House of Commons
Thursday 30 October 2014
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Marine Management Organisation (Ray Quotas)
The Marine Management Organisation is urgently pursuing the possibility of quota swaps with other member states. If sufficient additional quota can be acquired through this means, a limited reopening of the fishery may be possible. If not, the fishery will reopen again on 1 January.
Last week the important fish processor in my constituency closed its doors, with the loss of many jobs. Many marine experts regard the monitoring and data processing of landing declarations by the MMO as a joke. Will the Minister hold an inquiry into the management of quota by the MMO? What is he to say to northern Devon fishermen and allied trades who have lost their jobs when, as a result of their pioneering conservation measures, fish stocks in the Bristol channel are abundant?
I am very sympathetic to the arguments my hon. and learned Friend makes. Indeed, when he raised it with me last week I asked the MMO to redouble its efforts to find additional quota. It has been a very good summer of fishing. We do not normally have this problem with skates and rays. It is something that took everyone by surprise, including producer organisations. However, I am keen that lessons are learned. That is why I will be having discussions with the MMO about how it manages the quota on this particular stock. We will also be looking to ensure that next year his constituents continue to have a quota to fish from 1 January.
Will my hon. Friend guarantee to the House today that he will do everything he can to seek additional quota in the negotiations next year to ensure that British fisherman can continue to fish for the whole year without this disastrous effect?
Yesterday, I was in Belfast for the meeting of a stakeholder group of fishing industry leaders. We discussed the approach to the December Council. The UK always takes a science-based approach. We have to recognise that it is in the long-term interests of the fishing industry that we fish our fisheries sustainably. That said, we will be looking at mixed fisheries analysis to ensure that we achieve maximum sustainable yield where possible next year and everywhere else by 2020.
Ofwat will announce its current price review in December. The draft determinations indicate that average water bills in England and Wales will fall by up to 5% in real terms from 2015 to 2020. This will mean lower bills for hard-working taxpayers as part of our long-term economic plan.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply, but is it not the case that the Government have allowed water companies to boost their profits by 12% while average households have lost 5% of income? When will the Government stand up to the fat cat water bosses?
If we look at how much water bills rose under Labour, we see that from 1999 to 2009 bills went up by 20%. Under the new tough regulation of Ofwat, we are seeing a potential reduction of up to 5%, meaning lower bills for consumers, more investment in the water industry, and cleaner rivers and beaches.
One way to reduce water bills is to reduce unnecessary water consumption, which occurs as more meters are rolled out. Another way to reduce costs is to cut leakage. What steps are being taken to encourage the water companies to increase the number of meters and to cut their leaks?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we make water usage more efficient. What we have seen since the industry was privatised 25 years ago is £116 billion of investment to upgrade infrastructure, reduce leakage, put in meters and make the industry more efficient.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the early price determinations under this Government were the result of the previous Government’s policy. The recent price determination that has happened on our watch is seeing a potential reduction in the draft determination of up to 5%. We have already seen water companies keep their bills low and stabilised in recent years.
Marine Protected Areas
We regularly receive correspondence about marine protected areas, including on the marine charter put forward by Link. I will be attending the marine charter parliamentary reception on 19 November.
As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, let me say how pleased I am that Dorset was included in the original 27 marine conservation zones. However, does the Minister agree that there is a long way to go before we can achieve a full network of marine protected areas by 2016, as set out in the Act, and can he say what level of commitment the Government are giving to achieve those important objectives?
Earlier this year we announced 37 candidate sites for the second tranche of marine conservation zones and we intend to publish a consultation on the second tranche in the new year. It is our intention to have a third tranche in 2016, so the work to take forward additional marine conservation zones is well under way.
But a lot of the work has already been done. For example, a huge amount of research was done on whether the 127 marine conservation zones were economically viable. When will the Minister actually start designating the zones that are needed if we are to have an ecologically coherent marine conservation network?
We have started designating them. The first 27 were designated a year ago and, as I said, we are consulting on the second tranche. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science is doing a huge amount of work—it did a lot of work this summer. We spent around £10 million on research to get the best evidence we can so that these decisions are informed by the scientific evidence. That work is going on, and we plan to do this in three tranches, as we have made clear all along.
I am sure the Minister will agree that marine protected areas are only part of the conservation measures we need in our seas. Does he agree that more conservation work needs to be done, for example on bass, stocks of which, so the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea informs us, are absolutely plummeting?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. As Minister for the marine environment, he did a huge amount to take forward marine conservation zones. When it comes to bass, I can tell him that we expect to have an important breakthrough in December. We have always said that there should be technical measures. The stock has been fished unsustainably and there is a tentative proposal, which we expect to be raised at the December Council, that will look at both bag limits and catch limits, so that we can preserve this vital stock.
I wonder whether the Minister has ever been to the Isle of Wight, which is of course an island that people can get to only by using a ferry. There is concern on the island that marine protection areas could get in the way of ferries, which are the only regular way to get to the island. What is he going to do about that?
My hon. Friend has extended an invitation to me to visit the Isle of Wight. I look forward to a journey on the hovercraft—I think it is the last one we have operating in the UK—to meet his constituents. He has raised concerns about some of the proposed marine conservation zones around the Isle of Wight. I can assure him that socio-economic factors are taken into account when we assess MCZs, as set out in the 2009 Act. I hope to have the opportunity to visit the Isle of Wight in the months ahead.
The Government have committed around £560 million to support those affected by flooding last winter. That includes an extra £270 million to repair and maintain critical flood defences. We are helping households and businesses through the repair and renew grant and through council tax and rates relief. Farmers and fishermen are receiving funding for repairs through existing schemes and we are supporting businesses through a £10 million hardship fund.
After Eton flooded in February, the Prime Minister promised that money would be no object. However, for many Hull homes and businesses hit by the December tidal surge, that soon changed to “Out of sight, out of mind,” and they are still awaiting help. Can the Minister tell me what percentage of the promised assistance to flood-hit communities has actually gone to those affected?
As I set out to the hon. Lady, there are a number of schemes in place. Some are still paying out and will do so until the end of the financial year. If she has particular concerns about issues in her part of the world, I would be happy to meet her, as ever, to discuss them, but those schemes are available to all those affected by flooding during the period of extreme weather from early December last year through to the end of April.
More homes were flooded in 2012-13 across the Yorkshire region, so I hope the Minister might meet a delegation of Yorkshire MPs to consider how our roads and bridges might best be recovered. What progress has been made with the Treasury on having one fund—one budget—between capital expenditure and revenue expenditure for total expenditure on flood spending? That would help communities to recover more quickly and end the senseless rows about the size of the pump and which budget it should come from.
I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee for her question, raising issues to do with transport recovery, which have been well supported by the Department for Transport. I encourage my hon. Friend and other colleagues from Yorkshire to continue to discuss that with Ministers from that Department. On the distribution of the maintenance, revenue and capital money that we have invested in flood defences and coastal risk management—a record amount of money—we continue to discuss with the Treasury whether flexibilities might be helpful in this regard. The Select Committee’s work has been of great help.
The hon. Gentleman’s part of the world has seen investment in flood schemes to help protect communities and keep them safe, and I understand that that work is coming to a conclusion. On flood insurance, we continue to make progress, along with the Association of British Insurers, to set up Flood Re, a new organisation that will provide affordable flood insurance to those not provided for in the market. We are on track to implement that next year.
Like the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), I have constituents living in flood-risk areas who are struggling to get reasonably priced flood or household insurance. Is there a date by which the insurance companies will offer the new support for which we are looking, and, in the meantime, should they not be a little bit more flexible with constituents living in these areas?
I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend any specific issues he has on behalf of his constituency. The statement of principles, which exists with the insurance industry, is still in operation up until the implementation of Flood Re. We of course have regular discussions with the industry to ensure that people are being offered the flood insurance they need.
The answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), which the Minister failed to give, is £403,000 out of the £10 million that the Government promised—less than 5%. That applied at the beginning of the summer recess. Tomorrow is 31 October, the day on which the Government promised that all the 890 flood defences damaged last year and in need of urgent repair would have that work completed. Will the Minister assure us that the 49% of those repairs that had not been completed by last month will be finished by tomorrow, as promised? The people at risk from those 437 unfinished schemes would really like to know.
The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that work has continued since that reference point in September. The vast majority of those schemes will be completed by the end of the month, and temporary defences are in place to protect any communities where the work is still ongoing into November. The vast majority will be completed by the end of this month.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
TTIP could be worth up to £10 billion a year for the UK. It has the potential to deliver significant opportunities for UK agriculture, food and drink. We are working very closely with BIS to ensure that TTIP maximises the benefits for UK businesses and consumers.
The poultry industry, by which I mean the producers of poultry meat and eggs, have driven up animal welfare standards and hygiene in their businesses. Will the Minister assure that industry that that progress will not be compromised by unfair competition from US producers following lower standards?
I have met members of the poultry industry and the British Poultry Council to discuss their concerns. We managed to get a very successful free trade agreement with Canada. Sometimes it is possible to work through the sanitary and phytosanitary issues that the hon. Gentleman raises, as well as animal welfare issues, and to establish equivalent rather than identical measures. That is the spirit in which we should approach the negotiations.
I welcome the openness of a free trade agreement, but can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that there are no mechanisms included in it—such as an investor-state dispute settlement—that would enable powerful vested interests to bully future Governments into dropping legislation that would improve food standards? We have already seen that happen with the disgraceful action of the Philip Morris tobacco company against the Australian Government.
I know that some people have expressed concern about the use of ISDS. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom are very conscious of that, and we do not intend to allow such agreements to undermine our ability to set our own welfare and regulatory standards when it comes to animal health.
Given that this country has been a member of the European Union in its various guises for more than 40 years, does my hon. Friend not think that we could have made faster progress in negotiating the trade deal with the United States of America if we had been doing it on our own rather than relying on the European Union to do it for us?
My hon. Friend may be right. It might have been possible to reach some of these free trade agreements more quickly. Indeed, we do make certain changes bilaterally, when it is a question of breaking down some of the non-tariff barriers to trade. However, being part of a customs union in the EU is of significant importance to our food industry, which is the largest manufacturing industry in the country.
Bovine tuberculosis is a terrible disease which threatens the future of our beef and dairy industries. We are pursuing a comprehensive strategy which includes improved cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas, and culling badgers in areas where the disease is rife. We will publish all the data and the results of this year's culls once the quality assurance processes and the independent audit have been completed.
Let us remember the situation that we inherited in 2010, The last Government failed to take any action on this issue, and we ended up with the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe. Are Opposition Members proud of that record? Are they proud of the fact that the disease increased ninefold on their watch? As I have said, we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy which includes improved cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas, and culling where the disease is rife.
If we are concerned about all God’s creation, we ought to be just as concerned about cattle as we are about badgers. Is it not the case that the Republic of Ireland, whose beef cattle and dairy herds are similar to ours and which has had similar problems with TB, has followed exactly the same policies as this Government, and as a consequence has seen a 25% reduction in cattle TB infection?
My right hon. Friend has made an excellent point about Ireland. A similar policy has been pursued in New Zealand, where numbers have also been reduced; and Australia, whose comprehensive strategy involved culling in the wildlife population as well as improved movement controls, has eradicated bovine TB. It is vital to the future of our dairy and beef industries that we eradicate this terrible disease. We are the Government who are prepared to make difficult decisions, rather than repeating the outrageous failures of the last Government. They left us with the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe: that is the disgrace.
Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s bluster, it is a fact that, following the catastrophic failures in year one—last year’s failures were catastrophic—in year two the Secretary of State abolished the independent expert panel, which was too independent for the Government. The Government watered down the estimates of the badger populations, and threw out the Secretary of State’s own original guidance, which involved culling 70% of badgers within six weeks in year one. Why did the methodology used to calculate the number of badgers change from year one to year two, why does the methodology applying to Somerset differ from that applying to Gloucestershire, and why were the methodologies not subject to independent scientific review? Let us go on the evidence.
An independent audit of the culls is currently taking place. A review is also being undertaken by our chief veterinary officer, which is important. The British Veterinary Association fully supports our comprehensive strategy to deal with bovine TB, and it is about time the Opposition thought about how they would deal with this terrible disease rather than criticise our policy, which has been shown, using international evidence, to deliver.
Bearing down on this terrible disease in cattle must clearly involve evidence-based policy making rather than policy-based evidence selection. Further to the question on the scrapping of the independent expert panel, what will the Government do to ensure that the evidence collected from this year’s cull is presented to the whole of the scientific community that has expertise in this subject?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is important that we base our policies on science and evidence, and I am determined to do that. That is why we are independently auditing the results of this year’s culls, and why we had our chief veterinary officer and our chief scientist sign off the numbers for those culls. It is important to understand that this is part of a comprehensive strategy to deal with this issue. The strategy involves vaccination in the edge zones and cattle movement controls, as well as culls where the disease is rife. It has worked in Australia, and it is working in Ireland and New Zealand. Why will the Opposition not look at the evidence?
We are building the nation’s resilience to a changing climate primarily through the implementation of the first “National Adaptation Programme” report, which DEFRA published last July. This sets out more than 370 actions across key sectors involving Government, business, councils, civil society and academia. The Environment Agency’s Climate Ready Support Service also helps a wide range of organisations to adapt.
The position of the coalition Government on mitigation and adaptation has been consistent throughout. The hon. Gentleman asks for my view on opinions that might have been expressed by the former Secretary of State. It would seem that he took a different view on the anthropogenic nature of climate change. However, the Government’s position is clear and has remained clear throughout.
12. Our climate has changed and the risks to the UK have increased considerably, yet the Government have abandoned Labour’s climate change strategy. Will the Minister reverse his Government’s disastrous decision to tear up the consensus on the Climate Change Act 2008 and recommit to the recommendations of the Pitt review? (905752)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has played a leading role in European and international negotiations on carbon emissions, as have other ministerial colleagues. I pay tribute to him for doing that. In relation to adaptation and the implementation of the Pitt review, we are moving on that and we are now consulting on the implementation of the sustainable urban drainage systems—SUDS—regime, which forms part of the final few recommendations in the Pitt report. We are therefore making progress, and I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in what we are doing.
Flood Protection Schemes
Between April 2014 and March 2015, 54 major new flood and coastal defence schemes will be starting construction. Over the period of this Parliament, we are spending more than £3.2 billion, compared with £2.7 billion in the previous five years, to protect this country from floods. This is one of my key priorities as Secretary of State.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her answer, which I am sure the communities that will benefit from the schemes will welcome. Will she ensure that work starts next year on the Lowestoft flood alleviation scheme, which will not only protect the properties that were badly damaged in last December’s storm surge but attract new investment and jobs to the town?
I enjoyed walking along Lowestoft seafront with my hon. Friend. It was rather a blustery day, but it is a fine town. I look forward to hearing further representations from him on the subject. He is a champion of the people of Lowestoft and I will listen very carefully to his representations.
May we ask this quite new Secretary of State to start doing some joined-up thinking? Is it not about time she joined up the fact that the climate change and the flooding, which we are getting globally but which is making life very hard for people in the floodplains of this country, is linked to global warming? When will she be a big beast, as I hoped she was going to be, or even a little beast, and bang the table in the Cabinet to get us back on track on fighting global warming?
I completely agree that the erratic weather patterns are linked to climate change, which is why my Department is spending a huge amount on flood defences—we are also getting value for money. We are the first Government to put in place a six-year forward-looking programme on capital expenditure for flood defences, meaning that an additional 300,000 homes will be protected.
9. What steps she is taking to support local authorities tackling air pollution in urban areas. (905748)
Local authorities are key to achieving improvements in air quality. We are taking steps to support them, including enabling them to focus more on practical actions to reduce air pollution through plans to streamline reporting requirements. We have DEFRA’s £1 million air quality grant programme, and we are also funding local transport projects. For example, £560 million has been allocated from the Government’s local sustainable transport fund between 2011 and 2015.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but he will know that on 26 September DEFRA published a report on air pollution showing that there has been no improvement in the UK’s air quality over the past year and that 38 of the 43 zones exceed the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide. What is going wrong?
We are taking action locally, nationally and at the European level on the regulation of vehicle emissions, which is crucial to tackling this pollution. The Government are making progress on the issue, and we welcome what local authorities across the country are doing to engage with us on improving air quality locally and meeting our obligations.
Does the Secretary of State welcome the Mayor of London’s game-changing proposals for an ultra-low emissions zone by 2020, which would go a long way towards enabling London to meet existing agreed emissions standards? Will she ensure that London gets the support it needs from central Government to bridge the remaining compliance gap by 2020?
I welcome the fact that the Mayor of London has begun consultation on further proposals to improve air quality in London. I look forward to hearing more on the details of what he is proposing and of course remain very willing to discuss with him how we can support that action.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), given that many, if not most, of the roads breaching agreed European standards are in London, when was the last time the Minister met the Mayor of London and how confident is he that we will avoid the fines threatening the UK because of those breaches?
I have not met the Mayor of London recently, but of course our officials discuss things locally. I recently held a workshop with local authorities across the country, including those in cities in the north, which are working hard to tackle local aspects of air pollution. As I say, I welcome what the Mayor is doing—his consultation on further measures he might take—and when the Government see the details of those proposals we will be happy to discuss how we might support them.
Rivers and Beaches (Cleanliness)
We have made good progress in cleaning up our bathing waters and rivers. Our bathing waters are cleaner now than ever before, with 98% of them passing EU standards. Our rivers are in far better health. Pollution from sewage has gone down significantly. For example, phosphate pollution will fall by a fifth and ammonia by a sixth by 2015.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I believe she is already familiar with the majesty of the River Severn running through my constituency and with the extraordinary work done by the Environment Agency in keeping that river clear. But does she agree that smaller and less impressive rivers such as the River Stour, which also runs through Kidderminster, are just as important and need just as much attention?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I enjoyed walking down the Severn as a child when we briefly lived in Kidderminster—it is a lovely river. Those rivers are highly valued for their landscape, recreation, angling and drinking water supply, and we are involved in many projects to improve the fish stocks on the River Severn. Overall, this Government have cleaned up 10,000 miles of river during this Parliament, which is equivalent to the length of the Amazon and the Nile.
Food and farming are vital to the success of our economy. They generate £100 billion and employ one in eight people. We want to enable farmers to spend their time producing high quality British produce, which is why, by the end of this Parliament, we will have reduced the volume of DEFRA guidance by 80%.
I know that the Government have done more than the previous Labour Administration on tackling regulations on farmers, but there are still many outstanding issues to be addressed. Today, when I spoke to Mr Stuart Jones from Asterley in my constituency, he highlighted additional complications. Will the Secretary of State redouble her efforts to tackle the number of regulations faced by our farmers?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are making our inspection regime much more risk based, so that farmers who do the right thing and who are part of schemes such as Red Tractor or Pig and Poultry get fewer inspections, whereas those who mistreat animals or harm the environment get more of the Government’s attention.
The common agricultural policy payment scheme is being used to trial the Government’s new identity assurance scheme, Verify, but actual authentication is carried out by the private sector company, Experian. Farmers without a credit history are not being authenticated and are not getting their payments. Is getting into debt now a new regulation to be followed before farmers can be paid?
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. (905758)
The priorities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are: leading the world in food and farming; protecting our country from floods and animal and plant diseases; improving the environment and championing the countryside; and improving rural services. Food and farming are core parts of our long-term economic plan, contributing nearly £100 billion to the economy and employing one in eight people. I am sure that the House will want to join me in celebrating the latest figures that show we are now exporting our world-class food and drink to a record number of markets. That includes more than 1 billion pints of great British beer being sold to 113 countries.
Will the Secretary of State help Britain’s hard-pressed dairy farmers by supporting fixed-price contracts and looking again at the product labelling regime and take some form of supply chain initiative with retailers and processers to dissuade them from, among other things, using liquid milk as a loss-leader?
I met the board of Dairy UK last week. I am keen to work to help our industry become competitive and deal with the increasing exposure to international markets. There are things that can be done on price volatility, and I have spoken to the supermarkets and the intermediaries on the matter.
T2. I share the concerns of the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) about the UK dairy industry, which is deeply depressed in many parts of the country, and is suffering very large losses. We have an opportunity to debate this matter next week, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has secured a debate on it in Westminster Hall. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that she is meeting those concerns and is fully engaged with this problem, which threatens much of the dairy industry? (905759)
I am very much engaged with this matter, as is the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). On a positive note, dairy exports have risen by 50% since 2010. I was in Paris last week at the SIAL trade fair—the world’s largest trade fair—and I met representatives from White Farm Cheddar who are now selling their cheese in the Carrefour supermarket chain across France. We have good international prospects for our dairy industry, and we are working hard to open the markets for British producers.
As I have just said, food and farming is one of our largest industries. It contributes £100 billion to the economy. There are 250,000 hectares of commercial roofs where solar panels can be located, but I do not think it is right that we locate solar panels on productive agricultural land that could be contributing to our economy, and I am sure the hon. Lady would not want that to happen.
There we have it—the Secretary of State had no underpinning evidence, just an ideological prejudice. Does she not realise, as the National Farmers Union has said, that land can be multifunctional, yielding an agricultural benefit as well as producing energy? At a time when National Grid is having to prepare contingency plans to ration energy use this winter because spare generating capacity is at a seven-year low, does she really think her priority should be cutting Britain’s ability to generate clean electricity? Is not this just another example of the self-styled greenest Government ever now resorting, in the Prime Minister’s words, to getting rid of the “green crap”, regardless of the consequences for our energy security?
This Government have a very good record on the environment. We have seen carbon emissions and air pollution go down and our rivers and water are cleaner. The problem with the hon. Lady’s point is that she does not seem to understand how important food and farming is to the rural economy. Under her Government, she failed to deal with animal diseases and the problems in that industry. The reality is that under this Government, we are seeing production expanding and overseas markets opening, and food and farming is now a much bigger success.
T3. Handline mackerel is a superb, sustainably caught fish, and many fishermen from my constituency have been struggling to secure a realistic price during the summer. How are the Government helping Cornish mackerel fishermen, and mackerel and herring fishermen throughout the UK, to combat the Russian trade embargo? (905760)
As a Cornishman, I am well aware of the importance of the handlining mackerel industry in Cornwall. We have managed to secure agreement from the Commission to allow us to bank up to 25% of this year’s quota to next year, to remove some mackerel from the market if necessary. We have also been very successful at reopening the market in Nigeria, which has been a particularly important market for many of our mackerel producers.
T4. Last night, young people from Peru told MPs about the dire effects that climate change is having on their agricultural communities, and asked that Governments listen to what people in those communities need. Will the Minister give support to international and national initiatives to tackle climate change once and for all? (905761)
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am rather pleased he is not here—nothing personal.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the Humber flood risk strategy, which is a joint strategy supported by all Members of Parliament to get £880 million of investment into the Humber for our defences? The current system does not work for us. We need a specific solution for the Humber.
My hon. Friend and his colleagues across the House who represent areas in the Humber estuary rightly consistently raise the need to review flood defences there and make sure that we have adequate investment. We will be bringing forward a capital programme alongside the autumn statement, and I know that he and his colleagues are very much pushing the case for investment in his area.
T5. Investing in research is vital if we are to meet the challenges of climate adaptation. Will the Secretary of State be a champion for an increase in our science budget, so that we can encourage innovation in both the public and private sectors? (905764)
I am very keen on science. It is vital that we use it better across Government. I have had a number of discussions with our chief scientist about our science strategy, which we will be launching in due course. We need science not just for the environment, which is very important, but also for our food and farming industry, and that is why we are sponsoring agri-tech strategies on how to obtain better yields from our crops and use water more effectively. Through better use of science and technology we can see a real improvement to our environment.
T8. Although west bank residents of the River Severn in Bewdley have benefited from brilliant flood defences, those on the east bank live with the uncertainty of the Environment Agency’s final solution to local flooding. May I urge my right hon. Friend to seriously consider demountable flood barriers to protect the east bank residents of Beales Corner in Bewdley? (905767)
I am aware that there is a long-standing flooding issue at Beales Corner and that, as my hon. Friend says, the Environment Agency is trialling temporary flood defence barriers there. I understand that the trial is set to continue until 2017 while longer-term solutions are being considered and the agency, quite properly, consults the community, but if my hon. Friend has further concerns and would like to write to me, I would be happy to discuss those with him.
I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the vital role of the Food and Environment Research Agency in detecting and responding to threats to our natural environment and the food chain, particularly in the light of the UK signing up to the transatlantic trade and investment partnership agreement. Will the right hon. Lady think again about privatising this agency, given its vital role?
That is not what we are doing. We are creating a joint venture. I went to visit FERA in York last week. It is a world-class institution, researching all kinds of things from plant diseases to the security of our food chain, which is very important, so I fully support its efforts. I want to see it much better linked into all the work we do across Government so that we can have a truly science-based strategy.
T7. After that introduction, Mr Speaker, I hope I do not disappoint, but thank you for calling me, in any event. What steps are being taken to increase the planting of commercial forestry in this country so that we do not face again the problems of yesteryear, and businesses have the timber supply they need? (905766)
There is a huge opportunity to expand the market for high-quality British timber, and I am pleased to say that since Grown in Britain started last year, we have seen an 8% increase in the amount of domestic timber and British wood products that we are selling. I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has the very large Kielder forest in his constituency, and I look forward to its future success.
If the Secretary of State is so keen on science, why does she not start applying it to the issue of where the birdsongs have gone? Will she look at Caitlin Moran’s recent article on this? The birds are disappearing from our gardens and our countryside, and they have disappeared even faster in the past four years. What is she doing about that with science?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Some weeks ago I visited the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ farm, Hope farm, up in Cambridgeshire. When we announce our new agri-environment schemes, measures that will support the recovery of farmland birds will certainly be among them.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Can the Secretary of State find out what has happened to the scheduling of payments for higher-level stewardship schemes for farmers in my environmentally sensitive part of Somerset? These have been contracted for a 10-year period but they seem to have been cut, delayed or changed without consultation or notice, and many farmers depend on them for their business.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point. An important part of the agri-environment scheme in the next few years will be to fund higher-level stewardship schemes to conclusion. If she has particular concerns, I am happy to discuss those with her. There has been some alignment on the start dates of some of the schemes, but I am not aware of any problems with schemes discontinuing.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
Foreign National Offenders
As the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission is overseas, I have been asked to reply. The Public Accounts Committee is taking evidence on the report next week on 5 November. The normal process would be for that to be followed by a report from the Committee, which the Government would respond to in due course in the form of a Treasury minute.
The Leader of the House will be aware that there are far too many foreign national offenders serving their sentences in our prisons who should be serving their sentences in prisons back in their own country. Will he ensure that the Committee has all the resources it needs to expedite its follow-up of this very important report, and that the Government’s response is as speedy as possible?
My hon. Friend knows how seriously the Government take this. Indeed, the NAO report states that the number of removals has increased by 12% over the past two years, the time taken to deport foreign national offenders is reducing and the number of failed removals is decreasing. The Home Secretary has indicated her determination on that. The pursuit of this is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, rather than the Public Accounts Commission, on whose behalf I am answering today. The Government will continue to take this very seriously.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Ordination of Women
The Church’s memorandum to the Ecclesiastical Committee gave a detailed assessment of that provision. I also refer the hon. Lady to the Lords Hansard report for 14 October, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury ably explained clause 2. I tried to explain it when I took the measure through the House but, given that she has tabled this question, clearly I lamentably failed.
I welcome the fact that we have recently had this long overdue Measure through Parliament, and the right hon. Gentleman will know that I have put in an early bid for the Bishop of Hull to be a woman. However, I am concerned about clause 2. Does he share my concern that this country’s established Church will not be governed by the laws of this land? I think that it is a very odd situation for the established Church to be in.
We are very much governed by the laws of this land, which is why the Measure had to go to the Ecclesiastical Committee, a statutory Committee of both Houses of Parliament, and then had to be approved by both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and last week you, Mr Speaker, announced that it had been granted Royal Assent. Had the hon. Lady had serious concerns about clause 2, she could have raised them in the debate—[Interruption.] Yes, she did raise them, but if I had not managed to assuage those concerns for her and the House sufficiently, she could have divided the House on the matter. Parliament has now agreed to the Measure and—this is the substantive point—the only reason it is here is to help ensure that the arrangements work; it is not putting the Church of England outside gender and equality legislation. Were it to do so, I have absolutely no doubt that the Government would have opposed it.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
I am about to give a surprising response, Mr Speaker. The number of postal votes received by returning officers after close of poll at the May 2014 European Parliament elections was 51,790, compared with just under 5 million postal votes returned before close of poll—around 1% of the total. Similar electoral data from all major elections since 2004 can be accessed on the commission’s website, and I will ask the commission to write to my hon. Friend and place a copy in the Library.
Bearing in mind the larger turnout we can expect at next year’s general election, that means that around 100,000 people are likely to return their votes, thinking that they have voted, but in fact they will never be counted. Is there anything the Electoral Commission can do to try to improve that state of affairs?
There is an onus on all of us to get the message to our constituents that anyone voting by post should ensure that they get their postal vote away in good time, especially if they are voting from overseas. All electoral registration officers can make an arrangement with the Royal Mail so that all postal votes in the sorting office on polling day are collected and taken to the returning officer. I think that it is important that all EROs enter into such arrangements.
In 2012 the law was changed to allow returning officers to write to people whose postal votes were rejected because of signature or date of birth errors. Surely it would make sense to allow them to write to those whose postal votes were returned late to notify them and help ensure that they do not do it again.
About 3.5 million Brits live overseas and are entitled to register to vote. I do not have the figure relating to my hon. Friend’s second question—that is shameful and disgraceful on my part, and I will certainly write to him about it. The good news is that overseas voters can now register to vote online. That has never happened before. We can get the message out to people in that category that they can register online, which will make the process a great deal easier and much more rapid.
The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church of England is taking a significant role in tackling extremism by supporting the work of the Government and by working through its own networks of local communities and the wider international Anglican communion.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the sentence of death by hanging announced last week on Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five young children who has already spent four years in jail in Pakistan under that country’s unacceptable blasphemy laws? Will my right hon. Friend join me and others in the House in sending out a clear message to the Government of Pakistan that they must review this case?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. This is a terrible, grim and desperate case. I fear that it is a stain on the reputation of Pakistan that this young woman should have been in prison for such a long time.
Far too often around the world, cases of apostasy and the way in which blasphemy laws are used in some cases, as in Pakistan, are a complete offence against the principles of the United Nations charter on freedom of religion. We all need to take every opportunity to express to the Pakistani high commissioner in London and the Government of Pakistan how desperate and sad the world is to see that Pakistan has not managed to resolve that case more swiftly.
Only the other day, the Archbishop of Canterbury commented that Christianity is at risk of being completely eliminated from the whole of the Levant. I know that he is in discussions with faith leaders from across the middle east to see how we can work together to try to ensure that some religious tolerance returns as swiftly as possible.
The situation is desperate: the world appears to be going backwards, away from the high principles of the United Nations charter of 1945 and towards a situation in which intolerance, rather than tolerance, is increasingly becoming the norm.
Between December and July, the Crown Nominations Commission is due to consider appointments to four vacant diocesan sees: Southwell and Nottingham, Gloucester, Oxford, and Newcastle. In addition, nine of the Church’s 68 suffragan sees are either vacant or due to become vacant over the coming months.
I do not suppose that the Church Commissioners can do anything to recognise the wonderful work by Huddersfield doctor Geraldine O’Hara. Many of us will have heard her diary from Sierra Leone. However, the House could recognise what she is doing. The Church Commissioners can recognise another woman, Catherine Ogle, the dean of Birmingham, who I believe should be an early candidate for bishop.
There are a number of very impressive senior women in the Church of England, including cathedral deans such as the one to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. There are also women archdeacons and others who I am sure will be in contention for early appointment as women bishops in the Church of England.
The investments of the Church Commissioners are the responsibility of the assets committee. They are guided by a professional investment team supported by external advisers and the advice of the Church of England ethical investment advisory group.
The Church Commissioners have investments of just over £6 billion. From that is generated an annual income of about £100 million, most of which is devoted to clergy pensions, and the rest to helping poorer dioceses across the country, such as Durham and Liverpool, and supporting their mission work. The Church Commissioners are advised by the Ethical Investment Advisory Group. I assure my hon. Friend, and the House, that we take considerable care to monitor any investment that might have an effect in these areas: tobacco, defence, non-military firearms, gambling, pornography, high interest rate lending, stem cell research, alcohol, and genetically modified organisms. For each and every one of those, the assets committee and the Ethical Investment Advisory Group spend hours and hours working to produce detailed policy to try and ensure not only that we do not invest inappropriately but that we use our investments to encourage companies to act responsibly.
I think that the Church of England believes in having partnerships of constructive engagement with the companies in which it invests. Therefore, will the Church Commissioners, first, call for SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration firm in which it has shares, to launch an independent investigation into the allegations of corruption and violence that it has attracted in its dealings with the Virunga national park in Democratic Republic of the Congo; and secondly, explain how this investment aligns with the Christian values of the Church?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Individual Voter Registration (Scotland)
Owing to the recent referendum, the transition to individual voter registration in Scotland started only on 19 September. The commission will report on initial progress of the transition in November, with similar information to be published on its recent analysis of progress made in England and Wales, where 87% of electors were matched and can be automatically transferred to the new register.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his answer. Unfortunately, I have wards in my constituency where fewer than 50% of people were successfully matched. Given that record numbers registered for and participated in last month’s referendum, including, particularly, 16 and 17-year-olds, what steps will be taken to ensure that young people are encouraged to do individual voter registration if they are not properly matched under the existing arrangements?
I can give an assurance to the hon. Lady. First, as I said earlier, it is now possible to register online, and for younger people, in particular, that is now very easy to do. Secondly, a public awareness campaign has been launched in Scotland, as I hope that many of her constituents are aware. Finally, and crucially, no one will come off the register between now and May 2015. If they are on the register today—or were on it a month or two months ago—they will be able to vote in May 2015. That is an important message.
Refugees and Migrants (Search and Rescue Operation)
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on why the Government have decided not to support search and rescue operations for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean.
The United Kingdom has a long and proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those who genuinely need it. We work closely with our European neighbours to provide assistance to those fleeing fear or persecution and to deter those whose criminal actions stand in the way of providing effective help.
The scenes we have witnessed in the Mediterranean in recent months, with people risking their lives to reach Europe, are hugely distressing. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that over 3,000 people have already died attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year, compared with some 700 deaths in the whole of last year. When people are risking life and limb—not just their own, but those of their loved ones too—it is clear that they are caught in a desperate situation. Nobody underestimates the sincerity of their plight. It demands an equally sincere approach from the governments of European nations, and that is what it has been getting.
Since Italy launched its Mare Nostrum operation in October 2013, there has been an unprecedented increase in illegal immigration across the Mediterranean and a fourfold increase in the deaths of those making that perilous journey. The operation has been drawn closer and closer to the Libyan shore, as traffickers have taken advantage of the situation by placing more vulnerable people in unseaworthy boats on the basis that they will be rescued and taken to Italy. However, many are not rescued, which is why we believe that the operation is having the unintended consequence of placing more lives at risk, and why EU member states have unanimously agreed that the operation should be promptly phased out.
It is, of course, vital that this phasing out is well managed and well publicised, to mitigate the risk of further deaths. It is vital that we continue to take action to provide real help to those who genuinely need it.
We have made clear our view that the only sustainable answer to the current situation in the Mediterranean is to enhance operational co-operation within the EU; work with the countries of origin and transit to tackle the causes of illegal immigration and the organised gangs that facilitate it; and enhance support for protection in north and east Africa for those in need.
We have agreed to a request from Frontex—the EU’s border management agency—to deploy a debriefing expert in support of the new Frontex Operation Triton off the southern Italian coast. This operation is not designed to replace Mare Nostrum, but will instead patrol closer to EU borders. We stand ready to consider any further request for UK support for the new Frontex operation.
The UK is also among those member states offering substantial numbers of resettlement places for refugees from outside the EU—more than 4,000 between 2008 and 2013—working closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In close partnership with other member states, we are developing a strong programme of work to tackle the causes of migration from the horn of Africa, including through investment in regional protection programmes.
It is not in the interests of anyone—most especially those who are genuinely fleeing persecution—if European countries have an uncontrolled and ineffective approach to immigration and asylum. It is not in the interests of anyone if the criminal gangs that exploit the fear and suffering of vulnerable people—endangering human lives for cold, hard cash—are allowed to continue their despicable work unimpeded. It is not in the interests of anyone if we fail to adapt to a situation which encourages more and more people to make that dangerous journey across the seas. That is why member states across the EU have unanimously agreed to act—to defend our borders, crack down on crime and protect those who so desperately need our protection.
The Minister knows that many of those seeking to make the journey are fleeing war, poverty and starvation in places such as Syria and Libya. They know already that the risks of dying en route are high. They are exploited by people traffickers, as the Minister has accepted, and if they are picked up by European navies or border control, they know they will not be given free entry to Europe, but are likely to end up in a detention centre in Italy or to be sent back to their country of origin. Surely it is obvious that these refugees and migrants are desperate given that they are still prepared to make these terrible journeys. The idea that search and rescue operations should be discontinued and that people should be left to die in their thousands—presumably in order to discourage others from making the journey—is not just cruel and inhumane, but totally without logic
Is not the right response for Europe as a whole to support a comprehensive search and rescue operation for refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean? Will the Government now reconsider their position and try to persuade other European nations to bring that about? Why do the Government not listen to the refugee agencies when they say that the real answer to the problem is to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection?
This policy is shameful. Surely, when we know that hundreds of our fellow human beings face a terrible death and it is in our power to do something about it, it is our moral duty to act. And if we fail to do so, are we not complicit in their deaths?
I am very proud of this Government’s humanitarian work. The investment we have provided for places such as Syria—we have committed about £700 million to the aid effort that is providing direct assistance to those in need—reflects our response. The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of search and rescue operations, but I want to highlight the fact that such matters are for individual member states in respect of their territorial waters. It is ultimately for Italy to decide how it conducts its search and rescue operations.
The Frontex operation, which I have outlined, provides surveillance capability and other support at the border. I find it inconceivable—the head of Frontex has said the same—that support would not be provided if a boat were in peril. Obviously, a rescue would be undertaken in those circumstances.
The Government’s view is that, because of the situation in various parts of the region, a regional solution is required. I have already made the point that assistance is required to prevent people from making such perilous journeys. The judgment of the UK Government and other Governments across the EU is that the emergency measures should be stopped at the earliest opportunity. Ultimately, we want to do something that helps, but sadly, in our judgment, the emergency measures are not achieving that end.
I commend the Minister for his statement, which, to be perfectly honest, was full of common sense. Is it not the case that since the search and rescue operation began, more and more people have tried their luck, with the result that there has been more and more illegal immigration and more and more deaths? The solution must therefore be to stop the search and rescue operation. Does he agree that the message that should go out from this House is not about restoring the operation, but about telling people to stop trying their luck in the first place?
Our genuine concern has been to provide solutions to prevent people from making those perilous journeys. As I said in my statement, the sad reality is that the number of those who have died in the Mediterranean sea has increased since the introduction of the Mare Nostrum operation. It is therefore right to look at what assistance can be provided on north African borders through direct aid, and at what further assistance the European External Action Service can give for such solutions. The approach of the Government and of other EU member states is about saving lives, not putting them in peril.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) for securing the urgent question, and the Minister for his response.
After days of silence, it is absolutely right that the Government should come to the House and answer for their decision to abandon search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. No one is suggesting that the problem of migrants entering Europe from north Africa and the middle east does not need to be addressed, but leaving people to die in their thousands is not the answer.
This year alone 150,000 people have been rescued in the Mediterranean and, as the Minister said, 3,000 people—3,000 men, women and children—have died on their way over. Most of them were fleeing desperate poverty or war zones, and many of them were under the control of human traffickers. Instead of trying to reduce this appalling loss of life, the Government have decided to allow it to increase. The 150,000 people rescued this year will in future be left at the mercy of the sea: if their overcrowded, decrepit boat sinks, they will be left to drown. This is a barbaric abandonment of British values.
Moreover, this decision was taken to distract from a failed immigration policy. With a net migration target in tatters, border security downgraded, a crisis at Calais to which the Government have no answer and in desperation at the prospect of a by-election loss to UKIP, the Government needed to be seen doing something—anything—to appear tough on immigration, but it will not be effective. The Government have provided no evidence that abandoning rescue missions will reduce the number of people getting on the boats. When will the Government publish the evidence and the impact assessment?
Many of the individuals concerned have no choice in the matter because they are under the control of human traffickers, as has been said. What is being done, therefore, to tackle trafficking gangs in north Africa and southern Europe?
The Government need to start working with our European partners to address the so-called pull factors. Once people are on a boat and are drowning off the coast of Italy, it is too late. We need to intervene far earlier, so when does the Minister next plan to meet his EU counterparts to discuss the matter?
We must remember that Operation Triton is not only about attempting to stop those who make the dangerous journey to Europe in boats coming to harm, but about protecting our borders. Will the Minister confirm the reports that the Government are providing just one immigration officer to gather intelligence about those who arrive in Italy by sea? That seems to be totally inadequate. We need to know what more the Government intend to do to play their part in making Operation Triton a viable alternative to search and rescue.
Rescuing people who are in danger of drowning is a legal obligation under international maritime law, as is set out in the international convention for the safety of life at sea. The Government may be abandoning their efforts in that regard, but what will happen to commercial boats that intervene, as they are obliged to do?
The hon. Lady has sought to politicise this issue in a way that does not reflect the intent or focus of the Government.
I say to the hon. Lady clearly that the people who are responsible for the deaths of those at sea are the organised traffickers who seek to exploit the vulnerable by putting them in increasing numbers on boats that are entirely unseaworthy. Our judgment is that extending the emergency measures has encouraged that and put more lives at risk. That is our primary focus. Indeed, it is the focus not simply of the UK Government, but the unanimous conclusion of all 28 member states of the EU.
The hon. Lady made an appropriate point about intervening earlier and looking overseas at the flows of people across borders far from the Mediterranean sea. That is why I made the point about the aid, assistance and political leadership that the UK provides in that work. She asked when we would meet other European Ministers. The Italian Government will host a conference in the coming weeks to look at these very issues around the horn of Africa. We look forward to attending and supporting that conference.
The hon. Lady asked about the support that the British Government are providing to Frontex. I want to make it clear that the UK is not a fully participating member of Frontex because it is not in the Schengen area, and Frontex is an EU body that is designed to safeguard that area. However, we have always sought to respond as favourably as we can to any requests that Frontex makes of the UK. Indeed, the expert to whom she referred is being provided as a consequence of the requests that we have received from Frontex to date. We stand ready to look favourably on any further requests that Frontex may wish to make of the UK Government in support of Operation Triton.
I say again that the focus of the Government is not on short-term political issues, but on examining what will make a difference in the region and providing the necessary humanitarian support. Our judgment is that the steps that are being taken are about saving lives, not putting lives at risk.
Claiming that rescuing people from drowning in the sea is somehow a pull factor for people who are fleeing war is an absurd and deeply unethical thing for the Government to do. Can the Government not see that more people are travelling because half of the middle east is burning? Has the Minister not seen the advice of his own Foreign Office? We cannot wash our hands of these people, Pontius Pilate-style. If we are to prevent people from boarding rickety boats and drowning at sea, we will have to work with our European colleagues and find safe routes of travel. Can the Minister not see that he has lost any sense of ethical reasoning here?
I entirely reject the analysis that my hon. Friend seeks to proffer in this regard. No one is turning a blind eye to humanitarian issues or needs. The purpose of the actions being taken is to put fewer lives at risk, and I am sorry that she is unable to accept the clear purpose of what we are undertaking. On the idea that boats in need of assistance would simply be ignored, I point her to the head of Frontex who said that if a boat in distress is spotted, rescue is the top priority. I am sure that that is precisely what will happen.
The mayor of Calais told the Home Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the destination of choice for many who arrive in Italy is Calais and after that London, and £12 million has been allocated in Calais. The unintended consequences of not allocating support will be that more people will die in the Mediterranean. I understand why the Minister does not want to give succour to people traffickers, but that is what will happen. The real problem is the failure of Frontex to act appropriately to ensure that the borders are secure. He will see that at the Greek-Turkish border, and at Melilla in Morocco where people are climbing over the fence that the Spanish have put up, this issue will remain a problem. When he goes to Rome will he please also visit Lampedusa and ensure that the real long-term solution is with the countries of north Africa? We must support them in preventing people from leaving in the first place, and that is where our focus should be.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I commend him and members of his Committee for the focus they have attached to this issue. I know they have undertaken a number of visits to the region to see the situation for themselves. He is right to say that the solutions lie in north Africa, which is why I made a point about the need for focus and attention there. The mayor of Calais characterised the UK as the primary destination, but let us analyse where asylum applications are being made. The UK anticipates around 25,000 applications this year, but France anticipates around 65,000, Sweden around 80,000, and Germany more than 200,000. This is an issue for the whole EU, and it is important, as I have said, to continue to work together to find solutions.
The flow of migrants across the Mediterranean is now more than just a trickle, and the Minister is right, as is the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), to say that the solution is to work on the causes of migration. I commend to the Minister the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on instability in north and west Africa, and I put to him a question posed in that report that did not get a very clear answer: if a British warship finds a boatload of refugees in the middle of the Mediterranean, is the policy to escort it back to north Africa, or to usher it into a European port?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee in looking at the pressures in north Africa and across the region. We have a keen focus on and interest in the Committee’s reports and recommendations. On identifying and rescuing boats at sea, clearly if vessels are in the territorial waters of a particular country I would expect the normal rules of the sea to apply. That is why Frontex, with its mission to protect the security of the external European border, will focus on the 30-mile limit off the Italian coast.
Is the Minister aware that, for many British people, including those who share his concern about protecting our borders, the decision on search and rescue represents a new low? Of course the solution to those problems lies in north Africa, and of course there must be a regional solution, but consciously pursuing a policy that will allow people to drown should play no part in protecting Europe’s borders. Some of us are reminded of nothing more than the Exodus, the boat that, at the end of the second world war, tried to take Jewish refugees to Palestine and was turned away by the British Government on precisely the kind of realpolitik grounds the Minister has advanced this morning. Just as people look back in shame at what we did in relation to the Exodus and the fleeing Jewish refugees, we will look back in shame on the decision he is trying to defend today.
I respect the hon. Lady’s passion and that of other hon. Members, but the harsh reality is that more people are dying in the Mediterranean following the introduction of Mare Nostrum and the emergency measures. If we want solutions that save lives, we need to examine different options and alternatives. Not just the UK Government but 28 other EU member states have come to that same conclusion. The measure cannot therefore be characterised as a specific action of the UK Government. There has been an EU-wide recognition that things are simply not working and not saving lives. The very thing that the hon. Lady wants achieved is what we want: we want fewer lives lost and to ensure that fewer people head out to sea in dangerous boats. That is why I make the points about going after organised traffickers, and about finding a regional solution in north Africa and elsewhere.
I congratulate the Government on reducing the push factors that drive a lot of immigrants to Europe, by our expenditure through the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to improve governance in Africa, but may I also challenge the Minister? Does he believe that the evil people traffickers are likely to issue a press release saying, “If you make this journey in future, you are unlikely to be rescued”? Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) from the Opposition Front Bench, does the Minister share my concern that there might be an international lawsuit against this country and possibly Europe through the UN convention on the law of the sea and the International Maritime Organisation sea regulations? The IMO is the only UN body, and it is based just 1 mile from Parliament.
I do not underestimate the sheer evil of the traffickers. They exploit the vulnerable and put them to sea in boats that are not seaworthy and are not necessarily able to reach the shores of the European Union. That is why I was clear in my statement about ensuring that the changes are well communicated and well understood. That must be part of the approach. Rescuing people at sea is a member state competence, not an EU competence, so it will always be for individual member states to ensure that search and rescue operations are undertaken appropriately, in accordance with the normal laws of the sea.
I do not think I have heard a more shameful statement from this Government. This is where we are: this poisonous debate about immigration—this monstrous race to the bottom between the Government and the UKIP as to who can be hardest on immigration—is leaving people to die in the Mediterranean. Is the Minister not absolutely ashamed of himself?
The only shameful thing I have heard is the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The debate has been impassioned, but there has been an understanding of the challenges that individual Governments face in seeking to address a problem that has got worse. We argue that the steps that have been taken have not assisted in the way that was intended. We cannot turn our eyes away from a situation that is getting worse and not better. That is why we focus on steps to ensure that regional solutions are established and supported, and that we have an external border that is surveilled through Frontex. If boats are identified as in need of assistance, that is what will happen.
Am I right in thinking that this was a unanimous decision by all Home Affairs and Justice Ministers throughout the European Union at a Justice and Home Affairs Council? Labour, Liberal and Scottish National another party colleagues who oppose this are actually out of step with every Government—left, right or centre—in the EU. It was never the intention of the United Nations convention on refugees, which was brought in just after the second world war, automatically to give indefinite leave to remain to anyone trafficked from a third country into Europe.
My right hon. Friend makes a clear point. This did arise from the most recent Justice and Home Affairs Council meeting, and it was the unanimous conclusion of 28 member states across the EU. Frankly, to characterise this as a short-term political issue completely misses the point and does not have proper regard for those who are in peril and fleeing persecution.
Everyone condemns the criminal gangs and everyone would like to see people discouraged from coming to Europe for obvious reasons, but is the Minister aware that this policy will be summed up in three words, namely: let them drown?
No, I do not accept that. We will see Frontex, through Operation Triton, conducting surveillance operations around the coast of Italy. Matters of search and rescue remain with Italy and other member states in respect of their territorial waters. They will remain a matter for the Italian Government, who I am sure will take their responsibilities extremely seriously.
In 2005, the European Union unanimously pledged to give 0.7% of gross national income to overseas development assistance. The EU, with the honourable exception of the UK and a number of other countries, will singularly fail to meet that pledge. Is today’s announcement not putting the cart before the horse? Should the EU not be investing in measures such as those outlined by the Minister before withdrawing support? I ask him to think again. The EU needs to fulfil the pledges it solemnly made in 2005 and ensure that work is done in north Africa before this kind of support is withdrawn.
To be clear, the EU is not withdrawing anything. Mare Nostrum is an Italian initiative. It is supported by the Italian navy, and ultimately decisions will be taken by the Italian Government. However, my hon. Friend makes a profound and important point about the responsibility of all Governments in the EU to look at international development in the way that we have: state-building and providing long-term solutions, as well as ensuring that clear messages are sent and clear policies are undertaken bilaterally, or through the external action service of the EU, to do the very things he has outlined.
Why can the Minister not see that it is not a case of either addressing the causes in north Africa or dealing with the consequences now, but a question of both? The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) mentioned the International Maritime Organisation. Why can the Minister not also see that this is not simply an issue for nation states? It is an issue that needs to be addressed across the EU, and the Government should be playing their part. On the so-called pull factor, that is an argument that could have been used to discourage people from setting up the Kindertransport before the second world war.
We play our part within the EU. We continue to lead discussions with individual member states and across the EU membership on long-term and short-term solutions to why people are getting on those boats and to the transit of people across nations to the north African coast. We take that responsibility very seriously, backed up not just by rhetoric but by investment through our international development focus and the money provided to support it. We stand proud of the UK Government’s record in providing that assistance.
It would help to reduce the attractiveness of this country as a destination for illegal immigrants if being an illegal immigrant was made a specific criminal offence, as provided for in the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), the Illegal Immigrants (Criminal Sanctions) Bill. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s support for that measure?
Our focus is on ensuring that we have strong and effective borders, which is precisely what our Border Force is doing, with more checks undertaken under this Government than under the previous Government. We are also focused on ensuring that where people are not here legally—when they come to this country and are not found to be in need of humanitarian protection—we put in place measures to see that they are returned. Indeed, I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise the work done under the Immigration Act 2014 to achieve precisely that: to ensure that, through measures on rented accommodation, bank accounts, driving licences and other issues, the very steps he is advocating are actively assisted.
The coincidence of events does not necessarily prove a causal link. The Minister has told us that he believes the search and rescue operation has increased the number of people trying to cross the Mediterranean, but this is during a period when unrest and wars have continued to grow. Can he prove there is a causal link? Should he not get the evidence first before acting?
We expressed our concerns and reservations in respect of those very issues in advance of the introduction of Mare Nostrum, but we are not talking about the assessment simply of the UK Government; we are talking about the assessment of 28 member states across the EU that have come to that conclusion.
I speak on this issue having experienced both sides of the coin as an east African Sikh. With all the emotionally charged comments we have heard in the Chamber today, it would be helpful to remind Opposition Members that many of us of Indian descent who came out of Africa were not particularly proud of the fact that we were promised British passports and were then faced with a Labour Home Secretary who, when push came to shove, pulled up the drawbridge.
As for today’s issue, as a constituency MP in Wolverhampton, I am struck by the size of the backlog of cases that immigration staff have to deal with. Will the Minister update the House on the legacy bequeathed to us by the last Government, not just in the economy but in terms of immigration and asylum cases?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting his direct personal experience and the need for care to be taken in the tone we use. I am sorry that some have sought to characterise this issue in the way they have. He is also right to underline the shambles that this Government inherited and the steps we have taken to deal with the problems. The situation is improving and we are dealing with the backlogs—something that was simply ignored by the last Government, who were incapable of dealing with them.
The reality, as I have already indicated, is that more lives have been lost to date this year than were lost in 2013. Our focus is on ensuring that this is about reducing the tragic human cost we see in the Mediterranean sea. If we can telegraph that clear message to the traffickers in north Africa who are exploiting very vulnerable people, I absolutely believe that is the right thing to do to save lives.
The wars in the middle east and consequent humanitarian situation are so dire there that Europe is unlikely to have an impact on the push factors in the near term. The pressures on countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and the refugee crisis there surely mean that Europe needs to face up to its responsibilities better than it has done to date. I welcomed what the Minister said about co-operation with UNHCR and getting more placements here in the UK. Will he add some detail to that announcement?
On the latter point, we work closely with UNHCR, in connection with the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme, for example. We work with it in identifying those most acutely in need of help and assistance. It is a good partnership and I think it is effective. On the broader issue of various middle east countries, my hon. Friend is right to underline the contributions that need to be made by all European Governments. I certainly stand proud when it comes to the work of the Department for International Development, which is contributing £145 million to the Arab Partnership programme, with the aim of supporting a more stable and prosperous middle east and north Africa.
I am not going to beat the Minister over the head about this, because Members on all sides of the House share a great responsibility for the turmoil in the middle east and other places, which has caused much of the migration in the first place. I would say, however, that morally I cannot stand by without saying that I think it is repugnant that we leave children and families to perish in this way. What I dislike is that we do not have an alternative positive policy. We know the point of embarkation for many people—often Libya—so why can we not have a European partnership to tackle the problem proactively?
That is precisely what is happening through the work of member states and, indeed, our Foreign Office and DFID. The harsh reality is that we are seeing those deaths at sea. Our judgment is that extending the search and rescue approach that has been taken close to the Libyan coast will mean more people putting out to sea in less seaworthy boats in greater numbers. That is making the situation worse.
Since Mare Nostrum was established some 12 months ago, 3,000 or more people have lost their lives, notwithstanding the presence of more than 30 Italian vessels patrolling the Mediterranean sea. Does my hon. Friend agree that the root cause of the problem is the activities of the people traffickers and that one of the best services that both this country and the EU could perform would be to conduct an information campaign in north Africa to try to inform and persuade people that if they put their lives in the hands of these people, they will very likely end up losing them?
I agree with my right hon. Friend on the messaging and communication around the strategy. However, I say to him most acutely that the organised traffickers are absolutely responsible for the exploitation of the vulnerable, leading to the deaths of scores of people. That is why we are working very closely with a number of European nations to step up our intelligence sharing and actively to go after those organised crime groups that are trading in human misery.
In all my years in academic philosophy, I never heard such sophistry as I have heard from the Minister today. The solution is of course on the north African coast, but if that is the case, that solution must be implemented so that people do not leave in droves before the safety net is taken up. Why is the Minister taking the safety net away while people are still falling out of a burning building?
It is for the Italian Government to determine, as they are the lead in the search and rescue operations off their coast, when Mare Nostrum is or is not terminated. It is ultimately a matter for them. As I have underlined on a number of occasions, this Government are not turning a blind eye to any of the humanitarian suffering. That is why we stand ready to support Frontex on Operation Triton and to take the lead on communications around the approach. I say again that the reality—the harsh reality—is that the current arrangements are, in our judgment, making matters worse, and that is what drives our approach.
I am aware of a number of points that have been made in this House and by other agencies. We are keen to ensure that the approach is well communicated and well addressed. Our focus, and the focus of the aid agencies and the UNHCR, is on saving lives. That is the Government’s motivation, and the motivation of many other agencies.
In response to the question from the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), the Minister referred to the Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme. It has been reported that, under that scheme, just 50 of the people who have had to flee their homes and their country have been given safe haven in the United Kingdom—just 50 of the 3 million refugees who have had to flee Syria as a result of this crisis. The Minister is a decent man. Why does he not want the United Kingdom to do more to give those who are fleeing brutality a safe and legal route to this country?
I respect the manner in which the hon. Lady has asked her question, but the United Kingdom is playing its full role. For instance, we have invested £700 million in the region, because given the numbers that are involved, a regional solution is required. That money is providing direct support for hundreds of thousands of people in the region who are in desperate need of assistance. Our Syrian vulnerable persons relocation scheme is intended to assist those who are most acutely in need of help; we have said that it will provide assistance for several hundred people over the next three years, and that is precisely what it is doing.
It is clear that the EU’s external frontier is as leaky as a sieve—whether we are talking about the land border with the ex-Soviet Union, the islands between Greece and Turkey, or the Mediterranean coast off north Africa—and that Frontex is a highly dysfunctional organisation. Surely part of the solution would be an effective policing operation off the north African coast, using close-to-shore patrol vessels. Frontex should be encouraged to work with the north African Governments to register such vessels under north African flags, so that people can be caught close to the shore and returned to their countries of origin.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but Frontex adds an important element in respect of the Schengen external border—the EU border—and the establishment of Operation Triton. As I have said, the United Kingdom stands ready to support any requests that may be received, and we will consider such requests very carefully. We are not a full member of Frontex, but it is important that there is that continued focus on ensuring that the EU’s external borders are properly maintained.
Lest we forget, this Government, supported by Her Majesty’s Opposition, backed military intervention in Libya. The people who are drowning in the Mediterranean are fleeing the chaos in that country. Is there not a simple moral imperative? Do we not have a moral obligation to those people until there is a stable Government in Libya?
As has been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is the Minister with responsibility for north Africa, we are focusing very directly on north Africa, and on Libya in particular. We have a nominated representative to lead that activity after 40 years of misrule in the country. As I have said, Frontex is providing support at the external border through Operation Triton, and it is the Italian Government, not the EU, who are actively providing search and rescue assistance. That applies in the case of all member states. Ultimately, it is the Italian Government who will decide on matters relating to their own territorial waters.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 3 November—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Recall of MPs Bill, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill.
Tuesday 4 November—Remaining stages of the Modern Slavery Bill.
Wednesday 5 November—Opposition day (9th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 6 November—General debate on UK foreign policy towards Iran followed by general debate on promotion of the living wage. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 7 November—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 10 November will include:
Monday 10 November—Remaining stages of the Childcare Payments Bill.
Tuesday 11 November—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Colleagues will also wish to know that the House will meet at 12 o’clock on this day.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 November will be:
Thursday 6 November—General debate on the US-UK mutual defence agreement.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I also thank him for the challenge he sets me each week to find much Government legislation to talk about.
On Monday, the Justice Secretary’s plan to block any dissent through the courts was halted in the other place as the Government lost three key votes. A brace of Tory ex-Cabinet Ministers backed our amendments to maintain some legal discretion by judicial review, and a former Lord Chief Justice described the Government’s preferred alternative as an “elective dictatorship”.
We all know that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has been openly conniving with the United Kingdom Independence party to subject the European arrest warrant to judicial review when it is reintroduced. Only this Prime Minister could try to solve the latest challenge to his authority from the Eurosceptics by seeking to abolish judicial review rather than by containing the antics of the hon. Member for North East Somerset. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Government will now acknowledge that they have gone too far on judicial review and accept our amendments?
Tuesday is equal pay day—the day when women effectively stop being paid for the rest of the year because of the gender pay gap. The picture is bleak. The pay gap is at 20% and widening, women are earning less than they were a year ago, and the UK has crashed down the world gender equality rankings to 26th place. It is no wonder that the Prime Minister has refused to wear a Fawcett feminist T-shirt. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on this Government’s dire record on women, and will he wear the T-shirt?
With 21 days to go to the by-election in Rochester and Strood, the panic has clearly set in and the work of Government seems to have been wholly subordinated to Tory attempts to outflank UKIP on Europe. We have had the tantalising, and as yet unfulfilled, promise of yet another “game-changing” European announcement from the Prime Minister. We have had his unconvincing Mr Angry performance in Brussels on the €2 billion bill that the Chancellor forgot to tell him about. And we all know that half his parliamentary party seem content to put our security at risk by plotting to sink the European arrest warrant in a move that his former immigration Minister says would make us the “Costa del Crime”. Yesterday, the Prime Minister promised a vote on the European arrest warrant before the by-election. The Leader of the House has just announced business up to 17 November, which is just three days before the by-election, so will he tell us when the vote will actually take place? Given that the Prime Minister has totally lost control of his party, Labour Members need plenty of notice to ensure that UK security is not sacrificed on the altar of the Tory civil war.
I note the mysterious absence in the future business of any reference to the European Union (Referendum) Bill. However, I have managed to get my hands on a couple of letters that shed some light on this mystery. On Tuesday afternoon, the Tory Chief Whip wrote to his ever loyal flock announcing:
“Today the Liberal Democrats have killed the EU Referendum Bill”.
In retaliation, the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats wrote to all Tory MPs stating:
“This claim is utterly false”.
What a sad state of affairs: in four and a half years they have gone from fluttering eyelashes in the rose garden to an exchange of “Dear John” letters. But the problem with all this is that no one seems to have bothered to tell the House what on earth is going on. Genuinely important Bills are being held up by this farce, so can the Leader of the House confirm that these two Bills are now dead, in order that there can be progress on the others? If the European Union (Referendum) Bill was so important, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us why, in the words of his coalition colleagues, the Prime Minister
“folded like a cheap deckchair”
at the first opportunity in the negotiation that could have ensured its passage?
Last week, I was harsh on the Chief Whip for his absence from the Chamber—I note his absence again today. I have since discovered that he was learning some skills to help him with the job—at the Westminster dog of the year competition. May I congratulate him on coming second with his dog Snowy, which he described as “naughty, stubborn and greedy”. That sounds a lot like his Tory Back Benchers. Members are fleeing the kennel to UKIP, the Eurosceptics are straining at the leash and Lynton Crosby has sent the dog whistle into overdrive. Anyone who would vote for this lot must be barking.
Let me turn to the serious parts of the questions first. The hon. Lady asked about what she called the “absence” of legislation. If we look at the business I have just announced, we see that it includes the Recall of MPs Bill, the Modern Slavery Bill, which is of global importance, the Childcare Payments Bill, which will be of enormous help to many people in this country, and the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which, as with any matter of taxation, is extremely important. That is the business of the House in just the next 10 days, so to say that business is thin is a refrain for some week past; it is not relevant to this week.
The hon. Lady asked when there would be a vote on opting in to certain measures in justice and home affairs. We have, of course, already decided to opt out of 100 measures, which is the largest return of power from Brussels to Britain ever seen in the history of this country. She said that I had announced the business up to 17 November, but she was not listening carefully enough, because I have announced the business up to 11 November. There is more time before we reach 20 November, as simple arithmetic makes it possible to deduce.
The hon. Lady asked about the coalition and when there will be an opportunity for the House to discuss money resolutions and private Members’ Bills. Those are discussed on private Members’ Bills days, and this issue was raised in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. It can hardly be said that the House does not have an opportunity to address these things, but, as she will have gathered, money resolutions have not been agreed in the Government on the European Union (Referendum) Bill or the Affordable Homes Bill. She asks whether that allows other private Members’ Bills to proceed, and the answer to that is yes. That is why I have announced in the business the money resolution relating to the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill, which will be moved on Monday. I am also placing on the Order Paper a motion that will allow that Bill to go into Committee. Other private Members’ Bills are, in the light of this situation, able to proceed.
The hon. Lady asked about votes that took place this week in the House of Lords, and of course the Bill she mentions will come to the Commons, we will be able to consider those amendments and the Government will have the opportunity to ask the House to reverse them if it wishes to do so. I note that yet again she did not ask—the Opposition never seem to—for any debates on, or time to discuss, the economy of this country. We look forward to a few such requests, because since the last business questions the GDP figures have shown our economy to be 3% bigger than it was a year ago and the statistics released yesterday showed the number of workless households in this country now to be at its lowest for at least 18 years—the figure is lower than at any point during the last Labour Government. Although we have our differences in the coalition from time to time, we have brought about that transformation of the economic prospects of this country. I will of course convey to the Chief Whip the hon. Lady’s congratulations on his dog doing so well in the Westminster dog of the year show.
As the hon. Lady asked about the Government record on policies towards women, I have to remind her that, under Labour, female unemployment rose 24%, and under this Government there are more women in work than ever before. When the Government whom she supported left office, 25% of the FTSE 100 boards had no female members. Now there are no FTSE 100 boards that have no female members. A higher proportion of public appointments have gone to women this year than in any year in the previous decade. Half of all honours this year have gone to women, which never happened under the previous Government. There are more women-led businesses than ever before, and there are, after the work that we have done in the Foreign Office over the past four years, more women ambassadors than ever before. Since I am on record all over the world as saying that the great strategic prize of this century is the full economic, social and political empowerment of women everywhere, it is clear that sometimes this is what a feminist looks like, with or without the T-shirt, and I have no hesitation in saying that.
Finally, as I always congratulate the hon. Lady on something—I have found something to congratulate her on every week so far—I congratulate her on being omitted by Maureen Lipman from the roll-call of reasons not to vote Labour any more. Maureen Lipman announced that, for the first time in five decades, she will not be voting Labour. She said:
“The Chuka Harman Burnham Hunt Balls brigade? I can’t, in all seriousness, go into a booth and put my mark on any one of them.”
I will draw Maureen Lipman’s attention to the hon. Lady, as she might be worth a vote.
On Monday, we had a report on HS2 by Sir David Higgins. As with many such reports, his raised more questions than it gave answers. The blight of this project affects many thousands of people along the proposed route, including many of my constituents. Uncertainty now about the location of the east midlands hub will only serve to spread this blight even wider. May we please have a statement from the Government about when we will know the location of the east midlands hub and the route for phase 2, so that people can get the compensation they need to get on with their lives?
I will draw my hon. Friend’s concerns to the attention of Transport Ministers. Clearly, the location of the east midlands hub needs to work for both Derby and Nottingham, and provide the best possible wider connectivity to the region. However, that work is in its early stages, so it is premature to say that there will be a Government statement on it, and unfair to identify any particular sites until the Government are more certain about where that site might go because of the risk of blight to people’s properties. None the less, I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend and I will draw them to the attention of the Ministers.
Earlier this week, I asked the Minister for Skills and Equalities, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), what the Government were doing to help young people with special needs get into employment. His answer was unsatisfactory. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the matter in Government time, so that we can explore the options available to Government to ensure that young people with special needs can get employment?
Those are important issues, and the Government will have a great deal to say in such a debate about what has been achieved. Given the forthcoming business schedule, I cannot offer a debate in Government time, but the hon. Gentleman can of course pursue a debate in many different ways, including through the Backbench Business Committee, and I encourage him to do so.