House of Commons
Thursday 27 March 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—
Thank you very much for your welcome, Mr Speaker. May I quickly thank all hon. Members from across the House who have kindly sent me good wishes?
In November, I wrote to water companies stressing the tough times that households are facing and the vital role the industry can play to help reduce costs. Companies have responded positively. Most are holding bills down in 2014-15, with flat or declining bills proposed from 2015. The Government encourage water companies to introduce social tariffs for vulnerable consumers. Three companies now have them in place, with at least nine more expected by 2015.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but two weeks ago his officials told the Public Accounts Committee that his Department did not actually have a target or a measure of what “affordable” means, so when he says that water companies are acting to bring bills down, does he even know what target they are aiming for?
Of course, the cost of water is relative to that of other utilities. Unlike the energy industry, the water industry has social tariffs, and the Government have stepped in to help 70,000 households. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those schemes help people to pay something towards the cost of the water they use, which is better than defaulting?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There should be a contribution, but in some cases it should be reduced. There is no free lunch. Every time there is a reduced rate for some, it has to be covered by all other hard-working consumers paying their bills.
In Devon and Cornwall, water bills have traditionally been high, but they have been reduced this year by 7%, thanks in no small measure to the Government’s support for hard-pressed households. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate South West Water, which has listened to local people and has just submitted a five-year plan showing that water bills may well fall by 13% in real terms over the next five years, even though it is increasing capital investment by 19%? Is that not an example of what progressive water companies can do if they listen to their local people?
We welcome the Secretary of State back to his place after his recent appointments.
On Tuesday, Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers blocked Labour’s proposals to help households that are facing growing water bills at a time when their incomes are being squeezed more and more. As we have already heard, one in 10 households are now paying more than 5% of their income to the water companies, yet as the Secretary of State has admitted, the Government are refusing to lift a finger to help them. Will he tell us the specific reasons why this Government have opposed Labour’s proposals for a national affordability scheme?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.
We are continuing the policy left by the previous Government that this should be voluntary—that is how they legislated as recently as 2010. We are clear that this is an issue that should be decided locally, because if there is a reduction for some customers, it has to be paid for by the remaining customers in that area. We are very pleased that we are seeing progress. We now have a robust Ofwat, unlike under the previous Government, and we are going to see significant changes in prices. We must also remember that we have to keep investment coming in from domestic and foreign sources, because every 1% increase in interest adds £20 to a water bill—there is a balance here.
One of my rural constituents in Kettering has just received a £7,000 water bill, owing to Travellers and Gypsies illegally tapping into the water supply. Anglian Water says that it can do nothing; the police are um-ing and ah-ing; and there have been threats of intimidation against the constituent concerned. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister with responsibility for water kindly agree to meet me and my constituent so that we can resolve this dreadful situation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that local issue. He should immediately get in touch with the water Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). We will take it up and see how we can help.
We published our draft strategy for achieving officially bovine tuberculosis-free status for England in July 2013 for consultation. The final version, which we will publish shortly, will outline our comprehensive plan for tackling the scourge of bovine TB in England.
I am sure the Secretary of State agrees with me that if the report confirms that a significant number of badgers—well above the recommended 5% limit—took more than five minutes to die, that would be a very serious matter because it would prove that the cull was inhumane. In that circumstance, would he not think it vital to reconsider the policy and to abandon absolutely any plans for rolling out culling later in the year?
16. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the badger cull may have played a part in tackling bovine TB in other countries, in the UK it has proved more difficult to achieve our desired result? Will he therefore agree to look at all other options, and accept that if one course of action fails, it is time to look for another? (903347)
My hon. Friend mentions other badger culls. The most obvious nearby country that has had one is the Republic of Ireland, where the number of cases went down from 44,903 in 1999 to only 15,612 last year. There are clear lessons to be learned from other countries—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—but the circumstances here are not entirely the same. That is why our strategy encompasses a whole range of other activities involving the vaccination of badgers, the vaccination of cattle and a strict cattle movement regime, which has been a key to success in other countries.
The scourge of bovine TB, as the Secretary of State rightly calls it, is unfortunately increasing in Northern Ireland. With that in mind, and given that we have only a catch, test and release scheme and would love to have a scheme that actually dealt with the badger, will he consider calling his counterpart in Northern Ireland and setting up a national conference, which he could chair, to address the removal of this plague from our land?
I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so the hon. Gentleman knows that I respect the protocols of devolution. We have regular discussions at ministerial and official level on matters agricultural. He is absolutely right, however, to raise the contrast between what has happened in Northern Ireland, where diseased badgers have not been removed, and the dramatic reduction in southern Ireland.
I raised the issue with Commissioner Borg on my first day back, a week last Monday. We are pressing on with the development of a cattle vaccine but, sadly, it will take some years: we have to develop a vaccine that is valid and works; we have to develop a DIVA test to differentiate between vaccinated cattle and diseased cattle; and we then have to get a legal process. I am afraid that that is going to take at least 10 years.
I genuinely welcome the Secretary of State back after his operation. It is good to see him back.
When the Government’s approach to TB was resoundingly rejected by Parliament two weeks ago, the Secretary of State was on a chocolate factory visit. He had previously stormed out of a debate before another Government defeat on badger culls, muttering, “I’ve had enough of this.” If he has really had enough of this, as more and more Government Members have, will he at least have the courage of his convictions and give Parliament a vote in Government time before proceeding with any more of these failed badger culls?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.
I do not recollect storming out of anywhere. We have been punctilious in keeping Parliament informed through regular statements, and the issue comes up regularly at questions. The last vote, with a majority of 61, very clearly endorsed our strategy, which is very wide and encompasses other actions. [Interruption.] The last vote on a substantive motion showed considerable support, with a majority of 61, for our strategy. The hon. Gentleman has got to get beyond the issue of culls. Our strategy encompasses vaccination of both species, significant changes to our cattle movement regime and tighter biosecurity. He should concentrate on the whole strategy, which was endorsed in Parliament by 61 votes.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s using all means at his disposal to control the disease. One of those is the polymerase chain reaction test, which will be able to identify infected live badgers and the setts in which they live. Will he ensure that all the available resources go into promoting that test, which could have a role in controlling bovine TB?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it would be a huge change if we could use PCR to analyse diseased badgers on the spot. That would change the whole debate and would be an enormous help in disease reduction. We have been working closely with the university of Warwick and are bringing in other agencies to see whether we can accelerate that work. Sadly, PCR is not yet reliable enough. If we can get a greater than 50% chance of identification, it will cause a sea change on this issue.
Environment Agency Staff
3. What steps he is taking to prevent redundancies among staff working on flood protection at the Environment Agency. (903332)
The chief executive of the Environment Agency has been clear that the planned reduction in posts, which is necessary to ensure that the agency has an affordable business structure, will not affect its ability to respond to flooding. The Environment Agency will prioritise the resilience that is needed to manage flood incidents and recovery. The additional £130 million of funding that was announced in February and the £140 million that was announced in the Budget for the repair and maintenance of vital flood and coastal defences will mean that there is no reduction in the Environment Agency’s flood and coastal risk management job numbers.
The Prime Minister promised that the reported plans for 550 redundancies among flood protection staff at the Environment Agency would not be put in place. Will the Minister confirm how many flood protection staff the EA plans to make redundant over the next two years?
As I set out in my original reply to the hon. Gentleman, the agency prioritises flood and coastal defence work. The extra money that we have put in place to support that work means that it can look again at how it is managing jobs across the agency. Of course, like all other Government Departments and agencies, the Environment Agency has to respond to the need to tackle the deficit. However, we are putting money in place to ensure that our flood and coastal defences are run and maintained properly.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have excellent internal drainage boards that are doing work across the country. There are proposals to set up new internal drainage boards in a number of areas to build on those successes and to make use of local knowledge. We will support that approach where it is appropriate and where a model can be found to bring it in.
11. I hear what the Minister says about the country’s resilience and about flood defences. We were flooded badly in Chesterfield in 2007, so my heart goes out to everyone who has suffered so badly this winter. Does he not think that the many people in the Environment Agency who have worked so tirelessly will be feeling pretty disgruntled that after all the work they have done and at a time when all of us are worried about flooding, they are seeing huge numbers of job cuts? (903342)
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to the devastating impact that floods have had in the past. Some of his constituents will still be feeling the effects of what they went through at that time. Environment Agency staff work very hard—those who are directly involved in flood and coastal risk management and those from other areas in the agency who came in to support them during the recent extreme weather events. I have visited many of them in areas of the country that have been affected. As the chief executive takes forward the proposals to ensure that the agency meets the challenges of the future, I know that he will take account of all the skills and the expertise that it has and preserve them to ensure that we build on the work that has been done and keep everybody safe.
I have had three meetings with the Environment Agency on waste fires in the last six months, including a discussion on Tuesday this week with the noble Lord Smith of Finsbury, when we spoke about the fire at the waste site in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. The two previous occasions were a meeting on 30 October 2013, which included my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Dr Paul Leinster, and a meeting on 27 November 2013 with the noble Lord Smith and Dr Leinster.
Bearing in mind that the Environment Agency failed to deal effectively with persistent and massive breaches of licensing conditions by Blackwater (North East) Ltd, leading to the Thrunton fire, surely the agency owes it to my constituents to remove the potentially polluting waste and charge the cost to Blackwater or its insurers, rather than the burden falling on the landowner who has done so much to help?
My right hon. Friend has been assiduous in raising all the matters connected with that awful fire and the mismanagement of the site by the company. His constituents have been very lucky to have had him acting on their behalf. In my discussions with the agency, I have made it clear that we will do all we can to support all those who have been on the right side of this, but we need to consider carefully the correct method of making sure that the polluter pays in this instance.
Does the Minister not realise that the Environment Agency has been haemorrhaging good staff? It is very important that we curb the cowboys and poor operators in the waste sector who do so much damage to our environment, but we just have not got the people or the resources in the Environment Agency to do that properly now.
I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman and in the past we have both been members of the all-party group on this issue. The fact is that we have excellent staff in the Environment Agency working very hard on these issues, and in the recent Budget we secured an extra £5 million to tackle waste crime. It is a priority for the Government, and we should ensure that the businesses that operate effectively, fairly and safely are protected from those that act unscrupulously. That is why we are investing extra money in tackling this issue.
Social Tariffs (Water Bills)
The Government published social tariff guidance for water companies in June 2012, enabling the introduction of social tariffs from April 2013. Three water companies now have social tariffs in place, with a further three set to introduce them this year. Another six companies have plans to introduce social tariffs from 2015, while others are consulting with their customers.
Unlike the last Government, we will have a robust Ofwat. Under the last Government, bills went up by 20%. We are seeing a robust Ofwat now working on the new price programme, and that will see a reduction or held prices and increased investment. A balance must be struck because we have to keep the confidence of domestic and foreign investors. A 1% increase in interest means £20 on a water bill.
Food Supply Networks
They were interim recommendations; Professor Elliott’s final report is expected later this spring. We are discussing the interim report with interested parties, and we will carefully consider the supporting analysis in his final report before making a formal response.
People need to be confident that what is on the packet is what is in the packet. The Prime Minister’s machinery of government changes in 2010 created confusion of responsibility between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Prime Minister’s short-sighted changes weakened consumer protection and were misguided?
No, I do not agree with that. It was right to separate policy making from enforcement. The issue we had with horsemeat was not a failure of policy: it was a failure of enforcement. Since then, we have increased funding to £2.2 million to help to support local authorities to deliver the national co-ordinated food sampling programme. The Food Standards Agency is also developing a new intelligence hub to improve its capability in identifying and preventing threats, and to co-ordinate action across Government.
Professor Elliott confirmed the findings of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that we have a severe shortage of public analysts and laboratories. He further found a gap in checks on cold-slab meats in cold storage and transportation. Can the Government act now, before the final Elliott report, to make good the testing by public analysts and public laboratories, and to address the other issues that Professor Elliott identified?
We will look carefully at the recommendation in Elliott’s final report, but the Food Standards Agency is working with industry and the European Commission to identify further targeted sampling programmes that could be carried out. As I said, we have increased the budget from £1.6 million to £2.2 million to help support local authorities. We have also introduced unannounced inspections of meat-cutting plants, and there have been more than 1,450 of those since 2013.
Some recommendations of the Elliott report refer to devolved matters and others to matters that are reserved across the UK. It is important that the UK Government, the Scottish Government, and other Administrations work closely together. When did the Minister last meet Scottish Ministers to discuss how we can ensure a co-operative approach across the UK on this important issue?
I meet Ministers from the devolved Assembly regularly. Most recently, I met last Monday the Scottish Minister responsible for farming and fisheries. We did not discuss this particular issue, but when the final report is published we will discuss its findings. We have had some discussions about the interim findings, and further discussions are taking place at official level.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the potential threat to our domestic food supply presented by changes to the common agricultural policy, particularly with regard to food produced in the uplands? If so, what plans do he and our Government have to protect, or ensure that there is a decent successor to, the upland entry level scheme?
We are in the process of concluding our implementation of the common agricultural policy, and we have made it clear that we will align the upland rate of the single farm payment with the lowland rate. We will shortly make an announcement on the moorland rate, which I know will interest the hon. Gentleman.
Answers to recent questions that I tabled show a massive drop in food testing under this Government: tests on food composition are down by 48%, and those on food labelling and presentation by 53%. Does the Minister share Professor Chris Elliott’s concern that cuts to food testing and inspection could compromise the safety of the food that people eat to such an extent that “people start to die”?
I am not sure I share that analysis. Since this crisis erupted more than 45,000 tests of beef products have been reported, and there have been no new positives since the reported incident of horsemeat last year. As I pointed out, we have also introduced unannounced inspections of meat-cutting plants, and there have been almost 1,500 of those since last year.
8. Whether he has considered the recommendation of the Environmental Audit Committee in its eleventh report, Plastic Bags, HC 861, that the Government should remove the exemption of biodegradable bags from their proposed levy on single-use carrier bags; and if he will make a statement. (903337)
The Government response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on plastic bags is due by 7 April, and we are currently considering the Committee’s recommendations.
I understand the sector’s concerns based on products that have been described as biodegradable in the past, but we are talking about the opportunity for new products to come forward. That is why we have offered money to those who can come up with techniques for separating different forms of bag. We are directing this initiative at the 7.1 billion single-use carrier bags—the figure comes from 2012. We want to tackle that and it is a popular policy that people support. We also want to provide opportunities for new more appropriate products to come forward.
My hon. Friend will know that there is a 5p tariff on plastic bags in Wales, and I would not say that it is so popular there. However, there is a big difference between bio-undegradable and biodegradable bags. Will the Minister speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and make it very clear that it would be unwelcome in England to have a 5p tariff on plastic bags if they are biodegradable?
Building on my reply to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), we are considering the issues raised by the Environmental Audit Committee, as well as the representations we have received as we take the policy forward. Evidence from retailers and members of the public shows that they want us to do something to tackle single-use carrier bags.
Would the Minister or Secretary of State care to visit a factory in my constituency that deals with plastic recycling to see at first hand what damage to that industry could be done if biodegradable material accidentally gets into the waste stream?
Climate Change Adaptation
The Government set out a wide range of actions and policies to address urgent climate risks in the national adaptation programme report, published in July last year. Spending on core climate adaptation work is consistent with the fluctuations in activity required by the five-year cycle set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. Spending also reflects the embedding of adaptation in wider Government work.
Social Tariffs (Water Bills)
The Government published social tariff guidance for water companies in June 2012, enabling the introduction of social tariffs from April 2013. Three water companies now have social tariffs in place, with a further three set to introduce them this year. Another six companies have plans to introduce social tariffs from 2015, while others are consulting their customers.
As I have said in answer to previous questions, we believe that that should be left to local companies. We are pleased that there has been progress—a number of companies have signed up—as will be clear in the next price round. As under the previous Government, who passed legislation in 2010, the regime is voluntary. We believe it is right for local companies to work with local consumers, because other consumers pay for those cheaper tariffs.
Bees and other pollinators are vital for the environment and our food production. We want to ensure they survive and thrive. The national pollinator strategy was drafted with the help of many interested organisations and is out to consultation. It refreshes our commitment to safeguarding bees and building on our long-established policies to support pollinators, including habitat and species conservation.
In Leighton Buzzard and Linslade, Leighton-Linslade town council, Central Bedfordshire council and South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth have done excellent work in encouraging bees by planting wild flowers and leaving areas of grass uncut. That has made a huge difference—a lot of volunteers are onside. Will the Minister agree to come to see that work to see whether it can be replicated elsewhere? Perhaps at least one of his officials could come.
We have made financial support available under the European fisheries fund to reimburse up to 60% of the cost of replacing lost or damaged gear. The Government will continue to pay lighthouse dues for another year, saving the industry up to £140,000. Various other support is available for businesses, including the option to apply to their local authority to get business rate relief for three months.
I congratulate the Minister on the recent announcement on helping very hard-pressed fishermen, who have been the unsung victims of recent floods. I am awaiting a reply from him to my letter—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] It was written only recently and a holding reply has been received, so I am not complaining. While the help for the replacement of lobster pots and other gear is welcome in Shoreham, many of my fishermen have heavily mortgaged boats and cannot afford to pay their mooring fees and other such overheads. Can some assistance be given as a stop-gap to ensure they do not lose their moorings?
I will follow up with a response to my hon. Friend’s letter. The Department for Transport is looking at what support may be made available to help with ports. We are considering whether fishermen will be able to receive additional help from the business support fund, which, as I said, is being administered by local authorities, but I am happy to look into the individual cases he raises.
Welcome as the package is, I seek further reassurance from the Minister. Fishermen are having difficulty engaging with the scheme. If they have purchased the replacement pots already, they cannot receive any recompense, and the pots also have to have been lost on land.
On the latter point, I do not think that that is the case, but the Marine Management Organisation might want to see some evidence that the pots have been damaged or lost. In many cases, the MMO accepts a straightforward statement signed by a fisherman. There is an issue with retrospective payment, as the European Fisheries Fund does not allow for retrospectivity and we have had some discussions with the Commission. We are trying to get a better handle on how many fishermen are affected—we think it may be somewhere between 15 and 20 fishermen—so we are looking into this issue, and I had a meeting with officials on it just yesterday.
Fishermen in my constituency have been affected by the storms and by the dumping of dredged oil in Whitsand bay. Will my hon. Friend inform me of the cost of carrying out a survey on a recently identified alternative more suitable site, and join me in discussions with the dredging company?
I am aware that this is a very important issue to my hon. Friend. I visited her constituency and met some of her constituents who had concerns about the dredging. As she will know, the MMO makes licensing decisions of this sort in isolation from Ministers—it is separate. However, I can tell her that I have asked for an assessment of the cost of the environmental impact assessments necessary to designate a new site. I am advised that it would be approximately £130,000. I am, of course, happy to meet her and the chief executive of the dredging company to see whether we can identify a way forward.
The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are growing the rural economy, improving the environment, and safeguarding animal and plant health. With flood prevention and management central to both the rural economy and the environment, last week’s Budget included a further £140 million for the repair and maintenance of flood defences, defences that in recent months protected more than 1.4 million properties and 2,500 sq km of farmland. This money is on top of the extra £130 million announced in February. Somerset was one of the areas hit hardest by the winter flooding. I spoke to the leader of Somerset council yesterday. He told me that, as part of the Somerset levels action plan, the intention is to start the initial dredge on Monday.
If I could make a brief comment on my return, Mr Speaker, I would like to send our congratulations to our colleagues in the US Congress, who on Tuesday erected a statue in the Capitol on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Norman Borlaug. His new advanced farming techniques, known as the “green revolution”, have, according to some estimates, saved 1 billion lives.
In North West Leicestershire, the new national forest continues to go from strength to strength, having a transformative effect not only on the environment but the quality of lives of local residents. Will the Minister outline what steps the Government are taking to promote tree planting across the country in the next 12 months?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work of the National Forest Company in his constituency and across the 200 square miles of the national forest. Across the country, 2,000 hectares of new woodland will be created through the planting of 4 million trees, as part of £30 million of Government investment in the next financial year.
I welcome the Secretary of State back to the Dispatch Box after his eye operation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), who said in a letter to a constituent that
“the Hunting Act is not under threat by the coalition government,”
and that it
“is not the Coalition Government’s policy…to amend the ban”?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind comments on my return. As she knows, we received an interesting report from a number of Welsh farmers, which presented a reasonable view that there is an increased problem of fox predation on lands since the Hunting Act 2004 came into force, but as the Prime Minister made very clear yesterday, sadly there is no agreement between the coalition parties, which is needed for an amendment to be brought before the House.
Following that answer and the Prime Minister’s admission yesterday, The Daily Telegraph is reporting today that Downing street has confirmed that there will be no vote on the full repeal of the hunting ban in this Parliament, contrary to the coalition agreement. Can the Secretary of State be clear with the House: will there be a vote in this House to repeal the hunting ban in this Parliament or not?
T2. Partnership funding for projects such as the Pickering pilot “Slowing the flow” scheme is being attracted from public sector bodies and, to a lesser extent, internal drainage boards. Will the Minister tell us what private sector partnership funding there has been and why the major review of partnership funding, which was expected to be published in October, has been delayed? (903349)
The Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is absolutely right to point out the important contribution that partnership funding is making. We anticipate £148 million coming forward across this spending review period, which will enable schemes that otherwise could not have gone forward. The question of private sector funding is important and it has come forward in a number of schemes around the country, but if local authorities or other public sector bodies want to make a contribution too, that is an equally valid way of bringing forward schemes that are important to keeping local people safe. However, I am happy to write to her and discuss how the review of partnership funding is progressing.
T3. The Minister was kindly in his place yesterday when I moved the ten-minute rule motion to introduce a Bill on dog smuggling. Does he think this is an issue or does he think that those who are concerned about it are being over-alarmist? Would he be kind enough to meet me, along with one or two of the Bill’s co-sponsors and the dog charities involved, to discuss whatever his view and that of his officials happens to be? (903352)
I very much enjoyed attending the hon. Gentleman’s ten-minute rule Bill debate yesterday, as well as following his many questions on the issue since the new year. I have met officials on a number of occasions to review our approach and check that we have the right safeguards in place to prevent rabies coming in. There were some changes to the pet travel scheme, but we still think it is very stringent, in that all dogs coming in must be vaccinated and go through a period of three weeks before they can be moved. Nevertheless, I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the issue. I can also say that the European Commission is giving some consideration to rescue dogs coming from Romania. There was a little bit of concern last week about an incident where a dog with suspected rabies came from Romania to the Netherlands, even though that was subsequently ruled out.
T4. I know that the Secretary of State likes visiting chocolate factories, so may I urge him to come and visit the Thorntons factory in my constituency and join me in praising it for the 10% increase in exports it enjoyed last year? That increase was part of the overall growth in exports by the food and drink manufacturing industry, which is a great way of taking this country’s economy forward. (903353)
I would be more than happy to come and visit a Thorntons factory. Thorntons is a fabulous chocolate manufacturer and a great success story in the UK. My hon. Friend is right: the food and drink industry is our biggest manufacturing industry in the UK. There is great potential for export opportunities, which is why the Government have an export plan and why we have prioritised exports and done a huge amount of work to open new markets.
Following on from the earlier question from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), 18 months ago there was a fire at a JL Sorting site in my constituency that took weeks to put out, but since then nothing has been done to remove the many tonnes of debris on the site and that is causing great concern as it is an eyesore and might lead to health problems. Will the Minister look again at how he can bring about change through the Environment Agency to ensure quicker enforcement to get rid of such debris more quickly?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Things have not always been done as we should have liked in the past, and we are therefore investing an extra £5 million in tackling waste crime. I have asked the chief executive of the Environment Agency and Lord Smith to come back to me—as they are doing—with proposals for improving the position by toughening up regulation. The hon. Gentleman may wish to write to me about specific issues relating to the case that he has raised.
T5. The Minister will be aware of the importance of recreational sea angling around the coast of west Wales. Have the Government conducted any economic study of its importance to jobs, and what they can do to protect them? (903354)
Last November I attended the launch of Sea Angling 2012, which did just that. It found that, in 2012, English anglers had spent £831 million on the sport. When indirect and induced effects are accounted for, that could support a total of more than £2 billion of spending. The report is available on the Marine Management Organisation’s website.
Will the Government please have another look at the exclusion of 70,000 leaseholders from their new flood insurance scheme? Most of those people are on modest or low incomes, and a number of them live in my constituency. As a result of their exclusion from the scheme, they either face massively increased premiums or cannot obtain insurance at all.
We are examining the various leasehold options with the aim of ensuring that Flood Re deals with the problems of the least commercial leaseholders. Some large commercial landlords have leasehold properties, and we want to make certain that flood relief is focused on domestic policies. Of course, it will be possible for the contents insurance policies of leaseholders of all types to be ceded to Flood Re should that be necessary.
My hon. Friend is a long-standing champion of this cause. I agree with him that irresponsible breeding and selling of dogs is unacceptable, and we think that the relevant authorities should clamp down on it. Anyone in the business of breeding and selling dogs must have a valid licence from the local authority, and must also abide by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Many pet shops have already stopped selling kittens and puppies, but we are more concerned about internet sales of puppies, to which animal welfare charities have drawn our attention.
Yesterday was the first anniversary of the death of 14-year-old Jade Lomas-Anderson after being attacked by four dogs in my constituency. The new legislation is welcome, but it does not solve the problem of dangerous dogs. What further plans does the Minister have to protect our communities, educate children and dog owners, tackle puppy farming, and prevent dogs from becoming dangerous in the first place?
Unless dogs are bred properly and socialised properly, they may become violent in adulthood. That is a big challenge for us, but we have increased sentences for those responsible for attacks on people by dogs, and we have changed the law so that prosecutions can be brought even when an attack takes place on private property.
T7. Given the Secretary of State’s popular and correct decision to cancel the private finance initiative credit given to the Kingsland incinerator, and given that incineration is near the bottom of the waste hierarchy, does the Minister agree that the green investment bank should be investing in green technologies higher up the hierarchy, and that that does not include flawed incineration projects? (903357)
Although energy from waste has its place, the Department fulfils its duty to ensure that any money that is invested through support from the Treasury goes to where capacity is needed. The hon. Gentleman has made a good point about the importance of driving resources up the hierarchy, but I think we should welcome the fact that the green investment bank is supporting innovators and new entrants to the sector.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Individual Voter Registration
The dry-run exercise to prepare for the introduction of individual elector registration involved matching all entries on the electoral registers against the database of the Department for Work and Pensions. The Commission’s report on progress stated that, although there was still a great deal of work to be done, sufficient progress had been made for us to press ahead with the historic change to IER, which will take place in June 2014. It will enhance individual voter responsibility and the security of, and confidence in, the electoral registration system, and—this is extremely important—it means that for the first time those who are eligible to join the electoral register will be able to do so online.
I think I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. IER will certainly increase the robustness of our democratic system, because a national insurance number and date of birth must be given before anyone can enter the register. For many people it will be easier to get on to our register because it can be done online. Particularly for younger people, who are a hard-to-reach group, the ability to enter the register online, with the necessary information, is a very good thing.
I have recently visited the Huddersfield electoral registration office in Kirklees, where the staff are doing a very good job during this transformative stage. They are worried that some of the technology is showing real glitches, however. Is the hon. Gentleman really sure that the scheme will be ready on time, and are we going to get more people voting at the next election?
The assurances I have received from the Electoral Commission are that the technology will work and that this scheme is ready to run on time. The hon. Gentleman has been a trailblazer, because it is very important that all of us visit our electoral registration offices to discuss with them the plan they have to get people on to the register. He has done that. We should all follow his example.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The current estimated shortfall in the cost of repairs to cathedrals is £87 million over the next five years, over and above what the cathedrals are currently spending on repairs annually.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he recognise the importance of keeping our cathedrals open, as they are a magnet for tourism and bring benefits to the wider community and the tourist trade in particular? Will he ensure that the Church maintains a close working relationship with other parts of the tourist industry?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Cathedrals are incredibly important in terms of heritage. Lincoln cathedral, which is in my hon. Friend’s constituency in the diocese of Lincoln, needed repairs to its stonework, and I am very grateful, as I am sure is the whole House, for the announcement in the Chancellor’s Budget of £20 million to help cathedrals. I hope that some of that money will be able to find its way to Lincoln cathedral.
9. My right hon. Friend will know that Lichfield cathedral urgently requires rewiring, but it will be unable to access funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Will it be able to access money from the generous grant made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that we can repair the wiring, if not the roof, while the sun is shining? (903297)
There is clearly an urgent need to rewire Lichfield cathedral; indeed, if it is not done, there is a real risk that the cathedral might close. It was exactly for that sort of purpose—repairing guttering, rewiring—that the Chancellor very generously included provision for £20 million in his Budget. I look forward to visiting Lichfield at some point when the rewiring is done.
Same-sex Marriage (Priests)
Clergy and ordinands remain free to enter into civil partnerships. The House of Bishops in its pastoral guidance distributed on 15 February said that it was not willing for those in same-sex marriages to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry—deacon, clergy or bishops—and that
“it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same-sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives”.
As with any alleged instance of misconduct, each case would have to be considered individually by the local diocesan bishop.
The situation is clear. The Church of England’s understanding of marriage remains unchanged: marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one woman, and under the canons of the Church of England marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman. The canons of the Church of England retain their legal status as part of the law of England and I would hope that no priest who has taken an oath of canonical obedience would wish to challenge canon law and the law of England.
The Church Commissioners are finalising their asset valuations and anticipate the total return for 2013 to be about 15% to 16%. The continued steady return will enable the Church Commissioners to continue the level of support that they give the ministry of the Church of England.
I hope that during the course of this coming year the Church Commissioners will be able to make about £90 million available to support local community projects—projects in the diocese of Manchester and throughout the country—and to help serve the whole community of the country, making it clear that the Church of England is a national Church.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that Church Commissioners’ investments might be being added to by the increasing trend for high charges for access to cathedrals and important Church establishments, led by Westminster abbey, which people need to take out a mortgage to access these days? Does he agree that the practice of other countries’ giving a discounted rate to local people or seasonal rates for access so that local people can access their churches would be appropriate?
My hon. Friend will find that in other countries the system is different. For example, in Germany the state supports all the cathedrals and churches, whereas the Church of England has to fund all our cathedrals and all our churches itself. We have the stewardship of more grade I listed buildings than any other entity. If my hon. Friend wants to go to worship in the cathedral, he can always do that for free, but I do not think anyone would object to tourists who want to see the heritage of a cathedral having to pay a modest amount to see that and support it.
The Church Commissioners support the mission of each diocese depending on its need. Each diocese generally receives between £1 million and over £3 million, but that covers only a small proportion of the cost of running the Church. We must never underestimate the importance of the generous giving of church congregations, which accounts for most of the rest.
The village church is at the heart of rural life, and I am delighted to say that the Bishop of Knaresborough is joining us for a celebration of the countryside on Saturday. What is the split between rural and urban pay from the diocesan contribution? I ask because the costs of running rural parishes are extremely high.
My hon. Friend is right to say that the parish church is invariably at the heart of English village life. It is difficult distinguishing between urban and rural dioceses, as many dioceses are very mixed. Her diocese of York receives between £2.5 million and £3 million each year. The dioceses with the greatest deprivation, Durham and Manchester, receive more than £3 million. We are trying to ensure that adequate financial support is provided by the Church Commissioners and the Church as a whole both to parishes in inner-city areas and to rural parishes serving important villages in her constituency, because the Church of England is a national Church which must reach every part of England.
Church Growth Research Programme
The findings from the Church growth research programme have been disseminated widely within the Church, and are informing diocesan strategies and practices at parish level. Further practical online resources are being developed and events are being planned to help dioceses and parishes to engage with the research and take action.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many examples of good practice are available, where church congregations have increased significantly, often through using the Alpha course or courses such as Christianity Explored? Does he also agree that church planting could be looked at, too?
My hon. Friend will know that the most significant growth in the Church of England has been identified in fresh expressions of church, church planting and midweek attendance at cathedrals. I am sure he will be pleased to know that only this week the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired the first meeting of an evangelism task group, because growing the Church of England is, obviously, an extremely important challenge for the Church of England.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reply. I have now seen the reply from the Electoral Commission. I raised the matter because Scythian is owned by a person who worked for Dmitry Firtash who has just been arrested in Vienna, and that raised questions about the money. The Electoral Commission seems to be relying on the recipient of the money to do the checks. Does he agree that that is an incredibly weak situation for the Electoral Commission to put itself into?
8. If the Electoral Commission will take steps with relevant Government Departments and other public bodies to ensure that whenever a citizen comes into contact with a public agency for an administrative reason a check is made to see if they are registered on their local electoral roll. (903296)
The Electoral Commission will carefully consider, with the Cabinet Office, any such proposals for improving the efficiency of electoral registration processes, as it is to monitor the implementation of individual electoral registration during 2014 and 2015. If such a process appears to be viable, the commission will recommend that the Government bring forward any necessary measures to allow it to take place.
When a constituent gets in touch with me, I always check to see whether they are on the electoral register. If they are not, I give them advice on how to get registered. Will my hon. Friend, who I am sure does exactly the same thing, urge the Electoral Commission to drive the Cabinet Office to introduce that sensible proposal?
This is a good idea and it is something that the Electoral Commission will certainly consider over the next 12 months. As my hon. Friend suggests in his question, it will ultimately be a matter for the Cabinet Office and for this House to change the rules, but I personally strongly support the initiative that he is taking.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 31 March—Second Reading of the Wales Bill.
Tuesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 2 April—Opposition day [unallotted half day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism.
Thursday 3 April—Statement on the publication of the fourth report from the Work and Pensions Committee on support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, followed by a debate to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by a general debate on civil service reform. The Select Committee statement and subjects for debate were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 4 April—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 April will include:
Monday 7 April—General debate on justice and home affairs.
Tuesday 8 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 9 April—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 10 April—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 11 April—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 April will be:
Thursday 3 April—Debate on incapacity benefit migration.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I also take this opportunity to mark the funeral of Tony Benn, which will begin at St Margaret’s church shortly. As we heard in the fulsome tributes last week, Tony Benn was one of the great parliamentarians of our age, and we will miss him.
Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the competition authority for listening to the Leader of the Opposition and announcing an inquiry into the big six energy firms? After SSE showed yesterday that it backs the Leader of the Opposition’s plan by freezing its prices, perhaps the Leader of the House will tell us why his party still do not. Will he give us an assurance that, while the investigation is ongoing, consumers will be protected from any more unfair price rises?
We have the Second Reading of the Wales Bill on Monday, which gives further powers to the Welsh Assembly. Given that it wants these new powers as soon as possible, will the Leader of the House confirm when he expects the Bill to reach Committee stage?
My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has today published his Bill to abolish the bedroom tax, after the House supported its introduction by 226 votes to one. As there is no time left for private Member’s Bills to have a realistic chance of getting a hearing, will the Leader of the House arrange for us to debate this Bill in Government time? After all, the House has expressed a strong view and it is not as if the Government are overly busy with their own legislation.
It seems that this Government are becoming more and more Orwellian. Last week we had beer and gambling for the proles, and this week the Justice Secretary has been forced to defend his ban on prisoners being sent books. The author Philip Pullman has called the change “disgusting” and “vindictive” and one unnamed senior Tory Minister briefed the press that the Justice Secretary
“wins the prize for the Government’s least enlightened Minister”.
Will the Leader of the House tell us whether he agrees with the Justice Secretary and his ban on books in prisons?
This week, we have been debating the Chancellor’s missed opportunity Budget. Across the country, people are £1,600 a year worse off, long-term youth unemployment has doubled and according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, energy prices are rising at twice the rate of inflation. The Chancellor called it a Budget for savers, but the OBR revealed that the savings ratio will have halved by 2018. The Chancellor said that it was a Budget for makers, but productivity remains weak and the trade gap has widened. The Chancellor said that it was a Budget for doers, but real wages have fallen by 2.2%. This was a Budget of spin. The Red Book revealed the depth of the Chancellor’s failure and buried in the small print was yet another stealth tax cut for Britain’s biggest banks. Next Tuesday, we will discuss the Finance Bill. On every crucial measure—living standards, growth and debt—the Chancellor has failed.
The Government are fast acquiring a reputation for staggering incompetence. They said they had an economic five-year plan, but it is already running four years late. They said that universal credit would save money, but it is now costing an unbelievable £160,000 per person, and their trebling of tuition fees is drowning students in debt yet bringing in no extra money. What a Government for the Liberal Democrats to prop up. Faust sold his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures; the Lib Dems have sold their souls for a mess of pottage
You have—sold your soul for a mess of pottage. [Laughter.]
In the hotly fought race to be the UK’s next EU Commissioner, I am sure that the Leader of the House will be delighted to hear that his odds have dramatically shortened and he is now the clear front-runner. As we get closer to a reshuffle that might ship him off to Europe, I wonder whether the Leader of the House would like to agree with his local Conservative councillor, Mark Howell, who has said that South Cambridgeshire would “love” to have Boris Johnson as its next MP? I for one would miss our exchanges if he did decide to go.
There are still 406 days until the general election, but recently Lord Tebbit said that
“the coalition has…gone past its sell-by date”
and that it is
“beginning to smell a bit“.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have just announced their separation, so I would like to suggest that the Leader of the House gets them in as advisers. Their strategy of “conscious uncoupling” sounds exactly like what this Government are trying to do.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her questions. Today is an opportunity for many Members to say farewell to Tony Benn at St Margaret’s and I was very glad that we were able to do so formally in the House last week. Indeed, many Members were able to do so individually in the Chapel during the course of yesterday evening.
The hon. Lady asked about the big six. The Secretary of State will make a statement to the House immediately after questions, but it is clear that the Government are taking action. In its announcement about the price freeze, SSE said that the Government’s decision to cut the taxes that add to energy bills was the
“principal factor in SSE being able to make this price commitment”.
There is a world of difference between an effort on the part of the Opposition to try to buck the market, as they always want to do, and an effort on the part of this Government to get a competitive market that delivers the greatest possible benefits to consumers. In that context, I was staggered that by voting against the Budget the Opposition voted against measures that would cut energy costs for energy-intensive industries, including in some of the areas that Labour Members represent where jobs depend on the competitiveness of manufacturing. Those same measures will help in the long term to reduce energy bills for consumers in this country.
The Wales Bill will have its Second Reading next week, and I will announce when its Committee stage will be. As it is a constitutional Bill, however, I hope that we will find time, before too long, for it to be considered on the Floor of the House. We are anxious to bring forward the Wales Bill—that is why we have introduced it in this Session—and the debate next week will allow us to hear from the shadow Secretary of State for Wales whether he is in fact, as he appeared to be in the Welsh Grand Committee, against the devolution of powers relating to tax to Wales. This is an astonishing position: the Government are in favour of further devolution to Wales, and the Opposition are against it. They will have to explain themselves.
I agree with the Lord Chancellor in relation to prisons. There is not a ban on books. There is, on the part of the prison authorities and the Ministry of Justice, a determination to act to make sure that security in prisons is maintained. There are libraries in prisons and there is access to books. We have to make sure that the security is appropriate.
I would say that the hon. Lady was attacking the Budget, but her approach was a bit limp to be described as an attack. The Budget is clearly a success. The fact that Labour Members voted against the Budget will, I am afraid, return to haunt them. What happened in the last couple of days has been very curious. When challenged yesterday on whether Labour Members had in fact voted for higher taxes on business, the shadow Chancellor was busy denying it, having the day before voted for exactly that to happen. Then yesterday, they voted for—at least most of them did—the cap on welfare, while at the same time in private the shadow Chief Secretary was busy trying to tell everybody,
“It will be much better if we can say all the changes that the Government has introduced we can reverse”.
So Labour Members are voting against the Budget and denying it, and voting for the cap on welfare and denying that. I do not know where they are coming from or going to; what I do know is that they will have to explain themselves. In particular, they cannot vote against a cap on housing benefit, against the overall cap on the benefits a household can claim and against plans to limit the annual increases in benefits, and at the same time vote overall for the cap.
I hope that we will raise a glass to those who are entering into marriage this weekend—for the first time, those who are entering into same-sex marriages, as well as the no doubt thousands of others who are entering into marriage. I was pleased to note that in 2011, there was an increase in the number of people getting married in this country. I hope that the measures that we have taken on same-sex marriage will help to promote, as my support was intended to do, the lifelong commitment that marriage represents.
On the justice and home affairs debate on Monday week, which I announced in provisional business, I hope the House will welcome the fact that we committed to returning to the House for a further vote. We will do so later this year, before formally applying to rejoin the measures we are seeking to rejoin, following the House’s support for the opt-out. We are grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee for their reports on the matter. The planned debate on 7 April will provide Parliament with an opportunity to debate those issues and the Select Committees’ reports, in order to seek the views of the House, as we have always made clear that we will, prior to any specific measures being rejoined later in the year.
Finally, in the course of the debate yesterday evening between the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of the UK Independence party, I was slightly staggered by what Nigel Farage said about Ukraine and Russia. Actually, in the House of Lords yesterday, in response to the statement that was repeated from this House, Lord Pearson of Rannoch also made a remark to the effect that the cause of the crisis was the EU’s relationship with Ukraine, and not Russia’s. I think it is outrageous that UKIP should be behaving as apologists for President Putin. I hope that they will withdraw the comments.
Will my right hon. Friend tell us what the point is of the Osmotherly rules? They require the Government to respond formally to Select Committee reports within two months of their publication, or six months at the very latest. It is with great regret that I must tell him that the Public Administration Select Committee has today published a report criticising the Government for failing to respond to our report on the business appointment rules, which are very controversial and not very satisfactory, for 20 months. We published the report in July 2012 but are still waiting for a response. We feel that we have been extraordinarily patient. Does he agree that his Department ought to have a system for chasing Government Departments on behalf of the House to ensure that they respond to Select Committee reports on time?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I see it as part of my role to represent the House in the Government as well as to represent the Government in the House, so I will of course ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office to respond to the report that the Committee published this morning. The purpose of the Osmotherly rules is to give civil servants guidance on how they should make themselves accountable to the House.
In the week when we heard the fantastic news about Siemens bringing 1,000 green jobs to Hull, which comes on the back of the announcement that Hull will be the city of culture in 2017, I was dismayed to learn that Channel 5 is proposing to make a further documentary, based in Hull, about people in the north living on benefits. May we have a debate on responsible documentary making that does not build on stereotypes about the north and that shows the positives, because the north is a thriving place, with people in work and doing very well?
I certainly agree with the need to accentuate the positive. We need continuously to highlight the fact that, in contrast to the loss of 1 million manufacturing jobs under the previous Government, we are now creating jobs in manufacturing, establishing our competitiveness and seeing inward investment of the type the hon. Lady describes, which is extremely welcome. I hope that the way the local business community, and indeed Hull itself, have got behind local enterprise is something that can be accentuated, rather than the negative stereotypes.
May we have a debate on the vital role of public transport in rural areas? I know that the Government understand that, but I do not think that some local authorities, and certainly some bus companies, do. For instance, First Bus recently decided no longer to route its 267 bus via the village of Rode, which will effectively cut off those who does not have access to a private car from the city of Bath. It is a scandalous state of affairs, and I want something done about it.
My hon. Friend makes a point that I know concerns many Members. Where there is a lack of demand for particular services, it is obviously for local authorities to decide how best to use their grants to support bus services in some of the most rural areas. He rightly raises that point, and I will refer it to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Transport and seek more details for him.
Today a report on the police’s handling of domestic violence cases has shown appalling failures and some horrifying treatment of victims, yet when we have raised in the House the fact that reports of domestic violence are rising and fewer cases are being passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, those concerns have been dismissed. Now that the Home Secretary has announced to the press that she is taking charge of the police response, will the Leader of the House arrange for her to make a statement to the House on what she will do to address the appalling failures that have taken place on her watch?
Many Members will have been very concerned by the report Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary published this morning. I certainly was, as one of the four police forces identified as failing to meet the standard required was Cambridgeshire constabulary, which serves my constituency. I will talk with the Home Secretary, but I would not characterise her response in the way the hon. Lady did. I think that the Home Secretary has been foremost in her handling of the matter, for example in the way she has brought forward or strengthened action plans for dealing with violence against women and girls. I will ask her to find an opportunity to update the House by means of a statement of some description before too long.
Brain tumours are the biggest cancer killer among under-40s, and tomorrow is Wear A Hat day in aid of brain tumour research. We are very fortunate in Harrogate and Knaresborough to have a dynamic local charity called the PPR Foundation founded by a local lady, Pamela Roberts, who does great work raising funds for brain tumour research. Please may we have a debate about how we can raise awareness of the symptoms of brain tumours among the under-40s?
It is important that my hon. Friend raises the work that PPR and Pamela Roberts are doing, and I am grateful to him for doing so. When I was Secretary of State, I was very aware of the continuing risk of brain tumours, particularly among younger people, and the lack of diagnosis and treatment options. That is one of the reasons we took the decision to invest £150 million in the establishment of proton beam therapy centres. It is a continuing issue. I will of course raise it with my hon. Friends at the Department of Health, but if he is in his place next Tuesday when they respond to questions, he might find a further opportunity to do so.
The police in Northern Ireland have stated that if the National Crime Agency is unable to operate fully in Northern Ireland, that will have a detrimental impact on their ability to keep people safe and combat serious and organised crime. Will the Leader of the House find time to debate this important subject on the Floor of the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure he will know from past answers at business questions and statements by my right hon. Friends that we regret that a legislative consent motion was not made available on the legislation in order to allow the National Crime Agency to operate in Northern Ireland. I hope we can continue to make progress in this direction. I cannot offer time on the Floor of the House for a debate, but I hope there will be further opportunities for us to make progress.
The new boss of High Speed 2, Sir David Higgins, astonishingly announced to the Transport Committee that the Second Reading of the HS2 hybrid Bill would be on 29 April. I do not tend to believe that until I hear it from the Leader of the House. It is evident, however, that we are getting closer to the petitioning process, so when will the House provide to those affected by this project details of the physical arrangements for that process? Will he consider waiving the £20 fee, particularly for those who are disabled and OAPs? Will he give some thought as to whether the hybrid Bill Committee ought to visit each of the constituencies affected by the project to take petitions and evidence from constituents who are disabled, elderly, or frightened by the processes of this House?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to say that the timing for the Second Reading of the Bill is a matter for the business managers, and I will announce it to the House in due course. Members of the House would always be advised to wait for such an announcement at business questions. She raises an important point. The petitioning period will take place after Second Reading, and I hope that the House and those outside the House will have as much notice as possible about its start date and duration. I am not in a position to provide that information at the moment, but I will speak to the Department for Transport and ensure that the relevant action is taken. The hybrid Bill Committee will be able to make visits outside Westminster, and I am sure that its members will want to acquaint themselves personally with the line of route and areas affected. In addition, the petitioning process will ensure that they obtain a comprehensive view of the issues for those directly and specially affected by the route.
Does the Leader of the House agree that universities are absolutely a jewel in the crown of our society and essential to the wealth creation and civilisation of our nation? Does he know that Huddersfield university is this year’s university of the year? I know he has got quite a good university in his part of the world. Does he agree that we can only go on for so long paying university staff very poor wages and salaries that have not had an increase that would attract top talent? When can we have a debate about this, because the future of our universities depends on the quality of staff we attract and retain?
The hon. Gentleman is right: I am proud to represent Cambridge university in this House, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). As we all know, universities are central not only to the long-term prospects of students, but to our economic prospects and competitiveness. They are also principal engines for growth in many of the areas in which they are located. They are tremendously important. I am delighted that the coalition Government’s reforms have led to increases in the number of students; to more disadvantaged students and students from black and minority ethnic communities going to university; and to more opportunities as we open up and get rid of the limits on access for students. That is all positive.
Universities are, however, self-governing institutions and the pay they offer staff and their relationships with them are matters that they govern themselves. Although the House will rightly debate university matters from time to time, I hope Members will understand that this is a matter for universities rather than for Government.
It is rather a pity that Ofgem has reported the big six to wherever they will go. Smart metering is the way in which we as a nation can address how we use our energy, yet we have not standardised the technology, what we will do with the data or how much it costs. May we have time in the House to discuss the way in which we save energy in this country, and energy security? Smart metering has an enormous role to play: it is very simple to do, it is tax neutral and it will actually help everybody in this country.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I cannot promise a debate, but he might want to seek an Adjournment debate or find another opportunity with colleagues. I hope that more of these important technologies are being put in new homes as they are built. It is also, rightly, a matter for the regulator to ensure that we achieve energy efficiency as part of securing greater progress in carbon reduction and energy security.
May we have a statement on the east Lancashire train line? It has no trains on it, which is a bit of a joke. I was promised a statement by the rail Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), in January, but it has not occurred. Wages in Manchester are considerably higher than those in my constituency and the rail line will give employment opportunities to my constituents and put them in a far better position to gain employment in this tough area in difficult times.
Perhaps it was not on that issue specifically, in which case I apologise. I will, of course, raise the issue with my colleagues at the Department for Transport, who I know will be anxious to provide the hon. Gentleman and, perhaps, the House with information.
I have learned today of another reason to dislike the European Union: the idea that it will deprive the Leader of the House of the opportunity to be here is absolutely outrageous. Did he listen to the LBC debate on the EU yesterday and hear the leader of the fourth party in British politics say that only 7% of our laws are made by the European Union? The Deputy Prime Minister quoted the House of Commons Library, but I have spoken to Library staff, who have confirmed that he was referring only to primary legislation. If we take into account the thousands and thousands of statutory instruments, we will see that the actual figure is much higher. Could the Leader of the House arrange a statement by the Deputy Prime Minister next week to clarify that?
I think we all recognise that primary legislation is critical. Although there is an enormous amount of legislation, the question of who makes our primary laws is an issue on which we should focus. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his solicitous remarks. I cannot comment on such issues, because they are matters for the Prime Minister, not for me, happily—it is up to him.
No, because I do not particularly approve of gambling. I listened to the debate yesterday and thought that, on the facts, the Deputy Prime Minister had the better of the argument. All the way through, however, I thought to myself that a debate about Europe is all very well, but what the British people want is an in/out referendum. The leader of the UK Independence party cannot deliver it and the Labour party and our Liberal Democrat friends will not deliver it—only the Conservative party will deliver a referendum.
There is a long-term trend of falling voter turnout among young people. It is good that we will get online voter registration in June, but may we have a statement on the possible introduction of online voting to help to address this big problem?
We are of course making progress on individual electoral registration, which I hope will allow people in England and Wales to register online for the first time from June. We are putting the maximisation of registration at the heart of our work to improve the electoral system, but we want to make sure that individual electoral registration is working well before we consider any further changes. I have to say that there are concerns about whether e-voting can be made secure from attack and fraud, so although it may be something to consider, it is not a priority for us at present.
May we have a statement on the delayed Presumption of Death Act 2013? This month marks the fifth anniversary of Claudia Lawrence’s disappearance, and it is encouraging that further information has emerged following the “Crimewatch” appeal last week. The legislation is of the utmost importance to the families whose loved ones have gone missing, and the delay only serves to compound their anguish.
I am sure that Members from across the House are aware of the cases that have caused considerable distress and rightly led to the House approving the Presumption of Death Bill. If I may, I will talk to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Justice about what steps are being taken to bring the Act into force.
This weekend, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will publish its fifth assessment report on the impacts of climate change. Given that the final draft of the report covers disruption to the economy, disruption to water availability, changes to the food supply and adverse health impacts, I am not quite sure which Secretary of State it would be best to get the Leader of the House to ask to make a statement: it could equally be the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, for Health, for Energy and Climate Change, for International Development or for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If there could be a conscious uncoupling between the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Farage next week, the Deputy Prime Minister might come to the House to give a statement on the impact report.
These important issues are taken very seriously across Government. We must take far-reaching steps to mitigate the impacts of climate change. As it happens, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will respond to questions next Thursday, and he is the appropriate lead Minister to whom the hon. Gentleman should direct his questions.
With two of the largest brick manufacturing companies in the country based in my constituency, I very much welcome announcements in the Budget to aid energy-intensive industries and the doubling of the annual investment allowance to £500,000. May we have a debate on the measures taken by this Government since they came to office to help private sector businesses expand in line with our long-term economic plan to rebalance our economy?
I know that businesses, such as the brick manufacturers to which my hon. Friend refers, have benefited considerably from the recovery promoted by this coalition Government. The Budget’s support for their future competitiveness—not only in doubling the annual investment allowance, but in taking steps to ensure that energy-intensive industries can access competitive energy prices—is very important for such key manufacturing businesses.
Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on a thorny issue that I have raised in the House on numerous occasions? Tens of thousands of people in Northern Ireland who were born in the Irish Republic during the past 40 or 50 years are denied the right to get a British passport, although many people in Northern Ireland can avail themselves of an Irish passport on the same basis.
Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1206?
[That this House pays tribute to the good work of school crossing patrollers in Harlow; notes that they provide a vital service for Harlow’s school children, are important figures of reassurance for the community, help keep roads safe and speeding to a minimum; is concerned that Essex County Council (ECC) is considering the future of school crossing patrols around Essex; further notes that school crossing patrollers have offered alternative ways to save money; and urges ECC to do everything it can to support school crossing patrols and secure a strong future for them.]
Essex county council is having a conversation about reducing school crossing patrols. May we have a debate on the importance of such patrols? Will the Government consider whether any other budgets could be used, such as the education budget, so that we can support hard-working Harlow lollipop men and women? Will my right hon. Friend raise this matter with other Departments?
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be grateful, once again, for his vocal support for interests in his constituency. I shall raise the issue with the Department for Education and the Department for Communities and Local Government to see what position they take. He and the House will understand that, important as school crossing patrols are, where they should be provided and the funding for them are matters for the county council. I do not encourage him to think that Ministers will intervene directly, but I am sure that they will give him advice on the effectiveness of school crossing patrols in promoting the safety of children.
May we have a statement on the Floor of the House about the Government’s carbon floor price policy? They brought in that tax, and its effect on industry is four times worse than the taxes of our EU competitors. No company has yet received the compensation. The original compensation is not as much as was promised and has been delayed by another two years. May we have a statement to update the House on why the Government are making things so hard for industry, particularly in the north-east?
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to talk to energy-intensive industries and ask them what they think of the Budget. The answer he will get is that the Budget did absolutely the right things. Time and again, we are hearing the representatives of manufacturers and businesses in this country welcome the Budget. It is a disgrace that the Labour party does not put the interests of business first and that it voted against the Budget.
Small businesses have been crucial to the economic growth and employment growth in my constituency, and they are grateful for the many measures that the Government have implemented to support that employment growth. Is it possible to have a debate in the House on the changes to statutory sick pay, which might have an inadvertent effect on those small businesses?
My hon. Friend will know that the abolition of statutory sick pay was recommended in Carol Black and David Frost’s independent review of sickness absence. The Government agreed with them that the system was outdated and that it reduced the incentive to manage sickness absence in the work force. The Government are reinvesting the money that is saved into the new Health and Work Service. That will help small businesses, which often do not have occupational health provision, to manage sickness absence in a more proactive way and to get their employees back to work sooner than under the old system. Frankly, as we all know, that is also in the best interests of the employees. Employees will be able to take advantage of a new tax exemption on medical treatments that are recommended by the service or an employer-arranged occupational health service.
Yesterday my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) visited the Scottish Parliament to set out why people in the north-east are keen that the UK stays together. They proved to be just as popular up there as they are down here. Given that the vast majority of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland want the UK to stay together, may we have a debate in Government time about why we are better together?
I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that we are, as a Union, better together. It is in the interests of Scotland and it is in the interests of the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Happily, we had an opportunity recently to debate Scotland’s place in the Union through the good offices of the Backbench Business Committee. I know that many Members across the House feel that it has become increasingly obvious, not least since the publication of the White Paper by the Scottish Government, that their numbers do not add up and that their arguments do not stack up. The arguments for the Union to stay together are increasingly compelling and will, I hope, be given increased exposure through this House to the people of Scotland.
Does the Leader of the House have any knowledge of what the process will be for the fundamental review of our flood defences, following the lessons of the last six months? Whatever the process is, will there be a debate on the Floor of the House so that hon. Members can make a contribution to the review?
I know my hon. Friend agrees that there is much for which we can commend the professional and volunteer services, individuals and communities for their response to the exceptional weather conditions. We know that some aspects of the response and recovery require improvement, and we are committed to reviewing the lessons learned from recent events. Some of those reviews are under way, including reviews of the loss of electricity, the transport disruption at Gatwick and to rail services, and the response of service providers and local authorities. The Department for Communities and Local Government is pursuing a review of the Bellwin scheme. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is conducting an internal operational review of its handling of flood incidents to improve future operations. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Prime Minister has set up a new Cabinet Committee, which he is chairing personally, to oversee the recovery effort and ensure that lessons are learned and action taken across that broad range of issues.
Shooting sports are worth £1.6 billion to the economy. They create 70,000 full-time jobs, they take place over two thirds of the countryside, and they account for £250 million and 2.7 million work days being spent on conservation, all from followers of shooting sports. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate or a statement on this matter, which brings so much good to our countryside?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know from members of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation what tremendous work they do to promote conservation of the countryside, as well as pursuing a legitimate sport. I cannot promise a debate, but I know that many Members may be interested in the points he raises and he may find support for an Adjournment debate, which would give an opportunity to highlight those benefits.
May we have a parliamentary debate on successful local initiatives to get hard-to-place young people into the world of work? During such a debate, I would be able to highlight and congratulate Tresham college and its deputy principal, Rachel Kay, who organised Experience Kettering, a work experience-matching event last Friday, which more than 60 local young people attended, most of whom have secured work placements with local employers. Is this not just the sort of successful local initiative that we need to encourage around the country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. It is tremendously important. I pay tribute to the work that he and so many people across Kettering are clearly putting in to give young people opportunities for work experience and to enter the world of work. Happily, that is something we as a Government are doing as well, including through the 1.6 million apprenticeships already begun under this Government. The fact that youth unemployment is now lower than at the election is tremendously important. The youth claimant count is down by 118,000, long-term youth unemployment is down by 37,000 since last year, and through the youth contract we are giving lots of young people additional opportunities for work experience, which, with the traineeships and apprenticeships, is giving them much more diverse and appropriate routes into the world of work.
Despite the answer that the Leader of the House gave my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), the reality is that energy-intensive industries are detrimentally affected by the coalition’s carbon floor tax. Not a penny of promised compensation has been given to them yet, and the Budget said that something would come over the hill in 2016. May we have a debate now on the impact of this Government’s unilateral carbon floor tax on energy-intensive industries?
I reiterate what I said to the House. It is clear that the steps we are taking recognise that while we are meeting our objectives to deliver on decarbonisation, we must make sure not to do so in a way that discriminates against and disadvantages energy-intensive manufacturers in this country. That is what we are doing and what the Budget does.
We all appreciate that the timetabling of business in the House is an art more than a science. It is also the case that too much scrutiny of legislation happens in another place, which is a poor reflection on this House. Given the relatively light business expected in the next Session—rather like the present Session in terms of legislation—will my right hon. Friend give some thought to ensuring that more Committee stages are taken on the Floor of the House, not just for constitutional Bills but for the more controversial clauses, which would allow all Members to have their say in properly scrutinising Government legislation?
I am sorry, but I have to disagree with my hon. Friend. First, the amount of time spent in scrutiny of legislation in the two Houses is broadly comparable. Secondly, the time spent in scrutinising Bills—not least by allocating two days to Report in this House—is substantially higher in this Parliament than it has been in previous Parliaments, and is providing exactly the opportunity for scrutiny that he seeks. Thirdly, it is a matter of participation by Members. For example, on the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, I was staggered that only three Opposition Back Benchers were willing to debate that important Bill—and one of them was a Whip sent to the Back Benches to make up the numbers.
For the last decade or so, there has been a significant gap in transport and infrastructure spend between London and the English regions—perhaps as much as 15 to 20 times per head. Much of that has been caused by Crossrail 1, which has been very successful but has been responsible for part of that gap. Before we commit money to Crossrail 2, may we have a debate on its relative priority to similar projects in the English regions?
During the Budget debate, and later this year when the announcement is made on the national infrastructure plan, I hope that my hon. Friend and the House will see our continuing commitment to developing infrastructure across the regions of England, as well as across the United Kingdom as a whole. He will have noted that, as the Prime Minister made clear the other day, we have spent £8 billion on supporting rail and transport infrastructure in the north of England, and we will have an opportunity, ere long, for the House to support the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill, which potentially will be the most important project this century for providing access to, and improving, rail infrastructure in the north of England.
Energy Markets Competition Assessment
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on competition in the energy markets. Today Ofgem, the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition and Markets Authority have published the first annual assessment of competition in the energy markets, and I have made copies available to the House.
Efficient, open markets made up of diverse businesses competing for trade are the best way to ensure that consumers get the best deal on price and service. Strong and independent regulation of competition helps consumers too, because constant political interference for short-term gain can add to long-term risk and costs.
When the coalition Government took power, we inherited energy markets that were not working in the best interests of the people of Britain. The supplier base had shrunk from 15 majors in 2000 to just six in 2010—Labour’s big six. Many people found it difficult to switch. The profusion of more than 350 complex tariffs and complicated bills, for example, made it difficult for people to work out how to get on the right tariff for their circumstances. The wholesale market was also dominated by the big six as they either supplied themselves or opted for over-the-counter deals with no transparency.
The coalition Government, working with the regulator Ofgem, have set about the long task of improving the energy markets to make them work for consumers. We have opened up the markets to new suppliers and generators. Labour’s big six now face 18 new retail competitors whose market share has more than doubled since 2010. The best-buy energy tables are now dominated by the independent suppliers. Tariffs are simpler, bill formats clearer, and the process for switching suppliers is being speeded up. According to the latest statistics, compiled by ElectraLink and Energy UK, almost 3.5 million people switched electricity suppliers last year, and independent suppliers gained more than 700,000 new customers—about 20% of switchers. In January and February this year, almost 500,000 people switched suppliers, with independents gaining more than 200,000 new customers—more than 40% of switchers.
The wholesale markets are also being opened up, with liquidity in the day-ahead market transformed. The forward markets are set to follow suit under Ofgem’s market maker reforms to be introduced from next week, so the energy markets have improved since 2010. Despite all these reforms, however, the Government are determined to do more.
That is why in October last year we announced that Ofgem, working closely with the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition and Markets Authority, would undertake annual reviews of the state of competition in the energy markets. That first annual assessment, and its recommendations, back our decision to turn to the independent competition authorities.
This expert review has found five areas in Britain’s energy markets of real concern that need further investigation. First, a low level of trust and lack of engagement in the energy market by consumers, which is not compatible with healthy competition. Secondly, evidence that the markets retain the geographical pattern that existed before privatisation, and can mean higher prices for customers who do not switch from their home supplier. Thirdly, evidence of possible tacit co-ordination between energy companies, which includes a strong alignment of pricing announcements in timing and extent. Fourthly, barriers to entry and expansion for new companies that make it difficult for them to challenge the big six. Finally, evidence that the big six have seen increasing profits that do not appear to reflect increasing efficiency, which is indicative of a possible lack of competition.
Although the assessment notes that there has been real progress in improving competition in recent years—especially in the growth of the number of independent suppliers—the big six are still dominant with a 95% share of the domestic energy supply market. In the electricity markets, the big six operate a model of vertical integration that is not transparent, and forward markets that are not currently liquid, as I have argued from this Dispatch Box. Although Ofgem’s new market maker reforms may assist that, the assessment rightly wants to dig deeper. However, as the assessment today shows, it may be that vertical integration is in the consumer’s best interests and can ultimately save people money. The assessment cautions against rushing to judgment or to solutions, as some have sought to do.
It is not just the electricity markets that we need to address. On average, people spend £150 more per year on their gas bills than on their electricity. The gas market does not have a vertically integrated structure. Britain’s gas wholesale market is one of the most liquid in Europe, with large volumes of gas bought and sold openly between suppliers and producers. The assessment shares my concern that parts of the gas market, particularly the domestic gas supply market, may not be delivering for consumers. Latest analysis suggests that profit margins for gas supply are around three times higher than that of electricity, with some companies making five times the profit supplying gas, compared with the profit margin on electricity.
In the light of that assessment, Ofgem is now proposing a tough but sensible course of action: a full market investigation reference. That would be undertaken by the new Competition and Markets Authority, which has the robust powers required to investigate the market and take the action needed to strengthen competition. As the Minister responsible for the decision to create that powerful new competition body, I am particularly pleased that Ofgem is proposing to make energy markets its first major task. A market investigation reference is a course of action that should not be lightly undertaken, particularly when the energy market is going through radical changes to introduce new low-carbon generation while ensuring security of supply. Tackling those issues through independent competition authorities provides companies and investors with the confidence that the process will be evidence-based, fair and just, and free from political interference.
Today Ofgem has published the legally required consultation on its proposed market investigation reference, which will run until 23 May, and it will make a final decision on referral by the summer. If a reference is made, the Competition and Markets Aut