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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
12 March 2015
Volume 594

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Dairy Farmers

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1. What steps she is taking to assist dairy farmers. [908017]

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The dairy industry is a vital part of food and farming and of our national life. With farmers struggling with low prices, we are doing all we can to help with cash flow. We are working with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to help farmers delay their tax payments; we are urging banks to treat dairy farmers sympathetically; and we have prioritised dairy farmers for payments from the Rural Payments Agency.

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I am grateful for that answer. My right hon. Friend will know that Shropshire has some of the most productive and best dairy farms in the whole country, and I very much hope to invite her to visit Shropshire after the election, when she will continue to be a great Secretary of State. Will she explain what additional help she is giving to dairy farmers to ensure that more milk is used in our schools and hospitals, and exported?

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend about how productive dairy farmers in Shropshire are. We want to see more dairy products sold here in Britain and overseas. That is why we launched the Bonfield plan, which will open up £400 million-worth of business across the public sector. I strongly encourage schools, hospitals and caterers to use the balanced scorecard, so that they can buy from great producers in Shropshire.

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May I applaud the work the Secretary of State and her Department have done on exporting dairy and other products? What urgent action can she take to rebalance the relationship in the supply chain between the very small dairy producer and the often very large processor in this business?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Since 2009, we have seen a 50% increase in dairy exports. There is still more to do, however, which is why we have appointed our first ever agriculture and food counsellor at the Beijing embassy—China will be the world’s largest importer of food and drink by 2018. There is, of course, more work to do, and we have given the Groceries Code Adjudicator further powers, including the power to impose fines of 1% of turnover.

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A key plank of the Government’s assistance to dairy farmers is the LEADER programme. After the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs failed to answer pleas for advice on the Isle of Wight’s application, will my right hon. Friend agree to an urgent meeting, so we can discuss this matter with Ministers?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is right about the vital support the LEADER programme brings. DEFRA Ministers are already looking at this issue, and I would be delighted to discuss it with him.

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With milk at 20p a litre, farmers across Wiltshire are suffering most dreadfully, and many of them are going out of business, but they accept that it is a question of worldwide supply. They ask me questions, however, about whether the Irish quota is larger than it need be, and about whether milk products, particularly cheese, are being re-imported from Ireland—possibly illegally across a porous border—and depressing British prices.

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Currently, 50% of the dairy products consumed in Britain are imported. I want to see more British products produced and sold in this country. That is why I am pushing the European Commission for compulsory country of origin labelling to make sure that British consumers can go into supermarkets and find out which products are from Britain.

Inshore Fishing Fleet (Discard Ban)

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2. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of a discard ban on the inshore fishing fleet. [908018]

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We recently launched a consultation on the implementation of the discard ban, which will help us to make that assessment. The consultation is being used to identify how to phase in the ban, how to allocate increases in quotas, where to introduce exemptions and how to manage the under-10 metre quota pool. The discard ban can provide significant benefits for all sectors of the fleet.

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Trawlermen in Folkestone, Hythe and Dungeness have raised with me their concerns about the lack of quota for the inshore fishing fleet and the potentially devastating impact of the discard ban. Will the Minister urgently consider making more quota available for the inshore fishing fleet and granting an exemption from the discard ban?

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While the common fisheries policy does not allow the exemption of a whole fleet, there are other exemptions—for instance, exemptions for species that survive after being discarded, and if handling discards is disproportionately costly. On quota, we are in the process of permanently realigning some of it from producer organisations to the inshore fleet. In addition, as part of this consultation, we are considering giving the inshore fleet a greater share of the quota uplift that forms part of the CFP.

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Given the collapse of our bass stocks, and the fact that the latest figures show a worrying 30% increase in the number of commercial landings of bass, will the Minister please finally take meaningful action to save our bass? Will he, for instance, provide for an immediate increase in the minimum landing size, which is something that I signed off 10 years ago when I was the fisheries Minister?

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I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been pursuing this issue. As he will know, at the December Council we argued strongly for measures to be taken on bass. We pressed the European Commission to take emergency measures to ban pair trawling, which was done in the new year. We are currently discussing with other member states and the Commission the possibility of a bag limit for anglers, and also catch limits for the remainder of the commercial fleet. I can also tell the right hon. Gentleman that we are considering raising the minimum landing size nationally.

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May I urge my hon. Friend to review the application of the rules relating to the ban on the return of fish that might survive, particularly hand-lined mackerel? I have some experience of this, and I know that the vast majority survive. It is absurd for fishermen to be told that they cannot return those fish.

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Mackerel were included in the pelagic discard ban that was considered last year, but we are giving serious consideration to the survivability rates of white fish, particularly flatfish such as sole and plaice. I shall be happy to look into the specific issue of mackerel hand-lining in Cornwall, and to keep it under constant review. We did manage to secure an exemption for the Cornish sardine industry, which was a big success.

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There is still a huge amount of uncertainty about how the ban can be made workable in the context of mixed fisheries in the North sea. What are Ministers doing to ensure that so-called choke species do not end up choking off the livelihoods of not just the fishermen in the white fish fleet, but the onshore processors?

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I know that people are concerned about the challenges involved in the implementation of a discard ban. That is why we have had to start thinking about it at an early stage, and why we have issued the consultation in the way that we have. As for choke species such as hake, which is often cited in Scotland, we will be phasing in the ban over five years, and we will start with the species that define the fishery, so the ban on some of those species would not apply until a date closer to 2020.

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I believe that the discard ban is absolutely right, although it will obviously take some time to get its implementation right. What will be done about fish that are landed and may or may not be fit for human consumption, but could be used as fish food, or even for farming purposes?

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We are discussing that with processors and port authorities, but we believe that we have enough processing capacity to create fishmeal, although there may be problems with transport from the ports to the locations where the fishmeal is processed. We want to change fishing behaviour, and to reduce the amount of unwanted fish that is landed by means of more selective gears and changes in fishing patterns.

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I am sure that the Minister is aware of the regional discrepancy in net configurations. The Northern Ireland requirement is 300 mm, while the requirement in the Republic of Ireland is 80 mm, and there are different requirements in Scotland, Wales and England. Has the Minister discussed with regional authorities and the Government of the Republic the introduction of more uniformity in net configuration, in the context of the discard ban?

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I shall be happy to look into that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the nephrops industry is particularly important in Northern Ireland, and we managed, against the odds, to secure an increase in the total allowable catch at the December Council. That will be good for the Northern Ireland fleet. Different countries take different approaches when it comes to technical measures; that is an important aspect of the devolved entity that we want the common fisheries policy to become.

Bees and Pollinators

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3. What assessment she has made of the role the public can play in supporting bees and pollinators. [908020]

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6. What assessment she has made of the role the public can play in supporting bees and pollinators [908023]

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In November we published the national pollinator strategy, a 10-year plan to help pollinators to thrive, which involves farmers, major landowners and the public. People can help in their gardens, schools or local parks by leaving areas wild for pollinators, or ensuring that food sources are available throughout the year.

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Will the Secretary of State update me on how the 2013 United Kingdom national action plan for sustainable use of pesticides is being reviewed, so that the use of pesticides by local authorities in particular can be reduced?

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We will update the action plan by 2017 in line with European Union requirements. Many local authorities are involved in our national pollinator strategy: Bristol, Wyre Forest and Peterborough are all taking measures to plant pollinator-friendly wild flowers.

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Last month, at the Stafford green arts festival, “There is no planet B”, I was presented with a book that contained a number of concerns raised by my constituents, including the threat to bees and pollinators. What news can I give them of the work being done across the country to protect and preserve pollinators, which are so essential for food production?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: pollinators are vital for our £100 billion food and farming industry, and are estimated to be worth £430 million to our economy in services alone. That is why we launched the national pollinator strategy, which will include a wild pollinator and wildlife element in the new countryside stewardship scheme. That means that farmers will have a strong incentive to help pollinators on their land.

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I am pleased to see that Network Rail has joined the Government’s strategy on pollinators, but is my right hon. Friend aware that its practice of removing all vegetation along the railway embankments destroys the habitats of bees and pollinators, and no assurances have been given to my constituents in Hampton-in-Arden that there will be an offset for this biodiversity loss?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. It is good news that Network Rail, the Highways Agency and other major organisations, including the National Trust, have signed up to the pollinator strategy, and I am certainly very happy to take up that specific point with Network Rail, because major landowners can do so much to make sure that areas are available for pollinators to thrive.

Rural Payments Agency

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4. What assessment she has made of trends in the performance of the Rural Payments Agency since 2010. [908021]

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Under this Government, the Rural Payments Agency has dealt with the historical issues of late payments to farmers, which were a feature under the last Government. This year it released payments to 97.4% of claimants within the first month, and 2013-14 was the agency’s most successful year to date, with more customers being paid on the first day than ever before, and with high customer satisfaction scores.

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I must declare my interest in farming. Will the basic payments system be ready by 15 May? Why are farmers expected to draw ineligible features, instead of satellite mapping being used? What sort of support is there if they make any errors in the process, so that they are not being set up to fail?

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There were three questions there, but at least each was brief.

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On the first point, I can report that over 75% of farmers are now registered on the system. Some of them are experiencing issues with the slowness of the mapping system, and we are working to address that. On my hon. Friend’s question about why they have to map, they have always had to map ineligible features—that is a requirement of the EU regulations—but they are entered on to the final application by digitisers, who check that the area is mapped correctly.

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Stephen Wyrill, national chairman of the Tenant Farmers Association, says that the Department’s online system for farmers to claim under the basic payment scheme is “heading for carnage”, and Guy Smith, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, says that its concern will turn to “justified alarm” if full mapping functionality is not operating by this weekend as promised. Many farmers depend for their survival on this payment. Can the Minister give an undertaking that all farmers will be able to make their claim online by 15 May?

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We have been working closely with the farming industry on this. Under this system, this was always going to be an iterative process. We wanted to put the system in place in stages and instalments. We have 75% of farmers on already, we are addressing the issue of the speed of the system, and we are looking at ways of expediting things for certain land types, so that they can bypass parts of the land eligibility criteria. I should also point out that we have a network of 50 digital support centres to help those farmers who require help.

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With 25% of farmers not yet registered and the deadline fast approaching, Farmers Weekly is reporting that only 236 farmers have gone for help to the 50 support centres, which is fewer than five per centre. Those who have registered—96% of them did so by phone, not online—are reporting that the online system has constant error messages and general slowness, that field information is not appearing, and that the mapping function does not work. Is the Minister planning a paper-based plan B, in case his online system collapses or is not fit for purpose?

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Our plan is to make the system work and to ensure that those farmers who need help can go into digital support centres. We anticipate that those centres will be busier in April, but we have ensured that they have sufficient capacity to upscale and to help farmers. It is important to recognise that about half of all farmers have only permanent pasture, and the requirement for them to map their details is lesser than it is for arable farmers. We are looking at ways of expediting this process.

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This Government should be hugely proud of the massive improvement in the Rural Payments Agency, compared with the chaos of a few years ago. We should also give thanks to its chief executive, Mark Grimshaw, for his work on making that happen. It is a fact that the IT systems will be critical in future. They will have to work, but we also need to enable farmers to use IT out in rural areas of the country that often have no access. The Minister will of course do everything he can to make the system work, but will he also redouble his efforts to persuade other Government Departments that rural broadband is absolutely critical to this important industry?

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Yes. We recognise the importance of rural broadband, which is why Broadband Delivery UK has invested hundreds of millions of pounds to bring broadband to rural areas. I know that my hon. Friend was involved in commissioning the Cap D system—the common agricultural policy delivery system—and he will recognise that we have ensured that it can operate at quite low speeds of around 2 megabits per second. That will ensure that most farmers are able to use it, but we have established the network of digital support centres for those who are not.

Key Performance Indicators

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5. What steps she is taking to ensure that her Department’s environmental key performance indicators are met. [908022]

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The core Department has reduced the size of its core estate to three properties and implemented measures such as LED lighting and improved insulation to reduce energy use. Carbon emissions, the quantity of waste we generate and the amount of water we use have reduced by 39%, 30% and 2% respectively. In the coming year, we are looking to use energy performance contracts to make our buildings more efficient and potentially to introduce renewable generation.

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The environment is clearly a key part of preventing and combating climate change, and that was one of the performance indicators. However, the Secretary of State has reduced from 38 to six the number of people working on climate change, and the Committee on Climate Change gave her Department a mere three out of 10. Does the Minister agree that in so trivialising climate change, the Secretary of State is putting at risk our long-term economic and environmental future?

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Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to hear that I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s contention. I have a meeting this afternoon with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change on the important work that we are doing on mitigation and adaptation. That remains a priority for this Government, which is why we are delivering on making a difference on this important range of issues.

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Could one of the Department’s environmental key performance indicators be the simplification of uplands entry-level stewardship agreements? I have several hill farmers who are struggling with unhelpful interpretations of those agreements by Natural England, and they need to be clarified and simplified.

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It is absolutely right that we should do all we can to ensure that these important new schemes are brought in properly, and that the existing schemes are functioning correctly. If my hon. Friend has particular concerns about the schemes, I would be happy to receive a letter from him that I can share with my colleague who deals primarily with these matters.

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The Select Committee on Environmental Audit has used a traffic light system to assess the Government’s performance over the past five years. On air pollution, it has given the Government a red light; on biodiversity and wildlife, it has given the Government a red light; and on climate change adaptation, flooding and coastal protection, it has also given the Government a red light. This Government were supposed to be the greenest Government ever, so why are they ending their time in office without being awarded a single green light?

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During my time in office, I have been happy to give evidence repeatedly to the Environmental Audit Committee, though I might disagree with some of its conclusions. I am happy to say that this Government are making improvements on air quality. There are issues with nitrogen dioxide, but they are being addressed at European level. We are improving our status in the important area of biodiversity in this country. We are improving our water quality. Across a whole range of areas, this Government are taking action to improve the quality of our environment and to establish, through the processes of the Natural Capital Committee, the importance of our natural capital now and in the future.

Flood Defences

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7. How many flood defence schemes are planned to be built under the Government's flood defence programme. [908025]

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Our six-year flood defence programme, announced in December, includes more than 1,400 projects across the country. This £2.3 billion investment is a real-terms increase in capital spending and will mean that 300,000 homes are better protected.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that. She will be aware of local authorities’ proposals to strengthen defences around the Humber estuary, and the autumn statement allocated £80 million for initial expenditure. Will she update us on when her officials will have made a full assessment of the proposals and when she will be able to make an announcement?

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I was delighted that in December we could announce £80 million for schemes on the Humber estuary, which will improve protection for more than 50,000 households. We are examining the ambitious proposals put forward by my hon. Friend, his colleagues and local authorities in the area, and we will publish the results in July.

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12. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for publishing the flood protection investment figures as official statistics, for which I asked in the House more than a year ago. They show, as I claimed, that over the past three years the Government have cut the amount spent on flood protection by £350 million, compared with the amount they inherited. The really interesting thing is that although the figures show the amount rising this year to £469 million, they show it falling immediately after the election to £370 million. Is that because the Government believe flood risks will fall by 20% next year—or is it just pre-election cynicism? [908032]

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Let us be clear: the amount we are spending in our six-year programme—£2.3 billion—is a real-terms increase on the capital expenditure this Parliament, which again is a real-terms increase from that in the previous Parliament. The result of that is we will end up reducing flood risk, including the impact of climate change, by 5%.

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is not just the sea we need to protect against, but flooding from excessive rain. What action is she taking to encourage the Environment Agency to ensure that drainage ditches are regularly dredged?

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First, we are putting additional funding into maintenance—an additional £35 million this year and next year for those types of activity. We are also running pilot projects so that local landowners and farmers can be involved in that work, as well as the Environment Agency. In addition, local environment agencies are spending more time now on issues such as dredging to make sure that that work happens.

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The residents of Morpeth in my constituency are delighted with the actions of the Environment Agency and the near completion of the flood alleviation scheme, but they are really concerned about flood risk insurance. What stage are we at in the discussions and negotiations on Flood Re and other affordable insurance schemes?

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We are on track for Flood Re to be established this summer—we are currently working on that. In the interim, we have the 2008 statement of principles, which will make sure that people in those areas do have flood insurance.

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I call Kerry McCarthy. She is not here.

Bovine Tuberculosis

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9. What assessment she has made of the lessons that can be learned from the experiences of other countries in dealing with bovine tuberculosis. [908027]

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The success of the bovine TB eradication policies pursued in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the Republic of Ireland demonstrates the need to bear down on the disease effectively in both cattle and wildlife.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that lessons from Ireland, in particular, show that where there is TB in wildlife it must be tackled through culling as part of any comprehensive strategy to tackle TB? If that had happened years ago when TB was known to be moving towards Cheshire at the rate of 1 mile a year, Cheshire’s farmers would not be suffering the difficulties they are today. Does he also agree that this should not be such a political issue? It is about supporting our farmers and eradicating TB.

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My hon. Friend makes an important point: it is not possible to eradicate this disease without tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. She rightly says that the previous Government put their head in the sand and did nothing. This is a slow-moving, difficult disease and it has to be hit hard and early, which the previous Government failed to do. At a recent NFU conference Labour confirmed again that, irrespective of the evidence and the advice of the chief veterinary officer, it would abandon the culls.

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Despite the Government’s protestations, the previous Labour Government killed more badgers than any other Government. [Laughter.] Yes. The £50 million trial over 10 years concluded that such action gave no meaningful contribution to the eradication of tuberculosis. The Government’s badger culls have not just been a disaster for wildlife, but come at a huge financial cost. In the first year of the culls, the Government spent £9.8 million. With Ministers proposing to extend the badger culls, possibly to 10 areas and after that to 40 areas, how much more can taxpayers expect to fork out for these ineffective and inhumane badger culls?

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The random badger cull trials that were carried out demonstrated incontrovertibly that, over time, the cull did lead to a significant reduction in the disease, which is why the experts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recommend a cull as part of the strategy. It is absolutely wrong for Labour to say that it will ignore the evidence and the advice of the chief veterinary officer. On the costs in the first year, the cull clearly had elements of analysis, post mortem, research and policing that will not be present when we roll it out more widely. We are committed to having a badger cull as part of our 25-year strategy.

Natura 2000

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10. If she will take steps to increase the number of Natura 2000 sites in England. [908029]

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A review of the network of special protection areas classified under the wild birds directive is currently under way and will inform decisions on the need to classify further sites. The network of special areas of conservation designated under the habitats directive is essentially complete, but is continually under review to ensure that it remains sufficient. Further work has been undertaken to identify additional SACs for harbour porpoise and is expected to deliver later this year.

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I thank the Minister for his answer. In that review, will he consider extending the status of Natura 2000 to the area of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns, particularly as it has precious ancient woodland, really fragile chalk streams and the majestic sight of the successfully re-introduced red kites soaring over our Chiltern hills? Surely we should be a candidate for Natura 2000 designation.

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I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the work of the AONBs is very much recognised by Government. On considering further protections, we must look at the evidence on those particular species and take any decision very carefully. Natural England is considering designating more ancient woodland as sites of special scientific interest, which will increase the protection afforded to the best ancient woodlands above and beyond that which is already accorded to ancient woodlands through the national planning policy framework.

Hunting Act 2004

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11. What her policy is on repeal of the Hunting Act 2004. [908031]

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My support for fox hunting is well known. The Hunting Act was a mistake, and I strongly support repeal. Acknowledging the strong views on both sides of this debate, I am pleased that the Prime Minister has said that a Conservative Government will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote with a Government Bill in Government time.

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Despite Tory hysteria, the Hunting Act did not reduce the pageantry of hunting or result in the mass slaughter of horses or hounds. What it did do was reduce greatly the sadistic torment of the chase and the kill. Is the nasty party really going to campaign in the election to bring cruelty back into hunting?

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I am not prepared to listen to the advice of a party that has a shadow farming Minister who will not listen to the chief veterinary officer and who has said publicly that he will not follow his advice on animal welfare issues.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating members of the Holcombe hunt, whose hounds have their kennels in my constituency, on maintaining their activities within the law since the hunting ban was introduced and preserving this most traditional of rural pursuits?

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I completely agree that hunting is important for rural communities. It is traditional and part of the fabric of our countryside.

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Why will the Secretary of State not recognise the huge opposition to the idea of repealing the Hunting Act? Instead of proposing yet more cruelty to animals, why will she not look at extending the Act to grouse shooting and hare coursing, which also are cruel and hugely opposed in this country?

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Our approach is that we will introduce a Government Bill in Government time to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote.

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If that is indeed our approach, can the Secretary of State tell us why there has not been a free vote in this Parliament, as set out in the coalition agreement?

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I want to see repeal of the Act, and I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister has said that a Conservative Government will give the opportunity for that.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [908007]

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The Government are delivering on their priorities of growing the economy and improving the environment. Since 2010, we have cut farm inspections by 34,000 a year. We have helped create 150,000 acres of priority habitats. We have planted more than 11 million trees. We have cleaned up more than 10,000 miles of river. We have reformed the common fisheries policy, invested £3.2 billion in our flood defences, providing protection to an additional 230,000 homes, and put in place a strategy to eradicate bovine TB. This is a record we can be proud of.

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Will the Secretary of State join me in applauding the work of the Forestry Commission to secure a criminal conviction against those who illegally felled more than 500 trees in Basingstoke in a failed attempt to establish a Traveller site? Will she look at ways to encourage the courts to use the fining powers that are available to them to help stop this sort of appalling environmental vandalism?

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I welcome the fact that the Forestry Commission’s enforcement action has been successful, and I applaud its exercise of these important powers. We take protection of our woodlands seriously, and no doubt the Commission will pursue the restocking requirements vigorously. It is for the courts to determine sentences, but I fully expect the restocking burden to act as a key deterrent.

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If the Government’s record in tackling lethal air pollution is as good as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), claimed earlier, why is Britain facing unprecedented fines and legal action in the European courts for failing on every single air quality measure?

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I am happy that the right hon. Gentleman is focusing attention on this. As he will no doubt be aware, one of the key factors is transport fuels, especially diesel, and the failure of vehicles to meet in real-world conditions what was shown by testing when they were approved for use. We must make improvements at the European level on vehicles standards and testing. We also make funds available to local authorities to help them take measures locally to deal with air quality. It is a crucial issue.

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T3. Will the Secretary of State confirm that her Department is on course to have cut red tape for farmers by cutting guidance by 80% and by reducing the number of farm inspections by 34,000 during this Parliament? When she is returned after 7 May, will she ensure that cutting red tape includes making it easier and cheaper for my Nottinghamshire farmers and riparian owners to maintain the streams and rivers that protect the countryside? [908010]

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I agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen a reduction of 34,000 farm inspections per year and an 80% reduction in red tape from DEFRA. That is vital for our £100 billion food and farming industry. A future Conservative Government would continue to bear down on red tape. We are considering pilots for landowners and farmers to manage water courses themselves, to get rid of a lot of bureaucracy.

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T5. I hope that the Minister’s office passed on notice of my question; I appreciate that it is quite obscure. Musicians face anxiety when they travel to the United States because if their instruments contain even small amounts of ivory they fall foul of the convention on international trade in endangered species regulations. Will the Minister assure me that CITES certificates will be recognised by the US authorities and, in the longer term, may we perhaps look at an exemption for vintage instruments? I think that mother of pearl as well as ivory is an issue. [908013]

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We are aware of these concerns and certainly want the US Government to recognise CITES musical instrument certificates, to ease the task of musicians travelling to the US with instruments that contain small amounts of legal ivory. Ultimately, these are matters for the US Government to determine. However, we intend to approach the European Commission and other EU member states to propose a joint approach to ask the US to clarify its position, with the aim of providing the reassurances the hon. Lady seeks.

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T4. So much done, so much still to do. Will my right hon. Friend commit to giving statutory status as consultees to water companies for fracking, major developments and houses and roads? In the time available, what will she look back on and see as her Department’s major achievement over the past five years? [908012]

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I certainly commit to my hon. Friend that we will ensure that there are proper environmental protections for water, as part of the Environment Agency’s work on protection for fracking areas. On the Department’s achievements, we have put food and farming at the heart of the long-term economic plan. We have seen food exports rise to £19 billion. That is vital for the one in eight people in this country who work in food and farming.

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May I ask the Secretary of State not to be too complacent about our streams and rivers in this country? Has she seen recent research? I have registered interests as the initiator of Greenstreams, which cleans up the rivers in my part of the world, and in environmental waste. Does she know that the old landfills are leaching tonnes of ammonia into our rivers every year? If we do not do something about it, the 27.5 tonnes of ammonia that go into one Oxford river every year will continue to do so, and that will happen all over the country.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Since 2010, phosphates and sulphides in water have reduced. That is positive progress, but of course he is absolutely right: there is more to do. That is why we have just launched the water element of the countryside stewardship programme, which provides incentives to do just that.

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T6. With so many large infrastructure projects in the pipeline, what input has the Secretary of State had in looking at the cumulative environmental impact of projects such as High Speed 2 and airport expansion? How many meetings has she had with the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd, and how regular are those meetings? [908015]

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Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, have regular meetings throughout the year with Ministers from other Departments, and of course, at official level, we engage very strongly across Departments on such issues. Planning guidance on the need to protect our environment is absolutely clear.

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The Minister will be aware of the current price war in the supermarkets with regard to the price of a loaf of bread. Sainsbury’s is selling Hovis at 75p a loaf. What can Ministers do to ensure that that does not adversely impact people working in the baking industry?

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The supermarket adjudicator requires retailers to stick to the terms of contracts, not retrospectively to hit suppliers or unreasonably request them to take part in promotions. Through the groceries code and the adjudicator, we have measures in place to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman cites.

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T7. Shoreham in my constituency has a flourishing houseboat community, which adds to the colour of our town. Alas, it also adds to the colour of the water flowing into Shoreham harbour until high tide washes it away, as few boats have sewage tanks or are linked to drainage on the shore. Do the Government have any plans to tighten up on pollution from boats used as homes? [908016]

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight potential risks from sewage pollution in water. If the Environment Agency can demonstrate a problem, it can issue a notice within 3 nautical miles of an area of operation. Since 1994, all new recreational craft should be fitted with holding tanks that allow managed discharge. Larger vessels are covered by maritime conventions. If there are specific issues in his area and he would like to write to me about them, I will get him a more detailed answer from the agency.

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We heard earlier of the broadband and other problems of those trying to access rural payments. I know personally the dire experience of broadband services across much of Northumberland, so three years after Labour’s universal broadband commitment would have come into force, will the Secretary of State admit that this Government have sacrificed the rural economy in order to subsidise a monopoly roll-out by BT of superfast broadband mainly in urban and semi-urban areas?

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During this Parliament, we have seen superfast broadband coverage rise from 43% to 80%, and we are seeing connectivity improving in rural areas and the gap between rural and urban areas close in terms of productivity and earnings, as well as better road connections, such as the dualling of the A11.

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I welcome the Secretary of State’s help for dairy farming through exports, public procurement and general support, but what talks has she had with the banks? I think milk prices will improve, but the banks need to support farmers in the meantime.

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. There will be short-term cash-flow pressures on farmers who are currently receiving low prices and in some cases have quite high costs. I have had a meeting already with the banks to discuss this and to encourage them to show forbearance. As the Secretary of State said earlier, we have also been encouraging HMRC to show forbearance to those farmers facing difficulties, and I will continue to monitor the issue closely.

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May I urge the Government to reconsider their policy? Although they offer support for bovine TB badger vaccination projects in edge areas, they do not provide that same support in so-called hot-spot areas. I have been working with the Zoological Society of London on a project which has just been very successfully rolled out for its first pilot this year in Penwith. I urge the Government to look at that seriously, because projects in hot spots could make a telling and important contribution to bearing down on bovine TB.

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I have met the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue. He is aware that we have made an offer at DEFRA to give some support to that project in his constituency, notably to provide it with free vaccines and some equipment. However, the edge area vaccination scheme is in the edge area for a very good reason: the vaccine does not cure badgers that already have the disease. There is logic to using the vaccine in the edge area, to create a buffer to prevent the spread of the disease, but less so in the high-risk areas.

CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

House of Bishops

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1. What steps the Church Commissioners plan to take in response to the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election. [908037]

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A copy of the House of Bishops’ pastoral letter has been sent to every Member of Parliament. The letter makes it clear that it is not a shopping list of policies that the bishops would like to see, and that if anyone claims that the pastoral letter is saying, “Vote for this party or that party”, they have misunderstood it, but that there is a need to focus on the common good and the participation of more people in developing a political vision.

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As this is the last Church Commissioners questions before Dissolution when my right hon. Friend leaves this House, may I place on record my thanks for all his work as the Second Church Estates Commissioner?

Is my right hon. Friend concerned that this letter, which is actually a 52-page booklet, may have been misrepresented in some quarters by some commentators, who have cherry-picked certain phrases and passages rather than looking at the document as a whole?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope every parliamentary colleague will read the bishops’ pastoral letter. I do not expect everyone to agree with everything in it, but it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking document which makes it clear that the bishops believe that

“the great majority of politicians and candidates enter politics with a passion to improve the lives of their fellow men and women.”

Only yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury made this observation:

“It’s just the reality; decisions have to be made and it is often unbelievably difficult. Politicians know that quite often they are doing the best they can and the more I see of them the more I reckon that it’s very rare to find one who isn’t doing the best they can but often in incredibly difficult situations.”

St George's Cathedral (Jerusalem)

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2. If the Church Commissioners will take steps to support St George's cathedral in Jerusalem. [908038]

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Like any Anglican cathedral overseas, St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem is financially independent of the Church Commissioners. However, I would hope that everyone possible would support the work of the friends of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, a UK registered charity that has the Archbishop of Canterbury as patron.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and join my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) in paying tribute to the work that he has done as the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

On a visit with the International Development Committee last year in the area, I had the privilege of being invited by my constituent, Mrs Hifsa Iqbal, to an interfaith conference hosted by St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem. May I encourage the Church Commissioners to look at the very important work that St George’s is doing in the middle east and see what support they can give?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point and I entirely agree with him. St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem seeks to support everyone in need irrespective of their faith, but its support for Palestinian Christians is particularly important as they often feel themselves to be twice a minority. It is a sad fact that the number of Christians in the Holy Land has dwindled significantly in recent years, so I hope that we will all do what we can to support the work of St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem, and the schools and hospitals that it runs for everyone in the west bank and in Gaza.

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That is indeed a sad fact. I was fortunate to be able to join worshippers for evensong at St George’s cathedral in Jerusalem and I still remember the prayer that evening, that we should pray not just for the Israelis or for the Palestinians, but for ourselves—that we should not separate them in our prayers. Does that not illustrate the vital contribution that St George’s can make to both civic and spiritual life in Jerusalem?

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I commend to every colleague psalm 122, which includes the words:

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

Christianity (Rural Areas)

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3. What steps the Church of England plans to take to maintain and support a Christian presence in every rural community. [908039]

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The Church of England is committed to being a Christian presence in every community. The recently published “Growing the Rural Church” report identifies a number of recommendations to help rural multi-church groups to flourish.

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As well as being places of worship, especially in rural areas, churches are community hubs, and with priests being spread over so many parishes now, there are increasing problems. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he possibly can to ensure that the Church provides as many clergy as possible for our rural parishes?

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Yes, indeed. We certainly seek to recruit more stipendiary and self-supporting clergy. My hon. Friend makes an important point. The vibrancy of churches is important to rural life. There are 635 churches in the diocese of Lincoln. They all play an important part in the vibrancy and vitality of the countryside of Lincolnshire.

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Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Church Commissioners dig deep into their resources to ensure that the jewels of the rural crown of the multiple parish churches in a constituency such as Thirsk and Malton will be preserved and kept in the best possible state of maintenance?

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One of the tasks I will take on when I leave the House is to chair a statutory body, the Church Buildings Council, which is responsible for the maintenance, repair and restoration of all 16,000 parish churches throughout England. I want to make sure that they are always seen as a blessing, not as a burden. We must acknowledge that the majority of English churches are in rural areas, which cover only a sixth of the population, so we have some challenges, but they play an important part in the lives of every village community.

Citizenship

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4. If the Church Commissioners will discuss with Church of England bishops initiatives involving other faith leaders on instilling citizenship values throughout the population. [908040]

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Bishops throughout England work closely with other faith leaders in their diocese to uphold citizenship values throughout their communities.

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The right hon. Gentleman has always been more of a blessing than a burden in these sessions, and today especially so.

On a serious note, citizenship is taught patchily in schools in our country. We have a wonderful interfaith group in Huddersfield which leads this positive move to share faith and interests. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the hard work is done in such organisations all the time, when crises arrive it will stand us in good stead?

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I entirely agree. Indeed, I am glad that during this Parliament the Government, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, have supported three programmes to help promote faith communities: Near Neighbours, which is operated by the Church Urban Fund; Together in Service, which is operated by FaithAction; and the work of the Inter Faith Network for the UK. Another challenge that I am taking on after standing down is chairing the trustees of the St Ethelburga’s centre for reconciliation and peace, based in the City of London, which works with many interfaith institutions right across the country, whether in Huddersfield, Manchester or elsewhere. There is an enormous amount of really good practice going on in interfaith work across the United Kingdom, of which we can all be proud.

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rose—

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Mr Fitzpatrick, are you seeking to come in on this question?

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No, Mr Speaker. I was anticipating Dr Offord’s question.

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Anticipation is clearly one of the hon. Gentleman’s strengths.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Fraud

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5. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to tackle electoral fraud. [908041]

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The Electoral Commission has worked with the College of Policing to publish detailed guidance for police forces on preventing and detecting electoral fraud. Additional measures are also being put in place by returning officers and police forces in areas where there have been allegations of electoral fraud at previous elections. The Electoral Commission has worked with political parties to agree a code of conduct for campaigners and is developing a simple guide for voters on how to protect their vote and report electoral fraud.

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My Labour opponent in Hendon has registered himself, and just himself, in a flat he owns in the constituency, even though he lives in Notting Hill with his wife. Does my hon. Friend think that is open, honest and transparent?

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That is not, directly speaking, a matter for the Electoral Commission, although I certainly agree that transparency in all politics is very important. It might be something that my hon. Friend can raise during the course of the coming campaign.

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Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Electoral Commission is monitoring events at the election court examining electoral fraud allegations relating to the Tower Hamlets mayoral election last year and that, given that the case is due to finish before the general election, any lessons to help improve the conduct of the election will be communicated to the police, the returning officer and the commissioners in Tower Hamlets?

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I can certainly confirm that the Electoral Commission is watching that case very carefully indeed. There will be a study of the outcome once the judge has determined it. Obviously, I cannot comment on the details, as the case is ongoing. The report will be provided by the Electoral Commission as quickly as possible and lessons for the entire democratic system in our country will be learnt.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that in the past there have been cases of electoral fraud and abuse in Bradford West. Will the Electoral Commission be keeping a particularly close eye on Bradford West in the forthcoming general election to ensure that no sharp practices are employed? If so, what additional measures are in place to ensure that the election in Bradford West will be free and fair?

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Bradford is one of the 17 areas of the country that are receiving special attention from the Electoral Commission and the police in the run-up to the general election. There will be a greater police presence in those areas and firm guidance will be given to campaigners. Every police force in the country now has a specialist electoral fraud officer. The public will be issued with clear guidance on how to protect their vote and report any suspected electoral fraud, either to the police or to Crimestoppers.

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In all the years that I have been voting, I have never noticed any clearly displayed signs in polling stations indicating the penalties for electoral fraud. Will my hon. Friend look into that and perhaps arrange to have a clear sign in every polling station explaining that people can go to prison for electoral fraud? Perhaps that will put off anyone intending to defraud the electorate.

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I must confess to being as unobservant as my right hon. Friend, because I have not noticed any such displays either. I will pass her suggestion to the Electoral Commission immediately. If action is required, of course it will be taken.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Historic Churches

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6. What support is available for the upkeep of historic churches in local communities. [908042]

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The Heritage Lottery Fund makes money available for church repair and restoration. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced a £15 million fund to assist churches with roof repairs. There are other sources of funding, such as help from landfill tax credits, to a number of charities and foundations that regularly and generously support repair, reordering and restoration work in parish churches. Details of possible funding can be found at www.churchcare.co.uk.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that parish churches such as St Michael’s in Middlewich in my constituency are an invaluable community resource, and that the cost of repairing and maintaining such listed church buildings should not just fall on the shoulders of church congregations but be shared more widely?

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I agree that parish churches are an invaluable community asset. We ought to thank the Chancellor for what he has done during the course of this Parliament. There is gift aid; there is the small gift relief legislation that we passed; there is the listed places of worship scheme, which effectively relieves churches of the cost of VAT on repairs and restoration; and there is the recent £15 million roof fund that the Chancellor made available for helping to repair church roofs. Churches are part of our national heritage, and the whole community has a responsibility to help to maintain and restore them.

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In my constituency, the friends of the Presbyterian church in Portaferry have a wonderful historic church. They applied for, and were successful in getting, a grant of some £900,000 from the Big Lottery Fund. Those moneys enabled the church to be refurbished, retained and restored to its former glory. What contact have the Church Commissioners had with the Big Lottery Fund scheme to ensure that all churches can do the same?

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May I write to the hon. Gentleman, because I need to pick through that question? I have responsibility only for the Church of England, and I do not think my responsibilities stretch to Northern Ireland, so I need to see what help I can offer him.

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8. Five years ago, I started nagging my right hon. Friend about money required to maintain the fabric of Lichfield cathedral, and I do not intend his retirement to stop me. What hope can he give Lichfield cathedral that we will receive funding in order to maintain the wiring—and when will he come and visit Lichfield? [908044]

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My hon. Friend’s question on the Order Paper was whether I would visit Lichfield cathedral, to which the answer is yes. The answer to his supplementary question is that, as the House will know, the Chancellor made £20 million available so that we could ensure that all our cathedrals were in a good state to commemorate the centenary of the first world war. Lichfield cathedral needs some serious money to help rewire it, because otherwise it will be unable to function. I am looking forward to visiting Lichfield cathedral shortly to see Lichfield’s treasures, including the Lichfield angel and my hon. Friend.

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The right hon. Gentleman may be looking forward to his visit to Lichfield cathedral, but I do not suppose he is looking forward to it as much as the people of Lichfield.

Living Wage

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7. What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on paying the living wage. [908043]

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The Church Commissioners and the Archbishops Council are committed to paying the living wage and ensuring that all staff and contractors who are employed at directly owned commercial and residential properties are paid at least the living wage. Other parts of the national institutions, including the Church of England, are committed to paying the living wage and are following the Living Wage Commission’s recommendations to put in place a transitional programme that involves all staff being paid the living wage by 2017.

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Given that completely satisfactory answer, Mr Speaker, may I dispense with my supplementary question and simply, through you, thank the right hon. Gentleman for the superb job he has done as Second Church Estates Commissioner? He should be aware that millions of Anglicans and non-Anglicans across the world, but particularly our fantastic women priests, have him to thank for having saved the Church of England from itself in its original debacle over women bishops. On their behalf, thank you.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those very kind comments. On this, as I hope on much, the work has benefited from cross-party collaboration, and much of what we have achieved we have achieved only by people in this House working together.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Online Voter Registration (Young and Student Voters)

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9. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effect of online registration on young and student voters. [908045]

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The Electoral Commission informs me that 18 to 24-year-olds are the second most active age group in making use of the online registration system, comprising about a quarter of all applications. Research conducted by YouGov for the Electoral Commission in January showed that 53% of 18 to 24-year-olds are still unaware that they can register to vote online. The commission is working with a wide range of organisations to encourage young people to register to vote and to raise awareness of how easy it is to do so online.

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I am very concerned that, on 1 December, the electoral register appeared to have reduced by 900,000. Is my right hon. Friend aware that party-branded material is being circulated in schools to encourage 18-year-olds to register to vote? What can be done to ensure that there is political balance with young voters?

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Since 1 December, more than 2 million applications to register to vote have been made, so it is almost certain that the numbers will be rebalanced by the time we get to 7 May.

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You said that with a straight face!

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The Electoral Commission is about to launch, on Monday, its TV awareness campaign, which I know the hon. Lady will support, to drive home the message that if you do not register, you cannot vote. The Electoral Commission is working with a number of organisations to make sure that this message has been put across to young people.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Petrochemical Companies

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10. What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on investing their funds in petrochemical companies. [908046]

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The Church Commissioners do invest in petrochemical companies. These investments are managed in line with our ethical investment policy. The commissioners intend to continue to engage collaboratively with other shareholders and the industry to encourage greater transparency and transition to a lower-carbon economy.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. It is an honour to be the last person ever to ask him a question. It is just a shame that we are not talking about bats, as we usually do.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman feels that some progress has been made on this issue, but others have said that the Church of England is rather dragging its feet. Will he heed the calls of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to show strong moral leadership on this issue and report back sooner rather than later?

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I am not quite sure on what specific issue the hon. Lady wants us to show strong moral leadership. The fact is that we have a vibrant North sea oil industry in this country, so we all have an interest in investing in the petrochemical industry. We need to ensure that we work with other shareholders and institutions to try to ensure that the oil companies act as transparently as possible and move as fast as possible to a lower-carbon economy.

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In simply adding to the very proper tributes that have been paid to the right hon. Gentleman, I would like to take the opportunity to say that he has been assiduous, accomplished and avuncular in equal measures, which has been hugely appreciated across the House. I think he is aware that I am visiting Bloxham school in his constituency tomorrow. I cannot claim that I am doing so specifically to pay tribute to him, but it will be a pleasure to be in his constituency. On behalf of the whole House, I would like to thank him for his 32 years’ service in this place.