House of Commons
Thursday 12 June 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Spoliation Advisory Panel
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Report from Sir Donnell Deeny, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, dated 12 June 2014, in respect of a painted wooden tablet, the Biccherna Panel, now in the possession of the British Library.—(John Penrose.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Halal and Kosher Meat
1. If he will ensure that all halal and kosher meat is labelled at point of sale. 
In the first instance, the Government believe that it is for retailers and food outlets to provide their customers with such information. However, the European Commission is currently producing a study on options for compulsory method of slaughter labelling, and we will review the options when the report is published later this year.
The Minister is a good man, and I am sure he must understand the strength of feeling among the public about this issue. Surely it is in the best interests of everyone that halal and kosher meat be properly labelled, for the benefit of those who particularly want to buy it and those who particularly do not. Which consumers do the Government think will be disadvantaged by having meat fully and properly labelled at the point of sale?
I am aware of the strength of feeling on the issue, and my hon. Friend has been a long-standing campaigner on it, ever since his ten-minute rule Bill two years ago. There are two difficulties with the approach he suggests. In the case of halal meat, we must remember that about 80% is stunned anyway, so “halal” does not distinguish between stunned and unstunned meat. When it comes to kosher meat, we should recall that the hind quarters of the carcase are not deemed kosher anyway, so an approach along the lines he suggests would not help consumers who want to avoid unstunned meat. However, we will examine method of slaughter labelling when the European Commission produces its report, which is expected in the autumn.
Farmers and food producers raise the issue of labelling often with me and other Members. Can the Minister assure the House that his Department is doing everything it can to have clear labelling on all packaging, particularly after the horsemeat crisis and various other issues, so that we can have country of origin and even region of origin labelling on our packaging?
Some new labelling requirements from the European Union have just been put in place, to distinguish between animals that are born, reared and slaughtered in a particular country, reared and slaughtered there or simply slaughtered there. That is a major improvement. We have stopped short of having compulsory country of origin labelling on processed foods, because the European Commission report suggested that it would be incredibly expensive to implement. However, we do encourage voluntary labelling on such products, and there has been widespread uptake of that.
I am sure my constituents in Kettering would want to see halal and kosher meat labelled as such. Although the Minister is a good man, the response drafted for him by his Department was weak and pathetic. If we wait for the European Commission to rule, we will have to wait for ever. If his objection is that there is no distinction between stunned and non-stunned meat, why not label meat as such? Why cannot the UK do that ahead of the European Commission?
The advice we have received is that it would be better to introduce such regulation at European level. A number of other countries have considered it, including Spain and France, and have run into difficulties. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point—if one were to introduce compulsory method of slaughter labelling, I think one would go not for labelling as halal or kosher, for the reasons I gave earlier, but for labelling as stunned or unstunned.
Dangerous Dogs Strategy
2. What recent steps he has taken to implement the Government’s strategy on dangerous dogs; and if he will make a statement. 
On 13 May, new amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 came into force, including higher sentences for dog attacks, an extension of the offence of a dog being dangerously out of control to all places, including private places, and a specific offence for a dog attack on an assistance dog.
In my constituency there has been a spate of vicious dangerous dog attacks, the latest on an eight-year-old girl named Grace Lucas, who suffered horrible injuries to her face. The real problems are a lack of education and, of course, irresponsible dog ownership. What are the Government doing to tackle those important issues?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Before I became a Minister, I followed the issue closely from the Back Benches. We are doing two things. Later this year we will introduce community protection notices, which will introduce new powers, for instance to issue orders to require an owner to keep their dog on a lead, muzzle their dog or put postbox guards on their door. In extreme cases, there will be powers to insist on a dog being neutered. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman about responsible dog ownership. That is why we are clear that anybody who is breeding dogs for sale should have a licence.
I recently attended a free Dogs Trust chipping event in Blacon in my constituency, and I noticed that a lot of people were unaware that it will be compulsory to have dogs chipped in England from 2016, and Wales from 2015. What is the Minister doing to ensure that dog owners are aware that that will be compulsory from 2016?
That is an important point and we must ensure that dog owners are aware of those proposals. We are working with veterinary practices across the country to ensure that they know about them and are passing the information on to dog owners. We will also run a communications exercise in the press to raise the issue.
3. What steps the Government have taken to respond to recent flooding. 
The Government have committed more than £560 million in support of those affected by the recent flooding. That includes an extra £270 million to repair and maintain critical defences that were damaged in the winter storms, targeted help for households through the repair and renew grant and council tax relief, and help for farmers and fishermen with funding for repairs through existing schemes. We have also provided businesses with business rate relief and a £10 million hardship fund.
I thank the Minister for his response. Despite the lessons of this winter, the Environment Agency is still set to lose hundreds of front-line staff because of DEFRA budget cuts. The agency’s chief executive has admitted that that will mean fewer resources for maintenance work. Does the Minister think it is responsible to cut the agency’s resources at a time when flood risk is increasing?
The Secretary of State and I work closely with the Environment Agency and talk to it about its key responsibilities. I met the chief executive yesterday to discuss issues of waste crime, and so on. He was clear that front-line vital services provided by the agency are protected, and it will use the expertise of more than 10,000 staff who will be in place throughout this year to do their work. They do a fine job.
14. Will my hon. Friend meet me and a representative from Cornwall council to work out funding for areas around my constituency that were damaged by floods and in this year’s storms? 
I will meet Cornwall council tomorrow and we can discuss those issues. I do not know whether my hon. Friend or a member of her staff will be there, but I will be happy to raise any local issues with the council so that we can work through them.
In February, the Prime Minister promised that “money is no object” in the Government’s response to the winter floods. Four months on, only £530,000 has been paid to farmers out of the supposed £10 million available in the farming recovery fund, and only £2,320 has been paid to fishermen out of the supposed £74,000 approved under the support for fishermen fund. Why is that much needed support not getting to the people it is supposed to be helping?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing “supposed” about those totals, and the money is there for people to bid for—the key question is encouraging people to do so. My hon. Friends and I, as well as agricultural shows, for example, continue to emphasise that people should apply for that money, and we have simplified the system. Many applications are currently being processed, and I encourage all people eligible for those funds—whether farming, fishing or the other funds I have set out—to apply and make use of that money.
Somerset is no longer flooded and dredging has started, which is good news. The Minister will know that one of our key asks is to have a sustainable future for maintenance, which involves setting up a Somerset rivers authority with its own revenue stream. Will the Minister update us on what progress has been made on that?
My hon. Friend and other Somerset Members have, understandably, consistently raised that issue, and I am delighted that the strategy put in place to deal with such matters is moving forward. Someone has been appointed to take the lead on that, and the Secretary of State was in the area last week. I spoke to people at the Royal Bath and West show, and I am delighted that all the measures that people think will make a difference locally can now be taken forward.
To underline the fact that the Government are directing funds to flood defences, will the Minister reassure me that appropriate funding will be available for maintenance and necessary new infrastructure to defend the Severn estuary?
During this financial year the Environment Agency will invest £380,000 in maintaining flood defences and structures on the Severn estuary in Gloucestershire, and an additional £2 million will be invested to repair flood defences and structures damaged during the winter floods.
4. What progress he is making on opening up new markets to British farmers and food producers. 
In 2013 we opened 112 markets for animals and animal products, helping increase exports to non-EU markets by £179 million, to £1.35 billion. We continue to negotiate with third countries, and so far in 2014 have opened 54 new markets.
Building on that success and the growing reputation for British food and drink abroad, which I know from my own experience as an exporter in the sector, what plans do the Government have to use international sporting events, such as the Grand Départ of the Tour de France which arrives in Harrogate and Knaresborough in just three weeks, as a platform further to promote that success?
My hon. Friend has been an enthusiast for this event coming through his constituency. He raises an important point. We will be looking to use all opportunities we can to promote British foods. Major sporting events are an excellent way for companies to showcase their products. UK Trade & Investment Yorkshire and the Humber is bringing in a series of buyers from around the world to meet local companies at a “meet the buyer” event at the Carriageworks in Leeds on Wednesday 2 July. Many of those buyers will then travel on to the International Festival for Business in Liverpool.
Our egg producers have been outraged to learn that Italy will face no financial penalties for its failure to implement the EU directive that outlaws battery cages. Our poultry farmers have invested millions of pounds to comply with the law, and, as a result, have put themselves at a competitive disadvantage in a very tough international market. Why does the UK implement EU directives that other countries see fit to ignore, and what will the Government do to support our poultry sector?
The Government have consistently raised concerns about other member states not complying with the rules on battery cages that were introduced two years ago. It is fair to say that the Commission has taken this matter seriously and has brought some cases against some member states in the European Court of Justice. We continue to maintain pressure on the Commission, but I believe it takes the matter seriously and is taking the appropriate action.
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Minister will be aware of the drastic reduction in farm-gate beef prices and the effect that has had on confidence in the sector. Will the Minister tell us why he thinks that reduction has taken place? What is he doing to find other markets that will encourage an increase?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. This is one of the key issues being raised with Ministers as we go around agricultural shows. We will have a summit on the matter before the summer recess. A number of factors are driving this: it is partly due to changes in global commodity prices, but it is also clear that in some cases supermarkets are taking a larger margin than before. Regarding solutions, we are keen to open new export markets for British beef so that farmers can get a better price. We are also keen to ensure that there is fair contracting between farmers and processors, and between processors and retailers.
The Minister will be aware of my correspondence on the export of pork to China. From his correspondence to me on 8 May, I know that inspections are to take place with the authorities in Northern Ireland, as DEFRA regulates the negotiations on behalf of the whole of the UK. Will the Minister advise the House on when those inspections will take place? What is the possibility of approval following on from that?
The hon. Lady has raised this issue with me a number of times and we have had meetings on it. It was also raised with me at a meeting in Northern Ireland at the beginning of this year, and we continue to raise it with the Chinese authorities. When Mr Zhi, the Chinese farming Minister, was in the UK in April we took the opportunity to raise it again. We want more meat processors to be able to export pork to China and we need clearance for their plants. We will continue to keep up the pressure.
Exporting beef would improve the market here, and I know the Secretary of State has done an excellent job in China. Japan still bans our beef, right back from the days of BSE. We now have BSE completely under control, so it is time those markets were opened up again. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister do their very best to make sure that happens?
All I can say to my hon. Friend, who has been a champion of this industry for many years, is that we are working on many different fronts to create new markets. In the past year, we have opened markets for breeding cattle to countries such as China, for pig meat to Chile and for dairy to Cuba. In the year ahead, we will continue to look at exporting beef to Singapore and poultry meat to Papua New Guinea. The country is working incredibly hard to open as many new export markets as possible.
Pilot Badger Culls
5. What steps he plans to take to ensure that the monitoring of the pilot badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire is independently scientifically evaluated. 
DEFRA is currently working closely with Natural England and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to develop the detail of how the monitoring will be implemented, including auditing and evaluation procedures. The results and outcome of the monitoring of this year’s culls will be made publicly available after they have been completed.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Will he ensure that, in addition to that scientific examination, he also meets with the Welsh Assembly Minister who is dealing with this matter in Wales—not too far from his own constituency—where an alternative method, vaccination, is being undertaken? Will the Secretary of State agree to evaluate that as part of the process as well?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We have regular discussions with our counterparts across the border. We take information from them and they take information from us, so we are observing with interest the vaccination trial that is taking place over 1.5% of the surface area of Wales.
We learned late last year that the Government would not allow scientific evaluation of the extensions of the pilot culls. Then the independent experts reported that DEFRA had failed to meet its main test for humaneness and now we learn that Ministers have no plans to scientifically evaluate the second phase of the pilot culls, which are due to take place later this year. Is there any valid reason why scientific evaluation of the culls has been abandoned—or is the Secretary of State just allergic to scientific advice?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her post and congratulate her on her new position. I would like to reassure her that it was always our intention, stated right back in 2011, that an independent panel would assess the first year of the pilot culls. We have had some helpful recommendations from the panel, which we are taking on board, but I think she is unfair and underestimates the professionalism of the skilled staff we have in Natural England and the AHVLA, who will continue to monitor the culls this year.
6. What his priorities are for further CAP reform. 
I wanted to see the last round of CAP reform continue on the trajectory set by MacSharry and Fischler, so frankly, the end result was disappointing. Future reform should be driven by my departmental priorities of growing the rural economy and improving the environment, while providing value for money for taxpayers.
Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to Sir Ben Gill, the former president of the National Farmers Union, who led the industry through very turbulent times some 13 years ago and also played a significant role in a previous CAP reform round? In doing so, can he say whether Britain will meet the Commission’s deadline of 1 August for submitting our greening proposals arising from the latest CAP round, and whether cash crops will be included in the UK submission?
I very much join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Sir Ben Gill, who only a few months ago came to see me to promote the British apple industry and was still playing a most constructive part. I also pay tribute to the role the right hon. Gentleman played when he was the senior Minister in charge at the end of the MacSharry period, when some serious reforms, from which we are currently benefiting, were pushed through. It is disappointing that that trajectory has not been continued. It is absolutely our intention to report to the Commission on time, on 1 August. I made a written statement earlier this week and I made further announcements on greening at the cereals conference yesterday.
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to Sir Ben Gill, a former constituent and a very good friend to the farming industry. Mindful of my historic interest in this field, which is on the register, does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that the Commons Act 2006 register is woefully inaccurate and out of date, which means that those eligible for claims will be unable to make them, and that we will not have the paperless claims the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was promised when taking evidence?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for her question. She is right to raise some of the technical issues that have been thrown up. It is very much our intention that the reform should be introduced in a manner that makes it as easy as possible for applicants to understand, and as easy as possible for the Rural Payments Agency to pay out, and we are pleased to see a significant number of applications by the digital method.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the disappointment, certainly in environmental quarters, that the full 15% modulation was not taken up by the Government for England—although the record for Scotland and Northern Ireland is as open to criticism in that respect. When it comes to any future reform, does he accept that taxpayers cannot accept large amounts of their money going to subsidise wealthy farmers? That needs to be changed, so will he give that commitment today?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I remind him that we have agreed to go for a 12% modulation, and then review the position, having established what type of schemes are relevant, and possibly go on to 15%. We will spend £3.5 billion on improving the environment through our pillar 2 schemes. I am completely clear that I would like to continue the trajectory set in train by MacSharry and Fischler, whereby decisions pertaining to what crops are grown and what animals are raised should be left to the market, but there is a very real role for taxpayers’ money to be spent compensating landowners and farmers for the environmental work in respect of which there is no obvious market mechanism.
I would like to pay tribute to Sir Ben Gill and to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the Secretary of State agree that any further CAP reform has to focus on the simple issue of using farm land to produce food because we have to tackle the important issue of food security, which is looming more and more and is ever-present in our society?
My hon. Friend is spot on. There are 1 billion people hungry in today’s world and we are heading for a further increase in population of 2 billion. We should be aware that there is no unlimited cheap, safe food beyond our shores—it was the position of the last Government that there was—so we as a Government absolutely want to see domestic food production increase. We already have a huge task: 30% of the food eaten in this country is imported, but could be produced here.
CAP (Common Land)
7. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the allocation of direct payments through pillar 1 of the CAP on common land. 
We published our assessment of the financial impact of changes to pillar 1 in chapter 7 of our response to the CAP reform consultation. We have held discussions with stakeholders about the future allocation of direct payments in respect of common land. The approach for the new CAP schemes, which begin in 2015, will take account of fairness, the need to minimise administrative burdens and the need to comply with the relevant European legislation.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He will have gazed out on many occasions towards Cleeve common in my constituency. People are concerned that if there is a future prevention of claims for dual use, the funding will not be available to manage the common for purposes of wildlife conservation and indeed businesses. Will my right hon. Friend bear that in mind when he comes to take decisions on these matters?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We are aware of the problem of dual use, but it is absolutely our intention that those who have common land should be eligible for new environmental land management schemes, which we shall publish shortly.
Many are concerned at the Government’s stance in the CAP negotiations—opposition to proposals to cap the amount a single farmer can receive in subsidies, for example. In the interests of transparency, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time for all Members to register any CAP-related payments they receive on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
I think that that question is one for the House authorities—perhaps the Leader of the House can deal with it later at business questions. I am not frightened of large businesses producing food efficiently. I refer back to what my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) said. We should wake up to the fact that there is not unlimited safe food beyond these shores. There is a huge increase in world demand for food, and we should concentrate on having good, efficient farming that produces food for our population and enhances the environment.
Nevertheless, the Government have established the principle in the benefits system of placing what I think is a reasonable cap on taxpayer-funded handouts. Does the Secretary of State agree that if that principle is okay for welfare recipients, it is also right to place a reasonable cap on taxpayer-funded handouts to people who do not actually need them?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. First, it should be put on the record that we agreed to a degressivity of 5% of £150,000, so there is a reduction, but I do not think we should be frightened of having large, successful farming businesses in order to feed this country.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the dispute in Northern Ireland over the allocation of the moneys resulting from the CAP reform. Will he do all that he can to ensure that there will be no party-political or partisan allocations of those moneys, and will he conduct an assessment to encourage the Department to allocate them fairly?
One of the major changes in this round, which we did negotiate, was absolute freedom for the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom to reach their own arrangements in regard to CAP reform and the way in which it is implemented. All four regulations are a matter for local politicians in Northern Ireland to resolve.
8. What recent estimate he has made of levels of UK fish stocks. 
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea assesses the state of EU fish stocks annually. The next round of advice for the majority of European fish stocks, including those in UK waters, will be released on 30 June, and will inform decisions on 2015 fishing quotas that will be made at the 2014 December EU Fisheries Council.
Given that fishing is such an important part of Southend’s economy, it is very disappointing that stocks of sole, plaice, cod and herring have been depleted as a result of channel deepening via suction dredging. Will my hon. Friend please look into that, and ensure that the Thames estuary is pollution-free and full of fish again?
This issue was raised with me during a recent conference of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, and my hon. Friend has written to me about it as well. The chief fisheries science adviser at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science has subsequently overseen an initial investigation of the issue, and has prepared a detailed report that acknowledges that there has been a decline in stocks recently. The cause of the decline is not clear, but some have pointed the finger at the London Gateway development. Other possible causes include the discharge of surface water that may contain contaminants. Another meeting is planned for July, when next steps will be decided on.
Given that it is clearly in everyone’s interests for the UK fishing industry to modernise and, in so doing, to use good data to protect and grow fish stocks, why has the Minister allowed the Marine Management Organisation to relax its commitment to use a European Union grant that was specifically designed to support the sector for that purpose?
I do not accept that. The lion’s share of the European maritime and fisheries fund will be invested in selective net gear and used to support work relating to the discard ban.
Responsible drift netting plays an important role in the management of UK fish stocks, and has been a traditional part of fishing off the East Anglian coast for centuries. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will ensure that the European Commissioner’s proposed blanket ban on drift netting, which will destroy what is left of the Lowestoft fleet, is not introduced?
We are aware of the issue, and we think that the targeting of species such as herring, bass and salmon by UK drift net fisheries is a far cry from the type of drift netting with which the previous ban sought to deal in the Mediterranean. We will be negotiating for the application of a risk-based regional approach to ensure that the right fisheries are monitored and required to take the appropriate litigation action when that is necessary, without the imposition of a blanket ban on drift netting.
9. What recent discussions his Department has had with the UK Statistics Authority on the publication of official statistics of figures on Government spending on flood protection. 
Positive discussions have been held with the UK Statistics Authority about the publication of flood protection expenditure. We are in the final stages of firming up proposals, after which we will write to the hon. Gentleman giving the details. The robustness of the figures is already assured by our strict finance processes, and we will provide additional context for the benefit of a full range of users.
I remind the House that in February the head of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to me saying that the figures published by DEFRA on flood protection spending were unreliable, and expressing a preference for figures published in future to be quality-controlled by his department as official statistics. I think that that would do a great deal to restore public confidence that the Government are spending what is needed on flood protection. Can the Minister assure me that the Department will agree to do that, and will he make a public announcement before the summer recess?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in this matter, and that he has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to discuss it. He will doubtless be reassured to know that we are investing more in flood defences than the last Government. However, it is right for us to ensure that those figures are in the public domain. In his letter, the chair of the UKSA said that he broadly agreed with the statistics, but that they were not currently available for his assessment and he would need to look at them. We are discussing with the UKSA what it is best to do, and as I have said, we will write to the hon. Gentleman when the process is complete.
Trichinella in Pigs
10. What representations he has received on testing for trichinella in pigs. 
First, I would like to declare an interest: my brother is the chairman of the British Lop Pig Society, and he has made representations to me about the time it takes some abattoirs to carry out the trichinella test, which we are investigating.
The Food Standards Agency, which has responsibility for this policy area, formally consulted on the changes to trichinella testing in March 2014. Responses indicated broad support, but also that awareness of the changes is low.
We are grateful to Brother Eustice.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Outdoor or free-range pigs are very prominent in Suffolk, where the industry is important, and it feels there has been a stitch-up by the FSA with the pig marketing association. I recognise the FSA is not my hon. Friend’s ministerial responsibility, but it is very important that free-range and organic pigs should not be literally the sacrificial pig to satisfy the European conditions that are being imposed.
I understand the point my hon. Friend is making. There had been some indication at some point that all pigs should be tested for trichinella. We have tended previously to test only boars and sows that are cull sows. However, the argument for testing only outdoor pigs as a compromise is that outdoor pigs are more susceptible to picking up this type of tapeworm.
Wild Boar (Forest of Dean)
11. What assessment he has made of the effect of wild boar on the Forest of Dean and of proposals to contain their numbers. 
Small numbers of wild boar can benefit biodiversity by disturbing static ecosystems, and contribute to the local economy through wildlife tourism. However, in excessive numbers they can also damage specific wildlife sites and harm the tourism industry, as visitors can be put off by the presence of boar and the visual damage they cause. Local meetings take place every six months to consider the situation and proposals to tackle wild boar numbers.
I thank the Minister for that answer. We have to manage wild boar to keep the population under control. The deputy surveyor in the Forest of Dean is doing an excellent job and has the support of the community, including the local authority, and I would be grateful if the Minister endorsed that good work here at the Dispatch Box.
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I endorse the Forestry Commission’s approach, which engages with the local community he represents when considering the impacts of wild boar in the Forest of Dean and setting its own cull figures. While the Forestry Commission is neither expected nor able to control wild boar on anyone else’s land, I would expect it to work in co-operation with the other landowners and the local authority, as necessary.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are growing the rural economy, improving the environment, safeguarding animal health and safeguarding plant health. This week we have announced, as part of the common agricultural policy, the criteria for the implementation of the EU’s rules on greening. While the latest round of CAP reform is disappointing, we remain determined to give our farmers sufficient flexibility to be free to do what they do best—producing food—while at the same time ensuring that we do not make the same mistakes as the last Government—designing a payments system that was so complicated that we saw £600 million being taken out of the rural economy in disallowance. Over the course of the next CAP, more than £3 billion will be spent on improving the environment.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. In March of this year in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), stated that the Elliott report would be published in the spring, but we are now into June. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to when we might expect the report and a statement in this House so we can discuss the issue of the protection of consumers from food fraud, as was exposed by the horsemeat incident last year?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Professor Elliott produced a very interesting interim report, and I am pleased to say that some of its proposals have been acted on. I met him very recently and it is absolutely our intention that the report will be published soon.
T5. The national seed collection at Kew and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are considered by many of us to be a national treasure. What are the Government doing to ensure the continuing vitality and viability of Kew Gardens? 
The Government of course recognise Kew’s obligations to care for the national collections under the National Heritage Act 1983. Against the backdrop of the deficit, the Department has continued to offer relative protection to Kew. Overall, the annual average of the Government’s funding of Kew over this spending review period is greater than that of the last. We continue to work with Kew as it puts in place plans to raise revenue and we continue to invest in the excellent work it does.
DEFRA has just published “Making the most of our evidence”—I have a copy here—which makes the ludicrous claim that the Department is in favour of science-based policy making. I note that the foreword is by the Under-Secretary in the other place, Lord de Mauley, not by the Secretary of State, so will the Secretary of State confirm whether he has read it?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I read documents pertaining to my job as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
That is an interesting reply. Which of the unscientific policies insisted on by the Secretary of State makes the most of our evidence? Is it his denial of climate change? Is it his ineffective and inhumane badger culls? Is it his fantasy biodegradable plastic bags? Or is it his national air quality strategy, which would make air pollution worse? Does this not illustrate that in practice the Secretary of State, who appears to be allergic to science, routinely ignores evidence in favour of his own eccentric, ideological views?
The hon. Lady has had months and months to work out that splendid rhetorical blast—I get on with the day job. I was at the cereals show yesterday talking to real farmers who are producing food, and welcoming the first investment in this country by Bayer—following our agri-tech policy—bringing in wheat testing and leading on to the breeding of wheat. That is what an active Department does. [Laughter.]
T7. Have Ministers been able to complete an assessment of the Environment Agency’s proposals to strengthen flood defences to protect the port of Immingham and the villages of New Holland and Barrow Haven, on the south bank of the Humber, following the December tidal surge? When will they be able to make an announcement? 
As the hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited the area with him during the flooding. Obviously, we will take advice from the Environment Agency and all the local bodies involved when coming up with plans to protect the area better. The Department for Transport will be included in that, given all the work it will be doing around the port of Immingham.
I am very glad that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) has recovered his composure. I was genuinely concerned that his sides might literally split.
T2. If the Secretary of State is so assiduous and so passionate, how come he got nothing in the Queen’s Speech on the environment—the only thing mentioned is shale gas and fracking? Has he heard the “Farming Today” programme recently, which described the common agricultural policy deal as a “greenwash” which will do nothing for wildlife in this country? 
I listened to “Farming Today” yesterday and today, and I made it very clear that this is a disappointing CAP reform. The hon. Gentleman might wish to reflect on the fact that his previous leader, Mr Tony Blair, gave away a huge slug of our national rebate in return for CAP reform and totally failed to deliver. We are going to deliver £3.5 billion through our pillar 2 schemes for environmental work which he will approve of.
T8. Since May 2010, the Environment Agency has spent about £11.7 million in defending Crawley through improved flood defences, but during this wettest winter on record the area of Ifield Green was still affected. May I have assurances from the Department that it will press Crawley borough council to co-operate fully on further flood defence schemes? 
I agree that that partnership working is crucial to finding solutions in flood risk management, and I strongly encourage all parties, including Crawley borough council, to continue to work closely and to co-operate on flood risk management in the Crawley area.
T3. I never thought it would be possible that in this day and age, in one of the richest countries in the world, I would see my local churches and charities going out collecting money for food banks. Will the Minister pay tribute to those kind and caring people? Is this not in stark contrast to this rotten Government, who shower gifts on the wealthy while they watch the poor go hungry? 
I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the great work that is done by the food banks. I regularly visit one in my own constituency that does very good work, and we should celebrate that. On the wider point about food prices, which the Department is responsible for looking at, it is important to note that in the year to the end of April, food price inflation was down to 0.5% and food prices have actually fallen in the past couple of months, so this is now significantly below average inflation in the economy.
The removal of notifiable disease status for contagious equine metritis and equine viral arteritis is causing much concern in the world-class blood stock industry in this country. Is the Minister aware that the export of horses from the UK to Hong Kong, India, Qatar, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries is likely to be hit because notifiable status is a prerequisite for horses in those countries?
I had the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), the Minister for Skills and Enterprise, with a delegation from the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association. I understand the points they are making. Although those two diseases have a low impact and can be prevented through the application of the industry’s codes of practice, there could be some concerns about the impact on trade. That is why I have asked officials to look at the matter closely, to reassess the impacts on the trade, and to investigate alternative ways forward, such as burden sharing with the industry. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are looking at this closely and will take his views into account.
T4. More than 2 million households in England and Wales are spending more than 5% of their household income on water bills. Will the Secretary of State explain exactly what plans the Government have to give Ofwat more powers or to bring in measures that will require all water companies to tackle water bills for everybody, particularly for that 5% of households? 
I thank the hon. Lady for drawing my attention to what is happening with water bills. As companies are coming up to the price review period, bills will be levelling off or dropping. It is therefore vital that we have a strong regulator, so extra powers are needed. It is a strong message from Government that we are supporting it in its work as a good independent regulator, and that will lead to better deals for consumers.
I know that the Secretary of State intends to drive a hard bargain with the insurance industry, so he will be shocked to learn that a business in Bradford-on-Avon that was devastated by the floods at Christmas has had its business rate relief deducted from the assessment of its losses by its insurer. Clearly, it is not the Government’s intention that business rate relief should be a sop to the insurance industry, so will he use his relationship with the industry to ensure that this practice ends?
I and Ministers from other Departments hold regular round-table meetings with the insurance industry, and I will be sure to raise the issue that my hon. Friend has mentioned this morning.
T6. With beef prices falling, beef farmers in my constituency are keen to ensure that the Department uses its good offices to increase public procurement of beef for the defence industry, national health service, schools and others. Will the Minister please look at that urgently? 
I can confirm that Peter Bonfield is currently doing a piece of work for us on how we might improve the Government’s buying standard and have a more balanced approach to procurement so that price is not the only determinant. He is working on that and we expect to publish details of that plan later this year.
The collapse in beef prices is having a very damaging effect on the market. What steps can the Government take to ensure that where cheap imports from eastern Europe are for sale on supermarket shelves, shoppers know that they are cheap imports?
There is a requirement for country of origin labelling on all fresh meat. We are holding a summit later this summer to look at the problems experienced by the meat industry. It will consider those issues and how we might increase exports of beef.
T9. My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) highlighted the importance of science-based policy making. Will the Minister tell the House how often the Marine Management Organisation’s scientific group has met since it was set up in 2010? 
I am afraid that I do not have that information to hand, but I will get in touch with the hon. Lady and give her that information.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
1. If he will visit Lichfield cathedral to discuss the service of remembrance and celebration of the life of Stephen Sutton. 
I am always happy to visit Lichfield cathedral. The whole country will have celebrated the life and achievements of Stephen Sutton. The recent service of remembrance and celebration at Lichfield cathedral demonstrates the importance of cathedrals as a focus for unity at times of local and national celebration, commemoration and mourning.
It is a shame in this instance that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not empowered to confer sainthoods. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Adrian Dorber, the dean of Lichfield cathedral, on seizing the moment and taking advantage, in the best possible way, of the great outpouring of passion and grief that people in my constituency experienced over the great work and life of a 19-year-old who died of cancer?
I agree that the experience of holding a vigil at Lichfield cathedral for Stephen Sutton helped to focus national attention on the remarkable courage and exuberance with which Stephen lived his last three years of life. He managed to raise £4 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust by telling his story and through his determination to make every moment of his life count.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Imprints in Social Media
2. What discussions the Committee has had with the Electoral Commission on updating guidance on the use of imprints in social media. 
In United Kingdom elections there is no legal requirement for imprints to be used in social media. However, the Electoral Commission’s guidance recommends as good practice that all campaign material should contain information equivalent to an imprint so that the identity of the campaigner is clear.
Last month my constituent Michael Abberton was visited by the police after a UKIP councillor complained about his tweeting a fact-check list of UKIP’s policies. That was clearly absurd, although I can see why UKIP did not want people to know its policies, and the police have apologised to my constituent. This raises concerns about the guidance, which has not been updated recently. Will the hon. Gentleman ask the commission to look at this urgently and produce more up-to-date guidance ahead of next year’s elections?
I think the guidance is clear enough. The issue is whether the Government are going to introduce as a matter of law the need for an imprint on social media campaigning material. As I understand it, that is a matter that the Government are still considering.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Chaplains in Schools and Academies
3. What estimate the Church Commissioners have made of the number of chaplains in schools and academies. 
There are nearly 380 Anglican chaplains working in schools. A recent report by the National Society found that a growing number of schools are paying for salaried chaplains.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that school chaplains help to further the work of the Church in encouraging the spiritual development of our young people and giving them a better understanding of the pressures pertaining to modern society?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. As Her Majesty the Queen made clear in a speech at Lambeth palace in 2012, a long part of our nation’s tradition has been for the Church of England to promote tolerance and understanding of other faiths. An increase in the number of chaplains in schools furthers the promotion of tolerance and community integration.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Roll Status
4. If the commission will establish a process whereby every time a voter comes into contact with a public agency their electoral roll status is confirmed and non-registrants are encouraged to apply. 
It would be for the Government, not the Electoral Commission, to establish such a process. My hon. Friend may wish to raise the issue with the Cabinet Office directly, and probably already has. Although there will undoubtedly be practical and cost implications that the Government will need to consider carefully, the commission can see the benefits of involving public agencies in encouraging electoral registration applications. The commission will discuss this further with the Cabinet Office as the transition to individual electoral registration continues.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am just a humble Back Bencher and my voice does not go very far in the Cabinet Office, but his considerable gravitas and that of the Electoral Commission would carry far more weight than my opinion. I welcome the Electoral Commission’s tentative endorsement of the proposal and urge it to meet the Cabinet Office urgently to see how it might be advanced.
I too am exceedingly humble but I certainly take my hon. Friend’s point. The Electoral Commission thinks there is merit in the scheme, although there are practical obstacles. For example, it would be necessary for every public servant at the point of contact with a member of the public to have access to the electoral register there and then to be able to give specific advice. The scheme is well worth considering as we all want to see as many people as possible entered on the public register.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
5. What representations the Church of England has made on Meriam Ibrahim. 
7. What representations the Church of England has made on Meriam Ibrahim. 
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England wholeheartedly supported the call from the Christian Muslim Forum for the death sentence against Meriam Ibrahim to be dropped. The Church of England will continue to support the Archbishop of Sudan on this issue.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The plight of Meriam Ibrahim is of great concern to churches throughout the country. St Anne’s parish church, Tottington, in the diocese of Manchester, where I serve as church warden, wrote to the Sudanese embassy two weeks ago setting out our concerns. Will my right hon. Friend urge the leaders of the Church of England to do all they can to keep up the pressure to secure the freedom of this lady?
My hon. Friend is right, and his constituents demonstrate that this concern is shared throughout the country. I hope that other communities and individuals who feel similarly will also write to the Sudanese embassy and that parliamentary colleagues will support early-day motion 71, tabled in my name, which has support from Members in all parts of the House.
A number of Pendle residents have contacted me to express their concern about this case and what it means for the Christian community in Sudan. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is that the alleged crime of apostasy is in direct conflict with fundamental human rights, as set out in the UN universal declaration of human rights?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and that point was reinforced yesterday by the Prime Minister. Article 18 of the UN universal declaration of human rights seeks to enshrine freedom of religion and the freedom to change one’s religion, whereas the alleged offence of apostasy makes it a hanging offence to change one’s religion. They are clearly incompatible. In international law, fundamental universal UN human rights must prevail.
The case of Meriam Ibrahim has come to particular public attention because it is so shocking in its detail, but of course she is just one of many people across the world who are being persecuted for their religious faith. What outreach work is the Church of England doing with other Christian Churches in the countries where persecution of Christians is a significant issue?
As at least two debates in this House in recent months have demonstrated, article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights seems to be an orphaned right. The Church of England and other faith groups have been working hard to ensure that the international community and the UN Human Rights Council pay proper regard and respect to article 18.
Listed Buildings (Repairs)
6. What estimate has been made of the cost of the backlog of repairs to the Church of England’s listed buildings. 
The Church of England’s 12,500 listed churches have an estimated backlog of repairs of £60 million, and the 42 cathedrals have an estimated backlog of £87 million over the next five years to keep them open and watertight.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that response. I recently visited Lincoln cathedral and met the dean, who told me that that cathedral has a backlog of repairs of £16.5 million. The right hon. Gentleman has done well to get money out of the Treasury, but in fact Lincoln could eat up all that money. What more does he think we could do to ensure that we preserve these vital national assets?
The hon. Lady is correct: this is quite a challenge, but I think one needs to recognise that several pots of money are available. There is the very welcome £20 million the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently awarded to cathedrals to keep for immediate repairs; the Heritage Lottery Fund has put aside £25 million a year for necessary repairs; the listed places of worship scheme totals £42 million a year; and of course we have to be grateful to the wider public, who raise approximately £115 million each year to spend on repairs to their parish church buildings. The hon. Lady is a Front-Bench spokesperson for her party on culture, media and sport, and I am always willing to discuss with her other ways in which she thinks further funds can be found.
Thousands of small parish churches are in desperate need of urgent repairs to heating, lighting and electrical systems, as well as roof repairs. How much or what proportion of the amounts that my right hon. Friend just mentioned relate to VAT due on those repairs?
My hon. Friend may recall that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made very generous provision of, if I recall correctly, £25 million to help to offset VAT costs on church repairs, so there is no reason why churches should be deterred from carrying out repairs and restoration by concerns about VAT bills.
8. What progress the Church of England has made on support for the provision of responsible financial services. 
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Task Group has identified a number of initiatives to promote responsible credit and savings and is now implementing those initiatives across the country.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. The archbishop’s intervention has already had a profound and welcome impact. May I encourage the commissioners to do all they can to support that work through the clergy credit union, the use of premises, the promotion of volunteering and financial education in Church schools?
I entirely agree that progress is being made. Credit unions are now being set up in towns and cities across the country. I refer my hon. Friend and the entire House—it is always good to see so many Members present for Church Commissioner questions—to a rap released yesterday by the Church of England entitled “We need a union on the streets”. It underscores the views of the Church of England on payday lending and highlights credit unions as a better way to borrow. It can be found at https://soundcloud.com/the-church-of-england/we-need-a-union-on-the-streets. The chorus is:
“What we need is a union, we need a union on the streets
Everybody hand in hand, people can’t you understand”.
Biblical Literacy (Children)
9. What steps the Church of England is taking to increase biblical literacy among children. 
It is important to remind the House that the Education Act 1944 made religious education a compulsory subject in schools. I do not believe it is possible in England to properly teach religious education without ensuring that children have a proper understanding of Bible narratives.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should see it not only as religious education but as part of our heritage and citizenship in this country, and that the stories of Noah’s ark, Adam and Eve and even the nativity should be part of that citizenship education? Is he worried about the recent poll that showed the low level of such knowledge among children and their parents?
I entirely agree. It would be very difficult, for example, for an A-level student to understand the work of T. S. Eliot without any knowledge of the Bible narratives. There is a responsibility on schools to teach religious education, and one would hope and anticipate that they would teach the Bible and Bible narratives as part of that. Families do that, as, of course, do the churches through Sunday schools.
Further to those comments on biblical literacy, will my right hon. Friend welcome the Heart 4 Harlow and Harlow credit save initiative, which provide help for financial affairs, particularly beating the loan sharks? When he is next in the area, will he visit Heart 4 Harlow, the faith community and the credit save initiative to see what they are doing?
Order. I would describe that as attempted ingenuity. The hon. Gentleman is seeking to shoehorn into the last question on the Order Paper that which he would have asked if he had been called on the previous question, but, because I am in a generous mood, let us hear Sir Tony.
I always welcome opportunities to visit Harlow and to support my hon. Friend, who is such an excellent constituency Member of Parliament.
HM Passport Office
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement on Her Majesty’s Passport Office.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office is receiving 350,000 more applications for passport applications and renewals than is normal at this time of year. This is the highest demand for 12 years. Since January, HMPO has been putting in place extra resources to try to make sure that people receive their new passports in good time, but as the House will know there are still delays in the system. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the number of straightforward passport applicants who are being dealt with outside the normal three-week waiting time is about 30,000.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office has 250 additional staff who have been transferred from back-office roles to front-line operations, and 650 additional staff to work on its customer helpline. HMPO is operating seven days a week and couriers are delivering passports within 24 hours of their being produced. From next week, HMPO is opening new office space in Liverpool to help the new staff to work on processing passport applications.
Despite those additional resources, it is clear that HMPO is still not able to process every application it receives within the normal three-week waiting time for straightforward cases. At the moment, the overwhelming majority of cases are dealt with within that time limit, but that is, of course, no consolation to applicants who are suffering delays and are worried about whether they will be able to go on their summer holidays. I understand their anxiety and the Government will do everything they can—while maintaining the security of the passport—to make sure people get their passports in time.
There is no big-bang single solution so we will take a series of measures to address the pinch points and resourcing problems that HMPO faces. First, on resources, I have agreed with the Foreign Secretary that people applying to renew passports overseas for travel to the UK will be given a 12-month extension to their existing passport. Since we are talking about extending existing passports—documents in which we can have a high degree of confidence—this relieves HMPO of having to deal with some of the most complex cases without compromising security.
Similarly, we will put in place a process so that people who are applying for passports overseas on behalf of their children can be issued with emergency travel documents for travel to the UK. Parents will still have to provide comprehensive proof that they are the parents before we will issue these documents, because we are not prepared to compromise on child protection, but again this should relieve an administrative burden on HMPO.
These changes will allow us to free up a significant number of trained HMPO officials to concentrate on other applications. In addition, HMPO will increase the number of examiners and call handlers by a further 200 staff.
Secondly, HMPO is addressing a series of process points to make sure that its systems are operating efficiently.
Thirdly, where people have an urgent need to travel, HMPO has agreed to upgrade them: that is, their application will be considered in full; it will be expedited in terms of its processing, printing and delivery; and HMPO has agreed to upgrade those people free of charge.
All these measures are designed to address the immediate problem. In the medium to long term, the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews—[Interruption.]
Order. The Home Secretary’s statement must be heard, and preferably with courtesy. There will be plenty of opportunity for questioning, but let us hear what the Home Secretary has to say.
As I said, in the medium to long term the answer is not just to throw more staff at the problem but to ensure that HMPO is running as efficiently as possible and is as accountable as possible. I have therefore asked the Home Office’s permanent secretary, Mark Sedwill, to conduct two reviews: first, to ensure that HMPO works as efficiently as possible, with better processes, better customer service and better outcomes; and, secondly, to consider whether HMPO’s agency status should be removed, so that it can be brought into the Home Office, reporting directly to Ministers, in line with other parts of the immigration system since the abolition of the UK Border Agency.
This has been a sorry shambles from a sorry Department and a Home Secretary who cannot even bring herself to say that word. Government incompetence means that people are at risk of missing their holidays, their honeymoons and their business trips. Every MP has been inundated with these cases and it seems that she has not even known what was going on.
There has been a huge turnaround in the things the Home Secretary has to say since two days ago, when we asked her the same questions. On Tuesday, she told us that the Passport Office was meeting all its targets; on Wednesday, she told us that maybe it needed more staff; and today she says that maybe it needs some changes in policy too. On Tuesday, she told us there was no backlog; on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said there was. On Tuesday, she said, “it is not true” that staff numbers have been cut; on Wednesday, her own figures showed that they have been cut by 600; and now she is having to put them back.
On Tuesday, the Home Secretary told us the only problem was rising summer demand, but now we find out that she took over passports for foreign residents from the Foreign Office in April, even though diplomats warned that it was not working. On Tuesday, the Minister for Security and Immigration said that security was not being compromised, and now we find out that on Monday security checks on addresses and counter-signatories were dropped; and Ministers claim that they did not have a clue what was going on. Well, that much is certainly true.
Can the Home Secretary tell us now how bad the situation is, not only for the straightforward cases but for all the other cases, and what she means by “straightforward” cases anyway? How long will it take to get the system back to normal? When all her changes are in place, what can families across Britain expect? When did she first know there was a problem? MPs have been warning about this issue for ages. Why did she not know that those security checks were being dropped? Surely she has spent the past week asking for details about everything that has been going on. Or perhaps she has not, because the truth is that she did not know what was going on. She has come to this late. She has not had her eye on the ball. She has been distracted by other things.
It is really unfair on people who have saved up everything for their holiday, only to see it wrecked by the Home Secretary’s incompetence. Will she now apologise to those facing ruined holidays, business trips or trips back to Britain? Will she get a grip on her Department and sort it out?
The shadow Home Secretary has raised a number of issues. The Passport Office started to receive increased numbers of applications not just in recent weeks, but from the beginning of the year, so it took action to increase the number of staff available to deal with them. From January to May, over 97% of applicants in straightforward cases received their passport within three weeks, and over 99% received them within four weeks, but of course that means there were applicants who did not receive their passport within the normal expected time. That is why the Passport Office has been increasing the number of staff throughout this period and will continue to do so, as I have indicated.
The shadow Home Secretary asked about the difference between straightforward and more complex cases. A case is straightforward when all the information is there and the application form has been properly filled in, signed and so forth. In those cases it is possible to deal with a straightforward renewal very quickly. [Interruption.] The problem comes when the right information is not there or the correct forms have not been sent in—[Interruption.]
Order. Mr Bryant, we cannot have a running commentary throughout the Home Secretary’s response. Colleagues will have plenty of opportunity to question the right hon. Lady, but her remarks must be heard with a modicum of courtesy.
A case ceases to be straightforward if it is necessary for the Passport Office to go back to the individual to request other documents, which of course delays the process. We are looking at part of the system to ensure that that is being done as efficiently as possible.
The shadow Home Secretary asked about taking over the process of passport applications from British nationals overseas. Before March this year that was done by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at processing centres world wide. The change was made to provide better value for the fee-payer and greater consistency in how overseas passport applications are assessed, and to use our expertise to better detect and prevent fraud. The checks needed for applications from overseas can take longer than those for applications in the UK. Security is our priority and we will not issue a passport until the necessary checks have been completed. However, as I said in my statement, for those applying for a renewal from overseas, where we can have confidence in the documents that they have already had and the process they have been through, we will be offering an extension of 12 months.
Finally, the shadow Home Secretary raised the issue of staff numbers, as did other Members earlier this week. Here are the figures: in March 2012 the Passport Office had 3,104 members of staff—[Interruption.] Opposition Members talk about 2010, so I will make one simple point: when we took office there were staff in HM Passport Office who had been brought in to deal with the new identity card. This Government scrapped the identity card. Over the past two years the number of staff in the Passport Office has increased from 3,104 to 3,445. That is the answer. People might say that this is about reduced staff numbers, but actually staff numbers have been going up over the past two years.
The Home Secretary has set out clearly the action that she is taking to deal with the problem. Those listening outside this Chamber will welcome the grip that she is showing and will see the nonsense that we have heard from Labour for what it is—a cheap attempt to make up for their poor show on Monday.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and I recognise the points he made about the attempts from the Opposition. Outside the political arena that is the House of Commons, we should never forget that this is about people who are applying for their passports, planning holidays and so forth. That is why the Passport Office has been taking the action it has taken, and why it is continuing to increase the number of staff to ensure that it can meet the current demand which, as I said, is the highest for 12 years.
Is the Home Secretary aware that in the past hour I have received an e-mail from a constituent who tells me that her husband—[Interruption.] Here it is. My constituent tells me that her husband received British citizenship in March and immediately applied for a British passport; that the Home Office totally bungled the entire procedure, but after repeated calls and approaches from her, promised the passport at the beginning of last week; that the passport has not been received; that they had booked a visit abroad to her family and have paid the airfares; and that because of the fact that her husband has not got the British passport and the Passport Office will not return to him his original passport, which is still valid, they will have to cancel the flights and lose a great deal of money. They are in a total mess because of the Home Secretary’s failure to administer and her arrogant refusal to deal with individual cases. What is she going to do to put this right?
No, I was not aware of the e-mail that the right hon. Gentleman received from his constituent, but I am aware of it now. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be taking that matter up with Ministers and the Passport Office. I have been clear that I recognise that there are people who are having difficulties getting access to passport renewals or new passport applications. The current level of applications is higher than we have seen for 12 years. Action is being taken and will continue to be taken by the Passport Office to try to ensure that it can deliver on the normal rates that people expect. I am sure that as an experienced Member of the House the right hon. Gentleman will be using every opportunity that he has—
He has just done so.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe). The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has used one of those opportunities, but there are other opportunities to bring those details to the attention of the Passport Office and to Ministers so that that case can be looked into.
Many people are grateful to have heard the announcement from the Home Secretary about the free upgrade process for people who need their passport urgently. Can she clarify exactly what that process entails and explain what counts as urgent? Many people need that reassurance.
It will be for people to bring it to the attention of the Passport Office that they have an urgent need to travel. We intend to make it clear on the website so that people can go online and see that in detail and see what the process is. In that way, they will be absolutely clear about what they need to do and how they qualify.
When the Government tried to shut Newport passport office a few years ago, staff and unions warned at the time that cuts would impact on the service, and they have been proved right. It would be good if the Home Secretary could at least acknowledge that putting the full processing function back into Newport, along with the jobs that we lost, would be a start. Will she also acknowledge that it is not only the customers who are suffering badly at present? The situation is putting stress on the staff, such as those in the Newport office, who are under immense pressure because of this Government’s incompetence.
At the time those decisions were taken, the point was raised in the House and Ministers responded to it. It is absolutely right, from the Passport Office’s point of view, that it should look at how it can provide services as efficiently as possible. I want to make sure that in going ahead, we review how it is providing those processes and how it is operating its system so that we make sure that customers are getting the best possible service. But I return to the point that we have seen demand levels—applications for passports—higher than they have been for 12 years. Action has been taken and is continuing to be taken to ensure that we can deal with those applications.
Will my right hon. Friend spell out to us in the Chamber today what the criteria are for an urgent need to travel, so that everybody knows? Will she make arrangements to ensure that constituents who wish to express concerns can do so directly to their MPs, and that MPs can have a special hotline to communicate with the Passport Office?
My hon. Friend’s point about the qualification for urgent travel was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), and as I said to him earlier, the Passport Office will of course put full details on its website. Either I or the Minister for Security and Immigration will write urgently to Members of Parliament with the full details, so that every Member of Parliament is aware and can advise their constituents fully.
The Home Secretary has come to the House today to announce a series of desperate measures in the Passport Service—extending passports, reducing security checks, fast-tracking some applications and adding in many more bureaucratic hurdles to getting a passport. Yet, as I know, Ministers receive weekly updates about the flow of applications and turnaround. It is beyond belief that Ministers were not aware of this problem before it was raised in the House. When will she and her Ministers take responsibility for this? As a former Minister, I know that I discussed ebbs and flows every time that I met officials in the Passport Service, and if there was a problem, I would be on to them about it. What is she doing to make sure that this never happens again?
First, I and the Minister for Security and Immigration have said in the House and I have said elsewhere that for some months—since the beginning of the year—it has been clear that the number of applications was increasing. The flow has gone up, has steadied, and has gone up and down. Over that period, the Passport Office has taken action by increasing the number of staff and by increasing the hours during which considerations are done. It is now operating seven days a week from 7 am to midnight, and it is looking at increasing those hours further. The hon. Lady said that we have relaxed the security, but there was no relaxation of security, as I made clear in my announcement to day.
Finally, the hon. Lady talks about a series of measures being taken. Yes, a series of measures is being taken. As I made clear in my statement, there is no single thing that will suddenly change the way in which the Passport Office is able to deal with these applications. What is necessary is not a grand political gesture, but the slow, careful consideration that we have been giving and which will now lead to urgent action by the Passport Office in increasing the number of staff.
As part of the very welcome review announced today, will my right hon. Friend consider an idea put to me by the manager of the Crown post office in Truro, which is that Crown post offices’ new capabilities in identity verification could be used in speeding up and further localising the application process for the renewal of passports?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the proposal from the Crown post office in Truro. I will ensure that it is fed into the review and given due consideration.
The Home Secretary is now announcing a series of measures; the problem has been ongoing and apparent not for a couple of weeks, but for months. Members of Parliament—myself and everyone else—have been inundated by constituents in panic and distress. Why has it taken so long for this problem to be recognised and for measures to be taken to address this issue?
The increase in demand was recognised earlier this year. HM Passport Office put steps in place to deal with that increased demand. The increased demand continued and, as a result, further steps were put in place. Those steps included increasing the number of staff available to deal with the applications, increasing the number of staff on the telephone helpline, extending the hours of operation of HM Passport Office, and working with couriers to ensure that printed passports were delivered within a very short space of time once they were issued. Over time, as the demand has increased, steps have been taken. It is clear that further steps need to be taken, and they are being taken.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the focus for all MPs at this difficult time of unprecedented demand should be assisting their constituents, not engaging in cheap, smug, self-satisfied, party political point scoring?
I am sure that every Member wants to help the constituents who have come to them with concerns, and they should indeed be doing that. We have increased the number of people who are available on the general helpline to individuals who wish to make inquiries about their passports, as I said, by some 650 members of staff. Previously, the figure was 350. Of course, all Members of Parliament recognise that people get in touch with their MPs about this issue because they have a genuine concern about what is happening to their passports. That is why we are addressing the issue and why the Passport Office has been addressing it over the past weeks.
Is the Home Secretary aware that none of her feeble excuses today can explain away the sheer incompetence and shambles that have again occurred on her watch?
I fear that I will repeat what I have been saying, which is that demand is at its highest level for 12 years and the Passport Office has taken action over recent weeks to meet that demand. There is still an issue with demand. We recognise the concerns that individuals who are applying for new passports or renewals have about timing. That is why further action is being taken.
Some of the most worrying cases that I have dealt with have involved British nationals overseas, so I welcome in particular the 12-month extension. The granting of emergency travel documents for the children of British nationals who are abroad is also extremely helpful and welcome.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right that a number of the more complex and worrying cases have come from those who are applying from overseas. That is why we are putting those measures in place. As I said in relation to the emergency travel documents, parents will still have to show comprehensive proof that the child is theirs, because child protection must, of course, be at the forefront of our minds.
Is the Home Secretary aware that it was nothing short of idiotic to take on the responsibility for processing passport applications from overseas at the very time when her Department was expecting the pre-summer surge, which happens every year? There is a bit more of a surge this year, but it is more or less in line with the extra people that she has. That was plainly just an idiotic management decision.
More importantly, will the Home Secretary explain to the House why there was not a single Government Back Bencher at the Adjournment debate on this issue to represent people’s interests, despite her plug for the debate earlier that day? The Minister for Security and Immigration, who is responsible for the Passport Office, reassured the House on Tuesday that
“We have not compromised on our checks, and will not do so.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 526.]
How was it possible for him to give that reassurance when a letter had gone out the previous day doing precisely that? Why does she not—
Order. May I just say before the Home Secretary responds that there is a great deal of interest, which I am keen to accommodate, at least in part? It would help if contributions were brief. We have the business question to follow and the last day of the Queen’s Speech debate is exceptionally heavily subscribed. People will lose out, and they will lose out all the more if there is not economy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will attempt to be brief in my response.
As has been made clear publicly, Ministers were not aware of the document to which the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) refers, and they asked for it to be withdrawn immediately.
May I say how much I appreciate my right hon. Friend taking pragmatic steps to deal with the situation, especially with the 12-month extension? If it gets worse, will she perhaps consider extending that to UK citizens in this country as a short-term measure? Does she agree that the Passport Office had to spend £257 million after being diverted to an identity card scheme, and that if it had been able to spend that money on its core offering, perhaps this would not have happened?
I have already referred, of course, to the identity card scheme.
My hon. Friend talks about the possibility of the extension to passports being brought in domestically as well as in overseas cases. We did examine that possibility, and it was what the Labour Government did when they had queues at passport offices back in 1999. To introduce that now would have meant setting up new centres and processes, which could have disrupted the work that the Passport Office is already doing. That is why I believe it is better to concentrate on dealing with the applications that are being made.
Speaking purely personally, I would prefer it if we did not talk about throwing Government staff around.
The families who have come to me to raise their cases have mainly been trying to get a child’s first passport. They have pointed out to me that the Government’s website said that they would get their passport within three weeks, which was clearly a mistake. I know of one family who have definitely missed their holiday. What can be done to ensure that families in my constituency get proper information?
The website has always indicated to people what the normal expected period for a straightforward application is. As I indicated earlier, if there is a problem with the application, it can take longer, but we are ensuring that the information on the website is as clear as possible to people. I have also asked for it to be ensured that it is absolutely clear what documents are required, because there may be issues to do with the type of birth certificate that is submitted, which can lead to problems for families.
A constituent contacted me on 25 April calling for a passport for his mother to go on a family holiday, and he received the passport by 30 April and sent my office a note saying:
“Thank you for your help—it saved our holiday.”
Another constituent contacted me on 3 June and received their passport yesterday, and they have sent me a note saying:
“Thank you for your effort. I shall look forward to a well-earned holiday.”
Does that not show that when urgent cases have been brought to the Passport Office’s attention, passports have been provided on time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The point is that, as I have indicated, the vast majority of straightforward passport applications are still being dealt with within the time scales that people normally expect, and we should recognise that tens of thousands of people are having their passports sent to them and their applications dealt with to the normally expected timetable. When urgent cases are brought to the Passport Office’s attention, it is doing everything it can to deal with them expeditiously.
What would the Home Secretary like to say to my constituent Elizabeth Dey, who after more than four weeks of waiting may well miss her honeymoon in 10 days’ time?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman get in touch with the Passport Office—
I have done that already.
Then if the hon. Gentleman would like to give the details to the Minister for Security and Immigration, we will ensure that the case is pursued.
My constituents in Dover and Deal are deeply concerned about border security, and whatever pressure the Home Secretary may be put under by a Labour party that has a great tradition of allowing anyone to just wander in, will she ensure that the safety and security of our borders and passports are not compromised?
That is absolutely clear. That is the attitude that we have taken throughout the immigration system. For the first time ever, we have an operating mandate for our Border Force and our border security, and as I said earlier in response to the shadow Home Secretary, one of the reasons for bringing overseas passport applications into HMPO was to have greater consistency in how they are assessed and enable expertise to be used in better detecting fraud.
We all have constituents who have made straightforward applications within Home Office guidelines and who a day or two before they flew were forced to pay £55 for an upgrade to get their passports. What consideration is being given to repay that money?
I recognise that some people have paid sums of money to ensure that their passport application was upgraded, and I have indicated that for urgent travel in the future we will be doing that free of charge. I recognise that people have had those difficulties, and that there are still people with applications in the system that are concerning them. That is why we have taken the steps outlined today.
Like other Members, I have had numerous cases of people who were waiting for their passports. Fortunately, they have all been sorted out, although at very short notice in some cases. It is clear that cases are dealt with differently when people go to their MPs. How can we ensure that people who do not go to their MPs receive the same service and have their complaints dealt with in the same way as if they had gone to their MP?
MPs take up issues in many areas of activity, and they are dealt with perhaps more expeditiously than they would be normally. That is an aspect of the issues that we deal with in our constituency surgeries and so forth. However, the hon. Gentleman is right: we must ensure that information and advice is provided and that when people complain and apply to the Passport Office and raise an issue about their passport, they are dealt with properly and quickly and get the proper information. That is why more staff have been brought in to answer general inquiries, which are often from people chasing the progress of their passport. The Passport Office is making every effort to ensure that people get the service they require, so that it is not necessary for people to go to their MPs or feel that that is the only way they can get that service.
The Home Secretary will be more than aware that the Scottish summer school holidays come around a lot quicker than in England. This fiasco therefore has a more immediate impact on my constituents in Scotland, yet the Home Office has shed 150 processing staff in the Glasgow office, adding to the crisis. Will the Home Secretary acknowledge the particular difficulty in Scotland, and will she promise all those Scots who want to go on their summer holidays that they will get their passports?
As I have indicated, steps are being taken to address the demand we are seeing and increase the ability to process the applications. That is against the background of a real recognition that many people are applying to renew their passport or for new passports at this time because they want to go on holiday in the summer. We recognise that and are making every effort to address the issue.
May I, like others, welcome the changes for children who need to travel to the UK? I have constituents with a very poorly child overseas who may need to get back to London quickly for treatment, and they will welcome today’s announcements. Can the Home Secretary give the House more information? She mentioned urgent travel documents. Through what route can they be obtained, to save constituents such as mine from having to go all around the system?
The process for getting emergency travel documents would be to apply to the British embassy or high commission overseas, just as they would have done for their initial passport application.
My constituent was hoping to go on holiday in two weeks’ time. She applied in February this year for passports for three children. She called the Passport Office on 8 May to find out the progress of the application, and was told by a member of staff that they would call back. No call was received. She called again on 18 May and was told by staff that they would look into it. No call was received. She contacted the Passport Office again on 29 May, and was told by staff that her daughter’s birth certificate had been mislaid. On 30 May she sent another birth certificate by recorded delivery, and on 3 June she was told that the application was with the examination team. She will be going on holiday in just two weeks. My office has contacted the MPs hotline on several occasions, but after a bit it just goes dead. We have continued to ring, but not once has anyone answered the phone.
I accept that the service the right hon. Lady and her constituent received is not good enough. If she makes the details available, we will ensure that HMPO chases up that particular case. As I said earlier, more staff are being put on the general inquiries hotline to try to ensure that people do not receive the same response as she and her constituent received when they tried to get information—that was not good enough.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that what hard-working constituents in Harlow are really concerned about is the fact that this Government cut the cost of passports for families saving for their holidays, whereas the previous Government used them as a stealth tax?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that. In all the debates on the Passport Office, people have lost sight of the fact that the Government were able to cut the cost of passports. That will have been welcomed by hard-working people in Harlow and across the country.
Part of the anger and frustration is that these problems were not just predictable—they were predicted. They were predicted by the front-line staff. Will the Home Secretary review the correspondence of the past two years, at least, from Public and Commercial Services Union front-line staff representatives, who wrote consistently that
“the closure of 22 interview offices and one application processing centre and the sacking of 315 staff…around one in 10 of the workforce…has been a major factor in creating this current crisis.”?
She has set up a review. It is best to talk to the front-line staff doing the job. Will she meet a delegation of PCS representatives from the front line to talk about how we can go forward urgently and in the long term?
The point of the review, as the hon. Gentleman understands, is to see whether the processes are the best possible we can have in place. As part of that review, I would certainly expect information to be taken from front-line staff, not just from union representatives in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests. I will certainly look at the possibility, which happens anyway, of Ministers—either myself or the Immigration Minister—meeting front-line staff. That is what I think is important: to meet front-line staff. The views of a variety of people will be taken in the review, but I return to a point I made earlier and to which the hon. Gentleman did not refer: the very high level of demand experienced by the Passport Office. It has already taken steps to deal with that.
I welcome this balanced set of measures from the Home Secretary. Will she confirm that everything possible is being done to increase short-term staffing capacity, consistent with the need to uphold quality assurance and security?
That is absolutely right. It is not the case that one can simply take somebody with no experience of passport business and make them examine passport applications. We have security checks for passport applications and we need people who are trained to be able to do that. Every effort is being made to ensure we can bring more staff into the front line as quickly as possible, commensurate with ensuring they have the necessary level of training to be able to do that securely.
Two years ago, the lives of 150 loyal and efficient workers in my constituency were devastated by a closure that the Government described as creating a smaller but more efficient passport agency. Others predicted today’s chaos. Will the Home Secretary find it in herself to have the common sense and the humility to apologise for the ineptocracy the Government have created?
Yes, there have been changes in the way the Passport Office operates. The Passport Office has been operating efficiently and effectively in dealing with people’s applications since those changes were made. We now have a period of higher demand than we have seen for 12 years. That high demand is now being addressed by a number of steps that have been taken, but we will look at how the Passport Office should operate more efficiently in the future to ensure that it offers the best possible service.
I would like to thank HMPO staff for helping me to assist my constituents—the handful who have come to me. Interestingly, one of them said that the reason they applied for a passport was that, for the first time since 2008, they could afford to go on a foreign holiday. Does the Home Secretary acknowledge that part of the increased demand is down to a better economic environment?
In the current, improved economic environment, I am pleased that people feel able to go on holiday when they have perhaps been unable to do so previously. However, I am also conscious that there will be people who have sent in their renewal applications and are concerned about whether they will be able to do exactly what my hon. Friend says his constituents want to do. That is why I have put forward these measures, which HMPO will be putting in place, in addition to those it has already put in place.
Not a day goes by without more constituents coming forward because of delays, such as the constituent who contacted me first thing this morning, having applied for their passport over six weeks ago. Time is running out. Calls to the Passport Office go unreturned and constituents of mine face the prospect of losing out on their holidays, which they worked hard to pay for. What would the Home Secretary say to my constituent, who faces the prospect of losing hundreds of pounds because of this incompetence?
What I would say to the hon. Lady—as I have said to a number of others in relation to their constituency cases—is that the Passport Office will make every effort to ensure that the applications of those who have a requirement are met quickly and dealt with properly. As I indicated earlier, straightforward cases are normally dealt with within three weeks. If extra information is required or if someone is making a first-time application and requires an interview, that can take extra time. The straightforward cases are normally dealt with within three weeks, but every effort will be made to deal with the case the hon. Lady raises, as I am sure she is trying to ensure.
Did my right hon. Friend notice that the shadow Home Secretary made not a single constructive suggestion to deal with the present situation and that the collective chunter of Labour Back Benchers on this issue has simply been a cry to throw more public money at the problem, as it is whenever there is an issue? When the permanent secretary at the Home Office carries out the review, will he also consider why applications this year increased by some 300,000 on last year? There has clearly been an unprecedented increase in demand, which no one could have foreseen, but someone needs to give some consideration to how it came about.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we need to look at that, which is part of the process of looking at HMPO’s work going forward, to see whether patterns and numbers are changing and to ensure that appropriate resource is available to deal with that. I note, as he said, that it is the Government who have been looking at this issue carefully, and we are putting in place measures intended to deal with it.
I raised this question in the House earlier this week and got answers that were not satisfactory to me or, more particularly, my constituents, given that the hotline is still not working. Will the Home Secretary take the decision today to reopen the office in Glasgow, so that passports can be issued to my constituents without them having to travel down to Durham or over to Belfast? It seems ridiculous that it is necessary to do that, rather than taking the decision, which she could take today, to reopen the Glasgow office to the public.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the MPs’ hotline in the House earlier in the week. My hon. Friend the Immigration Minister said that if he gave him the details, he would pursue the case. I am conscious of the concerns that a number of Members have raised about the MPs’ hotline, which is an issue we will pursue.
I welcome the extra staff working extra hours to tackle the exceptional demand. Many of the constituents contacting me are parents applying for first-time passports for children or renewals for younger children. Will the Home Secretary clarify the time scales that those parents should expect for their passport applications?
As I said, the straightforward applications for a straightforward renewal of the passport are normally expected to be within three weeks, but some are going beyond that. Where it is a first-time application and an interview is required, it can take longer. I would expect a child’s first-time application to be within normal times, but if someone does not present the absolutely correct documentation, the application will take longer, which sometimes happens. As I indicated earlier, either the Immigration Minister or I will ensure that we write urgently to MPs to set out the measures taken and relevant details such as when people will be able to demonstrate an urgent need to travel in order to be upgraded.
The Home Secretary’s definition of “straightforward” has changed five times in the course of the past hour—and it has just changed again. That matters because the number of delayed applications that the Prime Minister came up with yesterday depended on straightforward applications, so the real figure is far higher than 30,000, is it not? Will the Home Secretary apologise to my constituents—foster parents who applied for a passport for their foster child, Corry? Weeks later, they received a phone call from the Passport Office, saying that the passport was on its way, so they booked their holiday. Six weeks after that, however, they had still not received the passport, so Corry, the foster child, was unable to go on holiday with his parents. Will the Home Secretary apologise to them?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the definition of straightforward cases has changed, but it has not. I have been very clear that straightforward renewal of passports is normally expected to be dealt with within three weeks. That is on the Passport Office’s website and it is what I have said today. I recognise that there have been some very difficult cases, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman describes. I was listening carefully and I think he mentioned the problem of the parents being told that the passport had been dispatched, but not then receiving it. I would be grateful if he would care to provide the details, as I may have misunderstood the case.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that tens of thousands of people were having their holidays cancelled because of passport delays. Meanwhile, the Association of British Travel Agents has said that it is seeing no increase in holiday cancellations on account of passport delays. Whom should we believe—the Leader of the Opposition or ABTA?
I am tempted to say that there are those who have the figures to hand and know what they are, and there are those who make claims about them in this House.
The gov.uk website still says that it should take three weeks to get the passport, so would the Home Secretary care to correct it? Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie), will she please tell us whether my constituents who had to pay an extra £55 on top of the £72.50 they paid to get their “straightforward” renewal applications processed in order to go on holiday in the first place—they got the passport just in the nick of time—can now expect a refund?
The hon. Lady asks me to change the advice on the website. We are, of course, looking at the advice on the website, as is the Passport Office, to ensure that it is as clear as possible. The point is, though, that the vast majority of straightforward applications are being dealt with within the normal three-week period.
This is a serious issue, and we all agree that it is not satisfactory. In Kettering, however, I have had three complaints and I dealt with them all myself. As for the MPs’ hotline, the phone was picked up every time and each case was solved within the day to the satisfaction of the affected constituents.
I am grateful to those Members who have indicated that the cases they took up have been dealt with and that people have received their passports. Staff at the Passport Office are working very hard to deal with the cases they are seeing. As we have just heard, they are responding to the cases that MPs are raising—and I think we should not forget that.
This is the biggest problem that my constituency office has been presented with since the bedroom tax. My staff have often worked overtime to deal with cases such as those of the lady who phoned early one afternoon to say that her friend was leaving Glasgow airport at six o’clock the next morning and did not have a passport, and the man who, two months after sending off his application, received a letter saying that it had not been signed. My staff would want me to pay tribute to the—
Order. I am sorry. The right hon. Gentleman is an extremely senior Member and I treat him with the utmost courtesy, but we are very pressed for time. What we need is a one-sentence, short question.
I am happy to oblige, Mr Speaker. Will the Home Secretary address herself to the question put to her by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and personally meet front-line staff and union representatives who warned that this was going to happen?
As I thought I had made clear to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), we do meet front-line staff and will do so again in order to discuss this issue. For the purposes of the review, representations will be received from a number of people, both those involved in the passport service and those who, I am sure, have experienced similar kinds of customer service. The review is necessary to ensure that we are doing things in the best possible way in order to give the best possible service to customers, and front-line staff will of course be met during that process.
Many of my constituents have contacted me about this problem, including three British citizens who applied for passports for children born abroad. One has waited for six months, another for five months, and a third for three months. One child’s school admission has been delayed, another’s health treatment has been delayed, and in the third case flights were booked and then cancelled at a cost of £1,600. Will the Home Secretary tell us when her new measures may come into force, whether my constituents are likely to benefit from them, and whether there is any consistency in what the Home Office is saying? We have been told that the suggested time lines are intended as guidance, but the Home Secretary is now talking of advice that is on the website.
The time that it takes to process an application from overseas will vary according to the complexity of the case that is before the Passport Office. Obviously I cannot comment on the individual cases raised by the hon. Lady because I do not know the details, but, as I have said, I will write to Members explaining clearly when it will be possible to apply for the emergency travel documents—I referred to part of that process in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine)—so that they understand the new arrangements and can advise their constituents accordingly.
Several hon. Members
Order. I am sorry to disappoint Members who are still rising, but I know they will understand that I must have some regard to the overall level of demand for other parts of today’s schedule, and that we must now move on. I am sure that there will be further opportunities to explore these issues.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week will be as follows.
Monday 16 June—I expect my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to update the House following the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict. That will be followed by the conclusion of the remaining stages of the Consumer Rights Bill, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to special educational needs.
Tuesday 17 June—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.
Wednesday 18 June—Opposition Day [1st allotted day]. There will be debates on Opposition motions, including a debate on energy prices.
Thursday 19 June—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism, followed by a general debate on the UK’s relationship with Africa, followed by a general debate on defence spending. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee in the last Session.
Friday 20 June—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 June will include the following:
Monday 23 June—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Deregulation Bill.
Tuesday 24 June—Remaining stages of the Wales Bill.
Wednesday 25 June—Opposition Day [2nd allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.
Thursday 26 June—General debate on the programme of commemoration for the first world war.
Friday 27 June—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business, and may I also take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) on her unopposed re-election as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee? She is doing such a good job that no one even thought she should be replaced. We could not say the same about many Government Ministers.
I would also like to wish the England football team good luck in their first World cup game on Saturday. We are all convinced that they are going to have a great tournament and we will all be watching their every move, as usual, from behind the sofa.
I note from the Leader of the House’s comments that the Foreign Secretary is due to give us a statement on his conference on sexual violence, which is very welcome, on Monday, but we all watched in horror as militant extremists overran swathes of north-western and central Iraq yesterday, and they are now reported to be within 50 miles of Baghdad. Over half a million people have had to flee, and the country has been forced to declare a state of emergency. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Foreign Secretary to keep the House fully informed as this deeply worrying situation develops?
In future business there is an eerie silence on the recall Bill, and the Deputy Prime Minister managed, in true Lib Dem fashion, to disagree with his own draft Bill only last week. Can the Leader of the House tell us when the Government’s latest version of the recall Bill will actually be published?
A report from the National Audit Office has revealed that the Government’s armed forces restructuring is in chaos. The plans are already six years behind schedule, and instead of making savings of nearly £11 billion, it looks like these changes are going to cost the public purse more. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has rightly described the additional cost as scandalous. The changes risk exposing a dangerous capability gap in the nation’s defences, so will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the Defence Secretary so he can explain these failings in his Department?
As the passport agency descended into chaos, the Government first tried denial, then played the blame game, and now have been forced into a series of emergency measures. The head of the agency denied that there was a backlog only on Monday; the Home Secretary was boasting that it was meeting its service targets on Tuesday; by Wednesday the Prime Minister was forced to admit that it has been trying to clear the backlog for weeks; and overnight we found out that Ministers were not even aware that vital security checks have been scaled back to speed up the process. Even if the Home Secretary was unaware, the Leader of the House acknowledged the problem last week and promised a written ministerial statement. Seven days later, we have not had one, and my colleague the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) has had no substantive reply to his named day questions on this subject. Will the Leader of the House explain why we have had to drag the Home Secretary kicking and screaming to the Chamber today to account for this fiasco? Is the non-appearance of the promised statement a further sign of the Home Secretary’s incompetence, or has she fallen out with the Leader of the House too?
After yet another weekly session where the Prime Minister focused on the rhetoric and ignored the reality, I have decided that we need a regular “mind the gap” watch to highlight the Government’s failure to live up to their PR hype. This week alone we have had the news that the housing benefits bill is set to soar by yet another £1 billion despite the Government promising to make work pay and provide enough affordable homes, food bank use is up by 54% last year alone despite the Government saying they would face up to the cost of living crisis, and, despite matching our promise to end child poverty by 2020, this week a report from their own Child Poverty Commission said that was not remotely “realistic”.
The Government’s Whitehall farce continues to run and run. The Conservatives are blaming their multiple failures on the civil service, their special advisers, the last Labour Government, and now they are even trying to blame Oxfam. The Prime Minister wanted to reshuffle his deck, but has now realised that he has got a pack of jokers. The Liberal Democrat headquarters managed to tweet:
“we didn’t go into govt because it was the right thing to do, we went into govt because it was the right thing to do”.
[Hon. Members: “Where are they?”] There is not a single Liberal Democrat Member here; they are all at a lesson on how to tweet properly. Only the Liberal Democrats could change their minds halfway through a tweet. After their disastrous election results, the Deputy Prime Minister has finally had some good news this week. They have finally topped a ballot—but it was only the ballot for private Members’ Bills. Meanwhile, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has declared that the Liberal Democrats could be the biggest party in 2025, and William Hill has pulled its sponsorship from the Liberal Democrats’ closest rivals, the Monster Raving Loony party. This clearly demonstrates that there is only one joke party left in British politics.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the business statement. I echo her congratulations to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), whose re-election is a testament to her chairmanship of the Backbench Business Committee and to the work of the Committee as a whole. It has brought forward some important debates and given Back Benchers a greatly enhanced voice. Surveys in recent years have shown that the public now believe that the House debates issues of relevance to them on a more regular and timely basis.
I also echo the shadow Leader of the House’s good wishes to the England team. It will be a late night on Saturday, but at least it will be followed by Sunday morning. I am looking forward to the England team scoring many goals and kissing the badge, as they say. I am told that the Leader of the Opposition is being invited to do that with the trade unions in Nottingham at the moment. It seems a strange idea, but it tells us something about where the trade unions think the interests of the Labour party lie, in contrast to the coalition, which knows that it serves in the national interest.
The hon. Lady asked about a statement on Monday. I have announced that the Foreign Secretary will be in the House on that day to make a statement, and we will of course take opportunities to update the House on the very concerning situation in Iraq. The threat presented by the so-called Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant is alarming for the whole international community. The Iraqi authorities in the federal Government and in the Kurdistan Regional Government need to co-ordinate and work together to put forward a political response and a security response to the situation. We are aware of large numbers of Iraqis being displaced from Mosul and the surrounding areas. The Department for International Development is monitoring that situation closely, and rapidly assessing the humanitarian need that will arise from it. I will ask my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in DFID to ensure that the House can be updated whenever possible.
The hon. Lady mentioned the recall Bill. We announced the Bill in the Queen’s Speech and will introduce it in due course. We are making good progress with it. We have already introduced five Bills in this Session—three in the other place and two here—and we will introduce further Bills in due course.
The hon. Lady also asked about defence spending. I have announced a debate on defence spending, which will take place next Thursday following the recommendations of the Backbench Business Committee. It will give my colleagues an opportunity to remind Members—including Opposition Members—that we inherited a defence budget with a £38 billion black hole. We have taken action to balance the books; Army 2020 is an integral part of that. An excellent job has been done—not least by the Defence Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff—to redesign the Army so that it can meet future demands while remaining affordable. We are committed to investing £1.8 billion in the reserves, and we are now seeing the benefit of that: the trained strength of the reserve forces is rising for the first time in 18 years.
The hon. Lady asked about the situation in the Passport Office. I made it clear in response to questions last week that my colleagues would update the House on that matter this week, and they have done so in response to questions and to an Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson). The Home Secretary has also given the House a full, authoritative response on the issue and outlined a number of measures that will make a substantial difference in the weeks ahead.
The hon. Lady asked about issues that she suggested were not being covered in the Government’s reply, and she included food prices. I heard one of my DEFRA colleagues reminding the House that food prices in the year to March rose by only 0.5%, and in the past two months food prices appear to have been falling, so it is important to bear in mind the fact that on some issues relating to the cost of living people are in a better place than they might otherwise have been. That is particularly the case when they are in work, and as we saw just yesterday more than 2 million new private sector jobs have been created since the general election. If there is a gap, it is between the Labour party and reality on what is happening in our economy. Our long-term economic plan is delivering on reducing the deficit and on growth, which is 3% up on a year ago. We have 2 million more private sector jobs and 400,000 more businesses. We are delivering our long-term economic plan in the national interest while the Leader of the Opposition is off to serve the union interest.
I echo the call for a debate on the situation in Iraq, although it is noticeable that Her Majesty’s official Opposition did not ask for such a debate, having not provided a debate on foreign affairs during consideration of the Queen’s Speech. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a general debate on foreign affairs, to cover not only Iraq but the crisis in Syria and the situation in Ukraine?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and he is absolutely right: I was very surprised and disappointed that the Opposition did not choose to debate matters relating to foreign affairs and defence. Of course, the Backbench Business Committee will enable defence issues to be raised next week, but this was the second year in a row that the Opposition did not choose to debate foreign affairs. Given the circumstances in which they made that decision—the events in Ukraine and Syria, and now Iraq—it would have been helpful had they chosen to have such a debate. Anybody who examines the debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords will see that it had a full, substantial debate on foreign affairs. I believe that Members in the other place were astonished that there was no debate on foreign affairs in this House, but of course, these were matters for the Opposition.
On average, 7,500 people are on the waiting list for transplants and each year 1,000 people die because an organ is not available. May we have a debate on why we cannot co-ordinate transplant week with the transplant games? That would allow us to raise the profile of the Donate Life campaign and then, we hope, three people a week would not die waiting for an organ to become available.
I very much share the hon. Lady’s sense of the priority and importance of this issue. I was the sponsor in this House of transplant week some years ago, because more transplants take place in my constituency than anywhere else in the United Kingdom; it contains Papworth hospital, a leading heart and lung transplant centre, and Addenbrooke’s hospital, which deals with livers, kidneys, and pancreatic and other organs. If I may, I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department of Health, who work with the charities concerned, about the timings of these important charitable events and what possibilities there might be, as we do want to make further progress. The number of people on the organ donation register has increased by 50%, which is having a big impact on the availability of organs, but we need to do more. I hope we will be able to co-ordinate things in the way she describes.
May we have a debate on why Labour councils, particularly Telford & Wrekin council, are deliberately misinterpreting and miscommunicating the Government’s national planning guidelines? Do the Government still prefer development, be it residential or retail, to be on brownfield rather than greenfield sites?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is very much about a presumption in favour of brownfield over greenfield development; that is what the Government are looking towards. The other important thing is that this Government expect planning to be locally led. I am sure my hon. Friend will bring to bear on his council, in the way he describes, local people’s views on what they want in their local plan. Under the Localism Act 2011, that should be pre-eminent in the local plan.
On Monday, the Secretary of State for Education announced that, in future, schools will teach British values. Although he appears to have been panicked by the crisis in his Department into announcing something with which he used to disagree, it is a very good idea. The problem is that it is easier said than done and harder to do well than badly, and if it is done badly it would probably be better not to do it at all. Can we have a debate in this House, before the Department publishes its proposals, on how exactly British values can be taught successfully and effectively in our schools?
Indeed, I heard the Secretary of State say that. If I recall correctly—I will ensure that I am correct about this—I think he said that while he was looking for schools to promote British values, it was not some immediate response, but something he had been considering. I think it was the subject of a pre-existing consultation in any case. We will of course ensure that we keep the House informed about the progress of that consultation and our response to it.
Tackling domestic violence has rightly risen up the political agenda. Football United Against Domestic Violence is a new campaign by Women’s Aid working with national footballing bodies, sports, media, football clubs, the police, players and fans to send a clear message that domestic violence is always unacceptable. Following Tuesday’s successful parliamentary launch supported by the Premier League, BT Sport, the Football Association, Charlie Webster, Jahmene Douglas and a large number of cross-party MPs, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should hold a debate on this important subject?
My hon. Friend is quite right: domestic violence and abuse ruin lives. They are completely unacceptable, which is why tackling this crime has been one of the Government’s top priorities since coming to office, and that includes backing the important work of Women’s Aid. He knows that there is no compelling evidence that suggests a causal link between sporting events and domestic violence and abuse. However, an event of the importance of the World cup presents an opportunity for us to target different audiences with our message concerning domestic abuse; he is quite right about that. It will build on the work of Women’s Aid, and the Home Office has launched a campaign for that purpose. Whether we are talking about physical violence, threats or coercive behaviour, they all count as abuse and it is part of our work to stop it.
It is a statutory responsibility of electoral registration officers and local authorities to do door-to-door canvassing of non-responders to voter registration. In Hansard today, there is a list of 22 local authorities that break the law, some of which have broken the law for four years on the trot and no action has been taken. Will the Leader of the House have a debate in Parliament on this important issue that affects our democracy?
I cannot promise an immediate debate but I will talk to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is responsible for Cities and Constitution and has oversight of such issues. In the first instance though, I will ask the Electoral Commission to respond because it has a responsibility to ensure the integrity of elections, which includes the work of the electoral registration officers and whether or not they meet their responsibilities.
This morning, the Court of Appeal overturned the Government’s application for a terrorism trial to be held in blanket secrecy. It still allows the state to hand-pick journalists to report on the case subject to undefined conditions. The House has had no explanation of why that is necessary, given existing powers such as public interest immunity powers, and the state is relying on vague common law powers which have not been set and defined by elected Members of this House. Given that principles of open justice and democracy are at stake, can we have a statement or a debate on the matter in the near future?
It is probably best if I confine myself to what the Attorney-General said this morning, which is that the principle of open justice is key to the British legal system and that trials will always be held in public unless there are very strong reasons for doing otherwise. The measures applied for by the Crown Prosecution Service in this case were, it is believed, justified in order for the trial to proceed and for the defendants to hear the evidence against them, while protecting national security. The issues were considered today by the court; it is not for the Government to decide such things. As the Attorney-General rightly said this morning, we can look to the courts to ensure that the interests of justice will be maintained.
May we have a debate on ovarian cancer and particularly the need for the BRCA test to be available? It is available in Scotland, but despite the guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence saying that women in the rest of the UK should qualify, it is not available to them. There is an urgent need for a debate to address that inequality for women.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I cannot promise a debate, but it is an issue about which she and colleagues might wish to approach the Backbench Business Committee, as debates on important health issues have been among the more successful of those it has been able to promote. I will speak to colleagues about responding directly to the hon. Lady on the issues she raises about the guidance.
As I came 17th in the ballot for private Members’ Bills, if I introduced a Bill to confirm that prisoners should not be allowed to vote, would it have Government support?
I wish my hon. Friend good luck in the private Member’s Bill process, but I will adhere to the convention that the Government respond with their view on such Bills on Second Reading.
Of the 16 families who have contacted me about passport delays, the most tragic case is that of Kiran and Bina Salvi, who went to India in March for the birth of their surrogate twins. They were told that it would take six weeks to obtain their passports, and they have now been told that it will be at least 16 weeks. They are at risk of losing their jobs, running out of money, stuck in a hot hotel room and terrified that their precious babies will get malaria. May we have a proper statement on this issue so that we can help Kiran and Bina bring their babies home?
The hon. Lady has given us some of the details, but if she wants to give me any additional details I will ask my hon. Friends at the Home Office to respond. She will have heard what the Home Secretary had to stay about the availability of emergency travel documents and access to urgent consideration for passport applications without charge. I hope that one of those options might be helpful in the case the hon. Lady mentions.
May we have an early debate on the role of community hospitals, particularly in rural areas? I understand that the new head of NHS England has said that they have a future role to play, so this is a good opportunity to debate the issue on the Floor of the House.
I recall that in the later stages of the previous Session, there was a debate on community hospitals and I am pleased to see that Simon Stevens, the new chief executive of NHS England, has taken the matter up. When we took office, it was very important to us to have a greater focus on delivering care close to people’s homes, to improve people’s ability to step out of the high-cost acute hospitals so that they could concentrate on their job, and to give a focus to local commissioners. Often, it is the new local clinical commissioning groups that best understand how community hospitals can serve the people they look after.
May we have a debate on compensation for losses caused by the passport fiasco? In my office over the past few weeks, we have been trying to help people left in a desperate situation by the chaos, and it will not have escaped the country’s notice that the word “sorry” did not once pass the Home Secretary’s lips. She did not address the issue of compensation, either. Is it not only fair for people who apply for passports in good faith and in good time and who suffer losses—for example, by having to cancel their holidays—to be compensated? May we have a debate on that?
I think that the Home Secretary fully responded to the questions raised just before business questions. I am sure that in future we will be able to look after our constituents much better, in the way that she described, by being able to raise urgent cases. In my experience as a constituency Member of Parliament, when we have had to raise cases we have been able to get through on the MPs’ helpline and resolve them rapidly.
Many Members across the House will agree that Sepp Blatter’s recent comments were wholly unacceptable and a distraction from the real issues. If we are committed to tackling racism in football, we need to focus on the terraces, where there is a real issue, not on the back-rooms of Fleet street. Given this country’s proud history of tackling racism, may we have a debate on the state of football so that we in this House can send out the clearest message that racism and corruption in football are unacceptable and that by pushing the issue aside, FIFA risks tarnishing itself and ultimately the sport?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I completely agree with him: racism is unacceptable in all areas of society. I thought the remarks were probably inappropriate not least because in this country the Football Association has been proactive in tackling racism in football through a whole sport inclusion and anti-discrimination plan, “Football is for Everyone”, and the FA’s inclusion advisory body, chaired by Heather Rabbatts, is further promoting equality in the national game. It was therefore inappropriate to use that language in relation to questions properly being asked about the way in which FIFA was managing its processes. It was not appropriate. I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the chance to raise the matter.
Even though the north-east of England is the only region outside London that makes a positive contribution to our GDP, it has among the lowest median incomes and the highest jobseeker’s allowance rates in the country. May we please have a debate to consider the special measures that can be taken to address the gross inequity and inequality that afflicts the north-east of England and other regions?
I hope—I do not know—that the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to address those issues in the course of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. He will, of course, have an opportunity to do so today in the debate on the economy and living standards that the Opposition have initiated with their amendment. He is quite right: it is disappointing that the north-east is the only region of the United Kingdom where unemployment went up in the latest figures; everywhere else, it went down. One thing we need to keep looking at is how we can continue to rebalance the economy, as is successfully happening in many other places. We want to try to improve manufacturing. We have seen manufacturing growing in the latest data at 4.4% a year, which is faster than for a long time. As a manufacturing economy, the north-east should be participating more fully in that.
Following on from the global summit on sexual violence in war, may we have a debate, on the conflict in Sri Lanka, which is still going on, against the Tamil community, where women are being raped daily?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, the Foreign Secretary will update the House on Monday, following what appears to have been an extremely successful global summit, not simply because we brought so many countries together for the purpose of ending sexual violence in conflict, but because of the vigour of the NGO community coming together in the same way. The message being sent out is that people need to understand the sheer scale and enormity of sexual violence in conflicts and that so very few people have been held responsible. That must not be true in future. It must be that the people responsible for such things will genuinely be held to account for the crimes they commit.
In March, I asked the Leader of the House when the Government would deliver the will of the House and the country by banning wild animals in circuses. He teased me rather in his response by saying that he could not pre-empt the Queen’s Speech. We have now had the Queen’s Speech and the measure is not in it. When will the Government bring forward legislation?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the Government’s intention to make progress on this, but unfortunately, as I said last week, it has not been possible to find time in the short Session ahead of us.
Is the Leader of the House prepared to arrange for a statement next week on the procedures to replace the current Clerk of the House, when we could find out more on how much the use of head-hunters will cost, who will decide who the head-hunters are, who will monitor the progress of the head-hunters and who will take the final decision on the replacement Clerk?
My right hon. Friend will understand that the procedures for the appointment of the new Clerk are a matter for the House of Commons Commission. Although I am a member of the Commission, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) answers on its behalf to the House. I know that my right hon. Friend will find an opportunity in due course to ask those questions. We will face a daunting task indeed in filling the silver-buckled shoes of the present Clerk, who is not here now. I hope to announce soon an opportunity for Members to pay tribute to the Clerk before the summer recess.
Long-term youth unemployment since May 2010 in my constituency is up by 18.5% and long-term female unemployment is up by 76%—from 125 to 220 women—and in the north-east average earnings are down by £49 a week. Could we have a debate about how the Government’s long-term economic plan is clearly failing my constituents?
As I told the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), who asked about the north-east a moment ago, the latest data show a reduction in unemployment everywhere else in the UK. [Interruption.] I am saying that it is important that we understand why the north-east is not conforming to an extremely positive trend right across the rest of the country. The latest data show that unemployment as defined by the International Labour Organisation is down by 347,000 on the year; that the claimant count is down by more than 400,000; that the number of private sector jobs has gone up by nearly 800,000 in a year; and that, since the election, the number of unemployed young people is down by 91,000 and that of long-term unemployed by 108,000.
The Leader of the House has been to my constituency, so he knows how beautiful it is, but Labour-led Stroud district council, having failed to get a local plan, has left it vulnerable to unscrupulous developers. Does the Leader of the House agree that we need to emphasise the fact that local plans are required and that it is the responsibility of no one other than the councils to have one?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have had the pleasure of visiting Stroud and it is a most beautiful place and a wonderful part of the country. It is very important that local people have an opportunity, through local plans, to ensure that development takes place in a way that is consistent with their views on the quality of life in their area. The local plan process is vital in that regard. Many authorities are getting on with it: I think that 76% of all councils have at least a published plan. Further amendments to the national planning policy guidance mean that publishing a local plan in itself enables one to have influence on the individual planning decisions being made, so it is important.
Like many Members, I am very concerned about the number of constituents having severe difficulties with Atos Healthcare. One particularly distressing case involved my constituent Mr Vickers from Hyde, who has multiple support needs and has not had his application for a personal independence payment processed, even though he applied in October 2013. May we therefore have a debate about the Government’s performance in delivering the assessments, so that we can try to minimise the delay and distress being caused?
It was necessary for us to move from the previous system of the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, which is a much better system. In the past, people sometimes stayed on allowances for years without any assessment. It is important to have a proper assessment. As we make progress—we are doing so steadily—we need to make sure not only that we do it properly, but that we get to the point where decisions can be made quickly.
Could the Leader of the House or the Backbench Business Committee give the House an opportunity to hold a general debate on the concept of recall, so that the House collectively can work out what we are seeking to achieve? Some are arguing that oversight of the behaviour of Members of Parliament should be performed entirely externally, but any external body would, by definition, have to be statutory, and any statutory body would be subject to judicial oversight, which would mean the intervention of the courts and the potential for judicial review and applications in due course to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. It could, therefore, take a considerably long time for an MP who was under a cloud to go through that judicial process before their constituents had any opportunity to recall him or her.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As I have said in that past, I do not think we can contemplate a body other than the House itself reaching right into this Chamber to determine the circumstances in which a Member could continue their membership of this House. I think it is the House itself that should have such regulatory responsibility, not least for reasons of privilege.
As far as a debate is concerned, the recall Bill will give exactly such an opportunity. It is also important that we hear from the Standards Committee, which is conducting a review of how to further strengthen this House’s standards process.
Echoing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), may I ask for a full debate on the chaos that is Atos assessing employment and support allowance? There is a backlog of 712,000 cases at the moment. We know that Atos is not fit for purpose and will be replaced, but can we ensure that we get things right next time and have a full debate to discuss that?
Of course, I have to remind the hon. Lady that the contract was awarded to Atos by Labour in the first place. As she says, we are exiting the contract early, and of course there will be a substantial financial settlement to the Department for Work and Pensions as a result. We will continue to monitor the performance of Atos until its exit early next year and we will find a new provider to deliver the best possible service for claimants.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for us to have a debate on the future of the beef industry in Britain, which is currently experiencing a catastrophic collapse in prices as a result of imports, in which we can focus particularly on the country of origin, whether it be Ireland or other European countries?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend had an opportunity to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, during Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions. If he did not, I will of course ask my hon. Friends at DEFRA to respond directly to him about the issues that he raises.
Back in the early spring, I wrote to the Home Secretary about the issue of putting the mother’s name on the marriage certificate and I had a negative reply. Since then, there has been a growing campaign, with many thousands of people signing a petition, yet there was nothing in the Queen’s Speech about this issue. Will the Leader of the House now ask his colleagues at the Home Office to look at it again and see whether a measure on it can be included in this Government’s legislative programme?
I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that we have announced a full programme for this Session in the Queen’s Speech and that there will be very limited opportunities for additional legislation beyond that which has been announced. I believe that the petition she refers to has received a Government response, but whether it has or has not I will ask Ministers to look further at the points she raises and respond to her.
May we have a debate on nuisance calls? The latest batch of unsolicited automated calls to my constituents are about some kind of boiler replacement scheme. The calls are to constituents who have already applied to the Telephone Preference Service. They are massively inconvenient, but they are also very distressing for elderly residents who live on their own.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will recall that we published the nuisance calls action plan on 30 March. Since January 2012, the regulator has issued monetary penalties totalling just over £2.5 million to companies for breaching its rules, but in response to the action plan further work will be done with the Office of Communications to see whether the maximum penalty might be increased, in order to give a real sanction for those who are making nuisance calls, which is contrary to the code.
With the lowest level of house building since the 1920s, may we have a debate on housing supply? The Government are taking many measures to increase housing demand, and all that those measures have led to is price inflation. Is there not an opportunity in the next few weeks to discuss housing supply? The measures in the Queen’s Speech are totally inadequate. We need real action and we need it now.
On the contrary, the Government are taking action and indeed the Queen’s Speech included measures that—as the hon. Gentleman may have seen—will come forward in the Infrastructure Bill, which will further support house building in this country. However, 445,000 new houses have been built under this Government. We are recovering from the position we were left by the last Government, where house building fell off a cliff in the latter part of 2008. A good illustration of that recovery is that last year there were 216,000 new planning permissions.
On Tuesday, the Department for Transport issued a consultation document about the TransPennine Express rail franchise, which contained a proposal to end through-services between Cleethorpes and Manchester. It also included repeated references to the importance of good rail services to economic growth. As the Government have identified northern Lincolnshire and the Humber area as a key economic growth area, will the Leader of the House find time to have a debate on this issue?
I cannot promise a debate immediately, but in order to be as helpful as I can to my hon. Friend, and recognising the importance of the points he raises, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, our hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), to reply. There is considerable detail in what he might be able to say, and I want him to be able to provide that to my hon. Friend.
When the Government get around to restoring the Passport Office from its present emaciated and failing state to the efficient service it had been for the previous century, may we have a debate on the need to ensure that those areas that suffered the savage cuts two years ago, such as Newport, have the first call on new jobs?
The hon. Gentleman had a chance to ask the Home Secretary a question about that earlier. I fear that his characterisation of the Passport Office is not helpful, not least for his constituents and others. As he will have heard from the Home Secretary, the Passport Office is continuing to provide substantially the service intended. Where problems have occurred, new staff are being deployed, both in call centres and in case handling, and the Home Secretary has just announced other measures that will enable constituents to get the service they are looking for.
La Casa Loco is a very successful Mexican restaurant in Rugby. Two years ago the owner engaged a firm of no win, no fee consultants to reduce the business rates bill, but it was unsuccessful. This year the Government announced the very welcome news that they are reducing the business rates bill by £1,000 for 300,000 shops, pubs and restaurants on our high streets, but in May the owner of the restaurant received a bill for £500—
Order. We have very little time. What I need is short questions and short answers. We might then make some progress.
My hon. Friend is right that the £1 billion package includes that discount, which many businesses will receive automatically. Any business that thinks it might be eligible for the discount but has not received it should contact the council, but there is absolutely no need to employ an agent in order to receive it.
The Leader of the House witnessed this morning not only the unedifying spectacle of a Home Secretary who refuses to apologise to those experiencing problems with the Passport Office, but the large number of Members who were unable to raise their constituents’ concerns because of time pressures. Will he ensure that the Home Secretary continues to account to Parliament on the passport fiasco and that she does so on the Floor of the House?
I heard a Home Secretary who is very well aware of the situation, as she has been for a long time, who is taking the necessary steps and who told the House today of further steps to provide reassurance and support to our constituents. You, Mr Speaker, understandably did not feel that it was possible to allow every question earlier. Therefore, as the Home Secretary said repeatedly, any Member who has particular difficulties, especially if they cannot get through on the MPs’ helpline, should raise them through my office or with the Minister for Security and Immigration and we will ensure that we respond to them as quickly as possible.
Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 72 on excessive hospital car parking charges?
[That this House is disappointed that three-quarters of NHS hospitals in England charge patients and visitors to park on-site; notes that there are discrepancies over what is charged across England, with one hospital in London charging up to £500 per week to park on-site; believes that high charges deter visitors from seeing their loved ones and can hit the most vulnerable at a difficult time; further notes that the cost of abolishing car parking charges in England is estimated to be £200 million which, according to research, could be achieved through prescribing more generic drugs; and therefore asks the Government to consider scrapping hospital car parking fees across England.]
Despite the Government saying that charges should be proportionate, some hospitals are charging up to £500 a week, and the charity Bliss says that parents with sick children are paying an extra £34 a week. May we have an urgent statement on that, and will he make representations to the Department of Health to see what can be done?
My hon. Friend is right that vulnerable people and their families who regularly have to attend hospital are hit hardest by parking charges. That is why it is most important that hospitals use their discretion and the kind of plan the NHS Confederation has for offering concessions to those who have to attend regularly for treatment or to visit patients. As far as raising resources for that is concerned, the money available for the health service is there for the treatment of patients. I have always made it clear that my personal view is that we should, wherever possible, deploy those resources for the direct benefit of patient care, rather than diverting it to subsidise parking.
May we have a debate on how to win friends and influence people in Europe? The Leader of the House could lead it so that we could judge whether he would be any good as an EU commissioner. More importantly, he could explain to us why on earth Conservative MEPs have today joined forces with the AfD party in Germany, expressly against the wishes of their own party leader.
I think that the hon. Gentleman’s question is in one sense presumptuous. As far as winning friends and influencing people in Europe is concerned, that is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing, and with the support of the party leaders. The position he has taken, which is one of principle, is that under the treaties the European Council has the responsibility to put forward the President of the Commission. That should not be pre-empted by the European Parliament. He has set that out and the other party leaders absolutely support him. It is clear that Heads of Government across Europe support that principle.
I thank my right hon. Friend for announcing the Foreign Secretary’s statement on the summit on sexual violence in conflicts. May we please have a debate on the matter so that we can explore it more and discuss the scale of the problem and what the summit achieved?
I hope that the statement on Monday will be helpful to the House. It may well lead, quite properly, to calls for a further debate. We have to get our minds around the enormity of the problem. It is believed that an estimated 100,000 women were raped during the Guatemalan civil war. Between 20,000 and 50,000 were raped during the war in Bosnia. Over 200,000 were raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Those are frightful statistics. It is really important, as I have said previously, that those responsible are held to account, because very few of them have been. We must be much more confident that we can hold them to account in future.
Several hon. Members
Order. Before I call the hon. Gentleman, may I just establish that he was here at the start of the statement, because I did not see him in his place?
In which case, I hope that he will understand that it would not be appropriate to call him.
May we have a debate on who is to be the next President of the European Commission? Given that all the major parties are united in their opposition to the candidacy of Mr Juncker, this is an opportunity to send him a collective raspberry as well as to highlight the unity on the Conservative Benches against ever-closer union.
As my hon. Friend will understand, there will be regular opportunities to consider these matters, not least because the Prime Minister is assiduous in coming to the House and explaining them, as he did after the G7 summit and as he will have an opportunity to do after the further European Council at the end of the month. I hope that that will give us an opportunity to show that across the House there is a belief that the principle set out in the treaty should be adhered to: namely, that under the treaties it is the responsibility of the democratically elected Heads of State and Government in the European Council to put forward who should be the President of the Commission.
May we have a debate on the incursion of solar farms on to valuable green belt and high-grade agricultural land, as there appears to be a growing conflict over our renewable energy commitments and protecting high-grade, food-producing land, which is vital for our food security?
My hon. Friend will recall that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, our right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), set out very clearly how that should be reconciled, not least by stating that the strategy is that solar PV should be appropriately sited, give proper weight to environmental considerations, provide opportunities for local communities to influence decisions affecting them, and provide some form of community benefit. I recall reading his letter. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it sets out some good guidance for local authorities on making decisions about these applications.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions today, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)—I have spoken with his office about this—said, “We are investing more in flood defences than the last Government.” Four months ago, following a similar claim by the Secretary of State, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to me to confirm that Government spending on flood protection has been cut by about £250 million during the time the coalition Government have been in power. He added that
“given the salience of these figures and the public interest in them, it is my view that it would better serve the public good if Defra were to consider publishing official statistics on expenditure… on… flooding… in future.”
Can you advise me on how this House could give the UK Statistics Authority, rather than Ministers, the power to determine which figures are so important that they should be published as official statistics that are independent, quality assured and accurate?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for notice of his intention to raise something of this kind. My best advice to him is that he should contact the Public Administration Committee, within whose auspices such matters would definitely fall. I appreciate that this has been a long-running matter so far as he is concerned, and if he wants to broker a step change or some sort of improvement in what he regards as an unsatisfactory state of affairs, going through that Select Committee might be a useful way to proceed. He can, of course, go to the Table Office and use the Order Paper in the usual way, and I dare say he will do so, but that is my most constructive advice to the hon. Gentleman and I hope it is helpful.
Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing order No. 57)
Mr Secretary Grayling, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Theresa May, Secretary David Jones, the Attorney-General, Oliver Letwin, Grant Shapps and Mr Nick Hurd presented a Bill to make provision as to matters to which a court must have regard in determining a claim in negligence or breach of statutory duty.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 16 June, and to be printed (Bill 9) with explanatory notes (Bill 9-EN).
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 11 June).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
The Economy and Living Standards
I inform the House that I have selected amendment (c) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Debate should be relevant to the terms of the amendment.