlier this year, held five oral evidence sessions. We are grateful to all those who contributed.

Obviously, the farming—agricultural—and food sector is hugely important and successful. The food and drink sector is responsible for 3.7 million jobs and 7% of the overall economy. At the outset, it is fair to say that there is a danger of complacency. When we looked into food production and the supply dimension of food security, we found that complacency is a genuine risk to future UK food security. We want our food production and supply systems to be secure, in which case the Government and food producers must plan to deal with the impacts of climate change, population growth and increasing global demand for food, so what we are examining today are clear lines of Government responsibility.

We set out that at least three Departments are responsible for food security. They are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We asked, to ensure coherent

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planning and action, that the overall strategy be led by DEFRA, with a robust approach right across Whitehall. May I say, in again welcoming the Minister to his place, that I can think of no one better than him or his predecessors to take that role? However, he is particularly well placed, having served with such distinction on the Select Committee previously. I shall return to that.

In our report, we support the idea of sustainable intensification—producing more food with fewer resources—and we call on DEFRA to stem the decline in UK self-sufficiency and deliver more resilience in the UK food system. We note that the yields of key cereal crops—for example, wheat—have not increased for more than 15 years. The most conservative figures—I am a Conservative with a small c and a large C—are, I think that we can accurately say, the National Farmers Union figures, which I think are more recent even than the ones in our report. In 2013, we were running at only 60% self-sufficiency in food production; it was 62% in 2012. That is down from the height, in 1991, of more than 75%.

Clearly, the fact that self-sufficiency is on a downward spiral is of some concern. There are a number of reasons for that. We say that the biggest long-term challenge to food production systems is the impact of extreme weather events resulting from climate change, so we call for supermarkets to shorten supply chains to reduce the threat of disruption and for UK farmers to extend the seasonal production of fresh fruit and vegetables in co-ordination with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and local and central Government. The Government must reduce dependence on imported soya bean for animal feed, as increased demand for protein from emerging economies threatens current supply lines.

The Government should also produce a detailed emissions reduction plan for the UK agricultural sector. If we are to curb emissions and adjust to climate change, we need a significant shift, potentially, in how the UK produces its food. Currently, livestock production contributes 49% of farm-related emissions, so we need more research to identify ways to curb that.

We need the better longer-term weather forecasts that successive Governments have worked on—I welcome that work—and more resilient production systems to cope with severe weather events. We particularly welcome the Government’s new £160 million agri-tech strategy to translate technological ideas into farm practices, but I shall add a plea on that. The current funding levels, as they were put to us, are insufficient and the time scale is very limited. When we visited the Rothamsted institute, we were told that the last two years of the five-year term are spent accessing and applying for the grants to ensure that the very valuable work that these research institutes are doing carries on. We looked at precision farming technologies as an example of good research but one that needs commercial partners to make it viable.

Let me deal with a number of these points in turn and against the backdrop of self-sufficiency going backwards rather than forwards. We are looking in the current inquiry at food security: demand, consumption and waste. We are about to report, we hope, on our second inquiry, which is about bringing food to market and actually to the table.

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I welcome the fact that supply chains have shortened. I particularly welcome the excellent work done by Professor Chris Elliott in that regard. However, a number of issues remain. Looking at the UK food system within the EU and internationally, can the Minister explain the reasoning behind not having an individual such as him as the Minister responsible, with a specific profile for co-ordinating food security and food supply policy across Government? That would be very welcome. We spent considerable time, in the evidence that we took and in the conclusions that we reached, on the fact that that single development would make a major impact.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I intervene only to reinforce the point that the Chair of our Select Committee is making, because this was one of our key discussions. Knowing how successful this Government have been in one or two other Departments where there are cross-departmental working parties, although mostly chaired by the Cabinet, does she agree that we did feel very strongly that the Minister at DEFRA should be the lead for any such joint working arrangement in government, because of the significance of food and agriculture and the need for that Minister to lead the rest of the Government on the policies that the hon. Lady is very ably outlining?

Miss McIntosh: I could not have expressed it better myself. Against the backdrop of self-sufficiency falling over the past 20 years, and potentially going backwards, we have BIS in charge of research institutes and DECC dealing with the climate change angle. The Committee was absolutely united on that powerful recommendation. We owe it to our witnesses and those whom we visited to extract an explanation from the Minister of why that was not deemed to be appropriate. If the Government would keep the matter under review, that would be very welcome.

The range of actions that the Government and others are undertaking to improve co-ordination is good, especially on cross-sector soils research. Will the Minister outline DEFRA’s plans for promoting the export of products such as apricots, which now have a longer growing season? How can the Department encourage other crop growers to extend their seasons? That would provide opportunities for further growth and more exports, which would build on the success that we have seen.

I would like to spend a moment on the common agricultural policy and greening issues. We heard evidence from the Secretary of State yesterday, and I am absolutely delighted that the Government are looking again at the three-crop rule. Having met the incoming EU Agriculture Commissioner last week, I believe that he is a potential ally who has a great understanding of and background in farming. The review of the CAP to which he has committed in 2017 is particularly welcome. The fact that the commissioner has said that food security is the Commission’s priority must give more grist to the Government’s mill and ensure that that remains the case. In the short term following the adulteration of beef with horsemeat, supply chains were made shorter, and that must be kept under review.

Farmers and NFU representatives have criticised the complexity of the CAP, which was meant to be simple. They have criticised in particular the effectiveness of the

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ecological focus areas. Does the fact that there will be an early review offer us an opportunity? What discussions are the Minister and the Secretary of State having with the commissioner on the potential for reviewing the CAP and introducing a swift review of problems such as the ineffective ecological focus areas and the three-crop rule? The higher CAP modulation rate in England will penalise our farmers more than those in other parts of the United Kingdom and the EU, so perhaps the Minister would be so good as to comment on that.

Turning to the UK’s international role, the Government said in their response to the report that they were collaborating through the Courtauld commitment on the challenge of reducing food waste, on which the UK is a world leader. They are looking at the matter in more detail and will respond further in due course. The Committee was struck by the fact that soya beans are the main feedstock for our animals, and that the supply is coming under increasing pressure because of competition from emerging economies. May I press the Minister for assurances that action will be taken to avoid any possible crisis in animal feed supplies? How are we encouraging alternatives to soya as a source of protein?

On the challenge of climate change, which may have an impact on farming and other industries, we have seen the latest targets and the framework from the EU. May I press the Minister on the outcomes that will be required from the 2014 to 2020 rural development plan, and from the expenditure under that plan on emission reductions? How will that impact on farming, and how will the Government ensure that the most cost-effective actions are taken first? I particularly welcome the soil protection work, but what outcomes does the Minister expect from the £5 million that has been put into soil security work and when does he expect to see them? When might he be able to report on that? What input is DEFRA having into EU soil protection work?

Our report’s core recommendation related to improving the resilience of supply chains. When we heard evidence recently from Professor Elliott, we were able to thank him in person for his work, and we are delighted that the Government have accepted all his recommendations. Shorter supply chains minimise the threat of disruption. In our report on food contamination, the Committee expressed concern about the length of food supply chains, and we welcome the work that retailers have done to reduce them. Where are we in relation to the cross-government group on food integrity? Where are we on labelling and traceability at an EU level? Will the Minister look kindly on a review of the groceries code and the adjudicator’s role, which currently makes no provision for an investigation without a formal complaint? Will that remit be reviewed and could it be changed? Will the Minister look kindly on the idea of introducing, as a matter of urgency, the statutory instrument that would empower the adjudicator to levy fines? It was something of a shock when we realised that such a statutory instrument had been neither laid nor adopted, so effectively the groceries code adjudicator has no teeth. Can the Minister tell us whether there an appetite in government to press for such a change, although I realise that BIS probably leads on that issue?

The Government response included a commitment to monitoring the agri-tech catalyst. How will that monitoring work and will it lead to action? Will the Minister elaborate on the findings? It is vital that we get a

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decision on genetic modification one way or the other. Will the Minister update us on progress at an EU level? We have looked at the matter, and I remain to be convinced on GM, but it is important that we have a framework at EU level.

The Government response said that both the Government and industry had started to address the findings of the future of farming review, especially in relation to new entrants to the industry, reducing bureaucracy and the red tape challenge. What more can the Government do to encourage new entrants, particularly young farmers, into the sector? It is no secret that the average age of farmers is relatively high compared with people in other walks of life and industries. Neither is it a secret that farming and fisheries remain two of the most dangerous industries. Farmers work in all weathers, sometimes using very complicated bits of kit. They work hard, against the elements and in the face of a constant stream of regulation, to bring food to our plates and to export as much as possible. I would welcome an update from the Minister on the Government’s plans to introduce more support for young farmers and the likely cost of doing that. How does he believe that we can entice young farmers and new entrants into the programme? One of the barriers to new entrants has to be the lack of broadband coverage in especially rural areas, and I know that we will have the opportunity to quiz the Minister about that separately.

I am very proud of our work on the food security report and I commend our conclusions to the House. I am concerned that we face the challenge of increasing food insecurity and a potential downward spiral of self-sufficiency. Lessons have been learned from “Horsegate”. We need shorter supply chains and to recognise the challenge of climate change and an increasing population, which works both ways, as there will be more mouths to feed and we are in a particularly good place to feed them. I would like consumers to be going out and buying British. I am particularly disappointed that a major retailer—I will not name it—has chosen to move away from the red tractor system. The red tractor is a symbol that food has been produced in Britain to the highest possible animal welfare standards and meets the farm-assured test. To move away from it is a retrograde step, and I hope that that supermarket chain will hang its head in shame and reconsider that decision.

We must increase self-sufficiency at home and increase opportunities to export. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the report, and I commend to you, Mr Hood, the conclusions that we have reached.

1.50 pm

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hood, and I am delighted to follow the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh). She says that she represents one of the most rural constituencies, if not the most rural, in the country; I represent probably one of the most urban, with Canary Wharf in the south half and Tower Hamlets in the north. When I was appointed Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I was attacked in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph as a veggie and a townie: “What does he know about the countryside?” Fortunately, the National Farmers Union was much more pragmatic

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and generous, and I think I can say that I built up a positive working relationship with it during my year in office. It is a pleasure to see the shadow Minister and the Minister in their places. I look forward to hearing their comments.

“Food security” conjures up three things for me: security of international supply, UK self-sufficiency, and the honesty and integrity of the food that we eat. The hon. Lady mentioned the reduction in the percentage of food produced in the UK. I do not think that that is a major problem. British farming should have opportunities and challenges to produce and sell more, but most important to feeding the nation is ensuring that international supply lines are strong and varied, and that our food has integrity. The horsemeat scandal has been mentioned, and I will return to it later. Internationally, hunger and death from starvation is still a major world scourge. There is food poverty within the UK as well, with a growing number of people dependent on food banks across the country.

Food security is not about self-sufficiency alone; it is about safeguarding against failing harvests, disease and climate change, all of which can disrupt supply. It is positive that the Government accept many of the recommendations from the EFRA Committee; there is much consensus about food, production and standards. If I may sound one discordant note, it is my disappointment that the Government dropped the Food 2030 strategy worked out by the last Government. It was well researched, science-based and evidence-led, and it was a medium to long-term map for how the UK could progress over the 20 years after it was produced. Obviously, however, the Government have their own programme to promote and follow.

I would like to mention two items before referring to some of the recommendations in the report; I do not intend to speak for very long. One is milk and dairy. The Committee is examining the issue in a short inquiry, and the all-party parliamentary group on dairy has been holding its own inquiry for the past three weeks, with two or three still to go. With world production at record levels, the price of milk is dropping, and Russian sanctions are affecting our ability to compete in the world market. Obviously, there is great concern in the dairy industry about the future of dairy, and it would be interesting if the Minister could comment on what the Government are doing to help the dairy sector get through this period of massive world production and difficulties with sanctions.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that although retailers, distributors and processors have a duty to the bottom line, to shareholders and to consumers to put affordable milk and milk products on the shelves, they also have a duty to the integrity of the UK supply chain? Without the UK supply chain, they would not have milk and milk products to put on shelves. There should be transparency, but there should also be a fair deal for dairy producers.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said a few moments ago, UK retailers should show some solidarity and loyalty to UK producers. I will come to the transparency of prices in a moment when I cover recommendation 21.

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The second issue that I will mention, which was also mentioned briefly by the hon. Lady, is the European sugar regime and the sugar quota. In east London we have Tate & Lyle, the biggest cane refinery in the world. Beet production is doing well, but the market might fluctuate. Tate & Lyle is struggling to deal with the unfairness of the new regime. I know that UKRep in Brussels has been lobbying, and that the Select Committee raised the matter when it met the commissioner and the appropriate officials last week. Does the Minister have any sight of how that discussion is going, and can he comment on any discussions that he has had with our officials in Brussels, or with Brussels officials, on the sugar quota and the sugar regime?

I will run briefly through a few of our recommendations. Recommendation 15 was mentioned by the hon. Lady. Any updates that the Minister can give us on greenhouse gases would be welcome. The Chair of the Select Committee recommended Professor Elliott’s report. Last week, when Professor Elliott gave evidence, was the first time that I had met him. He is a hugely impressive individual. To the Government’s credit, they accepted all the recommendations in his report, which is extremely welcome. It will furnish Government policy and the working of our Committee for a considerable time ahead. The hon. Lady mentioned the fact, which emerged in this week’s evidence session, that the statutory instrument on fines that the groceries code adjudicator could level against transgressors has not been laid before Parliament. If the Minister cannot say anything about that today, we would be delighted if he could do so on Tuesday when he comes before the Committee. He is bound to be asked about it, as the Secretary of State was yesterday.

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the shadow Minister about fairness and transparency, one issue that has come up several times in the all-party dairy group’s examination of dairy is the apparent lack of transparency and openness in pricing. Everybody knows what the farmer is being paid for their produce, and what the consumer is paying in our supermarkets and shops, but how we get from the farm-gate price to the retail price is still shrouded in mystery. There seems to be no direct relationship between the two. It would be interesting if the Minister had any comments on that, as numerous colleagues will be pressing him on that in the months ahead. The other issue raised was whether there might be a role for the adjudicator in initiating investigations rather than just responding to them, as she does at the moment. That will clearly require an amendment to the law. If the Minister has any comments on that, I would certainly be interested to hear them.

Lastly, recommendation 29 is on genetic modification, which the hon. Lady mentioned. The Committee recommendation asked questions about Government support for genetically modified food and whether there is an information campaign to create balance in the public’s mind about what GM can and cannot do. Comments in the report and the Government’s response ask whether the European Parliament will consider the matter in due course, and whether the Minister expects the European Parliament to agree to the Commission’s change of policy on GM; that is also of interest.

Food security is critical to the well-being of our species and the planet. It should be central to Government policy. As the hon. Lady said, the Minister here should

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be the Government lead on that policy. I look forward to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), my hon. Friend the shadow Minister and the Minister. The Committee has produced an excellent report, if we say so ourselves. It has some excellent recommendations, of which the Government have accepted quite a number, and we are keen to hear what colleagues have to say about it.

1.59 pm

Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and to follow our very knowledgeable Select Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is also a fount of knowledge on all things farming and environmental.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. The Committee’s food security inquiry was wide-ranging and there are a number of important points to discuss. In fact, once the inquiry was under way, we quickly realised that there are so many issues at play in this debate that considering them all within one report would be a huge task, so we decided to split the report into two parts. Today we are discussing issues around food supply, but I hope that we will also have an opportunity to debate the second report once it is published.

As a member of the all-party inquiry into hunger and food poverty, I have taken part in a number of evidence sessions and visits this year, speaking to food bank charities and to those people who rely on food aid. That aspect of food security is vital to understanding the full picture, since those people are the ones most affected by changing food prices.

As our inquiry heard, falling incomes, benefit cuts and a cruel sanctions regime imposed by this Government are leaving more people at the mercy of rising living costs. It is also fair to say that general public awareness about how we source our food is higher than it has been for some time, not only because of the rise in food poverty and the attention that that has received in the press, but because of the horsemeat scandal and the review by Professor Elliott that followed.

I will make a few points about that review, since it was published after our Committee’s report. It highlighted the lack of co-ordination between different bodies on food fraud, and the confusion of responsibilities when the scandal first came to the public’s attention. The creation of a new cross-departmental committee and the new food crime unit are designed to address that situation. However, as Professor Elliott said in his evidence to the Committee last week, it is essential that that unit has the resources that it needs, and that there are systems in place to ensure that it can co-operate fully with our police forces.

Professor Elliott also stressed the need to clarify the responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, although he stopped short of repeating his interim recommendation that food authenticity be brought under the FSA’s remit. That disappointed many people, including Labour Members. It is true that, as the professor told us in his evidence, this point had become politicised, but I would argue that it was politicised even at the time of

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his interim report, and I would not be surprised to learn that Government pressure had something to do with the changes in the final report.

However, there are also positives to take from the final report. Professor Elliott reports significant improvements in the way that both the industry and local authorities inspect food. He also reported on a positive change of culture that has made food safety and authenticity a higher priority at all levels, from Government right down to the consumer. Those changes are all very welcome. Before the horsemeat scandal, food safety and authenticity were not issues that were high on many people’s list of priorities. That is not the case any more, and there is a genuine will out there to tackle these issues. What is important now is to make sure that we have the resources and the infrastructure that are necessary to monitor food fraud effectively. Our Committee made clear recommendations about the need to maintain capacity in public laboratories. I hope that, in his response to the debate, the Minister can explain briefly what action the Government are taking in this area.

I now turn back to the Committee’s food security report. It was surprising that the Government did not accept the case for appointing a food security co-ordinator with clear responsibility for food security. If we apply the lessons of the horsemeat scandal, we can see that this kind of leadership really matters. If nobody has clear responsibility for food security, it is likely to become a secondary concern, at least until something goes wrong. Having such a co-ordinator is particularly important when it comes to food security because, as our Committee has seen, the food security picture is incredibly complex, with a huge number of factors affecting both supply and demand. Food security is not something that we can address in a piecemeal way. It needs a joined-up approach that runs throughout our environmental, trade and science policy. I hope that, in his response, the Minister can go into a bit more detail on why the Government did not feel it was necessary to appoint a dedicated co-ordinator for food security policy.

Another point I wanted to raise briefly was about climate change and resilience. Last winter’s floods showed the damaging effects of extreme weather, and although much of the media coverage focused on residential areas, agriculture was a big victim too. As the climate continues to change, the risk to farmers will increase, and that is why our Committee has called for DEFRA to reconsider the way it allocates resources for flood management, so that farmland does not lose out to residential areas when it comes to flood protection.

We know that climate change is happening. Just this morning, it was reported that the impact of flooding is likely to be four times higher in the next century than it is now, so we can anticipate the kind of challenges that we will face in future. Last winter was the warmest in centuries, and it is predicted that what is currently a one-in-20-year rainfall event will be happening every 10 years by 2050.

The emergency funding that the Government provided after last winter’s floods did a lot of good, but we should not just wait for extreme weather to come along and then pay for the damage. We need the Government to be proactive in strengthening our flood defences. That is why I remain concerned that funding for flood defence has gone backwards under this Government,

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receiving a boost only after the events of last winter. Until that wake-up call, funding for flood protection had been cut by nearly £100 million per year. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that the Government’s spending plans will mean that an extra 330,000 properties will be at risk of flooding by 2035.

We also need to recognise that, whatever action we take to protect our harvest, extreme weather abroad can have a dramatic effect on food prices and our food supply. We also have to be aware that rising temperatures globally mean that some farmers will see their yields decrease at a time when global population is increasing, which means there is even more pressure on our food supply. In a globalised food system, it is impossible to escape the effects of climate change, which underlines just how important reducing emissions and mitigating the effects of extreme weather will be to our security in the decades to come.

This Government need to show that they have a serious, joined-up plan for the future of Britain’s food supply. The last Labour Administration had such a plan. That is why this Government’s decision to scrap Labour’s Food 2030 strategy causes concern. The Government’s willingness to compromise long-term goals, such as improving our flood defences and tackling climate change, in the name of short-term savings will create problems for our food supply in the future. I hope that this report and this debate will encourage the Government to take a more strategic and long-term view on food security. Appointing a food security co-ordinator, as the Committee recommended, would have been a start.

As I mentioned, the Committee had originally planned to publish a single report on food security, before the complexity of the issue made it clear that a single inquiry could not do the topic justice. However, this means that the House has the opportunity to discuss in much greater detail the factors that contribute to our food security, which I think all Members will welcome. I look forward to the Minister’s response to this debate, and to debating the second part of the inquiry with my hon. Friends next year.

2.8 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): As always, it is a delight to be under your stewardship, Mr Hood, and I am also delighted to take part in this important debate this afternoon. While we are relatively few in number here in Westminster Hall today, I am slightly overawed by the expertise displayed by all the Members who have already taken part in the debate—I mean that quite genuinely—and by their passion for this issue, because they get the importance of food and food security. So I begin by commending the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its report’s timely focus on food security and for prompting this debate.

As usual, within this detailed report—it is a quite comprehensive part one of two reports—there is a feast of recommendations and information. There is far too much for me to digest and reflect upon in a relatively short contribution.

Let me turn to some of the contributions from the members of the Select Committee who are here today. Its Chairman, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), said early in her contribution that the

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Government must plan for food security. That point has resonated across all contributions today, and I will pick up on it as well. Such a plan needs coherence and not just vision, but action planning down to the detail, and there needs to be a cross-Government, cross-sectoral approach that ties in industry and other stakeholders and, crucially, the Government nationally and all the way down through the devolved Administrations, and so on.

The hon. Lady also picked up on the need for cross-Government leadership on food by a DEFRA Minister and said that the Minister here today should be the one doing it. I agree. In future, it might be somebody else—who knows?—but I agree that a DEFRA Minister is needed in there, arguing the case, championing it and doing that cross-Government collaboration, not in bits and pieces, but across the whole shooting match. That is exactly what is needed. My hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) touched on that, too. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton made many other detailed points that I will return to later.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse, with his great expertise, reminded us that when he was first put in post he was described by some out there, although not by all, as a townie vegetarian: “What does he know?” However, in his time in office, he rapidly proved them wrong and became trusted for the breadth of his knowledge of the area and the detail that he went into and for his ability to work collaboratively with all the people involved. He has taken his expertise on to the Select Committee. He outlined that although the report contains major challenges, it also speaks of the opportunities for farmers and food producers and for our big food industry—the biggest manufacturing industry employer in the UK—if we can get this right and if we have the willingness to do it.

My hon. Friend commented, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, on the rise of food banks as a measure of food insecurity on our own doorsteps, and we are certainly seeing that. He touched on the loss of Food 2030, although he was humble and did not discuss his pivotal role in producing that project. The loss of that strategy is much bemoaned by many people in the industry particularly, who liked the certainty, the cross-Government approach and not just the vision, but the fact that when we left government that was being translated into detailed action points. Initially, there was some criticism: “This big strategy is fantastic. We’ve never seen anything like this. It’s what we need, but where’s the real meat that follows it?” However, as we left government, we were starting to put that meat on.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend is being generous and I appreciate it. Does he agree that what happened to Food 2030 is disappointing because it was not a political draft, but a strategy for the Department, drafted with the advice of the chief scientist and others? That is why there was disappointment that the Government decided not to proceed with it as their framework.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is right. The project was so well worked-up and had the most wide-ranging group of stakeholders possible, from

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farmers, distributors, retailers, producers, non-governmental organisations: everybody was involved. There were disagreements—that was a tricky enterprise to embark upon and to get agreement on—but, my goodness, there was agreement that that was the right way forward. I will compliment the Government on some good initiatives, but they are not a substitute for that real, coherent, cross-sectoral, binding strategy that says that we are serious about food security, nutrition for children, international development issues and climate change. We would say strongly to the Minister that, if he introduced his own version of a strategy that looked like that—Food 2050, perhaps—we would support him in doing that. However, it needs to bind together all these critical things, because if we get it right for schoolchildren and local supply chains, and so on, it will also be good for producers in the UK. I will mention that in a moment.

It is unarguable that food security is now an imperative, globally and for individual nations, including the UK. As such, it is worth reminding ourselves that food security was defined by the world food summit way back in 1996 as existing

“when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”.

It was redefined subsequently by the United Nations food and agriculture committee to include, rightly,

“dietary needs and food preferences”.

That definition remains sound, but the context has changed, not least in the scale and urgency of the challenges, summed up so well by Professor John Beddington in 2009, at a sustainable development conference, when he described the

“perfect storm”

that was coming:

“Our food reserves are at a 50 year low, but by 2030 we need to be producing 50% more food. At the same time, we will need 50% more energy, and 30% more fresh water."

This was reinforced by the Foresight report, “The Future of Food and Farming”, led by Professor Beddington, which Professor Tim Benton of the university of Leeds drew upon when he told the Committee in evidence that

“Wars are likely to happen”

in the competition for land and water and scarce resources.

The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign, which ended earlier this year, brought together more than 200 organisations campaigning to end global hunger. Interestingly, they focused not simply on the efficient production and distribution of food, but on aid, land, tax and transparency. Food security, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields mentioned, is complex and international, but it is very personal for the 3 million children who die of malnutrition each year, in this modern world, or the 1 billion who go to bed hungry every night.

Here at home in the UK, we have seen the hugely accelerated growth in food banks and other types of food aid. I do not want to dwell on this, but I want to state two simple facts, which are both unarguable. Fact one: there has long been volunteer-led informal food aid in this country, going years back, in the shape of the distribution of emergency food, kitchens, and so on. The leading food bank organisation, the Trussell Trust, was providing just over 40,000 allocations of three-day emergency food packages in 2009-10, under the previous Labour Government. It has been there; it was there.

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That is a fact. However, the second fact is that last year the Trussell Trust provided over 913,000 three-day emergency food allocations. That is, by my rough calculation—and I am not great on maths—a twenty-two-fold increase.

Last February, a much-delayed report commissioned by DEFRA itself into the growth in food aid in the UK found that food aid providers ascribed the food insecurity to problems that have led to sudden reduction in household income, such as job losses, problems associated with social security payments and ongoing underpinning circumstances, such as continual low household income and indebtedness that can no longer support purchase of sufficient food to meet household needs. This analysis has been reinforced by many other analyses of this growing poverty and cost-of-living crisis.

Mrs Lewell-Buck: Is my hon. Friend aware that there has been a 60% increase in sanctions since welfare reform, as we heard in the all-party group on hunger and food poverty, and that is driving people, out of necessity and in their hundreds, to food banks?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Yes, indeed, and that illustrates the point that there is no simple international or domestic solution to food security and related food insecurity; it is very much a function not simply of food production and distribution and waste, but of social and economic policy. That is why we need to get the whole package right, including welfare reforms. Certainly, in my constituency of Ogmore, the delays following the move to personal independence payments mean that, out of a population of some 60,000 on the electoral register—mine is a relatively small constituency—I have 920 cases waiting for PIP outcomes at the moment, with delays in payment, assessment, and so on. So getting this right is a real issue.

I mention that because, as we debate this useful report, it is worth reminding ourselves of two important points arising from food security at home and overseas. First, the causes of food insecurity are many and complex and so are the solutions, involving wider social and economic solutions, as well as food production, storage, distribution, and so on.

Secondly, food insecurity is not an abstract construct, but a deeply personal matter that can devastate lives, families, communities and even nations. It is in our gift as policy makers to fashion adequate responses and on that note, I turn to the report and the Government response.

We note that the Committee and the Government draw on much that was achieved or initiated under the previous Labour Government and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse. The comprehensive food security analysis in 2009, which the Select Committee report refers to, bolstered such groundbreaking work as the Food Matters strategy and the Foresight report on land use and how to resolve conflicts on land use, which were drawn together in the landmark Food 2030 strategy. That strategy was being worked up into detailed action plans when we left government. Simply put, it was the most ambitious, comprehensive approach to food strategy, taking in not only food security domestically and globally, but diet and nutrition, climate change and carbon reduction, land-use conflict and resolution and so much more. It looked at how we can encourage people to eat a healthy, sustainable diet; ensure a resilient, profitable and competitive

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food system; increase food production sustainably; reduce the food system’s greenhouse gas emissions; reduce, re-use and reprocess waste within the sector; and increase the impact of skills, knowledge, research and technology. It brought all that together in a streamlined, joined-up way of thinking across Government, industry and non-governmental organisations.

The industry, NGOs and others are still asking why the Government scrapped that strategy and retreated into government by silos, with DEFRA doing its things on food production, the Department of Health doing its things and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing its things. What happened to the cross-Government, cross-sectoral working?

However, there have been some welcome developments. The green food project was good and well-intentioned, but even participants in it described it as too narrow and under-resourced, and it eventually ran into the sand. People were looking for what came next. The Foresight report, “The Future of Food and Farming”, adds usefully to the field of knowledge and to previous Foresight reports, including its “Land Use Futures” report under Labour.

The groceries code adjudicator, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, is a step forward in ensuring fair play in parts of the supply chain and had cross-party support, although we are still curious about why the Government resisted attempts by Labour and others, from all parties and all sectors, to strengthen the Bill with financial penalties until the Government were backed against the wall and facing defeat in Committee. As the hon. Lady asked, where does the GCA go now?

The fruit and vegetable taskforce action plan, which aims to increase the production and consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables in the UK, is commendable and recognises the huge potential of the sector to benefit the economy and health and well-being. It builds on the work of the previous Labour Government, who established—I think it was under my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse—the fruit and vegetable taskforce. I am getting a little worried that I am praising him too much.

The agri-tech strategy is welcome, as it applies that collaborative approach to innovation and research and development across industry, academia, NGOs and Government. That was pioneered by Labour in such programmes as the marine science strategy. The agri-technology strategy needs to ensure that productivity gains and genuine environmental sustainability are simultaneously achieved and that there is full buy-in, not only from the UK, but from global partners—that is the nature of the beast—but it is the right approach. We are glad to see the Government taking forward and building on some of the pioneering achievements of the previous Labour Government, to help build food security and to introduce some logical additional programmes to help deliver some of the wider benefits of a sustainable and resilient food sector, but their piecemeal and disjointed approach is not a substitute for a coherent cross-Government, cross-sectoral plan of action. I am delighted that that point was echoed today by Government and Opposition Members in their different views.

I will ask the Minister some questions that arise directly from this Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report—this is part one of two—and on

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which the Government response is still unclear. Specifically, does he believe that the increased costs, including the environmental costs, and the global demand for meat protein mean that we will consume less but higher-quality meat in the future? If so, how do we get there? Does he believe that UK farming is increasingly vulnerable to the rising costs of animal feed, and what is he doing to bring forward specific measures to deal with that? That might involve alternative modes of farming.

What measures can the Minister take to extend the access of food producers, including small farmers, to the highest quality of meteorological prediction as part of our climate change adaptation programme? Does he agree that horticulture has the greatest potential to improve diets, boost food production sustainably and create employment? If so, what more can the Government do to accelerate growth in the sector? What specific measures does he have to promote social enterprises in horticultural growing and food distribution and in local food networks, as well as to promote greater links among people, communities and the food we eat and grow? What measureable, tangible progress has been made on increasing the production and consumption of fruit and vegetables since 2010 and on the taskforce established under Labour?

In the light of the decision by EU Environment Ministers to enable member-state decision making on genetically modified organisms within an EU framework, when will the first commercial applications for GM cultivation in the UK take place and for what products? Why, if the Government agree that pillar two is the better use of common agricultural policy money than pillar one, as they state in their response to the Select Committee report, did they retreat from that position and not ensure 15% modulation? Why, if they see direct payments to farmers under pillar one as an ineffective use of public money and a distortion of the market, did they see fit to place no additional demands on innovation, farm entry, public benefits or environmental benefits on the largest recipients of direct payments, who receive in excess of £150,000 a year or even £300,000 a year? Over the last couple of years, the Government have appeared in statements from the very top of DEFRA to be a little gung-ho in their advocacy of GM. How will the Minister take forward a balanced argument to the public, based on science and evidence, robust safety controls and labelling for consumer transparency?

Those are just some of the questions, and I suspect we will have to return to them in future debates. I thank the Select Committee for a well-informed and excellently argued first part of a two-part contribution to this essential debate on food security. I thank all members of the Committee for their expertise and for asking questions, as well as proposing some possible answers. We look forward to the second part of their report, where we can examine other issues in more detail, just as we now look forward to the Minister’s response.

2.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) on securing the debate. I also congratulate

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the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on a comprehensive, rounded report that covers a wide range of issues, including self-sufficiency, whether we can improve and increase our exports, the role of the common agricultural policy, the impact of climate change, the importance of technology in agriculture and, finally, the role that reducing food waste can play in meeting our food security needs.

I will briefly set out the nature of the challenge that we face. As the shadow Minister pointed out, the Foresight report examined the issue of food security and concluded that by 2050 there will be a large increase in the world population. Some projections suggest that it could go to 9 billion. Projections suggest that that could lead to an increase in food demand of between 60% and 70%. Coupled with that is the impact of climate change, which means that parts of the world that can currently produce food may be restrained by water resources. Water could become a limiting resource, which would compromise the ability of those areas to produce food.

The Foresight report concluded in 2011 that we have a good level of food security in the UK. It also highlighted the fact that the issue is not just about self-sufficiency. In fact, self-sufficiency is in many ways—I will come on to them—the wrong measure to use for food security. Global food security depends on free trade as much as it does on sustainable production. The UK Government’s position is clear: we want a successful, vibrant farming industry and a sustainable increase in food production. We are doing a huge amount to promote exports and to try to open new markets for our products. We are also keen to deliver import substitution, particularly in dairy, where there is a great deal more potential for this country to manufacture and process more cheese. There are also export opportunities for sectors such as beef and lamb.

If we deliver that and achieve that sustainable increase in production, displace imports and grow our exports, we will of course increase our self-sufficiency. For reasons I have made clear, however, the production-to-supply ratio is the wrong measure for food security, because we could be completely food sufficient one year, but then have a dire harvest and find that we are not sufficient the next year. Part of global food security is therefore about having open markets and free trade.

It is also worth putting our level of self-sufficiency in context. Between the wars, in the 1920s and 1930s, our food security was only some 30% to 40%. At the start of the second world war and when in dire need, the country managed to switch production sharply to crops such as potatoes and got close to self-sufficiency. We can therefore change such things when we need to. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said, our overall self-sufficiency is at 60%, but our self-sufficiency in indigenous foods is still around 73%. That has stabilised in recent years, but it is down, as my hon. Friend said, from the peaks of the late 1980s and early 1990s. We must recognise, however, that a distorting common agricultural policy was driving unsustainable production at that time, and we do not want to return to that.

My hon. Friend also highlighted climate change, which is important in the context of global food security. It is clear that water will become a limiting resource in many countries, which is why some of the research that we are funding through our agricultural technologies strategy is on developing drought-resistant strains of wheat that will still be able to be grown in such countries.

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We are also promoting the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Several hon. Members mentioned the green food project, which the Government took forward and published. A number of industry road maps also deal with carbon reduction. My hon. Friend also mentioned soya and its impact on the environment. It is worth noting that the pig sector has made quite good progress in reducing the amount of imported soya used for pig feed, which has contributed to a reduction in their carbon emissions. DEFRA also has greenhouse gas action plans, and we are working with industry to achieve cost-effective reductions in emissions of some 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2022. We are therefore doing several things to deal with the environmental impact.

Several hon. Members mentioned the report’s recommendation that DEFRA should lead on food security. The Government response made it clear that we agree with that, and that DEFRA should and does lead on food security. The Government were asked whether someone should be designated to deal with the issue. Well, I am standing here, which usually means that I am the Minister who has been designated to look after this matter.

Miss McIntosh: The Minister is being gracious in his response, which is most welcome. We want a co-ordination role and a cohesive, comprehensive approach, which he is well qualified to provide. He steps up and says that he is responsible for food security, but we want someone to co-ordinate policy across the three Departments.

George Eustice: I understand that. I think that we do have that co-ordination, but I lead on food security. We also need co-ordination on science, because science will have many of the answers to the challenges we face.

Several hon. Members mentioned the Global Food Security programme, which was set up to co-ordinate food-related research. It is led by Tim Benton, whom the shadow Minister mentioned, and deals with joining up research in a number of areas, looking at how to improve resilience and the sustainable production and supply of food. It also considers nutrition, health and well-being. That programme is co-ordinating and joining up much of the specific, tailored research in this area. DEFRA is also looking more generally at whether we can co-ordinate more effectively all the various research bodies to reduce duplication and increase focus on research and its effectiveness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned the importance of waste, an issue that the second part of the Committee’s food security report considers. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), is present for the next debate and waste is generally an issue that he covers, but it is important to recognise that, through the Courtauld commitment and the work of organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme, we have already made good progress on reducing food waste. Household waste is down by some 15%, and we have reduced waste in the supply chain by some 8% and aim to reduce that further.

I want to touch on the importance of technology. Together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, we have an agri-tech strategy and a £160 million

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fund, £90 million of which is a catalyst fund to support projects in order to accelerate the transfer of knowledge into farms. Another part of the fund is designed to create centres of excellence in science and food technology.

On long-range weather forecasts, I chair a farm resilience group that meets every six months and will be meeting again in the new year. The Met Office is represented in the group, and we regularly discuss how to improve weather forecasting for farmers. DEFRA has also funded a project to examine our flood resilience on the east coast, and, in addition to some other international collaboration, we are doing some work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US Government to understand the impact that extreme weather can have on global security. We are conscious of the weather’s impact and want to improve our forecasting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and others mentioned the soft fruit industry’s success in extending its season. Our production-to-supply ratio for strawberries has increased from some 60% to 70% just in the past decade or so. I was in the soft fruit industry myself some 20 years ago, and some of these things are not as new as some people say. In Cornwall 20 years ago, I was producing strawberries in heated glasshouses from the end of March right through until Christmas. We used to pride ourselves on having strawberries from Easter to Christmas. The advent of Spanish and French-style polytunnels has given more protection to such crops and has enabled a more widespread extension of the season. My hon. Friend also mentioned apricots, which are indeed now grown in the UK under temporary polythene structures.

I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of reforming the common agricultural policy. The Government argued against the greening measures in pillar one and were clear that it should be kept as simple as possible, and that the best way to deliver for the environment was through our highly successful agri-environment schemes and pillar two. I can confirm that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has written to new Commissioner Hogan, with whom I spoke last week. The European Commission is certainly open to the idea of reconsidering some of the greening requirements, and possibly even reconsidering in the mid-term review the idea of the three-crop rule or how it is applied. We have worked with our allies in the Stockholm group of countries, which argue for reform of the CAP and the European Union, to reach a common position to argue for the simplification of the CAP. We hope to make some progress on that next year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned soya beans, and I have already touched on the fact that the pig industry has been particularly successful in reducing the amount of soya bean that it uses. The other thing to note is that one possible impact of the greening of pillar one—of which, I repeat, we were critical—is that in order to reach the three-crop rule some arable farmers may grow leguminous crops such as broad beans to count towards both their third crop and their ecological focus areas. Potentially, we could see an increase in the production of broad beans and other leguminous crops, which might then displace soya imports.

My hon. Friend also mentioned soil protection. Under our cross-compliance regime, we will scrap the need for a soil protection review, which is only a paper-based

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exercise that people go through and tick boxes. It does not mean much and is simply an administrative task, and we are replacing it with something much more meaningful. Where we know about soil management challenges on farms or inappropriate management of the soil having an impact on water courses, for example, we want to put in place meaningful measures to deal with that. We are completely overhauling cross-compliance in that area.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The Minister is giving a comprehensive report,. Will he give us more idea of what “meaningful measures” might be? It is only one point in his overall plans, but this different approach is interesting—to say, “We are not doing a tick-box scheme, but we will target instead.” What might such measures be? Does he have any early indications?

George Eustice: Yes. We will shortly be publishing the detailed guidance on the cross-compliance, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to look at it then. In essence, it means farmers ensuring that they have vegetative cover on fields for the maximum possible amount of time; that they only plough when they need to, just ahead of sowing; or that, for example, if they have a problem with water running off their fields, they might consider ploughing them in a different way so that the water does not tunnel down the furrowed ploughed land. We can do a number of different things, and that is the kind of sensible measure that we will have in cross-compliance, rather than having a simple paper-based exercise.

On the groceries code adjudicator, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned third-party complaints. I was on the Bill Committee that scrutinised the introduction of that adjudicator. Third parties may complain on behalf of other people, but she made a moot point about whether the adjudicator should be able to instigate investigations itself, without a complaint. In a year or two, a review by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is the sponsoring Department, might consider that, but at the moment it is too early to make such a judgment.

My hon. Friend also mentioned new entrants. I confirm that we are working on a plan to support new entrants into the industry through the rural development programme. It is a delight to be in the Chamber today, but were it not for this debate, I would have been speaking at the Farmers Weekly “Fertile Minds” conference in Cumbria, which is all about trying to engage new people into the industry. That is something that we are looking at, and I am working on a project about encouraging the use, for instance, of share farm or contract farm agreements to create alternative routes for new people into the industry.

We are already delivering on our commitment to increase exports. Through UK Trade & Investment, we have already helped 2,500 food and drink companies and, so far this year, we have opened more than 100 new international markets to animals and animal products. That includes countries such as the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, Mongolia and, for dairy products, Cuba. We are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to opening new markets.

A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ogmore

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(Huw Irranca-Davies), mentioned the previous Government’s “Food 2030”. People can, however, get too hung up on particular reports. I have read the report and, where it talks about the importance of agricultural technology, I would argue that we have taken things forward in our agri-tech strategy and other things. The report mentions the importance of sustainable intensification—we have had our own green food project with various route maps. It talks about new entrants—I have just explained what we hope to do on that. There is a consistency of themes between what we are doing and what was identified in the report as a challenge.

In addition, we have asked the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and its new chair, Peter Kendall, to put in place a plan for British agriculture and for how we can make it more competitive. That is a priority for that levy organisation.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I take on board what the Minister is saying about consistency in Government policy. It was probably too naive of me to expect that the branding would have stayed the same; as long as the policy stays the same, that is the consistency that the industry is looking for.

George Eustice: There we go, we have an outbreak of consensus. As I said, we are taking forward many of the points.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the existing precarious condition of the dairy industry, which has seen sharp falls in prices. I will have the pleasure of appearing before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee next week to discuss such issues in more detail. For now, I point out that last week we had a meeting of the dairy supply chain forum, which I chair. We looked at the issue of price volatility and at whether the industry can do more, or whether we can support it, to develop financial instruments that might help them to manage volatility in future. We have also had a review by Alex Fergusson MSP of how the dairy supply chain code is working.

On GM foods, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, our position is consistent. We believe in a science-based approach; if we get the regulation right, there could be a role for such crops. That remains our position. We have always sought allies to argue that case in the European Union.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) talked about food security and, in the context of food banks, people’s ability to afford food. I will not stray into areas that are the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, which might be outside the scope of the debate, but I want to say that although there was a big spike in food prices in 2008, in the past year we have seen food prices fall for the first time since 2002. I chair AMIS, the Agricultural Market Information System, which monitors agricultural commodity markets, and most of the projections at the moment are that for the next couple of years there will be relative stability in cereal prices.

The hon. Member for Ogmore mentioned animal feeds. I want to touch on that, because animal feed costs are lower. Although prices are in some cases just as low for dairy farmers as they were two years ago, the fact that animal feed prices are lower means that farmers’ financial viability is not as compromised as it might have been. He also talked about local food networks,

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and we are keen to encourage and promote local food production. That is why we asked Peter Bonfield to put in place our new Government plan for procurement, which is all about encouraging the public sector locally—schools and hospitals—to buy and source its food locally, from local suppliers.

The hon. Member for Ogmore also mentioned the role of health. Public Health England regularly runs campaigns to encourage healthy eating, in particular the “eatwell plate”, through which people are encouraged to have their five a day, to moderate their meat consumption and so on.

The final thing that I wanted to mention was the point about meat production made by the hon. Gentleman. We are not going to lecture people on what they should or should not eat, but one of the things that emerged from an informal session that we had at the European Council recently was what might happen if we want to reduce our carbon footprint in meat production, which is perhaps a bit of a trend towards less intensive systems, predominantly using grassland production, the environmental impact of which is lower. The lamb and beef systems of production in this country have less impact on the environment than those of many other countries.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My intention is to come back only on that point, because a lot of good stuff is going on and there is a lot of continuity, which is great and which people want to see. The Minister mentioned procurement and diet, health and well-being, but with so many such areas involved, does he sit down with other Ministers and talk about the effect of X, Y and Z on the food industry, jobs, average earnings, food banks or the response to food aid, telling them what he would like them all to do?

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George Eustice: The hon. Gentleman has been in government, and he knows that Ministers have regular meetings with other Ministers on a range of issues. I regularly meet the Health Minister with responsibility for those matters to discuss issues such as nutrition.

Huw Irranca-Davies rose—

George Eustice: I will give the hon. Gentleman one more go.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am trying to enhance the Minister’s position. I would like him to sit down in a cross-departmental way and say, “Health, you are doing great things. BIS, you are doing great things. All of you are doing great things, but it is within a context. We will deal with things, such as access to food within the UK, and we will do it in this manner, coherently.” I want him to do that. Will he do it?

George Eustice: As we said in our response to the report, DEFRA leads on food security. Ministers have many meetings with ministerial colleagues, and we have many cross-Government committees, some of which are chaired by Ian Boyd, DEFRA’s chief scientist, and some of which are chaired by officials. This is an important debate on a wide-ranging report that makes an important contribution to the debate on food security. Again, I congratulate the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on their work.

2.51 pm

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Minister, but I hope he will respond to the challenge from the team and the shadow Minister to have more confidence, to step forward and to co-ordinate—not just to lead, but to co-ordinate. On that positive note, I congratulate him on his response.

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Plastic Bags

[Relevant documents: Plastic Bags, Eleventh Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2013-14, HC 861, and the Government response, HC 239.]

2.51 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to have secured this debate. We have just had a wide-ranging debate on environmental issues, and on behalf of the Environmental Audit Committee I propose to address in much more detail the specific issue of plastic bags, which are equally important. I thank the Liaison Committee for making it possible for us to debate our report this afternoon. I am aware that Thursday afternoons are commonly known in parliamentary circles as the graveyard slot, because so many people go back to their constituencies. None the less, there has been interest in our report and, indeed, there have been numerous responses to the Government’s consultation. As the regulations are being introduced in October 2015, it is important that we have this small amount of time in Parliament to question the Minister on what progress the Government are making and where we are. I am grateful to the Minister for being here, and I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), the shadow Minister, who will no doubt address some of the relevant issues.

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

There is no single solution to all the environmental challenges that we face. If we consider all of the Environmental Audit Committee’s reports, not only on plastic bags but on the green economy, the circular economy and the sustainable development goals, we clearly need to be taking forward steps on plastic bags just as much as on anything else. If we cannot get it right on plastic bags, how can we, the Government or anyone concerned about the issue get the much bigger things right? It is all about consistency. I accept that banning plastic bags altogether would be a much more radical proposal, but we are not talking about that—it has only been proposed in Italy. We are talking about regulating plastic bags so that we move further along the route towards decarbonisation and addressing environmental degradation. It is therefore critical that we get every single aspect of the regulation right.

The nub of our recommendations on plastic bags is that, if the Government are to introduce a scheme, it must be simple, easily understood and consistent. Unless the scheme ticks all those boxes, there will be complete confusion about its purpose and operation. Section 77 of and schedule 6 to the Climate Change Act 2008 allow us to introduce further regulations on plastic bags, and those regulations need to be approved by the House because the Act did not set out how the proceeds from the sale of carrier bags would be addressed. We therefore need further regulation. That technicality means that we now have this opportunity to make a proposal that is fit for purpose.

The question, therefore, is: why has it taken us so long to get it right? We have had from back in 2008 to October 2015. I am the first to say that it is not only this Government who got it wrong; the previous Government got it wrong, too, because they could also have introduced a measure to do something about plastic bags. There is a question of whether the public are behind the measure

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and whether there is courage to take these issues forward, but I think that has been addressed because in Scotland, Wales and other parts of the UK we have seen that, where the devolved Administrations have made proposals, they have largely been welcomed once people became used to them. Everyone wants to do their bit for the environment, and such proposals are a means of doing that.

We have concerns about the Government’s proposals and consultation. Our main concerns relate to paper bags, small retailers and biodegradable bags. We took extensive evidence from a wide range of experts and stakeholders. I am also aware that a long list of people responded to the Government’s consultation, including Tidy Britain, Surfers Against Sewage and various other groups. No regard has been given either to the consultations or to the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is here on behalf of Parliament to scrutinise what the Government are doing. I hope the Minister will give us chapter and verse, which has been lacking so far, on the Government’s response to the consultation and the reasoning behind that response.

We suggest that there should be no exemptions and that there should just be a single straightforward scheme. Why complicate it? Why are the Minister and his Government complicating it so much? Many of the trade bodies representing small retailers actually oppose the proposed exemption for retailers with fewer than 250 employees. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents, the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Retail Consortium all criticised the exemption in their evidence to the inquiry. They said that the exemption will distort competition and cause confusion for businesses and consumers. All three bodies said that their members would like to participate. We need to know why the Minister is ignoring what those groups said.

I understand that the Government do not want more red tape or to make everything difficult, but I have had further conversations with one of those groups, in which it has made the point that more changes are likely to be coming in as a result of what is currently happening in Europe. Why should its members have to get used to one set of changes when there will perhaps be another set later on? How are the general public going to understand why there are exemptions for smaller businesses? Why can we not simply have a level playing field, with measures that are understood by everyone from day one? Will the Minister tell me why we cannot do that?

The Government have put forward exemptions for paper bags, but as our report points out, paper bags can have a greater emissions impact than plastic bags. Exempting paper bags from the charge would weaken the message on bag reuse and risks reducing environmental benefits and reductions in bag use. The Government should include paper bags in the charge.

We have seen similar things happen on all kinds of environmental issues. One comparison is the situation with air quality and diesel engines. It is laudable to be doing everything we can to cut carbon emissions, but if those efforts at the same time have a reverse effect on environmental quality and standards, we need somehow to co-ordinate efforts in the two areas. Paper bags use more carbon, so what rigorous appraisal have the Government used to come up with the proposal to exempt paper bags? How is that proposal consistent

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with their long-term climate change and carbon reduction targets under the Climate Change Act? It is incumbent upon the Government to show how every single element of their environmental policy contributes to their overall long-term objectives. They must demonstrate that there will not be contradictory, unintended consequences as a result of the exemption for paper bags.

Our third area of concern was oxo-biodegradable bags. Recyclers who gave evidence to the Committee were concerned that increasing the use of biodegradable—perhaps we should put that word in inverted commas—plastics would threaten the viability of the UK recycling industry by contaminating waste streams and recycled products. During the inquiry, concerns were also raised that biodegradable bags would still cause litter and harm wildlife, because of the time it takes discarded bags to decay.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate, which is on an issue that is important to many people. I do not think that the small number of Members here today accurately reflects the significance of the issue.

When the hon. Lady was taking evidence during her inquiry, did she receive evidence not only from Surfers Against Sewage, a group based in my constituency, but from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, which again is based in my constituency? That centre has gathered a huge amount of scientific work and evidence that shows that biodegradable plastic bags do not degrade naturally in the environment, but need specific circumstances in order to biodegrade. Anyone who has done a beach clean—I have, many times, along the Cornish coast—will be only too away that the plastic does not biodegrade and we all have to collect it.

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Lady that she may make a speech.

Joan Walley: I am grateful for that intervention from the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). I pay tribute to the work of Surfers Against Sewage. I know from my 28 years in this House just how many campaigns that group has been involved in, very actively, on environmental degradation and the importance of keeping our marine areas and coastal waters clean. The group attaches importance and value to wildlife and has looked at the long-term problems that are caused by the throwaway society that we now seem to have, in which litter ends up everywhere.

In answer to the hon. Lady’s welcome intervention, I can say that we received evidence from Surfers Against Sewage, an organisation that believes in making its point on each and every occasion. Its view is that our greatest chance of success in reducing the amount of bags that are littering our blue and green open spaces, through reducing the number of single-use bags given out at checkouts and ensuring consistency across retailers and along the high street, means we must remove the exemption in the English bag-charge scheme for paper and oxo-biodegradable plastic bags—that is what the group is calling for, and it believes those measures have to be brought forward. That is so obvious to Surfers Against Sewage that I come back to asking this: why is it not so obvious to the Government that we should not allow those particular exemptions? They will create so much uncertainty and lack of understanding.

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At a time when politicians are not really trusted by the electorate in the way that we would like to be, the exemptions will undermine trust in the scheme. I do not know whether Surfers Against Sewage made the same points to the devolved Administrations, but if it did, it was listened to better. I hope it is not too late for the representations that are being made to be picked up by the Government—after all, they have not lost any opportunities to say that they intend to be the greenest Government ever. We will judge that by actions, not words.

The Government have failed on all three of those issues: on paper bags, for the reasons I have outlined; on small retailers, because people need to know clearly what is being done; and on the issue of biodegradable bags, as well. While we are on that last subject, it is all very well to talk about biodegradable bags, but according to the evidence we received they are apparently not biodegradable, or at least not yet. The question that then arises is: how can the Government set an exemption for something that is not yet there?

The Government have said—I think Lord de Mauley, the Environment Minister in the other place, made this point—that there will be opportunities for research to establish where the innovation on biodegradable bags will come from. I have to say that there are some questions for the Government on this matter. When it was discussed in the European Parliament, questions were raised by a Danish MEP about whether there had been full transparency about the company wishing to put forward proposals for a type of biodegradable bag that has not yet been confirmed as biodegradable, on which research is still required and for which the Government have yet to set any determining criteria. We have an exemption for something that does not yet exist and will come in at a later stage. That raises all kinds of questions about how fit for purpose the Government’s proposals on plastic bags actually are. They seem to be nonsense.

That would not matter so much if it were not so important that we make progress on the environmental agenda. I was really disturbed to see the Department’s figures on recycling earlier this week, and gave a local radio interview in my constituency this morning about the real cut in the number of items that are being recycled. Looking at the figures, that reduction in recycling is happening not just in Stoke-on-Trent but in London and in areas all over the country. We are a long way from the target of 50% of goods being recyclable by 2020. Instead of reaching a plateau and allowing efforts to flatten out, we should be acting with even greater urgency to get the different schemes that are coming forward absolutely right. As I say, that is not the case with the way we are dealing with paper bags.

WRAP has told us that the number of single-use plastic bags handed out to shoppers by UK supermarkets is not going down; in fact, it has risen for the fourth year running. In England, the number of thin plastic bags used increased by 5% last year, representing an 18% increase since 2010. In contrast, Northern Ireland introduced a charge a quarter of the way through the reporting period, and the number of bags used dropped by 71%. That is a huge difference, and we should be following suit—perhaps we will do so a little more following today’s statement in the House about devolution and where it is taking us.

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Bag litter is also rising. When even the Daily Mail is starting to campaign on the issue, we realise just how important it is to people across the country and why getting the scheme right is so important.

I would like the Minister to respond on a couple of issues. We would like to glean from him what has actually been going on in the European negotiations. It would really help people to understand the issue better if they knew the Government’s position in those negotiations. I understand from press reports that a watered-down version of the regulations is likely to come forward, but I would like to hear that directly from the Minister. What was the UK Government’s line? Were we trying to water down the regulations?

The Minister has to tell us why the Government have not taken on board the feedback they have received from so many consultations and as part of the Committee’s report.

I would like the Minister to say a little about the timetable. The Government say they will lay the necessary regulations under the affirmative procedure by the end of the year so that they will be enforced by October 2015. Can we have the dates for the regulations? Are they on track? Have there been further consultations with key stakeholders? When will we see a copy of the proposed regulations? Is there any possibility of the Committee’s recommendations being taken on board as a result of this debate? It is not too late for the Government to change their stance.

Related to that is the issue of behaviour change, which I touched on earlier. How are the Government seeking to use their proposed measure to support other pro-environmental behaviours? What are they doing to ensure consistency in messaging and outcomes? There is also an issue about the money going to charity. Will the work of the charities involved be related to the environment in some way?

What are the Government doing to ensure companies do not use the threat of a new stick to remove existing carrots, if I can put it that way? Sainsbury recently decided to stop giving people Nectar points for reusing plastic bags, but that was an incentive for them to do so. Have the Government met major retailers to see whether they are consistently going forwards, even on the current voluntary basis? How can the Government ensure that charges for bags result in fewer bags being littered?

There is also the issue of learning from other countries. How are we helping companies to prepare, based on what has worked well in other countries? How can we pre-empt the risks that might arise? How has the issue been addressed in Ireland, Wales and, more recently, in Scotland?

This issue is really about the UK Government’s commitment to supporting reductions in the number of plastic bags and about transparency. At the heart of all this—we have seen this with pesticides and so on—is the question of what importance the Government attach to the precautionary principle. That principle should be at the heart of the specific actions we take on plastic bags, but I do not see that it is. I would be grateful if the Minister could respond on those issues when he winds up the debate.

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3.14 pm

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to respond to the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), for all the work she has done on this issue, for her Committee’s excellent analysis and for her excellent presentation of it.

Simply put, the Government should not have a stand-alone policy on plastic bags. Reducing their use must be part of a coherent waste management strategy with a focus on preventing plastic from entering the waste stream and reducing litter. There should be no disagreement on that in the House, but, of course, one of the Minister’s first acts on entering the Department was to announce in his infamous letter that there would be an abandonment of waste management by Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): The hon. Gentleman and I served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee together, and we discussed these matters informally and formally. However, I ask him to refer to what I actually said in my letter, which is that there are some areas of policy that have been taken forward, and it will now be up to industry and wider society to respond, and others that we will continue to conduct research on and get behind. To say that my letter said we were abandoning waste policy is not an entirely fair characterisation.

Barry Gardiner: The Minister pleads in his own defence, and I will let the industry judge for itself, but the industry has been clear that it was deeply unhelpful of the Department to announce that the Government no longer saw fit to take part in some aspects of waste management and that it was down to the industry just to get on with things.

The rationale behind the Government’s position was that they should not intervene in areas where there was no market failure. The problem, however, is that I happen to believe that 2,309 items of plastic per kilometre on UK beaches constitute market failure. The remarks of the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) about the levels of plastic litter experienced around the UK coastline bear witness to that. They are disgusting, but they are also a warning about the level of plastic that has not washed up on our beaches and that is still floating out at sea. The Government have just not thought through waste management in this respect. If they had, they would have listened to the industry and delivered a workable policy programme. They have not done that.

What percentage reduction in plastic bag use do the Government expect will be achieved as a result of their policy by 2020? Will it be as much as in Wales, where there is a simple charging system without all the loopholes and caveats the Government have added?

When does the Minister think that a biodegradable plastic bag will fulfil the criteria for exemption from the single-use plastic bag charging policy? My hon. Friend made an incontrovertible and admirable point: where else in Government policy does one create in law an exemption for something that does not exist? It really beggars belief.

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The Committee’s report stated:

“The policy around the exemption for biodegradable bags appears rushed and taken before reviewing existing evidence or considering the concerns of all stakeholders.”

If I may say so, I think my hon. Friend’s Committee let the Government off lightly by putting it so delicately.

The report continues:

“It appears to us that Defra is trying to use innovation to justify a rushed and flawed policy proposal to allow an exemption for biodegradable bags.”

The question we must ask is why. Can the Minister give a reasoned explanation— because there is certainly not one in the Government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report—of why the Department has gone into such contortions to do that? The waste management industry and environmental scientists are clear about the fact that the exemption is absurd. The British Plastics Federation has made it clear that DEFRA made the decision on the exemption before consulting manufacturers. British Polythene Industries opposed the exemption and stated that it would increase the use of plastic bags and undermine recycling targets. What progress has been made as part of the small business research initiative on biodegradable bags?

Objections to the policy on environmental grounds have been as emphatic as the industry’s. A professor of marine biology and adviser to DEFRA told the Environmental Audit Committee that he was surprised by the proposals to exempt biodegradable bags. His research found that approximately 98% of plastics, including so-called biodegradable plastics, remained after 40 weeks, in part because of a lack of light reaching the bags under water. There is no such thing as a biodegradable plastic bag; the plastic just degrades into smaller pieces that are more easily ingested by marine life. That means that they are more easily able to contaminate and pollute the marine environment.

Quantities of litter on UK beaches have more than doubled since 1994, according to the Marine Conservation Society’s Beachwatch survey, which is the source for the figure of 2,309 items per kilometre found in 2013. Last year English beaches had, on average, 45 plastic bags per kilometre, an increase of just over 20% since 1996. Let us consider the impact of that on wildlife. The northern fulmar does not regurgitate plastic, but accumulates it in its stomach. Data collected between 2007 and 2011 show that 95% of fulmars in the North sea had plastic in their stomach—62% exceeding legal limits.

The Government’s response to the Committee’s report states:

“Several key impacts of the policy (e.g. reduced disamenity impact of litter; reduced damage to marine life) are difficult to measure in quantitative and monetary terms.”

Indeed they are, but that does not mean they are not real. They are what classical economics regards as externalities, and, as so often with the present Government, externalities are ascribed a nil value. That is the problem. The Government have chosen to discount the importance of litter and, significantly, of damage to marine life, because it is too difficult to work out what those things cost. That is the wrong approach. Litter ruins neighbourhoods; plastic waste damages entire marine ecosystems.

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The waste management industry, perhaps more than any other, can produce growth that increases the productivity of our economy and creates new, skilled jobs. The job creation rate for recycling and reprocessing is significantly higher than that for landfill. It has been estimated that one job in landfill is created for every 50,000 tonnes of waste. By contrast, SITA estimates that job creation per 1,000 tonnes of waste for recycling ranges from 0.75 to as many as 40 jobs, depending on the material. That is between 38 and 2,000 jobs for every 50,000 tonnes of waste. That is the industry on its own, making an immensely valuable contribution to jobs and growth; but it is even more important as a driver of the wider economy.

Joan Walley: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is widespread concern that the Government are stepping back from supporting the waste management sector, and offering only a limited programme of waste prevention activities? There are opportunities for innovation and growth in jobs, but the sector is not being supported by the Government to the extent it should be.

Barry Gardiner: I am happy that I gave way to my hon. Friend, because, as on most such occasions, she is right. She will have heard the Minister giving his justification for the Government’s approach to the waste management industry and the issue of the circular economy. The point that she and I are trying to make is that the opportunities are huge; and so are the risks of inaction. The Committee warns in paragraph 68 of its report:

“The Government’s waste management strategy needs to be clear, consistent and easy to understand in order to secure reduced carbon emissions, improved rates of recycling and avoid contamination of waste disposal streams. Gains in other areas could be far more important than can be generated by bags alone.”

Again, it is a question of an integrated approach to and coherent policy on waste management. The Committee was right to highlight that; the Government should not have a stand-alone policy on plastic bags. The policy is, frankly, an unscientific mess. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has pointed out that no genuinely biodegradable plastic bag exists. Paragraph 33 of the Government’s response to the report states that they are

“aware of the concerns regarding contamination of the recycling stream with biodegradable plastics and are addressing this with feasibility studies”.

I should be grateful if the Minister would update us about the progress of those feasibility studies.

In places the Government’s response is incoherent. Paragraph 24 states that

“the Government intends to require retailers to publicise the number of bags sold and how the proceeds of the charge have been spent.”

That is from a Government who are anti-regulation; but three paragraphs on, paragraph 27 states:

“Requiring businesses to report specifically on the VAT on plastic bags would also introduce additional administrative burden for those firms involved.”

Goodness me; within three paragraphs the Government contradict themselves on whether regulation on plastic bags is appropriate or burdensome for business. The policy is incoherent, and an incoherent response has been given to a coherent report.

It is alarming that the policy has been allowed to get so far when Government officials and advisers express serious concerns about the impact on the marine

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environment, in particular. If the Government do not abandon the absurd parts of this policy and adopt the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation for a simple universal charge that will reduce plastic waste and litter as part of a wider, comprehensive and coherent waste-management strategy, I assure the House that the next Labour Government will. It is an essential component of a resource management strategy worthy of the name.

3.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Brooke.

I thank the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) for the opportunity to debate plastic bags. Owing to my ministerial position, I get to be a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, although I am sure as its Chair, the hon. Lady would take me to task on my attendance record sitting on her side of the table. It is a convention that one does not attend in that way, but I have appeared before the Committee on several occasions and look forward to doing so in the near future—next week—on another topic. I appreciate the work it does.

Before I delve into aspects of the policy raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), I noted that the hon. Lady’s speech was somewhat negative. To be fair, she was negative about the previous Government as well as the current one. We are introducing a policy that takes advantage of the provisions of the Climate Change Act 2008. She and the hon. Member for Brent North, who is sometimes my hon. Friend, may take issue with some aspects of the policy, and I will address their concerns in a few moments. The fundamental point is that we are seeking to enact those provisions and to do something about the matter. I hope the hon. Lady and the Committee welcome that.

Joan Walley: Does the Minister agree that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right?

Dan Rogerson: Absolutely, and we can debate the provisions and aspects that the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentleman have highlighted.

The Government carefully studied the Committee’s report on plastic bags earlier in the year—the hon. Gentleman referred to our response. We may disagree on details of the scheme, but we agree that reducing plastic bag use has environmental benefits. It will mean lower carbon emissions, more efficient use of valuable resources and less litter. Too many single-use bags are currently being distributed. Efforts to reduce the number of such bags without resorting to legislation have led to success in the past, and voluntary initiatives by retailers saw a reduction in their distribution by 48% between 2006 and 2009. That was significant progress, but the number of single-use plastic bags is on the rise. In England between 2010 and 2013, there was an increase of 18%, or just over 1 billion bags. In 2013 alone, England’s main supermarket chains issued more than 7 billion single-use carrier bags to their customers. Laid out, those bags would go round the M25 more than 20,000 times. Such statistics are staggering.

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As we know, far too many bags make their way on to the streets and into the countryside as unsightly litter. They are also discarded on beaches, as hon. Members have said. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) highlighted the work of organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society in monitoring and reporting on that, and in conducting beach cleaning. I was out beach cleaning a few weeks ago, as I am sure many hon. Members were—[Interruption.]Perhaps those with slightly less coastal constituencies were not engaged in that but they are welcome to come to Cornwall to see such important action first hand.

The hon. Gentleman set out the impact in the sea and to the environment where plastic bags can cause harm to wildlife. Plastic bags also have a negative impact on the environment through their production and disposal. The oil used in their creation and the tonnes of plastic that go to landfill means we must take action to reduce the use of plastic bags. When they are used, they should be reused as often as possible and then recycled.

The Government will shortly lay draft legislation in Parliament to introduce a requirement to charge for single-use plastic bags. There has been a largely positive response to the announcement of the charge. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North referred to some corners of the media that have been particularly keen to support the policy. It is a proven tool. In its first year, the Welsh charge resulted in a decrease of 76% in the number of single-use plastic bags distributed by the seven big supermarkets. We have been able to use the experience from the Welsh charge to help to shape our scheme. A similar charge was introduced in Scotland in October, as the hon. Lady said.

Subject to parliamentary approval, the English charge will commence in October 2015. It will require retailers to charge a minimum of 5p for every new single-use plastic carrier bag, the same as in Wales and Scotland. Bags used for deliveries will incur the charge, as well as those used to carry purchases away from a store.

Exemptions are at the core of the debate. Small and medium-sized businesses will be exempt from the charge in England. We recognise that some wanted SMEs to be included, but we concluded that we need to avoid administrative burdens on start-up and growing businesses in England at a time when we want to support new growth in the economy. It is also worth bearing in mind that the current UK retail market is dominated by a relatively small number of large stores run by companies with more than 500 employees—they employ 65% of the people working in retail and have 69% of all annual turnover of retail businesses. Any retailer who is not covered by the legislation will of course be able to charge for bags voluntarily.

Joan Walley: Why are the Government persisting with that when small businesses do not feel the need to be exempted and do not want to be exempted?

Dan Rogerson: Some organisations have taken that on. I have met some of them and they have given evidence to the Committee. Other organisations, such as the Federation of Small Businesses, have taken a different position. It is important to look at the implementation of the charge. The huge majority of the bags will be distributed by retailers who will be covered by the charge. We can continue to examine how the

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exemption operates post-implementation. The smaller retailers who want to make a charge can do so. They are exempt from the compulsion to do so and the reporting of that, which will be an obligation on those who are covered by the charge.

Barry Gardiner: If small retailers charge 5p for a bag but are exempt, that will presumably constitute part of their revenue stream and they will have to declare VAT on that element of their income, whereas those who are not exempt will be exempt from declaring VAT. The exemptions are working directly counter to each other. Is that correct?

Dan Rogerson: I have been having discussions with some of the organisations representing smaller retailers. Some small businesses have already chosen to introduce a charge voluntarily in local areas. That is a decision for them. We are talking about the difference between compulsion and an option to do so. When smaller retailers have chosen to introduce a charge voluntarily or as part of their business model, and to use the money for good causes, which is what we are expecting larger retailers to do, that will be a matter for them to decide. I want to talk about how we expect that money to be used because that is important and there have been discussions about that outwith this place.

As in Wales and Scotland, we hope and expect that retailers will give the proceeds of the charge to good causes. The Climate Change Act 2008 does not give the Government the power to determine what retailers do with the proceeds of the charge. We will require retailers to report to the Government the number of bags they give out, the amount raised by the charge and what they do with the proceeds. We will then make that information public. We expect that pressure from customers will ensure that the net proceeds, when reasonable costs have been deducted, will go to good causes. Many large retailers have already stated that they will give the proceeds to charities and publish details on their websites.

Barry Gardiner: Given that retailers will be obliged to publish how many bags they have given out and how they have given the money from those bags to charitable causes, is it correct that it will be simple for anyone to calculate how much VAT will be related to the income derived from those bags? It will be a straight 20% to the Government, so why in paragraph 27 of their response to the Committee do they say that that will be a large additional burden on business?

Dan Rogerson: Just for clarification, when the hon. Gentleman says burden on business, is he talking about small businesses that we are exempting from the charge?

Barry Gardiner: I am referring to paragraph 27, which states:

“Requiring businesses to report specifically on the VAT on plastic bags would also introduce additional administrative burden for those firms involved.”

For that reason, the Government did not propose to follow the Committee’s recommendation to report on the VAT and to hypothecate that for the monitoring and effectiveness of the scheme. The excuse given by the Government for not doing so is that it would pose an additional burden on business, but the Minister has just told us that the business will have to report on the number of bags sold and the proceeds of that charge.

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Given that all one has to do is divide the proceeds of the charge by five, how is it that the Government use the excuse of that being an additional burden on business to avoid the Committee’s conclusions? It is simply a case of dividing by five the burden that has already been placed on them to report on the proceeds.

Dan Rogerson: The reporting system will require retailers to report on the VAT that is paid. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s points, but I was covering the importance of where the money goes and our ability to state our expectations of that. As the Chair of Committee said in her opening remarks, the provisions that allow us to do that without requiring primary legislation are in the Act. That is the area in which we work.

Joan Walley: I agree with the contradiction that has just been described by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). If the Minister is not able to clarify that now, it might be helpful for the Committee to have clarification in writing later. The Government’s response to our report says that

“the Government intends to require retailers to publicise the number of bags sold and how the proceeds of the charge have been spent”,

and that they will make an announcement in due course. When will that “due course” be?

Dan Rogerson: Does the hon. Lady mean reporting on what we have received? Does she want to know how the information will be published?

Joan Walley indicated assent.

Dan Rogerson: With regard to the regulations on the scheme and the explanation of how the scheme will operate, we will be tabling the regulations in December. One of the hon. Lady’s other questions was about the timetable for implementation. It is still our intention to table the regulations by the end of this year and to have the charge come into operation in October next year. That timetable still remains and, obviously, we will have the opportunity to explore the operation of the system in Committee. Should the hon. Lady be a member of that Committee, we could debate any further questions she has, but the reporting of how that money is to be spent will come to the Government, because retailers will have to do it and make it public. I would be very surprised if companies that were taking the charge in and giving it to good causes did not wish to demonstrate clearly to their customers the purpose to which the money was being put. It would be rather strange for them to give money to good causes—I am sure many of those companies are altruistic—and not tell the public about the good causes to which they are giving money. We have seen other schemes in supermarkets in which, as part of their corporate-social responsibility, they demonstrate how they are supporting community activities in the local area.

Barry Gardiner: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: I would like to make a little progress, if I may.

It is not only charities that stand to gain from the charge, because when littered, carrier bags cost all of us. They cost taxpayers in England around £10 million every year in clean-up costs. The hon. Gentleman and

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the hon. Lady mentioned biodegradability—my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth, who is concerned about the marine environment, also mentioned it. The Government’s position is that there will always be a need for some plastic bags. People may forget their reusable bags or they may require a new bag to avoid contamination if they are buying raw meat. At the same time, we should aim to reduce the visual impact and the harm to wildlife if those bags go on to be littered. A bag that biodegrades into harmless products is clearly more desirable. That is why we are working with industry and academic experts to review existing standards and to set a suitably robust standard for biodegradable bags. Bags that meet that standard will be exempt from the charge.

Hon. Members have referred to bags that are already on the market and the challenges we face. Bags biodegrade in different circumstances in different environments. Those circumstances include hedgerows in the countryside and the marine environment, which we have talked about. We will need to be satisfied that there is a product that is biodegradable in the multiple circumstances in which it may be littered or find itself disposed of.

Barry Gardiner: The Minister is being very generous giving way—I do like him so much and I find it difficult to be quite so difficult with him. He is absolutely right that, depending on the light available, plastics will degrade in differential ways, but standards could be set to allow bags to be used in different circumstances and different contexts. Is he seriously saying that, if someone lives or does their shopping within a mile of the seaside, they will not be able to get hold of a particular plastic bag, whereas if someone lives in Birmingham, that bag might be available to them? Context-specific measures cannot be applied in legislation in that way. We require a bag that does not just break down into small particles, because those small particles are ingested by birds, as well as fish and other marine organisms, and that is a key problem. Unless he can come up with an answer to that critical point, the exemption for supposedly biodegradable bags really does not wash.

Dan Rogerson: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. He is absolutely right that it would be wrong to have different types of bag that biodegrade in different circumstances and then allow them to be sold in particular places—we are absolutely not doing that. We are talking about a product that meets a standard that covers that range of circumstances. That is the super-biodegradability aspiration.

Sarah Newton: I am pleased that the Minister is saying he will use scientific evidence before he makes that decision because, right now, such a product does not exist. I hope he will assure us that, even though he is creating a category of exemption, he does not anticipate any of the current products meeting it. As the science will show, he cannot give us an assurance that the plastics properly biodegrade in the marine environment. Because they do not do so, huge harm is being done. [Interruption.]

Dan Rogerson: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and the hon. Member for Brent North for his sedentary remark about the criteria and specifications.

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That is why, in the regulations that hon. Members will see by the end of the calendar year, we must ensure that we can give everyone confidence that we understand that point. We must ensure that the biodegradability is of a sufficient standard to satisfy those concerns. However, we want to stimulate the industry to explore the potential for a product to meet the circumstances that I described. We want to stimulate it to innovate and come up with something to meet the standard.

Joan Walley: Things get curiouser and curiouser. We have an exemption for something that does not exist, and we do not know what the criteria for it are or what the funding will be to incentivise the new procedure. We seem to have a hypothetical future technology that we are waiting to introduce, which will then surely require an equivalently hypothetical future recycling system. I wish the Minister would accept that. Why does he not go back to the drawing board and say, “Rather than having this hypothetical exemption, we will leave it as it is”? If in future that technology or innovation comes to the market, surely we can change the regulations.

Dan Rogerson: Obviously, as I said, the hon. Lady will be able to study the detail of the regulation when it is tabled. The intention behind signalling the desirability of a product that meets the criteria is that that is an important and perfectly reasonable thing to do to stimulate investment in innovation. The hon. Member for Brent North has pointed out that we have studies under way, as is referred to in our response, first, on materials, and secondly on processes for reprocessing bags, to satisfy concerns in that regard. We have had the initial work back. We will review it and consider whether we want to take anything further forward.

Barry Gardiner: On a point of clarification—

Dan Rogerson: I want to make some progress and come to some of the other issues raised in the debate.

The Chair of the Committee was right to point out that, along with such a product, we need a standard to measure it and ensure that it is suitable. However, we would not be doing this at all if we were signalling that in no circumstances would such a product ever be exempt. The whole point of extending that possibility is to stimulate the discussion and innovation. That is the reason behind that aspect of the policy.

The hon. Lady also referred, as did her Committee, to paper bags. We are focusing the charge on plastic bags as part of a targeted and proportionate approach. Plastic carrier bags take the longest to degrade in the natural environment, can harm wildlife, as hon. Members pointed out, and are extremely visible in the environment because they take so long to degrade. Paper bags make up less than 0.1% of the bags distributed in the UK by the seven major supermarkets and can also biodegrade naturally in the open air. Of course, paper bags should still be reused a number of times before being recycled and should never be littered. We have analysed their life cycle—this addresses the carbon problem that the Chair of the Committee was keen to point out—but, because they make up such a small part of the overall number of bags used, we do not think that that will be significant, although they do have a part to play, for the reasons I have set out.

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Joan Walley: Will the Minister reassure the House that there has been a full appraisal of the long-term implications of that—one sufficient to reach the conclusions that he has just reached?

Dan Rogerson: The assumption, from what the hon. Lady is saying, is that there might be a massive switch to paper bags and that therefore some of the littering issues and so on might continue even if biodegradability and the use of oil and so on—separate questions—are taken aside. I suggest that retailers, who are used to other forms of the policy in the Welsh jurisdiction, will make the charge part of the operation of their businesses. That was another of her questions—she mentioned working with retailers. We have had regular meetings with the British Retail Consortium and others. The fact that a system has been introduced in other jurisdictions means—the vast majority of those businesses operate across those boundaries—that retailers understand how such a system can work and will be prepared for it.

The hon. Lady mentioned the European Union. We are very pleased that the European Union has reached agreement on a robust plan for tackling the blight of plastic bag pollution, but with each member state doing what works best in its own circumstances. The negotiating position adopted by the United Kingdom Government was to safeguard that flexibility, so that member states can take systems forward in the way that is most suitable in their jurisdiction. That was at the heart of what we were trying to do.

Barry Gardiner: Will the Minister assure the House that, when the Government said, quite properly, that they were going to pursue a charge on plastic bags, a company did not come to them and say, “Hold on a second. We think that we have a product that’s going to be developed that will go a substantial way towards meeting some of the problems with plastic bags, so can you tailor-make an exemption for us”? I ask that because it would be deeply concerning if there were any suggestion that the Government were passing legislation simply to facilitate a company bringing a product to market in that way. It would be good for the Minister to clear the air and say that that is definitely not the case.

Dan Rogerson: As the hon. Gentleman may well be aware, the European Commission is committed to further research on oxo-biodegradable bags, and we will always use robust scientific evidence to inform our decisions. As I set out in our discussion about how things biodegrade in different environments, whether the marine environment or another environment, and the standards that we are seeking to set for our domestic policy, we are very clear that we would have a high barrier for any product to overcome to satisfy the exemption. This is not about taking one technology and saying, “We think that’s fine. We’ll make an exemption for it.” It is about saying, “We want a new sort of product that will overcome a high barrier.”

Barry Gardiner: I want to give the Minister the opportunity to deny categorically that, when the policy against plastic bags was being put forward, a specific company came to the Government and lobbied and got the exemption put into the legislation. I understand what he is saying about standards and the benchmark—when standards are in place, they apply to everyone—but

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it is really important that the Minister stands up in the House and says, “No. The exemptions that we have put into this legislation are not a result of lobbying by a specific company that came to us once this process was under way.”

Dan Rogerson: The hon. Gentleman has been a Minister, so he knows that decisions that are taken are subject to a process of discussion across Government, across all Departments. I can certainly say that the policy that we have taken forward is not to suit any particular company or any particular technology. It is to meet the obligation to improve environmental outcomes and to deal with the issues of litter, and to generate an income stream for good causes, which we have discussed. That is the focus of the policy.

In concluding my remarks, I thank hon. Members for their close interest in the policy.

Joan Walley: Will the Minister give way?

Dan Rogerson: No, I am concluding my remarks. I hope we can agree that the policy is a real step forward, for all the reasons we have discussed. I hope I have been able to reassure the hon. Lady and her Committee that we take all these questions very seriously, and that we will move forward on the basis of robust scientific evidence—that will be the basis of our decision—particularly on the question of biodegradability, which I know is of interest to many people. I thank her again for securing today’s debate, and the Liaison Committee for facilitating it. I also thank her for the work her Committee did on the policy.

3.58 pm

Joan Walley: May I say first that the Minister has been most gracious in allowing so many interventions? Perhaps that was more a function of the attendance at the debate, but it was very helpful in flushing out some of the issues.

We have had a very wide-ranging debate. I am particularly pleased to have heard the interventions from the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), who I know takes marine pollution concerns seriously. The contributions certainly from our Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Brent North, and from the Minister have helped us perhaps not always to clarify, but certainly to be better informed.

Barry Gardiner rose—

Joan Walley: I am not sure whether I am able to take interventions in the summing-up. I shall take guidance on that from you, Mrs Brooke.

Annette Brooke (in the Chair): I will allow a brief intervention. I suspect that that will not be the case, but we do have time on our side, but this must be a one and only, not an inquisition.

Barry Gardiner: I am grateful, Mrs Brooke. Was the Chair of the Select Committee concerned, as I was, not to hear an absolute, categorical denial from the Minister that the exemption was precipitated by a specific intervention from a specific company?

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Joan Walley: I take note of what my hon. Friend says, and I was about to come on to that point. Before I do, it remains for me to say that the Environmental Audit Committee report was an informed one, and if our recommendations had been adopted, they would have resulted in proposals that were fit for purpose and easy to understand. That would have been a significant step forward. We do not feel that the Government’s proposals, with the exceptions that they contain, will meet the existing need. For that reason, I hope that the Minister will take away a little of the battering that he has received in the debate and put it to good use.

On my hon. Friend’s point about the oxo-biodegradable issues, I want to help the Minister. I suggest that it would be helpful, in view of the concerns that have been expressed during the debate, for the Minister to give the Environmental Audit Committee further written feedback

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on the meetings that have taken place. We need to know categorically exactly what lobbying there has been from any company that was involved in putting forward proposals. I think that that would put the matter straight, and I am sure that it would be possible with the help of the Minister’s officials. We are simply asking for full transparency on the matter.

I hope that the regulations will be introduced shortly, but they are not fit for purpose as they stand. We need something that is clearer and that will contribute to the overarching agenda that we need to protect our environment. I thank all who have contributed to the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

4.1 pm

Sitting adjourned.