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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 18 June 2015

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Farm Animals: Disease

1. What steps she is taking to reduce the routine use of antibiotics to prevent disease in farm animals. (900405)

We have made it very clear that we do not support the routine preventive use of antibiotics or the use of antibiotics to compensate for poor animal husbandry. That is reflected in the revised guidelines on the responsible use of animal medicines on the farm, published by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate last December. We continue to work with a number of industry bodies to encourage the development of prescribing guidelines, to challenge and optimise prescribing practices and behaviour.

Today, we hear that MRSA of a livestock origin is not only likely to be well established within the UK pig herd but has for the first time been found in British retail pork, from which it could be passed on to humans. In the light of this new and extremely troubling evidence, will the Department now finally set clear targets for phasing out routine preventive use of antibiotics in farm animals where no disease has been diagnosed, or is the Minister happy to take the risk of a post-antibiotic future?

It is important to recognise that livestock-associated MRSA is a different strain from that which affects our hospitals and does not cross to the human population. This country has always had slightly lower levels of antibiotic usage than countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, which have had more serious problems. They have to be prescribed and clinical decisions have to be made, but the guidelines we have issued mean we have managed to suppress the use of antibiotics and ensure they are used sparingly.

Does the Minister agree that microbial antibiotic resistance is by no means exclusively a concern for veterinary medicine, and will he join me in welcoming the publication back in 2013 of a Government strategy to deal with the issue across Departments?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This issue also affects the Department for Health, and the chief medical officer is leading our work in this area. As my hon. Friend says, we have published an antimicrobial strategy setting out our approach for the next five years. It is also true that, although the use of antibiotics in farming has been relatively static over the past decade or so, we have seen an increase in the use of antibiotics in medicine, which is of great concern.

McDonald’s is phasing out beef products that contain antibiotics, but it has indicated that beef products containing ionophore drugs will be acceptable, as they harm neither animals nor humans. What discussions has the Minister had with the catering industry about that?

I have not had any specific discussions on that point. As I have said, all antibiotics have to be prescribed. It is important to distinguish between routine use and preventive use. Sometimes it is right to use them preventively if there is a particular problem in a herd or a flock, but they have to be prescribed by vets—and only sparingly.

Air Quality (Glasgow)

2. What discussions her Department has had with Glasgow City Council on projections for Glasgow’s air quality and compliance with EU air quality regulations. (900407)

As the hon. Lady is aware, air quality in Scotland is a devolved issue, so I have not had direct conversations with Glasgow City Council, but I saw the Scottish Environment Minister on Monday. Officials are in regular contact with Scottish Government officials about the revision of UK nitrogen oxide air quality plans, including those for the Glasgow urban area.

I thank the Minister for that response. Given the recent European Commission ruling relating to Client Earth, does the Minister consider it wise, with ongoing issues on Hope Street in Glasgow, that Glasgow City Council expedites its action on this issue in its air quality action plan?

I reconfirm that this is very much a devolved issue and one on which officials from Glasgow City Council can work closely with our departmental officials to resolve, but I do not wish to stand at this Dispatch Box and dictate to Glasgow.

The question relates to Glasgow or, at its widest interpretation, Scotland, but not Meriden or elsewhere.

Scotland, in common with 27 member states of the European Union, is non-compliant with the EC arrangements. Does the Minister agree that low emission zones can help improve air quality in cities such as Glasgow and that, in proposing a low emission zone for London, the Mayor of London has offered a good way to improve air quality?

I pay tribute to the Mayor of London for his work on air quality. I am unable, however, to connect directly the work of the Mayor of London to the question about Glasgow.

The question is certainly not about Poplar and Canning Town or Denton and Reddish, but about Glasgow.

I am glad that you recognise my Glasgow credentials, Mr Speaker, because sometimes my classic cockney accent confuses people.

I welcome the Minister to his place. In any such discussions with Glasgow, I ask that he takes into account river traffic. The Thames is busier than the Clyde, but vessels on the Clyde do contribute to emissions. Will he ensure that he remembers that addition?

Among the different sources of nitrogen dioxide emissions, river traffic is indeed a substantial emitter. Glasgow City Council and officials from the Department will take that into account.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. Last year, the Government wrote a letter to all local authorities, trying to blame them for the 29,000 deaths that air pollution is causing every year in the UK and saying that any fines imposed by the EU for failure to comply with the air quality directive would have to be paid by them. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that it is the Government who are solely responsible for compliance and any fines arising, will the Secretary of State write again to all local authorities to accept her responsibility and overturn her previous threatening letter?

I am very happy to discuss that matter in detail, but as the shadow Minister said—[Interruption.] “Say yes”, it is suggested from the Opposition Front Bench. As the shadow Minister has acknowledged, we need to tackle this issue in partnership with local authorities. The prime responsibility needs to reside there because the sources of the emissions are quite different from one local authority to another, and therefore the solutions will be different from one local authority to another.

Flood Defence Schemes

3. How many flood defence schemes are planned to begin construction under the Government’s six-year flood defence programme in 2015. (900408)

One hundred and sixty-one schemes are due to start this financial year, as part of our £2.3 billion, six-year programme, which will protect an additional 300,000 properties by 2021. That represents a real-terms increase in flood investment.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the work of the three internal drainage boards that affect my constituency, Witham first district IDB, Witham third district IDB and Upper Witham IDB? What steps will the Government take to ensure that the Environment Agency, which is lackadaisical in my local area, and other parties work together more effectively for the benefit of my constituents in Lincoln and the people of Lincolnshire?

Like my hon. Friend, I am a huge fan of internal drainage boards. We have some fantastic drainage boards in Norfolk and I have visited the internal drainage boards in Boston. I want internal drainage boards to work closely with the Environment Agency to continue to protect homes and farmland. I would like this model to be rolled out across the country.

The coalition Government announced £80 million to protect the Humber estuary over six years. That is only 9% of what the Environment Agency said was required. Does the Secretary of State agree that investment in flood defences can be seen as an economic opportunity, rather than as a burden that has to be borne?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that investment in flood defences is an economic opportunity. Our six-year programme will result in the generation of £30 billion of economic value. We are committed to looking at the Humber plans and are due to report back on them in July.

Hunting Act 2004

4. Whether she plans to bring forward legislative proposals to repeal the Hunting Act 2004; and if she will make a statement. (900409)

As we said in our manifesto, we will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act 2004 on a free vote on a Government Bill in Government time.

The Secretary of State will understand that my constituents and, indeed, the whole country are overwhelmingly opposed to the repeal of the foxhunting ban. As she said, the Government have made a clear commitment to a vote on repeal, but she has not made clear the nature of that vote. Will she confirm that the vote will be on a parliamentary Bill that is considered in this House and the other place in the normal way?

I confirm that that is what we are committed to. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that pledge was part of our manifesto, which people voted on at the general election, and we are committed to fulfilling it.

We on this side of the House are confident that we would win a vote to prevent the repeal of the Hunting Act, but it is clear from the Minister’s answer that no plan is in place for a vote. On that basis, and given that 80% of voters support the ban on hunting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out, why does not the Secretary of State just drop the idea and get on with the job of making sure the legislation is enforced?

I am a bit surprised to hear the hon. Lady talk about her side of the House, given that this has always been a free vote matter that is up to the conscience of individual Members. I have made it very clear that I support repeal of the Hunting Act and would vote on that basis, but I recognise that Members need to make their own decisions on the issue, so I am surprised to hear that the vote would be whipped by the Labour party.

Flood Defences

Flood defences are an absolute priority for this Government. We are spending £2.3 billion on more than 1,500 schemes over the next six years, which will help us reduce flood risk to our country by 5%.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response, but the reality is that in the last Parliament the Government promised £3.1 million of investment to reduce flood risk in my constituency, but figures published by the Environment Agency show that only £1 million of funding has been granted. Can the Secretary of State confirm which schemes will not go ahead and why the Government are failing to deliver on their commitment to manage flood risk?

Seven schemes in the hon. Lady’s constituency have now been identified within the six-year programme between now and 2020-21, with a total investment value of £4.3 million. We are also raising money from partnership funding and the private sector, which enables us to protect more homes and more communities.

In 2007, the community of Thatcham suffered the surface water flooding of more than 1,100 homes. Since then a huge community effort, working with the Environment Agency and unlocking a lot of local funding as part of the partnership funding scheme, has seen a lot of measures reintroduced. The last piece of that work needs preliminary design funding for this year. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the new Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), whom I welcome to the best job in Government, look closely at this case, so that Thatcham is protected for the future?

I am sure that we will look very closely at the case that my hon. Friend has made. We are enabling local communities to bundle up projects so that we can have more small-scale projects, and we have put through our plans on sustainable urban drainage better to protect housing from flooding.

Food and Farming Sector

6. What plans she has to increase the productivity, competitiveness and resilience of the UK food and farming sector. (900411)

7. What plans she has to increase the productivity, competitiveness and resilience of the UK food and farming sector. (900412)

8. What plans she has to increase the productivity, competitiveness and resilience of the UK food and farming sector. (900413)

British food and farming is worth more than £100 billion a year to our economy and employs one in eight workers in Great Britain. That is why the Government are committed to working with industry to develop a long-term plan to buy more, sell more and grow more British food. The plan will set out how British food and farming can become a world leader that is innovative, competitive, profitable and resilient, and we will work on that in the months ahead.

I draw Members’ attention to my declaration of interest.

Population growth predictions estimate that we will need to produce 60% more food by 2050, but British crop yields have plateaued over recent years and the agrichemical toolbox available to farmers has been ever reducing. Will the Minister look seriously at offering more support for research and innovation that is focused on increasing yields and on the production challenges that farmers face today?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Following large growth immediately after the war, yields have plateaued in recent decades. DEFRA is spending about £1.75 million a year on research into crops, and our research councils, through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, have a number of programmes in this area. In particular, Rothamsted has a major programme called “20:20 Wheat”, which aims to get yields of wheat to 20 tonnes per hectare in the next 20 years.

This week a dairy farm in my constituency closed its gates for the last time. That follows a 55% reduction in the number of dairy farms in the UK since 1998. What can the Minister say to support British dairy farming?

My hon. Friend highlights a real problem with dairy at the moment. We have had a very difficult year, following a very good year last year. The long-term prospects for the industry are good: demand is growing by about 2% a year, and the Government are making it easier for farmers to average their tax, working with the National Farmers Union to develop futures markets to help farmers manage volatility, and making available investment—through the rural development programme—to help farmers improve their competitiveness.

The number of young people entering the UK food and farming sector is encouraging. What assurances can the Minister give that young people can access the skills they need to ensure that the sector has a secure future in areas such as west Cornwall and my hon. Friend’s constituency?

As my hon. Friend knows, we have Duchy College in my constituency, and many of his constituents attend it. He makes an important point: we want to treble the number of apprenticeships in food and farming and to encourage more young people to choose farming as a career. We are working with organisations such as Bright Crop to get ambassadors to go into schools to help teenagers to choose the right subjects so that they can take up careers in farming. That area will be a major part of our food and farming strategy.

18. Does the Department have a contingency plan to support British agriculture and protect the British food industry’s market access in the event of our leaving the European Union and the common agricultural policy? If so, will the Minister publish it? (900424)

No, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Government want to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union, and then we intend to campaign to stay in. The CAP is not perfect, and during the course of this Parliament we will push for a mid-term review. We will also argue for longer term reform so that the CAP serves farmers and consumers more effectively.

Farmers in my constituency, a mere 10 miles from Manchester city centre, are still seeing the productivity and competitiveness of their businesses inhibited by the lack of superfast broadband. What discussions is the Minister having with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to expedite the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas?

The Secretary of State had a meeting yesterday on that very issue. Broadband Delivery UK has made available some £750 million to roll out superfast broadband in our most rural areas, as well as funds to pilot new technologies in the hardest to reach areas. We recognise that this is an important issue, and the Government will focus much of their energies on it.

The Government have withheld from Scotland the vast majority of a €230 million pillar one allocation of EU uplift money. The UK qualified for that money only because of Scotland’s low payments. Can the Minister explain why, against the clearly expressed will of the Scottish Government and all political parties in the Scottish Parliament, the Government intend to deprive Scottish farming communities of most of that money?

The allocations that we have made are based on land types, and historically Scotland has tended to have less per hectare because its land was less intensively farmed, but it actually receives more per farm holding than any other part of the UK. We have made it clear that we will have a mid-term review of that issue, which will include comparisons of land types in every part of the UK.

Climate Change Adaptation Plan

9. What steps her Department is taking to prioritise flood prevention and introduce a climate change adaptation plan. (900414)

Our £2.3 billion capital investment programme will better protect 300,000 homes through a range of flood risk management measures. York will benefit from the programme to the tune of £5 million. We already have a climate change adaptation plan—the national adaptation programme—and it is currently being assessed by the adaptation sub-committee: we expect to learn from its report.

In my constituency, 2,053 homes experience a medium to very high risk of flooding, as does York city centre. Where are the Government in implementing a flood reinsurance scheme to give my constituents some assurances?

As I mentioned, £5 million has been committed specifically to flood defences in York. The flood re scheme is currently on track. It is an extremely impressive but complex scheme that will provide insurance to the most vulnerable and at-risk people within your constituency.

Cost of Living (Rural Britain)

Reducing the cost of living in rural areas depends primarily on overcoming the challenges of distance and sparsity. That means boosting productivity and investing in a strong economy and infrastructure, such as road, rail and high-speed broadband. The rural fuel rebate means that some of the most rural areas now benefit from a 5p per litre fuel discount.

People in villages such as Stillington, Carlton, Thorpe Thewles and Redmarshall in my constituency have seen their buses reduced to the odd one here and there, or they have gone altogether, as private companies have pulled out because local authorities no longer have the money to subsidise them. I am sure the Minister agrees that affordable transport links are essential for rural areas, so what can I tell my constituents that the Government will do to connect them to the rest of the area?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that connections of any sort, whether digital or bus connections, are vital for isolated rural areas. Some councils have found solutions to that and there is a community bus fund, championed by the Department for Transport. I look forward to talking in detail to the hon. Gentleman, if he is interested, about the problems in his constituency.

The Minister mentions the rural economy in the context of broadband. I quite agree that we need to boost broadband, but does he agree that we really need to send a signal to BT to enhance its efforts to ensure that we are properly connected in rural areas?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Working with BT involves the work of every single constituency MP to ensure that we get the information on which areas will be connected and we hold British Telecom to account for the more than £700 million of public money that the Government are investing in a highly impressive programme in rural broadband roll-out.

Is the Minister, like me, a compulsive listener to “Farming Today”? Is he aware that many experts are saying on “Farming Today” that the cost of living in rural communities will be affected in the long term by climate change and how it impacts on the crops we can grow successfully in the rural economy? Is he worried about that? Is he talking about it, or have this Government given up on climate change worries?

Climate change is baked into every aspect of this Department’s work. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the risk assessment conducted in 2012 on climate change adaptation focused specifically on flood risk, but he is correct that there are other issues we need to look at—and look at relentlessly—which is why we look forward to providing a full response to the assessment provided by the climate change adaptation sub-committee.

There can be no question about it: it does cost more to live in rural areas compared with urban areas, so I very much welcome the reduction in fuel duty, the cap on petrol prices and equalising the council tax. All these things are extremely helpful, but transport must be central to this. Twenty-five per cent. of people in my constituency do not have cars. Will the Minister take steps to look into community bus services, such as Bradies taxis, which I launched last week in my constituency? They are at the end of a telephone and will go and pick people up from their rural locations.

My hon. Friend is a great champion of the issues of rural areas. The Department for Transport launched an interesting scheme towards the end of the last Parliament to provide support for community transport schemes. If he wishes to discuss it in more detail, I would encourage the council to apply to the Department for Transport for that fund.

Public Sector Food Procurement

11. What discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on promoting the purchase of more local and seasonal food in the public sector. (900416)

We launched the Bonfield plan in July last year to help the public sector to buy more local, seasonal food. It means that £400 million of business is available to our farmers and food producers. We are making good progress on that, and only this week I discussed with the Justice Secretary how it could be implemented in his Department.

The Secretary of State mentioned the efforts she is making in central Government, but what progress does she think is being made at a local level to support our first-class farmers and food producers, not least those in the west midlands?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have fantastic produce in the west midlands, from Burton’s Marmite to Worcestershire pears. I am pleased to see that Birmingham City Council is working to make sure all its schools meet the Bonfield standards, and I would like other cities, towns and villages across Britain to do so too.

Will the Secretary of State outline what discussions have been held with the devolved regions about the use and promotion of local food right across the UK public sector?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I recently met the Scottish Agriculture Minister to talk about how to promote British food. I look forward to meeting my Northern Ireland counterparts very soon to discuss that issue, too.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Ever since I have been a Member of Parliament, the amount of home-grown food as a proportion of the total has dropped and dropped. If we could increase it, it would be good for our balance of payments and good for jobs. What does my right hon. Friend propose to do to increase it?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to grow more, buy more and sell more British food. We produce fantastic food in this country. At the moment, for example, we are importing two third of our cheese. There is more we can do to encourage investment in the dairy industry and we have a massive opportunity with exports. By 2018, China will be the world’s biggest food importer, and we have just put in place a food and agriculture counsellor in China to promote that fantastic British produce.

Air Pollution

The Government are taking a series of steps to reduce air pollution. We are tackling pollution particularly from transport on a number of fronts. For example, we are transforming public transport and private vehicles by supporting the uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles and encouraging sustainable transport by investing in cycling. We are also tackling pollution from industry.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The common good matters nowhere more than in respect of the air we breathe. Will he commit today to drop all objections to European standards on air pollution—unless they are on the basis that the standards are too lenient?

I look forward to discussing in more detail with the hon. Lady exactly which European standards she is talking about—concentration levels or total emission levels, for example. If she is talking specifically about nitrogen dioxide, this Government are absolutely committed to meeting the EU targets as soon as possible.

Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Johnson Matthey, the world’s leading manufacturer of autocatalysts, which is internationally recognised for its diesel trap technology. Will he do all he can to ensure that the tax regime in this country and emissions regulations that apply here allow for the deployment of the latest technology in this field?

My hon. and learned Friend will not expect me to comment on a Treasury issue in relation to taxation, but I would like to pay tribute to the work of Johnson Matthey. My hon. and learned Friend has suggested that we meet, and I look forward to meeting this company with its innovative technology as soon as possible.

Fifty-nine years ago, the former Denton urban district council was one of the first local authorities in the land to sign up to the Clean Air Act 1956. Back then, we had thick pea souper smogs that could be seen; today, air pollution is an invisible killer. Is it not time that this Government adopted a new Clean Air Act fit for the 21st century?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged the work done over the last 60 years by parties on both sides of the House to address air pollution. It is very striking that sulphur dioxide is down by 88%, while we have halved emissions in particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. More is to be done, particularly on nitrogen dioxide, and I look forward to working very closely with the hon. Gentleman on that subject.

National Pollinator Strategy

13. What support her Department plans to provide for bees and pollinators through the national pollinator strategy. (900418)

Bees and other pollinators play an absolutely crucial role in our environment and are estimated to contribute around £400 million a year to our economy. Last year, DEFRA published the national pollinator strategy—a 10-year plan to bring about the best possible conditions for pollinators to flourish. The Government are committed to taking action to support pollinators across all types of land, enhancing the response to pest and disease risks and improving our evidence base.

I share the concerns of many constituents who have contacted me about the threat to the bee population from the proposed use of pesticides. We tamper with bees’ wellbeing at our peril; the evidence on this issue is incomplete. Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that the restrictions on neonicotinoids will not be lifted until the evidence is complete?

I can tell my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom has implemented the restrictions in full, and that the European Food Safety Authority is about to conduct a review. It has made a call for evidence, to which the United Kingdom will contribute. We have commissioned work from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and that will be taken into account when the authority has completed its review.

I recommend to the Minister Hoxton Manor honey, which is made by the many urban beekeepers who are now based in my constituency. Production there has mushroomed in the last decade; indeed, my first piece of casework involved a beekeeper. Does the Minister agree that we need to encourage more urban beekeeping to ensure that we have a good ecosystem in our inner cities as well as elsewhere?

I entirely agree, and the national pollinator strategy refers to the importance of providing better habitats for bees in urban areas. I can inform the House that there is even a beehive on the roof of the DEFRA building.

I welcome the pollinator strategy, but yesterday I was contacted by a large number of people who were effectively lobbying. Will the Minister assure us that he will look at all the evidence, in order to ensure not just that the wonderful bees are protected, but that our farmers can farm economically and produce healthy food?

Many of my hon. Friend’s constituents have contacted me as well, and I know that there is a great deal of concern about the issue. There is a gap here: we do need more field trials. The United Kingdom has commissioned some work of that kind, as have other European Union member states including Sweden.

I am going to lose all my honey now. [Hon. Members: “How much?”] I shall ignore the heckling from my own side. It usually comes from the other side.

I was very concerned to learn that farmers who use polytunnels are buying hives in order to pollinate them and, as a condition of their contracts, must then destroy the hives with the live bees inside. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm or deny that, in the context of his review, or at least look into it if he is not sure of the answer.

I was not aware of that particular problem. We have tightened the regulations on imported bumblebees that are used in glasshouses in order to ensure that the native breed, audax, is the main one used, but if there is a specific issue involving honeybees, I shall be happy to engage in correspondence and then deal with it.

Topical Questions

DEFRA’s priorities are a cleaner, healthier environment, a world-leading food and farm industry, a thriving rural economy, and a nation that is well defended against natural threats and hazards. As a one-nation Government, we will ensure that people in rural areas have access to the same opportunities and technologies as those in towns and cities. We want to unleash the potential of our fantastic countryside.

All sectors of the livestock industry, which is hugely important in Montgomeryshire, are struggling with low prices, and that includes milk producers. The Minister said earlier that he saw a positive long-term outlook, but many dairy farmers will not survive in the long term. What steps are the Government taking to help to ensure that all livestock farmers can compete internationally on a level playing field?

My hon. Friend has made an important point. The dairy industry is vital to the future of food and farming. I was delighted when the Chancellor announced in the Budget that farmers would be able to “tax average” over five years, which will help to manage the current volatility. We are also seeing exciting developments in the dairy sector: for example, the producer organisation launched by Dairy Crest will improve farmers’ bargaining powers when they are selling their products.

In a message to all the people of the world, Pope Francis will say that climate change is mainly caused by human activity, and threatens unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem. Does the Secretary of State agree with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), her predecessor as Environment Secretary and a well-known climate change denier, or does she agree with the Pope?

I agree with the Pope. The Government are absolutely committed to tackling climate change. The Paris summit is coming up, and we have taken the lead in securing a deal to limit temperature rises to 2°, which is an important priority. Our Department is clearly responsible for adaptation to climate change, and we take that into account in everything that we do, whether it relates to agriculture, flood defences or protecting nature.

I am glad to hear it. The right hon. Lady has accepted the second-largest percentage cut of any Department—an £83 million decrease—in this year’s budgets demanded by the Chancellor. Can she assure the House that she will not repeat the mistakes of her predecessor in 2010, who is in her place, and who cut £100 million a year from the flood protection budget, only for the Department to have to put some of it back after the winter floods caused devastation in 2013?

Over the previous Parliament, we succeeded as a Department in reducing our budget at the same time as protecting frontline flood defences; we actually saw a real-terms increase in flood defence spending over that of the previous Government. At the same time we also protected our animal-disease response capability, so that we had the same number of vets working in our Department in 2010 as we did in 2015, and I will—

Order. These exchanges are too long. Ministers and shadow Ministers are going to have get used to the fact that I want to hear Back Benchers. That is the way it is going to be.

T2. Bovine TB is an incredibly serious disease, with over 26,000 cattle slaughtered last year alone. My constituency of Lewes falls in a high-risk area. What steps are being taken to roll out pilot vaccination programmes and other measures to help support farmers in the south-east? (900386)

It is part of our 25-year strategy to roll out additional cull areas in high-risk areas and to roll out vaccinations in edge areas. The hon. Lady’s constituency, in East Sussex, is part of a high-risk area and has an edge area, and we would be happy to consider any application that came forward.

T3. With a Greek exit from the eurozone a looming possibility this week, and given the inevitable downward pressure that will put on the exchange rate between sterling and the euro, has the Minister made any contingency plans to deal with the disastrous impact that that exchange rate change will have on the real value of farm support payments in the UK? (900387)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we do face risks and difficult economic times. What we are committed to doing is helping British producers sell their products—we have seen exports rise to £19 billion. Also, when we had the issue with the Russian trade embargo last year, we were able to find new markets for products—for example, we found a new market for mackerel in Nigeria—and we will continue with that work.

T4. Wales is home to some of our country’s finest food and drinks: Welsh lamb, Brains beer and Penderyn whisky, to name a few. What role does the Secretary of State think protected food names have to play in adding value to and boosting Welsh exports? (900388)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I enjoyed some of those fantastic products at the Royal Welsh show last year. There are great protected food names, like Welsh lamb. We have 63 protected food names in this country, and they command a market premium at home and overseas. I want to see us get up to the level of the French, who have over 200, and I encourage companies across our country to apply.

T6. In the Minister’s written answer to me yesterday, he refused to publish the National Farmers Union application for an exemption on the ban on using neonicotinoid pesticides. Does he agree that on this vital subject and this major threat to bees and pollinators the public should know what is going on behind closed doors? If so, will he publish that information, even if he redacts the names of the farmers? (900390)

The hon. Lady knows that that information is commercially sensitive, but what I can say is that two applications are being considered by the Health and Safety Executive, and before any decision is taken we would take the advice of our expert committee on pesticides.

T5. The black country’s canal network is an important part of our industrial heritage, supports a variety of wildlife and hosts many leisure facilities. Will the Minister update the House on what is being done to clean up our inland waterways? (900389)

I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend on the importance of waterways. Nearly 10,000 miles of rivers and internal waterways have been cleaned up; phosphate pollution is down by one fifth and ammonia down by one sixth; and water companies will be investing £3.5 billion over the next five years in improving our water quality.

T7. Up to 4,000 properties are at risk of flooding in my constituency, so the Government’s announcement of an extra £7.5 million for flood defences in Great Grimsby was welcome. However, that figure includes a £5 million black hole of unallocated funding and my constituents are worried that their homes may be flooded again this year. Will the Secretary of State meet me so that we can get this funding shortfall sorted out and start protecting people from the risk of flooding? (900391)

I am delighted that the hon. Lady is pleased about the investment in flood defences in her constituency. During the last Parliament, we raised £140 million in additional funding, which is 10 times that raised by the previous Government. We are already up to £250 million—more than 40% of our target—within two months of our six-year programme, and we are going to help deliver that.

T8. Page 73 of the Conservative party manifesto said:“We will press for…further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy”.What specific reforms does my right hon. Friend expect to be agreed prior to the referendum? (900392)

We are working on this all the time. One of the most complicated common agricultural policies in history has just been introduced, and we are already in discussions with Commissioner Hogan about simplifying that and making it easier for farmers to apply it. The next round of CAP negotiations are coming up and we want a much simpler policy.

T10. Many of my constituents in rural areas desperately need faster broadband speeds to run their businesses and create jobs in an area where unemployment is 50% higher than the average. The Under-Secretary referred earlier to planned investment, but rather than have my constituents wait years under current plans will he meet the providers again and tell them to get a move on? (900394)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the progress on superfast broadband has been pretty remarkable; we have gone from 40% to 80%, and we will be at 95% by 2017. If there are specific issues related to his constituency, I would, again, be very happy to sit down to discuss them in detail.

T9. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. British beer is the best in the world, and our beer sales at home and abroad are booming. That is good for British brewers and for British farmers, connecting grain to glass to the lips of beer lovers across the world. What can we do to encourage more beer exports? (900393)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; we are now exporting 1 billion pints of beer around the world. I have had the opportunity to visit the Ilkley brewery and taste its fantastic produce, as well as Fuller’s in London. I have not yet visited Burton—I am still waiting for the invitation. Perhaps it is in the post, so that I will be able to promote it, too.

Church Commissioners

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

Church Buildings

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Of course we must briefly pay tribute to my predecessor, who fulfilled this role with great aplomb and will be for ever remembered as enabling the legislation on women bishops.

The Church faces a great challenge in terms of its sustainability, particularly in rural areas. The Church Commissioners will be helping to support those churches that want to come back to the heart of the community by opening their doors to a wide range of uses that serve the community.

May I join you in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend and welcoming her to her new role, Mr Speaker? Brierfield Methodist church recently secured much-needed Heritage Lottery funding support for roof and masonry renovations, but Nelson United Reformed church is having to close next month, after 150 years of worship. Will my right hon. Friend set out how she will work with the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies to help preserve the church buildings, for which the Church Commissioners are responsible?

My hon. Friend has just mentioned the Methodist Church and I am sure you would agree that it is right that we should all record our sympathy to the Methodist Church in South Carolina, which has suffered a terrible shooting tragedy.

I intend to work very actively with the Heritage Lottery Fund, which dedicates about £25 million a year to essential repairs for all listed places of worship. Given the urgency of my hon. Friend’s specific case, I suggest we work on it together immediately.

Last winter, the church of St Mary’s in Lytchett Matravers was shut due to a lack of heating, and parish churches across Dorset struggle to meet both their parish share and to ensure that their buildings remain open. What plans does the Church Commissioner have to provide support for churches such as St Mary’s in Lytchett Matravers to ensure that they remain open, and will she meet me to discuss the matter?

A total of 250 churches have managed to install renewable energy facilities. The Church offers a church care support system to help parishes make changes and modifications to their heating systems to bring down the costs of heating. I suggest that we work closely together with this specific example and see what can be done.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Referendum Questions

2. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effect of whether the question is posed in the affirmative or negative on the outcome of a referendum. (900396)

6. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the neutrality of the proposed EU referendum question. (900400)

The Electoral Commission has begun its assessment of the referendum question proposed in the European Union Referendum Bill and will publish its assessment before Parliament returns from recess in September. The Commission has previously reported on the neutrality of the proposed question as part of the assessment of the question contained in a private Member’s Bill in 2013. That report found that a number of voters perceived a bias if the phrase, “Remain a member of the European Union” is used in isolation. The Commission therefore recommended an alternative question, which it found to be more neutral but which did not use yes and no as response options.

The Electoral Commission has given its advice on the wording of the question in the referendum, and the Government have accepted its advice. Will my hon. Friend confirm that a similar approach will be taken to changes to the purdah rules?

It is certainly the case that the Electoral Commission has given advice on the purdah rules, which I will discuss when we reach question 5. Happily, I am not responsible for the Government accepting that advice.

The Electoral Commission has said that the most neutral question for the EU referendum would be: should the UK leave the EU, or should it remain within the EU? Does my hon. Friend not believe that the Government should accept the independent advice of the Electoral Commission as to what is the most neutral question and put that in the referendum Bill?

My hon. Friend slightly anticipates the situation. The Electoral Commission is currently assessing and consulting on two questions: the question in the Bill and the question, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union.” It will provide its findings and recommendations to the House in September.

EU Membership (Costs and Benefits)

3. If the Electoral Commission will commission a lay-person’s guide to the costs and benefits of UK membership of the EU before the EU referendum. (900397)

The Electoral Commission is currently considering what public information it will provide to voters on how to register and cast their vote at an EU referendum. However, given that it is also responsible for designating lead campaigners as well as registering and regulating other campaigners, the Commission does not believe that it would be appropriate for it also to produce a guide providing information about the costs and benefits of EU membership first hand as campaigners would want to make such a case themselves.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the British public have a right to a completely objective guide to our membership in order to take an informed decision in the in/out EU referendum?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, and that is what many of our constituents want. The issue is: who is best placed to provide that impartial guide? Given the complexity of the question—there are so many unknowns—and the importance of ensuring that the Electoral Commission does not in any way undermine its neutrality and independence, it may not be the right organisation to carry out that task.

If they are not the people to do it, I am quite happy to take on that task. It would be pointless having such a document because it will have pages and pages and pages of costs; I doubt that we would find a page on the benefits.

I will certainly put that offer back to the Electoral Commission. I am sure that it will be as enthusiastic as I am.

Church Commissioners

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

Persecution of Christians (Iran)

4. What representations the Church of England has made on the protection of Christians from persecution in Iran. (900398)

The Church of England is aware of the plight of the Christian community in Iran and works closely with the Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf, the right Reverend Michael Lewis, and the Bishop of Iran, the right Reverend Azad Marshall, to give support where it can.

The recent report on the persecution of Christians in Iran by Christians in Parliament with the all-party group on religious freedom and belief recounts serious neglect of human rights of Christians in Iran. Surveillance, arbitrary arrests, lashings, torture and severe prison sentences are common. What steps is the Church taking to encourage respect and tolerance for Christians and for those of other minority faiths in Iran and elsewhere in the middle east?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report produced by the APPG. I attended the meeting at which some of those recommendations were put to a Foreign Office Minister yesterday. The Archbishop of Canterbury invited the Grand Imam of al-Azhar to both Houses of Parliament to express encouragement to religious and political leaders to speak out in support of moderate voices in the region.

May I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)? It seems to me that one’s right to faith and freedom of religion are fundamental human rights and I am concerned that within the Christian faith, Christian leaders need to do more to educate those who come to worship on a Sunday and do not know that others are denied that right.

The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is important for people of all faiths to encourage one another in a spirit of tolerance. The Grand Imam made the point that the message of Islam and Christianity is enough to build the bridge of continuous understanding. That is what he said in this place.

In 2014, 75 Christians were arrested for their faith, physically and mentally abused, and threatened with execution. What representation has the Church made on behalf of those 75 Christians?

The Church works closely in tandem with the Foreign Office to put diplomatic pressure on countries in which there is abuse of religious freedom. I know that the hon. Gentleman was present at the APPG yesterday and he will have heard the Foreign Office Minister give us encouragement to work together on this.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

EU Referendum Bill

5. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the proposals in the European Union Referendum Bill relating to disapplication of purdah. (900399)

The Electoral Commission has set out in its briefings on the European Union Referendum Bill why it does not agree with the disapplication of section 125 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, as proposed in the legislation being considered by this House. The commission’s briefing papers on the legislation are circulated to hon. Members and published on its website.

Does my hon. Friend expect the Government formally to respond to the helpfully clear advice that

“there is a risk that the use of significant amounts of public money for promotional activity could give an unfair advantage to one side of the argument”?

If so, can it be published?

I am not aware of any legal duty for the Government to respond to any recommendations made by the Electoral Commission, but I was pleased to hear earlier this week that the Government appear to be moving in the direction of the advice given by the commission. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is a tenacious warrior on this issue, will welcome that.

As the hon. Gentleman just said, the Electoral Commission clearly disagreed with the Government’s position. Why does he think that the Government disagreed, other than in a wish to rig the referendum?

Happily, that is not a matter for me. I am sure that will be a question the hon. Gentleman will ask Ministers on the Front Bench, if he has not already done so.

Church Commissioners

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

Wellbeing of the Clergy

The Church of England seeks to support its clergy and their families and dependants through their challenging roles ministering to parishes. This support includes, but is not limited to, housing, pensions and continual training.

The demanding responsibilities of clergy in the Church and across civic society is having a serious impact on their physical and mental health. In the light of their office holder employment status, what commitments can the Church Commissioners give to improving their duty of care to clergy?

Those of us in public life are all aware of the pressures on mental and physical wellbeing, but I acknowledge that is particularly the case for clergy. The hon. Lady worked closely with an important test case on the status of clergy and it is right to take forward the question of their wellbeing. Programmes such as the Arrow programme, provided by the Church Pastoral Aid Society, can assist clergy in making themselves more resilient in these challenging roles.

General Synod

8. What discussions she has had with the Church of England on broadening the diversity of the General Synod. (900402)

The elections for the General Synod of the Church of England will be taking place during late September to mid October. Any communicant lay person who is on the electoral roll is eligible, so I suggest that we all encourage those who we know who could increase the diversity of Synod to apply.

I am encouraged to hear that. I am a lay canon at Wakefield cathedral, and when I go to church most of the people in the church are women, but 65% of the membership of the Synod are men—mainly middle-aged men like me. When are we going to get some leadership to get more women in the Synod?

As I just said, one thing we can all do is encourage more women to apply for the elections this year. As an ex officio member of Synod and the first female Second Church Estates Commissioner, I will be doing my bit to diversify the Synod.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Names on Ballot Papers (Guidance)

9. What steps the Electoral Commission is taking to make guidance clearer on the use of commonly used names on ballot papers. (900403)

The commission first clarified its guidance on the law on commonly used names in 2011, then restated that guidance in March 2015 when it became clear that there was some confusion surrounding the rules. The Electoral Commission keeps its guidance under regular review.

Advice from the Electoral Commission at the recent local elections suggested that middle names were not acceptable as commonly used names, leaving the wonderful councillor John Nigel Steward Anderdon on the ballot paper simply as “Nige”. What assurances can my hon. Friend give me that guidance will be clearer in the future?

The law that we in this House passed in 2006 states that a candidate may state a commonly used forename if it is different from any other forename that he or she has; therefore the use of a second or third Christian name—for example, Nigel or Boris—does not qualify under the 2006 legislation. The Electoral Commission is reviewing the matter, and if people have representations they would like to make, the commission would be grateful to receive them.

Public Accounts Commission

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, representing the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—

Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal Project

10. What steps the National Audit Office plans to take to monitor and scrutinise spending on the Palace of Westminster restoration and renewal project. (900404)

The current arrangements for the audit of the House of Commons by the Comptroller and Auditor General differ from those for the public bodies which allow him the right to examine the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public expenditures under the National Audit Act 1983. As a consequence, any examination of the restoration and renewal programme would require the House to request him formally—he must be requested; he has no right—to review and report on these expenditures. Those arrangements secure the absolute independence of the House.

My constituents in Airdrie and Shotts and people from across these isles will demand value for money in this project. How will they be able to feed into and scrutinise the process?

Of course we must have value for money on this project. The National Audit Office is already involved: it is working with the project managers and will be looking at the finances on a continual basis. The House must report its finances. If the hon. Gentleman can restrain his impatience, the independent options appraisal will be published this afternoon, and for my part, I hope we can be allowed to stay here.