House of Commons
Thursday 10 September 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the Transport for London Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2010-12 on 24 January 2011, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Thursday 17 September.
Spoliation Advisory Panel
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of the Supplementary Report from Sir Donnell Deeny, Chairman of the Spoliation Advisory Panel, dated 10 September 2015, in respect of an oil painting by John Constable ‘Beaching A Boat, Brighton’ now in the possession of the Tate Gallery.—(Sarah Newton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What plans the Government have to protect hedgehogs. (901266)
The hedgehog is a priority species. As such, it is protected under the terrestrial biodiversity group, but fundamentally we rely on the countryside stewardship scheme to protect the habitat on which this iconic relative of the shrew depends.
Badgers have been identified as one of a range of factors that can have an impact on the hedgehog population which, as Members will know, has declined from about 30 million to about 1.5 million over the past 50 years. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on hedgehogs and to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society.
I hope the Minister is aware that there is some black propaganda being put around about badgers and hedgehogs. In respect of the badger cull, I have always believed that we should use science and good research methods to find out what is going on. There has been a dramatic fall in the population of a much-loved species which is very important to our countryside. May we have the science on this, not some black propaganda blaming badgers?
It is a pretty miserable life being a hedgehog—they are covered in fleas, they are asleep for most of the year, when they do wake up, they are splattered on the road, and they are the favourite food of badgers. Will the Minister use his good offices with the hedgehog society and its national survey to ensure that alongside the badger cull there is a detailed survey of the impact of the increase in the hedgehog population in those parts of the country where badgers are being culled?
Broadband (Rural Areas)
I spoke to the Culture Secretary earlier this week. He confirmed that we have now rolled out superfast broadband to 83% of properties. Earlier this summer with the Chancellor, I launched the rural productivity plan, which is all about making sure that rural people have the same access to connectivity and opportunities as those in urban areas.
That is all very well, but the Minister must understand what is happening in places such as Cumbria, where people are being told on the one hand that their properties do not meet the commercial criteria for BT to go in, and on the other hand that Connecting Cumbria, the body set up to roll out rural broadband, does not have the funds available. These people do not care where their fast broadband is to come from, but they want to know that the Government are going to get a grip, so will the right hon. Lady work with the Culture Secretary to address this problem urgently and give some hope to my constituents?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is vital that we have superfast broadband across rural areas, including Cumbria, and I note that in Barrow-in-Furness it should be available to 96% of properties by early 2018. The Government’s digital taskforce, of which I am a member, is looking at how we connect those final properties and ensure that everyone has access to this vital service.
The Churches are keen to offer their buildings to help address better rural broadband provision. Would the Secretary of State be willing to convene a roundtable of interested dioceses and suppliers to share the findings of the rural superfast broadband pilots?
I would be extremely keen to discuss that with my right hon. Friend. In fact, I recently visited a church in Feltwell in my constituency that has linked up to superfast broadband and offers services to the local community in the church, which I think is a fantastic model.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are looking at all possible options, including schools. We already have broadband connections through the transport networks, and we are looking at what more we can do, such as having smaller boxes to access more remote properties and using satellite connectivity. We are looking at all those options and further announcements will be made in the autumn statement.
9. Residents in the rural parts of my constituency, such as Affetside and Holcolme, which after all are just a few miles from Manchester city centre, are 100% unconnected to superfast broadband. Some of them are trying to run small businesses, and for them it is cold comfort to know that nearly everyone else has a good internet connection. I urge my right hon. Friend to ask her colleagues across Government to ensure that superfast broadband is rolled out to rural areas, especially those near big cities. (901278)
A recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute has shown a growing gap in broadband access between urban and rural communities, with 1.3 million people in rural Britain being excluded from high-speed broadband and a further 9.2 million having a poor connection. Will the Secretary of State tell the House by what date superfast broadband coverage will be universal?
I point out to the hon. Lady that in 2010 only 45% of properties were connected to superfast broadband. We are now up to 83%, and we have a commitment to get to 95% by 2017. By the end of this year, we will have universal access to broadband of 2 megabits per second. We will be making further announcements on the issue, because it is vital that rural areas have that connectivity.
I do not think that is good enough. The Secretary of State is letting the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and BT get away with a super-slow broadband roll-out in our remote rural areas. It seems she is too busy trying to bring back foxhunting, letting down our dairy farmers and allowing culling and pesticides to destroy our wildlife to do her job of championing rural areas across Government. When will she start punching her weight across the Cabinet table and get an end date for the superfast broadband roll-out? Until she does, remote rural areas will increasingly be put at a great economic disadvantage.
Frankly, I think Conservative Members will treat that statement with some derision, given the previous Labour Government’s failure to deliver for rural areas over many years. This summer we launched a rural productivity plan, which is all about ensuring that rural areas get good connectivity, good transport links and affordable housing. Under this Government we have seen the gap in productivity between rural and urban areas closing for the first time in years.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested, it is often in the last 5% that we find some of the most enterprising people, although at the moment they live in areas that are inaccessible to rural broadband. Will my right hon. Friend consider a survey of such areas to see just how many small businesses there do not yet have broadband access?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I recently opened a new cabinet in Mundford, a village in my constituency where I found a textbook publisher who works internationally, a software company, and a company that produces databases internationally. We have some of the most amazing businesses in rural areas. In fact, two of the fastest growing sorts of businesses are consultancy and IT. That is why getting superfast broadband roll-out is a real priority for this Government, and that is why we have set up the digital taskforce.
Food and Farming (Use of Data and Technology)
We have some of the most innovative farmers in the world using technology to improve yields and reduce inputs such as water and fertiliser. DEFRA is committed to helping them by opening up 8,000 rich datasets that will help to give farmers the information they need to improve their businesses.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am also very pleased that she has accepted an invitation to come to Shropshire next year, to the Minsterley show or the Shropshire county show. I hope that when she comes she will spend time speaking to Salopian farmers about the tremendous opportunities for using data and technology in farming, because, as she knows, we are at the cutting edge of farming in Shropshire.
I am very much looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend and some of those innovative farmers in Shropshire. Shropshire is home to Harper Adams University, the National Centre for Precision Farming, and the mechanical engineering centre, which is a global centre for excellence in modernising farming techniques.
I understand that our farmers, particularly in the dairy sector, are facing serious issues with low prices and cash-flow problems. That is why I am pressing the European Union to relax controls so that we can pay farmers promptly as well as working to build the British dairy industry of the future.
Given that many consumers pay a premium on Fairtrade goods to support farmers across the world, would the Secretary of State support regional and national source labelling on milk, cheese and other farm products, and perhaps a fair trade scheme here to support our farmers?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about better labelling. I want better labelling in our supermarkets so that consumers know what they are buying. We are working with supermarkets on that at the moment. I am pleased to say that some supermarkets are now moving to cost-price contracts not only for milk but for products such as cheese, yogurt and butter.
Usually it is the dairy industry that is doing the milking, but not when it comes to selling its products to supermarkets and some wholesalers. A pound for four pints sounds wonderful for hard-pressed families, but dairy farmers should not be part of the welfare system. We have introduced a supermarket supremo who is supposed to ensure that dairy farmers are getting a fair price. Can we ensure that she gets into action as a matter of urgency before more dairy farmers go to the wall?
Earlier this year, we announced that she will have fining powers, which is giving her the teeth she needs. We have also announced a working group looking at contracts, through AHDB Dairy, which will talk about how we share risk better along the supply chain so that it is not just farmers who are facing the consequences of low prices in the global markets.
16 . Will the Minister support calls from the Scottish Government for retailers and food services to buy, and therefore support, local dairy produce? (901285)
We are working on that with the supermarkets, and I recently met my Scottish counterpart to discuss it. It is an important issue. It is also important that the public sector shows leadership so that we show where we source from and give transparency to new contracts that come up in order that local farmers can bid to supply these public sector contracts.
I very much welcome the improvements to food labelling that the Secretary of State has promoted so that consumers can have confidence that they are buying British, but clearly we need to encourage consumers to be equally discerning. What plans do the Government have to promote the importance of supporting our farmers by buying British?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a fantastic “GREAT” brand, which we use very successfully to promote British products overseas. I would like us to use that more in Britain, both in the public sector and in organisations such as supermarkets, so that consumers know when they are buying British products. Although most of the milk we buy is British, we import the majority of yoghurt, cheese and butter, and I think that is where the real opportunities are for our dairy farmers.
As the pricing crisis in not only milk but other sectors continues to get worse, will the Government make specific proposals to increase the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator so that she can look at the whole supply chain and our farmers can get a fair price for a quality product?
I agree that this is a serious situation. I have been pushing for a groceries code adjudicator across the European Union, because many of the dairy companies that operate in the UK do not just operate here. I want better transparency across the supply chain across the EU.
Flood Defence Programme
The Government plan to invest in 1,500 schemes over the next six years. This £2.3 billion investment will provide extra protection to an additional 300,000 households.
All my colleagues in Lincolnshire and I have been working closely on this issue. Will the Minister commit to protecting not only the excellent Boston barrier scheme, which will protect Boston, but the agricultural areas of Lincolnshire, and to working with the Environment Agency, Natural England and the drainage boards, to make sure we get the best possible result for the county?
I absolutely give that assurance. In addition to the Boston barrier, which is a £97 million programme, Lincshore is protecting 30 km of the Lincolnshire coast, with £7 million a year over 20 years providing additional protection to 16,000 homes, as well as to the farmland my hon. Friend has mentioned.
The future of flood management on the Somerset levels—Taunton Deane covers quite a lot of the Somerset levels—depends largely on the establishment of the new Somerset Rivers Authority. Will the Minister provide an update on progress and give assurances that there will be adequate funding to ensure flood protection and management in the future?
Somerset has been a serious priority for the Government. More than £1 million has been invested in setting up the Somerset Rivers Authority. We have committed more than £15 million over the next six years to Somerset exactly to achieve the objectives laid out by my hon. Friend.
Despite the completion only a couple of weeks ago of a first-class, Rolls-Royce flood alleviation scheme in my constituency, the residents are still terribly anxious about insurance. Will the Minister update the House on where we are regarding insurance premiums for flood alleviation schemes?
Will my hon. Friend reassure me that, as well as the hard engineered projects that will be funded by the large sum of money he has mentioned, there will be soft engineered projects that build on the experience in Pickering, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), which uses natural features such as woodland and coastland wetland areas, which protect coastal communities from flooding? Such schemes can be cheaper and more effective in certain circumstances.
My hon. Friend has an enormous amount of experience in this area. We can do much more to help on flooding, including restoration of peatland, woodland and wetland areas, which not only benefits flood alleviation, but considerably benefits habitats and the biodiversity that depends on them.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the Lincshore scheme, which is vital to protecting the Lincolnshire coast, and he will know that the deadline to ensure next year’s use of the scheme is this November. Will he meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) before November to discuss the final funding details for the scheme?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the final details of the Lincshore scheme, to which the Environment Agency is committed. The work, particularly the movement of sand, has taken the level of protection from one in 50 years to one in 200 years. That is something of which the House should be very proud.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her extraordinary work on this matter, and for her private Member’s Bill, which she introduced yesterday. As she is aware, the Waste and Resources Action Programme, through Courtauld 2025, is taking considerable steps towards the achievement of that target.
I thank the Minister for the interest he has so far shown in my ten-minute rule Bill. Under previous Courtauld commitments—the first three phases—80% of the reduction in food waste has come from households. There is still the real problem that more than half of food waste is in the supply chain. Does the Minister agree that we should leave it not to the voluntary action of food companies, but place a legal requirement on them to help us meet the target of halving food waste?
I am happy to sit down with the hon. Lady and look closely at the details of the Bill. Certain retailers, such as Tesco, are beginning to make huge progress, as she knows. Recently, there have been studies on, for example, bananas in the supply chain, and an app has been launched with FareShare to enable charities to get food from supermarkets. That is a good example of progress, but I am happy to learn more.
I am encouraged to hear that more than 90% of the food retail and manufacturing market have already signed up to the code voluntarily. Does the Minister agree that that is the best way to get the whole industry on board?
I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. Courtauld has been very impressive. This has been a cross-party activity, led by the extraordinary achievement of the Labour Government in bringing in the landfill tax. With 90% of retailers signed up, the significant reduction in food waste is genuinely impressive.
Scottish Government: Discussions
I spoke to my Scottish counterpart on Monday at the European Union Council. We have met several times since the election. I work very closely with him, as well as with my counterparts in the other devolved Administrations.
I acknowledge the constructive approach taken by the Scottish and UK Governments, with the help of Kent police, in establishing a fast track at the height of the Calais disruption. Will the Secretary of State continue to work with colleagues in the Government and the devolved Administrations to ensure that future disruption is avoided?
We are committed to implementing our 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB. The strategy has been the subject of extensive consultation. The issuing of a licence to Dorset is a measured approach to extending this policy, building on experience from previous years. There was a local consultation and an opportunity-to-comment procedure at the beginning of the licensing process.
This folly has now cost the taxpayer £17 million, and it is so far not proving as effective as the approach taken by the Assembly in Wales. Will the Minister give a commitment not to extend the cull beyond Dorset until there has been a proper evaluation of what is happening in Wales and of the folly of spending £17 million to date on something that is totally ineffective?
If we were to do nothing to tackle this disease, it would cost us about £1 billion over the next decade. The reality is that no country in the world has successfully eradicated TB without also dealing with the issue in the wildlife population. That is why a cull will continue to be part of our balanced strategy, alongside tighter cattle-movement controls and other measures, such as vaccination.
We decided this year to have a cautious roll-out by adding one cull area in Dorset. In the light of that cull, we will review things again. There were applications and expressions of interest from north Devon and Herefordshire this year, and there are many other interested parties that I am sure will be considered in future years.
I regularly discuss this issue with Northern Ireland. It is trialling an alternative approach called “test and vaccinate or remove”, whereby badgers that are not believed to have the disease are vaccinated and those that are believed to have it are culled. There are limitations on that because of the limitations of the diagnostic tests. However, we liaise closely with all the relevant devolved Administrations.
In a written parliamentary answer that was published on Monday, the Minister stated:
“Natural England has authorised badger culling in Dorset this year in addition to Somerset and Gloucestershire.”
Will he explain to the House whether the new Dorset culling area is part of a roll-out of culling or another pilot area? If Dorset constitutes the start of a national roll-out, how can that be justified on the performance of the pilot culls? If it is another pilot area, what monitoring and evaluation will be put in place by his Department?
The extension to Dorset, as I explained earlier, is part of a cautious roll-out of the policy. We piloted the culls in the first year in Somerset and Gloucestershire. Our experience last year demonstrated that a cull along the lines that we are pursuing could be successful. It was successful and that is why we are continuing.
Promotion of British Food and Drink
We are committed to expanding exports and promoting British food and drink, which is a £100 billion-a-year industry. We want to make better use of the GREAT brand and will be running trade missions this autumn to Germany and China.
The Secretary of State saw on her visit to Matthew Walker in Heanor the importance of exports to delivering growth, as well as the great attraction that great British products have overseas. What more can her Department do by working with UK Trade & Investment to help small businesses start to export their food products?
I thank my hon. Friend both for his question and for the excellent puddings that we enjoyed at the Matthew Walker factory. We certainly filled our boots that day! I was amazed to hear that that company supplies 96% of the UK’s Christmas puddings, and ships puddings all the way to Australia. I want to champion fantastic businesses such as that through trade missions and the Great British Food Unit, as well as integrating more closely with what UKTI does.
In view of the need for further promotion of food and drink, and in light of the volatility in milk prices, what further markets will be explored by the Secretary of State and her ministerial team, as Northern Ireland exports some 85% of its milk products?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that Northern Ireland has a great record in exporting. On my last visit to China, I had Northern Irish representatives with me to promote its products. There is more that we can do, particularly on dairy, to get products into the Chinese market and across the world.
Fruit farmers in mid-Kent support the living wage, but they expect it to increase production costs. Has my right hon. Friend had any discussions with supermarkets about their willingness to pay more for British fruit or talked to colleagues at the Treasury about the impact of the living wage on fruit farmers?
The farming Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has discussed that matter with the industry. Of course, to help firms with the increased cost, the employment allowance will increase from £2,000 to £3,000 in April 2016, which means that a farmer will be able to employ four people full time on the national living wage and pay no national insurance contributions.
New Zealand lamb producers are in direct competition with Welsh and British farmers in this season. New Zealand lamb is sold as fresh alongside Welsh lamb in supermarkets, despite undergoing a 17,000-mile sea voyage in refrigerated containers, which means that the meat can take up to three months to reach the supermarket shelf. What steps are the Government taking to allow consumers to make an informed choice about the freshness of lamb meat, at a time when Welsh sheep farmers are selling their animals at market at a loss?
EU Exit (Potential Effects)
The Government believe that our relationship with the European Union needs to change. That is why we will negotiate a new settlement with the EU and put it to the people in a referendum. In the meantime, DEFRA will continue to press for reform and simplification of the common agricultural policy to ease the burden of regulation on our farmers.
The question explicitly asked what assessment had been made of the potential impact of leaving the European Union. We can only assume from the Minister’s lack of answer that the answer to that question is: none whatever. The Minister will be aware that, thanks to our links with Europe, the world-class food and drink industry in Scotland—some of our products are almost as healthy as Walker’s Christmas puddings, I may add—is well on track to reach a seemingly impossible target, set by the Scottish Government, of a £1.65 billion contribution to our economy by 2017. Will the Minister give an assurance that he personally, and his ministerial colleagues, will campaign vigorously for Scotland and the UK to remain in the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We have some fantastically successful Scottish exports, not least Scotch whisky. Increasingly, Scottish salmon is doing well in international markets. We have a very informative debate to look forward to. There will be two sides of the debate once that negotiation is concluded. I am sure all Members will be rigorously involved in those debates.
I want to see farmers farming, not form-filling. That is why, by June 2016, we will have a single, co-ordinated farm inspection force and a single point of contact for farmers.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that assurance. At the North Devon Show at Umberleigh in my constituency last month, I met a delegation of farmers. There is still concern about the burdensome nature of some of the inspection regime. Does she agree that a balance needs to be struck between the importance of those inspections and making sure that farmers are not distracted by the time they take up from running their businesses?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We are working to make our inspections more efficient and to use technology better, such as satellite imagery and light detection and ranging data, so that we do not have to go traipsing around farms. We are looking at things we can do online. Over the previous Parliament, we cut guidance by 80% and we reduced farm inspections by 34,000 every year, but we want to do more in this Parliament.
Farm Produce (Fair Pricing)
We introduced the Groceries Code Adjudicator to ensure that there are fair contract arrangements between supermarkets and their suppliers. That will be reviewed next year and we continue to work with retailers and farmers to ensure we can help them through the current difficulties
I am sure the Minister will join me in welcoming new figures showing record turnover for sales of Scottish food and drink surpassing £14 billion for the first time in 2013. Will he work with the Scottish Government to make sure that producers feel the benefit of those sales and take up the call from the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment to introduce a fairer framework for all those involved in the supply chain?
Yes, I can. I am a huge supporter of our Scottish exports. They do incredibly well. I discuss this regularly with Richard Lochhead, my opposite number in Scotland. We work with some of the lead Scottish agencies, such as Scottish Food and Drink and Quality Meat Scotland, to help to promote Scottish exports.
The Department’s priorities are a cleaner, healthier environment, a world-leading food and farming industry, a thriving rural economy, and a nation well protected against natural threats and hazards. Over the summer, we published our first ever rural productivity plan to unleash the potential of the countryside by investing in education and skills, improving infrastructure and connectivity, and simplifying planning laws for rural businesses and communities.
Over the summer, we have all been depressed by the refugee crisis across north Africa and the middle east. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given, along with her EU counterparts, to using surplus food stocks, or possibly even increasing food production, to feed those who are starving having fled violence?
In the infrastructure debate, the Government promised they would safeguard our groundwater and sites of special scientific interest from the dangers of fracking. These promises have now been abandoned. The Government now permit fracking in SSSIs, and four out of five of the old water protection zones are no longer frack-free under the new water protection areas. Was the Secretary of State consulted by her Cabinet colleagues about this U-turn on fracking in protected areas, and if so, why did she agree to downgrade these important protections?
We are clear that we have one of the best environmental protection regimes in the world, through the Environment Agency, which makes sure that groundwater sources are protected. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the study produced by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering—both independent bodies—he will see that it is perfectly possible to frack safely and in an environmentally friendly way.
T2. I welcome the work done by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on food exports and dealing with retailers, but there is a huge crisis in farm gate prices for milk, beef, lamb and all other sectors. It will be important this year that we get the single farm payment out early or at least on time. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the Rural Payments Agency is capable of making those early payments? (901247)
I can assure my hon. Friend that we hold regular discussions with Mark Grimshaw to ensure that we keep our commitment to the majority of farmers being paid by the end of December and the vast majority by the end of January. I am also pushing the European Commission to relax some of the inspection controls to make sure we can pay farmers properly. We need to do that to make it happen, otherwise we will be subject to fines.
T7. We are all aware of the challenges affecting the farming industry. In 2013, the EU gave the UK a convergence dividend of £230 million, largely as a result of Scotland’s low payments per hectare. Despite being required by article 23 of EU regulation 1307/2013 to use objective and non-discriminatory criteria, the UK Government chose to spread the dividend across all four parts of the UK, meaning that Scotland got just 16.3% of the funding. This was funding meant primarily for Scotland but which we are not getting. In the spirit of fairness, will the Minister instigate an immediate review and ensure that Scotland does not get ripped off but gets its fair share? (901254)
We do not accept that the allocation was done unfairly. Scotland gets slightly less per hectare, but because the average holding size is much larger, the average per farm is the highest in the UK. Nevertheless, we have committed to review the allocation in 2016-17 and have made it clear that part of that review will compare land types among the constituent parts of the UK.
T3. I welcome DEFRA’s focus on connectivity in the rural productivity plan. This week, Rural Action Yorkshire said it was nigh on impossible for a rural business to be in business without decent broadband and mobile phone coverage. The final 5% and the “not spots” will require innovation and investment. What comfort can the Secretary of State give to businesses trading in those areas? (901249)
This is an absolute priority for the digital taskforce. We will get to 90% geographical coverage for voice and text by 2017, and we are currently consulting on taller mobile phone masts to enable better coverage for things such as 4G in rural areas as well.
The Minister will be well aware that the Labour Welsh Government have introduced regulation to improve conditions in dog breeding. Does he have any plans to introduce similar legislation in England to tackle some of the horrific conditions that back-street dog breeding gives rise to?
Yes, we have looked at this, because there was a misunderstanding on the part of some local authorities that a licence to breed dogs was not required provided that people were breeding fewer than five litters a year. We clarified that last year with local authorities because anyone in the business of breeding puppies requires a licence, but we continue to keep this under review.
T4. When on 9 August two cattle visited a supermarket in my constituency, they will have been disappointed to note that the only lactose-free milk was imported from Denmark. There is no such product made in the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is an opportunity for import substitution, to use British milk, and an export opportunity? (901250)
My hon. Friend is right: there are new products where British producers could certainly innovate and also huge opportunities for import substitution of many existing products such as butter and cheese, the majority of which we import at the moment. One thing we want to do is to get supermarkets labelling things more clearly, so that consumers know whether a product is British.
Given the volatility in Northern Ireland’s milk market—the price is the lowest across the United Kingdom—and its dependence on the export market, will the Secretary of State give urgent consideration to treating Northern Ireland as a special case when it comes to the targeted aid scheme that the EU will be talking about tomorrow?
The details of the €500 million scheme have yet to be decided, but I am clear that it has to go to immediate help for farmers. We know that many farmers are struggling to pay bills and have serious cash-flow issues, so as well as long-term measures such as getting a futures market for dairy to give more confidence and promoting exports, we need to help with cash flow, which I am clear is a real issue in Northern Ireland.
T5. May I thank the Secretary of State and her team for the efforts they made to help to eliminate the cryptosporidium virus that affected households across Lancashire for up to five weeks, leaving them without clean drinking water? Will she look into the levels of compensation, which I believe are currently completely inadequate, being offered by United Utilities to the homes and businesses affected? (901251)
I welcome the fact that the final boil notices were lifted on 6 September and that compensation has been offered, but I understand that for many businesses this really was a difficult period in which they incurred many additional costs. I would be happy to discuss the issue further with my hon. Friend.
What benefit can my constituents in the dairy sector in west Wales expect from the €500 million emergency fund brokered in Brussels this week and, critically, what share of that funding could the Welsh Assembly Government and other devolved Administrations reasonably expect?
The answer is that we have yet to find out the details of that fund. We are pushing for details, because I am clear that we need to make it immediate so that we can help with the cash-flow issues that farmers are facing. We shall obviously have discussions across the UK about how it is distributed. I also want to see action from the European Union on things such as inspections to make sure that we can get BPS payments out as early as possible, and we have not heard the details on that either.
T6. I met a delegation of local dairy farmers during the summer regarding the problems in their industry. One of their suggestions was that the Government do more to market dairy products as part of a healthy diet. Will my hon. Friend take that suggestion on board and perhaps resurrect some of the “Drink milk” television commercials that I fondly remember from my childhood? (901253)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The dairy part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board does some promotion of milk already and will continue to do so, and we should also note that the Department of Health spends around £63 million a year buying milk for infants.
The dairy industry in Cheshire is one of the great drivers of the rural economy in my county, which is why I was pleased to support dairy farmers in the actions they were taking to defend their livelihoods. Did the Minister also support those protests?
I am about making sure that we have practical solutions that actually deliver for dairy farmers who are facing cash-flow issues, while also ensuring that we have a viable national industry for the future. We do not want to lose really important dairy capacity when we know that there are lots of long-term opportunities—huge opportunities for import substitution, for example. My focus is on practical solutions that can help to achieve that.
T8. With the crisis in the price of liquid milk, one way to help our farmers increase their income is through products—dairy, cheese and additional products. I understand what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says about labelling, but what specific initiatives do the Government have for developing these products and developing new markets? (901255)
My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the long term, we want to develop processing capacity so that we can export some of our fantastic cheeses more widely around the world. That is why we are investigating the potential to use the European Investment Bank and rural development funds to support the development of that processing capacity.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church of England, along with the wider Anglican Communion, is actively tacking climate change in four ways: assessing its investment strategy and, where necessary, divesting in the context of our climate change policy; actively engaging with public policy; attending the forthcoming Paris conference; and encouraging its parishes to reduce their carbon footprint and their parishioners to do the same.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that response. As she mentions, the Church has made some progress and is divesting £12 million from highly polluting coal and tar sands investment, but there is still quite a significant degree of investment in companies such as Shell, in respect of which there are still concerns about involvement in fossil fuels and the exploration of the Arctic, for example. Does the right hon. Lady feel that the Church could go further?
I would encourage the hon. Lady to come to a reception with the Church Commissioners that I have organised for Members to discuss the ethical investment strategy that now applies to Church investment. She is right that divestment of investment in thermal coal and tar sands has occurred, and there are no direct investments in any company of which more than 10% of its revenues are derived from the extraction of thermal coal or from tar sands.
Our commitment to climate change in no way detracts from the central mission of the Church, which is to encourage people to faith. As part of our faith, however, we have to demonstrate environmental stewardship. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, the Anglican Communion has an unrivalled network through which to encourage laggards in the quest to tackle climate change and to play a positive role at the conference in Paris.
My right hon. Friend rightly refers to the Anglican Communion. What discussions and consultations does the Church of England have with the worldwide Anglican Communion to listen to them about the impact of climate change in their own countries?
The Church of England devoted a whole day of its General Synod in York to a debate on climate change, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and I spoke, outlining the ability of our worldwide network to help the nations that are worst affected by climate change. Sadly, they are the poorest nations in the world. That is why the Government’s commitment to an ambitious outcome in Paris is so important.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Number of MPs (Proposed Reduction)
The next review of UK parliamentary constituencies—a subject of interest to one or two Members—will be based on a reduction in the number of Members of Parliament from 650 to 600, and it will be undertaken by the UK’s various boundary commissions, and not the Electoral Commission. As such, neither the Speaker’s Committee nor the Electoral Commission has made any assessment of its potential impact.
Of course, one of the advantages of reducing the number of MPs is that fewer Whips will be required, but the first job of a Member of Parliament, who is not part of the Government, is to scrutinise the Government. By taking 50 out of these Members, the Government will not be scrutinised so well. Does my hon. Friend have a view on whether the size of the Government should be reduced proportionately to the reduction in the number of MPs?
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Use of Church Buildings
The Church of England’s Cathedral and Church Buildings Division developed the open and sustainable churches initiative five years ago, and now 80% of churches provide a function beyond purely worship, with 54% of Anglican parishes running at least one organised activity to address social need.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. What is the Church of England doing in ethnically diverse areas, where large numbers of people are not of the Anglican faith, to open up the buildings so that they are used regularly by the whole community, rather than just by those of that faith?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are opening up churches to the social needs of the community and using them for a wide range of purposes. For example, churches are being used as citizens advice bureaux, post offices, shops, night shelters and food banks. Let me give the example of two churches in his area of Harrow: St Paul’s has a job club open to people of all backgrounds; and All Saints’ Harrow Weald provides not only an art exhibition facility but a forest school. These facilities are open to all.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is precisely the sort of issue where local leadership in the Church can make a difference? She might therefore understand the confusion in the Oxford diocese, where it has been many months since we had a bishop and it could be a year before one begins his or her new role.
I am aware of the circumstances in the Oxford diocese. The Crown Nominations Commission did convene on 11 and 12 May but was unable to discern who the right candidate for the Bishop of Oxford should be. A number of bishop appointments need to take place in sequence, so the next time the commission convenes will be on 4 February. We all hope that in short order the right candidate will be found, but Bishop Colin, the acting bishop, is doing a splendid job and he is confident, as are his senior staff, that the needs of the diocese will be fully met.
My right hon. Friend made a good point about the use of churches for community activities. Last Friday, I helped launch one such activity that was taking place at St Simon’s, and I would be grateful if she would come to Plymouth to see for herself how very good that is—perhaps she would come to a breakfast meeting.
What a splendid invitation—how could I refuse? The example that my hon. Friend gives might prompt all Members here to look at the Church’s website, where there is a toolkit to help any church wishing to broaden its use in the ways we have described to find out how that can be done and to share best practice.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Individual Electoral Registration
The Electoral Commission recommended in 2003 that individual electoral registration should be introduced in Great Britain. Requiring all electoral registration applications to be verified makes it harder to create false register entries, and helps to prevent electoral and other types of fraud.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. As he said, the Electoral Commission recommended the adoption of IER in 2003. Does he agree that it is long overdue and that the ability to register online will make it much easier for many people to engage with the democratic process?
As usual, my hon. Friend is right: IER has been a long time coming, but it has been carefully and successfully introduced in the past 12 months. We must pay tribute to all the electoral registration officers all over the country for their hard work. As a champion of youth engagement in democracy in his constituency, he makes an important point about online registration. There is no question but that a lot of young people have exercised their ability to register online, so making sure that our register is as full as possible.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point. The Electoral Commission recommended that the original date of December 2016 be maintained. The Government disagreed with that, and have now decided that December 2015 is the appropriate date. Ultimately, however, it is a matter for the House to decide, and the Electoral Commission has not changed its mind.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be as follows.
Monday 14 September—Second Reading of the Trade Union Bill.
Tuesday 15 September—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Bill, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to tax credits, followed by a motion relating to the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill.
Wednesday 16 September—Remaining stages of the Education and Adoption Bill.
Thursday 17 September—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 18 September—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 October will include the following:
Monday 12 October—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The House will be aware that the new arrangements involving the Petitions Committee and the allocation of time for matters raised in petitions begin from now. I therefore wish to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 14 September and 12 October will be as follows:
Monday 14 September—Debate on an e-petition relating to contracts and conditions in the NHS.
Monday 12 October—Debate on an e-petition relating to making the production, sale and use of cannabis legal.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. May I first warmly add my voice to the tributes paid yesterday to Her Majesty the Queen for her exemplary 63 years and 216 days of service to this country, which is ongoing?
Following the Prime Minister’s revelation on Monday that he authorised a lethal drone strike against a British citizen and ISIL terrorist in Syria, we welcome the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which will now rightly be able to scrutinise the Government’s actions in this case. The Defence Secretary has stated that there may be similar drone strikes in future, and the media have speculated about the existence of a “hit list” of targets. It is clearly not possible or desirable to discuss individual cases across the Floor of the House, but can the Leader of the House assure me that the Government will publish the criteria that they are using to justify such operations, and will he set time aside so that Parliament can debate them?
Yesterday, in his evidence to the Procedure Committee, the Leader of the House confirmed that he would bring his plans for so-called English votes for English laws back to the House in October. These partisan and unworkable proposals have been criticised throughout the House and in the other place, which has passed a motion calling for a Joint Committee of both Houses to examine the issue. Will the Leader of the House tell us if and when the Government intend to respond to that motion? I welcome the work that the Procedure Committee is doing in considering the implications of the Government’s plans, and look forward to the publication of its report, but does the Leader of the House not recognise the widespread controversy that his divisive proposals have created? Instead of rushing ahead in a partisan manner, will he now reconsider, and agree to pilot them first?
Next Tuesday, for just 90 minutes, the House will debate a statutory instrument on working tax credits which will make 3 million families at least £1,000 a year worse off. Single parents in work will be hardest hit, and 5 million of Britain’s poorest children will be pushed further into poverty. Even the right hon. Gentleman’s own Back Benchers are waking up to the scale of this huge attack on working people, and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) has described the cuts as “eye-wateringly painful”. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that 90 minutes is just not long enough to debate a change which will have such a detrimental effect on so many working people, and will he grant more time for the debate? Given that increases in the minimum wage and a cynical rebranding exercise will not nearly compensate for the loss of working tax credit, can he explain how on earth these changes fulfil the Government’s promise to “make work pay”?
Next week’s business completely exposes the Tories’ ludicrous claim to be some kind of workers’ party. Their Trade Union Bill is designed to undermine basic rights at work and prevent effective collective action for better pay and conditions, while their fees for employment tribunals have made legal protections at work practically unenforceable. Meanwhile, Liberty and Amnesty International have condemned the Government’s plans to force trade unionists to register with the police and share social media comments in advance as
“a major attack on civil liberties”.
Can the Leader of the House confirm that there are now serious concerns that the Government’s proposals on workers’ rights violate this country’s legal obligations as a member of the International Labour Organisation?
While the summer recess has been a calm and uneventful time for the Labour party, the Government are facing troubles of their own. We have had the ongoing farce of the Prime Minister’s renegotiations and negotiations over Europe—that is negotiations with his own MPs. He has also already given in on collective Cabinet responsibility during the referendum campaign—much to the Leader of the House’s relief, I am sure. He has also given in on the date, and on Monday no fewer than 37 of his MPs, including five former Cabinet Ministers, joined us in the Division Lobby because they just did not trust their own Government not to misbehave on purdah. It makes our leadership election process look orderly and smooth by comparison.
Despite my party’s sterling attempt to banish silly season entirely this summer, it seems that it still exists on the Conservative Benches. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) has uncovered a new angle on the refugee crisis. He claimed he could not get his hair cut because his barber had gone home to Iraq. I can reveal to the House that his barber was actually on holiday in Great Yarmouth.
It has emerged through Labour’s extensive and unrivalled vetting process that Baroness Altmann has in fact been a member of the Labour party since 2014. Apparently, she renewed her membership just before the election, and was actually a member of all three major parties.
May I start with some words about the shadow Leader of the House? As she highlights, over the next three days some changes are afoot in the Labour party. We have followed quite closely the campaign for her party’s deputy leadership; I think she has fought a very decent campaign and I wish her all the very best for the outcome. If it transpires that this is her last day at the Dispatch Box for business questions, may I say that, although we have sparred with each other for only a few weeks, I have very much enjoyed working with her, and I hope that it is not the last time we work together? I wish her all the very best in the changes over the next few days.
I echo the hon. Lady’s remarks about Her Majesty the Queen. I have the honour of having served first as Lord Chancellor and now as Lord President of the Council. In those two roles I have had dealings directly with Her Majesty and that has been one of the greatest—if not the greatest—honours of my career. I continue to regard her as a fantastic monarch for this country and I think yesterday’s tributes from this House were absolutely right and proper and appropriate.
The hon. Lady made reference to the drone strike. The Prime Minister has been very clear that he will discuss how to bring the details to the scrutiny of the ISC when the new Chair of that Committee is appointed. No Prime Minister would ever take a decision such as that lightly. Ultimately, surely, the first job of the Prime Minister of this nation is to protect its safety and security and that of its citizens, and I am absolutely certain that that is at the front of our Prime Minister’s mind as he deals with these very difficult, sensitive and challenging issues.
The hon. Lady mentioned English votes for English laws. I listened to the evidence that she gave yesterday to the Procedure Committee, in which she described how our proposals departed massively from those of the McKay commission. That is nonsense. Our proposals are consistent with the recommendations and principles set out in the McKay commission report. They are measured and sensible, and they provide a balance to our devolution settlement. I think they are the right thing to do, and we will bring them back before the House shortly. The hon. Lady asked about a pilot. I have committed to reviewing the process after 12 months. Over that period, we can take input from the Procedure Committee and other Committees on how the process is working. I look forward to seeing the Procedure Committee’s recommendations shortly.
The hon. Lady referred to next week’s debate on tax credits. We have had to make some tough decisions in the interests of this country, both in this Parliament and in the last one, to get our economy back on the straight and narrow. I make no apology for that, and I remind her that one of the reasons we are sitting on the Government Benches and Labour Members are on the Opposition Benches is that the people of this country recognised that it was right and necessary to take those tough decisions to ensure that future generations can live in a country that is founded on strong economic foundations. She talked about the time allocated for that debate. This issue was extensively discussed in the days of debate that followed the summer Budget. Next week’s debate will provide an opportunity to confirm the statutory instrument necessary to bring the measures into effect, and I am confident that Members will give it their support.
I am also confident that the House will support the Trade Union Bill when it comes before the House next week. The hon. Lady talks about looking after the interests of working people. I would like to look after the interests of people who find their working lives disrupted on the days when our transport system is massively interrupted by a minority of workers. We are on their side, which is why the Bill is necessary.
The hon. Lady mentioned the issue of Labour membership. I suspect she will find that a number of people who have voted in the leadership contest reflect a broader membership than any of the parties represented in this House, and that that might have something to do with the likely outcome. Mr Speaker, you might not know that this week marks the 30th anniversary of the release of that great movie “Back to the Future”. You might think that we are about to see a new sequel to that film this weekend, but I think we are going to see a new version of the “Tom and Jerry” show.
My constituent, Sergeant Jay Baldwin, served with distinction in Afghanistan and during active service unfortunately lost both his legs. He has apparently been denied further NHS treatment because he sought alternative medical advice in Australia. We will not have Health or Defence questions during these two weeks, but I should like to raise this issue and bring it to the attention of the Government in the hope of reaching a swift resolution.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent and to all those who have served our country with such distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom suffered dreadful injuries. It is right and proper, and the duty of this country, to make sure that we look after them. The circumstances that my hon. Friend has described are very difficult ones, because we have tight rules in the NHS on these matters. However, my colleagues in the Department of Health are well aware of the importance of this issue and they are giving it careful consideration.
I also thank the Leader of the House for providing the business for next week. I, too, am unsure whether to pay a premature tribute to the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). We do not yet know whether she is going to be leading her party, whether she will be sitting on the Front Bench or the Back Benches, or whether she will be in some kind of Social Democratic party mark II. I have very much enjoyed working with her, and I hope that she manages to retain her place on the Front Bench. As we watch the results of the Labour leadership contest this week, however, let us remember never to ask the Labour party to organise an over-indulgent evening on the premises of an alcohol beverage manufacturer.
It is good to see that the Leader of the House has regained his usual cheerful disposition, following his irritable and bad-tempered performance in the Procedure Committee yesterday, in which he shouted down individual Members and challenged others to bar-room brawls. His incredible behaviour included the ridiculous assertion that there was no such thing as Barnett consequentials, contrary to what everyone else says. It is pretty clear that the Leader of the House is not a unifying character, but somehow he has managed to unite every single party in the House—he has even managed to unite the House of Lords—against his mad plans for English votes for English laws. We are hearing expert witnesses telling him how absurd some of those plans are, but according to him everybody else is wrong, and he is right. In the light of what he has heard, will he now review those plans and ensure that they do not come back to this House in their current condition?
That brings us on to friends in the House of Lords. Over the recess, we acquired 41 brand new parliamentarians, who will now have a role in scrutinising and initiating our legislation, and what a motley crew they are too—former party donors, former apparatchiks, former MPs, and people who seem only to have qualified for a place because they can give significant sums of money to one of the major Westminster and UK parties. What an absolutely ridiculous thing. The only plan that this Government have for the House of Lords, which has become so discredited in the eyes of the people, is to increase that bloated place even further, with even more new Members. That is the only plan that this Conservative Government have for that absurd and ridiculous circus down the corridor.
The House has been at its best this week in discussing the refugee crisis. The way in which these debates have been conducted has been a credit to the House. The only issue that I have with the way in which things have transpired was the unfortunate statement from the Prime Minister on Monday. A common feature of this Government, especially with the Prime Minister’s statements, is this bundling together of a number of different issues. I do not know what counter-terrorism had to do with the refugee crisis. I think the British public expected us to focus exclusively on the refugee crisis, and they wanted to hear leadership from the Prime Minister, which they did not get. What they got was a counter-terrorist statement with a bit on refugees. Can we ensure that such a thing does not happen again? The British public expect better than that. Will the Leader of the House take a look at that and vow to come back on important and significant issues such as the refugee crisis and ensure that they are not bundled together with other matters? In that way, the British public will get what they deserve and require, which is a statement on issues that concern them.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the House with his usual understated performance. He tends to return to the same issue week after week. I know that the Scottish National party has come to this place wanting to whip up a great row between England and Scotland. There is no doubt that it will do that week after week. Once again I say to him that our proposals on English votes for English laws are measured and sensible. They provide fairness in our devolution settlement. It is not realistic to say that we will provide much more devolution to the people of Scotland, which we are doing, but that England will have no part of it. Our measures are balanced, sensible, proportionate and fair, and we will bring them before this House shortly and I am confident that the House will back them.
On the House of Lords—another issue that the hon. Gentleman returns to week after week—the reality is that the new appointments contain people whose views we wish to hear. I am talking about disability campaigners and senior business people. The House of Lords has a vast wealth of expertise. It contains people who bring to the law-making process in this building experience of all aspects of our national life. I know that the Scottish National party does not like it, but actually those people add a quality to debate that is immensely valuable to our law-making process.
The hon. Gentleman talked about Prime Minister’s statements. We have just had a recess. There were a number of important issues to discuss. The Prime Minister was in this House for two and a quarter hours answering questions. In what world is that not sufficient? We have a Prime Minister who has come into this House to take questions on a variety of related issues. He is doing the job that we expect him to do. Although I absolutely respect and like the hon. Gentleman, who has a wonderful style in this Chamber, he was still talking a lot of nonsense.
Given the integrationist and dictatorial speech made by Mr Juncker yesterday, why has my right hon. Friend chosen not to announce a debate on the Floor of the House on the opt-in decision on the relocation of migrants, for which the European Scrutiny Committee, anticipating the present immigration crisis, called in July? The Committee unanimously agreed yesterday that the debate was imperative, irrespective of other debates this week. Will he arrange it for this week or next, as I called for in my letter earlier this week?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and I intend to sit down and talk to him about how we address it. I am well aware of his Committee’s concerns and of the importance of ensuring that these matters are properly heard. I also heard the speech yesterday, and to me it underlines the need for us to see radical change in our relationships with the European Union. That is why the referendum is so important. I do not believe that Britain needs the degree of more Europe that was on offer yesterday—in fact, I think we need just the opposite. We really must address this issue, and I am delighted that this Prime Minister has given this country the chance to vote on our future in the European Union.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 378, which stands in my name?
[That this House condemns Ellis David Ezair, owner of Flint Glassworks, Jersey Street, Manchester for failing over a period of several months to respond to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton regarding complaints from the right hon. Member's constituents whose homes are suffering serious damage because of the failure by Mr Ezair to rectify a situation for which he is entirely responsible; and calls on the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to investigate and, if possible, rectify this unacceptable situation.]
It is in regard to serious antisocial activities being conducted in my constituency by Ellis David Ezair of Flint Glassworks. He does not live in my constituency, and for his own private profit he is wrecking the homes and environment of a considerable number of my constituents. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is unacceptable, and will he draw the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? Will he give time in the House for the matter to be discussed?
I commend the Father of the House for having, notwithstanding his long years of service, retained his zeal in representing his constituents on what are clearly serious matters. The issues he raises today are important, although I obviously cannot comment on the individual circumstance. I will ensure that my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are aware of his comments and of his early-day motion. I am sure that a man of his experience will seek to bring these matters before the House in the variety of ways that are available to him.
May we have a debate on the way in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs deals with small businesses? When I speak to small businessmen in my constituency, such as those at Bur-Low Engineering, I frequently hear complaints about the way in which they are treated, which is often bureaucratic and high-handed.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is, of course, of paramount importance that in the interests of our national finances, HMRC secures payment of taxes that are due. It is equally important that it does not treat business people as guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way round, and that it treats them fairly and with respect. I am sure that those working in HMRC will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments. He makes a valuable point and is, as ever, an effective champion of small business.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving notice that the first day back after the conference recess will be for Back-Bench business. However, there is a problem, given that the last meeting of the Backbench Business Committee before then is this Monday, so Members who want to put in bids have until the end of play tomorrow to get them in. On Monday, the Committee sat and was unaware that next Friday had been allocated to us as a Back-Bench business day, and we consequently informed Members that we did not anticipate any time to be allocated before the October return. Time is tight, so I ask Members to get their act together, and please to put in bids by the close of play tomorrow.
The House will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and I hope that Members will accede to his request. I am sorry that we had the confusion at the start of the week, but decisions about business are not normally taken before the end of Monday. I gather that he is looking to move the date of his meetings so that they coincide with the allocation of business for the following week. We will work with him carefully to ensure that we make the best use of the time that he and his Committee have at their disposal.
May we find time to recognise the accomplishments of Paula Radcliffe—not only her multiple accomplishments in athletics, but the inspiration that her dedication to her sport has provided to generations of athletes, and her courage in standing up against the current trend of media innuendo, leading to presumptions of guilt? Her inspiration and courage are why I, as the Member for Bedford, am proud that we have a stadium in our town that proudly carries her name.
My hon. Friend’s comments say it all. Paula Radcliffe was and is one of our great athletes. I share his concern about the fact that in this and other areas we as a society believe that media innuendo is a sign of guilt. That is a step in the wrong direction and one that we should reverse.
Last night I chaired a meeting in the House on refugees. At the end of it a children’s rights lawyer who had spent two weeks on Lesbos handed me two things. The first was a child’s exercise book picked up from the sea, as Members can see, with English language words on one side and Arabic on the other. The second was a so-called life vest, which would not save anybody’s life. We are offering 4,000 places for refugees in one year. The Greeks receive 4,000 a day. May we have a statement next week on any further thoughts that the Government may have on increasing the number of refugees? We must do more.
We have debated the matter extensively this week, and the Government will of course continue to update the House as this matter develops. The point that the right hon. Lady makes is important, but everyone has to realise that we are dealing with a very large number of refugees in the countries around Syria and that those numbers of refugees cannot all be resettled elsewhere. That is why this Government are spending far more than any other European country on providing support for people close to home. The challenge for us is to find a long-term solution in Syria for us to help rebuild Syria and enable the people to return home.
It has always been understood that Members will not have their communications intercepted. That was established by the Wilson doctrine. Considering the answer that the Prime Minister gave yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, may we have a written statement next week on how many Members’ communications have been intercepted over the past 10 years?
Clinical commissioning groups in Worcestershire are recommending that their GPs refer patients not to Worcester and Redditch but to Birmingham because the waiting lists in Worcestershire are reaching unacceptable levels. Out-of-area referrals other than for clinical reasons are unacceptable and distort the system. May we have a debate on how, post-Lansley, management of the NHS as a national service is becoming increasingly difficult?
There will be Health questions on 13 October so the hon. Lady will have an opportunity to put that point directly to the Health Secretary. I believe that her party supported patient choice; whether it will do so in future, I do not know. It would be a retrograde step to go back to a position where people were not able to move to areas where waiting lists were shorter or treatments of a different kind were available.
The Government recently announced a consultation on the closure of 90 courts across England and Wales. The inclusion of Bath magistrates court and county court is causing a lot of concern for my constituents, who are worried that they will not be able to access the justice system. Will my right hon. Friend set aside time to debate this later in the parliamentary Session?
I see that my hon. Friend is already proving an effective campaigner for his area. I regret the decisions that we have had to take in many areas to deal with the financial crisis that this country has faced in recent years. We have had to take difficult and tough decisions and changes have had to take place. I am acutely aware that there are concerns when institutions such as local courts are lined up to be closed. I know my hon. Friend will make strong representations to the Ministry of Justice and he can bring forward an Adjournment debate on the subject. This Government will do their best to do the right thing for this country and for individual constituencies, but there will have to be tough decisions in the months ahead.
The Leader of the House will know that, as a consequence of the House’s rightful discussion of Her Majesty’s reign yesterday, Welsh questions have been deferred until next Wednesday and Northern Ireland questions have been deferred until after the conference recess. Given the live prospect either that the Northern Ireland Assembly will today vote to adjourn, or that all my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive will resign from their ministerial posts, what consideration has he given to allowing the House an opportunity to hear from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland either this week or next?
This is a matter of the utmost seriousness, and it is one of great concern to the Government. Indeed, I had discussions with ministerial colleagues about the matter this morning. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the Secretary of State will return to the House before the conference recess to provide an update on development in Northern Ireland, so there will be that opportunity for scrutiny.
May I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Ben Howlett) in calling for a debate on the Government’s programme of court closures? As the Leader of the House said, it is right that we get value for money for the taxpayer in our justice system, but it is also right that these decisions are based on facts. The consultation claims that Burton court, which is threatened with closure, is a four-room court, but in fact it has three rooms. Today I have heard that in order to work out the court’s usage, the consultation used a period when it was closed because the cells were being refurbished. That is simply not good enough. May we please have a debate so that we can get the facts right?
I am sure that my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice will have noted my hon. Friend’s comments. I refer him to what the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee said a moment ago about seeking subjects for debate in the coming days. If my hon. Friend feels strongly about these matters, there is an opportunity to bring them to the House’s attention through that route.
Following previous comments, would it not be appropriate to have a statement, preferably as soon as possible, on how the Government can possibly justify trying to reduce the number of Members of the elected House of Commons by at least 50 while increasing the number of Members of the House of Lords, which is totally unelected, to 825? Is that the Tory conception of modern democracy? Talk about back to the future!
I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that the coalition Government brought forward plans for House of Lords reform in the previous Parliament, but they could not proceed because the Labour party obstructed the programme motion. If he wants to know why the House of Lords was not reformed, he should look to his own party.
My right hon. Friend will be concerned to hear that the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital is no longer offering to my constituents in Plymouth breast reconstructions following cancer treatment, despite the treatment offered there being far superior to that which is offered at Derriford hospital. May we have a debate on the postcode lottery for breast reconstruction in the south-west?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. There are often differences in services as a result of local decision making, but in my years as a Member of Parliament I have always found that people want decisions to be taken by local doctors and by those who work in the local health service, rather than by Whitehall, and that is what we delivered through our reforms. I suggest that he bring the matter to Health questions, which will be in the first week back after the conference recess. There will also be an opportunity to debate health matters next Monday, as I explained earlier.
Dewsbury hospital has recently introduced parking charges for blue badge holders and is hoping to recoup £98,000. Simultaneously, the same trust has spent about £12 million on external management consultants Ernst and Young in the past few years—one might question whether it has its priorities right. Will the Leader of the House agree to consider holding a debate on hospital parking charges?
I know that hospital parking charges are a concern for many Members across the House. Of course, it is a difficult balance for trusts to strike, because the money raised normally goes into patient care, although I understand the point the hon. Lady makes. There will be an opportunity to debate health service matters on Monday, and there will be Health questions in the first week after the conference recess. I encourage her to raise the issue with my colleagues in the Department of Health, who I am sure will have heard what she has said.
The A55 expressway in north Wales is an important part of the UK’s road network, linking the M56 in Cheshire to the port of Holyhead. Previous Conservative Governments have a proud record of constructing this road, which is used regularly by thousands of my constituents. However, it is increasingly congested, subject to increasing numbers of accidents, and has poor linkages to the urban coastal strip of my constituency. Unlike rail infrastructure, trunk roads are now a devolved matter in Wales. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate to discuss how very necessary improvements to the A55 and its linkages might be brought about?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He highlights one of the frustrations that many representatives from north Wales feel about the fact that the Labour Administration in Cardiff neither understands north Wales nor pays very much attention to it. Only Conservatives in north Wales, fortunately in much larger numbers than in the past, really beat the drum for that important part of this country and make the case for proper improvements there. I hope that his comments will have been noted on both sides of the border. I encourage him to bring forward an Adjournment debate so that we continue to put pressure on the Labour party, which, where it is actually in office, proves pretty ineffective at it.
Will the Leader of the House make a statement on companies using number plate recognition technology and access to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency information that are levying excessive charges for short periods of overstaying in car parks? One of my constituents faces a £100 charge for leaving one about 10 minutes later than she should have done. Legal advisers to Citizens Advice Scotland suggest that this is contrary to Scots law, but that does not stop parking companies undermining the credit rating of vehicle owners. Is it not time that the industry was forced on to a sustainable legal footing instead of being allowed to behave like a modern-day Dick Turpin? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
The hon. Lady raises a concern that, as we can hear, is clearly shared across this House. Of course it is right and proper that people should have some degree of control over the land they operate and be able to penalise those who abuse their rights to park there, but there are cowboys who grossly abuse that. I will make sure that her comments are drawn to the attention of the Department for Transport. I am absolutely with her in saying that this matter should be treated properly and effectively. I am sure my colleagues will look at ways of making sure that we can stamp on the cowboys.
Despite suffering from Crohn’s disease since he was 18, my constituent Andy Powell has not only successfully completed a degree in engineering but spent the summer raising money for the team at King’s College London who are researching to find a cure for this condition. Might we find time for a debate on research into Crohn’s disease, which has such a negative impact on many people’s quality of life?
I commend my hon. Friend’s constituent. One of the great things about this country is that we hear stories of people who not only overcome adversity but use the circumstances in which they find themselves to positive effect. Clearly, his constituent is a fine example of that. He has already put this matter on the record, but I encourage him to use the opportunities available in this House through the Adjournment debate system and the Backbench Business Committee to make his point. It is a dreadful disease for which we all want to see improved treatments and cures. I really commend his constituent for what he is doing.
When will the Leader of the House allow us to have a debate on that vital area of our life, manufacturing and manufacturing productivity? Does he think it is enough that only 10% of people in this country make anything any longer, and does he agree with the way in which we are treating further education colleges, where most of our technicians and skilled people are trained? Is this good enough when business, industry and manufacturing desperately need highly trained people to crack the productivity challenge?
The Government take this issue very seriously. We have worked on a number of different ways to seek to boost manufacturing, whether it is protection of the science budget, investment in the regional growth fund, or investment in apprenticeships. We now have some great success stories in this country. Our automotive industry, in particular, has been a tremendous success in recent years. To make, I am afraid, a party political point, I remind Labour Members that while it is popular wisdom, often repeated by many of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, that the manufacturing base of this country declined sharply in the years of Conservative government, the actual truth is that when the Conservative party was in government in the 1980s manufacturing as a share of our economy fell slightly, but under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it almost halved.
The approach to the Dartford crossing on the M25 has become Britain’s worst stretch of motorway. The free-flow system introduced earlier this year has clearly failed to live up to expectations, leading to horrendous traffic jams in the area. May we have a debate on the issue and how the residents of Dartford are left at the mercy of any incident that takes place at the Dartford crossing?
I absolutely understand the knock-on effect on my hon. Friend’s constituents. It is frustrating that the free-flow has not worked better sooner, because it should be a dramatic improvement on what was there before and it is disappointing that that has not yet happened. The Highways Agency understands the problem, but it needs to get its skates on and deliver a better set-up, because we cannot leave both that important part of the M25 and the residents of Dartford in a position where things are not yet at their best.
In the light of the magnitude of the current refugee crisis, people will be making it clear this weekend that they want to provide a warm welcome for refugees, with rallies and vigils, including in my constituency of York Central. Will the Government make time for a weekly update and Question Time on the current crisis and continue to review the figures as part of that?
Of course, we will continue to update the House as we play our part in dealing with the issue, and as a nation we will provide a warm welcome to the 20,000 people we have said we will take from the camps. We will also continue—this is equally, and possibly more, important—to put nearly £1 billion a year into the camps themselves. The most vulnerable people are in those camps. They have not been able to make their way to Europe. They are the people who are most in need of help and they are the people on whom we are focusing our support.
Many areas of the country are enjoying the benefits of local TV services delivered over free-to-air digital terrestrial television and funded in part by the BBC TV licence. Due to technical issues, Leicester and Leicestershire were unable to bid for a local TV licence, so they are at a considerable disadvantage compared with our neighbours in Nottinghamshire, who have a thriving local TV channel. May we have a Government statement on what support can be given to help deliver a Leicestershire television station, perhaps by another method of communication?
I understand the disappointment in Leicestershire, and as always my hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of the county he represents. I will make sure his concerns are drawn to the attention of my colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I wish him all the best in his endeavours. I am absolutely certain that, with him championing the cause of a Leicestershire TV station, its launch date can be only a short while away.
Over the summer the Government announced, without consultation, 27 blocks of land, including in my own constituency, on which fracking companies can begin exploratory drilling. Given that the Government have granted communities the right to oppose onshore wind farms, can we have an urgent debate on the Government’s energy policy and the rights of our constituents to oppose and have a say over what happens in their own backyard?
There is local decision making about planning applications for fracking, but, given that we have to provide future energy to warm our houses, particularly those of elderly people, it is in the strategic interests of this country to have good, effective sources of energy. In this Government’s view, fracking is an important resource and we should take advantage of it. It is not a new technique. It has existed in the oil and gas industry for many years. We are strongly of the view that it is an essential part of our future energy strategy. The hon. Lady will have a chance to raise those issues with the Secretary of State in Energy questions next Thursday, but this country must have a smart approach to ensuring that we have sources of energy for the future, and this is one of them.
You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that there is a popular misconception held by normal people outside this place that Members of Parliament on opposing sides cannot stand one another and barely share a civil word. By my estimation that is something that usually happens within political parties and it may be just about to get worse. Were it not for the conviviality between the parties, the normal channels that make the business of this House run smoothly could collapse or be damaged. Does the Leader of the House know of anything—perhaps something happening somewhere in London this weekend—that might put a spoke in the usual channels and prevent them from working smoothly?
My hon. Friend draws attention to a phenomenon that all Government Members have noticed this week not just through the usual channels, but across the whole Labour party. It is almost as though all Labour Members are like the characters—do you remember them, Mr Speaker, from our childhood days when we all read comic books?—who have little dark clouds above them and rain landing on their heads. I am not quite sure why, but perhaps something is going to happen that they are not very happy about. They certainly all seem pretty miserable, and I wish there was something we could do to cheer them up.
I commend and thank Business, Innovation and Skills Ministers for standing firm, despite the expected usual lobbying by the large pub companies and their trade association, and for making it clear that the statutory code for pubs, including the market rent only option, goes through. May we have a statement from a BIS Minister to lay out the timetable, because the code must be in place by May 2016?
I commend the hon. Gentleman on his work on this matter, on which he is an assiduous campaigner. There will be BIS questions next week, so I suggest he asks either a listed or a topical question to get Ministers to set out the timetable. I will make sure that they are aware of his interest in the matter.
It is generally accepted that for good government it is necessary to have an effective opposition. All political parties go through leadership traumas from time to time—there is no shame in that—but would it not be a good idea to give the Opposition a debate on the first day back in October? All the new shadow Cabinet members could come to the House to outline their thoughts about the policies they wish to pursue in a debate entitled, “Her Majesty’s Opposition: an alternative programme for government”, and we can find out what the terms of trade will be over the lifetime of the next parliamentary Session.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I am afraid that his idea has one big drawback. I am not certain that on the first day back there will be any Labour Members actually willing to serve in the shadow Cabinet, so I do not think it is an option.