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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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. (904173)
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)
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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? (904192)
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?
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? (904195)
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.
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? (904189)
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? (904196)
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? (904190)
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? (904191)
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?
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? (904194)
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?
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? (904197)
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
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
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
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
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—
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.]
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.]
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—
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?