House of Commons
Thursday 12 March 2015
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—
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)
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%.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
House of Bishops
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.
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?
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)
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.
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?
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.
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?
Christianity (Rural Areas)
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
The right hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
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.
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?
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.
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.
Business of the House
Mr Speaker, may I, too, associate myself with your remarks about my right hon. Friend?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 16 March—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by a motion to approve the draft Drug Driving (Specified Limits) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, followed by opposed private business which the Chairman of Ways and Means has named for consideration.
Tuesday 17 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, followed by a debate on motions relating to the reports from the Committee on Standards on the code of conduct and on the standards system in the House of Commons, followed by a debate on a motion relating to Shaker Aamer. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 18 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 19 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 20 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
The provisional business for the week commencing 23 March will include:
Monday 23 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.
Tuesday 24 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter-terrorism.
Wednesday 25 March—All stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.
Thursday 26 March—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by an opportunity for Members to make short valedictory speeches, as recommended by the Backbench Business Committee. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.
Before I call the shadow Leader of the House, it might be helpful for the House if I say this: the Leader of the House has just announced that the Backbench Business Committee debate to be held on the morning of Thursday 26 March is intended to give retiring Members an opportunity to make a short valedictory speech. I gather that there will be many retiring Members who wish to take part and, inevitably, the time will be constrained. I therefore draw their attention to the opportunity offered by the four-day Budget debate, also just announced for Wednesday 18, Thursday 19, Friday 20 and Monday 23 March, in which my colleagues and I are minded to permit some latitude to retiring Members wishing to make valedictory remarks, although without any derogation from any time limits that may be in place.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the remainder of the Parliament. In the blizzard of last-minute statutory instruments that have appeared on the Order Paper, the Registration of Consultant Lobbyists Regulations 2015 were laid on 26 February. Despite the Prime Minister’s pre-election pledge to shine the light of transparency on lobbying, it is expected that the new register will cover just 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists and would not have stopped any of the lobbying scandals that have hit the Government. We are committed to an effective register of all professional lobbyists, backed by a code of conduct and sanctions, so we will pray against these regulations. Will the Leader guarantee us time for a debate on them?
The Government have a clear track record of avoiding scrutiny. On the European arrest warrant, on the Agricultural Wages Board and now on plain packaging of cigarettes, instead of trying to win the argument, they just try to avoid having it altogether. Last week, the Leader of the House rejected my request for a debate on plain packaging on the Floor of the House, and this week we can see why. A majority of Tory MPs failed to vote in favour of this common-sense measure to protect public health, including eight Ministers, three members of the Cabinet and even the Tory deputy Chief Whip. This morning, an analysis by The Independent has revealed that one in four MPs who voted against have declared links to the tobacco industry. Does it not say everything about today’s Tory party that a majority of its MPs is more interested in the rights of global tobacco companies than the health of Britain’s children? Is not the Prime Minister’s refusal to defend his record in the TV debates symptomatic of this Government? Instead of trying to win the argument, they just run away from it.
Next week, we will have the charade of the Chancellor’s pre-election Budget, which will reportedly contain large chunks of the Tory manifesto. Perhaps the Leader of the House can tell us whether both parties of Government have signed up to it? It is clear that the real omnishambles is this Chancellor’s record. He has broken every promise and missed every target he has ever set himself on the economy. For the first time in nearly 100 years working people are worse off at the end of a Parliament than they were at the beginning. Not only would Tory plans cut public spending back to pre-war levels, the reality would be extreme and dangerous cuts of up to £70 billion.
The Prime Minister is an expert at evading scrutiny and the Chancellor yet again excused himself from Treasury questions this week, but I am sure that, as an honourable man, the Leader of the House will be willing to answer some simple questions. To meet their target, is it not the case that a Tory Government would have to cut spending on day-to-day public services by significantly more than they will admit? Is it not the case that to meet their target they will have to either raise VAT or cut the NHS? Is it not right that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) was speaking for growing numbers in the Conservative party when he said that he did not agree with protecting the NHS budget? Is it not also the case that Tory plans would mean that we would have the smallest police force since records began and the smallest Army since Cromwell?
There are only nine more days of this Parliament and I can see that the Leader of the House is eagerly counting them down. He has led his party, he has toured the world, he has become best mates with Angelina Jolie. However, in a rather disappointing end to his glittering career it seems that Conservative party headquarters has got him doing its e-mails. This week, in a message to Tory Members, he warned of the dangers of entering government on the coat tails of a small party that does not keep its promises. He should know quite enough about that already.
It has not been a good week for the Liberal Democrats either. They have been embroiled in a cash-for-access scandal, but the country is mainly just in shock that anyone wants to donate any money to them at all. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has apparently been sending leaflets out in his constituency that spell the word “failure” incorrectly. I would have thought that every single Liberal Democrat would know how to spell that word. Lord Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and the man in charge of their campaign, declared on the radio this morning that he was going to be very busy during the general election campaign and that he doubted he would get to do any campaigning. This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Things are looking bad for the Prime Minister, too. His latest ploy to escape the scrutiny of the TV debates was to say that radio hosts can grill him “as hot as they like”. Mr Speaker, I prefer a long slow burn. There are just eight weeks to go until the general election and the only person from Chipping Norton who has come out fighting has just been suspended by the BBC.
I think the reference to a long slow burn was a reference to the shadow Chancellor’s personal life, although I think we can be confident that it would be a very rapid and immediate crash if he were to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am not going to join the hon. Lady in making fun of my Liberal Democrat colleagues—I am going to wait for election night. [Laughter.] There will be a moment for all of us to join in that. I have enjoyed working with them immensely. It has been one of the high points of all the things I have done in my career to be able to work with them in government over the past five years. I will certainly continue to send out e-mails to people about the dangers of the coming together in government of a party that wants to bankrupt the country with a party that wants to break up the country. That is the real threat.
The hon. Lady asked about a number of matters. On the plain packaging vote, the Conservatives had a free vote, which was absolutely the right thing to have done. The regulations were carried by a very large majority in the House. I voted for them myself and I am pleased that they have been passed.
The hon. Lady asked about the register of lobbyists that is being set up under this Government, as is the declaration of transparency of all ministerial meetings with outside organisations. There have been very important improvements on this issue in the past few years.
The hon. Lady asked about the Budget. I can assure her that the Budget that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will present next Wednesday will be agreed across the coalition: it will be the Budget of the coalition Government. We will, of course, all be able to set out in our party manifestos what we will do after the general election. When the Chancellor stands up to deliver the Budget on Wednesday, he will be highly unusual in the ranks of Chancellors of the Exchequer in the history of this country in being able to say that during his tenure nearly 2 million jobs have been created, that there is lower inflation than when he began, that he presides over the fastest growth in the G7, and that he has halved the deficit of this country. It is a very long time since a Chancellor of the Exchequer could stand up on Budget day with that as his starting point. That is what he will be able to do next Wednesday.
There will be four days to debate the Budget. That is a great deal of time, so there will be a great opportunity to explore all the issues the hon. Lady has raised. She asked about protecting the national health service budget. I seem to remember that the party that did not offer to protect the national health service budget at the last general election was the Labour party. Indeed, what has happened over the past five years is that its budget has been protected in England but cut in Wales, where it has been under the management of the Labour party— that is the advert. But there will be plenty of time to discuss these issues during the Budget debate.
It has been an interesting week for the Opposition. Shadow Ministers have briefed against their own disastrous tuition fees policies, saying they have other uses for £3 billion. Lord Mandelson has managed to brief against the entire Labour party, saying it will fail to win a majority. According to the New Statesman, the shadow Chancellor has briefed against the Leader of the Opposition, saying he has not grown into the job and he feels dreadfully sorry for him. The shadow Chancellor then managed the most unusual feat of briefing against himself, by setting out a number of scenarios for a future Conservative Government and then saying he disagreed with those scenarios. And the whole Labour party briefed against itself over whether to do a deal with the Scottish National party. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition sits rudderless in the middle, not knowing what to say. We hope at least that the shadow Leader of the House will rule out a deal with the SNP, as many of her own Back Benchers wish her to do—perhaps we can look forward to that at next week’s business questions.
May we have a debate on easier access to funding from local government for community charity organisations such as the Blue Box group in Belper, in my constituency, which is trying to raise funds to rebuild its facilities after they were burnt out?
I was sorry to learn of the challenging circumstances facing Blue Box and the shocking events that led up to them. We are committed to making it easier for charities and community groups such as Blue Box to gain access to the funding they need. The Cabinet Office is funding the “funding central” portal, a free service offering a simple, searchable database of funding opportunities for charities and community groups. We have also offered fundraising training for small charities. So I hope, through one or other of these means, Blue Box can find a sustainable way forward.
The Government are imposing a 25% cut on further education colleges, despite it having a disastrous impact on colleges. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House for a debate on the impact of this policy? Since 2010, my own college, Riverside college, has faced a 47% cut in its adult budget.
I cannot offer a special debate. As the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, there are only nine days of business left, nearly half of which time will be taken up with the Budget debates, but of course questions about spending and taxation can be highly relevant to those debates, so the hon. Gentleman might find the opportunity to raise the matter then.
For the avoidance of doubt, I intend to be back here after 7 May—so there will be no valedictory speech from me.
There is an extraordinary mismatch between the amount of money raised by the licence fee and the BBC’s investment in the regions in which it is raised. May we have a debate on making it part of the charter negotiations that regional commissioners of programmes be matched to their areas, so that areas such as Birmingham and the midlands can get a fair share of the money raised?
The hon. Lady raises two interesting points. First, it might be that some Members are giving valedictory speeches who do not know they are—but it is up to the electorate to determine that.
Secondly, on the BBC, I absolutely agree that investment in the regions is vital and that the BBC has a varied record over the past few decades of doing it. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee made a statement to the House a few weeks ago about the future funding of the BBC, so the House had a limited opportunity to consider the matter then. Realistically, further consideration will have to await the new Parliament, of which the hon. Lady might or might not be a Member.
In reply to a written question on 23 February, the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), indicated an intention to publish the Government’s review of asbestos policy for schools very shortly. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, in answer to my question, said it would be published in due course. Can the Leader of the House tell us today when this really important review will be published? If he cannot, given the proximity to Dissolution, may I request an urgent debate on the whole issue?
I can tell my hon. Friend that the Government are publishing the review today. We have been working hard to prepare it, and we will place copies of it in the Library. We will write to Members, such as my hon. Friend, who have a particular interest in the subject, and we will follow that up with a written statement on Monday, so that the House is made fully aware of the publication. The subject of next Tuesday’s Adjournment debate is the report on asbestos in schools and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take a close interest in that.
Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the question of a statement by the Government on the future of the Chagos islands in respect of the feasibility of return report that has been done. The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that tomorrow I am attending a meeting at the Foreign Office with Mr Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Refugee Association. Will he please ensure that between now and Dissolution, the Government make a statement on their policy on the right of return in order to allow the historical wrong of the expulsion of the islanders from those islands finally to be put right, as promised by his Government at the start of this Parliament? We were promised that a decision would be made in this Parliament. There is a week to go.
The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing champion of this cause and is very assiduous in pursuing it. As he knows and as we have discussed before, there has been an extensive and major report—one I initiated when I was Foreign Secretary—on the feasibility or otherwise of habitation of the Chagos islands or parts of them. That is being considered very seriously by the Government. I cannot guarantee to the hon. Gentleman a statement about it before Dissolution, given that we have nearly arrived there. I can tell him that the Government are giving detailed consideration at the highest level to the report, but I do not know when a decision will be made.
May we have a debate on phone hacking at the Mirror Group? I am surprised that I need to ask for one, as I would have thought that the Leader of the Opposition, given his considerable previous interest in phone hacking, would have been all over this like a rash. In such a debate, we could find out why the Labour party needed a judge-led inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World, but does not raise a breath about the extensive phone hacking at the Mirror Group.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting comparison. It is important, of course, that all such allegations are fairly and thoroughly investigated, and we expect the relevant authorities to do so. There are many theories with which to answer my hon. Friend’s question. It could be that the Leader of the Opposition does not want to offend the one news organisation that is still arguing in his favour.
With Budget debates, we normally have a theme for each different day of debate, so we know who will be opening and winding it up. May we have as one theme the growing disparity between the wealthy people of this country and the rest of us, so that we have one day of debate in which the losers over these last five years—there are so many of them—can be compared with those who evade their taxes, evade their responsibilities and seem to get away with it?
Who opens which day of the Budget debate will, of course, be decided. Indeed, the Opposition often have a major influence on the decision. During the Budget debate there will be an opportunity to raise all those issues, and many others. I think that the everyday theme of the Budget debate will be that there are nearly 2 million more jobs in this country than there were five years ago. That is really the dominant theme of the British economy at the moment.
On 5 February at column 426 of Hansard, my right hon. Friend told me that he intended “later” in February to set out the draft changes to Standing Orders to implement English votes for English laws. Why was he not able to meet his own target deadline of the end of February? May I seek an assurance from him that he will meet it before his final departure from this place?
My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) asked about this last week. It is true that February has stretched into March, and I am conscious of the commitment that was made to my hon. Friend, so I do intend to publish the proposed Standing Order changes.
May we have a statement from the Health Secretary about the Government’s plans to intervene in and support the most financially challenged NHS areas in England? As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) told the Prime Minister yesterday, his area faces a £200 million deficit, and my own area of Devon faces a deficit of £430 million. I was told that an announcement would be made this week, alongside the new integration pilots, but that did not happen. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Government are not seeking to bury bad news in the run-up to the general election?
The House has had innumerable opportunities to debate health matters over the last few months, and I am sure that they will be discussed further during the Budget debates. The national health service is benefiting from 9,500 more doctors and 7,500 more nurses than it had in 2010, but if my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has any further announcements to make before the election, he will of course be able to come to the House and make a statement in the usual way.
Southend police are doing a wonderful job in keeping local residents safe. Will my right hon. Friend find time for another debate on police funding? I very much want our excellent neighbourhood policing to be kept at its present levels.
Police reform is clearly working. According to the independent Crime Survey, crime has fallen by more than a fifth under this Government, and I am pleased to say that that includes a fall in Essex.
While we acknowledge that the police funding settlement is challenging, a further debate on it would allow us to point out that chief constables and police and crime commissioners have shown that it is possible to deliver more with less, and to prioritise available resources. However, the best remaining opportunity to pursue the issue on the Floor of the House during the present Parliament will be provided by the four days of debate on the Budget.
I remind the House of my membership of, and support from, Unite, which is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters is a branch of that union.
Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the proposed national framework agreement relating to language interpretation and translation services? I understand that the Crown Commercial Service is due to issue a tender for such services before Dissolution, but there is serious concern about the effect of the framework on British sign language interpretation and on the profession. Will it be possible for a debate to take place before the tender is issued?
At this stage of the Parliament, it is difficult for me to arrange debates in addition to those that I have already announced, but I know from my own experience as Minister for Disabled People—a long time ago—what outstanding work sign language interpreters do, and how important that work is. The best that I can do to assist the hon. Lady is draw her question to the attention of my ministerial colleagues, and ask them to respond to her directly.
Town centres throughout the country are under pressure from internet purchasers and out-of-town retailers. They can respond either by doing nothing or by getting together to promote themselves and build up the trade, which is what traders and retailers in my constituency have done. They have launched a “first Thursdays” initiative, which began last week: there were street entertainers and musicians, and shops were open until eight o’clock in the evening. May we have a debate about the important role that town centres play in our communities?
I applaud everyone in Rugby for that initiative, and I applaud my hon. Friend for his strong support for it.
The Government are committed to helping high streets to adapt. Our Future High Streets Forum brings together business leaders from the various high street sectors so that they can understand the issues and drive forward new ideas. When people work together locally, they can really be successful in that regard. Although we will not have time for a specific debate before the dissolution of Parliament, the issue is very important, and I am sure that there will be further opportunities for Members to expand on it during the Budget debates.
The official data revealed today on the state of children’s mental health services is clearly shocking. Despite the Budget, we do not have an excess of business between now and the end of the Parliament, so will the Leader of the House organise one final debate so that we can agree a joint plan to tackle this disgrace? In that way we could end this Parliament by doing something genuinely worth while.
That is a very important issue. The hon. Gentleman makes a point about whether the parliamentary agenda is full between now and Dissolution, and I think it is, since there are many Bills that will come back from the House of Lords, there will be a Finance Bill to consider after the Budget and the Backbench Business Committee has utilised all its opportunities for further debate. But of course this will continue to be an important issue during and after the general election. The Government have a strong record on it: funding for mental health is estimated to have increased by £302 million in the last financial year compared to the previous one, and we have legislated to ensure that improving mental health and treating mental illness is given the same priority as treatment for physical health. So this Government have a strong record, but further debate is now most likely to take place in the next Parliament.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns of potential fracking across Ryedale. There is a grey area as the law currently stands, because the regulations to apply the Infrastructure Act 2015 will not now be brought forward until July, yet an application may be lodged by the end of this month. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that this grey area does not remain in place? The grey area relates to whether or not there will be opportunities to frack, or whether there will be protected areas. All the concessions that were given to the national parks, the sites of special scientific interest and the areas of outstanding natural beauty were withdrawn in the Lords.
Well, we have of course now passed the relevant legislation through Parliament, after considerable debate over the last few months. There will be further opportunities to raise these issues with my ministerial colleagues, because in the remaining days of the Parliament there will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government. That will provide the best opportunity for my hon. Friend to seek clarification on these issues.
The Leader of the House may be aware that Boris Johnson in his own inimitable way once said that he fought Clwyd South and that Clwyd South fought back, and he was helped in so doing by the Leader of the House. My constituents in Clwyd South are rather concerned because this time the Conservatives have selected a councillor, David Nicholls, who is a commercial lawyer of the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. There is much concern that he may get lost around our 240 square mile constituency. We are confident that the Leader of the House knows the constituency rather better than the said gentleman, so could he find a little time to come across from his retirement home in mid-Wales and show the gentleman around?
I think that was a question not about the business of the House of Commons, but about the general election campaign, but I am sure this candidate will be a splendid candidate for Clwyd South, as Boris Johnson was—I remember that very well. I assure the hon. Lady that I will be stepping out from my new home in mid-Wales to support Conservative candidates the length and breadth of Wales, to help continue the very strong performance in recent years of the Welsh Conservative party.
On 30 March, there will be no more Members of Parliament, but I understand that the Government will continue and that there will still be Ministers. May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on what is going to happen after the general election? When will Parliament assemble? What would happen if there were a hung Parliament and therefore some delay in forming a Government? In those circumstances, would existing Ministers continue in post? Taking a random example, let us say that the Deputy Prime Minister lost his seat. Would he continue as Deputy Prime Minister until the new Government had been formed?
The technical answer to my hon. Friend is that when Parliament is dissolved, it is normal at the same time to set out when it will meet again. Indeed, the writs that go out around the country requesting new Members of Parliament will set out when those Members should report to the House of Commons. That happens then, however, and it is not for me to set out such details now. I hope that there will be no doubt whatever about who is the next Prime Minister or about which party has the majority in the House of Commons, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be part of that majority. I do not think it would be helpful to get into other, more chaotic scenarios when discussing the outcome of the election. One has to think about them only for a moment to understand the importance of averting the possibility of their happening at all.
I should like to draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 633.
[That this House believes that asylum seekers should be homed widely in the country to assist community assimilation and to share fairly the strains and burdens on services that newcomers create; is astonished that Cardiff has 976 section 95 migrants, double the total in all of South East England outside of London and that Newport has 391, while the constituency of the Home Secretary has one and those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister have none; and calls on hon. Members to encourage their areas to accept their responsibilities and welcome at least the average total of migrants homed elsewhere.]
The motion seeks the better assimilation of asylum seekers by spreading them more evenly throughout the country so that all areas can have the benefits and the burdens of having asylum seekers. At the moment, Cardiff has about 900 section 95 asylum seekers and Newport has nearly 400, yet the constituency of one of the United Kingdom Independence party MPs has none and the constituencies of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary have a grand total of two. Would it not be a great advantage if those who were shouting the loudest about immigration could have the experience of having asylum seekers in their constituencies? In that way, they might know what they were talking about.
I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point without a debate. Indeed, he has conducted a short debate on the issue. There will not be time for a debate in the remaining days of this Parliament, although there will be Home Office questions on Monday 23 March, so he will have a further opportunity to advertise his early-day motion and his arguments. I am sure that these issues are well understood by many hon. Members, irrespective of the number of asylum seekers living in their constituencies.
While I accept the success of the cancer drugs fund, recent changes have resulted in the drug regorafenib, which is effective against gastro-intestinal tumours, no longer being funded. One of my constituents, whose partner suffers from a rare form of cancer, has collected more than 45,000 signatures in support of the drug’s reinstatement. It is a last resort that offers treatment when others have failed, and it gives patients precious extra time until a lasting cure can be found. Given that we are running out of time in this Parliament, can the Leader of the House advise me on how we can get this matter debated?
There is little scope for additional debates, as I have been saying in relation to other issues, but I can tell my hon. Friend that NHS England, which manages the cancer drugs fund, has assured the Department of Health that no patient whose treatment is currently being funded through the cancer drugs fund will have their funding withdrawn as long as it is clinically appropriate that they continue to receive that treatment, and that in addition no drug will be removed from the fund when it is the only therapy available for the condition in question. Furthermore, clinicians can still apply for individual patients to receive a particular drug on an exceptional basis. I would recommend that my hon. Friend pursues the matter directly with Ministers at the Department of Health in order to get further details.
In recent weeks, a constituent of mine travelled to Kenya, where immigration control accidentally swapped her passport with someone else’s. When she attempted to travel back, she was refused entry to the plane, but the person who had her passport had already returned to the United Kingdom. Will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to tell us what measures are in place to ensure that this does not happen?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about that. Border Force officers carry out comprehensive checks on all passengers arriving at passport control, and those checks are set out in an operating mandate approved by Home Office Ministers. They are, of course, meant to include a visual examination of the passenger and their passport to ensure that they are the right holder of the document. The best way to pursue this is for my hon. Friend to give me all the details and I will ensure that it is dealt with by my ministerial colleagues as a matter of urgency.
As I have previously mentioned in the House, my constituent Laura Thomas was tragically killed in an accident with a truck whose driver was using a mobile phone at the time. The current sanctions for such dangerous driving are too lenient, as are the penalties for using a hand-held mobile phone. May we have a debate on the need to discourage, through stiffer penalties, the epidemic of using hand-held phones while driving?
My hon. Friend is assiduous in raising this important issue, highlighting the devastating impact that driving while on a mobile phone can have. The Government remain concerned about this. The Department for Transport has commissioned research on the prevalence of such phone use and the report of the survey was published on gov.uk on 25 February. That will help to shape future policy decisions. As for the penalties that are applied, there will be Ministry of Justice questions next week on the Floor of the House, so there are one or two remaining opportunities to pursue this.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to update the House on the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. First, I refer the House to yesterday’s statement from Public Health England, which confirmed that a military health care worker has tested positive and is being flown back, and will shortly be in the Royal Free hospital in London. Our thoughts are with her and her family at this time. We are also assessing four other military health care workers who had been in close contact with the patient. That is a purely precautionary move.
Our armed forces, our health workers, our diplomatic staff and my development staff are risking their lives to help Sierra Leone defeat this terrible disease and stop it spreading beyond west Africa. It is vital that we do that. Halting the rise of the disease in west Africa is by far the most effective way of preventing Ebola from infecting people in the UK. We are indebted to those UK personnel for their efforts; their commitment and bravery, which I have had the chance to see at first hand, have been outstanding.
As the Secretary of State for Health has said previously, the UK remains well placed to respond to this threat. The chief medical officer confirms that the risk to the UK remains low. An enormous amount of work has gone into making sure that we are prepared in the UK, now and in the future. The NHS has world-leading infection control procedures, and we have put in place robust screening and monitoring arrangements to detect and isolate cases at home.
A few weeks ago, I returned from my third visit to Sierra Leone in five months. In that time, there have been significant improvements. The number of cases per week has reduced from well over 500 in November to fewer than 60 now. Our strategy is working, and President Koroma and others have thanked the UK Government and the UK public for our critical and unwavering support. I am extremely proud that Britain’s support means that there are now enough Ebola beds, testing labs and trained burial teams, and an effective command and control structure to track down the disease across Sierra Leone and prevent it from spreading further.
The challenge now is to get to zero cases as quickly as possible. That will not be easy—we are looking at months, not weeks, till the end of this crisis—but we have the right people and the right plan in place to deal with this. The UK will continue to provide critical support to this response, particularly in the health sector, through which we will help Sierra Leone to tackle future disease outbreaks. We will hold our nerve and stay the course. This ongoing package of support will bring our total commitment to this response and to the country’s early recovery to £427 million.
The UK response will change as we transition to the next phase. After the best part of six months on station, RFA Argus will sail by the end of this month, as previously planned, having provided critical support to military and civilian volunteers on the ground. We will maintain the health care capabilities that it has provided through continued UK military support at an enhanced Ministry of Defence clinic in Freetown. The helicopter capabilities will be replaced by commercial providers. Military personnel will also continue to play an important role at the dedicated Kerry Town Ebola treatment facility for health care workers, and in supporting our Sierra Leonean partners with command and control to respond to district-level outbreaks.
Although the last planned deployment of NHS staff is due to end this month, we are mindful of further spikes in the case load. To that end, we have arranged for an NHS stand-by team to be on call to deploy within 48 hours. Throughout this response, the co-operation of the NHS, NHS trusts and Public Health England has been tremendous, both in Sierra Leone and at home, and for that I give them my heartfelt thanks. More than 150 NHS staff have so far been deployed to fight Ebola, which is testament to the superb flexibility of its staff at all levels. Our support for labs, through Public Health England, will continue, as testing capacity is vital to the continued effort.
We are also planning for recovery. The Ebola crisis has disrupted markets and access to food and other essentials for many families. It has put an enormous strain on the country’s health care system, and it has caused a generation of children to miss nearly a year of school. For too many children, the Ebola crisis has resulted in a breakdown of family and community protection systems. More than 9,000 children are registered as having lost one or both parents in this crisis, and they are vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation.
Continued leadership from the Governments in the region will be crucial to maintain the momentum. I welcome President Koroma’s leadership, and his clear message that there can be no half-victories. We will work with the Government of Sierra Leone to reopen schools and hospitals safely, and ensure that those most at risk of stigma, including orphans, have the support that they need.
Throughout the response, we have received critical support from international partners to help us staff treatment centres and labs across the country. I was in Brussels last week to ensure that the international community remains engaged in defeating Ebola, and in helping Sierra Leone and the countries of the region back on to a path to sustainable recovery.
The international community must also learn lessons from this outbreak and, together with the Governments of the affected countries, build a more resilient system for the future. We must do everything that we can to ensure that a crisis of this nature never happens again.
In conclusion, the UK did not stand on the sidelines when Sierra Leone needed us, and our strategy has saved thousands of lives and protected millions more around the world. That response, though far from over, has shown the very best of what the UK can do overseas. I am incredibly proud of the way that we have stepped up to this challenge and delivered in the toughest of circumstances. I am pleased to confirm that Her Majesty has agreed to honour this tremendous effort with the striking of a medal. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me a copy of her statement in advance, and for advance warning of the statement. I join her in paying tribute to the military health care worker who has tested positive for Ebola. We wish her a speedy and full recovery. Our thoughts are with her and her family and friends. I am sure that the good wishes of the whole House are with her as she returns home to Britain.
The Secretary of State mentioned four other military health care workers who are being assessed. Are they also being flown home to Britain and, if so, in which hospitals will they be assessed? We also pay tribute to the dedication and bravery of the British troops, health workers, charity workers and Department for International Development personnel who have travelled to west Africa to tackle Ebola. They have selflessly put themselves on the front line against this disease. We thank them for their work and salute their courage.
Labour continues to support the Government’s efforts to tackle Ebola and get to zero cases as soon as possible. We agree with the Public Accounts Committee that the Department should take a lead role in global efforts to reach that target. The Ebola outbreak has been devastating for the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. There have been more than 24,000 reported cases, and nearly 10,000 deaths. More than 20,000 children are now orphans; they are vulnerable, traumatised and often stigmatised. We welcome what the Secretary of State has said about tackling the stigma of Ebola and services for Ebola orphans. Will the Government ensure that their Ebola response prioritises long-lasting psycho-social and child protection services and the education sector in Sierra Leone?
Ebola has revealed the problems that are created when countries do not have sustainable and resilient health systems. It has shown the limitations of the global community’s approach to health care in developing countries. It has triggered a huge debate on how we should reform the World Health Organisation so that it meets disease challenges better.
Save the Children’s report last week found that 28 countries had worse health coverage than Liberia had at the start of the Ebola outbreak. The world today is globalised; disease outbreaks are everyone’s concern, and preventing them is in everyone’s interests. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how much of the £427 million that the UK Government have committed to fighting Ebola has been disbursed? The previous figure that she mentioned was £325 million. What will the extra £100 million be spent on?
The Secretary of State mentioned a contract with civilian helicopter providers. How much will that cost each month, and for how long will the contract continue? What steps has she taken to persuade other countries to fill the urgent $400 million funding gap for immediate response, and the $900 million gap identified by the United Nations for activities over the next six months? What conversations has she had with her ministerial colleagues about restoring direct flights from the United Kingdom to Sierra Leone, and when will they begin operating again?
Our NHS has shown that the best way to protect against disease is to build a resilient, Government-controlled, Government-funded health service, so how much bilateral funding will the UK give to support the Sierra Leonean and Liberian health sectors next year? How will the Secretary of State and her Department lead reform of the global health system to move organisations away from concentrating on specific diseases and vaccines to a much broader focus on supporting public health systems?
The global community must never again find itself with another Ebola outbreak, no vaccine to prevent spread, and no treatment to preserve life. At the last DFID questions, I asked the Secretary of State if she agreed that we needed urgently to roll out the Ebola vaccine trials from Liberia to Sierra Leone and Guinea to discover which vaccines work. Have those trials started, and if so, how many people are enrolled in them? What conversations has she had with the World Health Organisation about treatment trials?
There is consensus that the global community failed to respond adequately to this Ebola outbreak. As the Secretary of State rightly said, we need to learn the lessons and ensure that we are better prepared. Lasting health care systems are about more than the delivery of commodities such as vaccines and bed nets, vital though those things are. The WHO, the World Bank and non-governmental organisations in countries such as France and Japan are all clear that universal health coverage is the right answer. Does she agree that that is the way forward?
The hon. Lady asked, understandably, about the four other health care workers. They are now in the process of being flown home, purely on a precautionary basis, and will be dealt with at the Royal Free hospital and the Royal Victoria infirmary in Newcastle.
I had a chance to meet some of the orphans from this crisis when I was in Sierra Leone just before Christmas. They were of all ages, of course. Some of our work is to help UNICEF to provide the psycho-social support that they need and to keep the orphanages going. We are also helping to provide dedicated centres where children can be looked after safely if their parents go to community care centres to be tested because they are concerned that they have Ebola; if the parents end up being taken into care, they cannot look after their children.
There are huge child protection issues. I can reassure the hon. Lady that we are mindful of them, and mindful of the need to work not just with the Government of Sierra Leone but with civil society and the NGO sector to make sure that they are properly addressed.
The hon. Lady asks about the extent of our commitment. The £427 million that I have talked about is essentially the money that we are spending on providing ongoing support, including what we have already done, which has now cost more than £200 million. Over the coming months, we need to keep supporting the beds and the safe burials and all the very practical work that we are doing—social mobilisation, talking to communities—and also put in place a budget, which is about half the increase, for the initial planning on early recovery. We are steadily shifting our strategy to ensure that we have the capacity on the ground still to cope and deal with Ebola and get to zero. That is the principal objective that we have to mee