House of Commons
Thursday 17 July 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Committee of Selection
That Anne Milton be discharged from the Committee and John Penrose be added. —(Greg Hands.)
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 of the Hallett Review: An Independent Review into the On the Runs administrative scheme, dated 17 July 2014. —(Greg Hands.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rural Mobile Coverage
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who did so much to champion British food and farming, improve the environment and promote rural growth.
Mobile coverage is vital for rural businesses and households, and 99% of premises already receive 2G coverage. Our 3G mobile data coverage is better than that of many other European countries. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I will be working hard to eradicate not-spots.
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position. I hope she will ensure that the excellent work she was doing to encourage girls and boys into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects will be continued by the new Minister.
The Prime Minister seems recently to have discovered that it can be quite difficult to get decent mobile coverage in Devon—well, bully for him. Is it not the case, however, that this Government’s abandonment of our universal coverage principle, as well as the bungling of the broadband roll-out, represents a betrayal of the rural economy of absolutely epic proportions?
I thank the hon. Lady for her congratulations. I am still passionate about science and maths, and getting more women into those areas and indeed into agriculture. Getting more high-skilled people to look at agriculture as a career option would provide a fantastic opportunity. We are investing £150 million in the mobile infrastructure project to help address those areas of low mobile coverage at the moment.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and very much look forward to her appearing before the Select Committee. From 1 January, all farm payments will have to be digital by default. In Thirsk and Malton, 22% will have no fast-speed coverage, yet that just happens to be where all the farmers are. Will she hold out a hand of friendship to those farmers to ensure that they can access broadband for their farm payments?
I will be delighted to work with the hon. Lady and the Select Committee; I am very much looking forward to that. We know that 70% of farmers are already processing their payments online. She is absolutely right that some do not have access to online payments at the moment, which is why the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who has responsibility for farming, is making centres available that will be able to advise those farmers and help them get online.
I, too, welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and look forward to her appearance before the Select Committee. We know from the report on rural broadband that we carried out last year that the lack of adequate broadband has been identified repeatedly as one of the key barriers to growth in rural economies. In view of the fact that so much money was allocated to England and to the devolved Administrations, what assessment has been carried out of its effectiveness, given that for topographical reasons many rural areas have not yet received their access?
I agree with the hon. Lady about the vital importance of broadband for rural businesses in this country and for exports, which I am passionate about promoting. We know that the extent of broadband coverage has increased significantly from 45% of premises in 2010 to 75% now. I agree that we need to do more, which is why I am working on that along with my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her promotion to the Cabinet. I was pleased when the Government gave £150 million to the mobile infrastructure project, but have been disappointed at the lack of progress in my own constituency so far. Will she please make it one of her early tasks to look at that project and do whatever she can to speed up progress on it, which is vital?
Kosher and Halal Meat
We believe that, in the first instance, it is for food retailers and food outlets to provide their customers with reliable information. I know that my hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on this issue, but, as I have explained to him before, the introduction of a compulsory labelling scheme for halal and kosher meat would present challenges, because there is no single unified definition. Nevertheless, the European Commission is currently conducting a review, and we will consider its report when it is published later in the year. [Interruption.]
That is one way of ingratiating oneself with a new Secretary of State, Mr Speaker.
Is the Minister aware that the Jewish and Muslim communities would be happy with full labelling of halal and kosher meat if all other meat products were also fully labelled to show the method of slaughter? I am sure that many consumers would want to see such labelling. Will the Minister proceed with the introduction of comprehensive labelling showing the method of slaughter, including halal and kosher, given that it clearly commands widespread support?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall do my best,
As I have said, the European Commission is considering the issue. It is most likely to consider whether the animal was stunned or unstunned, because there is a clear definition in EU law. I am aware that groups in both halal and shechita say that they are open to exploring that further, and I look forward to having a dialogue with them and considering the European Commission report when it appears in December.
I am very pleased to see that the Minister survived the Prime Minister’s cull. The point that he has made is absolutely correct: it is a question of whether the animal has been stunned or not stunned. It is an animal welfare issue. Is it not the case that the majority of halal meat is from animals that were stunned? Surely that is the line that the Government should be pursuing in Brussels: “stunned” and “not stunned” labelling.
I entirely agree. There is a clear legal definition of “stunned” in EU law, namely that stunning renders the animal insensible to pain immediately. In the case of halal, some 90% of poultry and lambs have been stunned, and we should recognise that fact.
We considered the issue of CCTV in slaughterhouses during our consultation on slaughterhouse regulations last year, and concluded that it would not improve the situation much. Indeed, CCTV had already been installed in some of the slaughterhouses in which problems had been exposed by, for instance, Animal Aid, and it had not prevented abuses. However, we keep an open mind.
My constituents believe that halal and kosher food should be labelled as such, but if there are already clear EU legal definitions of “stunned” and “not stunned”, what is there to prevent the UK Government from pressing ahead with labelling food in that way?
Having looked into the matter exhaustively, we concluded that if we introduced “method of slaughter” labelling, it would be best to introduce it at European level, because that would be safer and clearer legally. Spain considered introducing a national labelling scheme in 2012, but the Commission ruled against it.
Flood Defences (Gloucestershire)
The Environment Agency maintains a strategic overview of flood and coastal erosion risk management. According to its assessment, publicly maintained flood defences in Gloucestershire protected more than 2,500 homes, as well as businesses and agricultural land, from flooding over the winter. A condition assessment following the events of the winter showed that less than 1% of the flood defences in Gloucestershire were damaged by the floods.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns on behalf of his constituents. However, as part of the £270 million we have allocated to repair and maintain critical defences, £4 million has been allocated to Gloucestershire—£1 million to carry out maintenance and £3 million to repair flood risk management assets damaged in the storms, to ensure they are returned to and maintained at target condition for the winter.
Food and Drink Exports
Food and farming is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. We have fantastic products, and sales are a real success story. Exports of food and drink have increased by £1.2 billion since 2010, to a value of £18.9 billion. Since 2010, we have negotiated 564 market access agreements with 109 countries, including those on pork to China and beef to the USA.
May I start by joining in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her new role and welcome her to the Department? Will she join me in celebrating the £210 million investment in the Nestlé factory in Hatton in my constituency, where the production of Dolce Gusto coffee will be centred? Will she congratulate Fiona Kendrick, the chief executive officer of Nestlé, on record exports last year from this south Derbyshire factory?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her promotion of food and farming in her constituency and the massive success in securing this investment. It is fantastic to know that coffee produced in Hatton will be enjoyed from Houston to Hannover as a result of this new investment, and I wish this every success.
18. Is the Secretary of State concerned about the export of food and drink packaging used in this country? Is she looking at measures to introduce things such as packaging recovery note offsets to ensure that such packaging is recycled in the UK rather than exported? (904937)
In 2012 the Agri-food and Drink Export Forum said that it would report on the progress it was making. The organisation is doing good work, so will the Secretary of State tell us what progress has been made and when we will get the result in report form?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I understand that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who has responsibility for farming, has already had a meeting with the organisation. Like my predecessor, I am passionate about increasing our food exports, as that is very important, and I look forward to working on it.
Leading voices in the food and drink sector in Scotland have recently made it clear that they see that it is in their interests, as exporters, that Scotland should remain in the United Kingdom and the UK should remain in the EU. The Secretary of State and I probably agree on the first point, but does she agree that it is in the interests of the food and drink sector in the UK that we should remain in the EU and not withdraw from it?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about the UK: we are better together and we speak better as a single voice. That is very important. What I would say about the EU is that I have every faith that the Prime Minister is going to secure a fantastic renegotiation so that we have the benefits of trade, but with a reduction in bureaucracy and red tape.
There are 400,000 people in the UK directly employed in the food and drink sector, which is the one I was working in before I came here. We still import a higher proportion of our food and drink than any other country in the G20, so may I urge the Secretary of State to continue all the focus on redressing that balance and on exports?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend about that, which is why we are focusing on opening up more markets to British food—the US market is being opened to beef, which is a fantastic opportunity. But we also need to be encouraging more of our young people to look at food, farming and agriculture as a career, because fantastic skilled jobs are available and we need to make the idea of working in food and farming much more mainstream.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her post and wish her well. She will know that food fraud and authenticity issues and crises, such as the horsemeat scandal, which was presided over by her predecessors, can quickly destroy the value of UK food exports and the confidence of UK consumers in our food industries. Why, then, has the final report of the Elliott review of the horsemeat scandal, promised in the spring, not been published? Will she undertake to publish it before we go into recess?
Plant and Tree Health
On 30 April, we published a plant biosecurity strategy, which addresses the recommendations of the Tree Health and Plant Expert Biosecurity Taskforce and sets out a new approach to plant and tree health. We have also produced a prioritised plant health risk register, the first of its kind globally; published a new tree health management plan; undertaken work on contingency planning; continued to commission high quality research; and recruited a senior chief plant health officer.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We have produced a prioritised plant health risk register to identify risk and to agree priorities for action. We have also produced new contingency plans for plant diseases and we will be testing them in an exercise later this year. The measures in the new tree health management plan set out clearly the approaches that we are taking, for example against chalara, phytophthora ramorum and oak processionary moth. As soon as we were aware of a threat to plane trees, we moved quickly to impose an import restriction on them.
May I, through the junior Minister, congratulate the new Secretary of State? I have enjoyed sparring with her in education debates. Sometimes, I have agreed with her, but I have never tried to sit on her. May I send a message on trees and plants? I know that evidence-based policy is what she believes in, so when we are dealing with disease in trees and plants, let us use the evidence and the scientific advice. Can we also do that with badgers?
The Department believes in heeding scientific advice and taking action on it, especially with regard to the issues that are under discussion. The newly appointed senior chief plant health officer, who offers us such advice, is doing incredibly valuable work.
When we see the diseases that are here and that are coming down the track, it is easy to get into a state of despair about how our countryside will look in 10 or 20 years’ time. Will the Minister assure us that we have learned all the lessons from past diseases; that the approach to phytophthora ramorum of destroying millions of larch trees has worked; and that the new chief plant health officer will be able to tackle many of these emerging problems?
My hon. Friend and predecessor is absolutely right to focus on this. As I have said, we have made it a priority in the Department and we have learned the lessons. Any Minister or Department that sat back and claimed they had learned everything would not be telling the truth. We must continually learn from what is out there, and work with colleagues across the world to look for new threats. What we are doing with these contingency exercises is not just to plan for what happens but to walk through it and to ensure that we are aware of the new threats that could arrive in this country.
The recent threat of ash dieback and indeed the horsemeat scandal show that the Food and Environment Research Agency plays a vital role in detecting and responding to threats to our natural environment and the food chain. Does the Secretary of State intend to continue with the privatisation of the research agency?
The Government committed around £560 million to support those affected by the recent flooding. This includes an extra £270 million, to which I have referred in a previous question, to repair and maintain critical flood defences. We are helping households and businesses through the repair and renew grant, council tax and rates relief. Farmers and fishermen are receiving funding for repairs through existing schemes. We are supporting businesses through a £10 million hardship fund.
In my constituency, surface water flooding is a big problem. Will the Minister tell us what he is doing to ensure that councils, the Environment Agency and the water companies work together to protect communities such as those in my constituency, especially as councils and the Environment Agency have faced very significant cuts in their budgets?
I know the hon. Gentleman recently raised the flooding in Maghull with the Environment Agency. Watercourses and rivers are the responsibility of the agency, but surface flooding, as he said, is the responsibility of the lead local flood authority. I have been talking to the Local Government Association about chasing all councils to ensure that their plans are in place, so that we can be as reassured about surface flooding as we are about other forms of flooding and that all the procedures are in place.
On one of the hottest days of the year, flooding may seem a dim and distant memory, but the effects are ongoing in Romsey. Not a single Government Minister has yet been to my constituency to see what needs to be done. Will my hon. Friend care to visit Romsey to see for himself the work that desperately needs to be undertaken to safeguard the town from future flooding events?
Ministers have undertaken a great number of visits across the country and I would be happy to join my hon. Friend in a visit to her constituency. She is right to point out that we are experiencing some hot weather, which brings its own challenges, but we also have the threat of storms over the weekend, so we are keeping a close eye on what might result from them.
I thank the previous Secretary of State who, in his last few days in office, confirmed to me in writing that the Department will in future publish statistics on flood protection expenditure as official statistics. Will the Minister inform the House when that change will take place and whether, crucially, it will be before the next election, so that we can have clear figures?
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) was able to write to the hon. Gentleman to reassure him about that approach and I am pleased with the welcome that the hon. Gentleman has given it. We have debated the matter on many occasions. We will now discuss how that change will come in and will introduce it as soon as we possibly can.
Will the Minister arrange for the Secretary of State to maintain the closest possible contact with Somerset colleagues about Somerset? In particular, can we have an early meeting to discuss the two outstanding issues: the sluice on the Parrett and the Somerset rivers authority?
As my hon. Friend knows, both the previous Secretary of State and I took a close interest in what happened in Somerset and made several visits there. I know that the new Secretary of State will also want to do that. I am sure that she will meet him soon, as will I.
The Government’s response to the winter floods was slow and chaotic. Four months on, parliamentary answers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that, of the £10 million pledged by the Prime Minister to Somerset farmers, only £403,000 has been paid out, and only £2,320 has been paid out to one fisherman in the south-west. The Prime Minister has gone from “money is no object” to “out of sight, out of mind.” What will the Department do to ensure that people get the help they were promised?
I first want to correct the hon. Lady’s misapprehension. The money is not only for farmers in Somerset; it is for farmers across the country. We have received applications from the north and the east, and from other counties in the south-west. Those applications are being approved. Applicants will be paid once the work is carried out, so unless she wants to interfere in those farming businesses and tell them that they must carry the work out in the next week, we will have to wait until the work is actually carried out before we can pay them.
The Government recognise the important contribution that shooting sports make to rural life, the economy and the environment. Although there are no Government assessments or official statistics, I am aware of a recent industry-funded study, which estimated that shooting is worth £2 billion to the UK economy and supports around 74,000 full-time jobs. It also assessed that the industry spends nearly £250 million a year on conservation.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new appointment. I appreciate that she and the Minister are busy at the moment, but may I draw their attention to the report by the Sport and Recreation Alliance, which outlines the enormous economic benefits to rural areas that shooting brings? Will the Government continue to support this excellent form of recreation?
I thank the Minister for that response. Almost 1 million people participate in shooting sports in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The recreation is worth £2.5 billion through spending on goods and services. What discussions has the Minister had with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Countryside Alliance about how to complement the good work that they do in the countryside?
8. What recent reports she has received of progress made by other countries on bovine TB by tackling the disease in both cattle and wildlife. (904927)
The Government are aware of the success in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the Republic of Ireland in tackling the scourge of TB. For instance, in New Zealand the number of infected herds has reduced from 1,700 20 years ago to just 66 in 2011-12, whereas in the Republic of Ireland the number of BTB reactors fell by 65% between 1999 and 2013. All those countries have pursued a strategy of tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population as well as other measures.
As we seek to tackle this dreadful disease, is not one of the main lessons from the countries the Minister listed that while we must be prepared to use every tool available to us, we must also continue to develop new tools that might as yet seem out of reach?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The 25-year strategy to eradicate TB, which was published earlier this year, emphasised the fact that no one measure will tackle the problem. We need to pursue a range of measures, and that is why we are constantly improving our cattle movement controls and why we are spending £4 million a year investing in research into vaccines. It is also why we are continuing to develop effective cull methods.
17. The new Secretary of State is not answering this question personally, but perhaps she might do so later. The science clearly criticises the Government’s culling policy and this House has voted twice to end it. When will the Government change their mind? Do we not now have an opportunity, with the new broom, to do so? (904936)
I disagree with the hon. Lady. The evidence is very clear that no country has ever eradicated TB without also tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. The randomised badger culling trial showed very clearly that in the four years after it concluded there was a significant reduction in the incidence of TB. I meet farmers, some of whom have closed herds but have repeated breakdowns and some of whom have been under restriction for 12 years, and although they are not bringing cattle on or off their farm, they have a reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population.
The Minister will be aware of the disappointment and anger among the farming community in Dorset that the badger cull was not extended to Dorset this year despite the support of both the former Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. Will the Minister reassure the farming community in Dorset that DEFRA is on-stream to roll out effective control of bovine TB in Dorset next year?
As the former Secretary of State made clear in his statement, we listened to the recommendations of the independent expert panel. It made recommendations to improve the methodology of the cull and we are going to implement them this year. Our view is that we should improve and get the methodology of the cull right in the two existing pilots before we roll out new ones. Clearly, we will reassess the situation once this year’s culls have concluded.
Regulatory Burden (Farmers)
We are making good progress in reducing regulation. We are putting in place earned recognition, which sees high-quality farmers benefiting from fewer inspections and less red tape, and now 14 out of 31 inspection regimes allow earned recognition. The Food Standards Agency has reduced dairy inspections by more than 8,000 a year and the Environment Agency’s pigs and poultry scheme is saving members £880 a year.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on her well-deserved promotion. She will be a champion for rural communities in Norfolk, in Cheshire and across the country. It is vital that we go further to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers so that they can go on doing what they do best. With that in mind, will she tell the House what specific progress we are making under the red tape challenge?
I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations and look forward to working with him on this issue, as I know that he is passionate about getting rid of the red tape that hampers farmers in doing what they do best. We intend to improve or remove 56% of the 516 regulations examined by the agriculture red tape challenge. As Secretary of State I want to continue to work to get rid of red tape and box-ticking, focusing instead on the outcomes we deliver in economic growth and environmental improvements. It is the outcomes that matter, not jumping through hoops.
DEFRA spent £8.3 million in 2013-14 under its core adapting to climate change programme. This included £4.1 million to the Met Office Hadley centre for the provision of world-leading climate science, and £1.6 million to the Environment Agency’s climate ready support service to help organisations across England adapt to a changing climate. Adaptation is mainstreamed across Government. Other Departments and other DEFRA programmes also fund activities that build resilience to climate change.
But with the previous Secretary of State having raided the adaptation budget by 40% in the space of just one year, it is actions, not words, that count. Will the Minister take this opportunity to depart from the sceptical views of his former boss, recognise that climate change is a serious threat to our national security and reinstate flood prevention as a key departmental priority?
Over the current spending period it is anticipated that £10.7 billion will be spent on subsidies to low-carbon electricity generation, while only £2.2 billion will be spent on flood defences. Does the Minister agree that adaptation measures designed to protect people’s homes would be a much more effective investment than spending money on unilateral mitigation measures which cost jobs, put up electricity prices and give no defence to people in the short run?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an either/or situation. Of course we need to invest in adaptation, which is what we are doing, as I set out in relation to flood prevention, but we also need to take action on mitigation, and I am proud of this Government’s progress on our commitments on carbon.
I am delighted to have been appointed to this important role and to have such an early opportunity to answer questions. In the 48 hours since my appointment, I have not quite been able to speak to everyone or look at every issue, but I know from my work in Norfolk how vital this Department is. Food and farming and improving our natural environment are central not only to our rural communities, but to everyone in the country, and I want them to be a mainstream concern that everyone is part of. I believe that we can both grow our economy and improve our environment, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to do that.
The M60, the M62 and the M602 run through my constituency, so it is definitely not very rural. We have extremely high levels of air pollution from road traffic. Indeed, the Highways Agency has had to shelve its plans to widen the M60 near my constituency because that would have brought too much road traffic and made our unacceptable air pollution worse. Now that the European Court of Justice has ruled that the Government are failing to meet their air pollution targets, does the Secretary of State know, after 48 hours, what plans Ministers have to tackle air pollution in areas such as mine, to prevent my constituents from suffering respiratory disease and early death?
Let us be clear. Air quality is very important, as is protecting and enhancing the environment. This is a huge challenge for lots of countries, and it is something I am working on with colleagues to address. We have invested more than £2 billion in measures since 2011 to reduce emissions from transport sources.
T3. My constituents in Avonmouth suffered an unacceptable infestation of flies earlier this summer. The response from all parties involved, particularly the Environment Agency, was slow: it looked at the source of the problem, which was slow, not at the effect on my constituents, who suffered unacceptably. What will we do to ensure that there are plans in place for such emergencies and that agencies such as the Environment Agency respond quickly to residents’ concerns? (904911)
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her promotion and welcome her to her new job. However, I am appalled to hear the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), confirm that she is going to continue with the discredited, unscientific, inhumane and ineffective badger cull. Is she aware that Professor David Macdonald, the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, which will have to license the culls, has described them as an “epic failure”, adding:
“It is hard to see how continuing this approach could be justified”?
Will she at least undertake to ask the independent expert panel which reported on the safety, humaneness and effectiveness of year 1 of the cull to report on year 2?
I thank the hon. Lady for her congratulations. Let us be absolutely clear: the reality is that bovine TB represents a massive threat to our dairy and beef industries. We are looking at the potential loss of over £1 billion of economic growth in our country. We need to look at the best scientific evidence. I have already spoken with the Department’s scientific adviser about this precise subject. We are progressing with our programme, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State outlined.
That was a disappointing reply. I am afraid that the Secretary of State has just flunked her first test and missed a golden opportunity to put scientific evidence back where it ought to be in DEFRA—at the very centre of decision making. I would be grateful if she answered this question: will she now give an undertaking to ask the IEP to report on year 2 of the culls, as it did on year 1—yes or no?
Let us be absolutely clear: we are asking Natural England, which is a proper expert body, to assess how the culls are going and look at what we can do in future. We must use every tool in our toolbox to address this threat to our beef and dairy industries.
T4. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. She has already demonstrated her commitment to UK food, but does she agree that large supermarkets, such as Tesco, should be encouraged to stock in-season products, such as British lamb, rather than discount New Zealand lamb, during our peak production period? (904912)
I completely agree that British beef and lamb are fantastic products, as is British pork—as an East Anglian MP, I obviously do a lot to promote British pork. I understand that Tesco has entered into a two-year contract with 200 British lamb farmers to help supply British lamb, but I think that we can do more to encourage not only supermarkets to offer local, seasonal food, but people to consume it. That will help our environment and our economy.
T2. The Burry inlet in my constituency is once again experiencing mass cockle mortality. Last Thursday, in response to action taken by some of the cockle pickers in my constituency several years ago, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion in which it named nine agglomerations that are failing to meet the waste water directive, including excessive spills from Gowerton and Llanelli into the Burry inlet, where there are sensitive waters. Although the Welsh Government will clearly be involved, it is the UK Government who are answerable to the European Commission. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this serious issue? (904909)
I will not seek to unpick the devolution settlement because, as the hon. Lady quite rightly says, this is a devolved matter. The Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales will be playing a key role in enforcement and in looking for a way forward, as will Welsh Water, but if she would like to write to me with further details, I will be happy to look into her concerns.
T9. I welcome the Department’s commitment to safeguarding our bee population. Now that the pollinator strategy consultation has closed, when will the Government respond and address public concerns about the effect of pesticide use? (904917)
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is crucial for the future. We will finalise the strategy when we have received and considered the recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the draft strategy, which was launched in May and is due to report at the end of July.
T5. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that so few young people in our country ever visit the countryside? If she does, will she join my campaign, as many Members across the House have done, to raise £1 million—£5,000 from 200 constituencies would do it—so that more young people from underprivileged schools can visit the countryside? (904913)
I will look into the hon. Gentleman’s campaign. In my previous role as an Education Minister, we introduced the subject of food into the curriculum, both where it comes from and practical cooking, as well as bringing horticulture and agriculture into the design and technology curriculum, precisely to help more children and young people understand where our food comes from and to build the skills they need to work in the food and agriculture industries.
Small-boat fishermen in South East Cornwall and throughout Cornwall are concerned that a discard ban, along with their tiny share of the UK quota from the EU total allowable catch, will affect their economic viability. Does the Minister agree that repatriation of UK waters should have preceded a discard ban? Will he take forward a request to include repatriation of UK waters in future negotiations?
On the small fleets, I point out to my hon. Friend that we have reallocated some of the unused quota from producer organisations to the under-10 metre fleet. My predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), made considerable progress in reforming the common fisheries policy. We now have far greater regional control, with member states multilaterally deciding the management plans, and flexibility on quotas and a legally binding commitment to sustainability.
T6. May I press the Secretary of State to talk to her colleague, the Health Secretary, about how GP services in rural areas are under threat? That is a particular concern in my constituency. I urge her to push this point because they are facing a big threat—bigger than that faced by those in many other areas. (904914)
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that a lot of red tape is being passed down to us from Brussels. That is why I am determined to negotiate strongly at a European level as well as making sure that agriculture is part of our overall discussions on the EU.
T7. My constituents and people around the United Kingdom are facing a cost of living crisis. This Government are not doing enough on water affordability. With fewer than 25,000 people eligible to benefit from social tariffs offered by just three water companies, does the Minister believe that the Government’s voluntary approach is insufficient in helping those struggling to pay their water bills? (904915)
When the hon. Gentleman says “voluntary approach”, I assume that he is referring to water companies’ implementation of social tariffs. More companies are taking up the option of bringing in a social tariff, having consulted their customers about whether it is right for their area. The biggest thing we can do for people with regard to water bills is to keep the cost down. We have been clear on this matter in our messages to Ofwat. It has taken action and the companies have responded.
My right hon. Friend is understandably taking a close interest in the future of what has been a very efficient office. As he knows, Shared Services, with Steria, has bid for contracts on which it was unsuccessful. However, other DEFRA teams at that location will continue to work there in situ.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Four in five of the Church of England’s 13,000 parish churches are supporting local food banks.
Three weeks ago, the Living Wage Commission chaired by the Archbishop of York recommended that the voluntary adoption of the living wage by employers could do much to reduce poverty and dependence on food banks. What advice and encouragement is the Church giving to parishes to become advocates and champions in their communities in order to persuade employers to adopt the living wage?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Church of England is committed to paying all our staff the living wage. I hope that that will be an excellent example for employers voluntarily to follow where the Church of England is leading.
We understand the broader concerns about food banks. That is why, together with support from the Church Urban Fund and a number of diocesan bishops, I have been, and I am, organising meetings across the country with the Minister for the Cabinet Office to consider the reasons causing people to use food banks and how, collectively, we can move on from them.
The Church Commissioners have significant land holdings in and around the village of Westbury-sub-Mendip, and only the Church Commissioners can ensure that the villagers have space to replace their 19th-century school, hall and shop. For some years the parish council and other village organisations have tried, unsuccessfully, to meet the Church Commissioners about their social responsibilities in the village. Could the right hon. Gentleman ensure that those discussions now take place as a matter of urgency, because there are pending planning applications on the Church Commissioners’ land?
That is a gloriously ingenious question, but I am not sure whether it entirely follows on from food banks. The Church Commissioners, like any other charity, have a duty to their beneficiaries, who are largely clergy pensioners, in how we manage our investments. We will of course communicate and liaise directly with those who are democratically elected—in my hon. Friend’s case, the local authority—about the appropriate way in which any landholdings we have might be used in the context of the local plan.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
UK Voters Overseas
The commission runs awareness campaigns to encourage expatriates to register in advance of all elections in which they may vote. These are predominantly online campaigns aimed at countries with the highest number of British expats. Thanks to the introduction of individual electoral registration, overseas electors can now register online and no longer require another British passport holder to countersign the registration form. That change, supported by the commission, should make it easier for overseas voters to register.
I am very grateful for that answer. Online registration is good news for Brits overseas. My hon. Friend will know that there are some 1.4 million Brits in Australasia and the United States, and 43,000 in Israel. How is he going to advertise the fact that online registration is available to them?
The Electoral Commission will continue to get the message across with targeted press releases to English-language papers and radio stations in the countries where there are large numbers of expats, but its predominant means of seeking to do so is through online campaigning and advertising on websites most likely to be read by expats. Of course, all of us who use social media—my hon. Friend is very skilled at using it—can get this simple message across: “You can now register online!”
It is important to allow British citizens living abroad to register to vote, but it is also important that they are able to cast that vote and that it can be counted in good time. What discussions is the hon. Gentleman having with the Electoral Commission to improve the ability of people living abroad to have their vote counted?
That is a very good point. This is about not just registration but getting the paperwork to the expat so that they can fill it in as a postal vote and send it back in time. The period for so doing has been extended under recent legislation, and that should make a real difference at the next general election.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Heritage Lottery Fund (Church Repairs)
Over the past three years, the Heritage Lottery Fund has awarded just under £75 million to 623 projects to repair listed places of worship in England through the grants for places of worship programme and its predecessor, the repairs grants for places of worship programme, which is operated in partnership with English Heritage.
I am grateful for that reply. It is, indeed, a large sum of money. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to review the level at which VAT is set on church repairs and make a plea to reduce it to 5%, which would be perfectly legal?
I remind my hon. Friend that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been incredibly generous towards the Church. In May 2012, he and the Government agreed to give £30 million extra a year to the Church so that the listed places of worship grant scheme could enable the equivalent to the VAT bill to be paid on all alterations and repairs to listed buildings. No church should be deterred from undertaking essential repairs and restoration due to fears about the cost of VAT, because they are now covered. The Chancellor made it very clear that he was moving to ease the impact on the churches, in recognition of the massive contribution made by congregations up and down the land to the life of their communities.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that no one begrudges lottery money flowing to protect our great churches, but is he aware that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills yesterday heartily endorsed crowdfunding as a way for communities to raise money to do good things? Could we interest the Archbishop of Canterbury in crowdfunding so that we can take the pressure off the lottery and use more of its money for other things?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Individual Electoral Registration
The transition to individual electoral registration in England and Wales started on 10 June, and it will begin in Scotland on 19 September. Online electoral registration is now available in England and Wales, and electoral registration officers have begun writing to electors to tell them whether they need to provide any more information to register under the new system. To support the work of EROs and to help to raise awareness of the transition, the Electoral Commission launched a mass media advertising campaign in early July, which will run until 10 August.
As usual, my hon. Friend is quite right. Anyone seeking to register online must provide not only their name and address, of course, but their national insurance number. I hope that that will help young people in particular to register, as long as they can ask their parents for their national insurance number.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Cathedral Repairs Fund
Some £4.77 million has been allocated so far from the £20 million Government repair fund for cathedrals. So far, 22 cathedrals have benefited—18 Anglican and four Catholic.
I very much appreciate the grant made to Truro cathedral, and the fund’s recognition of the really important role that cathedrals such as Truro play in local civic and national life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to have an ongoing grant-making process to support the vital work of Truro cathedral and, indeed, of cathedrals all over the UK?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is very good news that Truro has received money to repair the cathedral turrets, which were damaged during recent storms. I think we all agree that cathedrals, apart from being very important centres of religious worship, are centres for regeneration, civic pride and tourism potential. The maintenance and repair of our cathedrals is of course a national imperative.
Archbishop Welby is garnering increasing respect and admiration in many ways, not least for his international travels to meet and strengthen relationships across the Anglican family worldwide. What is the Church of England doing internationally to develop a more co-ordinated Anglican response to the appalling global phenomenon of human trafficking?
My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Of course, the Church of England was at the forefront of the original campaign, with Wilberforce, to abolish slavery in this country, and we are determined to do everything we can to abolish slavery around the world. The Church of England, together with the Roman Catholic Church and other faiths groups in this country, works through the Global Freedom Network, and in our work around the world, we are determined to do everything we can to eradicate modern-day slavery and human trafficking by 2020.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Individual Electoral Registration
The commission’s research shows that the key groups who were less likely to be registered to vote under the previous household registration system were younger people, private renters, home movers and people from certain black and minority ethnic communities. Following the introduction of individual electoral registration, the public awareness campaign will focus particularly on those groups. The Electoral Commission will closely monitor and report on progress throughout the transition to IER, including action taken by electoral registration officers to target under-registered groups. Online electoral registration will also help to make the registration process more convenient for all groups.
The multi-media advertising campaign is indeed targeted on groups less likely to be on the register, but it is for our electoral registration officers to decide what campaign they run in their own locality. My advice to all Members of Parliament is to sit down with the ERO in their locality and to make sure that the campaign they are planning for the next six months is adequate and that registration reaches the hardest-to-reach groups.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The next step is for the Ecclesiastical Committee to meet on Tuesday, when I hope it will pass the measure that was agreed by General Synod on Monday. That will at last enable women to become bishops in the Church of England.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. It is the answer that we have been waiting for the past 20 years to hear. It is very good news for the country and for the Church. I congratulate everybody who secured the result in Synod. When does he think women bishops might be installed, and when does he think they might be introduced into the other place?
The answer I feel like giving to the hon. Lady is, “Hallelujah, sister! At last!” After so many years of waiting, the Church of England is going to have women bishops, which will enable it to fulfil its mission as a Church for the whole nation and allow every part of the Church to flourish.
If the Ecclesiastical Committee approves the measure on Tuesday, subject to the agreement of the Leader of the House I hope to bring the measure to this House in September. I think that the other House hopes to deal with the measure early in October. That would enable General Synod to meet formally in November to do the final approval and promulging of the canon. That would enable the Church of England to appoint the first women bishops this year or early next year.
I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the move towards women bishops. However, for the moment, it is a male preserve. Will he join me in congratulating the Rev. David Court, the new Bishop of Grimsby, who will be consecrated at St Paul’s next week, and wish him well in his work in the Lincoln diocese?
Of course. Every bishop in the Church of England is a focus of unity in their own diocese and all bishops undertake incredibly important work. One of the great things about General Synod was that we were able to get agreement for there to be women bishops with no one in the Church feeling hurt or aggrieved. We were therefore able, under the leadership of Archbishop Justin and Archbishop John, to move forward as a united Church.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement about child abuse.
The sexual abuse of children is an abhorrent crime which the Government are absolutely committed to stamping out.
In my statement to the House last week, I addressed two important public concerns: first, that in the 1980s, the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse and, secondly, that public bodies and other important institutions have failed to take seriously their duty of care towards children. As I informed the House on 7 July, the whole Government take the allegations very seriously. That is why I announced two inquiries last week.
The first is a review led by Peter Wanless, the chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with the support of Richard Whittam, QC, of the original investigations that Mark Sedwill, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, commissioned last year into suggestions that the Home Office failed to act on allegations of child sex abuse in the early 1980s. Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam will also look at how the police and prosecutors handled any related information that was handed to them, and examine another recent review into allegations that the Home Office provided funding to an organisation called the Paedophile Information Exchange. Mr Wanless and Mr Whittam are in post and work on the review has begun. Its terms of reference were placed in the Library of the House last week, and I expect the review to conclude within eight to 10 weeks.
Last week, I also announced a wider independent panel inquiry to consider whether public bodies and non-state institutions have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse. The Home Office has appointed the head of the secretariat to the panel, which will begin its work as soon as possible after the appointment of the chairman.
As the House will know, I asked Baroness Butler-Sloss to act as chairman of the panel and she agreed to do so. However, having listened to the concerns that were raised by victim and survivor groups and by Members of this House, Lady Butler-Sloss subsequently came to the conclusion that she should not chair the inquiry. I was deeply saddened by her decision to withdraw, but I understand and respect her reasons. She is a woman of the highest integrity and compassion, and she continues to have an enormous contribution to make to public life.
Work is ongoing to find the right chairman and members of the panel, and an announcement will be made as soon as possible so that this important work can move forward. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that it is important that the terms of reference for the inquiry are considered carefully. That is why it is right that we should wait until we have appointed a new chairman and a panel, and discuss the terms with them.
I want this inquiry to leave no stone unturned in getting to the truth of what happened and ensuring that we learn the necessary lessons to protect children and vulnerable people in the future. As I said, child abuse is an abhorrent crime that can scar people for life, and the Government are determined to stamp it out. We are working across Government to ensure that victims of historic child abuse who come forward in response to our overarching inquiry get the support and help they need. Our message is clear: the Government will do everything they can to allow the full investigation of child abuse whenever and wherever it occurred, to support victims of it, and to bring the perpetrators of this disgusting crime to justice.
As Members will be aware from the announcement we heard yesterday about the outcome of the National Crime Agency’s operation, which was reported in the media, child abuse is a crime that continues today. I think that that operation shows our relentless commitment to pursue those engaged in online child sexual exploitation, and it was unprecedented in its degree of co-ordination, with the NCA leading and co-ordinating law enforcement efforts that involved 45 police forces across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It has been ongoing for the past six months. People from all walks of life have been indentified, including those in positions of trust, and 660 arrests have been made and more than 400 children safeguarded or protected.
Crucial in investigations of online sexual abuse, and matters of this kind more generally, is the question of access to communications data. The Government are committed to tackling the threat to children online, which is why the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, which was passed by this House on Tuesday and is currently before the other place, is important. It will ensure that law enforcement agencies continue to have access to another vital tool of communications data. Without access to communications data, the investigative capabilities of public authorities in relation to online child abuse would be significantly damaged, and vital evidence would be inaccessible. If companies do not retain that data and we cannot access it, it will become impossible in future to carry out such operations.
In other areas, the Government are also looking at what actions we can take in relation to this reprehensible crime. That is why in April last year, the Government established a national group to tackle sexual violence against children and vulnerable people, led by the Minister for Crime Prevention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The cross-Government group was established to learn the lessons from some of the recent cases that have emerged and the resulting reviews and inquiries, and as a result of its work we now have better guidance for police and prosecutors, new powers for the police to get information from hotels that are used for child sexual exploitation, and better identification of children at risk of exploitation through the use of local multi-agency safeguarding hubs.
The Home Office will do everything it can to allow the full investigation of child abuse and the prosecution of its perpetrators. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre command of the National Crime Agency works with police forces to investigate child sexual abuse, and has access to specialist officers who could be called on to assist in complex cases. CEOP is already providing support to forces in the robust investigation of child sexual abuse.
For some time, this House has been considering issues arising from historic cases of child abuse. The news yesterday of more than 600 arrests by the NCA, and ongoing investigations into current incidents of child abuse, show that this is not just a problem of the past but is with us today. The Government will do everything they can to work to stamp out child abuse, but there is a wider question for us as a society about how and why these appalling crimes are still taking place today.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and the update she has given the House. She is right to condemn this vile crime that hits vulnerable children and can wreck lives. I also welcome the announcement that the National Crime Agency has safeguarded 400 children and arrested 660 people for child abuse offences as part of a major operation involving many police forces. The House will want to commend the police for that work, and recognise the role of online intelligence and communications data that we discussed earlier this week.
However, The Times reports today that the same investigation has in fact identified more than 10,000 suspects who are not currently being arrested or pursued through the criminal justice system. It appears that those are in addition to today’s crime statistics, which also show a 20% increase in reported sex offences, a 65% increase in reported child abuse images, and a 27% increase in reported rape. While car crime may be falling, the reports of these serious, often hidden, crimes are going up, and people will be deeply shocked by the scale of online crime that is growing alongside the internet. At the same time, there has been a 9% drop in prosecutions for child sex offences and a 75% drop in the number of convicted criminals who are barred from working with children as a result of the Government’s policy changes. There are real concerns about chaos at the Disclosure and Barring Service, which is not providing consistent information about the number of people being barred.
Let me ask the Home Secretary the following questions. Can she confirm that the National Crime Agency has identified more than 10,000 suspects as part of its investigation? What is happening to those 10,000 suspects now? Is it true that the police have decided that they do not have the capacity to pursue them? How many of them does she think pose a direct risk to children? Will they be barred from working with children? Can she confirm that there has indeed been a 75% drop in the number of convicted sex offenders who are being barred from working with children? Does she believe that the police and the NCA have the capacity to deal with the scale of this growing crime? Will any of these issues be covered by the child abuse inquiry, which currently has no chair and no terms of reference?
The Home Secretary will know that I have raised concerns with her over the past few years that the child protection system is currently not strong enough to deal with the scale of the problem that we face. Will she now urgently review Government policy and resources, particularly around online abuse, as well as on the wider issues around child abuse, and rethink the barring system approach? Will she agree to come back to this House in September with an urgent action plan to deal with this very serious crime?
First, may I say that the right hon. Lady is absolutely right to commend the work of police forces, the National Crime Agency and CEOP command? This work is not easy for police officers to undertake. It is very difficult for those who have to look at the evidence of child abuse images. We should recognise the valuable and important work they do, and the work that goes on around them to ensure that perpetrators and others involved in this horrendous crime are brought to justice.
I have made it clear that the work of NCA investigations is ongoing. I am therefore not in a position to indicate anything in relation to how many suspects they might be looking at or the action I might take against those suspects. Those are operational matters and decisions for the NCA to take in consideration with the various police forces involved, but I can assure Members that this is an ongoing investigation.
The right hon. Lady referred to a number of matters, for example the increase in the number of sex offences being reported. That is indeed the case, but what I think we are seeing in the figures is a number of people coming forward with historic cases of sex offences. While that does have an impact on the figures, I think we would all welcome the fact that there are more people now who feel comfortable in being able to come forward with allegations of these sorts of offences. For too long, people have felt that they would not be believed, and have been hiding their own experiences and keeping them to themselves, rather than surfacing them. It is important that they are coming forward. In some of the historic cases that have gone to trial, some perpetrators have been brought to justice. They have been charged and prosecuted as a result of people coming forward.
We are, of course, making sure that resources are available. In my response to the right hon. Lady’s question, I indicated that CEOP resources, which are specialist and expertise resources, are being made available to other police forces. The child abuse inquiry is being set up to ensure that we can learn the lessons from the various reviews that have taken place into historic cases. As part of that, I expect it will want to look at what is happening today: whether the lessons from the past are already being dealt with, or whether there are still gaps in what we need to do. Obviously, one of the areas that has increased in recent times is online abuse.
At the Prime Minister’s summit in November last year, we made it absolutely clear that we are determined to stamp out online child sexual abuse. That is why we have worked with industry to ensure that search engines block images, videos and pathways to child abuse from blacklist search terms used by paedophiles. We are developing a child abuse image database, which will help officers to work more effectively together to close the net on paedophiles and ensure that internet companies can better identify, block and remove illegal images. We have also established the UK-US taskforce to counter online child exploitation. Through that, we are drawing on the brightest and best minds in the industry, law enforcement and academia to stop the internet being used to abuse children. We saw from the National Crime Agency’s operations yesterday the value of setting it up as a strong crime-fighting organisation that has already shown its ability to root out perpetrators of this sort of crime, to deal with them and ultimately to bring them to justice.
May I add my congratulations to the NCA for yesterday’s successful operation? It is worth noting that of the 660 arrested, very few were people already on the sex offenders register. This is very difficult work and a reminder that we are talking about current abuse going on, in addition to the historic child abuse that we must now investigate. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that rather than coming forward with a new action plan, as has been suggested, she gives this House a progress report on the child sexual exploitation action plan, which I launched in November 2011, which was multi-agency and multi-departmental? It has been exceedingly successful and no doubt played a major part in bringing a lot of people to justice in yesterday’s operation.
May I commend my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area over the years? He and I joined this House at the same time, and I know that he has consistently led on child protection issues and has put a lot of work into this area, both when he was children’s Minister and outside that time, and he continues to do so. I will certainly be happy to ask the Minister for Crime Prevention to report to the House on the child exploitation action plan that my hon. Friend developed as the children’s Minister and also on how the group that was set up subsequently is taking that work forward, looking at how it can build on it in a number of other ways, so that we are always looking to ensure that we have the best possible response.
May I join the Home Secretary in congratulating those involved in Operations Endeavour and Notarise for the work they have done, which shows the importance of the expertise of CEOP? She is right not to rush in and name a new chair for the inquiry. This needs to be done with care and full consultation, so that the chair can help to choose the panel and fashion the terms of reference. However, I am concerned that not enough is being done by the internet companies. Will she confirm that at the very least she is getting a list or a number of the websites that have been closed down as a result of the summit that took place last November? The public need to be reassured that these websites are being closed. If she gives us regular updates, that would be extremely helpful.
I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s concern to ensure that as much information as possible is made available to the House on these matters. We have seen action by industry, but we continue to talk to industry about how these issues can be addressed. We will be represented on the UK-US taskforce by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, whom I welcome to his new position in the Home Office. We are working very closely with industry. It is important to ensure that industry is able to undertake the tasks that we wish it to. It is doing that, but we want to work further with industry to ensure that we are getting the blocking and the filtering absolutely right, so that we can have the maximum impact.
Some of the more serious historic allegations relate to children who were in care at the time of the event. In Jersey, there are allegations that children did not survive to their adulthood to make complaints. In England, the Government still do not record what happens when children disappear from care, using the record “Leaving care for other reasons”. Will the Secretary of State talk to her colleagues in the Department for Education about whether we can record when children disappear from care and why they disappear, so that we can audit the process and ensure that children are safe in care today?
My hon. Friend has raised a very important point about how children in care have been, I think in too many cases, failed by the state over the years. This is not an area where the state can have any real confidence. We should, frankly, look back at what has happened to a number of children in care with deep concern. I will certainly take my hon. Friend’s point up with the Department for Education—and also with the Department for Communities and Local Government, because of local authorities’ responsibility.
The Home Secretary rightly spoke of the harrowing effect that working in this area can have on the police officers who have to do this work and see these images. Can she assure the House that the expansion of the work in this area will go hand in hand with an expansion of the care and long-term psychological support packages for those police officers?
Yes. This matter has already been raised. Obviously, the forces and CEOP are aware of the issue that the work can cause for the officers involved and they have programmes and operations in place to support those officers. We shall certainly ensure that those continue.
As the Home Secretary will know, I have followed the problems caused by child sex abuse from the point of view of one who has both acted for somebody falsely accused of it and, as a law officer, dealing with historic child sex abuse cases. The importance of the issues and the motives with which Members question my right hon. Friend about them cannot be understated or traduced. However, will she resist the temptation to provide the House with a running commentary about the police or other investigations, which may distract from the difficult work that the police have to do in dealing with these terrible cases? We want the perpetrators to be brought to justice and convicted rather than there being a constant flow of allegation and counter-allegation, either across the House or in the media.
Yes, I absolutely take my hon. and learned Friend’s point. It is important that the House should be updated on the work that the Government are doing in this area, but of course it is not possible for us to update the House in any ongoing way on investigations. These are operational matters for the police, not matters on which politicians take decisions; those are for the police and the National Crime Agency to take.
It is, however, right that we keep the House apprised of work such as that initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) when he was children’s Minister, and that now taken forward by the Minister for Crime Prevention and the current children’s Minister, so that the House can see the number of areas on which the Government are taking action.
Has the Home Secretary given any thought to the new legal powers that may be needed by this child abuse inquiry but may take some time to establish? My understanding is that records kept by the Whips are not subject to freedom of information, but are subject to data protection. If the inquiry panel has no power to hold those data or compel information to be shared, how will it bring justice for survivors?
The inquiry panel that I have set up is not a statutory inquiry panel under the Inquiries Act 2005. What we have made clear, though, is that if there comes a point at which the chairman of the panel believes that its work could better be carried forward as a statutory inquiry panel under the 2005 Act, we will be prepared to change it into such a panel.
I am not sure that the Home Secretary quite answered the question put by the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). I think the hon. Lady was trying to get at whether information held in the Whips Office will be available to the investigation.
I repeat what I said in the House when I gave my statement on this matter on 7 July. The Government are making it clear that we will make papers available to the inquiry panel. I would expect others to make available such information as they hold. It is for various bodies—whoever is approached by the inquiry panel—to decide what information they wish to make available. However, as I have made clear, if the chairman of the panel gets to a point where they believe that a statutory inquiry is the best route, the Government are committed to ensuring that we turn the investigation into a statutory inquiry.
Does the Home Secretary recognise that there have been allegations about historic abuse in a wide range of institutions, including the former Beechwood children’s home in Nottingham? Will she assure my constituents and those of other Nottinghamshire MPs that if they approach the overarching inquiry, their cases will receive a fair and impartial hearing and they will have access to the proper help and support they need?
I think it important to recognise that the inquiry panel will not itself be able to investigate individual allegations that come forward. It will be looking at what happened in a number of settings such as residential care homes and trying to learn the lessons from that. Individual allegations against a perpetrator, will be handed on to the police for them to investigate, which is entirely proper. We are working across Government to look at people’s ability to raise cases, the manner in which they will be able to do so, and how those cases will be passed on as appropriate, along with the support given to victims. Together with a number of other MPs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) raised this matter with me earlier this week, and made a number of suggestions about how to take it forward.
Bearing in mind the explosion in the number of people willing to report and disclose what happened to them, will the Home Secretary ensure that urgent support and extra training is made available for all police officers, so that victims are not necessarily taken across the country for interview, that interviews are not stopped and started again to allow video conditions, and that inadequate referrals for support are not given to victims and their families, who need help when their lives are completely turned upside down?
My hon. Friend makes some very important points. She raises issues that we are looking at in order to ensure that the best form of support is available. I would like to take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend for the courage she has shown, which will have given great confidence and comfort to other victims.
All child sex abuse is horrific, but the Home Secretary will be aware that for many parents, online child sex abuse is particularly frightening because the technology is developing at warp speed, so many children have smartphones, and parents do not feel equipped to protect their children. It is good to work with the industry, but does the Home Secretary appreciate that parents want to know that progress is being made on tackling online child sex abuse—not at the rate that suits the industry, but at the rate that will bring reassurance to parents and families and protection to our children?
Of course we want to ensure that we make progress in a way that can give confidence to parents, who rightly worry about what is happening online. The fact that somebody living thousands of miles away could effectively be in a child’s bedroom through the internet, persuading that child to undertake certain horrific acts is obviously a matter of very real concern. It is right for us to work with the industry, however, which has been responsive on this matter and sees its importance to the public.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising Devon and Cornwall police officers for their role in Operation Notarise, work with colleagues to ensure that the victims are treated well as they pass through the criminal justice system, and remind the judges of the powers they have to protect such vulnerable witnesses?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. I commend Devon and Cornwall police and all the other police forces around the country that were involved in undertaking the operation with the National Crime Agency. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, whom I welcome to their new roles, have heard her point. I will also make sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary is made aware of her point about the judiciary.
The Home Secretary mentioned that the police officers were doing a very difficult job. What facilities are available for counselling police officers, and how many officers have needed counselling as a result of the work they are carrying out?
Extensive support is available for police officers doing that job because the problem is recognised. The expertise developed at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre recognises the impact that such work can have on individual police officers. That support is available for police officers who undertake this difficult work.
The Home Secretary has rightly emphasised the importance of multi-agency work in safeguarding and protecting children. Some of those agencies operate under devolved legislation. Will she ensure that her Department and the United Kingdom Government as a whole co-operate fully with the devolved nations of the UK, so that children remain as protected as possible?
In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Education abolished ContactPoint. At the time, I was happy with the assurance that something more streamlined would be in place shortly, but four years have passed, and it has not yet been replaced. What discussions is the Home Office having with the Department for Education to eliminate this gap in the system?
The Department for Education plays a full role in the work that the Home Office does on this issue, including our work in relation to the national group. However, as the hon. Lady will observe, my hon. Friend the children’s Minister is present, and he will have heard her comment.
The Home Secretary will know that, thanks to their innovative and enthusiastic police and crime commissioner, Northamptonshire police are developing something of a lead in combating the online exploitation of children, but so much of that abuse is international. What expertise from other countries can we draw on, so that we can be at the forefront of tackling this abhorrent crime?
We recognise that, and we have set up a link with the United States in particular. Obviously, a number of internet service providers are based there. We are working closely with the Americans. The UK-US taskforce, whose meetings will be attended by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, draws on the expertise of people in the industry in both the UK and the United States. We want to get the best brains on this to ensure that we can do the job that we all want to do.
In north Wales, 19 people are currently before the courts as a result of Operation Pallial. Will the Home Secretary confirm that if any evidence is unearthed by the inquiries that she set up last week in connection with Government Departments, any information that Departments have will be forwarded to the police so that they can follow it up and prosecutions can take place?
May I press the Home Secretary on the question of the breach of trust to which she referred earlier? She said that trust had been breached on a number of occasions. How can we prevent that from happening again? We must not lose sight of child abuse within families, and of how difficult it is to bring to public attention or prosecution.
My hon. Friend has made a very important point. I think that people will have been deeply concerned, indeed shocked, to learn that the list of arrests undertaken by the National Crime Agency and forces which was announced yesterday included a number of people who had been in positions of trust—such as teachers and doctors—and whom others would naturally have assumed they could trust with their children. This is a very important issue, which is why we have a system of vetting people who will be working with children. Of course, we must also ensure that all those who employ people to work in such positions of trust are aware of their responsibilities.
The Home Secretary may not be aware that yesterday I presented a petition to the House concerning the case of an online paedophile who had made and viewed more than a quarter of a million indecent images of children, a number of which were the more serious level 5 images. He was given a two-year suspended sentence and 300 hours of community service. When I wrote to the Attorney-General asking him to review the sentence, I was told that the Attorney-General does not have the power to review sentences of this nature. Why is that, and will the Home Secretary ensure that the Government change the law to give the Attorney-General that power?
The Home Secretary has told us that if the inquiry panel seeks formal inquiry powers, she will be able to grant that request, which is welcome. Former inquiries into child abuse have resulted in some frustration as a result of tight and inflexible remits; this has even been expressed by those conducting the inquiries. If the inquiry panel wishes to amend its remit during the course of its work, will she be in a position to grant that request?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am very clear that the terms of reference should be discussed with the chairman of the panel and not simply be set out by the Government. If the chairman comes to the Government during the course of the inquiry and feels that it is necessary to amend those terms of reference in any way, we will of course look very seriously at that proposal. We have set up the inquiry panel on the model that was used in the Hillsborough inquiry and, having spoken to the former Bishop of Liverpool, Bishop James Jones, in relation to the operation of that inquiry, I understand that people were willing to come forward to that inquiry in a way that might not have been the case under other statutory requirements.
I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary and I understand that she is saying she cannot confirm the scale of the NCA investigation for operational reasons. However, if—as The Times suggests—the NCA has made a policy decision not to investigate 10,000 suspects because of capacity problems, should not the House be informed of that?
I have made it clear to the House that the NCA investigation is ongoing, both at the level of the NCA and of individual police forces. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman allow the police to make the operational decisions that they need to make. They will of course investigate individuals, but arrests, charges and prosecutions can be brought against people only when the evidence is available.
Many Members have referred to the importance of victims of historical child abuse feeling able to come forward. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Health, in his statement to the House on the Savile investigations, made an appeal for victims to come forward. However, when a constituent of mine made contact, the Department of Health apparently had no process in place to respond and could not give any support, as it had had no guidance as to the response it should make. That constituent now seems to have decided not to take their allegations forward. May I urge the Home Secretary to work with her colleagues to ensure that the Departments—and, indeed, individual Members of Parliament—are aware of these matters and have the necessary guidance and support to enable them to offer support to others, as needed?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point again. We are talking across Government about what support needs to be available for those people who wish to come forward with allegations of child abuse, and the Department of Health is one of the key Departments we are talking to. Representatives of that Department sit on the national group that is chaired by the Minister for Crime Prevention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The hon. Lady made a further point, which was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), about making information available to Members of the House. It has been suggested that some kind of hotline could be made available, or some other means by which people could put allegations into the system, so that they could be dealt with. We will obviously ensure that Members are made aware of any such arrangements, so that they can let their constituents know what is happening and help them to deal with the situation.
We have heard from the Home Secretary today and on previous occasions about the good work that the police and others are doing on this issue. It appears, however, that the number of people who have been barred from working with children has actually fallen by 75%. Can she explain this discrepancy or, at the very least, investigate the reasons for it?
The DBS operates in a slightly different way from how it operated previously when it was set up, in that there is automatic barring for people who will be working with children but in certain categories of employment, where people are not working directly with children, people who previously would have been automatically barred are not being so currently. What the DBS does do in its updating service is provide a better system from which ongoing information can be made available to employers. But I make a point I made earlier, which is that employers must recognise the responsibilities they have in considering the individuals they are employing.
In the 1970s, the most horrible, wicked and depraved abuse of children took place at Kincora boys home in Belfast, with young people scarred for life as a result. Those abuses allegedly involved those in political life, business and the civil service at the time and were overseen by shadowy groups. A child abuse inquiry is taking place in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State say whether the abuse at Kincora boys home is included in that inquiry? If that is not possible, can it be included in the national inquiry?
I will look into the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has raised. I would, however, expect that where other work is ongoing, such as in the child abuse inquiry in Northern Ireland to which he has referred, the inquiry panel we are setting up would, of course, wish to liaise with the work that is being done there to make sure that nothing is falling through the net and that everything is being looked at.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 21 July—Second Reading of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill.
Tuesday 22 July—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to data retention, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment, as selected by the Backbench Business Committee.
The business for the week commencing 1 September will be:
Monday 1 September—Debate on a motion relating to hospital car parking charges, followed by a debate on a motion relating to mitochondrial replacement techniques and public safety, followed by a general debate on the position of Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The subjects for debate were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 2 September—Second Reading of the Pension Schemes Bill.
Wednesday 3 September—Opposition day (5th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 4 September—Debate on a motion relating to regulation of the sale of puppies and kittens, followed by a general debate on the future of non-league football, followed by a general debate on the achievement gap in reading between poorer children and their better-off peers. The subjects for debate were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 5 September—Private Member’s Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 8 September will include:
Monday 8 September—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 4 and 8 September will be:
Thursday 4 September—Debate on stamp duty and the housing market.
Monday 8 September—Debate on an e-petition relating to research funding for and awareness of pancreatic cancer.
If I may, Mr Speaker, I would also like to thank my predecessor as Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley). In the past two years, he has led the successful delivery of the Government’s legislative programme; ensured improved levels of scrutiny by this House; overseen a record number of Bills and measures receiving pre-legislative scrutiny; and piloted continuing reform, making the House increasing relevant to the public. I wish him well for the future and I hope he continues to make a major contribution to public life. Finally, as is customary, may I thank all the staff of the House for their hard work? I hope they enjoy a well-deserved break before the House returns in September.
May I associate myself with the wish of the Leader of the House that our staff and all the staff of the House have a restful holiday?
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), who this week left his post as Leader of the House after two years in the job. May I say how much I have enjoyed working with him, especially in our joint duties as members of the House of Commons Commission, and may I wish him all the best for the future, although the Leader of the House has made an intriguing comment about what that might be?
Once again, I take the opportunity to welcome the First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) to his new responsibilities. I thank him for next week’s business and the provisional business for our first weeks back in September.
On Monday, we will debate the pleasing sounding but completely vacuous Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill—a five-clause Bill that does something that the previous Labour Government legislated for in 2006. The Government could bring in a new law to guarantee rights for victims of crime or deal with the meltdown in probation or tackle the prisons crisis, so can the Leader of the House tell us why they are wasting time with this PR exercise?
This morning, we discovered that the Liberal Democrats had made their most shameless U-turn since their last one: this time it is the bedroom tax. We told them it would create misery and save no money, but their votes got it on to the statute book, and their votes defended it time and again. Given that there is now no majority in this House for the continuation of this pointless and cruel tax, will the Leader of the House make time for an emergency debate before the summer recess so that we can consign it to the dustbin of history?
Less than a month ago, the Prime Minister was leading the charge against Jean-Claude Juncker because nobody knew who he was. Now he has appointed an EU commissioner who has such presence that when he tried to resign from the Government, the Prime Minister did not even notice. Only last month, Lord Hill was telling ConservativeHome that he did not want the role because
“I quite like it at home here in the British Isles.”
When asked if he would accept the job as EU commissioner, he said, “No! No! No!” We know the trouble that was caused when that phrase was last heard in here. Lord Hill might not be a household name, but we really cannot fault his enthusiasm for the job! Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that he would support parliamentary scrutiny of his nominee for the European Commission, so can the Leader of the House set out what form that scrutiny will take and when we can expect more detail?
This week’s super-spun but chaotic reshuffle was supposed to unite the Tory party, but the modernisers are furious, the right is furious, and the Eurosceptics never stop being furious. The Prime Minister says his new Cabinet is a team that represents Britain, but it is 95% white, 77% male and nearly 50% privately educated. That is not a Britain that most people recognise.
The Prime Minister appointed an equalities Minister who voted against gay marriage and sacked his own Minister for modernisation. It is no wonder that the Deputy Prime Minister just said on the radio that
“the head bangers have now won”
in the Conservative party.
I am glad to see that the Leader of the House is settling in to his new role. He spent four years travelling the world. He has rubbed shoulders with Angela Merkel; hobnobbed with Angelina; and now he is stuck with Commons Angela. In the words of the former Education Secretary, I do not know whether he would call that demotion, emotion, promotion or locomotion, but I certainly look forward to it. May I also congratulate him on his success in negotiating a huge pay rise for the Leader of the House in a triumph that surely indicates he has a new career opening up when he leaves Parliament at the next election as a trade union negotiator!
I welcome the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to—I was going to say to his new job as Chief Whip, but he is not in his place. [Hon. Members: “Where is he?”] He has not had the most auspicious of starts. Yesterday, he not only lost his first vote, but he managed to get stuck in the toilet in the wrong Lobby, and nearly broke his own whip. We know all about the former Education Secretary’s love of free schools, independent of any central authority, so I wonder whether he is keen to allow the emergence of lots of free Tory MPs, who do not have to submit to his authority. At least the only book that he can ban now is “Erskine May”. When the Prime Minister asked the Chief Whip to take up his new role, he apparently asked him to become the “hand of the king”. Now, I am no “Game of Thrones” expert, but is it not the case that so far the hands of the king have been variously beheaded, knifed and shot with a harpoon—and all by their own side? I note that the last time a Conservative Foreign Secretary became Leader of the House he helped to depose the Prime Minister a few months later.
As this is our first business questions together, may I just say, “Welcome to the cause”?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, in particular because hardly any of her questions were about the business of the House, but I entirely understand that.
The hon. Lady joined in the tributes to my predecessor. It was not meant to be intriguing to wish him well. I think that it is taking criminology and conspiracy too far to think that an innocent wishing of him well is to be interpreted in some deep way, but I know that the whole House will join in wishing him well. I also thank her for her welcome. I have a great respect for the hon. Lady and look forward to working and sparring with her. She pointed out that the last Conservative Foreign Secretary to become Leader of the House joined in deposing the Prime Minister. I am unsure whether the Foreign Secretary in question expected or wanted to become Leader of the House, whereas I asked for this duty, which I am delighted to take up. I am a strong believer in the power, vitality, role and relevance of the House, as well as in the policies of Her Majesty’s Government and the support of those policies by all coalition parties. I look forward to advancing both those things.
The hon. Lady will have to be careful with some things, such as criticising the nomination of Lord Hill for European Commissioner. This is quite a big glasshouse in which to throw stones, given what happened the last time a commissioner was appointed. Lord Hill occupies the same position that Baroness Ashton occupied when she was appointed by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). She was appointed after the most chaotic saga: Lord Mandelson was to be the nomination, then was not, then various other former members of the Cabinet were, and then Baroness Ashton appeared at the last moment. This is a dramatically more orderly process with a strong candidate, whom we will support. I will of course be happy to discuss with the Select Committees what the process should be for the House taking evidence from the nominee. I will have the advantage over the hon. Lady of being able to pronounce Llanelli a little better than her, but that comes from having been Secretary of State for Wales in my extensive political career—
Well, it is shortly to end—intentionally—but I assure Opposition Members that I am going to enjoy it a lot before it ends.
The hon. Lady joined in welcoming the new Chief Whip and made fun of what he was doing yesterday. Knowledge of who is in the toilets in whatever Lobby is an important piece of information for any Chief Whip. I take it as evidence that he was carrying out his duties very assiduously.
The hon. Lady also commented on the Government reshuffle. The Cabinet will meet tomorrow and eight women will be sitting around the Cabinet table, which is more than ever before. One third of the Conservative members of the Cabinet are now women. The Liberal Democrats intend to catch up in the coming decades. It is an even higher proportion than was achieved under the previous Government and we are proud of that.
The hon. Lady asked about holding an emergency debate on what Liberal Democrats have said today about the spare room subsidy. I do not think we will be able to have an emergency debate on every occasion they change their policy, but—[Laughter.] I am deeply fond of our coalition partners. I helped to negotiate the coalition and despite what I have just said I am enjoying working with my deputy, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).
No representations have been made within the Government about this. It is an important policy and the Government’s policy remains unchanged. There were 1.7 million households waiting for social housing in April 2013 and 1.5 million spare rooms across the working age social sector in Great Britain, so this is an important reform. I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and hon. Members from all parties across the House.
As the first Back Bencher to be called, may I warmly welcome the First Secretary of State to his post? I hope he does not view this as a gentle full stop to a most distinguished career and that he will be a reforming and great Leader of the House of Commons. Will he, in his remaining year in politics, push the reform agenda forward and, in particular, may we have a business of the House committee? That would transform Parliament and ensure that Parliament was in control of the business. Will he do it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Having had my first meeting with the Procedure Committee, I do not regard this as a gentle end to my political career. There will be a lot to do, so he need not be concerned about that. He knows that there has been previous discussion about a business committee and that no consensus has been arrived at. I know that there is strong consensus between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who is sitting next to him, but that is not a universal consensus, even though it might seem like that to him. I look forward to discussing this with him and to discussing any concern or opinion raised by my hon. Friends or by hon. Members, but there has been no consensus so far.
Will the Leader of the House accept that the most successful Leaders of the Commons have been those who while recognising their responsibilities in the senior ranks of Government have nevertheless in practice borne in mind their responsibility to the House as a whole? Perhaps, despite what he has said, when we come back we could have a debate on the bedroom tax. That would give an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to explain why they supported it in the first place, without which it would not have become legislation, and why, so near the general election, they have changed their minds.