House of Commons
Thursday 30 June 2011
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
First, I am sure that the House would like to join me in wishing the Bishop of Liverpool, who chairs the independent panel, a speedy recovery from his recent operation. As the panel is independent, it is important that its members, including the chair, enjoy complete freedom to produce their report, the scope of which extends beyond the public forest estate to include the future of all England’s forests.
First, may I associate myself with the right hon. Lady’s comments about James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool? She will be aware that at least some members of the independent panel think that more of our woodlands should be in public ownership, not less, so will she give the House a commitment not to sell off any more publicly owned forests and woodland, and instead to seek to work with partners to find ways of adding to it?
As I have said, the panel is independent, and I have had no separate conversations with its members to hear the views that the hon. Lady has expressed. The important thing is to wait for the panel to report to us with its recommendations. In the interim, Ministers have made it absolutely clear that there will be no further sale of the public forest estate.
Does the Secretary of State recall that in the 1990s John Major, as Prime Minister, launched an initiative in the national forest to develop a parliamentary area, where MPs could sponsor a tree? The aim of that voluntary activity was to encourage biodiversity and help the forest. Could the independent panel consider such initiatives, because I am sure that throughout the country there are groups of individuals who would like to do their bit?
My hon. Friend is right, and I remember that extremely good initiative. We want to encourage not only parliamentarians but all individuals, and schools and places of work, to plant more trees. We aim to plant 1 million new trees within this parliamentary Session. I will certainly look at the parliamentary scheme as an opportunity to remind colleagues how important it is that we do our bit.
I supported John Major’s initiative, which was very good, and sponsored two trees in memory of my parents. If we care about our forests and woods, we must ensure that the next generation visits, enjoys and learns about them. The number of out-of-school visits is collapsing and we must do something about it. Will the Secretary of State join the initiative of the John Clare Trust, which I chair, in launching the “Every child’s right to the countryside” campaign, and give it a bit of support?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the opportunity for our children to learn in nature is incredibly important, as we highlight in the natural environment White Paper, in which we have given an undertaking to remove the barriers to outdoor learning. The Department for Education wholly supports that.
My Department has regular discussions with interested parties on the delivery of our biodiversity strategy. The Government’s vision for the natural environment, including biodiversity, is set out in the natural environment White Paper, the first in 20 years. The UK also endorsed the EU biodiversity strategy last week. We will shortly publish a new biodiversity strategy for England, which will build on this.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to biodiversity, particularly the idea of biodiversity offsetting set out in the White Paper, but will she confirm that the rules on offsetting that she will put in place will keep it local, so that any development affecting biodiversity in Tamworth must be offset in Tamworth, not in some other part of the country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have given an undertaking in the natural environment White Paper that biodiversity offsetting should be in the local area, because local communities need to feel the benefit if they are to take the development. At present it is section 106 agreements that should deliver on biodiversity offsetting, but what happens is often so far removed from the community that the connection is not made.
My hon. Friend is speaking to a Member of Parliament whose constituency is entirely in the green belt, so I can give him a strong assurance about the protection of the green belt. The Department for Communities and Local Government has given an undertaking on that, which will be repeated in the national planning policy framework. DEFRA’s strategy of course includes the protection of the green belt, but even within the green belt, communities will have the opportunity to designate green areas to provide extra protection and enhance biodiversity.
The wildlife crime unit plays an important part in protecting endangered species and preventing the trade in endangered species. How will the Secretary of State ensure that that continues, given that its budget is guaranteed for only two years?
We have said this on a previous occasion, but it is worth repeating because it is important. We have secured the funding for the wildlife crime unit. It is an important part of combating the threat to endangered species from those who seek to do them damage.
Has the Secretary of State seen the concerns of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, based on a survey of businesses, that although the aims of the biodiversity strategy are laudable, there may be a skills shortage so that we cannot reach the required level by 2020? What steps will she take to assess the skills required and build the skills base to achieve the objectives?
I am happy to share with the House the fact that I co-chair the green economy council, where businesses from all sectors of the economy come together on a regular basis to discuss with us how to green the economy. As part of that, we have a focus on improving green skills, precisely to ensure that we have people with the experience and training to deliver on our important commitments to protect and enhance biodiversity while growing the economy.
In the natural environment White Paper, we announced that we will establish a voluntary approach to biodiversity offsetting and test it in a number of pilot areas. We want local authorities to express an interest in taking part in the pilot, and to hear from developers, conservation and community groups and others who want to test offsetting.
In an earlier reply the Secretary of State referred to section 106 agreements. In Bristol there has been a scandalous failure to enforce section 106 agreements, and hundreds of thousands of pounds have not been spent on the projects they should have been spent on. When the Minister evaluates the pilots, will he ensure that new biodiversity schemes are actually realised?
I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. That is one of the attractions of this scheme, and is why it works well in other areas. We want to dovetail it into our planning system because it offers clarity. She is right to point out that section 106 negotiations can sometimes be a bit of a horse-trading operation and can result, in certain circumstances, in token biodiversity protection activities. This scheme offers a clear, understandable, auditable, accountable system. We are delighted by the response from a number of local authorities through the consultation process. More are now coming forward since the natural environment White Paper was published, as are developers. I hope that in the coming months we will be able to give her the assurance that she needs.
There is, of course, an excellent pilot project that will bring enormous biodiversity benefits to Pickering, in the form of the slow-the-flow flood defence scheme. Will the Minister assure me that the guidance regulations under the Reservoirs Act 1975, which are preventing that project from going ahead, will be swept away?
I have just won my bet that my hon. Friend would raise that issue, and she is entirely right to do so. I share her concerns about the application of the Reservoirs Act and its implications for Pickering. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited the site. We want to do all we can to ensure that the scheme goes ahead, because we think that it is a good example of how biodiversity, slowing up water, and flood protection can fit together in many areas. We want her constituents to know that the Government will look into any means possible to ensure that such schemes go ahead.
I discussed the supply chain and the competitiveness of all those involved at the review meeting of the pigmeat supply chain taskforce in February. The taskforce meeting included the major retailers and pigmeat processors and producers. However, for competition reasons, Ministers cannot discuss prices directly with retailers.
As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have published the draft Bill on the supermarket code adjudicator, and we hope that the real legislation will come forward very soon. The purpose of the adjudicator, as recommended by the Competition Commission, is to enforce the code, which has been in place since February 2010. He or she will not be able to intervene directly in prices or margins, but will intervene in issues to do with fair competition, and fair terms and conditions for suppliers.
Pig production standards and animal welfare standards in general are far higher in Britain than they are throughout most of the rest of the world, yet the consumer in the British supermarket has no way of knowing whether they are buying British bacon or pork or whether it is from somewhere completely different. How far have the EU discussions on allowing country of origin labelling progressed? We want to see a Union Jack on British pigmeat, so that we can buy it in the supermarket.
My hon. Friend is right. However, at the moment the Union Jack could appear on a product from a pig that was not reared in Britain, and that needs to be stopped. I can tell him that the whole meat industry has agreed a voluntary code on country of origin labelling, and we carried out a benchmarking exercise survey in April, against which we can judge progress. The EU food information regulations are making fast progress. It will be a little while yet, but we believe that within them there will be mandatory country of origin labelling for fresh meat.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer this question with Question 10. [Interruption.] I think that they are grouped.
Sorry, Mr Speaker. It has been withdrawn, I think.
The Government are committed to promoting better functioning of agricultural markets to help mitigate future price spikes. Last week I attended the G20 Agriculture Ministers meeting—the first time that Agriculture Ministers have been convoked under the G20. We unanimously agreed on measures to increase food production sustainably and provide better transparency and governance in order to regulate supply and demand. I wish to see further liberalisation of markets, which as the Government’s foresight report states, will help dampen price volatility.
There is no conclusive evidence that speculation is the principal cause of price volatility. Farmers would be the first to explain that they speculate—or hedge—in order to even out the highs and lows in their prices. The fundamental problem in world markets is that of tight supply and demand, so the most important thing we can do is increase food production sustainably. That is a priority for my Department.
It is important not only to examine food prices but to ensure that people are buying the right product. There are likely to be a lot of low-standard eggs coming into Britain, because we will have met the standards for the new enriched cages by January but a lot of Europe will not. What are the Government doing to prevent such eggs from coming into Britain?
As I have told the House before, I was the first among the EU Agriculture Ministers to spell out how important it is that all egg producers comply with the changes in the law that will apply from 1 January. I am delighted to be able to inform my hon. Friend that it will not be legal to market eggs in this country that have not been produced in enriched cages.
We are all aware that external factors push up food prices, but another problem is the imbalance between the supermarkets and the producer, which is passed on to the customer. We have just had an unsatisfactory response about the adjudicator. What we want is a proactive ombudsman with real teeth, so that consumers and producers get a fair price.
The vast majority of livestock slaughtered in England will have been reared in the United Kingdom. A small number, including some spent hens, are from the Republic of Ireland, and a very small number will be imported from mainland Europe for slaughter rather than for breeding purposes.
I thank the Minister for his response. The transport of livestock over long distances can cause unnecessary suffering and distress. Does he agree that where possible the slaughter of animals should be done locally, to avoid that distress and long transportation?
I think that most people entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and certainly I do. We want to encourage the slaughtering of animals locally wherever possible. Not only is it good for welfare reasons, it is good for local employment and fits in with local food, which we all want to encourage.
In April 2012, the Government plan to move British Waterways from the public sector to civil society, through the creation of a new waterways charity. This will give waterways users and the communities that live alongside them greater involvement in how waterways are managed, leading to a range of enhanced public benefits. It will also place the waterways on a more sustainable footing, as the charity will have access to new sources of commercial and charitable income.
We have more than 2,000 miles of rivers and inland waterways, including the Grand Union canal in Brentford in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that the announcement of the proposed merger between the Waterways Trust and the new waterways charity will provide a good opportunity to boost the value of those national assets?
I am delighted to welcome the announcement of the merger that my hon. Friend describes. It will allow the cultural and heritage purposes of the new waterways charity to be fundamentally linked with all the other benefits arising from creating the new entity. The three museums that the waterways charity now owns will become part of the new charity, and will be a fantastic resource for it in future.
In May I welcomed the report of the independent farming regulation taskforce, which has made more than 200 recommendations to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers without lowering our standards. The Government are now carefully considering those recommendations.
Farmers in my constituency and nationwide would welcome the efforts that the Government are taking to reduce regulation. Can the Minister give the House an idea of the time scale for implementing those recommendations, and say whether any might be taken forward immediately?
Perhaps my hon. Friend will accept tomorrow as being close enough to immediately. I can tell him that as of tomorrow, dairy farmers who are covered as members of the assured dairy scheme will find their state inspections going down to once every 10 years, as they are regularly inspected as part of the scheme to which they belong.
In two weeks’ time this House will debate the Public Bodies Bill, which abolishes the Agricultural Wages Board, which sets pay and conditions for 150,000 farm workers in England and Wales. If the AWB is abolished, every farmer in the country will become responsible for negotiating pay and conditions with their workers. Can the Minister tell the House what estimate he has made of the extra time and money this new regulatory burden will place on farm businesses?
I have rarely heard such nonsense. The whole purpose of abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board is to reduce regulation, not to increase it. The change has been sought by the industry, which does not see it as regulatory, so what the hon. Lady has to come and tell us that it will increase regulation I really do not know.
The Agricultural Wages Board guarantees farm workers other benefits, such as bereavement pay and sick pay. Without it, their sick pay will fall from roughly £180 a week for a grade 1 worker to the statutory minimum of £81.60 a week. The AWB also guarantees children under 16 who work on farms £2.98 an hour. The minimum wage does not cover children under 16, so when the AWB is abolished children on farms will have no wage protection. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has considered the impact of the change on the under-16s. Can he tell the House what protections he will put in place to protect child workers from exploitation?
There are many other regulations that deal with young people in employment across the whole of industry. The reality is that the board has been in existence for 60 years and it is now well past its sell-by date. The industry has asked for its abolition and, as the Public Bodies Bill stands, we will have to consult on that. The hon. Lady will be able to make her views known at that point—but I must emphasise that the contracts of employment of everyone currently employed in the industry will remain in existence.
I think my hon. Friend knows that we have not made any announcement about badger control yet. I hope that the conclusions of our consultation will be announced fairly soon, along with a wider package of measures to combat TB. Whatever steps we take will clearly need to balance the regulations that have to be in place for disease control with minimising their burden and using risk assessment as the basis for applying them.
I commend the right hon. Lady for her long-standing commitment to this issue. Our waste review set out our ambition to move from a throwaway society to a zero-waste economy. This includes maximising the recycling of waste that cannot be prevented or reused from households and businesses. We will work with local authorities and the waste management industry to make it easier for everyone to recycle, whether at home, at work or on the go.
Just a year ago the Secretary of State said of recycling:
“We need to go faster and we need to go further.”
So is it the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government who has crushed her ambition and vetoed a target for recycling in this country? Having won the battle over fortnightly bin collections, why does she not now adopt Friends of the Earth’s target of halving black sack waste by 2020, thus reducing costs and creating jobs?
I support the scale of the ambition of Friends of the Earth’s target, and we are of course bound by an EU target to recycle 50% of household refuse, but if targets are too specific they can be distorting, driving councils to meet centrally imposed indicators instead of doing what is best for their local circumstances. A good example of that was the landfill allowance trading scheme, which led to the anomaly of disincentivising the recycling of business waste.
My right hon. Friend might be aware of the problem of heavily soiled films used on farms being exported to China as clean waste, rather than being put into the recycling process in this country. What action can she take to stop these illegal exports?
If it is illegal, it is important that we take legal sanctions to prevent it. Whenever possible, we want to see our own waste industry growing. At present it is projected to grow at 4% per annum, and there is no lack of ambition in the industry to deal more effectively with all forms of waste that we can treat in this country.
The lack of ambition belongs entirely to the Secretary of State. The Sunday Times called the Government’s waste review a “sloppy, flyblown mess” hamstrung by Tory dogma. The Welsh Government have adopted a 70% recycling rate, which will create 50,000 new jobs by 2025, yet in England this Government have abandoned recycling targets. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why she has scrapped recycling targets for England? Will she also publish an assessment of how many English jobs will not now be created, and how much investment in the waste industry will not now be made, as a result of her decision?
That is a gross distortion of our waste review. The hon. Gentleman should not rely on newspapers to give him a guide to what is in it; he should take the trouble to read the real thing. Have I not just said that we expect the waste industry to grow by 4% per annum? We have not scrapped recycling targets; we are committed to EU targets for recycling. In addition, we have more ambition with regard to landfill, which exceeds the ambition of the previous Government and involves proposals not to bury metal and wood in landfill.
11. What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on reform of the common fisheries policy. (62886)
As UK Fisheries Minister, I have had discussions with a range of people about common fisheries policy reform. These include the EU Commission, Members of the European Parliament and other member states. I continue to encourage fellow Ministers to support radical reform, most recently during this week’s Fisheries Council. I will continue to press our case for reform as negotiations develop over the next year.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response. I am aware that the mackerel quota was discussed at the meeting earlier this week. Is the Minister aware of the widespread exasperation at the fact that in her comments afterwards, the Commissioner confirmed that no action would even begin to be taken until at least October—a full 18 months after the arbitrary action that caused the problem in the first place? There is now very real concern that this will have an impact not just on the sustainability of stocks but on the livelihood of fishing fleets. Will the hon. Gentleman urge his European partners to take action more quickly?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this matter; it is our most pressing problem, and our most valuable stock is at risk of crashing—probably within 18 months to two years—if the gross overfishing announced by the Faroes and Iceland goes ahead. I moved the issue forward at this week’s meeting by seeking to raise it to a political level. It has been dealt with by the Commission and by officials, but I believe it will take Ministers from the countries concerned to look each other in the eye and sit round a table, perhaps with an independent chairman, to negotiate. I do not care where we meet, but we have got to move this forward quickly. That is the proposal I made at the meeting, and I have followed it up with a letter. We made a number of other suggestions that highlight the urgency of this problem.
I would be grateful if the Minister were prepared to meet a delegation of fishermen from my constituency who are concerned about the Government’s proposals for the inshore fishery, as the consultation on that closes today. They are particularly concerned about what I suspect will be the unintended consequences that will be detrimental to this low-impact and sustainable sector.
I would be delighted to meet representatives of the hon. Gentleman’s local fishing community. The consultation on the under-10-metre sector, which, as he says, closes today, sought to find a solution to the level of perceived unfairness—I acknowledge it—that applies to this sector. I want to find a way forward that gives this sector more fishing opportunities and allows the local communities to invest in their local fleets, because we understand the social implications of the decline of the fishing industry in many places. I am not in the business of making life more difficult for any particular sector, and I want to ensure that this consultation feeds on the many enthusiasms we have encountered, while also setting to rest many of the fears expressed.
The European Commission is due to publish next month the new legislative text on the reform of the common fisheries policy. The best thing, of course, would be to abolish that dreadful policy altogether, but short of that, what specific actions have the Government urged on the Commission on regionalisation of the policy?
The right hon. Gentleman is right; we expect the paper to be published on 13 July and we will debate it at the next Council meeting on 19 July. We pushed very hard for regionalisation. He is absolutely right to say that the system is ludicrous. One of the many failures of the common fisheries policy is that factors such as net sizes are decided in Brussels, whereas they should be decided at least on a sea basin basis, if not at member state level. We are still pushing hard for regionalisation. There are counter-arguments about the legality and what other countries want, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are really pushing for this, as we believe it to be an important way forward.
Bovine TB (West Worcestershire)
The most recent information we have is from the randomised badger-culling trial, in which badgers were culled annually in an area west of Malvern between 2002 and 2005. The average TB prevalence in badgers culled in that area was then 28%. We also know that TB in cattle is linked to TB in wildlife. I can tell my hon. Friend that there was an increase in the number of new herds disclosed with TB in Hereford and Worcester in 2010 compared with 2009, and a corresponding increase in herd incidence over the same period.
Wildlife in my constituency is suffering from tuberculosis, a lingering death. Cattle are being slaughtered, and farmers are lying awake at night worried that their herd might be next. Will the Minister update us on what further steps the Government could take to bring the disease under control?
My hon. Friend is right to stress the need for further policies to control TB. As I said earlier, we will make announcements fairly soon—before the House rises, we hope—on our proposals regarding badgers, and about wider cattle-to-cattle measures. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the status quo, do-nothing agenda is not acceptable. Calculations show that if we do nothing and things stay as they are, it will cost the taxpayer £1 billion over the next 10 years.
DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office to deal with the issue of antisocial behaviour on the part of dogs and their owners. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, on 7 February the Home Office issued a consultation paper on a new, streamlined framework of measures to tackle antisocial behaviour. Subject to consultation, the new tools will replace 18 of the formal powers that are currently available, including those applicable to dogs. The consultation ended on 17 May, and the responses are being analysed.
It is reassuring to hear that discussions are taking place with the Home Office. Members of the all-party associate parliamentary group for animal welfare met representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers last week, and they presented their evidence to the Department shortly afterwards. Will the Minister meet members of the all-party group to discuss ACPO’s information and the concerns it raised with the Department?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always happy to meet him and, indeed, any other colleagues. As he also knows, the issue of dogs is the responsibility of my noble Friend, Lord Henley. I will pass his request on to my noble Friend, but I assure him that if he cannot deal with it, I will do so.
Wild Animals in Circuses
The Government will listen to the views of the House of Commons, and are sympathetic to the motion for a ban. We are taking active steps towards finding a way in which to introduce a ban and clearing the obstacles that prevent us from doing so now. In the meantime we have begun, as a matter of urgency, to develop a tough licensing regime which will stop circuses from using wild animals if they do not provide the appropriate welfare standards.
As the Minister acknowledges, the House made a clear decision to ban wild animals in circuses. As with so many other issues, would not it be a good idea for his Department to start listening to the electorate rather than the civil servants? Should he not just get on with it?
I have just made it clear that the Government respect the view of the House and are sympathetic to the motion for a ban. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the specific measure mentioned in the motion constituted secondary legislation. All the advice given to us—and to the last Government—suggests that that is not the right way to proceed, which is why we are trying to overcome the obstacles.
I appreciate the Minister’s response, but it appears that confusion still reigns at DEFRA. After last Thursday’s vote, an official in the Department said:
“Given that a ban is not an immediate possibility, we will proceed with a tough licensing regime”.
That prompts an obvious question: why does the Minister continue to frustrate the will of the House? Will he commit himself to introducing a ban during the current parliamentary Session?
I wish that the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said. The fact is that it is unlawful for a Minister to legislate if he knows that it is unlawful to do so. According to all the advice that we have been given, using section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 would be extremely likely to raise a judicial challenge, which would not benefit the position.
I have made it clear that we are taking the matter forward. We are exploring all avenues, both in the Department and more widely outside Government, in trying to find the best way of satisfying the desire of the House.
My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In addition, it has responsibility for animal health and welfare. Accordingly, I would like to take this opportunity to draw colleagues’ attention to the written ministerial statement and accompanying “Dear colleague” letter setting out the changes we are making to the pet travel scheme. I believe these changes strike the right balance between making it easier for people who wish to travel with pets and maintaining the protection people have a right to expect. They are consistent with our commitment to science-led, evidence-based policy making.
Tomorrow, the League Against Cruel Sports will hold a national conference on wildlife protection with the support of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other organisations. On the eve of that conference, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have dropped their plan to hold a vote to enable the repeal of the Hunting Act 2004 in this Parliament?
T3. The Secretary of State is aware of the recent UK National Ecosystem Assessment report, which Friends of the Earth has described as essential summer reading for all MPs. It estimates that the health benefits of living within view of green spaces are worth approximately £300. Given those economic benefits, what will the Secretary of State do to ensure we better value our national environment, in particular the green belt? (62895)
The National Ecosystem Assessment report should be compulsory reading for MPs, not least because the Minister for policy at the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), described it as a game changer. The most important aspect of the report is the tool itself: 200 scientists from around the world came together to give us a scientific tool that enables us to estimate the true value of what nature provides for us for free.
T2. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming Oxfam’s “Grow” campaign on sustainable farming and food? Has she met Oxfam, and what discussions has she had with Department for International Development Ministers on this issue? (62894)
As I have said before, what came over very strongly at the G20 from the Agriculture Ministers of the world’s richest nations was the responsibility we have not only to grow more food sustainably but to aid developing countries to grow more food sustainably themselves. We have good relationships with all our stakeholders and key non-governmental organisations—I would count Oxfam as one of them—and with our DFID colleagues in order to make sure we play our part.
T4. The Minister has already given a response on the inshore fishing consultation, but will he give my under-10-metres fishermen the assurance that all the responses will be carefully considered, including concerns about the suggested structure and the fact that there will still be people with quotas who no longer fish and have not done so for many years? (62898)
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will look at every response very carefully. We have had about 20 meetings around the coast, which were very well attended, and many of the areas of consultation were explained to the audience in such a way as to allay their fears. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), we want to make life better for the under-10s and give them a more sustainable future.
Only two weeks ago, a gamekeeper was convicted for illegally killing birds of prey in my constituency. Is it not time to think about introducing a vicarious liability offence to ensure that landowners and estate managers supervise their gamekeepers more closely and more effectively?
There are very good laws in place to punish the illegal killing of any animal. If they are not being enforced, they must be and we will take steps to make sure that happens. However, this is also a good opportunity to applaud gamekeepers for the wonderful work they do in providing excellent biodiversity across our countryside.
T5. Further to the earlier answer to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) about the groceries adjudicator, the Minister will be aware that the proposal enjoys widespread support in the farming industry, but there are concerns that farmers will be reluctant to volunteer information for fear of reprisals. Does the Minister agree that trade bodies such as the National Farmers Union must do their bit by collating and publishing information from their members, to help guide the supermarket adjudicator to the right target and identify bad practice? (62899)
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is widespread concern that individuals might be loth to make complaints because of the risk of being penalised by the retailer involved. As he will know, the draft Bill allows for third-party representations, but does not allow for representations from trade bodies. To give a precise answer, there is nothing to prevent the National Farmers Union or any other body from gathering information, publishing it and making things clear. Obviously, the adjudicator would then have discretion over whether to pursue the investigation further.
Given today’s worrying report from the Committee on Climate Change showing that the UK is in danger of missing its carbon reduction targets, will the Minister back plans supported by more than 100 organisations, including the Co-operative Group, WWF and the Aldersgate Group, and commit to introducing the mandatory reporting of corporate greenhouse gas emissions?
We are consulting on that, but I would like the hon. Lady to know that my Department is responsible for climate change adaptation and we are completely committed, together with the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to achieving our carbon emissions targets. We will do all that we can because this is such an important matter, as was outlined in the Foresight report. The challenge that we will face on food security if we do not tackle the combination of an increasing population and demand for food, hungry people and climate change means that we will be held to account.
T6. Given that the Government are in favour of animals being stunned before slaughter, when might we have some food labelling regulations that will mark kosher and halal products as such, so that those of us who object to ritual slaughter do not buy them inadvertently? (62900)
My hon. Friend rightly says that the Government believe that all animals should be stunned before slaughter, but we respect the rights of religious groups. However, this practice should clearly be restricted, wherever possible, to food for those religious groups. We face serious challenges in labelling and ensuring efficient systems of traceability. The Government are examining the matter and, as I am sure he is aware, it is being discussed in respect of the food information regulations in Brussels, although he will perhaps not wish to take that option further, given his views on that place. I can also tell him that we will shortly consult on the introduction of the new welfare at slaughter regulations and we will be raise this whole matter then.
Does the Minister agree that it is morally repugnant and an environmental disaster that the bulk of male calves born in this country are immediately killed and incinerated? Is it not about time we did something to change the way people see veal, as it is a wonderful product to eat? Could we not rename it “spring beef”, so that we could get over the prejudices that mean that these poor animals get no life at all?
Calves are born all year round, so I am not sure that the term that the hon. Gentleman proposes is quite right. That aside, I entirely share his view, although the number of bull calves being slaughtered at birth is now much lower than it was, because there has been a welcome increase in the consumption of veal. We need to make sure that this is UK veal and is what we call “rose veal”, whereby calves are reared in humane circumstances and not in some of the arrangements we see abroad.
T7. I am delighted that Octink, from my constituency, has been named one of the UK’s greenest businesses for the third year running. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and with Will Tyler, its chief executive, who says that this approach is not only good for the environment, but helps his bottom line. What more can we do to promote the financial aspects and benefits of green business? (62901)
I applaud the green business that my hon. Friend has described, and I hope that she will convey my support for it. The Government have set up a green economy council, which I co-chair, and it is very encouraging to see just how many businesses, in all sectors of the economy, understand the importance of having both a green economy and a growing one.
Everyone in this House and across the country wants to eradicate bovine tuberculosis. Although the matter is devolved, what discussions does DEFRA have with the devolved Administrations about the science-based evidence, as we need to exchange this information, get best practice and eradicate this disease once and for all?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to eradicate this disease. I assure him that my officials were in regular contact with Welsh officials prior to the change of Government in Wales and that I had discussions with the relevant Minister at the time. I have not yet discussed this matter, although I have discussed others, with the new Minister. I look forward to doing so, and our officials will continue to be in close contact. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that we need to make sure that, wherever possible, we are working in harmony on this.
T8. Thames Water’s chief executive said last week that the previous costing of £3.6 billion for the Thames tideway tunnel was “simply an indicative 2008 price”that would “inevitably increase”. The Minister will know that under the existing pricing, Thames Water bill payers throughout the region will each have to pay £65 per annum in perpetuity for the tunnel. Will he assure me and 142 other Members of this House that our constituents will get value for money for this project? (62902)
I can—and I am one of them. I can assure my hon. Friend that my constituents and his are absolutely in our minds. We meet weekly with officials from Ofwat and Thames Water, the issue will be discussed at the DEFRA supervisory board this afternoon and I shall meet the London boroughs and the Greater London authority next week to discuss the project. I can assure my hon. Friend that its price is foremost in our minds.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
In the past 12 months, the rural affairs group has worked on a variety of issues including bovine tuberculosis, the Localism Bill, common agricultural policy reform, lay ministry in rural churches and vocations and training in rural ministry.
The Church’s rural committee would certainly welcome a closer working relationship with my hon. Friend and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which she so ably chairs. I encourage all bishops and suffragan bishops to take the opportunity of the parliamentary recess to get in touch with parliamentary colleagues from all parties to discuss how our colleagues can learn more from and work more closely with the Church, whether that is in rural areas, in urban areas or on any project.
May I ask my hon. Friend to thank the archbishop for sending the magazine and his articles to all Members of Parliament? I also recommend, through him, that The Daily Telegraph and the BBC actually read those articles. The archbishop was aware that a reader might say that to give a page to the Work and Pensions Secretary and five pages to an interview with the Foreign Secretary might show too much establishment leaning. The criticism of the archbishop is, as Lucy Winkett put it, new
“like the waves, old like the sea.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the high cost of fuel is having a huge impact on the community and charitable work done by the Church? Will the Church play its part in asking the Government to delay the 3p inflationary rise in fuel tax that is planned for January?
Rising prices impact on us all, including those who undertake charitable and pastoral duties in the community. The Church of England will increase the mileage rate for staff and clergy, but we try to encourage them to travel by public transport wherever possible. I am sure I speak for all Members of the House when I say that we hope that charities and religious groups will endeavour to maintain their charitable and pastoral provision despite the change in fuel tax.
St Paul’s Church, Truro
The commissioners are actively working to find a suitable new use for St Paul’s church. Preparations are under way for placing it on the open market. The commissioners are not specifically involved with the hall, which is on a separate site owned by the Truro diocesan board of finance.
The church hall is a valuable community resource that is much appreciated by the homeless people of Truro, who receive a warm welcome and freshly cooked meals from the Truro homeless action group. Will my hon. Friend work with me to enable community groups to have the opportunity to secure the hall for the continued benefit of the community of Truro?
I entirely agree that Church of England buildings, whether they be churches or church halls, should wherever possible be open to the widest possible use by the greater community. That is part of the Church’s national mission, and I think that before any church or church building is declared redundant or sold every possible effort should be made to see that it is retained for community use. I will most certainly convey my hon. Friend’s comments to the diocese of Truro.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this is not just about buildings, but that organists and musicians, of whom I confess to being one, make a valuable contribution, and that the Church should promote those aspects as a package to encourage church weddings?
My hon. Friend was a much-respected organist and director of church music, and I think that one of the glories of England is church music, choirs and organ music. One reason many people want to marry in Church of England churches is the contribution of the choir and the organist.
I have married more people than, I think, anybody else in this House, and it was always great fun marrying couples in church, but the archbishop’s special licence system involved a lot of people, frankly, telling fibs about where they lived, so I hope that that will be reformed. Would it not help if the Church of England decided that it would like now to hold civil partnership ceremonies in its churches?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, that was a matter of much debate during the passage of the Equalities Bill both in this House and in the other place. It was resolved that there would be no change unless the General Synod agreed, and that is where the position lies today.
The General Synod passed a motion encouraging all dioceses to support church tourism and to link with a wider national church tourism strategy. The cathedral and church buildings division of the Church of England encourages best practice, including opening churches, welcoming visitors and providing interpretation, and it works closely with partners including the Churches Tourism Association, Cathedrals Plus and the Churches Conservation Trust.
My hon. Friend and I share a great passion for tourism organisations and our churches working together more effectively. Does he recognise that in east Kent we have a set of 10th, 11th and 12th century churches marking St Augustine’s way, and will he join me in making a representation to the Church of England to ensure that visitors understand and enjoy those churches more?
My hon. Friend is fortunate in representing a fantastic constituency, which, among its other attributes, was the place where St Augustine landed. I could cite at least three good examples of church tourism in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but, as I was accused during the last Church Commissioners questions of loquaciousness, I will resist that temptation and simply say that I will encourage the Bishop of Dover and, indeed, other bishops to ensure that hon. Members know of the efforts being made in all our constituencies to promote church tourism, because it is very important to make sure that as many people as possible can enjoy the heritage of our church buildings.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. As I believe he knows, a petition with 140,000 signatures expressing concern at the exclusion of RE from the English baccalaureate was presented to Downing street yesterday. One unintended consequence of that exclusion is that the number of pupils applying to study RE at GCSE has dropped significantly, as have application rates for RE teacher training—by some 25%. What action can the Church Commissioners take to ensure that the study of RE is properly resourced, bearing in mind that it is still a statutory—that is, compulsory—subject for pupils in school up to 16 years old?
My hon. Friend raises a serious point about RE in the E-bac. She will know that the Bishop of Oxford, who chairs the National Society—in other words, he is the lead bishop on education in the Church of England—has, on several occasions, made clear the concerns of the Church of England, and indeed other faith groups, to ministerial colleagues in the Department for Education. I heard the Minister with responsibility for schools say in a debate in Westminster Hall that he would reflect on those representations, and we look forward to hearing what decisions Ministers take in respect of RE in the E-bac.
The hon. Lady knows that I share her aspiration. Let me explain this process to the House, because I look forward to the support of all Members of the House when the Measure comes before Parliament in due course. Every diocese, of which there are 44, has to vote. Six have voted; colleagues can work out the maths on the rest that still have to do so. Once they have all voted, there will be a meeting of the General Synod, which I hope in due course will approve the measure so that it can come before Parliament to enable the consecration of women as bishops. I certainly hope that in the lifetime of this Parliament, Parliament will approve that measure.
10. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of recent trends in the proportion of Church of England congregations that are (a) from black and Asian minority ethnic groups, (b) women, (c) disabled people and (d) from low-income groups. (62912)
The latest figures collected in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question were part of a 2007 national parish congregation diversity survey. They show that about 5% of Church of England core congregations are from minority ethnic backgrounds and about 65% are women. Figures for disabled people are kept by dioceses individually and are not held centrally.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that things have moved on somewhat since 2007 and that, particularly in the more deprived areas, there will be a hardening of the problems of meeting the cuts that are going to hit them. I believe that there is a very strong place for the Church in those areas in particular. Will he ensure that the Church does the work that it should be doing in trying to attract these people through its doors?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, because it gives me the opportunity to make the position clear. The Church Commissioners have £5.5 billion under investment, of which we disburse about £100 million every year to the Church. Much of that goes to poorer dioceses with inner-city and deprived areas so that the Church can fulfil its mission to such areas and to those who need the greatest support. We see that as a very important part of our role and of the Church’s national mission.
Ninetieth Birthday of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh
On Wednesday 8 June, the House resolved that a message be sent to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh to offer His Royal Highness the warmest good wishes of the House upon the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. This morning I waited upon His Royal Highness, with the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition, to convey the said message. We were graciously received by His Royal Highness, who responded in these terms:
My Lords and Members of the House of Commons. I received your kind message of congratulations on my ninetieth birthday with the greatest pleasure. I have derived much satisfaction from the many years that I have been able to help and support the Queen. Few others, if any, have had the satisfaction of witnessing the affection and respect that so many people around the world have shown for the Queen since the beginning of her reign. I acknowledge that the position that I have held has made it possible for me to support and encourage a great many valuable and worthwhile organisations in this country and further afield. It has been a particular pleasure to be associated with so many organisations that have encouraged the development of the younger generation in this country and in the wider world.
I have a further statement to make. Members will recall that on 4 May, I informed the House of the Clerk of the House’s intention to retire with effect from Friday 30 September 2011. A trawl for Sir Malcolm’s successor has now been held. There were five applicants, all of whom were interviewed by a panel consisting of myself, the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee, and Sheila Drew Smith, an independent assessor.
The unanimous recommendation of the panel was that Mr Robert Rogers, at present Clerk Assistant, should succeed Sir Malcolm Jack. I am glad to be able to tell the House that Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appointment. I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating Robert Rogers on his appointment. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] There will be an opportunity at a later date to pay the traditional tribute to the retiring Clerk.
Earlier today, I placed a written statement before the House outlining the next steps in my consideration of the potential merger between News Corp and BSkyB. In it, I explained that I have published the results of the consultation on the undertakings in lieu offered by News Corp, together with the subsequent advice I have received from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading.
As I outlined, the consultation did not produce any information that caused Ofcom or the OFT to change their earlier advice to me. I could have decided to accept the original undertakings. However, a number of constructive changes were suggested and, as a result, I am today publishing a revised, more robust set of undertakings, and will be consulting on them until midday on Friday 8 July.
Significantly, those changes strengthen further the arrangements for editorial independence and business viability of the newly spun-off Sky News. In my view, they provide a further layer of very important safeguards. As amended, I believe that the undertakings will remedy, mitigate or prevent the threats to plurality that were identified at the start of this process. If after this next consultation process nothing arises that changes that view, I propose to accept the undertakings in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission. Before coming to such a view, however, I will of course seek once again the advice of the independent external regulators.
In the end, it comes down to believing a promise. The Secretary of State has chosen to accept the assurances of News Corp, when it has breached previous assurances on the takeover of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World.
The Secretary of State could have chosen to disregard those assurances to protect plurality, or asked whether the acquirer has shown evidence of bad practice in its other media companies. Section 58 of the Enterprise Act 2002 provides for specified considerations, including
“the need for persons carrying on media enterprises, and for those with control of such enterprises, to have a genuine commitment to the attainment in relation to broadcasting of the standards objectives set out in section 319 of the Communications Act 2003”,
yet the chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, openly and brazenly, and without any sense of irony, admitted to a parliamentary Committee that News International paid police officers for evidence.
The Secretary of State has granted the acquisition to an organisation that is currently the subject of three separate police inquiries, and an organisation that a parliamentary Select Committee found guilty of “collective amnesia” of criminality at one of its newspapers. There is emerging evidence that News International conspired with convicted criminals to pervert the course of justice by hacking the phones of serving police officers and detectives, their families and the families of the victims of serious crime. At least one senior executive even collaborated with at least one career criminal while he was serving time in prison. And, most appallingly of all, while the nation grieved, the criminals who were contracted to News International illicitly targeted a parent of the children who were murdered by Ian Huntley in Soham.
Today the Secretary of State has chosen to take these people at their word. No wonder he tried to avoid answering colleagues in the House this morning! Did he or the Prime Minister meet or talk to Rupert Murdoch when he was here last week? Is it true that the Sky News spin-off, NewCo, will have no equity value and no realistic chance of making a profit? How much tax will the newly acquired BSkyB pay in the UK? Does this decision enjoy the support of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills?
Does the Secretary of State think it unusual that BSkyB has organised a party at the Foreign Office tonight? How can people realistically take part in a consultation that is to last only eight days? Has he taken advice from the Cabinet Office on how to conduct proper and effective consultations? The ultimate owner of the newly acquired company will be registered as a shareholder in Delaware, USA, but there is no obligation on the company to publish the shareholder register. Will he undertake to oblige the company to do this in the public interest before he finally signs off the deal? We have to know who will be the new owners of 40% of the country’s media estate.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will get his reward for this decision, but he will pay a very high political price. This seedy deal would shame a banana republic.
Let me first address the hon. Gentleman’s final comment, which was beneath what he is capable off. I am perfectly well aware that on such an issue no one will trust the motives of politicians, which is why, at every stage, I have sought independent advice from Ofcom, the independent regulator, and the Office of Fair Trading. I have done it even in areas I did not have to. For example, I did not have to ask Ofcom’s advice on whether these undertakings were robust and I did not have to ask it whether it would address concerns about plurality, but I chose to do so, and I have published its advice. I have tried therefore, at every stage, to strengthen the confidence of the House and the public in the integrity of the process.
I shall move on to some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised. First, he talked about past assurances given by News Corps in respect of previous media assets that it has purchased. This is not an issue of trust. These undertakings are legally binding and legally enforceable. Moreover, one of the undertakings particularly addresses the concerns that I think are shared in many parts of the House about broadcasting impartiality, which is enshrined in the broadcasting code. Under the undertakings that I published on 3 March and am publishing again today, the code will form part of the company’s articles of association. Under the strengthened undertakings that I am publishing today, News Corps will not be allowed to attempt to get the new company to breach its own articles of association, so the editorial impartiality for which Sky News is valued will be better protected than it is for any other media organisations in this country.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that he has campaigned— I think very honourably and impressively—on the phone-hacking issue. At root, I agree with what he says: no company should be above the law. But just as no company should be above the law, no Minister should be above the law. I have to follow due process, and due process under the Enterprise Act 2002, which was put in place by his Government, says that I have to consider this on the basis of media plurality—a very important issue—to make sure that no one person has too much control over our media. That is why James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch will have less control of Sky News after this deal goes through than before it because of the undertakings in place.
On the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I cannot speak for the Prime Minister but I have had no contact with the Prime Minister over this deal. I am deciding this deal on a quasi-judicial basis, but I have not met Rupert Murdoch or James Murdoch in recent weeks, and all the meetings I have had with them have been minuted and done through official channels. On the tax issue, obviously, like all companies, News Corp will be subject to UK law, but this issue has been decided on media plurality grounds.
On the consultation, I remind the hon. Gentleman that I could have chosen to conclude this issue today, but I have not. I am launching a further consultation. This issue has been in the public domain since last summer, but I want to make sure that this House and the public have every possible opportunity to comment on what is being proposed. Not only that, but I have listened to them. In fact, I think we have made the undertakings more robust and stronger so I am confident that what I am proposing to the House will protect plurality of the media, which I know is highly valued in all parts of the House.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the meticulous care that he has shown in his handling of this matter? Can he confirm that every single concern that has been raised by the regulatory authorities has been addressed? On the wider question of impartiality, does he agree that the value of Sky News is not because it makes money—it does not—but because of the benefit to the overall reputation of BSkyB that comes from the integrity, objectivity and the quality of its news gathering, and that it would therefore be madness for any new owner to seek to change that?
I completely agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. The regulatory authorities have both confirmed, both on 3 March and today, that they are satisfied that the undertakings I am putting before the House address the concerns that were raised about media plurality. I have taken that advice very seriously indeed.
My hon. Friend’s second point about Sky News is particularly important today because in the revised undertakings that we have published there are two things that particularly strengthen what the public value about Sky News. First, News Corp undertakes that it will not do anything to cause Sky News to contribute less to media plurality in this country if this deal goes through. Secondly, it agrees that it will continue to cross-promote Sky News on the Sky platform at the same level it currently does. In terms both of financial viability and of that all-important contribution to media plurality I am satisfied that if I proceed with the undertakings as published today, we will continue to have a free and plural media.
The Secretary of State could have made different choices. He could have chosen to appear before the House today and make an oral statement rather than be dragged kicking and screaming to the House. He could have chosen to refer this acquisition to the Competition Commission for an independent inquiry to remove any doubts about the objectivity and transparency of the process. Will he answer the following questions? In view of the fact that this process has now taken six months, why did he not follow Ofcom’s original advice and refer this deal to the Competition Commission? How can he say that he has delivered greater independence for Sky News when it will be almost entirely dependent on News Corp for both distribution and funding? Will he publish in full the independent legal advice he has received on all aspects of this acquisition?
In relation to media issues, the Secretary of State has responsibility for media policy in this country, and it is therefore very disappointing to say the least that he has had so little to say about the phone-hacking scandal. The current police investigation must, this time, lead to full disclosure of all evidence, with those responsible brought to justice. Does the Secretary of State agree that once that investigation has been concluded there should be an independent inquiry into the conduct of the British press? The issues go further than one newspaper group. We have made it clear that we support self-regulation, but self-regulation must be accompanied by responsibility and accountability. It is surely time for lessons to be learned and reforms to be put in place so that such unlawful practices can never happen again.
Order. I say to the shadow Secretary of State that we are on the subject specifically of the proposed acquisition, so I feel sure that the references that the hon. Gentleman has made to another issue are now at an end. I think that we are clear about that. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to complete his remarks?
I am quite bemused by what the shadow Culture Secretary is saying. He has said that the phone-hacking issue is not linked to the BSkyB merger. Those were his words. Now he is telling the House that there is a link. He says that I could have chosen to refer this to the Competition Commission but have chosen not to. Would he have chosen to refer it to the Competition Commission, because he has not said so? If he is now saying so, that is a big change in the Labour party’s position. Let me tell him that it is the Enterprise Act 2002, introduced by the last Labour Government, that gives the Secretary of State the right to accept undertakings in lieu instead of a referral to the Competition Commission. I am following precisely the process that was set up in law by his Government. I am doing so after expert, independent advice by regulators who understand the market extremely well—Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading—and I am publishing that advice so that people can see the basis on which I have made the decision.
The hon. Gentleman also raised issues of the dependency of the new company on News Corp for its funding. He is right: the financial resilience of Sky News is central to the sustainability of the deal. That is why, as part of the undertakings, we have reached agreement on a carriage agreement, which will give financial security to the new company for a 10-year period, which addresses those concerns. The company is able to develop its business outside Sky during that period, which will make it less financially dependent on Sky, but even if it does not do that, it has the security of a 10-year funding agreement, which is considerably greater than that of the BBC, for example, in the licence fee settlement.
I am publishing more advice than any Secretary of State has ever published on any comparable deal. We are being completely transparent about the processes because we want to ensure that the public have confidence, and it would be good if the shadow Culture Secretary could at least acknowledge that transparency.
The Secretary of State has rightly said that this is an issue about plurality in news and current affairs. Does he recall that in 2002 the Labour Government opposed a general plurality test, and that it was only because of the efforts of Lord Puttnam and others in another place that one was included in the Enterprise Act? Given that that was a watered-down test, does he believe that the time is now right to set up an independent commission on plurality so that it can inform the future communications Bill?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The process that we have gone through has revealed that both he and I would like to make sure that there are better protections for media plurality, not in situations such as this—we have a process that involves exhaustive public scrutiny—but where someone might develop a dominant position in the media, and the public might not be as protected as they should be. That is why the coalition Government have said that we want to do something that the last Labour Government did not do: look at whether plurality protection can be strengthened, which we will do in the new communications Bill that we will be putting to the House in the second half of this Parliament.
Is not the Secretary of State in this position because of the acts of the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills? The Enterprise Act was very clear that difficult decisions such as this should be taken out of the hands of politicians and given to the Competition Commission.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have often wondered why the Act specifically gives the duty of deciding an issue such as this to an elected politician when in, for example, competition law, such decisions are taken out of the hands of politicians. That is the way the law operates at the moment under that Act. Hon. Members will want to take a view as to whether that is the right way for the law to operate, and we have said that we will look at all these issues in our communications Bill.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the procedure in the Enterprise Act puts him in the position of judge in these circumstances, and he therefore has a clear duty to be extremely measured in his remarks, to be meticulous in what he does, and to ensure that he has independent advice, including legal advice? Does he agree that that is what he has done in this case, and one of the great lessons of the whole affair is how important it is to follow such an approach?
I thank my hon. Friend, who understands these issues very well. There is a legitimate question as to whether it is appropriate to give elected politicians the responsibility for arbitrating on a decision for which many members of the public will inevitably question their motives. That is why I have tried to be completely transparent and have sought, published and, after careful consideration, followed independent advice at every stage. We can debate in the House whether the law is right to insist on the procedures that it does, but I know that hon. Members feel passionately that due process must be followed, and that is why I am doing that in this case.
How on earth did we—and I mean all of us, not just the Minister—become so spineless as to allow a company whose directors not only failed in their fiduciary duties to prevent criminality at the News of the World, but actually participated in its cover-up, to hold dominion over such a vast swathe of the media in this country? No other country in the world would allow somebody to have so much power.
Phone hacking is incredibly serious, and the police must follow their inquiries wherever they lead. The fact that we are having those inquiries at the moment and that they have been as extensive as they are demonstrates that no company is above the law, and no company should be.
I can reassure my hon. Friend on that front. There are two particular revisions to the undertakings that will strengthen the financial viability of Sky News. The first is a requirement that the operational agreements entered into between Sky and Sky News are fair and reasonable, and the second is a requirement that Sky will continue to cross-promote Sky News across the Sky network at the levels that it currently does. That, combined with a 10-year carriage agreement, which gives guaranteed financial income for 10 years—a very long time in the media marketplace—means that this will be a very financially sustainable and resilient model, which of course it needs to be.
This is a fairly short consultation, the primary purpose of which is to give people a chance to look at the amendments to the undertakings that were published on 3 March. The core undertakings have been in the public domain since 3 March, and indeed the wider issue of the merger has been in the public domain since last year. This is the conclusion of a long series of consultations, and I will listen to all the submissions that I receive before making my final decision.
The Secretary of State previously stated that he was content with the proposals to keep Sky News independent from the rest of Sky. He has today announced further safeguards. Are those safeguards that he had pushed for, or were they proposed by the regulators?
I suppose the answer is a combination of both, because I have been absolutely clear that I want the independent regulators to be satisfied that the final package on the table addresses their concerns about plurality, not least because of the concerns raised earlier about the objectivity of politicians making the decision. I did not make the specific proposals; they arose from the public consultation and were what members of the public suggested as sensible changes. We then analysed them in the Department, and with Ofcom and the OFT, and arrived at the strengthened set of proposals that I have published today.
I do not doubt for a moment the Secretary of State’s integrity, but I do believe that he is wrong, morally and politically, on this issue. He is propping up a crumbling empire. Murdoch is the Gaddafi of News Corporation. How will Sky maintain independent news when most of its editorial content will come from News Corporation?
It is not the case that most of Sky News’s editorial content will come from News Corporation. Sky News, under today’s proposals, will be hived off as an independent company that will source its news from the multiplicity of sources that all good news organisations use. The big picture is that News Corp, in order to acquire full control of Sky, is relinquishing a degree of control over Sky News. There are things that happen today that will not be possible under the new undertakings. For example, it is possible today for James Murdoch, the non-executive chairman of Sky, to fire the person in charge of Sky News. Under the undertakings published today, if they proceed, that would not be possible. Adherence to the broadcasting code is mandated in the new company’s articles of association. That is not the case at present. Broadcasting impartiality, adherence to the highest editorial standards and independence of the editorial process will be much stronger under the new arrangements than it is at present. I hope that that will reassure at least those Members who are prepared to look at the matter objectively.
The Secretary of State has announced a consultation this morning, albeit a very short one. Will he give us a commitment not to make the final decision during the recess and to bring the matter back to the House for a debate when we reconvene in the autumn?
I will certainly bring the decision back to the House when it is made. With regard to timing, I am trying to do this as quickly as possible, while ensuring that we have proper consultation processes and a proper amount of time to consider the responses to the consultation. The fact that I have today strengthened the undertakings that were published on 3 March reflects the fact that we are taking the consultation very seriously.
Will the Secretary of State address the concerns that have been raised on the publication of the shareholder register for the new company? Surely transparency in this respect is central to the confidence we can have that the arrangements meet our concerns about plurality, in substance as well as in form.
For the purposes of the decision I am making, I have assumed that Rupert Murdoch is fully in control of News Corp and the dominant controlling shareholder. Because this is a decision about media plurality, it is not necessary for me to consider other shareholders in News Corp in order to come to a decision.
The Secretary of State has correctly indicated that these new, legally binding and strengthened undertakings will be enshrined in the new company’s articles of association. He will of course be aware that a shareholder resolution can change the articles of association of any company, wherever it is registered, so what additional protections will be put in place to stop that happening?
My hon. Friend is right; that is the procedure for changing the articles of association. First, under the strengthened undertakings that we are publishing today, the Secretary of State must approve the articles of association before they go ahead. Secondly, under undertaking 3.1(i), News Corp is not allowed to increase its shareholding above its current level, which is well below the level that would be necessary to change the articles of association. Thirdly, under the strengthened undertakings it is not allowed to do anything that would cause the new company to breach its own articles of association. I think that we have as many protections in place as one could imagine to ensure that News Corp honours this deal and the public continue to get the benefit of what they value Sky News for.
May I note a paternal interest, Mr Speaker? As BSkyB has been de facto controlled by News Corp since it was founded, are not these arrangements making it more independent, and some might say more impartial, than the state broadcaster, and therefore is not this row somewhat synthetic?
My hon. Friend is right that, contrary to many people’s concern that this will give the Murdochs more control over Sky News, they are in fact relinquishing a significant degree of control over Sky News in order to purchase shares in the rest of Sky. My concern is not with competition law, which is being considered by the European Commission, but with media plurality and ensuring that no one person has too much control over any aspect of our media. I am confident that these strong undertakings will ensure that that is the case.
Given the disappointing comments of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to pay tribute to News Corp for saving The Times, producing The Times Educational Supplement and providing an excellent broadcasting service in the form of Sky TV? Does he not agree that those who are so concerned about the alleged monopoly of BSkyB should also be concerned about the monopoly of the BBC, which controls more than a third of our television and which we are forced to pay for?
My hon. Friend branches out into media policy more generally, but I will resist the temptation to follow, except to say that the Government have always believed that what is good about the media in this country is that we have a strong BBC and strong competition to it. However, this decision is about media plurality and ensuring the diversity of voices in the media, and that is what I am seeking to protect with the undertakings we are publishing today.
I think it does. I agree with my hon. Friend that that is what the public value in Sky News and what we are seeking to protect. It is worth reminding the House that Sky News was the first 24-hour news broadcaster in this country and that it has contributed massively through the competition and choice that it has added to the news landscape, and we should value it for that.
I am completely satisfied. My hon. Friend is right that the first time the undertakings were proposed to me, my concern was about financial viability. Sky News has a secure financial platform for a long period, which is the envy of all other broadcasters. That will allow it to do precisely what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that with an independent board led by an independent chairman, it will want to diversify its sources of funding, which would give it even more money to invest in news gathering, which is its core strength.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that under the Enterprise Act 2002, his decision is quasi-judicial and he can take into account only relevant considerations, not irrelevant considerations such as whether one thinks that Murdoch is brilliant or like Gaddafi, or one’s personal view on the organisation as a whole?
I can absolutely confirm that. To strengthen public confidence that that is the way in which I have approached the decision, I have taken independent advice at every stage and I have published it so that people can take their own view on how I have come to this conclusion.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 4 July—Continuation of remaining stages of the Finance (No. 3) Bill (day 2).
Tuesday 5 July—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Finance (No. 3) Bill (day 3).
Wednesday 6 July—Estimates day [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate on the “Prevent” strategy followed by a debate on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: The Prevent strategy: 6th Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2009-10, HC 65, “Preventing Violent Extremism”. Afghanistan and Pakistan: 4th Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 514, “The UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan”; and the Government’s response CM 8064.]
At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Thursday 7 July—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, followed by a debate on use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and Committees. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 July will include:
Monday 11 July—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Union Bill, followed by motion to approve European documents relating to civil law.
Tuesday 12 July—Motion relating to the retirement of the Clerk of the House, followed by Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill [Lords].
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 7 and 14 July 2011 will be:
Thursday 7 July—A debate on intellectual property and the Hargreaves report.
Thursday 14 July—A debate on “The Future of CDC”, the International Development Committee’s fifth report of session 2010-12, HC 607.
Further to your earlier announcement, Mr Speaker, the whole House endorses what you said in congratulating Robert Rogers on his appointment as Clerk of the House and wishes him well in his new responsibilities.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. I associate myself with the congratulations to Robert Rogers on his appointment. We look forward to continuing to work with him in his new role.
We are about to have a statement on police detention following the court ruling. We stand ready to assist with emergency legislation if that is what is needed to deal with the problem. The Leader of the House did not refer to the possibility of such legislation in his statement. Will he tell us the latest position?
Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) raised the problem of questions addressed to the Minister for Women and Equalities being transferred to other Departments. Has the Leader of the House made any progress in looking into that? Can we have topical questions on this important area of the Government’s responsibilities?
Next Monday, Andrew Dilnot’s report on social care is due to be published. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be an oral statement? Will he also undertake to find time subsequently for the House to debate these important matters? Talking of which, in view of today’s industrial action, may we have a debate about the Government’s mishandling of the public sector pensions negotiations?
The Business Secretary said recently that he wanted a resurgent manufacturing sector. Therefore, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on why he awarded a £1.5 billion contract for 1,200 new train carriages to a company in Germany, when it will put some 3,000 British railway manufacturing jobs in jeopardy?
Has the Leader of the House seen the e-mail that was released this week from Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat Member? In discussing the changes to the Health and Social Care Bill, he wrote:
“There is a view that we should keep quiet, say we had a victory and hope no-one notices this stuff—but I think that is not realistic. The plans remain bad for the NHS”.
May we have a debate so that we can sit back and discover whether those views are shared by the coalition Liberal Democrats who still have their seats or whether they are doing what they do on occasion, which is to face in several different directions at once?
Last week, the newspapers reported the Deputy Prime Minister’s plan to give away shares in the publicly owned banks. No sooner had it hit the front pages than a source was briefing that it was back-of-the-envelope stuff:
“He…should know better. This is not the way you make policy.”
A few days later, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the localisation of business rates, again outside the House of Commons. Here are two major policy announcements. In one case, it seems that the Cabinet has not even had the chance to question him, let alone the House of Commons. In the other, we are still waiting for a statement.
May we have a debate on Camnesia? That is not a previously undiscovered Polynesian island, but a previously undiagnosed condition that affects the Prime Minister’s ability to recall the detail of his own policies. As we saw again at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, he seems to know nothing about the huge increase in the number of NHS quangos that he is creating.
After all the remarkable U-turns we have seen in the last few weeks, the very special humiliation of last week’s vote on wild animals in circuses took some doing. The issue was extremely clear: it is not right for the entertainment of others to make big beasts do things that do not come naturally to them, which is why we have all felt great sympathy this week for the Justice Secretary. As we have heard, first thing in the morning, there was a hard three-line Whip in a desperate attempt to defeat the motion, but by 4 o’clock in the afternoon it had vanished, along with the Government’s courage, because the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) had made it clear that he would neither be induced nor bullied by the Prime Minister into withdrawing his motion. Can we have a debate to praise the hon. Gentleman—others are trying to bury him—or at the very least to save him from being taken round the back of the bike sheds for a good hiding, as one colleague has apparently suggested? I assume that he did not mean it—perhaps it was just a job application to be a Tory Whip.
Finally, as yet another policy bites the dust, does this not all reveal the fundamental truth about the current occupant of No. 10 Downing street? Unlike his much more resolute predecessor—[Interruption.] Unlike Baroness Thatcher, this Prime Minister is for turning.
As always, we enjoyed that, but there was a slight absence of questions about the future business of the House, from which I take it that the Opposition are perfectly happy with the way in which this Administration are managing the business of the House.
I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said about police detention and bail. We will have to await the statement that is to follow to discover whether emergency legislation is necessary. I am grateful for his offer of support should that be the outcome.
Turning to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), I will share with my right hon. and hon. Friends the right hon. Gentleman’s request to extend topical questions to the Government Equalities Office, which at the moment does not have them because it has a relatively narrow slot. The procedure for transferring questions has not changed at all under this Administration. A question is transferred to the Department that is best able to answer it.
On Dilnot, this is an important issue. That is why one of the first things we did on taking office was to ask Andrew Dilnot to chair this commission, which I understand will report on Monday. It is an issue that should be debated by the House in due course, but I cannot promise a statement by the Government on Monday, which is the date of the publication. It may be some time before the Government come up with their response.
We would welcome a debate on our approach to industrial action and strikes, and I hope that the Labour party might clarify its own views. I see that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said that the Leader of the Opposition was under some misapprehension as to what was going on. However, I am grateful to the him and many other Members for making it into the building today.
The matter of train carriages was dealt with in Transport questions. The contract was awarded under exactly the same procedure that the previous Government used to order new rolling stock, and there has been no change whatever.
I was in the House when the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) raised the issue of local government finance, and I refreshed my memory about the coalition agreement, which committed us to
“promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance.”
The terms of reference for that review were set out in a statement on 17 March. The review is ongoing, and a consultation document will be published in due course. There has been no dramatic change in Government policy.
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the events of last Thursday and talked about the vote, but there was no vote at the end of that debate. The Government accepted the motion. He might at some time pay tribute to the coalition Government for setting up the Backbench Business Committee. There would have been no such debate had his party remained in power, because it refused to set up the Committee.
Finally, I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s acting ability in keeping a straight face in his final remarks about the former Prime Minister.
May I warmly welcome the announcement of the business for next Thursday based on the Procedure Committee’s report on the use of hand-held devices in the Chamber and in Committees? Does he agree that that is a very important matter, on which it is desirable that an early decision is made? Will he therefore bring forward a business motion to ensure that the House can reach a decision next Thursday one way or the other?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for producing that report. I think some hon. Members have anticipated the House’s decision by already using hand-held devices, but it is important that we regularise the matter.
The Government are anxious not to create a precedent of routinely timetabling Backbench motions, but I will consider my right hon. Friend’s request. Subject to the agreement of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and indeed of the House, I will be prepared to table an appropriate motion to protect the business on Thursday.
On Monday the House will devote considerable time to debating, and voting on, an amendment to tackle the problems caused by legal loan sharking. Given that, may we have an urgent statement on the Government’s plans to cap the cost of credit? As part of that, will the Leader of the House investigate a meeting that I understand took place on Wednesday, at which it was agreed that the Government would vote against the amendment on Monday, delaying action to relieve the misery caused by high-cost credit, purely so that an announcement can be made at the Liberal Democrat party conference? We need to know that when MPs vote on Monday, they are not putting choreographing coalition dividing lines ahead of the interests of vulnerable consumers.
May I say by way of preface that I commend the action that the hon. Lady is taking, in conjunction with others, to tackle excessive interest rate charges on credit cards and other means of credit? She asked for a debate, but answered her own question by saying that there would indeed be a debate next Monday. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my colleague at the Treasury who will be replying to that debate. I am sure that nothing underhand has taken place at all.
May I draw the House’s attention to the real concerns, particularly in Norman Shaw, about the proposal to transfer the postal delivery from the Attendants to the postmen? That is causing great concern among the Attendants, many of whom have worked for the House for 20 or up to 36 years. Are they going to be made redundant? What is going to happen to them if that change is made?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I share his appreciation of the work that the Attendants have done. As he will know, this is a matter for the House of Commons Commission rather than the Government. You, Mr Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission, will have heard the comments, and I will ensure that the Commission addresses the issue at its next meeting.
The Leader of the House will know that the Business Secretary constantly hints that he is going to introduce some sort of legislative curb on the freedoms of the trade unions, despite the fact that we already have some of the most restrictive labour laws in the western world. Is the Business Secretary finally going to come to the House and make an announcement, or is this just going to lurch on for a few more months?
The hon. Gentleman must have been listening to different speeches by the Business Secretary from the ones that I have heard, in which he has consistently said that he has no plans to change industrial relations legislation. I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman got that idea from.