House of Commons
Thursday 16 May 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—
1. What steps he is taking to encourage responsible dog ownership. (155334)
Good morning, Mr Speaker.
The Government are introducing a range of measures to tackle irresponsible dog ownership, including: extending the criminal offence of allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control to all places, including inside the dog owner’s home; requiring all dogs to be microchipped from April 2016; and powers to enable local authorities and the police to respond to incidences of antisocial behaviour that involves a dog before the situation becomes dangerous.
I thank the Minister for that answer. In my constituency, Medway council has been running a local community initiative offering free microchipping and advice on looking after dogs. What are the Government doing to encourage such community initiatives that help to foster responsible dog ownership?
That is exactly what we want to see happening, and I applaud my hon. Friend’s local council for promoting responsible dog ownership. We provided £50,000 of funding to three welfare charities to carry out community engagement programmes in targeted hot spot areas with known problems of antisocial behaviour with dogs. Final reports are being received and we intend to publish the results for further dissemination of best practice. Educating the public on how to look after their dogs properly is absolutely essential to tackling irresponsible dog ownership.
What assessment has the Minister made of the cost of microchipping to the consumer? What discussions has he had with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we have a UK-wide approach?
I am not quite sure who the consumer is in this instance. Presumably, the right hon. Gentleman means the dog owner. Most of the microchipping will be done by charities and will be free to owners. A number of charities are happy to work with us on that, so I do not think that we are talking about prohibitive cost. We are working with the devolved Administrations so that, as far as possible, we have consistency across national boundaries.
One of the charities the Minister has been working with is Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which is focusing particularly on encouraging more responsible attitudes in younger people. May I commend to the Minister the video “Bully Breed”, which it launched in Parliament recently and which could be a good educational tool for schools and youth groups?
Indeed. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home does a lot of very good work to promote responsible dog ownership, not least because it sees the consequences when things go wrong, and I certainly commend its work. I hope we will be able to make people appreciate that, whether through ignorance, neglect or malice, it is simply unacceptable to have a dog that is a danger to other people under any circumstances.
While we welcome compulsory microchipping and the extension to include private property in pursuing prosecutions of irresponsible dog owners, why did the Government not also include dog control notices as part of the measures, something that the Dogs Trust has been calling for and which would go a long way to helping to solve this problem?
Of course, the Home Office is introducing the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which will deal with precisely this problem. I cannot see the obsession with the label that is placed on those orders—it is the outcome that matters. What matters is the fact that flexible tools will be available to the police and others to deal with this nuisance in the way the hon. Gentleman wants. The measures will be in the Bill, and he will have the opportunity shortly to discuss whether they go far enough and whether there are any opportunities for improvement.
2. What progress he has made on opening up new markets to British producers. (155335)
Mr Speaker, good morning.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to work with UK Trade & Investment and industry to promote exports and address market access barriers. We have opened the pork markets in China and Australia, expanded the beef market to Hong Kong, and opened poultry, beef and lamb markets in Russia. We continue to work hard to open and maintain markets for UK goods. We also champion British food at the world’s key trade events.
Good morning, Mr Speaker.
I would like to press the Secretary of State, if I may. Given the continuing emerging strength of the BRIC—Brazil, Russia, India and China—countries, what scope is there for British products in that market?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to spot the growth in these markets. Last year, our exports to China grew by 6%, our exports to India by 7% and our exports to the USA by 9%, and only last week the Prime Minister was in Russia talking to President Putin about increasing our exports there. At the moment, the BRIC economies represent only 3% of our total export market, but there are massive opportunities to expand further.
16. Happy Thursday, Mr Speaker. Will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that the British food producers industry makes a significant contribution to the UK economy? What impact would it have on that industry, were the UK to leave the EU? (155350)
The hon. Gentleman is right to spot the importance of food production. It is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, and we would like to see exports expanded into Europe and the BRIC countries, as I have just said.
The Opposition were pleased to see the Prime Minister in the USA this week negotiating a trade deal on behalf of the EU to open up that new export market to the British food industry. I was disappointed to note the Secretary of State’s failure to support his Government’s Queen’s Speech in its entirety last night. Does he agree with his Prime Minister and President Obama that the UK is better off in the EU? Yes or no?
Presumably, that is with reference to the opening up of new markets to British producers?
I entirely agree with the Prime Minister that we would like to increase our exports to the EU and around the world, and that is why he was doing sterling stuff in Russia. I entirely endorse his policy, which is that we should renegotiate and then put the proposed settlement to the British people. The question for the hon. Lady is whether her wishy-washy Wally of a shadow leader will give the British people a choice.
I am not sure where we stand on those words. I always play the ball, not the man, Mr Speaker. It is interesting to note that the Secretary of State is a little rattled.
At a CBI dinner last night, Roger Carr, its president, said that Britain needed to be in the EU in order to build our export base. Membership of the EU gives us access to a domestic market of 500 million people. Our export trade deals are negotiated through the EU. Nearly three quarters of our food exports go to our European neighbours. Once more, will the Secretary of State explain how Britain’s leaving the UK would help jobs, exports and growth in the British food industry?
We are talking about exports. We want to export to Europe, but yesterday’s results for the French economy, led by her leader’s close ally, show that unemployment there has rocketed to 10.6%. In such circumstances, it is hard to sell and increase our exports to the eurozone. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) is on exactly the right lines in looking at the BRIC countries. We want to export more to Europe, but we also want to export to expanding parts of the world, such as the BRIC countries.
Live Animal Exports
3. If he will consider banning live animal exports from British ports; and if he will make a statement. (155336)
Banning the export of live animals would be illegal and undermine the principle of the free movement of goods enshrined in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union.
My constituents are concerned about live animal exports: they think them bad for animal welfare and the local economy. Will the Minister confirm that no amendment could be made to any of the harbours or ports Acts that would be effective in tackling this cruel and unwanted trade?
The key piece of legislation here is the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act 1847, which would be a singularly inappropriate vehicle for any such ban, because its aim is to ensure that ports are available to all without discrimination. Even were one to set that aside, however, no such ban would be legal under the free trade rules that this country is not only a signatory to, but the architect of.
Does the Minister envisage that in any renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU, the capacity to change the law in this regard would be one of the things agreed?
We should not confuse animal welfare issues, on which we will continue to push for changes, and the free movement of goods and services, on which this country has a clear position. We are in favour of the free movement of goods and services, and we are unlikely to argue for significant changes to that basic principle.
4. What steps he is taking to support the glasshouse industry; and if he will make a statement. (155337)
DEFRA works with colleagues across Government to support sustainable development and remove regulatory barriers. We work with colleagues in the EU to support fruit and vegetable producers through reform of the common agricultural policy, the general marketing standards and the fruit and vegetable producer organisation scheme. The Government support and encourage innovative approaches to growing through research and development, the agri-tech strategy and the green food project.
Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituency of Harlow—in particular, Roydon and Nazeing—has the highest concentration of cucumber and pepper growers in the United Kingdom? Will he support the excellent Lea Valley Growers Association and suggest how we can help it to expand? Will he also meet me and the association to discuss these matters?
I think every Member of the House is well aware of my hon. Friend’s commitment to his local growing businesses. He is a stalwart supporter of them. We want them to expand, not only for the local jobs that would create, but for our food security. That is why, for example, we have done combined horticultural production and energy research to try to assist companies such as those in his constituency with the energy they use, which is a big outgoing—and why we have an agri-tech strategy, drawing together engineering skills, R and D, and genotyping to try to reduce costs, using the fantastic innovation we have around the country. I am happy to consult him to see what more we can do to help specific growers in his constituency, who do a fantastic job.
Forests and Woodland
5. What steps he is taking to safeguard the future of forests and woodland. (155338)
We have set out our commitment to protecting, improving and expanding England’s forestry assets. This includes establishing a new body to run the public forest estate, maintaining a core of forestry expertise in government and supporting the forestry sector to improve its economic performance. We are also giving greater priority to plant health and we look forward to receiving the final report of the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce later this month.
The Forestry Commission owns a considerable amount of land in and around my constituency, including on Cannock Chase and Highgate common. What action are the Government taking, along with the Forestry Commission, to work more closely with voluntary organisations such as the Staffordshire wildlife trust to improve not only access, but the wildlife management of these important local beauty spots?
The hon. Gentleman has absolutely hit the nail on the head. That is exactly what we set out in the forestry and woodlands policy statement. We made it clear that we want the new public forest estate management organisation to work closely with local communities to improve the delivery of public benefits such as access, recreation and biodiversity. The Forestry Commission is already taking that commitment forward by developing a new package of community engagement measures.
The Forestry Commission’s strategy stated clearly that recent outbreaks of tree health problems, such as oak processionary moth, underline the need to maintain an experienced team of pathologists and entomologists capable of carrying out both strategic research and “fire brigade” investigations of new problems. Will the Minister therefore rule out any new cuts to DEFRA and its agencies in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, particularly as that would endanger the future survival of our country’s trees and forests?
It is desperately important that we not only keep together the cadre of experts we have, but expand it. There is a need to recruit new expert entomologists, for instance. The hon. Lady mentions oak processionary moth, which is a significant problem, but there are many other potential diseases and pests that we need to be aware of. I am absolutely clear that we need to retain that centre of expertise in the Department. That is exactly what the tree health and plant biosecurity taskforce is looking at. It is not for me to pre-empt what the spending review might say, but it is certainly our intent to ensure that we protect essential services to protect tree health.
High Speed 2
6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport and farmers on mitigating the effects of High Speed 2 on farms affected by the proposed route. (155339)
The Government are committed to ensuring that the construction of the high-speed rail line is undertaken as sympathetically as possible. That is why we have asked HS2 Ltd to undertake a draft environmental statement to better understand the impacts of the scheme on affected parties, including farmers. The draft statement will set out the likely significant impacts, as currently understood, and will identify proposals to avoid, reduce or remedy those with a significant adverse impact.
Whatever we might think about the principle of high-speed rail—I am actually for it—it can hardly be sympathetic, as the Minister said, given that the route that we have chosen, the Labour route, crashes through rural England and affects many farms. What discussions has the Minister had with the National Farmers Union about compensation for farms that will be decimated, with fields being separated from other fields, and land shortages being created by 100 metre swaths?
The environmental statement is published today and will be available in the Library. We have had meetings, and in February the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association signed up to a voluntary agreement with HS2 Ltd that sets out the process for contacting landowners to discuss gaining entry to their land. It also contains a fee structure and a duty of care commitment. This will help HS2 Ltd better to understand the impacts of the scheme on farmers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere along the route.
Will the Minister also discuss with the Secretary of State the problems that farmers in my constituency are facing as a result of proposed business developments on their land to improve the rural economy being put on hold or stopped altogether because of the blight?
We certainly remain willing to work across Government to ensure that those kinds of concerns about the undoubted impacts are raised. There is huge experience in relation to other infrastructure developments that have taken place over recent years and decades, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely with him to get this right.
7. What steps he is taking to improve the horse passport system. (155340)
The Government remain committed to strengthening the horse passport system. I met members of the Equine Sector Council for Health and Welfare’s strategy steering committee to discuss this and other issues on 21 February. My noble Friend Lord de Mauley will be meeting them again next week to discuss these matters further.
A single horse passport-issuing organisation could improve traceability and bring greater rigour to the system. What transitional arrangements is my right hon. Friend planning for the more than 1 million horses in this country that already have passports and that are far more likely to end up at slaughterhouses than next year’s foals?
My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on this matter, having been chief executive of the National Pony Society before entering the House. That is one of the 75 bodies that issues horse passports. She makes the very sensible point that more than 1 million passports have already been issued. We are working with the European Commission, which has sensibly suggested that we move to a single database, and we will obviously work closely with the passport-issuing organisations as we work out the transition to the new system.
On the question of having a single process across Europe for dealing with horse passport fraud, does the Secretary of State believe that it would be harder or easier to tackle such fraud if we left the European Union?
We are discussing this matter immediately with the European Commission, which has put forward the sensible proposal that member states should have a central database. The issue might be subject to renegotiation at a later stage, at which point I would love to hear the hon. Gentleman’s opinion on whether he would push his party leader to back us in giving the British people a choice on the renegotiated settlement.
Everybody agrees that there must be reform and improvement of the horse passporting system, but under the current system there is a derogation for native breeds such as Welsh mountain ponies and Exmoor ponies. Without that derogation, it would become almost financially impossible for people to continue to keep those breeds. Will the Secretary of State consider keeping the derogation so that we can continue to see those wonderful ponies on our wild hills and mountains?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right to say that a number of breeds are currently excluded. We will have to work this out as we discuss the new system, but I also hope that he will see the merits of having a centralised database, which we will work through with the passport-issuing authorities.
Bore da i chi, Mr Speaker—good morning to you.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has become infamous for U-turns, but now our Eurosceptic Secretary of State has been forced into making an embarrassing EU-turn as a result of the horsemeat scandal. He scrapped the national equine database last year, right in the middle of a tendering process, to save £200,000. Now the European Commission has told him to re-establish a central equine database. How much will it cost to set it up again?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We called a meeting with senior members of the equine sector before we had discussions with the Commission, and we all agreed that the system we inherited from his Government is a mess and badly needs to be improved. He exaggerates the importance of the national equine database as he left it, because it did not contain food chain information. We will work closely with the industry. We have seen success with the dog industry contributing to the microchipping programme, and we will work with the equine industry to see how it can help to build the new database.
Is there any scope in these proposals to help to combat the growing problem of fly grazing? Farmers and landowners in my constituency are intimidated by Gypsy and Traveller groups who let their horses graze on their land, when the only route open to them is civil prosecution.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I discussed with senior representatives of the horse industry at the Royal Windsor horse show on Saturday. There is a real problem with fly grazing, but we are taking measures forward in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which I hope will lead to a reduction of the problem.
8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the forthcoming legislation on dangerous dogs. (155341)
May I congratulate the hon. Lady again on both the tenor and content of her Adjournment debate speech on this subject last night? As she will know, there have been several discussions between DEFRA and Home Office Ministers on how the new measures contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will apply to low-level incidents involving dogs.
My constituent, 14-year-old Jade Lomas Anderson, was the most recent person to be killed by dangerous dogs. Despite the Minister’s assurances, the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, all the animal welfare charities, the British Veterinary Association and the Communication Workers Union still believe we need dog control notices to prevent dog attacks and do not believe that the current proposals will do enough to prevent injuries to people and other animals by aggressive dogs. Will the Minister please reconsider his position so that we can do more to prevent tragedies such as the one that befell Jade and her family from occurring in the future?
We certainly need to do everything we can to avoid that sort of tragedy. The fact is that nine children and six adults have been killed in dog attacks since 2005 and 12 of those took place on private property. On the question of what species of injunction we use to prevent irresponsible dog ownership, I believe, as does the Home Office, that its proposals provide the flexibility we need. I do not think that having a proliferation of different measures with different labels, which I am afraid was a characteristic of the previous Government’s approach, is necessarily the right way forward. We will be able to discuss this, however, in the context of the Bill, and I hope we will come to a satisfactory conclusion.
I believe that assistance dogs are wonderful selfless animals as well providing an invaluable resource for individuals with an impairment. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as a result of this Government’s proposals, future attacks on assistance dogs will be considered to be an aggravated offence?
That is absolutely right. It is contained within the Home Office proposals and the Home Office Bill, and I think it will largely be welcomed across the House.
9. What steps he is taking on flood insurance. (155343)
10. What steps he is taking on flood insurance. (155344)
We are at an advanced stage in negotiations with insurers towards producing a successor to the statement of principles. Today, the Association of British Insurers has written to say that insurers will continue to abide by the current agreement for a month beyond the end of June to allow further time for the outstanding issues to be concluded. I am placing a copy of the letter in the Library of the House. We are aiming to conclude negotiations as soon as possible to ensure that households can continue to access affordable flood insurance.
Home owners in flood-risk communities are becoming increasingly anxious about this Government’s failure to get a deal on flood insurance. Two hundred thousand properties in flood-risk areas face the prospect of either higher premiums or not getting insured at all. Extending the talks is fine, but when are we going to see a deal on this issue?
The current arrangements are not guaranteed to hold premiums down. We are seeking an arrangement that will last well into the future, will deliver affordability and comprehensiveness, and will not impose a huge burden on the taxpayer. The hon. Lady may wish to pop into the Library, or, if she comes to see me later, I will give her a copy of the letter from the ABI. She will see that the tone of the letter demonstrates that we are very close to an agreement, although there are still some important issues to be resolved.
A one-month extension is simply not good enough. The Government have had three years in which to sort out the problem, and, in the meantime, householders and businesses in Exeter and throughout the south-west face huge hikes in their premiums because of the uncertainty. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor understand that no country in the world has a free market in flood insurance, and that there will have to be some sort of underwriting if there is to be a deal?
Having seen the floods in Exeter, I know that this is a key issue there. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the new schemes, which will be of great benefit to many thousands of his constituents. I cannot negotiate with him on the Floor of the House, but we are fully aware that a great many people are vulnerable to increases in premiums, and we view this as a real priority. I think that the fact that the ABI has told us that only one month is needed for us to conclude our important discussions shows how close we are to an agreement.
I welcome the news about the ABI, but can my right hon. Friend reassure us that enough time is available for the introduction of the legislation that will be required to replace the statement of principles, given the time frame involved? Can he also reassure us that it will cover home contents insurance for those who live in rented accommodation that is flooded?
As my hon. Friend—who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—is aware, we will be presenting a water Bill in the summer, and we shall have an opportunity to include clauses that will lead to the legislation that is required. We are convinced that, whatever happens, there will have to be some form of legislation to ensure that the arrangement is comprehensive. The detail to which my hon. Friend refers will be dealt with in the negotiations.
17. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his Ministers for the hard work they have been doing. Does the Secretary of State share my frustration over the fact that it seems to be the ABI and the insurance industry—one of our great successes in this country— that are exerting the pressure, and holding out for some sort of subsidy from the taxpayer in order to secure an agreement? (155351)
Having visited my hon. Friend’s constituency during the floods, I am fully aware of the importance of the issue to her constituents, but it is a complex issue. We are trying to find a long-term solution, and to sort out the conundrum of affordability, comprehensiveness, and not imposing a long-term burden on the taxpayer. I pay tribute to the ABI for the constructive manner in which it has engaged in the regular meetings and discussions that have taken place. We are not quite there yet, but I hope to be able to come to the House soon to announce a resolution of the problems.
14. Has the Secretary of State seen a report, published this week, which suggests that rather than there being a once-in-a-thousand years chance of the Thames barrier being overwhelmed by rising sea levels, the statistic could be once in a hundred years or even once in 10 years? What are the implications of that for insurance costs in London? (155348)
We have begun preliminary investigations of the prospects of long-term flooding. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a possibility of major construction projects which may help.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. Residents of Pagham and Middleton-on-Sea, in my constituency, greatly valued the visit by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), on 29 April. Surface water flooding was a huge problem in my constituency on 10 June last year, and it is now becoming clear that silt build-up in the Pagham and Aldingbourne rifes exacerbated that flooding. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Environment Agency to give greater priority to routine clearing and dredging of the main river water courses that are so important in preventing and mitigating flood damage?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should seek an Adjournment on the matter. He might even get it.
I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend has raised a very important point. I think that the Environment Agency has a role to play in clearing major waterways, but I am also talking to the agency about speeding up the ability of landowners to look after low-risk waterways, where there is also a problem in rural areas.
The Secretary of State has been given a welcome breathing space with the month-long extension of the statement of principles negotiated by the Labour Government. That, however, will come as little consolation to the company in Calderdale that is facing an increase in its flood insurance excess from the current level of £500 to a staggering £250,000, putting jobs and the local economy at risk. Does the Secretary of State really believe that that is a price worth paying for his ideological support for a free market in insurance?
That is a glorious question, because the hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. He describes the problem with the existing system left because of the incompetence of the Labour Government, who made such a mess for 13 years. We are trying to bring forward a better system that will deliver affordability to some of our most vulnerable citizens. We will deliver; they didn’t.
12. What steps his Department is taking to promote community orchards. (155346)
Community orchards provide a place for local people to reconnect with nature, and they encourage biodiversity. That is why we have worked across government and with the European Union to make it easier for local people to establish community orchards.
In Herefordshire, the Bulmer Foundation does outstanding work in opening up community orchards for disadvantaged people of all backgrounds, and only last week Orchard Art was celebrated at a special service in Hereford cathedral. Does the Minister of State share my view that community orchards can have enormous social as well as environmental value, and will he join me in congratulating the Bulmer Foundation on its Orchard Art initiative?
Herefordshire has the distinction of being the second best county in the country for production of orchards. In 2012, research commissioned by Natural England found that community orchards produced a range of valuable benefits over and above the fruit they supply. They provide a haven for wildlife, lock up carbon and enhance the quality of life of the people living around them. I do indeed congratulate the Bulmer Foundation on the work it is doing and the difference it is making for local communities.
Order. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), but I want speedily to move on from fruit to bees. I call Mr David Nuttall.
13. What recent assessment he has made of the health of the UK’s bee population. (155347)
Threats to the health of bees are many, and their impacts change from year to year. Our National Bee Unit’s bee health inspectors report a mixed picture. While the foulbrood diseases are at historically low levels and exotic pests remain absent, the varroa mite is still a major concern. NBU inspectors are assessing what impact almost 12 months of poor weather is having on our bees and will report later in the year.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Given the importance of bees to our environment—and, of course, our orchards—what more can his Department do to make it easier for people to take up beekeeping and encourage a new generation of beekeepers in this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the supreme importance of encouraging the growth of pollinators all round, and our healthy bees plan provides £1.3 million to fund the NBU, with its inspection, training and diagnostic services, which encourage people to take up beekeeping.
In Northern Ireland, the predicament of the bees is just as critical as it is in England. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly, and specifically the Minister responsible for this area, Michelle O’Neill, to ensure that the United Kingdom strategy is put in place across the whole of the United Kingdom, including England and the regions?
This issue is devolved, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but I will be having a meeting with the devolved Ministers very shortly, and bees and pollination will obviously be one of the issues we will discuss.
Speaking as a beekeeper myself, is the Secretary of State aware of the extreme disappointment of the British Beekeepers Association, of which I am a member, at the recent EU ban on neonicotinoid insecticides and the very grave concern that as a result farmers will go back to older, and more damaging, insecticides and that the health of Britain’s bees could therefore inadvertently be more at risk now than before the ban was introduced?
My hon. Friend speaks with real authority on this, so what he says is worrying. We argued exactly that case: that there should not be a precipitate ban until proper analysis has been done of the alternatives. There may be legally licensed alternatives, such as pyrethroids or organophosphates, but they are not nice, and we were not convinced that the case against neonicotinoids had been made following the analysis of our field trials. We were supported by eight member states—important ones such as Hungary, with 2 million hectares producing 20,000 tonnes of honey—but, sadly, we were outvoted and the Commission has decided to bring in a two-year ban.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (155354)
DEFRA’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment, and safeguarding animal and plant health. In recent weeks, we have helped farmers respond to the pressures created by the recent severe weather, not only through immediate support, but by bringing together the banks, farming charities and industry to co-ordinate farmers’ short-term access to finance and build the long-term resilience of their businesses. As we seek to enhance rather than merely protect our natural environment, we are exploring the potential for biodiversity offsetting, so that we can improve our cherished habitats and wildlife, while enabling the rural economy to prosper.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In Medway this summer, following a successful bid to the central Government weekly collection support scheme, recycling will be collected weekly. What action are the Government taking to enable more local authorities to increase their recycling rates?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The UK is on track to meet its 50% household waste recycling target. Decisions on collection regimes are for local councils to make, taking into account local circumstances, including local logistics, the characteristics of the area and the service that local people want. The Government are encouraging a number of councils to run incentive schemes for various kinds of recycling collection, through the reward and recognition scheme and the weekly collection support scheme. The Government have also introduced higher packaging recycling targets for business, which will help to increase household recycling rates.
T3. A draft Bill on banning wild animals in circuses was published by DEFRA in April but did not feature in the Queen’s Speech. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether that Bill will be introduced in this House in this Session or not? (155356)
The Bill has been introduced to the House for pre-legislative scrutiny. It is in the hands of the Select Committee at the moment, and I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of the Select Committee’s considerations.
T2. May I return the Government to the issue of antisocial behaviour caused when a large number of dogs are packed into a small garden, which not only causes a nuisance to neighbours, but is not good for the dogs themselves? I have written to the Home Office about this, the letter has been transferred to DEFRA, and I have not yet had a response. May I please have a meeting with the relevant Minister? (155355)
I am sure that that will be possible. The relevant Minister is Lord de Mauley, to whom I will communicate my hon. Friend’s request. I hope it will be acceded to.
Almost a year ago, the then Secretary of State told me that a deal on flood insurance was imminent. Is not the real villain of the piece here the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has blocked a deal being reached? Is this not another example of a shambolic Government, who have had three years to sort this matter out and now have to get a further month’s extension, with there still being no guarantee that a deal will be in place after that extra month?
That is complete nonsense. The Chief Secretary and senior Ministers are all working closely together on this issue. I am sorry that we may have nearly shot the Labour party’s fox. We are working closely with the Association of British Insurers and we will deliver a good deal.
T4. What is my right hon. Friend doing to make sure that the new single farm payment forms are as short as possible? (155357)
That is a very interesting point, because one of the main principles underlying our negotiation for common agricultural policy reform has been that whatever comes out has to be simple and deliverable. One of the mistakes made back in 2005 was that we had an over-complicated system and a lack of resource to deliver it, and as a result we had a shambles in the Rural Payments Agency.
In answer to previous questions from me about how we can protect people from the adverse effects of low-energy lighting, Ministers indicated that they would need to get support from other European partners. What steps have they been taking in the past six months to do that?
This matter is dealt with by Lord de Mauley, and I will ensure that the hon. Lady gets a detailed analysis of what we have been up to.
T5. What part are the Government playing in ending the practice of fish discards? (155358)
I am delighted to report that at 6.15 am yesterday we got an agreement that the Council of Ministers is now in a position to do a deal with the Parliament that means we will, at last, see a meaningful end to the practice of discarding perfectly edible fish. This is part of a radical reform of the common fisheries policy, for which Members from all parts of the House have been calling for a great many years.
What is the Government’s estimate of the costs of policing the badger cull, and who will pay for it?
We have made it very clear that this Department will cover the marginal costs to the police forces involved of policing the cull, when it takes place. Obviously, the level of costs will be entirely dependent on the level of illegal activity in the areas in which the cull is taking place.
T6. The Secretary of State often makes reference to the common agricultural policy delivering public goods for public money. Does he agree that the delivery of increased amounts of safe, high-quality, affordable food from this country’s farms is one such public good? (155359)
I certainly do agree. The clear intention of CAP money is to support those areas where the market does not provide, as I know my hon. Friend would agree. But we need a thriving agricultural industry in this country, and that means that we ensure that for the future we have the food security that this country desperately needs.
Calcium, iron and other nutrients have been added to white flour in this country for over 65 years, and it is very worrying to hear that the Government are considering possibly scrapping that. Does the Secretary of State see that as an important addition to nutrition for families, particularly in hard-pressed times, or simply a regulatory burden that he wants to get rid of?
We are considering a review of the national rules relating to bread and flour as they apply to England. We held a public consultation seeking views on possible deregulatory options, which closed on 13 March 2013. We are analysing the 47 responses that we received, in conjunction with the Department of Health. We are committed to ensuring that any policy decision on the removal of mandatory fortification will take into account an assessment of the health impacts, the impact on industry and the implications for other parts of the United Kingdom and the interests of consumers. We intend to announce our decision before the summer recess.
T7. Is the Minister aware of any international examples of disease control that could be applicable in the bid to control bovine TB in the UK? (155360)
In opposition, I visited the USA; I went to Michigan. Last month, I went to Australia and New Zealand and I shall shortly be visiting the Republic of Ireland. What they all have in common, in getting rid of this horrible disease, which is a zoonosis, is that they bear down on disease in cattle and they bear down on disease where there is a reservoir in wildlife. That is exactly what we intend to do.
In recent days, it has emerged that burgers served in Leicester schools that were classified as halal contained pork. There have been similar examples elsewhere in the country. Will the Secretary of State undertake to have urgent discussions with the Food Standards Agency to ensure that halal food is indeed halal food?
This is a matter of great concern to consumers; I perfectly understand that. That is one reason why we have had meetings with the religious authorities, and of course with the Food Standards Agency. It is the responsibility of manufacturers, processors and retailers to ensure that what they provide is what they say they are providing. Certification is a matter for the religious authorities; that is not a Government issue, but we will work closely with them to ensure that what people eat is what it says on the label.
T8. Hill farmers across Britain were badly affected by the severe weather at the end of March and in early April. Some of the worst hit were in Macclesfield. Will my hon. Friend confirm to the House that the payment process will be clearly communicated, and that the very welcome funds will be available at the earliest opportunity? (155361)
I certainly will. All the key information was announced yesterday; the hon. Gentleman may be aware of that. The National Fallen Stock Company will administer the scheme both for farmers who are members of the company and those who are not. Farmers should visit the National Fallen Stock Company website or call its telephone helpline to get the details and check whether they are eligible. Applications must be received by 30 June and payments are expected to be made by the end of July.
The Government said that the pilot badger culls are being carried out to test whether badgers can be killed humanely. They still have not released the criteria by which the cull will be assessed to ascertain whether it is humane. When will those criteria be published—or is the Minister holding them back because he knows perfectly well that they will demonstrate that it is not possible to kill them in a humane way?
It is always interesting when people know the results of a trial before it is carried out. These trials will indicate whether it is possible to effect this cull in a humane, a safe and an effective way. That will be reviewed by an independent panel, quite independent of the Department and those taking part in the cull, and we will then assess that and report to the House in due course.
T9. Pillar two funding of the post-2014 CAP arrangements is vital to continue the rural development in the Vale of Glamorgan. Local decision making and administration has been key to that success in the past. This is at risk. Will the Secretary of State do everything possible to ensure that it is maintained? (155362)
The Welsh Assembly Government are developing the next rural development programme for Wales. We are in a difficult positions in that we have not quite reached the conclusion of the negotiations. When the European Commission confirms the UK allocation of pillar two funding, we will be in a better position to assess the funding available for each of the UK’s Administrations.
Does the Minister think that the fortification of bread and flour with nutrients is a burden on business or an important way of ensuring that hard-pressed families facing the cost of living crisis get the nutrition that they need?
I think we should hold a consultation, listen to the results and then reach a decision. That is what we are doing.
Very briefly, I call Mr Andrew Stephenson.
T10. I recently met my National Farmers Union branch on a farm in Barrowford to discuss the challenges that many are facing, with many leaving the industry. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage new entrants to the industry? (155363)
That is absolutely crucial. We need to attract the best and the brightest into farming, the other land-based industries and the food industry. It is the biggest manufacturing industry in this country. That is why a short time ago I launched a future for farming review, which is under way. I hope that it will provide us with a clear picture of where the barriers are and where the opportunities are for attracting people into these industries.
We are extremely grateful to the ministerial team and to colleagues.
Individual Electoral Registration
1. What progress the Electoral Commission is making on preparations for the full confirmation test in the transition to individual electoral registration. (155324)
The Government, not the Electoral Commission, are responsible for the set-up and delivery of the full confirmation test, which is likely to start in July. The commission will be evaluating and reporting on the process and providing electoral registration officers with guidance and tools to support them in the test. The commission’s evaluation will focus on how the technical system for transferring and handling the data has performed and it will then make an overall assessment of whether everything is in place for the successful delivery of individual electoral registration in October.
Does the Electoral Commission agree that there is real concern out there about the IT system that is being used in the process of confirmation, and that it is very important to allow sufficient time for the transition to IER to ensure that things are done properly?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The IT system is extremely important. That is why a full and proper assessment will be made in good time before IER is introduced in 2014. I remind him and the House that, in any event, at the 2015 election all those on the register in 2014 will be automatically transferred, so there is some safeguard.
2. What support the Church Commissioners provide to refurbish church bells. (155325)
Church bells are an important part of our national character and heritage, and the Church of England has some limited grant aid available for work to bells and bell frames that are of historic interest. This is distributed by the Church Buildings Council, which also provides advice to help churches approach other funders, including the Heritage Lottery Fund.
In April I joined the Colne ringers for a practice night in the bell tower of St Bartholomew’s church in Colne. The main reason for my visit was to help publicise the ringers’ work and encourage other people to join to help ring the church’s eight bells. However, while I was there it was clear that the installation is showing signs of its age, with much of it dating back to the early 1800s. The ringers hope they can refurbish the bells for their 200th birthday in 2014. Is there any help that the Church Commissioners can provide?
In addition to the possible grant aid for the bells at St Bartholomew’s church in Colne from the Church Buildings Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which I have already mentioned, bell frames are eligible for support under the listed places of worship grant scheme to reclaim the cost of VAT on them. Useful advice and assistance are also available from county and diocesan ringing associations.
National Audit Office
3. How many staff the National Audit Office employs; and what information the NAO collects on their previous employment. (155326)
The National Audit Office currently employs the equivalent of 870 full-time staff. It collects detailed information on an individual’s employment and education history when recruiting staff.
The National Audit Office undertakes a lot of good work investigating many public bodies. Does my hon. Friend think the make-up of his staff is sufficiently broad, from all sorts of different sectors in the private and public world, for them to do their job effectively?
Yes, I do. As an audit institution, the NAO’s core accounting skills are obviously provided through qualified accountants, many of whom join as trainees. The NAO currently employs about 330 qualified accountants and 200 trainees, graduate and school-leaver, from all sectors and all types of society. It also recruits staff from public and private sector backgrounds to provide operational expertise and disciplines, including economics, statistics, information and communications technology, banking and finance. In addition, it has an active inward and outward secondment programme to enhance its skills and experience base.
Will the hon. Gentleman send the House’s congratulations to NAO staff, who do such a good job, particularly in bursting the bubble on High Speed 2? They have shown what an absolute waste of public money it will be. It will cost approximately £50 billion, which could be spent regenerating our towns and cities.
Of course NAO staff have no views on the policy implications of HS2, but I know that they will ensure that it, like all public sector projects, is properly investigated to ensure that there is no waste or incompetence.
electoral commission committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
4. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. (155328)
The Secretary of State has been generous with her time, both to Church of England representatives and me, in discussing issues arising from that particular legislation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to update the House on what progress has been made on whether chaplains will be allowed not only to decline to conduct same-sex marriages in a church, but to promote the values of traditional marriage?
During the two days of debate next week the House will have to consider a number of issues relating to freedom of conscience. It will also have to consider the amendments relating to the possibility of humanist weddings, which would completely change the basis of English marriage law from one that is building-based to one that is celebrant-based. I think it is important to remember that in Scotland, where that happens, pagan weddings and weddings in other formats are now taking place, which I am not sure we would necessarily want to see in England. Likewise, the House will have to take a view on whether having heterosexual civil partnerships will or will not enhance the concept of marriage. Those are all issues that the House will have to consider during the two days next week. The Government, as I understand it, have said throughout that they wish to see the institution of marriage strengthened. I hope that that will be the test by which the House addresses the issues over the two days next week.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the Church of England’s formal evidence to the Bill Committee, given orally, the Bishop of Norwich made it quite clear that the Church was perfectly happy with the existing and unamended safeguards that the Government have provided in the Bill? What damage does he think it would do to the established status of the Church of England if the bishops in the other place were to use their privileged position to try to thwart legislation that had the overwhelming support of this House in a free vote?
Members of the House of Lords, irrespective of where they come from, are Members of Parliament, and the other place is a revising Chamber and has perfectly good constitutional arrangements. The right hon. Gentleman will not be insensitive to the fact that there are still concerns about, for example, the position of Church of England or faith schools that wish to teach traditional concepts of marriage and whether they will be protected under the Bill. I am quite sure that, from the position he adopts and comes from, it must be in his interest as much as in anyone else’s that we get this legislation right.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the predicament of marriage registrars because of their religious beliefs. Is he aware that the Dutch Government have recently declared in favour of conscientious objectors? What discussions has he had with the Government to ensure that marriage registrars and their employment and conscientious beliefs are secured?
The hon. Gentleman raises another issue that I am sure will be discussed or touched on over the first two days of next week—the question of registrars who are unhappy with or opposed to conducting same-sex weddings.
Church of England
5. What steps the Church Commissioners are planning to take to support the future work of the Church of England. (155329)
The Church Commissioners seek to use their funds to increase spiritual and numerical growth in the Church, reshaping and reimagining its ministry for the next century and focusing resources on areas of the country with the greatest need and opportunity.
In the few days before the Church celebrates its birthday, we have seen the recent figures showing the very encouraging signs of more baptisms, more thanksgivings for childbirth, more christenings, more young people and children going to church, and many dioceses with greater attendance numbers. Will the Church Commissioners consider trying to support every parish in reaching out once a year to every household, irrespective of its faith, to welcome it to its local Church of England parish church?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point that I will certainly convey to the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. The new Archbishop of Canterbury has made it clear that he sees one of the main purposes of his ministry as encouraging the mission and growth of the Church of England in every part of the country. As Archbishop Temple once pointed out, the Church of England is an organisation that exists for everyone other than itself. It therefore has a particularly important mission in constituencies such as that of my right hon. Friend, who makes an extremely good suggestion.
6. What recent assessment the Church Commissioners have made of Church of England attendance figures. (155330)
I am glad to be able to report to the House that in 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 2,618,000 people attended church on Christmas day—an increase of nearly 15% on the previous year. Also, baptisms are up by 3%. This is encouraging news showing that there is still strong participation in Church of England services across the country.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, which gives the lie to the general myth that is sometimes propagated that church attendance is falling. In fact, many churches are full to overflowing, they are often using the Alpha course or Christianity Explored, and there is much to be encouraged about.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Many congregations of different backgrounds are growing throughout the country. We need to understand why that growth is happening and how we can ensure that other parts of the Church in other parts of the country can mirror it.
7. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure the protection of religious freedom. (155331)
The Church of England is working on an international and a domestic level to protect religious freedoms. The Church is in regular contact with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on areas of shared concern in many countries that feature in the “Countries of Concern” section of the FCO’s human rights and democracy report.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Christian Brethren, who carry out many charitable acts that benefit the public, have been discriminated against by the Charities Commission, which has significant implications for religious freedom? They have been refused charitable status, and that has resulted in a lengthy appeals process. Does this not have wider implications for other faith groups?
I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I cannot add anything to the answer that I gave him in March, which is that Parliament decided that in respect of every charity—including the Church Commissioners, who are themselves a charity bound by the Charities Commission—there had to be a public benefit test. The Charities Commission is a statutory body that has to decide whether there is a public benefit. If there is a dispute over that, I suspect that in due course it will have to be a matter for judicial review. I understand that this matter will be tested in the High Court later this year.
I am afraid that the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is one of the very gullible Members of this House who have been seduced by a cult that is a tiny part of the Plymouth Brethren. Their real name is the Exclusive Brethren, or Hales Brethren, and they were, rightly, the only religion of 1,178 to be refused charitable status by the Charities Commission. This was the most egregious example of intensive, million-pound lobbying by hundreds of people that I have experienced in my 25 years in the House. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman and others have been taken in.
My hon. Friend is not in any way gullible—he is a much loved hon. Member of this House. I am surprised about this, because I would have thought that every Member, including the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), would be sensitive to the needs of religious freedom. I understand, though, that as he is a Welshman coming from a country where the Church was not only disestablished but disendowed, it is not surprising that there is not that sensitivity to religious freedom.
Am I much loved?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
8. What further steps have been taken to make it easier for those eligible to vote overseas to register. (155332)
The Electoral Commission will run online public awareness campaigns aimed at overseas electors ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the 2015 UK general election and during the transition to individual electoral registration. These will be targeted at countries with the largest expatriate communities.
Very briefly, Mr Fabricant.
That is encouraging news. Will they be able to vote in an EU in/out referendum?
The franchise for an in/out referendum will be set out in any legislation that authorises it. If my hon. Friend wishes to make sure that expats have the vote, he ought to study the draft Bill carefully and make representations to the House.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
9. If he will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Education on the merits of including GCSE religious studies within the English baccalaureate. (155333)
The education division of the Church of England has continually put the case for support for religious education as an integral part of the national curriculum to officials and Ministers at the Department for Education.
Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns of religious studies teachers in my constituency that the decision not to include the subject in the EBacc will have a negative impact on the number of young people taking it at GCSE?
Whatever anybody thinks of any other Member, I think the House will agree that the burden on the Second Church Estates Commissioner is immense and the learning and reading are extensive. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
Before we move on to the next business, I inform the House that nominations for candidates for the post of Chair of the Backbench Business Committee closed at 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon. Only one nomination was received and therefore a ballot will not be taking place. I congratulate, upon her re-election as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, Natascha Engel.
Business of the House
I wonder if the Leader of the House will give us the business for a couple of days next week.
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 20 May—Remaining stages of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 21 May—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to Syria.
The business for the week commencing 3 June will be:
Monday 3 June—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 4 June—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Energy Bill.
Wednesday 5 June—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 6 June—There will be a debate on a motion relating to student visas, followed by general debate on pollinators and pesticides. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 10 June will include:
Monday 10 June—Second Reading of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 June will be:
Thursday 6 June—Debate on the ninth report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Drugs: Breaking the Cycle.
May I also take this opportunity to be among the first to congratulate the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on her re-election?
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week and the business that will follow yet another recess. I also add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) on her unanimous re-election without an election as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, which is to her enormous credit.
Next week the House will return, albeit briefly, to debate the remaining stages of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. This will ensure that the historic progress on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality accomplished by the previous Government will be consolidated. I thank the Leader of the House for making two days available for Report and Third Reading. Will he consider doing that for other Bills? After all, his legislative programme is hardly packed.
Back in February, the Prime Minister was triumphant about his EU budget deal. He tweeted:
“Today we agreed the first ever cut in the EU budget and the British rebate is safe. This is a great deal for Britain.”
Three months on, we have learned that the UK will have to pay £770 million extra. May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on the budget, and may we seek an assurance from him that it will not go up again?
Last week, as all the grandeur of the state opening of Parliament unfolded, the Government presented a united front and revealed a mouse of a legislative programme. Before the Cap of Maintenance was even back in the wardrobe, Tory Eurosceptics had tabled a motion regretting their own Government’s Queen’s Speech. No. 10 said that it was “relaxed”.
By the weekend, the Tory rebellion had gathered pace and the Cabinet joined in. Both the Education Secretary and the Defence Secretary announced that they wanted out of the European Union, but that, sadly, the Liberal Democrats would not let them have a vote on it. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) proclaimed that if the rebellion ended the coalition Government, “so be it”. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) pronounced that the Prime Minister’s referendum plan was “not yet believable”. Meanwhile, the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) denounced the rebels as “irresponsible” and “offensive”, and the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said that it would be a catastrophe to quit the EU.
As the Tory party descended into chaos, the Prime Minister shared with us his unique concept of firm leadership. A leader should proclaim that he is “intensely relaxed”, leave the country, blame the Liberal Democrats, panic, and rush to publish an entirely spurious private Member’s Bill that contains no implementation clause and no money resolution.
In 2006, the Prime Minister said that the Conservative party should stop “banging on about Europe”. In 2009, he said that his party’s position on Europe was “settled” and promised that he
“will not have an undisciplined team whoever it is. Full stop.”
However, last night 116 of his Back Benchers voted against him in the 35th Tory rebellion on Europe in this Parliament. If that is not an undisciplined team and a Prime Minister who follows his party rather than leads, will the Leader of the House tell me what is?
In last night’s rebellion, 13 Parliamentary Private Secretaries voted against the Government. I would like to draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a clause in the ministerial code:
“Parliamentary Private Secretaries are expected to support the Government in important divisions in the House. No Parliamentary Private Secretary who votes against the Government can retain his or her position.”
That seems to be fairly clear. Will the Leader of the House confirm that those PPSs will be sacked, or is the Prime Minister going to rewrite the ministerial code?
In light of the Tories’ panicked Back-Bench EU Bill, I also want to draw the attention of the Leader of House to some comments that he might remember making to the Procedure Committee on private Members’ Bills a few weeks ago. He said that
“if a Government really wants a Bill and it is contentious, it should find time in the legislative programme for it.”
Am I correct, therefore, that the Government do not want this Bill at all?
In “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. With the antics last night, we are firmly in the farcical stage and we have a Conservative party determined to prove that Karl Marx was right.
When the economy is flatlining, living standards are falling, and people up and down Britain are suffering real pain, people will not forgive a Government who are too focused on their own obsessions to address the challenges that the country faces.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the forthcoming business.
On the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, we are providing two days on Report. I remind the hon. Lady that under the last Government, there were Sessions in which virtually no Bills were given two days on Report.
We had more Bills.
That is not the case. Seventeen Bills were announced in the Gracious Speech last week, which is in line with the single year numbers we saw in a number of Sessions under the last Government, including 2008 and 2009. As part of the reforms of this House, and of improving scrutiny, we gave 14 Bills two days on Report over the last two Sessions, and we are proud that the business I have just announced will give both the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill and the Energy Bill two days on Report. The hon. Lady is barking up completely the wrong tree.
The Prime Minister was told by the Labour party that he would not deliver a reduction in the EU budget, but he did deliver one. As a consequence, our rebate is protected and we will have the opportunity to debate that in due course. Once the decision is through the Council, we will be able to bring forward a Bill to ratify the EU own resources decision.
The legislative programme is not a mouse. Not only was it a full programme, but we are making good progress with it in a way that is, I think, exemplary. Ten Bills have been published in the week since the Gracious Speech: the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, which is important as it tackles an area of reform that has not been tackled previously; the Care Bill, which is important and cannot be called an insignificant piece of legislation; the Intellectual Property Bill; the Local Audit and Accountability Bill; the Mesothelioma Bill; the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill; the Pensions Bill; the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill; the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill; and the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill. All have been published within a week of the Gracious Speech and that is a substantial programme of legislation.
The hon. Lady’s final points were all, in one way or another, about the vote last night, which in all respects proceeded from a complete misapprehension. The point is that the Government did not have a policy on whether there should be an EU referendum Bill, and so voting for the amendment last night—which many of my colleagues in the Conservative party did, as did Labour Members and a Liberal Democrat Member—was not voting against Government policy because the Government did not have a policy on that. Therefore, the rest of the hon. Lady’s argument does not follow. The simple point is that what is in the Queen’s Speech is agreed Government policy. There may be no Government policy on something that was not in the Queen’s Speech, so of course Ministers could not vote for it, but everybody else was able to vote as they saw fit, which is precisely what they did last night.
May we have a debate on the potential misuse of money by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority? IPSA appears to have employed incredibly expensive lawyers from Matrix Chambers in pursuing what looks like a county court action. That can be explained only if it is trying to intimidate the Members involved, which would be quite improper. May we have a response on that from those on the Front Benches?
If I may, I will say to my right hon. Friend that because this matter relates to a particular case, I do not want to talk about it in any detail from the Dispatch Box. For his convenience, and that of the House, I note that there is scope for the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, of which I am a member, to ask questions about how IPSA undertakes its activities and the value for money it achieves. We held public evidence sessions last Tuesday, which of course affords an opportunity for IPSA to be held accountable.
Does the Leader of the House recall that a few weeks ago after the fire at Daw Mill colliery I asked him for a statement on the coal industry, with particular reference to UK Coal, which owns another two pits—Thoresby and Kellingley? I drew his attention specifically to the fact that because Daw Mill was the big money pit owned by UK Coal, the other two pits could be in serious jeopardy. More importantly, it could cost the Government up to £450 million to pay out for the pensions and redundancies if UK Coal goes under. Would it make a lot of sense for this Government, this coalition, to say to the coal authority that they should be allowed to take over the remaining assets of UK Coal and save what remains of the coal industry—in other words, to nationalise it?
I do remember the questions the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have asked on that subject. I repeat that I cannot, in the House, remotely enter a discussion of the commercial prospects of UK Coal. However, I again say that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), is closely engaged. I will encourage him to correspond with the hon. Gentleman and other Members who are directly involved.
My right hon. Friend is aware that the Foreign Office is undertaking an initiative on preventing sexual violence. The Department for International Development has a four-pillar programme to help women and girls worldwide, which is encouraging, particularly in conflict areas, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where women and girls are particularly vulnerable. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will shortly chair the G8. May we have a statement on how he will produce his initiatives? Preventing sexual violence is important for the world. Will the Prime Minister also ensure that we do not forget that boys and men also need education to stop sexual violence?
My hon. Friend will recall that specific mention was made in the Gracious Speech of the priority that the Government give to the prevention of sexual violence in conflict worldwide. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary recently updated the House from the Dispatch Box on the wide range of measures that have been taken in that respect, as has the Secretary of State for International Development. If I may, I will see what opportunities there might be for the House to be given further updates, particularly in anticipation of the fact that the matter will be part of the agenda we put forward for the G8.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 79, which is in my name and the names of other hon. Members, on Contour Homes and the Ferguson Court lift in my constituency?
[That this House condemns Contour Homes for its culpable negligence with regard to Ferguson Court in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton; regards it as inexcusable that its failure in its duty has meant that the lift at Ferguson Court has been out of order since October 2012; understands that, due to its incompetence and lack of concern, the lift will not be repaired or replaced until 30 July at the earliest, a period of nine months in which elderly and disabled tenants have been unable to cope to the extent that some of them have been unable to leave their homes; takes the view that Contour Homes has failed in its duty and role as social landlords; and calls on the relevant authorities to consider actively whether Contour Homes should be allowed to continue as social landlords.]
That social housing organisation has been so negligent in its duties towards tenants of that block of flats, many of whom are elderly and disabled, that they have had no lift since last October. Despite the way in which I have pushed Contour Homes, they will definitely not have a lift before 30 July. Contour Homes is a social landlord. Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an opportunity to consider the matter, and ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to look into whether such an organisation—if it can be blessed with such a word—is fit to run social housing?
I had an opportunity to look at that early-day motion as the right hon. Gentleman asked his question. He once again commendably raises the interests of his constituents. I can see how distressing the problem must be for them. Social landlords in that sense should be accountable not least through their contract with social services in respect of many of those residents. Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government will answer questions in the House on Monday 3 June, which might afford the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity to ask a question. The relevant authorities and Contour Homes will have taken note of what he has said in the House. Perhaps the situation will have been rectified by Monday 3 June, but if not, he can ask another question of my hon. Friends.
Those who work in schools who suspect or witness abuse are guided, but not required by law, to report their concerns via local procedures to a school’s designated senior member of staff, his or her deputy, or another senior member of staff. It is easy to see that the potential for damage to a school’s reputation might cause any senior member of staff to be conflicted, and not to pass such concerns on to the police or local authority. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the merits of introducing a legal obligation on all teachers and other staff in schools to report directly to the police or a local authority designated officer?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department for Education to respond directly to her, but from my recollection—I was a member of the Standing Committee on the Protection of Children Act 1999—the barring scheme applies not simply to acts of negligence or abuse, but to omissions in relation to acts of abuse. In that sense, the guidance is quite strong. People who are in positions of responsibility for children should act if they see evidence of abuse or they will risk being barred from working in a responsible position.
The Leader of the House will share my concern that I did not come high up in the ballot for private Members’ Bills. I will content myself with an early debate, if he could arrange it, on the accountancy and auditing profession. Is he not concerned by the increasing evidence that the auditors of great banks have failed us? They never blew the whistle and they never did the auditing job properly. We are now in a situation where KPMG’s senior partner is the chair of the new Financial Conduct Authority. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange an early debate so that the House can scrutinise this scandal?
Given the range of aspects involved, the hon. Gentleman may find that this is a suitable subject not only for an Adjournment debate but for consideration by the Backbench Business Committee, given its reconstitution. Members across the House with a range of interests in the auditing process would then have the opportunity to air them.
This week, on the anniversary of President Hollande’s presidency, it was announced that France has entered a triple-dip recession. Can we therefore please have a debate on the impact on UK exporters of the economic policies currently being pursued in France, such as increased Government spending, increased Government borrowing and the implementation of a 75% top rate of tax—an economic approach consistently and repeatedly supported by the Opposition?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Of course, it is a little early for the Opposition to decide the subject of their Opposition day debate on 5 June. Given what my hon. Friend says, they might like to have a debate on the policies they wish to pursue. A year ago, the Leader of the Opposition said, “What President Hollande is seeking to do in France, I want to do in Britain.” Would that not be a suitable subject?
The Leader of the House will know that last Friday, at a Special Immigration Appeals Commission hearing, Abu Qatada made an offer to leave the country voluntarily if the treaty with Jordan was ratified by the Jordanians. Given that it has taken seven years and successive Home Secretaries to remove Abu Qatada, can he tell the House whether that offer has been accepted? When can the House have an opportunity to debate the treaty before it is ratified?
I fear that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman the answer he is looking for, but I will of course be in contact with the Home Secretary to see if I can procure an answer for him.
Over the last decade, transport capital spending in London has been about 10 times that of the regions. Much, but not all of that, has been caused by spending on Crossrail. Recent comments by the Mayor of London imply that he has momentum and Government support for Crossrail 2. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be no money spent on even preparatory work for Crossrail 2 without a full debate in this House?
My hon. Friend refers to the momentum of the Mayor of London, which is, frankly, unstoppable. On his point about infrastructure investment, I hope he knows that, in addition to the investment in London, which is vital to the economy of the country as a whole, we are proceeding with many important investments in other parts of the country, including £1.8 million for local authority major schemes, and the pinchpoint fund, which provides £317 million for 123 projects across the country. Of course, the benefits from the biggest item of infrastructure planning, High Speed 2, will assist major cities right across the country, including those in the north-west.
This is export week. If the Government are serious about promoting exports, why did they not arrange for a debate on them in the House during export week, and may we have one soon?
The hon. Gentleman will know that matters relating to growth were entirely relevant to yesterday’s Queen’s Speech debate on growth and the economy and that jobs and business, including export matters, were debated last Friday—I am sure he was in his place for that debate—so the subject of exports has been relevant to debates in the past week. He is right, though, that exports are essential. If we are to get growth, we cannot rely, as has been the case in the past, on debt-fuelled growth, whether Government debt or consumer debt. We need more balanced and sustainable growth, not least by winning in the global race, and that is what we have set out to do.
To give the House a break from the Leader of the House’s colleagues’ obsessing about Europe, may we have, before the summer break, a serious debate about the Commonwealth countries and south Asia? There is a controversial Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka, there has been a recent terrible tragedy with wider implications and civil disorder in Bangladesh, there is a new Government of Pakistan, there are difficulties in the Maldives and there is an Indian Government with issues of civil disorder and the death penalty. I think that many colleagues would appreciate an extended debate on those countries and their policies.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making an important point, not least in referring to the tragic events in Dhaka, by which many of us have been deeply shocked. All those issues, including the elections in Pakistan, demonstrate the importance of good governance and democracy in many of these countries. In Pakistan, we have seen for the first time the democratic election of a new Government following a full term from a previous democratically elected Government, which is positive. I hope that there will be an opportunity for a debate on all these countries, but it might be appropriate if he or others were to seek such a debate from the Backbench Business Committee. The prospect of the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting would be a good basis for an application.
I think I recall the Leader of the House saying on a previous occasion that he is a regular train traveller, so he will be aware that, at least according to train announcements now, trains do not stop at stations anymore. Instead, they have “calling points” and “embarkation stops”, and apparently some trains now “platform”. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport about the adoption of a universal term for station stops, because as well as irritating regular travellers, the other terms used confuse tourists? Perhaps I could make a bid for a simple term: could we call them “stations”?
It is a good question. I will ask my hon. Friends in the Department for Transport about it, although they might be loth to standardise everything in the railways. I must say I agree with the hon. Gentleman, though, about the announcements. I particularly liked the announcement made one morning when we arrived late at King’s Cross: “We apologise to our customers”—not passengers, of course—“for the delay to the service this morning. This was due to the late running of trains.” It was a statement of the obvious.
Parliament has been at the centre of political debate this week, partly thanks to you, Mr Speaker, for selecting yesterday’s amendment. What has gone unnoticed about the vote, however, is that 117 coalition MPs, both Conservative and Liberal Democrat, voted for the amendment, but only 36 voted against. May we have a statement next week from the appropriate Minister to explain how we get Government legislation introduced? Does the Deputy Prime Minister have a complete veto, despite what coalition MPs voted for?
I do not think we need a statement, because I can give my hon. Friend an explanation now. Government Bills are introduced on the basis of agreed Government policy and the relative priority of the various measures. In this case, the issue is that where two parties are in a coalition Government, it requires the agreement of the two parties. It is a simple matter; it is a necessity of coalition. Coalition gives rise to its own particular requirements, and that is one of them.
When can we have a debate on who runs Tory Britain? The Queen’s Speech did not contain a Bill to reduce the effects of smoking or excessive drinking. The promised Bill on lobbying is again not included, despite the Prime Minister saying in an impassioned speech a fortnight before the general election that this would be the next scandal. Is not the answer to “Who runs Tory Britain?” the lobbyists, who are red in tooth and claw, in greater numbers and with greater power than ever, and running the country in the interests of their greedy paymasters?
I am sorry, but that is completely wrong. The simple fact of the matter is that certain measures were not included in this Queen’s Speech because policy had not been finalised and consultations were continuing. That is not a consequence of lobbying; it is a consequence of the processes that are necessary to finalise policy.
Will my right hon. Friend allow time during Government business to debate the 111 out-of-hours emergency number? He will recall that when he was Secretary of State for Health and I had cause through family experience to use that number, I drew to his attention some simple remedies that could be effected. A debate at the earliest opportunity would be very useful.
My hon. Friend will recall that the Opposition chose health and care as the subject of Monday’s debate, when these issues were quite properly raised. There have clearly been operational difficulties associated with aspects of 111, in particular with the three new providers in the south-west, the south-east and Oxfordshire during its introduction in April. Equally, we could go back much further. For example, 10 areas of the country were running NHS 111 on a pilot basis when I left the Department of Health in September last year, and in many places it is operating successfully. What Members throughout the House need to understand is that the 111 service provides something that everybody has a right to expect, which is a straightforward non-emergency mechanism for accessing all aspects of the NHS.
I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that the security staff in this building do a very good job in a very efficient and friendly way, that we rely on them and that we work with them very well indeed. He will also be aware that negotiations are ongoing on a new roster arrangement for them. Unfortunately, the new rosters were imposed without the agreement of the staff, despite ongoing negotiations, which resulted in industrial action being taken on Tuesday. Will he convey to the House of Commons Commission and the Metropolitan police the fact that many Members of this House find it quite unacceptable that a new system should be imposed while negotiations are ongoing? Will he also urge them to continue with negotiations rather than imposing a new arrangement and to recognise the value of the co-operation and good will of those staff, which all Members enjoy at present?
I of course endorse what the hon. Gentleman said in the early part of his question, but I would remind him that we are, as I understand it, in the midst of negotiations between the House service and the Metropolitan police, as contractors, about security. That is not a matter for me, but as a member of the House of Commons Commission, I know that its members will have listened to what he has said. It is always our objective in the House of Commons Commission to work with staff to create something that not only is the best possible service, but shows the House as an exemplary employer.
May we have a debate on drug rehab centres? They play a vital role in our community, but the industry is largely unregulated and standards vary greatly across the country. In Bournemouth we are witnessing a worrying trend, whereby a number of London-based councils are sending some of their residents who require drug rehab to programmes in Bournemouth, without informing the council. That practice needs to stop.
What my hon. Friend says is interesting. I will of course raise with my hon. Friends at the Home Office, how the system is working, but from our point of view we need to ensure proper regulation where required and move increasingly towards payment by results, a mechanism that I hope will enable us to deliver more effective drug rehabilitation.
May we have a debate in Government time on the reforms to legal aid and judicial review? Judges are now having to support litigants in person instead of hearing reasoned argument, which is seriously undermining the rule of law and weakening one of the checks and balances on the state. May we please have an urgent debate on that issue?
The hon. Lady will have noticed that the Ministry of Justice will be answering questions on Tuesday, and she might wish to raise this matter at that time. I cannot offer Government time, but such issues may also be raised on the Adjournment or, collectively with other Members, through the Backbench Business Committee. Many days in this Session have been provided for the Backbench Business Committee. I am happy to listen to applications for Government time for general debates, but the intention was for Back-Bench Members collectively to decide where their priorities lie.