House of Commons
Thursday 11 December 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—
Brewing Industry (Beer Exports)
Britain’s breweries are now exporting 1.1 billion pints to 113 countries every year. Thanks to UKTI’s efforts with the brewing industry, British beer is enjoyed around the world from Brussels to Buffalo to Bogota. Brewing is a valuable part of our £100 billion food and farming industry.
St Peter’s brewery in my constituency is a past recipient of the Queen’s award for enterprise and international trade. It has built up a successful export business to more than 30 countries, and it wants to grow further. To allow it to realise its full potential, will the Secretary of State work with me and the Treasury to consider whether the calculation of progressive beer duty relief can be changed?
I would be pleased to work with my hon. Friend and Treasury colleagues on that issue. I was delighted to visit his constituency last week to see plans for a new tidal barrier in Lowestoft, and in future I look forward to visiting St Peter’s brewery and perhaps sampling some of its fine ales.
Earlier this week I attended the northern dairy conference. Farmers—including those in the south-west—are experiencing tough conditions with prices having fallen significantly since spring. On 19 November I hosted a meeting of the dairy supply chain forum and we discussed a number of action points, including better country of origin labelling for British products in the EU, opening new markets for exports, and investing to improve competitiveness and add value to dairy products through the rural development programme. The south-west Dairy Crest factory at Davidstow has benefited from such public investment.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. At current prices many farmers are indeed making a loss, and at the dairy supply chain forum we discussed volatility. The last two years have been a rollercoaster ride for the dairy industry—it had a dire year in 2012, last year was very good, but this year is bad again. We have considered whether we can develop a successful futures market, for example in skimmed milk powder or cheese products, to help farmers manage that volatility in future.
With volatility in the dairy industry impacting on farmers generally, does the Minister agree that the EU intervention threshold, which was agreed at 18p per litre in 2003, does not protect dairy farmers across the UK and is in urgent need of review? What representations will he make to Brussels on that?
I met Northern Ireland representatives from Dairy UK when I was in Brussels last week and they raised that point with me. The European Commission is looking at the intervention price, and our officials are working on what the appropriate price would be. Generally, an increase in that intervention price would tend to benefit other countries that have lower prices before it benefits UK farmers, but we are considering the issue.
The dairy price of 25p and falling means that farmers are producing at a loss. The dairy trade adjudicator can look at parts of the trade, but are there more ways to deal with the price, especially of processed cheese in the supermarket sector? The price of milk is dealt with by supermarkets, but processed cheese is not.
I have considered those issues, which I discussed last week when I appeared before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. My view is that our grocery code, together with the adjudicator, adequately covers retailers, and the Competition and Markets Authority has powers to consider issues further up the supply chain. Our dairy supply chain code is working successfully—the recent review by Alex Fergusson confirmed that—but we must focus on making it work better.
Like many farmers across the country, dairy farmers do not trade directly with supermarkets but deal with processors and food manufacturers. Does the Minister believe that opening up the responsibility of the groceries code adjudicator would bring greater transparency to the marketplace?
As I said, the Competition and Markets Authority already has some ability to look further up the supply chain. The dairy supply chain code covers 85% to 90% of all production. Crucially, it gives farmers the ability to walk away from a contract at three months’ notice if they do not like it. They can shop around. The code is working successfully.
Research published in February by Warwick university found no systematic peer-reviewed UK research on why people turn to food aid. Subsequent reports by the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty acknowledge that people turn to food aid for complex reasons. The best way of reducing poverty is to grow our economy and get people back into work. Since 2010, 1.7 million more people are in work. We have also increased the income tax personal allowance to remove more than 3 million of the lowest earners from taxation. Finally, we have helped the most vulnerable to have access to nutritious food by, for instance, providing free school meals, and through projects such as Healthy Start.
Does the Minister agree not only that we should applaud people such as those who work for the Scunthorpe food bank, who do an absolutely first-class job, but that we should be ashamed that, in this year, in this century, people in one of the most prosperous countries in the world are surviving on food banks?
I join the hon. Gentleman in commending the great work that food banks do. I have at least two in my constituency and plan to visit before the Christmas period—I met the leader last week. People turn to food aid for many complex reasons, including mental health problems. We should recognise that food aid is not limited to the UK and is a global phenomenon. We have seen a big increase in the use of food banks in the US and other European countries.
May I commend to my hon. Friend the “Feeding Britain” report, which was funded with support from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s charitable trust? The report makes recommendations to a number of different organisations, including directly to the food industry, such as encouraging the redistribution of fresh surplus food to food assistance providers and voluntary organisations. Will Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers meet the food industry and the supermarkets to go through the report’s recommendations for the food industry, and see what action the food industry and supermarkets can take?
Yes, we will meet retailers and the food industry. The Waste and Resources Action Programme already has a working group to look at how barriers to the redistribution of food can be removed. We have always been clear that the redistribution of food is far better than recycling, and it comes first in the waste hierarchy.
We have not made enough progress in the three years since I introduced my Food Waste Bill, which tried to highlight the fact that up to 40% of the food produced in this country does not get eaten. Rather than just having voluntary discussions, has the Minister considered making the industry start to donate the food that would otherwise be wasted?
We made progress with the first two rounds of the Courtauld commitment. We have reduced domestic household waste by 15%, and waste in the supply chain has been reduced by more than 8%. There is further to go and more to do, which is why the third round of the Courtauld commitment set ambitious targets.
Is the Minister aware that the great benefit of food banks, particularly Isle of Wight and Trussell food banks, is that they are controlled and run by people who have absolutely nothing to do with the Government? Those on the Isle of Wight are brilliantly organised and supported.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The strength of those charities is that they are run by volunteers and are unencumbered by bureaucracy. That is one reason why we have resisted calls to put reporting obligations on them. We want them to focus on doing their good work rather than on filling out bureaucratic forms for the Government.
Social Tariff (Water Companies)
Eight water companies in England and Wales offer a social tariff on top of the nationally mandated WaterSure scheme. Several more are in dialogue with their customers about introducing a social tariff next year.
I welcome Northumbrian Water’s WaterSure tariff initiative to help low-income families, and I applaud its work with the StepChange debt charity and the award winning Know Your Money in Middlesbrough, but only six water companies are currently offering a social tariff to struggling customers, helping just over 25,000 people in total. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce regional disparities in support and end this postcode lottery?
The important point to note about tariffs is that they are funded within water company areas. As money comes from those areas, it is important that water companies discuss with their customers what the right level of support is, as there are different situations in different areas. The number of schemes is expanding. I, too, welcome what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the country. Northumbrian Water has worked hard to address these issues with its customers to ensure that it can take forward a scheme that works in its area.
Many of us in Yorkshire want not only a social tariff, but a social conscience. Yorkshire Water is owned by a Singapore investment trust, our electricity is owned by the Germans and our gas by the Chinese. Foreign companies, such as Lidl and Aldi, do not seem to have the same corporate social responsibility and social conscience as other companies. What is the Minister doing about foreign-owned utilities, such as Yorkshire Water, that do not have as much of a social conscience?
We have a strong regulatory system that looks at not just the value for money and investment that companies offer customers, but the transparency of their business models and how they operate. Yorkshire Water, for example, has a good debt management programme to help people who have in the past struggled to pay their bills. We are making progress on a whole range of issues, and I welcome the fact that companies are upping their game.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) pointed out, rising water bills are adding to the cost of living crisis. With one in five customers struggling to pay, but only six water companies currently offering support to little more than 25,000 customers, will the Minister acknowledge that he needs to get to grips with this problem by adopting Labour’s national affordability scheme to end the current postcode lottery to which my hon. Friend referred, and to ensure that hard-pressed consumers get the support they need wherever they live?
Since last year, water companies have been able to introduce schemes and they are doing so, but it is important that they take their customers with them and look at what works in their area. The schemes are not funded on a national basis. As I understand it, the Labour party’s proposal would not be funded on a national basis either, but in water company areas. It is important to look at the situation in each area.
Fisheries (Landing Obligation)
The North sea and North Western Waters regional groups agreed a discard ban for the pelagic sector earlier this year. Those plans were subsequently approved by the European Commission and will be implemented from 1 January. The Government are now developing the regional discard plans needed to support the introduction of the demersal landing obligation from January 2016.
The landing obligation comes into effect for the pelagic fleet in three weeks’ time and the revised regulations are still not in place. Of greater concern to me, however, is that there will be no consistent compliance regime for our boats and boats from non-EU countries fishing in our waters. That is unacceptable and it is undermining confidence in the policy before it has even got under way. Will the Minister look once again at the proposals brought forward by the industry to sort this out, and speak to the Commission?
I have had many discussions with the industry on the importance of having a level playing field on enforcement. Norwegian boats and other third-country boats with access to EU waters are required to abide by the discard plan. On enforcement, we got agreement at the EU-Norway deal just last week to ensure that that is now discussed. A working group will discuss how we ensure a level playing field.
Groceries Code Adjudicator (Fines)
As the hon. Gentleman knows, policy responsibility for this issue rests with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, following concerns expressed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last week to both the Secretary of State and me, I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has responsibility for employment relations and consumer affairs, to bring this issue to her attention.
I am grateful to hear that the Minister is on the case. Yesterday I received a written answer from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which said that cross-ministerial discussions are taking place. When are the groceries code adjudicator’s first investigations likely to conclude? Will the statutory instrument be laid by then to allow her the necessary tools, should she need them?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I served on the Committee that considered the Bill that introduced the supermarket adjudicator, and I supported the introduction of fines. At the moment, this matter is subject to cross-Government discussions, and we anticipate an outcome some time in the new year.
Underlying the drop in dairy prices is the huge power imbalance between the small individual dairy farmer and the huge processor. It is not good enough that my hon. Friend is looking to beef up the voluntary code. Will he look closely at a statutory basis and extending the remit of the groceries code adjudicator to this very imbalanced relationship in dairy production?
If we were to have statutory oversight of the dairy supply chain code, we would have to put the code itself on a statutory basis. Because of EU legislation, however, that would make the code far weaker than what we have. For instance, farmers would not have the ability to walk away from contracts with three months’ notice. The course that my hon. Friend outlines would make things worse for farmers, not better.
River Thames (Cleanliness)
We are making good progress on cleaning up the River Thames, particularly in tackling the increasing raw sewage overflows into its tidal stretches. Thames Water will reduce overflows when the Lee tunnel becomes operational in 2015 and through upgrades to major sewage works across London. Once operational in 2023, the Thames tideway tunnel will capture almost all the remaining sewage overflows into the Thames in London.
Thames Water’s Mogden sewage works in Isleworth is the second largest of its kind in the UK. The company has pumped raw sewage into the Thames 23 times in the last year, and residents have struggled with odour from the plant for many years. Will the Minister meet me to discuss a better way forward?
I understand that Thames Water has spent about £30 million to address odour issues at the site and that Hounslow borough council is regularly monitoring it, but if issues remain for local residents, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss them.
With permission, I will answer questions 8 and 11 together.
We will be investing £2.3 billion in more than 1,400 defence schemes over the next six years, protecting at least 300,000 homes and reducing overall flood risk by 5% by 2021.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposals within the Humber flood risk management strategy for protecting 110,000 dwellings and 20,000 businesses. The £80 million announced in the autumn statement last week was extremely welcome, but when will decisions be taken on how to spend the £80 million, and will there be an early decision on future proposals?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and colleagues on their work to put forward such an ambitious proposal. The Environment Agency is considering the proposal in detail, and we will publish a review in July 2015. We were delighted last week to announce £80 million of funding to improve protection for more than 50,000 households around the Humber estuary.
14. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for funding £750,000 of investment in protecting my constituency by improving and maintaining defences along the Severn estuary, notably at Lapper ditch at a cost of £500,000. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me and my constituents, however, that this kind of investment and attention to the problem will be continued over the next few years? (906586)
This is the first time a Government have ever laid out a six-year forward capital spend proposal. It is an increase in real terms on the figure this Parliament, which in turn was an increase in real terms from the previous Parliament. We are also committing an additional £35 million for maintenance this year and next, which the Environment Agency has said will do the job of maintaining our defences.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that of the 1,400 schemes she has talked about, 1,119 are only partly funded and rely on 80% unsecured partnership funding and a 10% efficiency saving that nobody has yet identified? In fact, only 97 of those 1,400 schemes are both new and fully funded. She says that 300,000 households will have reduced flood risk, but this figure is the result of homes going from the category of “low risk” to that of “very low risk”, while the number of homes at “significant” and “high” risk of flooding will go up by 80,000 in the next six years. Will she also confirm that in order to get these figures to add up for the Treasury, she has had to value human life at zero?
In this Parliament, we have already raised £140 million in partnership funding, which is 10 times the amount raised by the previous Government. This means that we are able to go ahead with more flood schemes and protect more homes than they were able to do. As I have made clear, the Environment Agency carried out a detailed assessment showing that overall flood risk will be reduced by 5% as a result of this funding. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor outlined his plans to give tax relief on private contributions to flood defence schemes, thereby making it likely that even more private sector companies will want to invest in flood defences. We are making it happen.
Brewing Industry (Packaging Waste)
The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), met the British Beer and Pub Association in March this year to discuss the producer responsibility regime for waste packaging. Officials have also met the BBPA as well as the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and individual brewing companies to discuss packaging waste.
I thank the Minister for being a long-standing supporter of the beer and pub industry. Will he join me in supporting the Sustain initiative by the BBPA, which is not only increasing compliance but reducing packaging costs to the brewing industry? Does he agree that this shows we have a listening Government, who listen to the industry about the glass recycling targets, which has saved the industry £15 million a year as a result?
I echo my hon. Friend’s words about the steps the industry has taken and I thank him, too, for the work he does to support this important industry. The scheme he mentions has come from within the industry: it is new and not for profit, has an excellent compliance scheme and is a good example of how the industry can organise itself to recycle more and to bring down the cost of compliance.
We have made strong progress in cleaning up our rivers, which are now in far better health than they were 20 years ago. Pollution from sewerage works, for example, has gone down significantly, and phosphate pollution will fall by a further fifth and ammonia pollution by a further sixth by next year. Overall, this Government have improved over 15,000 km of rivers—and I am sure you will be interested to know, Mr Speaker, that this is equivalent to the length of the Amazon and Nile combined, but we know that more needs to be done.
I am enlightened by my hon. Friend’s answer, but does he agree with me that farmers who have managed their land and watercourses for many years are well placed to know how best to preserve them, and that if their watercourses should become blocked, they should be allowed carefully to clear them?
We wish to remove unnecessary burdens from farmers and landowners that might discourage them from undertaking their own watercourse maintenance. Seven new river maintenance pilots were launched in October, and these will test how we can ease consent requirements for watercourse de-silting, and improve partnership working, while ensuring that the environment is protected and, where possible, enhanced. The pilots form part of the catchment-based approach, which will ensure that discussions take place with all those involved in river maintenance, while achieving wider environmental outcomes through transparent decision making that involves and integrates environmental interests with others in these local steering groups for the pilots.
England Coastal Path
We are making good progress with coastal access. It has been implemented on three stretches of the coast in Cumbria, in Dorset, and in Durham, Hartlepool and Sunderland. A further stretch of the coast in Norfolk will be open tomorrow, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has announced that additional funding will be made available to complete the coastal path around England by 2020.
I welcome the announcement that funds will be provided to ensure that the path is completed by 2020. As co-chair of the mountaineering all-party parliamentary group, the pinnacle of APPGs—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Thank you. As co-chair of the group, I pay tribute to the important and pioneering campaign of the Ramblers, supported by, among others, the British Mountaineering Council, which has demonstrated the strength of public support for this vital path. Does the Minister agree that the path will help to reduce physical inactivity, as well as encourage the local economies of coastal communities?
I am tempted to say that my hon. Friend speaks from the moral high ground, given his involvement in making the case for the healthy enjoyment of our countryside. Walking is a great activity, improving health and well-being, and coastal access will bring real benefits, giving local economies a vital boost by encouraging tourism.
What an opportunity, Mr Speaker! The coastline of England is a magnificent tourist attraction, with the potential to regenerate the economies of rural industries. Let us get on with it: let us provide access to the whole of the English coast, and tell the world about our glories.
We are on course to generate up to £140 million of additional partnership funding during the current Parliament. Our success in that regard means that we can protect even more homes—an extra 300,000—by 2021, and deliver £30 billion of benefits to our economy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her announcement 10 days ago, which was welcomed in my constituency. I am particularly grateful for her announcement of grant in aid for the long-term funding of sea defences along the Wash. Will she assure me of the Department’s full support for the community interest company project which is being led by my constituent Michael McDonnell?
I was delighted to hold a flood defence forum with my hon. Friend earlier in the year, when we also discussed the undertaking of a dredging pilot by internal drainage boards for the Ouse Washes. I am very keen for DEFRA to work with him and his constituent to ensure that we leverage the maximum possible funds for the important scheme to which he has referred.
As I said earlier, the recent report by the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty concluded that people turned to food aid for complex reasons. The Government believe that the best way to help people out of poverty is to help them into work, and with that in mind we have created 1.7 million jobs since 2010. We are also helping the most vulnerable to have access to food by means of, for instance, free school meals and improvements in the welfare system.
The Minister may speak of “complex reasons”, but every week my office and I deal with people who have lost their benefits because of sanctions or confusion over delays in the payment of disability living allowance. This weekend I met a woman who had £1.37 to get her through the next week. Will the Government acknowledge that their decisions and their aggressive sanctioning are driving hundreds of thousands of people to food banks?
In fact, the timeliness of benefit payments has improved: 90% of payments are now made on time, which is an improvement on the position under the last Government. As for sanctions, the Department for Work and Pensions and jobcentres are ensuring that hardship payments are available to those who need them because they have been sanctioned.
My hon. Friend has made a very good point. Our new school curriculum for primary schools includes learning to prepare basic dishes and understand more about food. If we can teach people to prepare their own food, they will find that it is often far cheaper than pre-packaged food.
DEFRA’s priorities 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. Bees and pollinators play a vital role in the health of our environment and economy. That is why on 4 November we published our national pollinator strategy. It sets out the first ever wild pollinator and farm wildlife package for farmers, commitments from major landowners, and how everyone, from schools to parks and gardeners, can do their bit to contribute.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. On her recent visit to my constituency, she saw and tasted for herself the excellent food and drink products that come from the area, produced by many excellent local companies. What role do businesses like these have in boosting British exports?
I had a very interesting visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency. Food and drink exports are now worth nearly £19 billion, and businesses like the one I visited play a key role in that growth. I enjoyed visiting Taylors of Harrogate, which now exports Yorkshire tea to China, and Bettys, with its confectionary brand, is part of our contribution to breaking the £1 billion mark in exports of confectionary around the world.
The Secretary of State has ministerial responsibility for food production and processing, so it is concerning that yesterday she transferred a question about campylobacter contamination in chicken, which had been on today’s Order Paper, to the Department of Health. The Food Standards Agency has said that 70% of chicken on sale in Britain, much of it produced here, is contaminated by campylobacter. That is higher than the salmonella infection rate in poultry in the 1980s. What is she doing to tackle this totally unacceptable state of affairs?
I can tell the hon. Lady that there is a project being run by the FSA and BOC to try to develop a treatment system of blast-chilling poultry to deal with this disease. Earlier this year the FSA ran an information campaign to raise awareness among the public of this problem, and as she is aware, the FSA has also recently published information about the incidence of campylobacter in poultry among a range of retailers.
The Minister sounds complacent. He has no plan to deal with this scandal, beyond transferring questions about it to other Departments. Food poisoning caused by campylobacter contamination in the poultry industry costs our economy and the NHS £900 million a year in days off work and treatment costs. It kills an estimated 100 people and makes 280,000 people ill every year. When will he stop being the mouthpiece of the food poisoners and start being the champion of consumers?
I simply say to the hon. Lady that, as she well knows, the FSA is the responsibility of the Department of Health. The FSA leads on food safety issues, including campylobacter. It is the FSA that has decided to publish this information, so it is right that the Department of Health should lead on this issue, but I totally reject the notion that I have been complacent: within the first week of coming into this job a year ago, I had our chief and deputy chief veterinary officers give me a briefing on the issue.
T4. There are 11 microbreweries, and even the Holmfirth vineyard, in my Colne Valley constituency in West Yorkshire. Will my right hon. Friend and the Department continue to support the success of the UK brewing industry, especially the businesses in my constituency, which are exporting their ales across the world, including to Australia? (906563)
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and congratulate him on his work in promoting the brewing industry in Colne Valley. I know the Magic Rock brewery ales from his area are available as far afield as Australia, as he mentions, and there are other famous Yorkshire brands like the Ilkley brewery, which I visited recently, as well as the Black Sheep brewery, which are selling around the world. This is thanks to the GREAT Britain campaign and UK Trade & Investment, which are doing so much to promote our fantastic beer.
T2. There is concern about recent reports that indicate that the Government intend to bring forward the badger cull to early next summer in order to cull badger cubs. If these reports are accurate, is it not further evidence that this Government have reached new levels of desperation? It is cruel and it is bad science. The mass culling of junior badger cubs now is not a substitute for a serious TB strategy. (906561)
It has always been for the cull companies to decide when to start operations. The reality is that we inherited the highest level of bovine TB in Europe because the Labour party did nothing when it was in government. We are dealing with this with a comprehensive strategy that involves cattle movement controls, vaccination in the edge areas and culling where the disease is rife. That approach has worked in Australia, where the disease has been eradicated, and it is working in Ireland and New Zealand. We are determined to continue with that approach.
T5. I thank my right hon. Friend for bravely and rightly extending the flood payments and reliefs that were given to the communities that were flooded at the start of this year and to all those, including in Nottinghamshire, that were flooded in 2013. As a good Yorkshire girl, she recognised the injustice that was being done to the midlands and the north and she put it right. Will she join me in thanking all the groups in my constituency, including the Southwell flood forum, and those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) that have campaigned on this issue over the course of this year? (906564)
I certainly thank my hon. Friend’s constituents, and I also thank him for the fantastic work he has done to promote this cause. It was right that we were able to bring forward those grants and I was delighted that, in the autumn statement, we were able to confirm £700,000 for flood defences in Southwell, which will benefit 235 houses.
T3. Mr Speaker, you will know that Newcastle is a thriving hub of life science, digital, creative and video gaming industries, but not everyone who works in the city lives there. People tell me that when they go home to rural Northumberland, they wish that this Government had delivered on Labour’s fully funded commitment to universal broadband for all by 2012. Does the Minister agree with them? (906562)
I welcome what the hon. Lady says about the industries in her part of the world. I would say to her that broadband is being taken forward. It is increasingly passing more and more homes in rural areas like my constituency and other rural areas around the country. Labour left us a legacy of an aspiration to do this; we are actually delivering on it and making a difference. We have further to go, but this is making a huge difference to those rural communities.
T7. The Marine Management Organisation says that it cannot meet me to discuss the disposal site at Rame Head South because of a judicial review. Will the Minister support my call to withdraw the existing licence and apply for a shorter one so that a new site could be investigated, the River Tamar could be dredged and we could care for the marine environment? (906566)
I understand that lawyers representing both parties in this judicial review are in discussions. I think the hon. Lady will agree that we need to ensure that we can continue to dredge the Tamar, which is a vital to the important port of Devonport. Also, I have always made it clear to her that I am willing to have meetings with residents, with the dredging company and with her to see whether it would be possible to identify an alternative site for the longer term.
T6. Around 10 million turkeys are slaughtered each year for the Christmas market. The vast majority are intensively reared and kept in sheds containing up to 25,000 turkeys, with no fresh air and very little light. They are fattened up so fast that they collapse under their own body weight. It is almost certainly too late to save this year’s turkeys, but what is the Minister doing to improve animal welfare standards in the future? (906565)
The hon. Lady should recognise that there are a number of free range turkey farms, and that these are growing in popularity as demand increases. I can tell her that we are in the process of reviewing all our animal welfare codes, and having discussions with the industry and with animal welfare groups such as Compassion in World Farming. It is our intention to get the new codes in place as soon as possible.
T8. One of the side effects of hydraulic fracturing at depth is the huge amount of contaminated water that has to be disposed of. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take a close personal interest in the first fracking application, because at this stage Third Energy has had no detailed discussions with the relevant water company about how to dispose of the contaminated water safely? (906567)
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Fracking is safe and has low environmental impact if it is done responsibly. The Environment Agency has been working hard to get the licensing process in place to make sure that groundwater is protected. I will certainly be keeping a close eye on this issue and working closely with the Environment Agency on it.
The landing obligation for fisheries is potentially a disaster for the Northern Ireland fishing industry, and it is to be introduced in January 2016. What discussions have taken place with the fisheries Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly about the effect the discard policy will have on the nephrops fisheries in the Irish sea?
I have regular meetings and discussions with representatives from the Northern Ireland industry, including earlier this week, when we discussed our approach on the total allowable catch—TAC—for nephrops for next week’s December Council meeting. The landing obligation contains many flexibilities: there is a de minimis; we can bank and borrow quota from one year to the next; and where there is high survivability we are able to put species back. There are sufficient flexibilities in the regulation to make this discard ban work, but there is detail we need to resolve, which is why we are issuing a consultation in the new year to begin that process.
Following on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), across rural England there are many concerns about the safety of the exploitation of shale gas, so can the Secretary of State confirm that no site will be given the go-ahead without approval from the Health and Safety Executive as well as the Environment Agency? They must be satisfied that any site will comply with strict safety criteria.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right about the HSE, and of course the local planning process also has to be gone through. I commend to him the paper produced by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. They looked at these issues in detail and at experience from other countries, which shows that, provided the correct environmental regime is in place, fracking is safe to carry out and does have very limited impact on the environment.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
English Cathedrals (Maintenance)
The first world war centenary cathedral repairs fund has so far allocated £13 million to 41 cathedrals, both Anglican and Catholic, across England. The third and final round of this scheme closes on 17 January.
My right hon. Friend will know that Lichfield cathedral is more than 800 years old—and its wiring is almost as old. If that wiring is not replaced, Lichfield cathedral will have to close because of insurance regulations. Will he make representations to ensure that the cathedral gets the money it urgently requires to replace its wiring and remain open?
I was grateful, as I am sure the whole House was, to the Chancellor for allocating £20 million for cathedral repair. I anticipate that Lichfield will apply in January in the third round of this scheme for about £1 million to, as my hon. Friend says, rewire and re-light the whole cathedral, and I hope that Lichfield is successful in that bid.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that when any restoration takes place he addresses the role of wildlife? He may have heard recently about the falcon living happily above York Minister, but will he ensure that bats are preserved in this country? They should not be persecuted; we do not want bats and badgers exterminated in our country. Will he make sure that bats are protected?
There is a question on this issue later on the Order Paper. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that churches and cathedrals are places of worship—they are not field barns—and it is not appropriate for bats to urinate and defecate in churches, where people are trying to worship and have broader community activities, such as toddlers groups and lunch clubs for pensioners? We have to find a way in which churches can exist as places of worship without being disrupted by bats.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Electoral Commission has targeted 17 areas where there is a high risk of allegations of electoral fraud to ensure that returning officers and police forces have developed appropriate responses to address specific local risks for the May 2015 elections. The Electoral Commission has also worked with the College of Policing to publish detailed guidance for police forces on preventing and detecting electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission has worked with political parties to agree a code of conduct for campaigners and is developing a simple guide for voters about how to protect their vote and how to report electoral fraud.
Sadly, in Pendle, allegations of postal vote fraud are nothing new, with the dubious actions of certain Labour councillors being reported to the national press as far back as 2002. Serious questions were asked earlier this year on the letters page of the local paper about the rigging of Labour’s own parliamentary selection. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give me that fraudulent postal votes will not determine the outcome of the general election in Pendle?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the threat of electoral fraud in his area. He will be pleased to hear that the Electoral Commission has called a meeting tomorrow for representatives of the 17 high-risk areas, including Pendle, to review progress on anti-fraud measures and to ensure that the May elections are as secure and as transparent as possible. The message must go out in Pendle and elsewhere that electoral fraud in this country will not be tolerated.
My hon. Friend asks a very important question. The answer is that the constituent, if they become suspicious of electoral fraud, should report the matter to the local police force and, if possible, the local returning officer. Every police force should by now have specialist officers who are trained in investigating this thankfully rare but important crime, which highlights the fact that electoral crime in this country will not be tolerated.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Churches (Bat Infestation)
“Baldry on Bats” part 2: the full financial cost is difficult to calculate, but the damage to local and nationally significant cultural heritage is substantial. Approximately 6,400 churches are infested with bats.
Having come down from the eaves and woken up, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he has had any discussions with English Heritage, which, after spending a lot of money on restoring churches, then finds that environmental authorities do not allow the exclusion of bats from churches? It will not harm bats to be excluded from churches. They did not start there; they started in trees and other such places. We need to exclude them from churches because they are doing a huge amount of damage and wasting taxpayers’ money that has already been spent on restoring churches.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concerns. St Nicholas church in Stanford-on-Avon in his constituency is one of the worst affected churches in the country. We are carrying out research and work with Natural England, and we hope that that will offer solutions for managing bats in the worst affected churches in the country and, most significantly, financial help in carrying out those plans. Such work does help. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) has in her constituency St Hilda’s church in Ellerburn, which has successfully excluded bats from the interior of the church, and has now allowed the congregation back in the building to worship. Adaptations are also being made to Natural England’s licensing system, which will make it easier for consultants to carry out licensed bat work in churches.
I raise this point with some trepidation as the right hon. Gentleman got very cross with me when I raised it in a Westminster Hall debate on the same topic, but does he not accept that the Bat Conservation Trust has been doing some good work with some churches in helping to enable bat populations to live side by side with congregations? In some instances there are ways of managing this without causing a problem. Does he support the trust’s work?
Will the full might of the Church of England be deployed in support of the Bat Habitats Regulation Bill, which is due for a Second Reading on 16 January 2015? That Bill would protect churches and deregulate the system so that bats did not get a free ride inside our churches.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his solicitous concern about the number of years that the congregation was excluded and bats seemed to be given a higher right of entry to the church than the congregation. We tried to do as the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) proposed—allowing bats in the roof, with the congregation below—but it was simply incompatible.
I am glad that after all this time we have managed to solve the problem at St Hilda’s at Ellerburn. It demonstrates that with perseverance and working together with Natural England, it is possible to come up with a solution that enables congregations to worship but does not harm bats.
When I opened the Christmas fair last Saturday in Wessington church, I had loads of conversations with everybody, including the vicar. Not once did they ever mention that there were bats around. It is just conceivable that the bats were not there because the beast of Bolsover was in the church.
General Election Hustings
Churches Together was one of only two organisations that arranged meetings prior to the last election where all candidates appeared. It is vital that we do all we can to encourage such meetings. As well as guidance, can my right hon. Friend give any additional help and support to individual parishes or Churches Together to arrange such meetings?
I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that all guidance produced for parishes for hustings meetings at the general election will comply with both the Charity Commission regulations regarding political activity and those of the Electoral Commission. As some of us know from previous general elections, Churches Together is experienced in organising hustings meetings in constituencies across the country. Those have been widely welcomed because they enable questions to be put on issues that might not otherwise be raised during a general election campaign, and I very much hope that will happen as much as possible at the general election next year.
In the autumn statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer kindly extended the listed places of worship grant scheme, for which I am extremely grateful. This will be a one-off grant of £15 million to enable listed church buildings of any denomination to apply for assistance with repairs to roofs and rainwater guttering.
My hon. Friend is right. The time scale is quite tight. Any church that has problems with its roof or its guttering should apply for funding. There is a website, www.lpowroof.org.uk, which shows all the details. Grants are available from £10,000 to £100,000. Repairing roofs is often unglamorous but very necessary work and there are a number of churches that require repairs to their roof.
As this is the last Church Commissioners questions before Christmas and the last question before Christmas, may I share with the House an observation? I saw yesterday in St Ethelburga’s church in the City, an old Saxon church that was bombed by the IRA and rebuilt, on the eastern window the prayer, “O pray for the peace of Jerusalem”.
Further to the reply that my right hon. Friend has just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) about the rather challenging deadline for bids, 31 January is the date by which churches have to get in their bids and my right hon. Friend will understand that vicars have seasonal commitments during the next few weeks. Is there any flexibility in that deadline for those who cannot meet it?
If my right hon. Friend has a church in his diocese that wants to submit a bid, I am sure that the diocesan advisory committee and the diocesan office in the diocese of Winchester will make quite sure that it is submitted properly and fully by the deadline.
I very much welcome the answer given by my right hon. Friend. The Holy Trinity church in Twydall in my constituency is in urgent need of repair and would qualify. Rather than having to look this up on the internet, have all churches been written to as a matter of urgency with an explanation of the criteria and how to apply for this funding?
I have written to every right hon. and hon. colleague in the House explaining how they apply for these funds, and the churches and cathedrals division in Church House has written to every bishop, archdeacon and diocesan advisory committee. So there can be no excuse for anyone within the machinery of the Church of England not understanding that these grants have been made available by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They are there and ready to be taken up, and if any parish that has problems with a roof or guttering gets in touch with its diocesan office, it should be able to get a properly submitted bid in on time.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 15 December—Motion relating to the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Regulations 2014, followed by consideration in Committee of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (day 2).
Tuesday 16 December—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill.
Wednesday 17 December—Opposition day (11th allotted day). There will be debates on Opposition motions including one entitled “The Immediate Abolition of the Bedroom Tax”.
Thursday 18 December—Statement on the publication of the fourth report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on the operation of the national planning policy framework, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment as selected by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 19 December—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 5 January 2015 will include:
Monday 5 January—Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords].
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 18 December will be:
Thursday 18 December—General debate on business investment in outer-city estates, followed by a general debate on the future of Carnforth station.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and the business for the first day back in 2015. I also thank him for the debate that he has granted for Monday on the firefighters pension scheme.
On Wednesday, we will once more stage a debate on the pernicious and cruel bedroom tax. Will the Leader of the House assure us that if the House votes again to scrap the tax, he will actually act and abolish it?
This week, the Government achieved the dubious distinction of losing its 100th vote in the Lords. They were defeated for the second time on their plans to curtail judicial review, and four former Tory Cabinet Ministers voted against them. This was after the Justice Secretary had to admit that he did not understand his own Bill, and in an humiliating apology correct his assertion in this House that clause 64 maintained judicial discretion when it does not.
Will the Leader of the House tell us whether his Government will now see sense and accept the Lords amendments? After losing yet another judicial review last week, should not the Justice Secretary now accept that instead of trying to abolish judicial challenge, he should just get on top of his brief and stop trying to implement unlawful policies?
A week after the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the mask has slipped and his baleful plan for Britain’s future has become clear. He has failed every test and broken every promise he made on the economy, including his promise to balance the books before the election next year. He hoped we would not notice the choice that he has made to cut public spending to 35% of gross domestic product, which would take us back to levels reminiscent of the 1930s before we had the NHS or a social safety net.
In the week when we were reminded that 4 million people in our country are now at risk of going hungry, it seems that the Tory solution is to blame the victims and tell those who cannot afford to feed their families that they do not know how to cook. We all know that the real problem is low wages and in-work poverty. Instead of their ideological obsession with destroying 60 years of social progress, what we really need is a fair and balanced deficit reduction programme that combines common-sense savings with an effective growth strategy. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on these competing visions for the future of our country?
The Tory Chief Whip has had yet another bad week. It seems that some of his ministerial colleagues took his declaration of a three-day week a little too literally. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury was so amazed that he needed to be here on a Thursday that he very nearly missed his own debate on the Government’s flagship stamp duty policy. However, a generous offer from the Work and Pensions Secretary to lead the debate in his absence was enough to send him sprinting down Whitehall from the Treasury. While Government Back Benchers wasted time with points of order, he eventually arrived, flustered and visibly out of breath. What on earth were the Government Whips doing? Were they playing Candy Crush on their iPads? The Chief Whip is always bunking off; when he is here, he is causing trouble at the back of the class; and he never does his homework. I think the Education Secretary would be very happy to put him in detention.
The autumn statement appears to have had a peculiar effect on the Liberal Democrats. The Business Secretary told the Cabinet that it was “excellent”, with “Lib Dem fingerprints all over it”, before getting others to brief the newspapers that he really thinks that the cuts are simply not achievable. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury happily signed it off as a member of the quad, but then he called it
“a mix of unfunded tax promises, harsh spending plans and pandering to UKIP.”
The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he is proud of the autumn statement, but he was so desperate to distance himself from it that he fled 300 miles to Land’s End. We are all used to celebrities having “show-mances” to make the front page of Hello! magazine, but this must be the first time in history that two partners have attempted a “show-vorce”. They are leaking lurid details of their rows to the papers, and they have moved into separate rooms in No. 10 so that they can spin against each other. They have even resorted to “masosadism”—inflicting pain on each other while inflicting pain on themselves at the same time.
The Liberal Democrats must think that we have all fallen off a Christmas tree. Their cynical choreography has now reached such ridiculous levels that I am told that they are forming a Cabinet within a Cabinet in order to shadow their own Government’s Cabinet, and I bet there are still no women in it. It is less like Candy Crush and more like parliamentary zombie apocalypse.
Yes, we welcome back the shadow Leader of the House. We were entertained last week by her deputy, but mainly at his expense, so it is good for her party that she is back. She invented one or two new words in her question—[Interruption.] Well, to pick up on the Prime Minister’s invention a couple of weeks ago, we on the Government side know the definitions between those words: sadism is when the shadow Chancellor insists on giving us a speech; and masochism is when we ask him to read it out again.
The hon. Lady noted the debate on the firefighters pension scheme, which we have of course found time for next Monday. She asked about the spare room subsidy, which in our view is a basic matter of fairness, as has been explained many times. That will be discussed in the debate next Wednesday. She asked about the Government’s 100th defeat in the House of Lords in the course of this Parliament, which certainly shows a certain independence in the upper House, but of course that does not mean that the Government agree with its conclusions. It is crucial that judicial review continues to hold public authorities to account for the right reasons. In the Government’s view, the reforms strike a fair balance between limiting the potential for abuse of judicial review and protecting its vital role as a check on public authorities. We are disappointed by the outcome of the votes in the Lords and will now consider our next steps before the Bill returns to this House.
The hon. Lady attacked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for failing every test on the economy. Is not one of the tests reducing the huge deficit that was left behind by the previous Administration? Is not one of the tests reducing unemployment to a much lower level than we were left with? Is not one of the tests having 2 million apprentices in this country that we did not have before? Is not one of the tests keeping inflation under control? Should not one of the tests be having the fastest growing economy in the G7, as now confirmed by the OECD? I am not sure what the Opposition think the tests are if they think they have been failed. Those are the key tests of a successful economy, and they have come about only under this Government. She referred to poverty. The official figures show a reduction of 600,000 people living in relative poverty in the past four and a half years, including 100,000 in the past year. Only a continuation of our approach will succeed in continuing to reduce it.
The hon. Lady aligned her questions with the speech that the Leader of the Opposition is meant to be giving today, for which we should be grateful. It is clear that he has now finally remembered the deficit but is unable to think of anything to do about it. We understand from the now published recollections of the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), that the Leader of the Opposition does not get “much of a look-in” from the shadow Chancellor on economic policy. That is exactly the same kind of dysfunctional relationship that we saw in the previous Labour Government, and it ended up with Britain having its biggest budget deficit in peacetime history. If Labour Members have now finally remembered the deficit, I hope they will choose it as one of their subjects for next week’s Opposition day debate, because then we can ask them why, if they believe that the deficit should be lower, they have opposed the entire £83 billion of welfare savings in this Parliament. That would be a debate to look forward to.
Next week, will my right hon. Friend be publishing a Command Paper and making a statement to the House on English votes for English laws? Can he confirm that every party aspiring to government after the next election has addressed the English question? Will he promise that we will have a debate and an early vote on the options?
I do intend to publish a Command Paper next week setting out options on, among other things, the question of English votes for English laws, and I will certainly seek to make a statement about that. The same three parties that contributed their policies to the Command Paper on Scotland were asked to contribute to this Command Paper. So far, there has been no sign of the official Opposition supplying any policies or ideas to put into it, and it will therefore reflect the views of the two parties in the coalition. I hope that we can have an early debate and, indeed, a vote on these issues in the new year.
Earlier this week, the Austrian Government put on a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and some Members of this House attended it. More importantly, 158 states were present, including the United Kingdom. Given that we are a major nuclear weapons state, will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the outcomes of the conference and the humanitarian consequences of the possession of nuclear weapons?
These are of course important issues in which the right hon. Lady has a long-standing interest. Members of this House called for the United Kingdom to attend that conference, including at business questions, and I am therefore sure that the House will be pleased to note that the United Kingdom did so. There has always been a good case, over the decades, to debate these issues. I cannot offer such a debate at the moment given the business that we face, but she may wish to make representations to the Backbench Business Committee.
May we have a debate on energy bills and the subsidy of low-carbon energy? The Committee on Climate change has said that households already pay an average of £45 a year to support low-carbon power, and that that will rise to £100 in 2020 and £175 in 2030. In such a debate, we could highlight the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, who has campaigned lots on high energy bills and the cost of living crisis, was responsible for the high energy bills and the cost of living crisis in the first place, because he set these increased energy bills in train when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and introduced the Climate Change Act 2008.
It is certainly true that energy bills rose sharply under the previous Government. This Government have taken action to ensure that people can buy their electricity on the lowest tariff and recently introduced policies that will bring about a reduction in energy bills. There will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change next Tuesday, so my hon. Friend will have an earlier opportunity even than a debate to raise the wider issues of renewable energy with Ministers.
Wednesday’s debate on the bedroom tax should be very interesting indeed. I remember when Tory MPs always referred to the poll tax as a community tax. Be that as it may, has the Leader of the House been given any indication of how the Liberal Democrats intend to vote next Wednesday? If they are so keen to separate themselves from the Tories, this is their opportunity to do so by voting against the bedroom tax.
I am sure the Liberal Democrats are able to express their own views on how they will vote in any debate. I will point out again that in the Government’s view this is a basic issue of fairness. For someone living in private rented accommodation and in receipt of housing benefit, these rules applied under the whole of the previous Labour Government and we had a situation whereby neighbouring households could be treated unequally. Those points will, of course, be made in the debate.
A report last week showed that Yorkshire got a £102 million boost from hosting the Tour de France in May, and I am delighted to have been involved in the bid that will mean that a leg of the Tour of Britain cycle race will come to Pendle and Ribble Valley next September. Could we have a debate on cycling, which would cover everything from continuing to fund Bikeability in schools to supporting fantastic British companies in the industry such as Hope Technology in Barnoldswick and Carradice cycle bags in Nelson?
My hon. Friend has some great businesses in this sector in his constituency and I have seen on visits to his constituency the great enterprise of his local business community. Cycling is phenomenally popular in Britain—I think we are now second only to Germany in the number of bikes sold each year in Europe. The Tour de France was certainly a great economic boost for Yorkshire. I wish my hon. Friend well with the work he is doing to make sure that further benefits come to Pendle. He is, of course, able to make the case for debates on such issues to the Backbench Business Committee.
Britain is suffering from major problems with addiction: there has been another report this week about the problems of gambling machines and addictive gambling; there are reports today about addiction to prescription drugs; and we have serious problems with alcohol, illegal drugs and even food. Is it not time that the Government gave time for a substantial debate on all of those issues and how the Government are going to address our major problems with addiction?
Those are very important issues—I absolutely acknowledge that and agree with the hon. Gentleman. Most of them have been debated in the House at one stage or another, but they remain very serious problems here and, of course, in many other nations as well. I cannot offer a debate in Government time, given that the time allocated for such debates is generally controlled by the Backbench Business Committee, but the hon. Gentleman has made his case and I am sure he will continue to do so.
May I first thank the Leader of the House for announcing a debate on the firefighters pension scheme following calls for such a debate from Members on both sides of the House last week? May I also ask him to allay the outrageous slur by the shadow Leader of the House that, because of the autumn statement, Liberal Democrats are saying one thing here and another thing elsewhere? Could he ask the Deputy Prime Minister to make a statement to the House next week—if he can persuade him to come here—to confirm that that is an absolute slur, because Liberal Democrats have always said one thing here and another thing elsewhere? [Laughter.]
We thought an end to the question similar to that was coming. At least the Liberal Democrats are not now saying one thing in one place and another thing in another place at the same time, which is perhaps an improvement on some past episodes. The Deputy Prime Minister gave very clear answers yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions—extremely clear, and actually extremely good answers—to all the questions asked by the Opposition. The answers included a clarification that the autumn statement was a statement for the whole coalition Government, with policies that we are pleased Liberal Democrats are also committed to.
Bearing in mind the debate next week on firefighters pensions, will the Leader of the House consider another item directly related to older people—the extension of the warm home discount scheme to Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK that does not have such a scheme. In its fuel poverty statistics methodology, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has described fuel poverty as “a partially devolved matter”. May we have a debate on that partially devolved matter, and on extending the scheme to Northern Ireland?
I think the hon. Lady has succeeded in raising the issue in the House without having a debate. I cannot offer any debates in addition to next week’s business, but questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will take place next Thursday, and she will no doubt wish to pursue the issue with the Northern Ireland Office and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Government said that they would review the decriminalisation of single dispensing errors by pharmacists. As my right hon. Friend knows, pharmacists can be sent to prison for such errors, but general practitioners do not have to face prosecution. The Government seem to be taking an age on this change, so may we have a statement or, for that matter, a debate to clarify when it will take place?
We remain committed to removing the criminal sanction on inadvertent dispensing errors by pharmacists, but the issue is complex and it is vital to get it right. I am not sure that a debate is necessary at this stage, as there will in due course be a consultation on the proposals. I will inform the Ministers handling this matter of my hon. Friend’s concern that it should be done as quickly as possible.
Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), next February the Government will host a meeting of the declared nuclear weapon states in London ahead of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference next May, which unfortunately coincides with our general election. What plans do the Government have to make a statement to the House ahead of the P5 meeting in February, and will there be an opportunity to debate the British Government’s position ahead of the NPT review conference next May? The issues are obviously extremely important if we aspire to bringing about a nuclear weapons-free world.
These are very important issues. The last NPT review conference in 2010 straddled the last general election, but that did not stop this country making an important and very positive contribution to it, and Members from all parties will want us to do so again. There will of course be several opportunities to question Foreign Office Ministers in the House before then, but I will certainly point out to them the interest shown in the House about having clarity on the Government’s approach to the forthcoming conference before the general election.
Please may we have a debate on apprenticeships? This week, we have passed the significant landmark of 2 million apprenticeship starts in this Parliament. More than 2,000 of them have been in my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency in the past two years alone. This week, there has also been an announcement about changes to the careers advice service to put a bit more emphasis on apprenticeships and vocational learning. If we had a debate, we could explore what more can be done to encourage people to consider apprenticeships as part of their future.
This week the 2 millionth apprenticeship has indeed been reached, and such apprenticeships are at the heart of the Government’s drive to equip people of all ages with the skills that employers need to grow and compete. A further boost was provided, particularly for young apprentices, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, and despite the efforts of Labour Members to deride them, such apprenticeships are real jobs with training. The locations and sectors where apprenticeships are available are determined by employers offering apprenticeships and recruiting apprentices, and there is a good case for a debate on the issue. I cannot offer one at the moment, but my hon. Friend may wish to make the case to the Backbench Business Committee.
Yesterday, Luton Town football club became the first league club to start paying everybody it employs, including subcontractors, the living wage. May we have a debate on why the really wealthy clubs—Luton is obviously not one of them—cannot also pay their staff the living wage?
The Leader of the House will be aware that the House is currently awaiting the Government’s formal response to the review by Sir John Jenkins on the Muslim Brotherhood. Will that review be made available to the public in full, and if not, why not, and will he agree to a debate in Government time to discuss the Government’s official response?
That work was requested by the Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary—that is me. It is a report to the Prime Minister—no longer to me since I have moved position—and no decision has been taken on its publication. I will update my hon. Friend on that report so that he is fully aware of the position.
May I ask the Leader of the House for an early debate on home schooling when the House returns after Christmas? For many people home schooling is a good way of educating their child, but for many others it is not. Has he seen the estimates that suggest we do not know where up to 100,000 children in our country are, what curriculum they are pursuing, or about their supervision, safety and security? In an age when we are ever more worried about child abuse and child protection, may we have an early debate, because that area has got out of hand?
I can see the case for such a debate. As the hon. Gentleman said, we live in an age in which we are extremely concerned about child protection. An important conference is taking place on that this week, and the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have announced further initiatives to protect children from abuse. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and I am sure he will make the case either for an Adjournment debate or for the Backbench Business Committee to table a motion on that issue.
Recently I picked up a card in the restaurant for vegan month, and we have also had vegetarian week. The Leader of the House is a great believer in fair play, so given that excellent beef and lamb is produced on grass throughout the country, which helps to keep our green and pleasant land the way it is, could we have a red meat month so that we can eat red meat sustainably?
Every month is red meat month as far as I am concerned, and I always think it does me a lot of good. My hon. Friend makes a good case. We have a wonderful industry in this country, including an excellent beef farming sector, and its success is important to agriculture and the country’s overall prosperity. I will always do my best to promote its success, but whether we can institute a red meat month will be a matter for wider discussion among the House authorities.
The Leader of the House is standing down at the next election, so could we see more of his true self during business statements? When he and I were
“young and easy under the apple boughs”
many decades ago, he had a visceral dislike of the Liberals and the Social Democrats. If the Liberal Democrats cannot even be bothered to turn up to business questions, does he agree that they should receive the same treatment that they meted out to poor people who have a spare room in their home, and be evicted at the next general election?
I am surrounded by the Deputy Leader of the House, who is a Liberal Democrat, and the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the deputy Chief Whip and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, who is also a Liberal Democrat, so I think it is a little unfair to say that Liberal Democrats do not turn up for business questions, although it cannot be said that a lot of Liberal Democrats have turned up to ask questions. When the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and I were students, we made common cause in ensuring that Liberals and the SDP were not very successful at Oxford university in the early 1980s, but circumstances change. There are no permanent allies, only permanent interests, as has often been said.
In July, my constituents, Eve Michell and Shannon Rudden from Rainham Mark grammar school, attended the Government’s YouthforChange event, which encourages young people to get more involved in the international movement for girls’ rights. May we have statement on what plans the Government have to build on that success?
I cannot offer an immediate statement, but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. The Government will want to continue to support such initiatives, and to commend the good work taking place in so many parts of the world, to which he rightly draws attention.
On Monday, I attended the launch of the first direct flight from Manchester airport to China. I am sure the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating all those involved in securing that, including Cathay Pacific. With the Davies commission due to report in a few months, and with Treasury civil servants scurrying around working out the staggering public subsidy that will be required if a third runway at Heathrow is the decision, will the Leader of the House, as a fellow northern MP, bring the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Secretary of State for Transport to the House to explain to them that, pound for pound, it would be a better use of public money to spend it between the Mersey and the Humber estuary than on the public subsidy for Heathrow, which will make the northern powerhouse look like a drop in the ocean?
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating everyone involved in ensuring that there is a direct service from Manchester to China. I hope it will be an extremely well used and successful route. We need airports in the north of England to be more successful, building on the success of Manchester, for the northern powerhouse concept to be successful. As he will know, the Government have announced a great deal of transport infrastructure investment in the north. I would differ from him on only one point: it is my belief that if regional airports are to be successful, it is important that there is additional airport capacity in the south-east of England, because without that, the regional airports lose their landing slots in key UK hubs. For the north to succeed, therefore, we also need the airports of the south-east to succeed. We need both.
May we have a debate on what more the Government can do to reduce the illegal trade in wildlife—sensible actions that this country can take, although we do not necessarily need more regulation, which can have unintended consequences—following the conference that my right hon. Friend attended with the Duke of Cambridge earlier this week?
There is a very good case for such a debate, and I hope my hon. Friend will make that case to the Backbench Business Committee. This country and companies based in this country can do a lot to prevent the smuggling of illegally obtained wildlife products. That trade is feeding corruption and even terrorism in other parts of the world, and is a moral outrage. I was happy on Monday to join His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge in Washington. He has asked me to chair the transportation industry taskforce on the issue, and I have been very happy to take that on.
Returning to the theme of saying one thing and doing another, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), may we have a debate in Government time on the impact of VAT increases on the UK economy? The Leader of the House will be aware that, before the election, the leader of the Conservative party categorically ruled out such increases, but he then introduced them. They are having a huge impact on small businesses in my community—my constituency—and particularly on the retail sector and restaurants. When a party of four go out for a meal, they have to take the Chancellor with them and pay his bill.
The Chancellor had to take action on the vast deficit we were left by the previous Government. Yes, VAT was increased, but since then inflation has come down and even more businesses have been created. The figures released in the past three weeks show that there are 760,000 businesses operating in the country, the largest number we have ever known, and it is very important to bear that in mind. Businesses are succeeding and the deficit has come down.
The UK currently faces a shortage of HGV drivers. One of my constituents, Mark, is an HGV driver. He contacted me to tell me—in fact, he showed me photographs—about the disgusting facilities that he and his colleagues have to endure at motorway service stations during their regulated breaks. May we have a debate on whether the Government should intervene to improve these essential facilities, and on whether to fund driver training for hauliers to attract much-needed new drivers into the industry?
The Government accept that there is an issue with the recruitment of HGV drivers, which is a significant concern to the industry. We welcome the steps that the industry has taken to recruit a new generation of hauliers. The Government are working with the industry to identify ways to improve the situation. On facilities, there is a Department for Transport circular requiring all motorway service areas and truck stops that are signed on, or from, a strategic road network to offer free toilets with hand-washing facilities and free parking for two hours, so I hope there will be an improvement. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this matter.
The report is pertinent to my request, but I will take note and behave better in future, Mr Speaker.
Will my right hon. Friend find Government time to debate the recent annual report from the Government chief scientific adviser, “Innovation: managing risk, not avoiding it”, which concludes that, like thalidomide and asbestos, fracking could carry unforeseen risks? Such a profound allegation should be considered in Government time before any fracking applications are considered locally.
These are important issues. Hon. Members from all parties have strong views for or against fracking, and on the policies necessary to carry it out correctly. There will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change next week, so that is the earliest opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise the matter further in the House.
The Leader of the House will have noted the recent report from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which the Government have a majority, which supported the Labour party’s policy for a national framework for low emission zones to combat air pollution. I know there is pressure on Government business and that the Leader of the House will be reluctant to make time for such a debate, but could he perhaps just announce from the Dispatch Box now that the Government also agree with the Labour party’s policy on air pollution?
I think the Ministers responsible might get a little anxious if I made off-the-cuff announcements about changing Government policy on the spur of the moment, so I will resist the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation to do so. It is open to him—as I have said to other hon. Members, particularly in relation to a Select Committee report—to pursue the case for a debate with the Backbench Business Committee. That is partly what Backbench Business and Westminster Hall debates are for, so I encourage him to pursue the matter in that way.
There is always a good case for a proper understanding of history—I am a great proponent of that—and that requires its discussion. We will be commemorating many events a century on over the next few years through the centennial anniversaries of the first world war, but I cannot offer a debate specifically on the subject that my hon. Friend raises, although I know it evokes strong feelings in this country and many other countries, so he might need to pursue the matter in other ways.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you give the House some guidance? Quite rightly, there are certain barriers and hurdles that you put up before granting an urgent question, but in recent weeks I have noticed the increasing number of statements that the Government are making. What hurdles do the Government have to clear? Time after time, we find we do not have time for Bills and that the Government do not announce Bills or meetings at important conferences; instead, they make these pie-in-the-sky, “this is what we’re going to do about roads, rail, health” statements. It is not a genuine use of the House’s time. They are manipulating the timetable to promote policies for the next general election. What advice can you give the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, because it is important to be clear about the constitutional position on these matters. Urgent questions are decided by the Speaker, and there are criteria that inform the decision, but the making of a statement by a Minister is a matter for the Minister; it is not within the purview of the Speaker. There is a courtesy that the Minister will tend to begin by saying, “With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on—”, but that, I emphasise, is a parliamentary courtesy. The decision to volunteer a statement is a decision for the Government. I think the gravamen of the hon. Gentleman’s complaint is that this is not a good use, in every case, of the House’s time. That, of course, is a matter of opinion, but it is one reason why many people have favoured the creation of a House business committee, to which I know the Government have long been committed, but which is yet to materialise—but I am sure it is only a matter of time.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you provide some clarification regarding money resolutions for private Members’ Bills? In answer to questions I have put to the Leader of the House, he has informed the House that money resolutions have not been laid because the two parts of the coalition cannot agree on whether they should be approved. Surely, by tradition, a money resolution should automatically be laid if a private Member’s Bill gets a Second Reading, and then it is up to the House to approve it. Should not the money resolutions be laid automatically?
The norms regarding the laying of money resolutions for Bills that have secured a Second Reading do not currently apply. Yes, what the hon. Gentleman describes was the norm in the past, but that norm predated the coalition Government—[Interruption.] Although his brow is furrowed, he knows the essence of this matter is that government has to be seamless. The Leader of the House has explained to him that unless there is Government agreement, a money resolution will not be tabled. The truth is that the hon. Gentleman’s concern relates to a particular Bill—
Well, he might have a wider concern. However, there are people in the Government who would be happy to table a money resolution for the Bill he wants to see progress, but not for another Bill, and the Liberal Democrats take precisely the opposite position. The Leader of the House will correct me if I am wrong, but I think the thrust of what I have said is accurate.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for the intro. I think there is a matter at stake here that should detain this House because the pre-eminence of Parliament is being challenged, in the sense that the Government are defying the will of Parliament by refusing to grant, or rather to table, money resolutions in respect of private Members’ Bills. What the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and I are seeking to achieve through your advice and support, Mr Speaker, is to ensure that the will of this Parliament is respected, and that the Government can be challenged when they refuse, as they have chosen to refuse, to table a money resolution in support of private Members’ Bills that have the clear support of this Parliament.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is that I would be very sympathetic to somebody else being able to table the money resolution in compliance with, and following on from, the Second Reading approval by the House. However, such a right does not currently exist, and the Speaker cannot create it. I think the fairest thing I can say, with very considerable sympathy for the hon. Gentleman and for the hon. Member for Wellingborough, is that Leader of the House is in place and has, appropriately enough, an air of gravitas about him. He has heard what has been said and he is weighing the matters in his scholarly cranium, and we may hear further and better particulars in due course—or not, as the case may be. We will leave it there for now.
[Relevant documents: Twentieth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, Documents considered by the Committee on 19 November 2014, HC 219-xix, Chapter 2]