House of Commons
Thursday 7 March 2013
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Stimulating economic growth is the top priority for this Government. We want to see rural areas contributing to and benefiting from that growth. A £165 million package of measures from the 2011 rural economy growth review is helping rural communities. We are improving superfast broadband infrastructure in the remotest areas and boosting key sectors such as tourism. We are increasing export potential and unlocking barriers to growth by removing red tape.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He is right that superfast broadband is one of the key drivers of growth in the rural community. York and North Yorkshire have made great progress on delivering the Government’s target of 90% coverage by 2015. However, there is a danger that the digital divide could widen for some rural communities in the other 10% of cases. Will my hon. Friend do all he can to push the case for those rural communities?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We must make sure that the advantages of high-speed broadband reach every community across the country, which is exactly what we are determined to do in time. The good news is that we are reaching an extra 100,000 households a week, so they now have the opportunity to use high-speed broadband. I think that is very good news and we will, of course, continue to roll out the programme across the country.
If the Minister is so committed to boosting rural growth, why is he taking out of the pockets of poor agricultural workers a quarter of a billion pounds by abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which was opposed by two thirds of those in the consultation, including many farmers?
Last night at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on cheese, the Minister was able to see a wide array of excellent British cheeses, which are highly regarded in the world markets. I know that the Secretary of State has done good work promoting British cheese in China. What other countries will the Department target on behalf of these excellent British products?
I think we have to do everything we can to promote excellent British products. Indeed, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about cheese. I was delighted to see cheese from my own constituency on display at last night’s meeting, but I was even more delighted only last week to see cheese produced only four miles from where I live on display in Dubai at the biggest international trade fair in the world. We were promoting the interests of British business, and over 60 businesses were there. I will also be pleased to join British companies in promoting good British produce in Bangkok next week.
The Minister will be aware of a good article and the very fine speech given just this week to the Engineering Employers Federation by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Much of what he is saying would regenerate the rural economy, but he is also a passionate supporter of crowd funding and crowd sourcing, which many of us see as a regenerative tool in towns and in the rural economy. What does the Minister think of that?
I think that any tool that is effective in urban areas is likely to be effective in rural areas as well. I have repeatedly sought to make the point not only that rural areas must not miss out on economic regeneration but that they are in many ways in a position to lead, as they have a huge contribution to make. I want to ensure that every single community in this country has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of economic growth as it develops.
The residents of 22 villages in the borough of Kettering are concerned about petrol and diesel prices, rural crime and the access to and cost of off-grid energy, as well as access to rural broadband. What representations to the relevant Government Departments has my hon. Friend made on those important issues?
This Department has a responsibility for rural proofing across government, which means that we continually have a dialogue with other Departments about all the factors that have the potential to hold back individuals, businesses and communities in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman may be assured that we constantly make the point that we must have a clear regard for the more than 80% of the landmass that is rural Britain. It comprises only 20% of the population, but it is nevertheless enormously important to the fabric of this country.
How I wish that I had a pair of the Minister’s rose-tinted spectacles. In fact, the Government’s national economic strategy is shot; rural growth is further constrained by inflation running at double the national average, higher costs of living and working; and the slow roll-out of rural broadband is leading to open warfare around the Cabinet table. How does the Minister believe that taking another quarter of a billion pounds out of the rural economy and the pockets of low-paid farm workers by scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board will jump-start the rural economy?
I spent 13 years on the Opposition Benches trying to press the case for rural areas. The then Labour Government did not listen to what was said in rural areas then, and I note that the hon. Gentleman is not listening now to the realities of what is happening in those areas and the realities of what is happening in the agricultural industry. If he did, he would take a very different position.
Partnership funding is enabling more schemes to go ahead and allowing greater local choice. It has already produced up to £148 million in external funding over the four years to 2015, compared with £13 million during the previous three years. There are indications that a larger proportion of protected households will be in deprived areas, and up to a quarter more schemes are set to go ahead in the coming years than was the case under the old system.
The additional funding will be most welcome to my constituents—not least those in Buckfastleigh and Kennford, who were grievously affected by the recent flooding—but may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that it is rolled out as quickly as possible, and may I also ask him how many properties in Devon will benefit from it?
My hon. Friend has been a strong advocate for his constituents, who suffered so much flooding last year, and his question is entirely understandable. I can tell him that £35 million of the £120 million that we announced in the autumn statement last year is already available for the 2013-14 financial year, and that the remaining £85 million will be allocated to schemes starting in 2014-15. That means that 5,000 homes in Devon will benefit from additional funds.
That old chestnut must be laid to rest. In cash terms, we are spending roughly the same in this comprehensive spending review period as the hon. Gentleman’s party spent in the last one. His Chancellor, in his last Budget statement, announced 50% cuts in capital budgets for Departments such as mine. The hon. Gentleman cannot come here and try to compare apples with pears. Labour Members must move on from this, and understand that we are doing what we need to do in very difficult financial circumstances.
In February, the Minister announced £10.8 million of capital to upgrade the tidal defences on the east bank of the River Arun in Littlehampton, in my constituency. That is a welcome decision, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to building new flood defences, but it is not time for the insurance industry to match that commitment by agreeing to a replacement for the flood insurance statement of principles, which expires in June this year?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent work that he did in drawing attention to the needs of the people of Littlehampton following the floods that they suffered so recently. We are working at a very fast tempo at the highest levels of Government to try to achieve an agreement which will massively improve on the statement of principles, which first does not cover every home and secondly contains nothing about affordability. We want a better system for the future.
The Government will publish a report on the national adaptation programme later this year, which will set out actions to address the impacts of the increased frequency of extreme weather events on the built environment, our infrastructure network, businesses, our farming and forestry sectors, the natural environment and our health. The Government are spending £2.3 billion on reducing the risk from flooding and coastal erosion over this four-year period.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He will know that last year in the UK flooding was experienced on one in every five days, while on one in every four days there was drought subject to a hosepipe ban. One in seven houses and 10% of the country’s critical infrastructure are now exposed to flood risk, yet by 2014-15 some 23% less will be spent on these matters. Will the Minister consider the exhortation from the chairman of the Environment Agency to take urgent action now to avoid the coming problems?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about the extremes of weather we have experienced in the last 12 months. We were facing a real problem with drought, and there was a 3% chance of getting a sufficiently wet summer to alleviate it, yet it happened. However, it has of course brought huge other problems. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about the level of spending—I refer him back to my response to the previous question—and I can assure him that we listen very carefully to experts in the EA. When we asked its leadership what further projects it could bring forward if we found extra money, it told us and we got the money; that was announced in the September statement.
What can the Minister do to assist residents who live near small tributaries and who cannot understand which authority is responsible for them? There seems to be confusion between highways authorities, the EA, local councils and county councils as to who has responsibility for clearing the waterways around tributaries.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This matter was discussed at yesterday’s EA board meeting and we are in close touch with the EA and other organisations. There is a degree of confusion. That was brought out in the Pitt review. Some effort has been put in, and some progress has been made in addressing the problem, but I absolutely concede we are not there yet and there is still confusion about who is responsible and what the priorities are. We want to make sure that the priorities are protecting people and their properties and the environment.
In addition to a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on dog control and welfare, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary, Lord de Mauley, has received a number of letters on the subject of puppy farms, irresponsible breeders and the internet advertising of dogs. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides the necessary powers for local authorities to investigate allegations of poor welfare among all dog breeders.
I am grateful for that answer. In the Committee’s recent inquiry, we received evidence that a contributory factor in respect of the problem of status dogs is the number of backstreet puppy breeders, because dogs are more likely to become aggressive and unmanageable if they are not socialised and cared for properly in the first few months. The law currently allows people to breed up to five puppy litters a year without licensing, but we recommended that the figure should be reduced to two. Will the Minister look carefully at that proposal?
I have every sympathy with the reasoning behind the hon. Gentleman’s proposal, and I certainly deplore the irresponsible breeding of dogs. I can assure him that it is already the case that if a local authority considers that someone is in the business of breeding and selling dogs but they have produced fewer than five litters in a year, a licence would still be needed, and any dog-breeding establishment that produces five or more litters in a 12-month period will also need a licence regardless of whether it is considered to be in the business of breeding and selling dogs. Guidance on that was given to local authorities back in 1999, explaining precisely where those responsibilities lie.
Backstreet puppy farms are a problem in the entire United Kingdom. As a Northern Ireland MP, I am also aware of such farms in the Republic of Ireland, with puppies coming through Northern Ireland to the UK and going directly from the Republic of Ireland to the UK mainland. Has the Minister had any discussions about this problem with the Government in the Republic of Ireland, so that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together with the Republic of Ireland can address it?
I will certainly draw that point to the attention of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary and see whether he has had an opportunity to speak to his counterparts in the Republic of Ireland and also in Northern Ireland on the issue. If he has not, I am sure he will want to take up the suggestion that has been made.
We are committed to reducing regulatory costs on farmers and food processors. In the EU we are working closely with the Commission to ensure that all new proposals adhere to the Commission’s communications on smart regulation and the Government’s guiding principles for EU legislation. We are reducing unnecessary burdens from existing legislation through our response to the farming taskforce, with initiatives that include taking action to simplify paperwork and improve the way on-farm inspections are performed.
Figures from my hon. Friend’s Department show that in the past two years, 67 EU regulations have been passed, adding £500 million in costs to British farmers and producers. What steps is he taking to support our farmers by cutting back on EU regulations and cutting the costs of the EU for British farmers?
Not all those costs will impact on farmers and food processors, of course, but the hon. Lady raises a valid point about the cost of EU regulation that I hope is not lost on Members of the European Parliament and European Commissioners. That is precisely why we are committed to making progress on our better regulation agenda and why at EU level we continue to press for all new proposals to adhere to the Commission’s smart regulation policy. We are also abiding by this Government’s principles for EU legislation, which include regulating only when there are no alternatives and ensuring that there is no gold-plating when introducing European measures into UK law.
When I met the Minister on 10 December last year to discuss my Food Waste Bill, he promised he would give me a copy of the advice his Department had received from the Food Standards Agency about whether the provisions in the Bill to remove civil and criminal liability from good faith donors of food waste would be compatible with EU food safety regulations, as it was suggested by his Department that they were not. I am still waiting for a copy of that advice despite chasing the Department—can he update me on that?
On 25 and 27 February I updated the House on the discussions I have had on the adulteration of food in the UK with the food industry and at a European level. I continue to have regular update discussions with the Food Standards Agency and I shall also be meeting the food industry on a regular basis.
Obviously, this is not just about adulteration with horsemeat. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that consumers have the right to know everything about the content of food that is sold to them. Will he reassure the House about whether he has done a proper analysis of the capacity of British laboratories to undertake the research necessary to give consumers the confidence that they are entitled to?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and entirely agree that no matter what the price of a product, it must be as marked on the label and as sold. To do otherwise is a fraud on the public. He asks about laboratory capacity. We need only look at what has happened: in an extraordinarily short time in recent weeks, the industry has conducted 5,430 tests that have shown that less than 1% of the products are adulterated.
May I draw the House’s attention to a non-declarable interest as a former employee of the Meat Hygiene Service? It costs approximately £170 to test each slaughtered horse for bute, yet the meat is worth only about £300. The industry has talked a lot about full cost recovery, so will the Minister tell the House when the taxpayer will stop having to pick up the bill for bute testing and how much he estimates the total bill will be?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, which is very relevant. We have cauterised the problem of bute getting into the food chain, as no horse carcase can enter the food chain until it has tested negative for bute, but he is right to raise that question. This is a holding position. I had a meeting with senior members of the horse industry recently because the horse passport scheme that we inherited is unsatisfactory. We will make proposals on that in due course.
The Food Standards Agency has a big role to play in this regard and I believe that it has failed to step up to the plate. Following the capability review that was completed in January and the work being undertaken by the National Audit Office, when might the Government be minded to make proposals to reform the FSA?
I have to remind my hon. Friend and the House that this is an overall European competence. Under regulation 178/2002 we must work within the European regime, and having an independent agency is very much part of that. I pay tribute to the work that the agency has conducted under great pressure in recent weeks, working very closely with the industry and conducting an extraordinarily large number of tests—5,430, as I said. Once we have seen where this criminal conspiracy began and once we have found the criminals—I remind the House that this is an international problem, with 23 countries involved—we will begin to look at the lessons learned. I am clear that within this regime we must have more testing of product and more random testing of finished product.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the lessons that we can learn from this is to have much better, honest labelling and to know exactly where our processed meat product comes from and that it is produced to good farm-assured standards such as the red tractor scheme in this country?
I agree that clearer labelling could help, but we are up against a criminal conspiracy and I think the criminals would have got through. I had a constructive meeting with the French, German, Austrian and Finnish Ministers in Brussels last week, and we are asking the European Commission to accelerate its report on the labelling and marking of the country of origin.
On 22 February Sodexo announced that it had found horsemeat in a beef product and withdrew meat from schools in Gloucestershire, Southampton and Leicestershire and the armed forces. Sodexo has refused publicly to name the product, the level of horse adulteration or the meat company which supplied it, thereby preventing other organisations from knowing whether their supplies are at risk. The Government know the name of that meat supplier. Will the Secretary of State now name that company so that the rest of the public sector can check its supplies?
I discussed this issue yesterday with the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, who is completely satisfied that the information required from Sodexo has been supplied. The hon. Lady must understand that there is an investigation going on and in some of these cases it might lead to criminal prosecution. [Interruption.] No, the FSA is clear that it must be guarded about what information can be revealed in case the investigations are impinged upon.
I find that answer extraordinary. The Secretary of State has a duty to tell the public what he knows and in every other case where supermarkets and other suppliers have found adulterated meat products, their suppliers have been named. How is the public sector supposed to check?
I want to move on to a letter from John Young, a former manager at the Meat Hygiene Service, who sent this letter from High Peak Meat Exports to DEFRA in April 2011. It warned the Government that bute-contaminated horsemeat could illegally enter the human food chain because of failures with the horse passport system, which I have raised in the House before. On 17 February the Secretary of State ordered an urgent investigation into those claims. What has that investigation found, and has he discovered why his Government colleagues ignored that warning?
To clarify the previous answer, Sodexo made it clear to all its customers which products there was a problem with. It has withdrawn them all but in the case of an investigation which might grow criminal, it would not be sensible to reveal names of suppliers. This is a criminal conspiracy which covers 23 different countries, and it does not help the police to arrive at prosecutions if information is revealed.
On horse passports, we are clear that we have fixed the problem of bute getting into the food chain. No carcases will get into the food chain until they have tested negative for bute. That is absolutely clear, and we are clear that the horse passport regime which we inherited from the hon. Lady’s party needs reforming, and we will do that in due course.
7. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the devolved Administrations on the adulteration of food in the UK. (146582)
9. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Scottish Government on the adulteration of food. (146584)
I have been in regular contact with Ministers in the devolved Administrations to discuss the issue. Ministers from Scotland and Wales attended my meeting with the food industry on 18 February, where we made it clear that the adulteration of food is unacceptable and that consumers have to be the top priority. I most recently met Ministers in all the devolved Administrations at a pre-Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels on 25 February and the Welsh Minister briefly on Monday. I am grateful for their support.
Scotland has a high-quality food industry and it is important that its reputation is maintained. What steps is the Minister taking, along with the devolved Administrations, to look at the prevention of adulteration in areas other than those that we have seen so far? Clearly, we cannot predict criminality but we should make sure that we act proactively as far as possible.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to be proud of the quality of Scottish products, as we are, because of the high quality of the raw materials, their traceability and the thoroughness of our production systems. That is why this case must be sorted out. We cannot allow a small number of criminals to do huge damage to a key industry. We are discussing the issue of other types of adulteration with the FSA. That is particularly important to some minorities, so we will be looking to test for pork adulteration.
The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who chairs the Select Committee, has been clear that the Government were caught flat-footed by the horsemeat scandal. In that case, how would the Secretary of State describe the Scottish Government’s response, given that they picked up the phone nearly a week after Asda began clearing its shelves?
I am not responsible for the Scottish Government. All I will say is that I would like to thank the Scottish Minister and the Welsh Minister for their steadfast support. They came down to the last big meeting I held with industry leaders, and we were all completely united on the need to sort out this criminal conspiracy in order to clear the name of British food making. We want to get exporting and pushing on to expand the industry. We will not have it held back by criminal activity.
Cross-contamination by horsemeat in every part of the United Kingdom could be stopped if we prevented the killing of horses in multi-species abattoirs. Does the Secretary of State not agree that the trade in horsemeat is fairly revolting and that Britain would be a better place if we had none of it at all? Let us kill the horsemeat trade altogether and we will not have to worry about contamination.
A small number of horses—about 9,000—are slaughtered every year in this country. I am not sure that abattoirs would be viable if they concentrated only on one species, but it is an idea that I would like to discuss with my hon. Friend and perhaps take further.
Has my right hon. Friend discussed with his Welsh and Scottish counterparts the fact that many of our constituents find this issue very distasteful, not only because of the thought of eating horsemeat but because of the certain knowledge that horses will be transported and slaughtered in appalling circumstances by shadowy people in those 23 countries?
I have discussed the issue with Commissioner Borg and other Ministers, because there is a significant trade in horses across the continent of Europe. My hon. Friend and his constituents are absolutely right: if they buy a product that is sold as processed beef, regardless of price, it should be processed beef. Any adulteration with any other material is a conspiracy to defraud the public, and we are determined to get to the bottom of it.
15. The export of Scotch beef and Scotch beef-based food products is vital for the manufacturing base in the Scottish economy. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Scottish Government to ensure that producers and consumers can have confidence in the products they buy? (146591)
My hon. Friend the Minister of State attended the 100th anniversary celebrations of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and I have discussed the matter with Minster Lochhead. We both agree that we have a job to do, working closely with the industry, to promote strict traceability and production systems. I was interested to note that at the NFU conference last week in Birmingham that people really had their tails up because there is now an opportunity, with the public being so interested in the supply chain, to stress how good our industry is and how reliable our products are.
The availability and affordability of insurance in flood-risk areas are important issues for the Government. Constructive negotiations continue with the insurance industry, at the highest levels of Government, on a range of approaches that could succeed the current statement of principles. The Government are on course to spend £2.3 billion on reducing the risk from flooding and coastal erosion and delivering better protection to 165,000 households over the four years to March 2015.
On 24 January I asked the Minister how much premiums will rise if he fails to reach agreement with the insurance industry. In response, he assured me that negotiations were at an advanced stage and that he would come to the House with details shortly. I understand that he does not actually have a seat at the negotiating table, but when does he expect to have news of a deal from his Cabinet Office and Treasury colleagues?
I think that there is a misconception in some parts of the House that the statement of principles represents some halcyon world in which our constituents living in high flood-risk areas are protected from exorbitant rises in premiums. That is not the case. What we want is affordability to be brought into the new system. I am involved in those conversations at the highest levels and want to assure the House that we are working as hard as we can to find a solution that can give comfort to everyone who is at risk of flooding, particularly those on low incomes.
17. My constituents in West Worcestershire, which is quite flood-prone, are concerned about the length of the negotiations. I understand that the Association of British Insurers is asking for the taxpayer, in effect, to be the reinsurer of last resort. How confident is the Minister that we will be able to come up with a private sector-led solution in time for the expiration of the statement of principles? (146593)
My hon. Friend has a great many constituents who live in flood risk, and we want to be able to assure them that there is something that will continue after the end of the statement of principles. As I said to the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the new system is better because it will not only be available to all properties that are at flood risk but will have an affordability element. We have in mind my hon. Friend’s constituents and many others around the country who live in flood risk, but we are also responsible to the taxpayer. We want to make sure that what we are doing is fair to the taxpayer and fair to the person living in flood risk.
The Building Societies Association has said that the consequences of failing to get a deal would be “grave”. Potential buyers would find it difficult or impossible to get a mortgage, loan book values would drop, capital requirements would rise, and there would be less money to lend in the real economy. Is sales blight on 200,000 properties an acceptable price to pay for this Government’s inaction?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong when he says that there is inaction; I can assure him that there is an awful lot of action. Alongside the negotiations that have been going on, we have been producing documents such as one that has been highly recommended by the British Institute of Insurance Brokers Association: “Obtaining flood insurance in high risk areas”. We are also assisting people in flood-risk measures they take for their property at household level so that that will be reflected in the premium. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about the potential impact on mortgages and lenders, and that is one of the main drivers towards the quick result we want to get in this matter.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I reinforce to the Minister the importance of achieving affordability? Will he take the message from the people of Stonehaven, who have been flooded for a second time, that urgency is also important so that they can have the comfort of reinsuring their properties?
I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says. There is an urgent need to get a resolution, but I hope that he agrees—I am sure he does—that it cannot be at any price; we have to be mindful of the needs of the taxpayer as well as those of his constituents. This is a fiscal matter and therefore a UK responsibility, so it is important that we liaise closely with the devolved Governments as well.
At last month’s EU Fisheries Council I secured agreement to a reformed common fisheries policy which includes a ban on discards. Alongside firm deadlines and the practical means to deliver a ban, this moves us much closer to eliminating the terrible waste caused by discarding. Discussions with the European Parliament will now begin in order to agree the final common fisheries policy reform package later this year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tenacity of his negotiating skills in Brussels, because some of the options that were being proposed would have been disastrous for British fishermen. May I seek assurances that in the further negotiations he will champion British fishermen and the welfare of British waters?
I thank my hon. Friend. Our fishermen have led the way in reducing discards through innovative schemes such as the catch quota scheme and Project 50%. There has been good work by my Department on supply chains and other measures that will need to be brought in to ensure that a discard ban works. My hon. Friend is right that we managed to see off some changes that would have dramatically watered down any discard ban. I am really pleased that we are now on track to achieving what the vast majority of our constituents want.
The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are to grow the rural economy, improve the environment and safeguard animal and plant health. As well as handling issues such as the adulteration of processed beef products, we continue to seek to put farming on a sustainable footing for the future. This includes working towards a common agricultural policy settlement that will enable farmers to respond to the needs of the market, while delivering valuable environmental benefits and boosting potential for exports. As I outlined at last week’s National Farmers Union conference, both of these things will enable farmers to capitalise on the growing domestic and global demand for high-quality UK produce. At every opportunity we will champion our farmers and their rigorous standards of production and traceability.
In a series of decisions, the European Commission has unbalanced the previous level playing field in the European sugar market between beet processors and cane refiners. As a result, we have very high prices for sugar, super profits for beet processors and a threat to the viability of cane refining in Europe. Will the Minister make sure that the forthcoming changes to the CAP get us back to a level playing field?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely correct. At present, the quota regime is due to end in 2015 and he is right that sugar prices are 35% higher than world prices, which is 1% on the cost of the average shopping basket. We are clear that we want the quota regime to go. I promise the right hon. Gentleman that, at every opportunity when this issue is raised, I remember the need to defend the interests of cane importers and to make sure that the duty regime is fair to them.
My hon. Friend will be aware of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s recent announcement that we intend to proceed with changes to dangerous dog legislation by bringing in new antisocial behaviour provisions. We are talking to the Home Office about that and we intend to bring them in at the earliest opportunity.
I think that we have made it abundantly clear that that is exactly what needs to happen. Retailers and people in the catering industry have a clear responsibility and we are determined to do everything we can to make sure that that is the case, which is exactly what has been happening over the past few weeks.
T4. Do Ministers consider it acceptable that a number of historic English churches are being made unusable as a consequence of bat faeces and that mediaeval wall paintings and other historic monuments are being irretrievably damaged as a consequence of bat urine? Churches are not farm barns. They are places of worship and should be respected as such. (146598)
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and share his intense frustration. I am glad to say that we are moving forward with one church in Yorkshire, where we think we may have found a resolution, and some churches in Norfolk. It cannot have ever been the intention of those who imposed this directive on us to limit the ability of people to worship in a church that has been there for centuries.
T5. Last week the Secretary of State said that he was keen to delay European Union proposals to protect essential pollinators from neonicotinoids until new British field data were available. At the very same time, his own chief scientist was telling members of the Environmental Audit Committee that those same trials had been deeply compromised. When will the Secretary of State stop prevaricating and implement a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids without further delay? (146599)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making the position clear. There have been a number of reports based on laboratory data. I have raised the issue with Minister Coveney, who has the presidency of the European Union, and had a meeting with Commissioner Borg about it only last week. We have asked them to wait until the data from our field trials have been analysed. We are fully aware of the strength of feeling that the hon. Lady represents, but there are also people who believe that these materials are not damaging. What is absolutely critical is that we do the right thing for bees, because they play such a fundamental role. There is no point in removing one product if it does not actually hurt bees. What we really need to do is look at how we can promote bee health, because it is so important to all plant life.
T7. Is my hon. Friend aware that yesterday was an important day in the political calendar, as it was national salad day, and that, in my constituency of Harlow and the surrounding villages of Roydon and Nazeing, we have the highest concentration of cucumber and pepper growers across the United Kingdom? Will the Government place more weight on food production in the planning system to help the Lee valley growers and glasshouse industry in my constituency? (146601)
It certainly was an important day, because I had the opportunity to meet growers and discuss exactly that issue. There clearly needs to be proper accommodation for growing food stuffs in this country through the planning system, but it is equally right—the Government are clear on this—that local planning decisions need to be taken locally. Central Government have continually to remind our colleagues in local government, however, that having sustainable food production in this country is a top priority. We have an increasing population to feed, and we must ensure that we can do so in a sustainable way.
T6. Even if the Treasury allows the Minister to resolve the general stand-off with the insurance industry over the statement of principles, will not the coalition’s flood defence cuts and the partnership funding plan mean that deprived areas such as mine in Hull will not be able to get the investment into the area to allow the insurance industry to provide insurance to my constituents? (146600)
I suggest that the hon. Lady looks at the facts of the schemes that we have just brought forward. These are schemes in many cities that have constantly failed to get above the line, but which, owing to partnership funding and extra Treasury funding, are now going ahead—in Leeds, Exeter, Ipswich and many others places. I understand the great concern in Hull, as it has suffered from flooding in the past, and I can assure her that it will remain a Government priority to build flood protection.
T8. May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the progress being made on reform of the common agricultural policy? He must be aware of the particular difficulties of tenant farmers who are graziers on common land in north Yorkshire. Will he ensure that Natural England and the Department fully understand that tenants who are active farmers must benefit from the funds after CAP reform? (146602)
I very much welcome the progress being made towards ending the scandal of fish discards, but is the Minister aware of the dramatic recent falls in fish prices and does he share my concern that certain sections of the media are representing our sustainable fishing industry in a grossly irresponsible way?
My time in post has shown me that large areas of the media have no interest in understanding the complexities of marine management, so I share the hon. Lady’s concern. I can assure her that I am very concerned, particularly about the drop in the cod price, which I know will affect livelihoods in her constituency. We want a fair price for a sustainably harvested product, and everything that my Department is trying to do, with the devolved Governments, is working towards that.
T9. I represent one of just three constituencies named after a river, so my question concerns our waterways. What support are the Government giving to groups such as the Erewash Canal Preservation and Development Association in my constituency, which, along with an army of volunteers, does a huge amount to help preserve our historic waterways? (146603)
I pay great tribute to that association, which does such great work. Last year, we achieved something very rare in this House. With all-party agreement, we secured the transfer of a Government body to a charity that has been well-funded for a considerable number of years, giving the opportunity for such organisations to benefit. The number of volunteer days around the country has rocketed as a result of the new charity.
Following DEFRA press releases on the food adulteration issue, one of my constituents wrote to ask if she was the only one who had a problem with the fact that even 1% of products might not be what they claim to be on the label. As she pointed out, that means that of 5,000 products 50 will be adulterated, and that if those 50 are popular lines, millions of people are being duped. Will the Minister please do something about the self-satisfied tone of DEFRA press releases?
I am not sure about a self-satisfied tone, but the Food Standards Agency is discussing exactly that issue with consumers at the moment. There is a clear difference between very trace contamination and deliberate adulteration. We all understand that. The question is where the dividing line is and what is acceptable. It is quite right that the FSA should talk to real people about that and see what they think.
I would be delighted to do that, but I am not sure that even the performance of the RPA will be enough entirely to cheer up farmers who are wrestling with the weather. In the written statement that I made to the House earlier, I confirmed that by 19 February 2013, the RPA had paid out a total of £1.6 billion to more than 102,000 farmers, which is 98.4% of customers. That exceeds the performance target for March and meets the EU benchmark some four months early. Farmer satisfaction levels are the highest ever recorded, and the RPA has just delivered the most successful payment record in its history. That is an extremely good job.
The common fisheries policy was described recently by a continental EU politician as a “disaster”, so those of us in the UK who take that view are not alone. Is it not the case that monitoring fishing in EU waters, including discards, cannot be effective until those waters are returned to the historic boundaries of member states?
I share the view that the common fisheries policy has been a disaster: it has been a disaster for fish stocks, fishermen, coastal communities and the health of our seas. Working within the world in which we have to operate and playing the hand that we have been dealt, I hope that we are getting good, meaningful reform. We will be delivering much of the regionalisation that the hon. Gentleman wants through the reform of the policy.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Individual Voter Registration
The Electoral Commission will provide guidance and support to electoral registration officers on how best to ensure that people are registered under the new system. The guidance will advise on how best to reach those who are least likely to be registered or to respond to the change, including certain black and minority ethnic groups. Electoral registration officers should use their knowledge of the local community to ensure that they do that as effectively as possible. The Electoral Commission will also run a public awareness campaign targeted at those groups during the transition.
I think that we need more than that. The data-matching pilots, the evaluation of which was published in December, revealed that in Tower Hamlets, data matching connected with only 55% of voters, whereas in Wigan the figure was over 80%. We know that the mismatch between the registration of ethnic minority eligible voters and white eligible voters is about 10%. Therefore, should the Electoral Commission not work with electoral registration officers in areas with large ethnic minority communities to look at new methods and resources that could ensure that individual registration works for all of us?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. The Electoral Commission is working with electoral registration officers, particularly in areas where there are hard-to-reach groups. However, electoral registration officers should rely on their own local experience and expertise to get the job done. It might help the hon. Lady to know that data matching is expected to ensure that 70% of people across the country will transfer automatically to the new register. As I have said before, anyone who is on the register in 2014 will be transferred automatically to the May 2015 register.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
King Richard III (Reburial)
The legal position is clear. The Ministry of Justice has granted a licence to the university of Leicester, which means that it is responsible for keeping the remains of King Richard III and for their reburial. It is intended that they will be reburied in Leicester cathedral.
In October, when we last discussed this matter, which was before it had been established that the remains were those of King Richard, the hon. Gentleman said:
“Once those tests are concluded, the nature, place and marking of any reinterment will need seriously to be considered.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 1070.]
I said at the time that those were wise words and that it would be wrong to bicker in this Chamber about the burial place. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the matter should now be considered by experts, taking account of the wishes that King Richard expressed during his life and the views of clergy who do not have a vested interest, people from York and Leicester and all other interested parties, so that a decision can be made?
The hon. Gentleman has an Adjournment debate on this issue on Tuesday, and I suggest that he put those issues to Ministry of Justice Ministers then. As for the Church, we believe that in a situation such as this the remains should be reburied in the nearest possible church, which, as it happens, is Leicester cathedral.
My constituents have been raising with me questions about the legality of what is happening at the moment about this, and although I am sympathetic to the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley), I would like to press the case for burying Richard III in Barnard Castle, where he lived happily for many years and where his insignia, the white boar, can still be seen engraved in the castle.
Unfortunately, Richard III did not have much time to plan his funeral. I do not think he would have been very worried about where he was buried, but he did live and die a Catholic, and so at his funeral could there not be some aspect of Catholicism to represent his life’s work?
Every Sunday, I say, “I believe in one holy Catholic Church.” The more serious point is that whatever service takes place at Leicester cathedral, I am sure that the Dean of Leicester will want to involve representatives of the local Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, one wants to try to ensure that an event such as the respectful reburial of an English king is carried out in a way that does not cause controversy and that is respectful and accords with the wishes of the whole community.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Police and Crime Commissioner Elections
The Electoral Commission commissioned an independent research study to assess the effectiveness of its public awareness campaign. The results show a significant increase in awareness of the main elements of the campaign, including the date of the election and how to vote. The Electoral Commission will publish its statutory report later this month on the police and crime commissioner elections, which will identify what wider lessons need to be learned.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. The Association of Electoral Administrators, in a highly critical report, has said:
“Voters were not at the heart of the process for the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections”.
It has recommended that the Government should improve public awareness and participation by providing for
“either a candidates’ mailing or the delivery of a booklet…about the…elections and about the candidates to all households.”
Is that an issue that has been considered by the Electoral Commission?
It most certainly is considered. I do not want to prejudge the report, which will be published later this month, but it is well known that the Electoral Commission advised the Government in advance of its concerns about the lack of information about candidates going to voters. I very much hope that before the next police and crime commissioner elections, which are due in 2016, significant lessons will have been learned.
One lesson I have learned is that if senior Members of this House, such as the shadow Home Secretary, are appearing on television screens before an election telling everyone that the election is a waste of time and money, we can hardly be surprised if the electors are not all that interested. Does my hon. Friend agree that if Members of this House are not prepared to stand up to champion democracy, we cannot be surprised if members of the public are not flocking to the polling stations?
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
National Audit Office
A number of external reviews are in place to provide independent assessments of the quality of the National Audit Office’s work: the NAO’s financial audit work is subject to independent review by the audit quality review team of the Financial Reporting Council; the quality of the NAO’s value-for-money reports is independently reviewed by independent experts from Oxford university’s Said business school and Risk Solutions; and the NAO’s external auditors conduct an annual value-for-money assessment, which is reported to the Public Accounts Commission.
I am most grateful for that reply. All Members would normally agree that the National Audit Office does a very good job. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was once a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Did he see the vicious attack on the Chair of that Committee by the Justice Secretary just a few days ago, alleging that she was biased, unprincipled and should not chair that Committee? Is that right?
I do not think it is for me as Chair of the Public Accounts Commission to try to second-guess vigorous debate. In my humble opinion, the PAC under its present Chair and with its present members does an excellent job in holding the Executive to account, and I am sure on all occasions it would avoid party politics.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Archbishop of Canterbury
I am sure the House will wish Archbishop Justin well as he starts out on his public ministry to the nation. Early indications as to his priorities can be seen in a number of ways such as the appointment of new staff at Lambeth, the first ever woman chaplain to an Archbishop of Canterbury and a director of reconciliation. Other priorities clearly include his concerns for public spiritual renewal, peace building and reconciliation, as well as tackling economic deprivation and support for marginalised communities.
I join the hon. Gentleman in wishing the new archbishop very well indeed. Have any discussions led us to understand that under his new tenure of office the Church will continue to speak out for the poor, the marginalised, the deprived and minorities, which the gospel made the clear and principal mission of the Church?
I am sure that Archbishop Justin will remember the words of Archbishop Temple who observed that the Church of England is an organisation that exists for people other than for itself. Given the work done by Archbishop Justin when he was Bishop of Durham on credit unions and food banks, and his concern about issues such as payday loans, I have no doubt that he will be at the forefront of pursuing concerns about economic deprivation and supporting marginalised communities.
Kettering Street Pastors
The Church of England provides national financial support to a number of street pastor groups around the country through the church and community funds. As many Members will know, the street pastors initiative is an independent and ecumenical initiative with some 200 groups across the country.
Kettering is the nightclub capital of north Northamptonshire. Into that fray, every Saturday night and Sunday morning, between the hours of 11 pm and 3 am, the Kettering street pastors, led by their inspirational co-ordinator, Fiona de Boltz, send out six to 10 volunteers to offer faith-based reassurance, comfort and guidance, as well as practical assistance to vulnerable young people. Will my hon. Friend agree to visit Kettering to see the good work they do?
It goes without saying that I would be extremely happy to go with my hon. Friend one Saturday night and see the work of the Kettering street pastors. Street pastors across the country do invaluable work in helping, caring and listening, and making our streets safer at nights and weekends.
It is an outrageous slur from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) to say that Kettering is the nightclub capital of north Northamptonshire when everybody knows it is Wellingborough and Rushden. Street pastors in my area do a tremendous job, in particular the Full Gospel church in Rushden, which has led the way with a homeless shelter. Does my hon. Friend the Second Church Estates Commissioner agree?
The charitable and voluntary work of the Church at local and national levels is so diverse and varied that it is difficult to generalise about the impact of recent Government policy on it. One positive development has been funding from the Department for Communities and Local Government for the Near Neighbours programme. That is managed by the Church of England through the Church Urban Fund and does much to promote understanding between people of different faith communities in different parts of the country.
Will my hon. Friend use his good offices to lobby the Government to review the public benefit test in terms of its application by the Charity Commission to religious groups, so that we may avoid the situation ever again in which the Christian Brethren are discriminated against but pagan religions are given charitable status?
Pilgrimage of Prayer (Canterbury)
Prior to the formal commencement of his public ministry and enthronement in Canterbury cathedral on 21 March, Archbishop Justin intends to tour parts of the province of Canterbury to meet its people and visit its diverse communities. From 14 March to 19 March, he will visit five cities and six cathedrals. Everyone is welcome to join in the journey of prayer at any point during the pilgrimage.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is visiting cities in the province of Canterbury and my hon. Friend’s constituency is of course in the province of York. I have no doubt that in due course the Archbishop of Canterbury will visit the province of York and I will draw to his attention my hon. Friend’s request.
As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, there have been several developments since I last updated the House. The initial facilitator discussions have been completed and the consultation stage on a new document has just closed. The working group met earlier this week to consider 376 submissions and will meet again later this month. The intention, as I have mentioned to the House on occasions too numerous to particularise, is to have the House of Bishops give consideration to the results from the working party when it next meets in May.
“Women in the episcopate: a new way forward” could have been written by Sir Humphrey Appleby. It shows little urgency and, with both sides further apart, even less prospect of progress in July. Is it not time that the House took a stand and supported my ten-minute rule Bill next Wednesday on allowing women bishops?
There are two serious points there. First, I promise the hon. Lady that the Church of England is moving as fast as humanly possible on this, and I can assure her that everyone from Archbishop Justin to every member of General Synod wishes to have this matter resolved as speedily as possible. Secondly, the House needs to be cautious about wanting to go back to the position prior to 1919, when matters of doctrine and worship of the Church of England were settled by Parliament. In 1919, Parliament decided that those were matters for the Church Assembly—now the General Synod—and I am not sure that Parliament would wish to go back to that pre-1919 position without giving it some serious thought.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 11 March—Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill.
Tuesday 12 March—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on tax fairness, followed by a debate on apprenticeships.
Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 13 March—Remaining stages of the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords] (day 1).
Thursday 14 March—Launch of a report from the Justice Select Committee on youth justice, followed by debate on a motion relating to accountability and transparency in the NHS. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 18 March—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 19 March—Proceedings on a Bill.
Wednesday 20 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 21 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 22 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 14 March will be:
Thursday 14 March—Debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee report on the FCO’s human rights work in 2011, followed by general debate relating to Commonwealth day.
The House will also be aware that this morning I made a written statement announcing that Her Majesty the Queen will open a new Session of this Parliament on Wednesday 8 May 2013.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and the date of the Queen’s Speech.
Tomorrow is international women’s day. To celebrate, the Government propose to remove the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s general equality duty from the statute book, having already slashed 70% of its funding. The Government have undermined the EHRC to such an extent that the United Nations has warned that it may lose its current A-list status as an independent body. It was therefore fitting that on Monday the other place blocked that attack on the commission’s powers to progress fairness. No wonder that the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) suggested in The Sun on Tuesday that her own Front Bench needed equality training. Will the Leader of the House confirm when we will see the amended Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill back in this place?
I think I have finally managed to discover something reliable about the Government: the regularity of their U-turns. On 14 February, I observed that with this Government we have a U-turn every 29 days. Following the Education Secretary’s embarrassing climbdown on GCSEs, I predicted that the next one was due to arrive on 8 March—a non-sitting Friday.
Order. The hon. Lady must resume her seat. We cannot have points of order in the middle of business questions. There will be an opportunity for points of order in due course and there are plenty of opportunities to contribute, but not in the middle of business questions.
As I said, I predicted that the next U-turn was due on 8 March—a non-sitting Friday. Therefore, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting my request that this U-turn be brought forward to a sitting day by agreeing to Labour’s urgent question on the NHS competition regulations, which the Government withdrew ignominiously on Tuesday? It may have arrived like clockwork, but that U-turn took a quarter of a million names on a petition, thousands of doctors protesting and outrage across the House before the Government saw sense and realised that the British public will not tolerate our NHS being privatised.
The Leader of the House may recall that he told me last week that I was “not right” to say that the NHS competition regulations were a direct contradiction to the reassurances he gave during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012. Yet only yesterday, the Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee reported that the regulations are defective for precisely that reason. Will he now concede that he was wrong? Will he tell me when we can expect to see a new version of the regulations, and can we have them published in draft first, to avoid even more chaos? I am setting my clock for the next 29 days, but I make a plea to the Government: if I can predict their U-turns, then surely so can they. Could they, perhaps, just think through their policies a bit more before they announce them?
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House to ensure that the Commons Committee stage of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill will not be completed before the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards has even published its second report. This week, we learned that the Government intend to railroad the Bill through the Commons Committee stage by 18 April, well before the second report is expected to be published. How can the Leader of the House seriously expect MPs to scrutinise a Bill that is still only half-written? Will he stand up for the rights of this House and delay the Committee stage until after the Banking Commission has reported?
I am glad to see that our downgraded Chancellor has got his priorities right: he spent the week in Europe defending bankers’ bonuses. He gathered his allies around him ready for the fight and ended up in a minority of one. No one seems to respect the Chancellor anymore. Yesterday, the Business Secretary made a pre-emptive strike on the Prime Minister’s big economy speech by agreeing with the Opposition that we need a plan B, and the Governor of the Bank of England has accused the Chancellor of holding back the economy by not splitting up RBS. Most damningly, however, he has lost the respect of the British public, who see him ignoring the suffering of hard-working families, while he signs off six-figure tax cuts to 30,000 millionaires. Will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to start listening?
While the Chancellor is acting as a shop steward for the rich, another union is growing in strength: the national union of Ministers, united in their determination to dump further cuts to their Departments somewhere else. The Defence Secretary seems to have emerged as the new Arthur Scargill; and, from reports of the slap-down of the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is emerging as the new Margaret Thatcher. Could the Leader of the House tell us whether the union is confident enough in its numbers to win a strike ballot? No wonder the Prime Minister has arranged to take a 28-day comfort break before he has to answer questions in the aftermath of the Budget statement.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her response to the business statement.
I share the hon. Lady’s wish to mark international women’s day tomorrow. In that respect, I hope it is helpful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will make an important statement immediately following business questions. I am sure the hon. Lady and the House will also welcome this morning’s written ministerial statement by the Home Secretary informing the House that the violence against women and girls action plan will be published tomorrow, on international women’s day. That will enable us to underpin further the strategy we set out two and a half years ago, showing the progress we have made and demonstrating our ongoing commitment to ending violence against women and girls, which was also marked by the debates agreed by the Backbench Business Committee in the Chamber recently.
The shadow Leader of the House asked when the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill would return here from another place. That depends on when those in another place finish their consideration. To my knowledge they have not yet done so, but we will see that in due course.
I do not believe that the competition regulations as originally presented to this House were in any sense in conflict with the commitments given by Ministers. What is clear, however, is that those regulations are capable of being misunderstood and misrepresented—particularly the latter by the Opposition. In that respect, it is simpler and better to illustrate clearly two simple facts in the regulations. First, clinical commissioning groups have a duty, which overrides all other considerations, to secure the needs of their patients and the quality of services to their patients and to make choice available to them. Secondly, contrary to the situation under the last Government, in their “Principles and rules for co-operation and competition”, procurement should be conducted with a view to securing integrated services for patients. To that extent, what we are doing is based on the principles set out in early 2010 under the last Government, but we are enabling patients to be more confident that they will get integrated services responding to their needs with clinical leadership. That seems absolutely fine to me.
The hon. Lady asked about bankers’ bonuses and all that. We have to be clear about this. The Opposition might not think it is important now, but in the past the Labour Government used to rely almost entirely on the proceeds of financial services in the City to fund all their expenditure. Now the Opposition seem to have ignored the fact that, notwithstanding that, we need a competitive financial services industry in this country. Labour seems to have ignored the fact that it did nothing about bankers’ bonuses, which were four times as great under the last Government than they are under this Government. The Opposition seem to have ignored the fact that what the European Parliament is proposing could have perverse results, leading to higher salaries rather than bonuses, adding to companies’ fixed costs and reducing both their capacity to claw back bonuses if there is poor performance and the flexibility that brings. This is not a debate in principle about whether bankers should have bonuses or about the level—we are dealing with that. The issue is whether they are structured in a way that allows poor performance to be penalised without adding to the problems of the industry’s competitiveness in Europe.
The hon. Lady talked about U-turns. On a day when the Labour party is trying to contrive some kind of U-turn on its immigration policy, that was a bit of an own goal. I have not heard the shadow Leader of the House get up and apologise for the fact that the last Government simply lost control and ended up with a net migration figure of 250,000 a year. The coalition Government set themselves the task of bringing that net number down from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, and the figures published last week demonstrate that net migration has fallen by a third in the past two and a half years. That shows that, in this respect as in so many others, the coalition Government are delivering on their promises.
Order. As usual, dozens of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye. I remind the House that there is a statement to follow from the Secretary of State for International Development, and then important proceedings on the Justice and Security Bill, so we are time-constrained. I must therefore exhort colleagues from the Back and Front Benches alike to speak pithily, beginning with Dr Thérèse Coffey.
My hon. Friend and I share a close interest in this matter, and I declare a constituency interest. I will of course talk to my right hon. Friend at the Department for Transport. I cannot promise a debate immediately, but I know that the Government will take the opportunity to discuss this matter with the House ere long.
May we have an urgent debate, or at least a statement, on the marine conservation zones? Given that £8.8 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on consultation, and 127 such zones have been proposed, could the Leader of the House find out when all 127 of them will be designated?
The hon. Lady was no doubt in the Chamber for questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That subject might have been raised in the course of those questions, but I hope she will forgive me for not being here at the time, so I do not know whether it was. If it was not, and if she particularly wishes to pursue the matter, may I suggest that she seeks an Adjournment debate in order to do so?
You were incredibly kind to try to accommodate everybody in DEFRA questions, Mr Speaker. In the light of recent events, including the ash tree disease, chalara, and all that has happened over food adulteration, will the Leader of the House see fit to review the time allocated to questions to the Church Commissioners and, especially, to questions to DEFRA, so that we can go back to having the full hour for DEFRA questions that we once enjoyed?
The Opposition have decided to debate tax fairness next week, so the hon. Gentleman might like to contribute to that debate. Government Members will also be able to contribute to it, and to highlight the fact that somebody on the minimum wage who is working a full week will have seen their income tax halved under this Government as a result of the increase in the personal allowance.
Today is world book day, and children up and down the country are going to school dressed as their favourite characters. I have joined in by dressing as Andrew Fraser, the Social Democratic party MP for Edinburgh Carlton in Jeffrey Archer’s book, “First Among Equals”, who ends up in a coalition Government in this very House. May we have a statement from the Department for Education on what it is doing to support school libraries, to ensure that such outlandish and far-fetched works of fiction are available to all?
I am sure that I am not alone in having found the school library my favourite place to be when I was at school. My hon. Friend might not realise that I, too, am in costume. I am taking the part of the Chief Whip—with apologies to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury—in my good friend Michael Dobbs’ book “House of Cards”. I am dressed as such.
May we please have an urgent debate on the plight of Shaker Aamer, who remains the last British resident incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay? He is still there after 11 years. We have heard sympathetic statements from the Foreign Secretary, and the US and the UK are both saying that he has been cleared for release. We need to know why we do not seem to have enough influence to get this man back. He has never been charged with any crime, and he has been there for 11 years.
I am sure the hon. Lady is as aware as many others in the House are of the representations that Her Majesty’s Government have been making about those in Guantanamo Bay. I will of course ask my colleagues in the Foreign Office to respond directly to her about the issue she has raised, and she may like to raise it further at Foreign Office questions.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern and his repeated efforts to support the Tamils who have suffered in the way he describes. I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I will draw what he said to the attention of my ministerial colleagues and get them to respond directly to him.
In a written question on 20 December 2011, I asked the Department for Work and Pensions about the number of people who had died while waiting for an appeal on their work capability assessments and received an answer that up until October 2011 there were 30. I asked the same question on 27 June last year and was told that up to the end of April 2012 there were 32. Last week, I received an answer from the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), to the same question, worded in the same way, but with the period extended until the end of 2012, and was told that the information was not available. Those answers cannot all be correct. Given either that the earlier ones were inaccurate or that the later one was evasive, may we have an urgent statement from that Minister on the veracity of his answers to written questions?
The hon. Gentleman will know that I cannot comment in detail on that without notice, but I will of course talk to colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to see whether we can establish the reasons behind the different answers in respect of different periods.
My right hon. Friend mentioned migration and I congratulate the Government on reducing net migration by a third. May we have a statement on how local education authorities can authenticate requests by parents from other EU countries for school places for their children? I understand that Bournemouth borough council—no different from other councils—has no requirement or indeed resource to check whether those parents are working legitimately in the UK. The system is subject to abuse.
My hon. Friend raises an issue that many hon. Members feel we should take an early opportunity to report on. I know that my colleagues are working hard on a range of issues about access to benefits and services. That work is ongoing and will be reported to the House in due course. I will make sure that my hon. Friend is made aware of any response to the particular issue he raises.
May we have a statement or debate in Government time in the near future on the uptake of benefits, particularly among senior citizens whose poverty levels run well over 15% higher in some regions? Senior citizens in Northern Ireland are missing out on up to £1 million a week by not taking up benefits, so more needs to be done to encourage take-up.
The right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to raise that matter with Work and Pensions Ministers on Monday. If I may say so, this Government have worked hard to try to secure that. I am aware that one of the benefits—if I can be forgiven the pun—of universal credit is that it will establish a more secure basis to give people access to the benefits to which they are entitled.
This week, we had the fantastic news that Jaguar Land Rover is going to invest a further £150 million, creating an extra 700 jobs at the engine plant that the company is building in my South Staffordshire constituency. May we have a debate on how we can continue to build on the success of the automotive industry, which is bringing such benefits not just to the west midlands but to the whole UK economy?
It was encouraging news to hear about the 10% increase in new car sales over the course of the earliest part of this year in comparison with the previous year. What is also tremendously encouraging about Jaguar Land Rover is its dramatic success in international markets and exports. The fact that that has been reflected in the investment in the engine plant near Wolverhampton which my hon. Friend mentioned is something that is greatly supported right across the House.
May we have a statement from the Government about when they will sign the maritime labour convention? Enough countries signed last August to make it international law this August, and the UK Chamber of Shipping and others are warning that our failure to do so would seriously disadvantage British shipping internationally. The Government support the measure and led the negotiations on it at the International Maritime Organisation, but for some reason it is mired in bureaucratic difficulty between Departments. I should be very grateful if the Leader of the House would look into the matter, and tell us whether we can have a statement.
I know of the support that the Government have given to the negotiations. I hope that one of my roles can involve entering the innards of that bureaucracy to try to ensure that the process works more smoothly and effectively. I will of course inquire of my colleagues to see what we can do to help the hon. Gentleman, and to succeed in the way that he describes.
May we have an urgent debate on the uncontrolled immigration that was allowed by the last Government and, in particular, on the effect that it has had in reducing the wages of the lower paid? This is a serious issue, given people’s current problems with the cost of living, and it needs to be looked into urgently.
In the last quarter, there has been a large rise in employment among UK nationals and a substantially smaller growth in employment among non-UK nationals. While we must ensure that those who come here to work are not subject to abuse in the sense of being paid less than the minimum wage or experiencing other poor conditions, I think we can feel increasingly confident that we are enabling more people in this country who are seeking jobs to acquire them.
May we have a debate, or at least a statement, on the current plight of those who pay electricity bills? We have heard that the big six are raising their prices again, and now we hear that they are also making excessive profits. Is it not time that we did something about that?
The Energy Bill has completed its Committee stage and will return to the Floor of the House in due course, when it will become clear to the hon. Gentleman that—as we have discussed previously—the Government are taking the power to require that consumers are given access to the lowest tariffs available. That, along with the electricity market reform which is encapsulated in the Bill, is a tremendous step forward.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of today’s ruling in the High Court about the children’s heart unit at Leeds general infirmary. I am sure that he would like to take this opportunity to congratulate all those who have campaigned so vigorously on the issue, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), whose campaigning has been outstanding. Will he also ensure that a Minister comes to the House as soon as possible to make a statement about the implications of the ruling, and about how the Government intend to proceed from now on?
I pay tribute to Members who, as my hon. Friend has said, have been assiduous in supporting their constituents and expressing their concerns. Those concerns are understandable, but let me reiterate that—as I think has been widely acknowledged—it is necessary to reduce the number of units responsible for children’s heart surgery in order deliver sustainable, secure, high-quality care for those children in the future.
It is clear from this morning’s decision that, while the judge has determined that the application for judicial review must succeed, what that means in terms of an order relating to the process itself is for future determination. I think it best for me to wait and see what the judge says in relation to the process before pressing my colleagues to make any kind of statement about how the joint committee of primary care trusts might proceed.
Whatever urgent debates the Leader of the House wants to arrange for next week, I must tell him that I may not be present, because the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has cancelled my travel card on the basis that I failed to submit my January conciliation form. It was submitted—I know that, because according to the online system it is “awaiting validation”, so it is clear that someone in IPSA has seen the form and typed those words—but IPSA has cancelled the card nevertheless.
It is unacceptable when this terminally abominable, incompetent organisation fails to pay the simplest expenses, but surely, when it starts to interfere with MPs’ ability to come to the House and return to their constituencies, that is something about which the Leader of the House and every Member should be concerned.
I understood what the hon. Gentleman said. I think he is seeking a statement or debate on the matter. [Interruption.] I know he wants his card back, but that does not of itself render his remarks orderly. They will be rendered orderly if there is a request for a debate and I am sure there was such a request; I probably just did not hear it.
I am sure we all want to enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s presence here next week. To that effect, I will draw directly to the attention of IPSA the points he has made and the cautious and modest way in which he expressed himself. I think there are other Members across the House who have found themselves in similar circumstances and who have some sympathy with him.
I rise somewhat nervously to draw attention to a widespread concern about the conduct of the Government’s business. I am sure the Leader of the House would join me in congratulating the Backbench Business Committee on providing time to debate an aspect of the Francis report, but when are we going to have a full day’s debate in Government time on the Francis report? The Leveson inquiry gave rise to just such a debate in Government time. Surely our relations with the press are less important than what has happened at Mid Staffordshire hospital and its implications for the health service as a whole. We would not want the House of Commons to give the wrong impression about what we think is important.
I am not sure I agree with my hon. Friend that the debate the Backbench Business Committee has scheduled for Thursday of next week is on one aspect of the Francis inquiry report. I think it is about accountability and transparency in the national health service. He will have seen on the Order Paper the nature of the motion presented. I do not think it constrains debate at all, and it is perfectly appropriate for us to proceed on the basis of the House considering this matter next Thursday, as the business papers make clear. I hope my colleagues will respond to the Francis inquiry in the course of this month, which in itself will give us a basis for considering what processes follow from that.
More than 40 employment agencies are operating in Corby, which is disproportionate. Having met representatives of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills this week, I am particularly concerned that there are now plans to cut the employment agency standards inspectorate, which protects the most vulnerable in my community, particularly in workplaces. May we have a debate on this?
The hon. Gentleman may by all means seek to secure an Adjournment debate on these issues, and I will certainly talk to my BIS colleagues about the points he raises, but in this context he might like to celebrate the fact that employment in this country has risen by over 800,000 since the election and more than 1 million private sector jobs have been created. If his constituency’s experience is contrary to the national trend, he might like to consider what further measures to stimulate employment will be needed in his constituency, especially as the area in general is seeing employment growth.
May we have a statement from the Justice Secretary about the need to restore honesty in sentencing, with particular reference to the fact that convicted terrorists stand to benefit from being released halfway through their sentences, with the extra burden that will inevitably place earlier than necessary on the police and security services?
As my hon. Friend knows, the type and length of a sentence imposed is a matter for the courts, but severe maximum penalties, including life sentences, are available for terrorism offences and terrorists frequently receive long custodial sentences. He will also know that extended sentences imposed on those convicted of a specified terrorist offence attract eligibility for parole consideration at the two-thirds point of the custodial period, with automatic release only once the custodial period has been served in full. I can assure him that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is keen to ensure public protection and keeps these matters under close review.
The Children and Families Bill has much to commend it, but as it goes through Committee the bedroom tax will hit foster carers, adoptive parents, disabled children and some children with special educational needs, all of whom stand to benefit from the provisions in the Bill. Will the Leader of the House use his influence to protect the children affected by the bedroom tax so that the widely supported measures in the Bill are not completely undermined by actions elsewhere in government?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Of course, the Children and Families Bill has a great deal to commend it, including its important provisions for the support of families with children with special educational needs. I am sure that he was in the Chamber and heard the responses given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to a series of questions yesterday. My right hon. Friend made it clear that we must understand not only the context of the £23 billion that is payable in housing benefit and the need to deal with that but how the change is being undertaken in a fair way. It is important to recognise that it brings the social housing sector into line with practice in the private rented sector in a way that offers not only access to a hardship fund but specific exemptions for some of the most vulnerable categories of tenants.
May we have a debate on the perspicacious and insightful fifth report of the Procedure Committee, which recommends that the Second Church Estates Commissioner and the other colleagues who answered questions earlier today should be allowed to make statements to the House on serious matters of national importance?
Yes, and, if I may, I will seek time, as it is our practice to do, to try to secure an opportunity for the House to consider matters recommended by Select Committees relating to House business. We will discuss that through the usual channels in the normal way, but I entirely recognise my hon. Friend’s point, although, as he will recognise, only in extremely rare circumstances will it be felt appropriate for such a statement to be made.
The Leader of the House has already, in passing, mentioned exports and it is vital that economic recovery, when it finally comes, should be export-led. Sterling’s recent dramatic fall in value should, at the very least, help the competitiveness of our exports, but net trade actually fell in the last quarter and the Bank of England has described our trade performance as disappointing. May we therefore have a debate on the crucial subject of trade and exports to see how the Government can raise their game?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government do not have a policy for the value of the pound in international markets. We have a policy to support growth, enterprise and employment in this country and we can see how employment has increased and how we are supporting the private sector in wealth creation through deregulation measures, the reduction of corporate tax rates and the dramatic increase announced by the Chancellor in access to investment allowances. There are issues with exports, particularly, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, because of the dramatic reduction in demand in the eurozone, which is hitting so many economies that are dependent on it. At the same time, in the first two years of this Government, British exports of goods have increased by 47% to China, by 33% to India, by 33% to Brazil and by 134% to Russia. As he rightly says, we need therefore to focus on stimulating that activity. The Chancellor’s autumn statement gave very specific additional support to UK Trade & Investment to do exactly that.
Yesterday was estimates day, and as usual we voted through countless billions of pounds of public expenditure with no vote and no debate. Yesterday, however, something different happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) tried to talk about estimates on estimates day, but he was immediately ruled out of order and told to get back to medical implants. As it happens, we have produced a report for the Chancellor on how to improve the accountability of estimates to Parliament and it is sitting in the Library. May we have a debate in Government time about how we can talk about estimates on estimates day?
I was present in the House and I think my hon. Friend is referring to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh) said that he believed that if he had sought to talk about estimates, he would have been ruled out of order, although I do not believe that the Chair issued any ruling at all. As the House will know, the determination of the subjects for debate on those two estimates days was conducted by the Liaison Committee. I have read the report published by my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) and for Southport. There is a fair point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and I have discussed on the Public Accounts Commission, about improving and enhancing the scrutiny of public expenditure by this House in a number of ways. I shall not talk about what they might be, but I share the view that we should find an opportunity in the future to try to enhance that.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to come to the House and make an urgent statement so that we can do a fact check on his answer to me yesterday, which was inaccurate when he claimed that severely disabled children, pensioners and people needing round-the-clock care were exempt from the council tax? With reference to children, those families with a second spare bedroom will face the bedroom tax. The only reason that some severely disabled children are exempted is a Court of Appeal ruling which, perversely, the Government are challenging.
I think that when the hon. Gentleman referred to council tax, he was referring to housing benefit. [Interruption.] Be that as it may, the hon. Gentleman and I heard what the Prime Minister said, and the Prime Minister is assiduous in ensuring that what he says to the House is accurate. If ever what he said was not accurate, he would of course correct it.
There is glorious news coming from the High Court this morning that campaigners for the children’s heart unit have won their case against the review. It is a tremendous victory for the parents and families and I pay tribute to them. It clearly confirms the view that the review is flawed. The judge said that the review team made an ill-judged and fatal mistake in not revealing how the Kennedy sub-scores were compromised. Recognising that there will be a further judgment, may we have a statement on the day of that judgment or the very next day so that we can get the matter resolved once and for all for those patients?
As I said before, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and colleagues across the House who have been assiduous in representing their constituents’ interests. I will not repeat what I said, but there will be a follow-on decision by the Court relating to what this decision means in terms of the process itself. As the process is conducted not by the Government, but by an independent joint committee of primary care trusts, it will in the first instance be a matter for it. I would not encourage my hon. Friend to assume that it is the responsibility of Ministers at that moment to do other than to report the facts to the House. It is not their responsibility at this point to determine the progress of the review.