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Commons Chamber

Volume 573: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

House of Commons

Thursday 9 January 2014

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—

Tree Diseases

We have made rapid progress towards implementing three of the independent taskforce’s recommendations: we have produced a prioritised plant health risk register, undertaken work on contingency planning and initiated recruitment of a senior chief plant health officer. We have accepted the remaining taskforce recommendations, and we are working with stakeholders to develop a new plant health strategy, to be published this spring, which will set out a new approach to biosecurity for our plants.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that sufficient attention is being given to import checks? Are we doing sufficient to help other countries manage the risks of pests and diseases that may be transferred in plants and woods exported to the UK, and how are we agreeing priorities for action?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We have introduced further restrictions on, for example, the import of sweet chestnut and plane trees before the 2013-14 planting season. Our negotiators are successfully influencing the review of the EU plant health regime, which will maintain strict controls and simplify the broad range of legislation.

The Minister will know that this year is the 150th anniversary of the death of one of our greatest poets of the countryside, John Clare. He wrote a great deal about diseased trees—there was a plague of oak disease in his lifetime—and he was certainly a great defender of the English countryside. What does the Minister think John Clare would have thought of giving up our ancient woodland and replacing it with new growth?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing a cultural dimension to our proceedings so early this morning. I share his concern, and that of John Clare, for ancient woodland, and that is why the guidance is very clear. In any discussions about development, the guidance we offer to all local authorities is very clear that ancient woodland should be protected.

There are a number of threats, as my hon. Friend will know. We are of course concerned about ash, although ash dieback is a disease that takes several years to progress, and we are obviously concerned about larch as well. Across the range of species, we maintain under review all potential threats that are not yet in this country.

I want to press the Minister on the issue of protecting our ancient woodlands. Today’s written ministerial statement talks about planting lots of new trees, but does he accept that that is no replacement for the destruction of ancient trees? The quantity of new trees will not be a substitute for the diversity and quality of such woodland.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out that, given the maturity of such ecosystems, ancient woodland has a whole range of things that new planting cannot hope to replicate. That is why the planning guidance is absolutely clear that the hierarchy should protect ancient woodland.

Farming Industry (Red Tape)

We are committed to freeing farmers from red tape to help them to seize economic opportunities. We are reducing paperwork burdens and making guidance clearer and simpler. Farmers who play by the rules now receive fewer inspections. For example, 740 members of the Environment Agency’s pig and poultry scheme are inspected once every three years, rather than annually. I expect to make an announcement shortly on further opportunities for cutting red tape as a result of the agriculture red tape challenge.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but for many farmers in my constituency overly complex livestock identification and movement controls remain a burden on their businesses. What plans does the Minister have to simplify this regime?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Considerable progress has already been made on livestock identification and the complex rules governing animal movements. We introduced electronic reporting for pigs in 2011, and we will do the same for sheep from the spring. We have negotiated changes to the EU sheep tagging rules for the historic flock, generating savings of up to £11 million for sheep farmers. We will also implement the recommendations made by the farming regulation taskforce to simplify how we define livestock holdings in England to avoid confusion around the rules, and we will phase out cattle tracing links and sole occupancy authorities to further streamline the regime.

Will the Minister confirm that one matter that is not red tape is the establishment of a food crime unit? Will he indicate when he intends to do that and how he will discuss the matter with the devolved Administrations, particularly that in Wales?

The right hon. Gentleman is referring to the interim report by Professor Elliott. We will look at all his recommendations and respond to the final report when it is published later this year.

Farmers in Cumbria and elsewhere have their hands tied by excessive restrictions, such as the six-day movement rule. Given that the Government agreed in full to the recommendations of the Macdonald report two years ago, when will farmers in this country see them put into practice?

It is difficult to remove the six-day movement rule because it was a key measure that was brought in to combat the spread of diseases such as foot and mouth. We are clear that we want to get rid of unnecessary regulation, but we do not want to do anything that would compromise animal health or safety. I am willing to talk to the hon. Gentleman about this particular point. It has been raised with me by farmers. However, it is not a simple matter because we do not want to jeopardise animal health.

Wholly disproportionate financial penalties for minor and often unavoidable regulatory infringements, such as lost ear tags, have been a characteristic of the common agricultural policy in recent years. What guarantee can the Minister give that the new regime will distinguish between wilful disregard of the rules and the unintentional and inconsequential infringements that are currently being penalised?

These issues are a devolved matter. We are looking at the rules in England. The hon. Lady is right, although the EU regulations do emphasise the need for proportionality in the application of sanctions. The regulations are being reviewed. We are making the case to the European Commission that there should be changes to the rules from the beginning of 2015 so that the sanctions are more proportionate. The negotiations are ongoing.

Flood Defences

3. What recent assessment he has made of the sufficiency of flood defences; and if he will make a statement. (901856)

About 5 million properties in England are at risk of flooding. The flood defences protected more than 1 million properties during recent events. More is being spent during this spending review period than ever before. That will better protect 165,000 houses from flooding. In the six-year period from 2015-16, we will invest a record £2.3 billion in capital improvement projects, which will improve the protection for a further 300,000 households.

That is a remarkable answer, given that on 9 September, the former Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), told my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that total expenditure on flood defences was projected to fall from £646 million in 2010-11 to £546 million in 2015-16. Given those figures and the scale of the recent flooding, will the Secretary of State say how flood defences such as those in my constituency will be repaired? Will he confirm whether he will press for additional funds for flood defence repairs?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, because it gives me the chance to tell the House, yet again, that the Government are spending more in this spending round than was spent by the previous Government and that we plan to increase the amount to a record £2.3 billion up to 2021. Thanks to the fact that we have galvanised local councils through the partnership funding scheme, there will be all sorts of opportunities for his constituents to work with him and his local council to access more funds for flood schemes.

It is remarkable that the flood defences have held to the extent that they have during the battering that the country has taken. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment to the House that he will review the budget for repairs to existing flood defences and look favourably on schemes such as the maintenance by drainage boards of the regular watercourses that protect farmland and other properties?

I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her question. What she says about maintenance is absolutely correct. In November, it was found that 97% of the defences were in a good condition and would remain so within our existing budgets. I repeat again that we have made a clear commitment up to 2021. I would love to see the shadow Secretary of State stand up and say that the Labour party will back that commitment.

10. Although there were major flood alerts, there was a lucky escape for the vast majority of residents of my constituency. I thank all those involved, particularly Natural Resources Wales, which has improved defences in recent years and, crucially, ensured that there have been no flood protection job losses. Given how severely Wales was affected by the floods, the size of our coastline and our exposure, will the Secretary of State consult the Welsh Government closely about the resource to be given to Wales in the future? (901866)

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about those who have worked so hard, and that situation was reflected across the country. As she rightly says, this is a devolved issue, and the Welsh Secretary and representatives of the Welsh Government have obviously been involved in our numerous Cobra meetings. I will be happy to pass on her comments, but I suggest that she takes up the matter directly with the Welsh Government and the Welsh Secretary.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the extensive damage along the west Wales coastline, particularly in Ceredigion in the Aberystwyth and Borth areas. Flooding is a devolved matter, as he says, but is the prospect of a bid to the European Union solidarity fund, specifically set up for the restoration of defences and infrastructure, a feature of the discussions that he has had and will have with colleagues in Cardiff and the Secretary of State for Wales?

My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion, which is well worth the Welsh Government and the Welsh Secretary taking up. We are happy to help liaise with him, but ultimately we have to respect devolution, and if it is an issue of money for Wales, it is down to the Welsh Government to negotiate it.

When he became Secretary of State in September 2012, the right hon. Gentleman reviewed his Department’s priorities. Why did his new list of four priorities make no reference to preparing for and managing risks from flood and other environmental emergencies, as the old list of priorities and responsibilities had done?

That gives me a perfect opportunity to explain the huge gain for the economy from our ambitious flood schemes. Very shortly after I took over, I met the noble Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, at a brilliant £45 million scheme in Nottingham, which was not just protecting 12,000 houses but, on the other side of the river, freeing up a whole area of blighted land, which is now up for development.

My first priority is to grow the rural economy, and I am delighted to say that our ambitious schemes will help to do that. I just wish that, in her second question, the hon. Lady would say the Labour party endorse our plans.

When asked by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs where the £54 million of extra savings from his departmental budget announced by the Treasury in June 2013 would come from, he said:

“We will concentrate on my four priorities, so it is as simple as that. Pretty well every single activity in Defra has to be focused through those four priorities.”

Those priorities do not include flood protection. How can people facing an increasing risk of flood damage due to the effects of climate change have any confidence in a Secretary of State who has downgraded flood protection as a priority and thinks that climate change is benefiting Britain?

Dear, oh dear, this is lame stuff. We are spending £2.3 billion over the course of this Parliament, with £148 million of partnership money. We have an extra £5 million for revenue, and in the course of the recent reduction across Departments I specifically excluded flood defence, so the reduction is spread across the rest of DEFRA. Uniquely, we have a programme going right out to 2021, with £2.3 billion. Yet again—this is the fifth opportunity—the hon. Lady has not agreed to match our commitment. If you want flood defences, you vote Conservative.

Every time we have floods in the far south-west, our vital rail link with the rest of the country is either severed completely or severely disrupted. Is my right hon. Friend confident that, within the existing resources and his excellent existing budget in the Department, sufficient priority is being given to flood prevention measures for vital transport infrastructure?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I went to Exeter, I saw the real damage to the economy of the south-west caused by the important link to Exeter being interrupted by floods last year. I can reassure him that there have been senior Ministers from the Department for Transport at our Cobra meetings, and they are fully aware of the consequences and have been working hard to ensure that our transport links have been restored rapidly.

Badger Cull Pilots

We are waiting for the independent expert panel to report its findings, and we will consider all information the pilots have generated and decide on our next steps in due course.

Everybody wants bovine TB to be defeated, but there is great scepticism out there that this tactic was ever going to work. Will the Secretary of State say when we can expect all the evidence to be published on the risks associated with culling?

That is a perfectly valid question but we must wait for the independent panel. That panel is independent and I do not want to put any pressure on it. It has a large amount of data from the two pilots that it will analyse for safety, humaneness and effectiveness. We must be patient and wait for it to report.

The Secretary of State is to be congratulated on taking action to hold the pilot culls, but it is now necessary to analyse them and in particular to look at the Somerset scheme, where trapping was very effective. In Devon we need a full-scale cull to get control of this disease, as they have done in the Republic of Ireland.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and he is right to say that we cannot ignore this disease, as the previous Government did. He is absolutely right to draw the House’s attention to the Republic of Ireland. I met Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, at the Oxford Farming Conference, and he told me that thanks to the policies adopted by the Republic of Ireland, the disease there is at its lowest level since records began.

The Secretary of State has delivered an unscientific cull that has spectacularly failed, that his own Back Benchers are openly questioning, that has weakened the reputation of DEFRA and Natural England for evidence-based policy, and from which the Prime Minister’s office is reported to be working up an escape plan. Will he now commit to bring the report of the independent expert panel to this House for a debate in Government time, and put to a vote any further proposals on badger culling?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question but I remind him that last time this issue came before the House, the Government had a good majority of 61. I am not prepared to put any pressure on the independent panel; it is up to it to take its time to evaluate the evidence and report to us, and we will come back in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will obviously analyse the reasons the panel puts forth in its report. He asks a hypothetical question, and all I can say is that we just have to look at other countries. There is no doubt that if we look at Australia, the scientific evidence shows that it is now TB free. We can look at the United States and the white-tailed deer, the brushtail possum in New Zealand, or Ireland, which I have just cited. The Republic of Ireland is a scientific, practical example because by bearing down on the disease in cattle and in wildlife, it has got it down to the lowest level since records began. We will follow its example.

Water Companies (Social Tariffs)

5. What progress he has made in requiring water companies to introduce social tariffs; and if he will make a statement. (901858)

The Government do not require water companies to introduce a social tariff. Water companies are best placed to take decisions on the design of social tariffs as part of their charges schemes, in consultation with their customers. Social tariffs are funded by cross-subsidy between customers, so it is vital that they take account of local circumstances and the views of local people. Most water companies will have a social tariff in place by 2015-16.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer but I draw his attention to the fact that a cost of living crisis is affecting about 2 million households in England and Wales who are classed as living in water poverty, which means they are paying at least 3% of their household income in water bills. Will the Government think again and consider supporting Labour’s proposals to introduce a reduced social tariff to help families who are struggling to pay their water bills?

As I made absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman in my previous answer, many water companies are now taking such action, but there are other things we can do to help people who are struggling with their water bills. The biggest thing we can do is to ensure that we bear down on charges for everybody. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been clear in his expectations, Ofwat has been clear in the way it has entered into the price review period and companies are now responding. We will see, in the vast majority of cases, bills going with inflation or even perhaps, in some cases, going below inflation. That is a real improvement on the last price review period, given the opportunities companies have had with low borrowing.

Water bills have increased by almost 50% in real terms since privatisation, yet in the past financial year the regional water companies made £1.9 billion in pre-tax profits and paid out a staggering £1.8 billion to shareholders. Will the Minister explain why on Monday his Government rejected Labour’s proposed amendment to the Water Bill for a national affordability scheme with clear and standardised criteria set by the Secretary of State to replace the Government’s failed voluntary approach?

I am happy to reiterate to the hon. Gentleman what I said on Report on Monday. His proposal to fund some sort of national affordability scheme out of excess profits relies on the regulator allowing excess profits in the first place. This Government’s robust price review period will press down. Under the previous Government, when the previous spending review took place, there was a lack of guidance. It is a very different situation now.

Bovine TB

Between January and September 2013, 24,618 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered as reactors or direct contacts in Great Britain. That is an average of more than 90 cattle a day. In Staffordshire over the same period, 2,245 cattle were slaughtered for TB control purposes.

Each one of those instances is a tragedy. Farmers in Burton, Uttoxeter and across the country are having their lifetime’s work destroyed by this disease. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the Opposition seem to criticise constantly the work to tackle this disease, while having no plans of their own and offering no support to my farmers?

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments, particularly as my constituency is so close to his. Having got this disease down to 0.01% in 1972 when we had a bipartisan approach—in those days, there was absolute unity on the need to bear down on the disease in cattle and in wildlife—it is tragic that we let that go. Since then, 305,000 perfectly healthy cattle have been hauled off to slaughter at a cost of £500 million. If we do not get a grip on this, as my hon. Friend says, we are heading for a bill of £1 billion. We just wish that we could get back to that bipartisan approach, which has been endorsed by every other country I cited in my previous answer.

TB is causing chaos in the county of Monmouthshire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a completely open-minded and united approach? If culling works, then all sides of the House should support it. If it does not work, after we have seen the independent survey, we should unite in supporting an alternative.

I have to respect the rules of devolution and the Welsh Government are pursuing a vaccination policy. Our belief is that vaccination is, sadly, expensive and pointless on diseased animals. There is an interesting role for ring vaccination once the pool of disease has been reduced, and I think we can probably learn from both areas.

Elliott Review

7. What plans he has to propose changes to the responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency following the Elliott review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks. (901861)

This is an interim report which Professor Elliott plans to discuss further with interested parties in the coming months. The Government are interested in hearing the views of others, as we consider all of Professor Elliott’s interim recommendations, before responding to his final report in the spring.

Given the emphasis on criminality in the food chain in the Elliott review, what are the Government doing to ensure that unscrupulous people who deliberately defraud the public will be brought to justice?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I can tell her that investigations continue at a number of sites across the UK. The City of London police are the co-ordinating police force for all of those investigations and five arrests have been made. The Food Standards Agency continues to liaise with the City of London police and, through them, is sharing information on UK investigations with Europol.

Food Banks

No such assessment has been made. I welcome the work of charities providing access to nutritious meals to those who may otherwise struggle. Food aid providers are local organisations responding to specific community needs. It is not the Government’s role to tell these organisations how best to run the service they provide.

The Minister will be aware that care professionals issue food bank vouchers to those they identify as being in crisis, but I am concerned that many people are not accessing food banks, either because they cannot contact care professionals because of mobility or disability issues or because they are not aware that they are eligible. Will he take steps to ensure that people are made aware of food bank services and are encouraged to use them if they are in food poverty?

Different food banks take different approaches. Some give one-off support for an immediate crisis, and many have people coming through only once or twice in six months, while others enable people to self-refer if they have not been referred by social services or other agencies. There is a range of different approaches, therefore, and the Government would be reluctant to start interfering with these charities and telling them how to run their services. They are on the ground and developing policies to deal with these problems.

What discussions has the Minister’s Department had with the Department for Work and Pensions about the latter’s decision to remove from forms the tick-box indicating that people might be going to food banks because of benefits changes? Should we not know why people are going to food banks and should his Department not be saying so to the DWP?

On delays to benefits payments, the DWP’s performance has improved: 90% of payments are now made within the time scale set out. Benefits matters are for the DWP. My Department deals with food, and I am happy to talk about food prices and food inflation, but I will not interfere in benefits policy.

Environmental Permitting Regulations

9. Whether his Department has any plans to strengthen the enforcement provisions of the 2010 environmental permitting regulations. (901865)

There are no current proposals to alter the enforcement provisions of the 2010 environmental permitting regulations. The 2010 regulations and the Environmental Protection Act 1990 together provide a range of enforcement powers at regulated and illegal sites. I would consider the case for strengthening these or other regulatory provisions if there is evidence that exercising them is proving insufficient in preventing harm to health and the environment.

If the Minister wants evidence, would he like to look at the waste-for-fuel site in my constituency, which has so far had 15 fires in the past two years, at a cost of £568,000 to the fire service and 1,900 hours of firefighters’ time—more than the clear-up cost of removing this rogue operator—and where repeated attempts by the Environment Agency to secure an injunction have so far failed? Will he press the agency to honour its commitment to give my constituents the results of toxicity testing on that site?

I am happy to pass on that request to the Environment Agency. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have met him and local representatives to consider what is occurring at that site, and subsequently I met the chairman and chief executive of the Environment Agency specifically to talk about how it could intervene earlier on new or untested operators to prevent these vast amounts of material from appearing on sites such as the one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. As he knows, however, there is an action at the High Court, and there is now a deadline to clear the site by 1 May. The agency will have to respect that in the enforcement action it takes.

The waste gasification plant proposed at the Brookfield site on the edge of Corby is causing great local concern. Will the Minister assure me that any changes to the environmental permitting regulations will not prejudice the proper planning process by allowing a waste permit to be issued in advance of planning consent being received?

As I believe the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have been consulting on how the planning and permitting processes can be better aligned. If he would like to raise with me specific problems regarding that potential development, I would be happy to hear from him by letter.

Flooding (Northern Lincolnshire)

11. What reports he has received on the recent floods in northern Lincolnshire; and what discussions he has had with the Environment Agency on its plans to improve flood defences. (901867)

I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency on 7 December and saw some of the damage caused. The flooding caused an estimated £40 million-worth of damages to Immingham docks. The Environment Agency is currently updating its Humber flood risk management strategy, which looks at long-term justification, funding and solutions for the management of flood-risk communities along the Humber. Data and learning from recent flooding will also be used in the development of the strategy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I draw his particular attention to the village of Barrow Haven, between Barton and Immingham, which has twice suffered floods in the past six years. It is unacceptable that the local community should have to live in constant fear of a repeat. I urge my right hon. Friend, as part of his review to look at involving more local people in the task of how best to alleviate floods. People who serve on drainage boards and the like want to be able to input their local knowledge.

I enjoyed the visit with my hon. Friend. It was astonishing to see that that was a one-in-500-years incident. I totally endorse his view that there should be involvement of local people. I am happy for him to write to me, and we can negotiate with the Environment Agency. I strongly urge him to get his local councils involved so that they can participate in our partnership regime.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s priorities are growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding animal and plant health. As the country continues to experience significant flooding, I would like to thank the emergency services, the Environment Agency, local authorities and public utilities for their tireless work in seeking to safeguard both life and property. Despite those valiant efforts, eight people have lost their lives as a result of the severe weather conditions over the Christmas and new year period. I know the House will want to join me in extending our deepest sympathies to their families and friends. With water levels still rising in many areas, I ask the public to continue to take heed of the Environment Agency’s warnings. We must remain vigilant. I shall chair a further Cobra meeting this afternoon.

Children growing up near busy roads in West Ham are, because of the quality of air that they breathe, likely to enter adulthood with smaller lungs. Now that the Secretary of State has abandoned proposals to reduce air quality monitoring—a decision roundly condemned by professionals—will he explain what action he is going to take to deal with this growing public health crisis?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising an important question about what is a real and growing problem in certain conurbations. In fairness, however, it is exactly the opposite of what she says, as we are consulting on how to bring in more effective regimes. She has raised a key question that affects large numbers of people.

T2. Following the new year celebrations, farmers in my constituency have voiced their concerns about the dangers of Chinese lanterns not only to the welfare of their livestock, but to property and, ultimately, their livelihoods. Following bans in Germany, Spain, Australia and much of south America, is it not time to consider banning these flying death-traps? (901844)

We share some of the public’s concerns about the potential risks posed by sky lanterns. However, we commissioned an independent study, which was published in May last year, and it concluded that the overall impact of sky lanterns on animal welfare was quite low. We are therefore focusing our efforts on ensuring that people are aware of the risks and trying to improve voluntary action to deal with the problem.

T3. I am sure Ministers will agree that we need to be vigilant against rabies. There has been a huge increase in the number of illegal puppies smuggled into the UK, many from eastern Europe. Will the Minister commit to re-evaluating the procedures for protections against rabies entering the UK? (901845)

An increase in the number of illegal imports of puppies has been reported, but the trading standards authorities are monitoring the position carefully, and intercepted the illegal movement of a number of puppies last year. We consider the pet passport scheme to be proportionate to the risk, but we also monitor the position carefully and work closely with agencies in other European countries.

T4. Flooding has continued in my constituency, as it has in many other constituencies throughout the country. Seaton sea defences have held, but will the Secretary of State carry on devolving powers and money to parish councils and local land and property owners so that they can clear culverts and ditches when they become blocked? Will he also ensure that silt from rivers can be spread on fields as a fertiliser rather than a waste? (901848)

The hon. Gentleman has maintained an interest in these issues for a long time. Pilot studies are being carried out to assess the impact and potential benefits of the dredging of watercourses, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any further points about the use of materials or has any other ideas relating to local management of river catchments and watercourses, I shall be happy to hear from him.

T6. Yesterday, during Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister said that he strongly suspected that the recent abnormal weather events had been a result of climate change. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister? (901850)

What the Prime Minister said was that we should consider the practical measures that we are taking, and I entirely endorse his remarks. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will ask those on his party’s Front Bench whether they will now endorse our very ambitious spending plans for flood defences, which they have so far been very reluctant to do.

T5. Will the Minister confirm that his Department intends to exempt small and medium-sized businesses from its proposed tax on plastic carrier bags? Given that biodegradable plastic in the waste stream is a contaminant and will reduce the number of plastic bags being recycled, will he withdraw that exemption? (901849)

I am happy to confirm that there is a proposal for the exemption of small businesses. DEFRA’s call for evidence in relation to a charge on single-use plastic bags closed on 20 December, and the results are now being analysed. The Government recognise that there is a significant debate about acceptable levels of contamination from biodegradable plastics in the recycling stream, and have therefore called on industry to develop new ways of separating plastic bags from the waste stream. Two companies have been awarded contracts for the research, and will complete their feasibility studies by April.

T7. Will the Secretary of State clarify his earlier statement about an increase in his Department’s funding for flood protection? During the second half of last year, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who was then a DEFRA Minister, told me in a written parliamentary answer that in the year in which his party came to power, the Department spent £646 million. Spending in the current year is £113 million less, at £533 million. Did the Secretary of State’s earlier statement mean that the Government have now increased funding for flood protection in this and future years, and does that mean that he can now abandon the proposals to cut 1,700 jobs at the Environment Agency? (901851)

I know that those in the Labour Whips Office struggle with slow learners, but I shall put it on the record again: this Government are providing more than any previous Government in the current spending review. We are spending £2.3 billion, which is in addition to £148 million of partnership money. Exceptionally, the present Government have a £2.3 billion programme of capital spending up to 2021. Will Labour Members please ask those on their Front Bench to endorse that spending programme?

In parts of rural Hampshire, the cost of high-speed broadband runs to many thousands of pounds per connection. Can my hon. Friend reassure those living in villages such as Barton Stacey that resources from, for instance, the rural community broadband fund might provide them with high-speed connections?

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the benefits of broadband connections to the rural economy. Through the work that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is doing with Broadband Delivery UK, and also through the rural community broadband fund, we are providing resources that will deliver projects in locations such as the one to which she referred. Some 10,000 properties a week are already being connected to superfast broadband, and we expect the figure to rise to about 40,000 a week by the summer.

T8. Will the Secretary of State clarify how the remarks he made on allowing ancient woodland to be lost to development meet the spirit of his Department’s forestry policy statement which states categorically:“Protection of our trees, woods and forests, especially our ancient woodland, is our top priority”? (901852)

I am absolutely delighted to be able to reassure the hon. Lady and the hon. Members for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) that the idea that biodiversity offsetting could be used as a means of imposing unwanted houses on ancient woodland is an absolute travesty. It is absolutely clear: all along we have always said that should we bring in offsetting—I made this clear to the all-party group—all the current protections of the planning regime and all the mitigation hierarchy remain. Only at the very last moment could offsetting be considered, and we have always said that some assets will be too precious to offset and—[Interruption.] Exactly, and that might well be ancient woodland.

The hon. Lady should look at examples of offsetting in countries like Australia, where there has been an 80% shift of planning applications away from fragile environments. Used properly, therefore, biodiversity offsetting could be a tremendous tool to protect those ancient woodlands which she and I value. As someone who has planted an arboretum over recent years, the idea that I am going to trash ancient woodlands is an absolute outrage to me personally.

Following the damage caused by the tidal surges in the Kent estuary on more than one occasion last week, will the Minister confirm that draft flood defence schemes along the whole of the River Kent will now be prioritised?

My hon. Friend knows that, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Government are making investment in flood protection schemes a key priority. We have secured record investment in the next spending review period to do that. If my hon. Friend would like to write to me about those specific schemes, I would be happy to hear more.

The remit of the independent expert panel was originally restricted to the planned six-week badger cull period and my understanding is that that remit was not extended when the badger culls were themselves extended. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House today that the independent expert panel’s scope and report will cover the whole of the culling period and not just the first six weeks, because it is really important that his decisions are informed by wider experience of the whole cull?

The consultation on abstraction reform has just started. Can my hon. Friend assure me that there will be consultation events, particularly in areas where there is water stress, like Suffolk Coastal?

That is part of our programme, which includes the Water Bill, and, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, the abstraction reform consultation opened before Christmas. There will be opportunities for everybody to contribute to that process and of course if my hon. Friend would like to take up some specific constituency issues with me, I will be happy to hear them.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Payments to Candidates (Speaking Engagements)

1. If the commission will take steps to ensure that political parties are fully accountable to the commission when receiving payment made to candidates for speaking engagements. (901873)

The Electoral Commission informs me that political parties have to report to it every three months regarding all donations they receive above a certain value, which would include any donation to a candidate that is then passed on to that candidate’s party. The law sets out clearly how political parties and individual politicians are responsible for reporting the political donations they receive, and the Electoral Commission is not aware of any issues that would require a change to the current system.

There is a scam that we all know has been going on for some time and it runs like this: a politician has a book ghosted for them—a biography or whatever—and it is then published, and that person is invited to go on a highly paid tour of the United Kingdom talking about the book that was ghost-written by somebody else, and the money flows either to leading candidates of the party or to the party itself. It is a scam. We know it goes on, but what is the hon. Gentleman doing to stamp it out?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying the purpose of his question. I must confess that I am not aware that that is a matter for the Electoral Commission at the moment, but if he would like to write to me setting out his concerns in more detail, I will ensure that the commission investigates the matter thoroughly and responds to him.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Pilling Report

2. What assessment the Commissioners have made of the Pilling report, published by the House of Bishops working group on human sexuality in November 2013; and if he will make a statement. (901874)

The report was discussed by the House of Bishops in December and its recommendations will be considered by the College of Bishops later this month.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the report’s recommendation that parishes should be allowed to offer same-sex couples some sort of blessing would in effect simply formalise what already happens in practice in many Anglican parishes? Does he agree that the vast majority of Anglicans in this country would welcome a more generous approach to long-term, faithful, same-sex relationships?

I agree with the principle that everyone should be welcome at the communion rail. The working group did not recommend a new authorised liturgy, but a majority of its members did recommend that vicars should, with the consent of parochial church councils, be able to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service. I am sure that that is one of the issues that the House of Bishops will be considering very seriously in the context of its consideration of the Pilling report’s recommendations.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

National Voter Registration Day

The Electoral Commission supports any initiative to encourage voter registration, particularly among under-registered groups, and it provides resources to help others to do this, in addition to its own public awareness campaigns. The commission has provided such resources to Bite the Ballot, which has organised national voter registration day, and it will also be informing electoral registration officers about the initiative so that those who are able to support it will do so.

What assessment has been made of the commission’s proposals to require people to provide photo identification in order to vote by 2019? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there could be a reduction in the number of young people voting as well as registering to vote in the first place?

Those hard-to-reach groups are certainly a matter of concern to the Electoral Commission. There will be a significant public awareness campaign between now and this year’s elections, and it will be reviewed to determine how successful it has been. I think the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to learn that, in the transition to individual electoral registration, those who are already on the register will automatically be transferred to the register for the next general election.

In addition to the hundreds of thousands of expatriate United Kingdom citizens who—like Harry Shindler, 93, who received an MBE in the new year’s honours list—are disfranchised because of the 15-year rule, there are also tens of thousands of expat citizens who could vote but who are not registered. What is the commission doing to ensure that they can be registered to vote?

My hon. Friend raises an important question; this is a matter of concern across the House. A recent meeting was held between the Electoral Commission and representatives of the political parties and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and attempts are being made to increase awareness among expats that they have the opportunity to register to vote in the next election. There will be a significant public awareness campaign in overseas literature and online to try to encourage more voter registration, and there will also be an expat voter day in February this year. The success of that event will be reviewed after the May elections.

Given that the franchise for the Scottish independence referendum will extend to 16 and 17-year-olds, will the Electoral Commission make a major effort on national voter registration day and at similar events to ensure that as many of that group as possible are registered to vote in the referendum later this year?

The Electoral Commission is keen to ensure that young people who are legally entitled to vote should register and take part in any elections. Let us not forget the vital role of the electoral registration officers in every local authority throughout the United Kingdom. They have a duty to promote voter registration in their locality, and each of us has the opportunity to go to our own local authorities and ask what they are doing in this regard, and to make an assessment of whether they are doing it well enough.

Will the Electoral Commission encourage the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate all Government Departments to ensure that every time a member of the public comes into contact with a Department, a check is made to ascertain whether they are on the electoral register and, if they are not, that they are helped to fill out an application form there and then?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting idea, which I will certainly take back to the Electoral Commission. This is perhaps more a matter for the Cabinet Office than for the commission, but my hon. Friend has raised it in this forum and it is worth investigating further.

I was a little disconcerted by one thing the hon. Gentleman said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), which was that electoral registration officers will be informed of what is happening on 5 February. EROs are operating in local authorities, which are pressed for cash, and if they do not already know about this important day, the opportunity to increase electoral registration, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where there are many hard-to-reach voters, will be lost. What is the hon. Gentleman doing about that?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. She may be interested to know that the Electoral Commission has only just been officially notified of the national voter registration day, which is why it is now in the process of informing EROs. Obviously, until the Electoral Commission knows about something, it cannot pass the news on to the people to whom it is responsible.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


4. What steps the Church of England has taken in Lancashire to support the homeless and people in poverty over the Christmas period. (901876)

A lot happened in the diocese of Blackburn over the Christmas period. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Colne and Villages parish held a Christmas café, and many parishioners also worked with local businesses and schools to support food banks. I am told that one local business in Pendle donated more than 60 hampers of food, toys and clothes, which were then distributed by the local ecumenical Church network.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have in the past mentioned the work of St Philip’s church in Nelson and its food bank. Does he agree that although food banks are particularly important over the Christmas period, they do not tackle the root causes of food poverty? Will he say more about the Church Commissioners’ work to rebalance the Church’s activities towards addressing the underlying problems and finding long-term solutions to food poverty?

The Church urban fund would acknowledge that food banks do not tackle the causes of food poverty. We need to know more about why people use food banks, which is why the Church urban fund is undertaking detailed research on this matter. The report was published in September.

Church Treasures

The 100 Church treasures campaign seeks to protect 100 of the unparalleled array of artworks, including monuments, wall paintings, stained glass, textiles and mediaeval timberwork, which are at risk in our parish churches, in order to keep our buildings open, and our national and local heritage on public display for years to come.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. It is remarkable that for only £3 million 100 Church treasures can be preserved. Obviously, I am particularly interested in what is happening to those in the Durham diocese: the William Morris carpet at Monkwearmouth; the Church masonry at St Hilda’s church in Hartlepool; and the painting in Holy Trinity church in Darlington. Some of those communities will find it difficult to raise the money. What more might we do to support them?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: for quite modest sums, really important pieces of national heritage can be protected. Let me deal with just one of the examples she mentioned. Holy Trinity church in Darlington needs just £16,000 to restore a painting by the wartime artist John Duncan. The whole point of this campaign is to try to lever in funds from other donors, trusts and individuals who might not normally give money to supporting Church heritage but who would be minded to give money specifically to support a particular piece of artwork or heritage in this way. The campaign is already having some success.

Violent Attacks on Clergy

6. What discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Ministers on recent trends in the number of violent attacks on clergy. (901878)

Figures on these cases are not held centrally, and supporting clergy who have suffered attacks is the responsibility of the individual diocesan bishops.

I think we all recognise the excellent work that the clergy do in our local communities. Unfortunately, at times, they do put themselves in harm’s way. Would the right hon. Gentleman support a Government review of these attacks, and is it time to look at designating them as religious hate crimes?

As the hon. Lady says, clergy are often on the front line in supporting the most vulnerable in the community and, sadly, that sometimes results in their being attacked. I wonder whether she would mind if I discussed this matter with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to see whether they feel that such a review is necessary in these circumstances.


7. What recent steps the Church of England has taken in the St Albans diocese to support the homeless and people in poverty. (901879)

The diocese of St Albans has supported a number of projects, particularly those working with homeless people in Hemel Hempstead, St Albans, Stevenage, Bedford, Luton and Watford. The annual December sleep-out, which was supported by my hon. Friend, has managed to raise nearly £1 million over the past 20 years to support homeless people in the diocese of St Albans by making funding grants available, encouraging volunteers and helping to raise further money.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the staff of the diocese, the volunteer organisers, security guards and the Women’s Institute, which provided hot soup all night for all of us on the sleep-out? The money raised has helped a lot of local homeless charities, not least Linton-Linslade Homeless Service, which does such good work in my area.

Indeed. Churches throughout the country support a whole number of initiatives that encourage large numbers of volunteers. I know that my hon. Friend is patron of the Linton-Linslade Homeless Service, which offers short-term emergency shelter, supplies and support to people who are homeless or about to become homeless and does invaluable work in the area.

Grade I Listed Churches

The most significant funder of repairs for grade I listed churches is the Heritage Lottery Fund, under the grants for places of worship scheme. The Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Veneziana Fund also provide funding in some circumstances.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the incredibly diverse array of grade I listed churches in the Bassetlaw constituency. Would he be prepared to use his good offices to ensure that the Church Commissioners can better advise the volunteers running those churches on how to access the funds and that the north of England and the more deprived communities get a fair crack of the whip?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. He is fortunate in having 26 fantastic listed churches in his constituency. Some, such as All Saints, go back to the 10th century. I entirely agree that it is very important that parochial church councils and others know how to access funds such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, and I will discuss with the churches and cathedrals division at Church House how we can better promulgate the way that that advice can be obtained.

Religious Tolerance

9. What discussions the Commissioners have had with Government Departments on the promotion of religious tolerance. (901881)

I think everyone in this House would wish to see religious tolerance supported. After all, the Martyrs’ Memorial in Oxford is a daily reminder of those who were burned at the stake for their beliefs. It was not far away from here, at Tyburn, that people were hanged, drawn and quartered for their religious beliefs. Indeed, one has only to see the plaque in Westminster Hall to remember where Sir Thomas More was put on trial in part for his beliefs. In this country, we have learned through the Reformation and the counter-Reformation and beyond the essential need for religious tolerance in our nation.

As well as discussing religious intolerance with Government Departments, will my right hon. Friend discuss it with St James’ church, which has held a shockingly anti-Israel exhibition over the past couple of weeks? Far from promoting religious tolerance, it did much to undermine it.

My hon. Friend raises a conundrum: to what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant? The demonstration at St James’ Piccadilly was not against Judaism or Jews but against the illegal occupation under international law in the west bank and some of the settlements. In this House, we must be careful about what is seen as religious tolerance and about not tolerating intolerance or breaches of international law.

The right hon. Gentleman may choose to prepare a detailed paper on the matter and to lodge it in the Library of the House where I feel confident it will be a well-thumbed tome.

On the subject of religious tolerance, what discussions has the Commissioner had with media outlets such as TV and radio with regard to Christian programming? Does he agree that it is important to retain a level of programming that reflects the Christian status of this nation? What can be done to promote such programming?

To be honest, I do not think that Christians do too badly. If one gets up early enough, one finds a perfectly good programme between 7 and 8 o’clock on BBC Radio 4 every Sunday. I do not think we can feel that we are in some way discriminated against by the broadcasters.

Christian Celebration of Christmas

10. What recent assessment the Commissioners have made of difficulties faced by Christians in celebrating Christmas in certain parts of the world. (901882)

The House will, I am sure, have noticed that the Archbishop of Canterbury used his first Christmas day sermon to condemn the treatment of Christian communities in the middle east. Archbishop Justin said that the persecution of Christian minorities represented injustice and observed that Christians

“are driven into exile from a region in which their presence has always been essential”.

Sadly, Christians are attacked and massacred, and we have seen terrible news from South Sudan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, where political ambitions have led to ethnic conflict.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In the light of the escalation in religious persecution in many countries across the world, will he kindly arrange a meeting with the appropriate Minister and bishop responsible for foreign affairs and international development to highlight the need for the Department for International Development to form a policy to address such issues and that of freedom of religion as a fundamental human right?

I should be happy to do so, but taking human rights violations into account when aid decisions are made does not necessarily mean refusing to give aid to countries in which such violations take place. It may be in precisely these difficult contexts that we need to be engaging with aid, as religious persecution is often linked to problems in education, economic development and conflicts over natural resources where aid can and does make a huge difference. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point that is worth pursuing with ministerial colleagues in DFID.

Business of the House

First, Mr Speaker, let me pay my personal tribute to Paul Goggins, a colleague held in the highest respect and affection throughout the House. His loss will be felt widely and for a long time.

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 13 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords], followed by a debate on a motion relating to welfare reforms and poverty. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 14 January—Remaining stages of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 15 January—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, including on the subject of banking.

Thursday 16 January—General debate on child neglect and the criminal law, followed by general debate on nuisance calls. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 17 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 January will include:

Monday 20 January—Second Reading of the Intellectual Property Bill [Lords], followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 21 January—Opposition day [18th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, including on the subject of pub companies.

Wednesday 22 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the Commission work programme 2014.

Thursday 23 January—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 24 January—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 January will now be:

Thursday 16 January—Select Committee statement on the publication of the 10th report from the Justice Committee on Crown Dependencies: Developments Since 2010, followed by a combined debate on the second report from the Justice Committee on Women Offenders: After the Corston Report and the fifth report on Older Prisoners.

May I also take this opportunity to congratulate all those who were recognised in the new year’s honours? We take pleasure, of course, not only in Members of this House being recognised for their service but in the recognition of those who give service to Parliament and take part in voluntary and public service. They include Michael Carpenter, the Speaker’s Counsel, John Pullinger, the House Librarian, and Nicholas Munting from the Catering Service. I also congratulate those within government who have been recognised, including the principal private secretary to the Patronage Secretary, Mr Roy Stone.

I thank the Leader of the House for what he said about those who work in the service of the House and have been recognised. All of them are thoroughly deserving. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, Michael Carpenter and John Pullinger are especially well known to me, as I work with both of them closely and on a very regular basis. They are deeply deserving of the recognition that has been afforded to them.

I thank the Leader of the House for his tribute to Paul Goggins and wish to add my own. His untimely death this week has shocked and saddened all Members across the House. He was a kind and caring man who campaigned tirelessly for social justice, including his recent work securing the passage of the Mesothelioma Bill. All our thoughts are with his wife, his children, his family and his many friends.

May I also associate myself with the Leader of the House’s comments, and yours, Mr Speaker, about those recognised in the new year’s honours list? I cannot help wondering, given his appearance today, whether his hairdresser feels somewhat left out—perhaps it is an easier job with hair like his.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business—although, if we take away Opposition days and Back-Bench business, we yet again have very little meaningful Government legislation. Will he tell us whether that is what we can expect for the next 16 months? I note that the Government’s self-proclaimed flagship Immigration Bill is still mysteriously absent from future business, despite its consideration in Committee concluding on 19 November. Can we expect consideration on Report soon, or is the Prime Minister still running scared of the 69 Tory Back Benchers who have signed the rebel amendment?

We expect the Queen’s Speech some time in the spring, but the Government have yet to confirm a date. With the European and local elections scheduled to take place on 22 May, the pre-election purdah will be in force from the beginning of May. Unless the Government are planning a state opening with no announcements at all—I would not put it past them—it looks as though the Queen’s Speech will have to take place in June, after the Whitsun recess, the dates of which the Leader of the House has already announced. What conversations has he had with the Cabinet Secretary on the matter? Can he now tell us the date of the Queen’s Speech?

The universal credit fiasco continued this week as we discovered a war between the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Minister for the Cabinet Office over IT support. Last night the Minister for the Cabinet Office slammed the DWP’s implementation as “pretty lamentable”. Will the Leader of the House arrange for him to make a statement to the House on why the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service have walked away from that costly chaos?

The Chancellor this week wished everyone an unhappy new year with a speech underlining his ideological obsession with rolling back social progress and shrinking the size of the state to pre-war levels. He announced his ambition for a further £25 billion of spending cuts in the first two years of the next Parliament, with £12 billion coming from the social security budget. The Deputy Prime Minister immediately called it a “monumental mistake”, and even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions briefed against it. Treasury Ministers were unable to say which benefits would be targeted, but refused to rule out those for the sick and the disabled.

The Chancellor told us in his speech that 2014 would be a year when Britain faces a choice, and he was right—a choice between a Government who give tax cuts to millionaires while prices rise faster than wages, and a party that wants the economy to work for the many, not the few. He is doing his best to hide his failure to balance the Government’s books by 2015, but people across the country are £1,600 worse off under his watch and we will not let him rewrite history to cover up his failed economic plan. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor, rather than making these announcements where he cannot be questioned on them, to come to the House and tell us where his £12 billion of extra social security cuts would come from?

I hope that all Members had a good break over Christmas and have returned refreshed and ready for the new year. If the Leader of the House and his Cabinet colleagues had a new year’s resolution to be better at their jobs, I must say that they have made a pretty shaky start. We have only been back a week and we have already seen the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rowing with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office about the gargantuan mess that is universal credit, we have seen the Education Secretary slapped down by his colleagues for trying to politicise the commemoration of the first world war, and we have had the spectacle of Liberal Democrats frantically trying to distance themselves from a Government they are a part of while simultaneously accusing the Tories of stealing their policies. All the Liberal Democrat press office can do is desperately retweet a BuzzFeed item listing

“ten reasons the British public will fall back in love with the Deputy Prime Minister.”

I would like to disagree with the Mayor of London, who this week called the Deputy Prime Minister a “prophylactic protection device”. Now I know I am not the world’s greatest expert in this area, but I thought you were supposed to be able to trust contraception.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her further questions. I agree with her: listening to the debate on the Mesothelioma Bill earlier this week, I thought it was a cruel irony that Paul Goggins was not able to be there to see it come into law and to continue to pursue the campaign he had fought so very well on behalf of his constituents and others.

The hon. Lady asked about Government business. We still have 19 Government Bills before the two Houses of Parliament and we are making progress on a wide range of legislation, some of which is of considerable importance, including, as I have announced, the remaining stages of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill. She seemed to dismiss it but it is a very important measure in achieving much higher levels of rehabilitation for those with sentences of below 12 months, which will contribute to overcoming the high levels of recidivism.

I cannot give the hon. Lady a date for the Report stage of the Immigration Bill—otherwise I would have announced it—or for the Queen’s Speech; both are subject to the progress of further business. I will make announcements in due course.

The hon. Lady asked about universal credit. It has always been very clear—I have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make it very clear to the House on a number of occasions—that the Government have welcomed what the National Audit Office has said and have taken steps to put it in place. Yes, there is an adjusted timetable for the roll-out of universal credit, because we have listened, learned and acted in order to make sure there is safe and sound implementation. Part of that was always in anticipation of the transfer of responsibility from the Government Digital Service to the DWP’s own digital team.

I thought the highlight of the hon. Lady’s remarks was her question on hairdressing. I am quite pleased that people up in the Gallery can have a good look at the—[Interruption]—try to get that one into Hansard, Mr Speaker. When I visit Mr Polito’s in Cambridge, as I perhaps will this weekend, he will be able to advise me. [Interruption.] Mr Polito’s is not a person but a shop. [Interruption.] Actually, it costs £15, so I am getting my hair cut cheaper than the Deputy Prime Minister, which just shows that you can come to the Conservatives for value for money.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the Chancellor. The Chancellor will be here to answer questions on 28 January. In a way, I would rather he were able to be here more often. Every time he comes here he is, as the hon. Lady says, able to make very clear the choice, which will become increasingly apparent as we go through this year, between a Government with a long-term economic plan that is delivering sustainable recovery for this country and, as we have heard only in the past few days, leading to business confidence at close to all-time highs, with employment in the private sector up by over 1.6 million; or, under Labour, more borrowing, more debt, more taxes, and the consequences of a second Labour recession.

I welcome the “help for high streets” initiative announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement, which will undoubtedly help small businesses to flourish. Nevertheless, small district shopping centres such as Park Farm in my constituency are suffering as a result of seemingly flawed evaluations of rateable value by the Valuation Office Agency, with business owners in Park Farm paying up to £300 more per square metre of floor space than those in the centre of Derby. May we have a debate about our district shopping centres and how to ensure that the rates imposed on them are not too excessive?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important point on behalf of her businesses. I am sure that she, like me, welcomed what the Chancellor had to say in his autumn statement in support of small businesses, specifically in relation to rates, including the announcement of £1 billion of support for business rate payers and the £1,000 discount, which will benefit approximately 300,000 shops, pubs and restaurants. That is very important. My hon. Friend raises the issue of rateable values, which are assessed by estimating rental value in the open market at a standard valuation date, currently 1 April 2008. Of course, any ratepayer can appeal their valuation if they feel it is inaccurate. The Department for Communities and Local Government recently published proposals to help speed up that appeals process.

The Prime Minister promised—very vocally—action on minimum alcohol pricing, but that seems to have waned as influence from lobbyists has grown. Could we please have a statement in the House on the Government’s precise position on this policy area?

We have been very clear that we are not at this stage proceeding with proposals on minimum alcohol unit pricing. We are going to learn more, for example, about what the consequences of the introduction of such a policy might be in Scotland. I have two things to say to the hon. Lady. First, it was only ever part of an alcohol strategy that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced to the House, and a wide range of measures can have a substantial impact, including local alcohol partnerships, on reducing alcohol content. Secondly, when I had meetings with the drinks industry, they were not about lobbying against minimum unit pricing, but about getting a commitment from the industry to take 1 billion units a year out of the content of alcohol sold in this country, which would be extremely valuable.

Given the increasing violence and political instability in Niger, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, may we have an early debate on Africa and in particular on improving relations between the French and British Governments regarding capacity and governance building? There is good practice on counter-terrorism issues and if that could be extended to helping one another to build up civic society and political institutions, that would, I hope, play a part in reducing the violence.

My hon. Friend makes important points. The Government are working very closely with our allies and some of the multilateral mechanisms to try to deliver greater stability in this area. With regard to the Central African Republic, for example, we have welcomed the Africa-led security mission and December’s United Nations Security Council resolution. We continue to work with our partners in the UN and the European Union to support the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union. Our working relationship with the French Government concerning the Central African Republic and the Sahel is a good one and that should continue.

Given the range of issues in the Sahel, central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, my hon. Friend makes an important point about whether there may be an opportunity for a debate at some stage on African issues. I cannot promise one in Government time, because there is pressure on Government time. [Interruption.] I have explained why previously. There may be an opportunity through the Backbench Business Committee. I will, if I may, take the issue away and continue to think about the possibilities.

May we have an urgent statement on the Government’s lost report on food banks? May I suggest that a search party be sent into the Department for Work and Pensions to track it down and then publish it? While that is being done, may I offer the Prime Minister the opportunity to visit a food bank in my constituency that is open, so that he can avoid doing what he did last time—when he visited a food bank in his own constituency that was shut?

The hon. Gentleman will know that both my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Prime Minister have repeatedly responded to questions about food banks, as we will continue to do. For my part, I know, having visited a food bank, the value of food banks’ work. It is important to recognise that, and we have supported them. That is why, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came into office, he changed the decision of the previous Government not to refer people from jobcentres to food banks.

In February 2009, Zac Knighton-Smith, who was five, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and given only a few weeks to live without a new monoclonal antibody therapy. That treatment was not available on the NHS, but thanks to the efforts of the former health Minister Ann Keen, John Parkes of Northamptonshire primary care trust and the then shadow Secretary of State for Health—the Leader of the House—Zac received the treatment in Germany, which the NHS paid for. On Saturday, this lovely, full-of-life and happy little boy passed away. He will be sadly and greatly missed. However, without politicians of different parties working together, he would not have had the last five years of life. May we have a statement on how this Parliament can make a difference?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I recall the case to which he refers, and he is absolutely right that we in this House can make a difference, not least by working together, but especially where Members of Parliament pursue their constituents’ cases and concerns. I pay tribute to the way in which he did so on behalf of Zac’s family.

We can also make a difference by the policies we bring forward. In that respect, I am proud that as Secretary of State for Health in this Parliament I was able to introduce the cancer drugs fund, which has delivered treatments to 38,000 patients. We also decided to undertake investment in the delivery of proton beam therapy in this country, because the only way patients could otherwise access that treatment was by going to Germany.

As the Leader of the House will know, 15 world health experts have today launched Action on Sugar, a campaign to tackle obesity and diabetes. Given that the Prime Minister said last year that obesity was one of the biggest challenges facing our public health service, may we have an urgent statement on the content of food and drink, the amount of sugar in food and drink and the links between that and the deaths of so many people each year?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. In so far as the campaign announced this morning models itself on Consensus Action on Salt and Health and its approach, I will be very supportive of it, because I worked very closely with CASH and Professor MacGregor, and we have had significant success in reducing the amount of salt in food.

It must be understood that such campaigns will be achieved only by working with the industry on a voluntary basis—that is what the responsibility deal is about—and only on an incremental basis. The level of sugar in food cannot be slashed suddenly—otherwise, people simply will not accept it—but that is what the campaign intends and we should do that. However, inaccurate analogies do not help: I just do not think that the analogy between sugar and tobacco is appropriate. We have to understand that sugar is an essential component of food; it is just that sugar in excess is an inappropriate and unhelpful diet.

The Leader of the House will recall that on 19 December I raised with him the woefully inadequate 56 days given for people to respond to a 50,000-page environmental statement on High Speed 2, and I thank him for sending me a letter and making a formal correction to his response in Hansard.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has transpired since I asked that question that information has been left off the memory sticks and the online and hard copies of the environmental consultation material, and that environmental groups are not able to get hold of vertical profile maps with contours, which are particularly important in the light of the decision to dump 1 million cubic metres of soil in an area of outstanding natural beauty?

Is the Leader of the House also aware of a report in the Lichfield Mercury about HS2 Ltd having confirmed that individuals can petition against the HS2 hybrid Bill only if they have responded to the environmental consultation by 24 January? I do not believe that that can be true—it would have been slipped in as a way to short-circuit the process and to reduce the number of people petitioning against HS2—but will he look into that report and tell me whether it is true? Will he also tell me how the consultation period can be extended, given all the administrative failures by HS2 Ltd and the Government?

In order to be as helpful as I can to my right hon. Friend and other Members who have a constituency interest in the procedure for the HS2 hybrid Bill, I will, if I may, look into the issues that she raises and, in co-ordination with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, ensure that we reply to her and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House so that Members can see the procedure for the hybrid Bill.

May we have a debate on whether the commercial arms of fire brigades, such as community interest companies, should have to pay to receive publicly funded diesel for their appliances and vehicles, and whether such commercial arms have an unfair advantage over their competitors in the market?

If I may, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for fire services, to look at that issue and respond to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we should always try to have fair competition in markets and there should be no unfair subsidies from the public sector.

May we have a debate on the minimum wage, which would enable many Members from all parts of the House to argue that it should be increased significantly now? The cost to the Government of any increase in the minimum wage would be largely met by more income tax coming in and fewer tax credits being paid out. An increase in the minimum wage could simultaneously help the lower paid and save money for the Treasury.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I cannot promise a debate immediately. I hope that there will be opportunities for Members to discuss issues relating to the minimum wage, including the situation for low earners, who have benefited from the Government’s approach to income tax. Changes to the national minimum wage are introduced on 1 October each year. I say gently that there are good reasons for that. Changes in October are an established part of the labour market and many companies operate their pay reviews to coincide with them. Although I completely understand the point he makes, I do not sympathise with the idea of accelerating the timing of any increase in the minimum wage.

I was among the many Members who wanted to speak in last month’s debate on food banks but did not get the chance to do so. The Meadows Advice Group in my constituency tells me that more and more people are being forced to turn to food banks to survive as a result of stagnant wages, rising debts, the bedroom tax and other benefit changes. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the Government’s response to the crisis in the cost of living before the Chancellor hits poor and vulnerable people with even deeper cuts?

The hon. Lady may not have noticed, but following the debate on the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords] on Monday there will be a general debate on welfare reform and poverty, which was selected by the Backbench Business Committee. I do not agree with her about the reasons people are accessing food banks, of which there are many, but the points she wishes to raise could legitimately be raised in that debate.

May I express my personal sadness at the loss of Paul Goggins, with whom I worked closely on the Intelligence and Security Committee over the past three years? He was a patriotic humanitarian who reflected the greatest credit on the Labour party and on Parliament.

May we have a statement from a Defence Minister on the slow progress of the sale of the freehold of Marchwood military port in my constituency for not very much money and possibly to a company, Associated British Ports, that poses a threat to the New Forest with its burgeoning plans to build a container port on the edge of that precious area?

My hon. Friend will recall that a commitment was made in the strategic defence and security review to sell Marchwood sea mounting centre during the current spending review period. The intention is to grant a long-term concession that will include the sale of a lease for the port and the delivery of sea mounting services. That will ensure that the military requirement can still be met, while allowing greater economic and commercial benefit to be realised from the site. A concession will be granted only if the Ministry of Defence is satisfied that it represents good value for money. On timing, a prior information notice was published on 29 November last year to initiate a market engagement process. Twenty-five parties have shown an interest in participating, although clearly we cannot identify who they are. The intention is to begin the formal sale process in the spring of this year.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the disgraceful sentence of 12 months, suspended for three years, handed out to a terrorist involved in the despicable murder of two young soldiers in my constituency? That has outraged my constituents, and I believe it is worthy of debate in the House.

I can understand how the hon. Gentleman feels about these issues, but if I may say so, generally speaking I do not think it is appropriate for the House to debate individual sentences. That would be a constitutional intrusion by the legislature into decisions made by the judiciary. However, it is appropriate for him to raise the matter, and if he wishes to do so again my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will reply to questions next Wednesday.

The UK is currently among the fastest-growing economies in the western world, mainly due to the Government’s tough economic decisions. By contrast, the French socialist economic model that the leader of the Labour party so vehemently supports is crippling its country, with rising unemployment and a probable triple-dip recession. May we have a statement comparing the recent performance of the UK and French economies, which I am afraid would turn into a French tragedy?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Comparisons are of course odious, but I would say two things. First, I was interested to see the Centre for Economic and Business Research’s annual review of the world economic league, published on Boxing day. Among other things, it said that the United Kingdom was the west’s second best performing economy after the United States, and that by 2030 it was likely to overtake Germany and become the largest western European economy. That was partly attributed to its being a relatively low-tax economy. By contrast, the CEBR saw France moving to about 13th position in the world economic league by that point—that is only its view, not mine. Secondly, we have to ask the Leader of the Opposition, who said that what President Hollande was doing for France, Labour would do for Britain, whether the Labour party continues to adhere to that philosophy.

The Constantini family, in my constituency, recently fled Syria, where they had lived for many years. In normal circumstances, as refugees, their children would be granted home student status for fees. Unfortunately, or fortunately for them, the Constantinis are British citizens, and as such they fail to meet the residency requirement. I am sure the Leader of the House will share my concern about the fact that, unlike other refugees from Syria, British citizens appear to be disadvantaged in that circumstance. I wrote to both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office about 10 days before Christmas, and I have yet to receive a response. I would be grateful if he looked into the matter and tried to see that justice is done for people who have fled the conflict in Syria.

I will of course, as I always seek to do, try to expedite a helpful response from both Departments to which the hon. Gentleman has written.

It is as well for the House continuously to recognise how we as a country are leading the way in helping Syrians suffering from the humanitarian crisis. Although we contribute in many ways, including by seeking to protect humanitarian convoys taking aid into Syria, there are of course refugees. In the year up to September, we accepted more than 1,100 Syrian asylum claims made in this country in the usual way.

May I say how much I will miss Paul Goggins in the House? He was not only one of the most able people in Parliament but, crucially, he was also one of the nicest. I will miss him greatly.

I understand that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are conniving to prevent the European Union (Referendum) Bill—so expertly steered through this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton)—from coming into law. If they are successful in blocking the Bill going through the House of Lords in this Session, as they seem to intend, will the Leader of the House introduce a carry-over motion to allow the Bill to be taken forward in the next Session?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said, not least about our former colleague. I hope that the House of Lords will consider the European Union (Referendum) Bill, but also recognise that it has responsibility to consider it timeously—[Interruption.] Timeously; it is a perfectly normal word, I think—in good time. The Lords should consider the Bill so that it can be passed in this Session of Parliament—[Hon. Members: “Timely!”] Hon. Members must not make me laugh; it makes me cough. Not least, the will of this House must be respected. My recollection is that the Bill passed Third Reading in this House by 304 votes to nil, which I think was a powerful expression of its view.

Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions in an answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said that he was very concerned about fixed odds betting terminals. He also stated that a report would be coming forward in the spring, which I understand is March and April, according to sources. Will the Leader of the House guarantee that when that report comes forward, it will be in spring and that the House will debate it?

I am proud to be part of a parliamentary party that is seeking to legislate to let Britain decide through the European Union (Referendum) Bill. In the meantime, may we have a debate about greater EU democracy, and in particular the idea that the UK should directly elect its commissioner?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I fully agree with him about giving the British people a say. Given the particular circumstances of this year, I do not think it possible to contemplate what he proposes for the nomination of the next European commissioner. Speaking at the Dispatch Box it is probably sensible for me to say that I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that the Prime Minister is not best placed to make a decision about who our next commissioner should be.

May I declare an interest as a patron of Gate Safe, for which there is no financial remuneration? Gate Safe was set up following a number of deaths of children, including Karolina Golabek in my constituency. It was to ensure the safety of electronic gates across the industry, which had led to the crushing to death of a number of children. Today I have been contacted by a company that has had its invoice rejected because it followed Gate Safe’s standards, which were said to be merely an attempt to increase prices. May we have a debate on how we can ensure that industry-wide accepted standards can be enforced when it comes to paying bills?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and if I may I will raise that issue on her behalf with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There may be a case for a debate, but it may be that my colleagues can take action to help the hon. Lady.

At the end of this month the Transport Minister will unveil the next generation of Thameslink trains, delivered as part of the £6.5 billion Thameslink programme. Although that will be welcomed in my Hendon constituency and other parts of the country, it comes at a price. May we have a debate to look at rail fares, and consider how the programme has been delivered at the same time as the Government have limited the cap on average regulated rail fare increases to RPI for 2014, and see what further action the Government can take to keep rail fares down?

I am glad my hon. Friend raises the Thameslink programme, which is part of the Government’s long-term strategy to transform the rail network. He and other Members will know that this is the most significant investment in rail since the 19th century. However, for all its benefits in terms of capacity and reduced journey times there is an implication for underlying costs to the system, which is why we have to look constantly at protecting the families and hard-working people who use the railways and why we have reduced the average regulated fare rise to RPI—to which he referred. We will continue to look at that. I cannot promise a debate immediately, but I can promise that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Transport will continue to look at how we can reduce underlying costs to protect those who are necessary rail users.

This week my constituents Mr and Mrs Mann were refused medication for their baby Harley by a supermarket pharmacist because the directions to the parents written by the GP were in Welsh. A greater proportion of public services are now being delivered by private organisations from outside Wales, so may we have a debate on those organisations’ adherence to the principles and requirements of the Welsh Language Act 1993?

This comes a short while after the sad death of Wyn Roberts, who was such a passionate advocate of the Welsh Language Act and the use of the Welsh language in services, which we have to ensure is maintained. I will raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to ensure that the intentions of the Act are being seen through.

May we have a debate on effective political representation? The Leader of the House will notice that, while we have the honourable presence of Members from minority parties in the Chamber, there are no Back-Bench Members from the Liberal Democrat party in their place. They apparently have no interest whatever in the future business of the House, and there were no Liberal Democrat Members present at the important debate in Westminster Hall on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration just before Christmas. Is it true that the Liberal Democrats have passed a new year’s resolution to take Thursdays off? Is it not clear that there is very little point in people voting for Liberal Democrats, because they do not turn up and represent them?

I hear what my hon. Friend has to say. I take an alternative construction, which is to say that Members of the Liberal Democrat party are, as part of this coalition Government, so content with the proposals for business, as brought forward by the Deputy Leader of the House and me, that they do not see any need to question them.

We have learned in the past 24 hours through leaks to the media that the Cabinet Office has accelerated the withdrawal of the Government Digital Service from the universal credit programme. On a point of order yesterday, I inquired whether the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), would be making a statement to the House. I was therefore surprised to see him making a statement on ITN news last night, not in this House. I was not surprised when he said that the implementation of universal credit had been lamentable and that money had been wasted, but is it not discourteous of him to have made the statement to the media last night? When will he make a statement to this House on the role of the Cabinet Office on universal credit?

No, there was no discourtesy involved. The ministerial code is clear that when Parliament is sitting Ministers should make announcements of policy to this House first. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made no announcement of policy; he was simply reiterating the fact, which I told the House a few moments ago, that it was always the intention for the Government Digital Service to transfer responsibility to the Department for Work and Pensions’ digital team.

I was visited by two constituents late last year who adopted their children in 2005. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a statement to explain why children adopted before 1 January 2006 do not qualify for the pupil premium, whereas those adopted since then do?

As ever, my hon. Friend is assiduous in representing the interests of his constituents. The Government took the decision to link eligibility for the pupil premium to adoptions under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which was implemented on 30 December 2005, to ensure consistency with the Government’s policy on priority school admissions for children adopted from care, and in the light of the need to balance competing funding priorities during the current difficult economic climate. The criteria for the pupil premium are reviewed annually. As part of that process, the Government will revisit the decision to limit access to the pupil premium to adoptions under the 2002 Act in time for the 2015-16 financial year.

May we have a statement on the use of non-custodial sentences for serious offences? The public are rightly questioning why some people found guilty of very serious and violent crimes are avoiding prison. Victims of crime need confidence that those guilty of serious crimes will be properly punished, but there is growing concern that one reason for the many non-custodial sentences is cost.

The issue that the hon. Lady raises is one about which we all feel strongly. I remind her, however, that the sentencing regime we had was substantially inherited from the Labour Government. We have taken action to improve the very things people are concerned about. For example, if someone commits a serious crime under this Government, they are nearly 10% more likely to go to prison than in the last full year of the Labour Administration, and the average sentence for sexual offences is nearly one year longer than it was in 2008 under Labour and two years longer than it was in 2002.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a pastor in the Central African Republic describing the entire destruction of his village and the slaughter of many innocent men, women and children. This is occurring in many communities across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) has already rightly talked about the brave involvement of the French and other forces there doing important work, but may we have a debate on the speed of the UN’s reaction and the implementation of its responsibility to protect? Sometimes I feel it is too slow to respond.

I will not repeat what I have said previously, but in the light of the points that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have made, I will talk to Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who fully share the concerns of the House and are working with our partners, pressing for the political progress necessary, including the implementation of the agreement in April. Time is not on our side, and our concerns increase day by day.

May I say how much I will miss Paul Goggins? I was looking forward to working with him this year on holding the Government to account on the promises they made to mesothelioma sufferers in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—an issue that I know was very dear to his heart.

Has the Leader of the House seen The Times’ letters page, particularly the letter from the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, who complains that in interviews this week the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who has responsibility for legal aid, has exaggerated barristers’ average earnings by more than 300%? Is not the problem that, while making the biggest attack on the criminal justice system in a generation, the Government have allowed no legislative time or debate? Will the Justice Secretary now table a debate in Government time so that at least we can get to the bottom of some of these dodgy statistics?

I know that my hon. Friends would never use dodgy statistics. At nearly £2 billion a year, ours is one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. I understood there to be consensus across political parties that savings needed to be made. That is why we are taking these steps. Previously, the Leader of the Opposition said that his party supported cuts in the legal aid budget. If he and his hon. Friends are changing their position, it would be helpful if they would explain how they would pay for it. It is of course open to the Opposition—and to the hon. Gentleman to tell his Front-Bench team this—to raise these matters: they have two Opposition days in the next two weeks, and if they wish to raise these issues, as they have done before, they can do so.

With the economic recovery taking hold, some businesses are now experiencing rapid growth. Oracle Finance in Knaresborough, for example, is dramatically increasing the size of its sales team. This period of the economic cycle places great pressure on companies in terms of recruitment and skills, operational issues and especially cash flow. These challenges are compounded for businesses facing particularly rapid growth, so may we please have a statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on what it is doing to support companies facing such challenges?