House of Commons
Thursday 17 December 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
The Muslim Brotherhood Review
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 a Paper, entitled The Muslim Brotherhood Review: Main Findings, dated 17 December 2015.—(Sarah Newton.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What progress her Department is making on implementing its strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England. 
4. What progress her Department is making on implementing its strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England. 
Our strategy to eradicate bovine TB is working. I am pleased to report that all three badger control areas—Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset—hit their targets this year. The Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear that the strategy is delivering disease control benefits, and that it will help us to eradicate this terrible disease.
I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging that bovine TB is a serious issue, but it is a particularly serious issue for farmers in my constituency. Will she agree to meet me to discuss rolling out a badger vaccination programme in the high-risk areas of Sussex, which would enable us to control the disease while also avoiding a badger cull?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s efforts to promote the vaccination of badgers, but unfortunately there is a worldwide shortage of the BCG vaccine, and I have therefore decided to suspend the sourcing of the vaccine for badgers in England in order to prioritise human health. The Welsh Government recently announced the same decision. However, I shall continue to listen to what my hon. Friend and her local farmers say about this important issue.
I wish both you and the Secretary of State a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.
Not only are badgers responsible—as I understand it—for the spread of bovine TB, but they are no friend of the hedgehog. On Monday, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government rejected my call, and that of The Times, for a hedgehog superhighway through back gardens. Would my right hon. Friend be willing to meet me, and members of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, for a hedgehog summit?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his fantastic campaign, and I congratulate The Times on raising this vital issue. I, too, want hedgehogs to have a very happy Christmas, and I am very willing to meet my hon. Friend and members of the British Hedgehog Preservation Society to discuss what we can do to ensure that we have a good population of hedgehogs in the future.
Hedgehogs of the world, unite and fight!
I am afraid I cannot follow that, Mr Speaker.
Given that £20 million has been spent on the badger cull so far, and that hundreds, possibly thousands, of badgers have been killed, will the Secretary of State tell the House how many of those that have been killed had been tested for bovine TB?
If we do not get a grip on this terrible disease, we shall end up spending £1 billion on dealing with it over the next 10 years. The fact is that it was the Labour party, in 2010, that left us with the worst levels of the disease in Europe. That is why we are having to deal with it now, and I am following the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer, who says that culling is an important part of dealing with it. Why do Labour Members not congratulate the hard-working farmers in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset who have delivered this year, and who are helping us to deal with this terrible disease?
It is very important for us in Northern Ireland to learn from what the Department has done on the mainland, and to benefit from the information, the experience and the lessons of that action. In Northern Ireland, 6% of cattle herds have been affected by bovine TB, and it is on the rise. It has cost the taxpayer £30 million a year, and 17% of the badgers that have been tested have TB. What can the Department do to help us in Northern Ireland to take on the disease, and defeat it?
We will continue to work closely with Northern Ireland to tackle the disease throughout the United Kingdom.
I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile), and wish the Secretary of State and everyone else a happy Christmas.
In Gloucestershire and Somerset, there has been a very beneficial reduction in the number of cattle suffering from TB in the badger culling areas. When will the Secretary of State be able to release the figures that will show what is happening?
My hon. Friend is right, and I am pleased to say that, thanks to our strategy, more than half the country is on track to be officially free of the disease by the end of the current Parliament. The Chief Veterinary Officer has made it clear that licensing of future areas is needed to realise the disease control benefits, and I am determined to pursue that recommendation.
Technology in Farming
2. What assessment she has made of the potential contribution of data and technology to maximising the potential of British food and farming. 
Data and technology have a central role to play in maximising the potential of British food and farming. There are huge numbers of datasets in existence relating to issues such as crop yields and disease. In October we launched the first of our centres of excellence under the agri-tech strategy. The AgriMetrics Centre will use £12 million of Government funding to develop computer models to enable us to harness these data.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and will he join me in welcoming the Eastern AgriGate Research Hub, which opened last month in Soham and is developing pioneering technologies to reduce crop waste and food waste and boost production? Does he agree that we need to invest further in agri-tech to grow our industries, such as those in Cambridgeshire?
My hon. and learned Friend makes an important point, and I welcome the Eastern AgriGate Research Hub which she opened recently. Improving productivity and reducing waste requires innovation that works on a commercial scale, and the new hub will develop these solutions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that technology has a role to play in reducing waste and improving our use of resources.
First, may I wish the whole of the British countryside, and even the Secretary of State, a very happy Christmas? You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that even though I am the MP for Huddersfield I am not a Luddite. I am absolutely in favour of good management in the rural environment and in our agriculture, and using data and technology, but the other side of that is that much of our countryside is being destroyed for wildlife by industrial farming. That is the truth of the matter. Indeed, even in Cambridgeshire there are whole swathes of the countryside with nothing living to be seen. We must get the balance right between protecting the environment and using technology in agriculture.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to get the balance right, but I disagree with his view that we are not getting it right. We have for many years now had very successful countryside stewardship schemes with billions of pounds invested in creating new habitats for wildlife so that we can see a recovery in farmland bird populations and an improvement in, for instance, the number of pollinators.
May I also wish you, Mr Speaker, and the Deputy Speakers and those in the Department a merry Christmas, and indeed a peaceful new year, even sometimes in this place? I want to emphasise the issue of online services in the Department. While they are very useful and helpful, not every farming community has good rural broadband and they do not always replace the face-to-face contact that is required by farmers.
We recognise that, which is why we will in future be ensuring that farmers who want to submit their basic payment scheme applications on paper will be able to do so, but the Government are also investing hundreds of millions of pounds to bring broadband to areas that do not currently have it.
3. What progress her Department is making on reducing air pollution to within legal limits. 
Today we have laid out how we plan to tackle air pollution hotspots in our towns and cities while minimising the impact on businesses and families.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answer, but she may be aware of the GB freight route scheme, a proposal to build a dedicated freight railway line linking the channel tunnel with all the major economic regions of Britain and with a gauge capable of transporting full-size lorry trailers on trains. The route could take over 5 million lorry journeys off our roads each year and save thousands of tonnes of polluting emissions. The Department for Transport is taking an interest in the scheme. Will the Secretary of State use her good offices to encourage her colleagues in the Department for Transport to support this scheme?
I am certainly very happy to look at that, and today I have launched plans for clean air zones in five cities outside London to make sure we are in compliance with air quality limits.
One reason why emissions are so high in this country is the systematic fitting of defeat devices—the cheating software—by Volkswagen. Enforcement action is under way in the United States. Can the Secretary of State update the House on what action the British Government— her Department, the Environment Agency or the Department for Transport—are taking in this area?
The hon. Lady is right to say that the American authorities are taking action. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is looking carefully at this, as well as ensuring that vehicles are appropriately tested. We have reached agreement at European level to ensure that what is being emitted from cars are the real emissions. That will help us to deal with our air quality issues.
The Secretary of State will know that many people regard the legal limits for maritime cruise ships berthing in cities as inadequate. Regulations in cities such as Gothenburg, and others in the European Union, place higher requirements on vessels, including a requirement for ship-to-shore energy supplies. Why cannot we have that for London?
We are certainly looking at the issue that the hon. Gentleman identifies. We are determined to fulfil our environmental obligations, and we will be bringing the whole of the UK into compliance.
5. What steps her Department is taking to promote wine production in England. 
English sparkling wine is a growing industry worth almost £100 million. I note that two sparkling wines—including Nyetimber, which is produced in my right hon. Friend’s constituency—recently beat champagne in a wine critics’ blind tasting competition. We are promoting the industry through the Great British Food campaign.
There has been a remarkable increase in wine production in my constituency in West Sussex, and I believe that I now have more wine producers than any other constituency. Is this not the time for a co-ordinated strategy to promote these excellent wines, which beat others from around the world in wine tastings? Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that English sparkling wine is served at Government events, and that prosecco, cava, champagne and other inferior brands are consigned to the cellars?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his sparkling point. I will be holding a round-table in the new year with representatives of the sparkling wine industry to talk about how we can encourage the industry to grow. I recently held an event in Shanghai, China, with English sparkling wine producers, and I am encouraging all my colleagues right across Government to use English sparkling wine as their drink of choice.
I thank the Secretary of State for her support for the English wine industry and for her recent visit to Sussex, the premier area for the production of English sparkling wine. I hope that Breaky Bottom will be her Christmas lunch tipple. May I remind her that 60% of the price of an average bottle of wine in the UK goes on tax, as against 21% in France, for example? How are her discussions going with the Chancellor on getting a better deal for English wine producers?
As my hon. Friend will know, excise duty is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but I had a very enjoyable morning in Sussex recently—we started the tour at 9 am, and it was one of my best days in the job.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Taittinger and Hatch Mansfield’s new venture to produce sparkling wine in my constituency, and will she take steps to ensure that policy across Government supports the growth of the English sparkling wine industry?
It is no surprise that even the French want to get in on the action in the English sparkling wine industry. Using DEFRA’s data, we have identified an additional 75,000 acres across the country that are suitable for producing sparkling wine. That is the equivalent of the champagne region, so I am sure that the industry will go from strength to strength.
Flood Defence Schemes
6. How many new flood defence schemes are planned under her Department’s six-year capital settlement. 
We will be investing in 1,500 flood schemes in the next six years, spending £2.3 billion on providing protection to an extra 300,000 homes.
I hope the Minister will join me in thanking the emergency workers in my constituency who went to assist during the flooding in St Michael’s on Wyre over the past fortnight. He will also be aware of the great relief in my constituency at the news of the £60 million investment in coastal defences along the Fylde coast, but will he look at the one gap in the armour—namely, the coastal defences at Rossall beach, which are not being renewed? When his Department reviews the frequency of adverse weather events, will it look again at the adequacy of Rossall beach’s defences to determine whether they should be included in this scheme?
Let me join in paying tribute to the members of the teams in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I was in St Michael’s on Wyre, where I saw some of the wonderful work they and other volunteers were doing. I am pleased that he is paying tribute to the work along the Fylde coast, which is an investment of almost £80 million in total, and I would be delighted to look in particular at the missing section on Rossall beach.
Has the Minister explained to his Back Benchers that the 300,000 properties he is talking about have been those at low risk and the lowest risk, and not, substantially, those of residents living in areas at the highest risk, as the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management has pointed out? In other words, the money is going to fund those least at risk of flooding, not those most at risk.
We disagree strongly on this. I am happy to sit down to talk about it in detail, but along the Fylde coast, the Humber, the Lincolnshire coast and the Thames these defences will have a serious impact on houses that are at serious risk of flooding.
May I compliment my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the way in which the tragedy for people in the north-west has been dealt with? Some people have a simplistic view about flooding, seeing it as a binary issue and, for example, saying that dredging works in all cases—we know it does not. There are circumstances where capital schemes such as the Minister has outlined are the solution, but in other cases a more nuanced approach is required. Will her team continue to make the point that every different flood event requires a specific solution?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished floods Minister and is right in what he says. We need to look also at upstream mitigation, which means the planting of trees, the restoration of poached soils, and examining peat bogs and river movement. This is not only about hard defences, and the work that we will be doing over the next few months will focus exactly on those natural measures.
The devastation of the communities in Keswick, Carlisle and Cockermouth hit by the floods was clear for all to see, but it does not tell the full story. I spent part of my visit to Cumbria meeting people in smaller communities, including Barepot and Hall Park View, near Workington, as well as Flimby and Dearham. Many people were just getting on with the job of clearing up, but they told me that they felt abandoned yet again, with no hope of any schemes to protect their homes, even though most of these schemes would be small and inexpensive. What plans does the Minister have to pay more attention to smaller communities also devastated by floods and to commit to the small schemes, which could make a big difference?
First, I pay tribute to the shadow Minister for his visit, which was very much appreciated. It is true that many people feel that the media attention has been on Carlisle and that the number of small villages affected have been ignored. As he says, we can see many communities like that across Cumbria and they will be having a horrifying time. They will have a very difficult winter. We are working to bundle schemes together. One particular example, which I would be very happy to discuss with him, is what is happening at Stockdalewath, where we have an upstream alleviation programme for a small hamlet. We need to extend that to other areas, too.
I send my condolences to those in Cumbria, because in Somerset, where I come from, we, too, experienced terrible flooding in 2013. I applaud the Government’s commitment and all the projects that have been put in place. Will the Minister outline the progress being made on future funding for the wider catchment work on trees, river basins and perhaps even ancient trees?
My hon. Friend is very interested in the role that ancient woodland can play in flood alleviation. We are looking at that as part of the upstream alleviation programme. Three main initiatives are being undertaken: one by Cumbria County Council; one led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; and one, which I am chairing, through the Cumbria partnership.
7. What recent assessment she has made of the extent of flood risks in the UK. 
The work done on flood forecasting is carried out by the Flood Forecasting Centre, which involves collaboration between the Environment Agency and the Met Office. It provides daily forecasts, which are communicated to the public through the web and through telephones, providing flood warnings and flood alerts on a real-time basis.
May I send Chester’s best wishes to the Minister and his constituents, whom I know are overcoming the damage from the flooding so far? Long-term assessments of flooding demonstrate that the risk is becoming greater, and the Government have introduced an insurance scheme to support people in their homes who are affected by insurance issues. Am I right in thinking that the scheme does not include small businesses? In the light of the recent flooding in Cumbria, will the Minister rethink that policy?
I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has recognised the work of the Flood Re scheme, which will make a considerable difference, particularly to lower income households. He is correct that small businesses are not currently included. The Association of British Insurers believes that there is no systematic problem in providing insurance for small businesses, but should we discover that that is not the case, I am happy to sit down with him and the ABI to resolve the matter.
The Minister has mentioned low-lying Lincolnshire, yet more and more housing schemes—huge housing schemes—are being forced on us to meet a rising population. Will the Minister responsible for defending the people from flooding remind those in the EU, the Home Office and the Treasury that in one of the most rain-sodden, flood-prone countries in Europe there is a cost to the 300,000 net migration to this country every year? Even if we could afford it, we should not be building houses in the wrong places.
I do not wish to be drawn into a debate on migration, but I absolutely agree that we should not be building houses on floodplains. The Environment Agency guidance on that is increasingly strict, and we are pushing hard to ensure that councils acknowledge and respect that guidance.
In considering flood risk, has the Minister assessed the risk of profiteering in relation to services that are required in the clean-up after flooding? I understand that the cost of skip hire and of estate agent services has rocketed in areas affected by flooding.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is a serious risk of profiteering and there is even a risk of criminal activity. Unscrupulous people will turn out and push for far more work to be done in a house than actually needs to be done. The police in Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland are focused on that issue. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, in moments of crisis, we should absolutely condemn anybody who attempts to exploit misery for gain.
My hon. Friend will know that, over a year ago, there was a tidal surge in the North sea that brought flooding to a lot of the east coast, particularly to Norfolk. I understand that there is a tidal surge forecast for Christmas day and Boxing day. Will he update the House on the measures his Department and the Environment Agency are taking in the event of such a surge taking place?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are facing very high spring tides at the moment—some of the highest for 18 years—but we need to take into account the fact that the level of the tides themselves is not the determining factor. The low pressure systems and the wind will also have an impact. We focus very hard on this matter, specifically on that tide on Christmas day. The Flood Forecasting Centre ensures that the forecasts are as accurate as possible, and we have the measures in place to respond.
Flood risk on the Humber remains high following the tidal surge two years ago. With local authorities, the Environment Agency was involved in putting together proposals that it now advises Ministers should be reassessed. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is committed to strengthening flood defences along the Humber, and that, in the forthcoming meeting with Humber MPs, he will have alternative proposals?
I thank my hon. Friend very much for the work that he does for his constituents in arguing for more funding on the Humber. Considerable investment is going to flood defences in the Humber region. Nearly £80 million is going into the Humber—£40 million to the north side of the Humber and £40 million to the south side. Yes, we are looking forward to a round table, where we will discuss every one of those schemes from Grimsby to Hull.
8. If she will issue guidance on siting poultry sheds as close as possible to the place of slaughter. 
Decisions on the location of agricultural buildings are a matter for the relevant local authority, which will assess each application on its merits taking into account its local plan. In addition to planning permission, an environmental permit is required for intensive poultry farms, and the Environment Agency will consider impacts such as noise and odour. However, through our food enterprise zones, which we are currently piloting, we are seeking to remove some of the barriers and make it easier for food enterprises to co-locate in the same geographic areas.
I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive answer. He will of course be aware that the Animal Welfare (Transport) (England) Order 2006 requires operators to minimise the journey time for animals—rightly so—and his departmental guidance reflects that. Does he agree that that should be a material consideration in planning terms to ensure that, in modern animal husbandry, we minimise the distance that animals have to travel to abattoirs?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. As he pointed out, there are robust regulations in place at both a European and a UK level, which specify, for instance, minimum journey times and rest times, and set-down requirements for the lorries carrying out that transport. It is not always possible to co-locate factories close to where poultry are because often the investment requires a large number of poultry farms supplying one abattoir.
EU Recycling Targets
9. What steps her Department is taking to meet EU recycling targets. 
Recycling is local authority-led. National Government can work through measures such as the landfill tax and harmonisation of the Waste and Resources Action Programme. We are pleased to say that recycling is now at the highest level ever, up in the region of 44%.
It looks as though we are going to miss our household recycling targets, and there is a question mark over the municipal recycling target as well. Is it not time for a proper waste strategy for this country to enable us to meet our requirements?
I believe we are on track, and the thing that will keep us on track is more harmonisation. One of the problems in England particularly—this is not a problem in Wales or Scotland—is that we have over 300 different types of recycling system, so we are working hard on a voluntary basis with local councils to harmonise that. If we can reduce it to four or five systems, we will drive up recycling rates and reduce costs for councils and ratepayers.
On the first anniversary of WRAP’s creation as a charity, will the Minister join me in encouraging people to recycle their Christmas cards and gift wrap? Apparently, we recycle enough card to wrap the Elizabeth Tower 260,000 times.
I confirm my right hon. Friend’s comments. I pay tribute to WRAP, which Members on both sides of the House are proud of and which was an initiative led by the Labour Government. It has done an enormous amount of work on harmonisation and particularly the Courtauld agreement.
Colleagues will all wish to be on the right hon. Lady’s Trivial Pursuit team, I feel sure.
I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Will the Minister congratulate Kettering Borough Council on becoming the best performer in the Association for Public Service Excellence awards for having the best recycling and refuse service in the country, following the introduction of its enhanced blue bin recycling service?
I pay tribute to Kettering, and I invite Kettering please to join us in a taskforce to communicate that best practice to other councils. There is a great deal we can all learn from Kettering.
CAP Delivery Programme
10. What recent assessment she has made of the value for money of the CAP delivery programme. 
The National Audit Office recently completed an early review of the common agricultural policy delivery programme. Despite difficulties, the programme is on course to realise a positive net present value of £197.7 million over the next eight years. The CAP has been the most complex ever, but despite that the core of the system is working. The Rural Payments Agency has already paid over 40% of farmers their basic payment scheme payment for this year and we are on course to pay the vast majority by the end of January.
The National Farmers Union reports that many flood-hit farmers in the north-west have received a double whammy, having been informed by the Rural Payments Agency that they will not receive their payments until February at the earliest. All the Secretary of State could say on Tuesday was that the Government are seeing what they can do. Perhaps the Minister can now outline exactly what they are doing to ensure that those farmers receive payments before Christmas.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are very conscious of the plight of farmers in Cumbria. In respect of those with common land, although we had previously said that we would have difficulty paying them before February owing to the complexity of that system, we have identified the 600 affected farms in Cumbria and we will be prioritising them.
A merry Christmas and a happy new year, Mr Speaker, to you and your staff.
Last week the NFU Scotland confirmed that most farms in Scotland rely on the CAP payments to survive. Without ducking the issue, will the Minister confirm that in the event of Britain leaving the EU, the UK Government will guarantee the same level of payments to farms so that they can survive?
I would simply say that in terms of the current year’s BPS, it is a matter for the Scottish Government to ensure that Scottish farmers get their payments on time. We all have a debate to look forward to about Britain’s membership of the European Union.
I call Mr Alan Brown. Does the hon. Gentleman want to ask a second question? Am I mistaken in that surmise?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I understood that I had only one question.
If Britain votes to leave the European Union, will the UK Government guarantee the same level of CAP payments to Scottish farmers? Will the Minister please answer this time?
The Government’s position is very clear: we want to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union and see some powers come back to the UK. We will put that to the British public in a referendum and they will decide. Should the UK decide to leave the European Union, at that point the Government would obviously set a national agricultural policy.
DEFRA’s mismanagement of the CAP delivery programme saw very senior managers embroiled in childish squabbling. This flagship IT project then spiralled £60 million over budget. It was so useless that farmers were forced to switch back to pen and paper. With the NAO predicting millions in penalties as a result, why did the Minister not intervene to save farmers and taxpayers from this IT disaster?
I simply point out that we did intervene. We acted in March, once we realised there was going to be difficulty, to ensure that all farmers could get their applications in on time on a paper-based system, and we have worked very hard since then to ensure that we enter it on the core of the system, which has worked well.
11. What steps her Department is taking to make the dairy industry more resilient to the volatility of world milk prices. 
We understand the pressures facing dairy farmers and have taken action to ease their cash-flow problems. The £26.2 million aid package we secured from the European Commission will provide some immediate relief. In addition to that short-term support, we are introducing a fairer tax system for farmers, pushing for clearer labelling of British dairy products and developing a futures market for dairy.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but may I press him a little harder on this subject, rather as happened with the Sussex wine? What help is his Department able to offer milk processers so that they can add more value to milk products, enhancing the opportunities to export them around the world?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. DEFRA has previously supported investment in processing, for instance at Davidstow in Cornwall, through the rural development programme. We are investigating the potential to use funds through the European Investment Bank to make loan capital available to invest in new processing capacity.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. 
I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing our sympathies to all those affected by the recent flooding in the north of England. I would like to express our gratitude to the emergency services, the military, the Environment Agency and volunteers who have worked around the clock to protect people and property. Earlier this week I visited Appleby, Threlkeld and Carlisle to meet local residents and farmers and see the recovery efforts for myself. The Government are doing all we can to ensure that every resource is available to help those areas get back on their feet.
I share the Secretary of State’s sentiments with regard to the flooding. British shoppers want to support British dairy farmers, but the current labelling of dairy products is often too complicated to make that a reality. Does my right hon. Friend support the excellent new campaign by the Yorkshire Post for clearer and unambiguous labelling of dairy products so that this Christmas we can all buy British with confidence?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion of Yorkshire farmers, and the Yorkshire Post is running a great campaign. I want to see British labelling on British dairy products right across the country. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Wensleydale Creamery in his constituency, in the newly expanded Yorkshire Dales national park, and I have been eating their Yorkshire yoghurt ever since.
Happy Christmas to you, Mr Speaker.
This week the Paris talks and the devastating floods in the north reminded us of the importance of DEFRA’s climate change adaptation work. Also this week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee raised serious concerns about the impact of further departmental budget cuts. Will the Secretary of State tell us her top three policies for making our country safer and more resilient to climate change?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Climate Change Secretary for the fantastic work she did in achieving the deal in Paris. I work very closely with her to make sure that we are adapting to climate change. Of course, the No. 1 issue on DEFRA’s agenda is making sure that we have the flood defences in place. That is why we have seen a real-terms increase in flood defence spending in this Parliament. We are spending £2.3 billion over six years compared with £1.7 billion in the previous Parliament. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that we were protecting flood maintenance spending as well.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but I did ask for three policies, and it is a shame that she could only talk about one. It is little wonder, though, when her Department’s climate change unit has been slashed from 38 to six and expert advice is routinely ignored. The Select Committee warned this week:
“Successful delivery of vital environmental, agricultural and rural services will not be possible without strong leadership and a sharp focus on priority areas.”
When will we get that leadership and that sharp focus from the Secretary of State?
The key point is that we bake climate change into everything we do across DEFRA. Whether it is our programme to plant 11 million trees, our flood defence programme, which we are increasing in real terms, or our activity to make sure that biodiversity is taken into account for climate change, every single team in DEFRA has that as part of its plans.
T2. Northney ice cream, produced on Hayling Island in my constituency, is popular across the Solent region. Will the Secretary of State continue to promote local and regional British food plans and encourage our catering trade and supermarkets to do the same? 
I am delighted to be visiting Northney in January to taste the ice cream with my hon. Friend. That might seem unseasonal, but I am sure it will be very nice. I am pleased to say that supermarkets are responding to the massive demand for British dairy. Marks and Spencer is moving from 80% to 100% of its cheddar being British, and Tesco has made a commitment that from early next year 100% of its own-brand yogurt will be sourced in Britain.
T3. In 2012, the then Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change stated that in addition to the environmental benefit, the UK Government expected carbon capture and storage expertise and products to be worth £6.5 billion to the UK economy by the end of the next decade. What economic analysis has been made of the effect of abandoning the carbon capture and storage competition? 
This is clearly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. She has a very clear plan to deliver carbon reductions, economic growth and lower bills for bill payers, and she is on track to do that. [Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) should not chunter from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of an answer that he had no right to expect in any case. It is principally a matter for DECC, so he ought to be saying thank you to the Secretary of State for proffering some sort of response. In a seasonal spirit, I am sure that that is what he will now do.
T6. I welcome the Secretary of State’s emphasis on the promotion of British food here and around the world. When I try to buy lactose-free milk, I notice that it all comes from Denmark. Will she ensure that the British dairy industry gets a grip on this and starts to produce lactose-free milk for what is probably the biggest market in Europe? 
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. There are also huge opportunities in producing UHT milk here and overseas, which I know the dairy industry is looking at. In January we will establish the Great British food unit, which brings together UK Trade & Investment expertise and DEFRA expertise so that we have a one-stop shop for businesses that want to export their fantastic products.
T4. The Forster family in Moss Bank in my constituency have farmed in St Helens for 125 years. In recent years they have opened a shop at their farm selling their own produce. What are the Government doing to help farmers like the Forsters to develop small business potential which not only showcases the best local produce but encourages people to buy local and eat local? 
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Through our rural development programme, we are supporting farm businesses that want to diversify and start retailing their own produce.
T8. Trees are a vital and precious feature of our natural environment, nowhere more so than in areas like Cheltenham, where they act as the town’s green lungs. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how many trees the Government plan to plant over the course of this Parliament? 
The Government have committed to planting 11 million more trees over the course of this Parliament. We hope we may even be able to exceed that target. We are particularly proud of a scheme we are developing with the Woodland Trust to plant trees and to educate primary schoolchildren about them.
T5. Given the challenges of adapting to climate change, how will the Department work towards mitigation and emission reductions that match the Paris agreement ambition of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C? 
I am working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Change Secretary to make sure that we hit our carbon budget, including in areas such as agriculture, biodiversity and tree planting.
I am appalled that the Secretary of State has announced today that she is stopping the vaccination in the edge areas, because it is exceptionally important, particularly when the number of cattle slaughtered has increased by 25% in Wales and by 6% in England. I understand the reasons why she has made that announcement, but will she look at DEFRA test SE3289, which is 95.5% sensitive and 98% specific, so that we can identify TB in infected badger setts?
The reality is that there is a global shortage of the BCG vaccine. Clearly, human health is the priority and we need to ensure that humans are protected against TB. Believe me, as soon as that vaccine becomes available, we want to restart vaccination in the edge areas.
T7. In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority found that neonicotinoids posed a “high acute risk” to honey bees. The e-petition against the use of neonicotinoid pesticides has so far gained more than 90,000 signatures, so what representations will the Government make to the European Commission’s review of its control of neonicotinoids? 
We had a comprehensive debate on this issue following that petition last week. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology is doing a comprehensive piece of research fieldwork on the impact of neonicotinoids on bees. We will ensure that that evidence is put to EFSA before it reaches its conclusions on the interim review next summer.
To carry on the Christmas spirit, since the Prime Minister was pictured enjoying a pint of Greene King with President Xi, the export of that fine beer from my constituency of Bury St Edmunds has gone up from 3,000 to 50,000 cases. It and other rural exporting businesses in the constituency are keen to learn what work the Department is doing, with the help of UK Trade & Investment, to help fund and organise trade shows and development visits in order to secure such important trade.
I was in China a few weeks ago, and one of the things we promoted was Greene King in Chongqing. We were accompanied on our visit by the biggest ever delegation of food companies—there were more than 80 companies with us. With the launch of the Great British food unit, which brings together UKTI and DEFRA expertise, I expect us to have even more in the future.
Value for money and efficiency in delivering help is important, but the Government also need to be flexible enough to respond to unforeseen events. Will the Secretary of State look urgently at helping the farmers severely hit by the recent flooding, by making at least partial payments from the basic payment scheme?
I met farmers in Cumbria earlier this week. We are identifying the 600 farmers and making sure that we get the basic payments out to them as soon as possible. We have also put in place a farming recovery fund, to which farmers will be able to apply from tomorrow, to give them the extra funding needed to get their farms back to normal.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Voting for 16 and 17-year-olds
1. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential merits of widening the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. 
The commission has made clear in its briefings on recent legislation that a change to the franchise is a matter for Parliament, and does not take a view on the merits of widening the franchise to 16 or 17-year-olds. During the passage of the European Union Referendum Bill, the commission advised Parliament on the practical implications of any such change, including the activity that would be required to be carried out by electoral registration officers, central Government and the commission itself.
Following the incredible engagement of young people in the Scottish referendum, Scottish National party Members suggested that they should be given the vote in the EU referendum. Although many Conservative Members did not agree with that specific proposal, they expressed support for extending the franchise in the long term. With turnout falling, would not registration and education while young people are still at school increase political engagement in the future?
The hon. Lady brings relevant experience to this issue. This is ultimately a matter for the House to decide—the debate continues to rage—and not one for the Electoral Commission. I have no doubt that we will hear much more about this issue over the next two or three years.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that we should concentrate on increasing turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds before we start on 16 and 17-year-olds?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. As I understand it, less than 40% of 18 to 24-year-olds vote in general elections. It would be very healthy indeed for that number to increase. It is for all of us to inspire the young people in our constituencies to turn out and vote.
Does the hon. Gentleman know of any political party—SNP, Labour or anyone else—that has looked at the damage we do to the protection of children by making them adults at the age of 16? Has there been any thorough research on how damaging that is for our society and for the protection of our children?
I am not aware that the Electoral Commission has carried out any such research. The debate on this important issue will rumble on because there are very strongly opposing views.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Fossil Fuel: Investments
2. What the Church Commissioners’ policy is on investing in fossil fuel companies. 
The Church Commissioners published a comprehensive ethical investment strategy in May 2015. They do not invest in fossil fuel companies that derive more than 10% of their revenues from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from oil sands.
I wonder whether the Church Commissioners might reconsider given the enormous exponential increase in living standards during the past 200 years as a result of our exploitation of fossil fuels. Does my right hon. Friend not think that the Church should sometimes put aside the Greenpeace manuals and look at Matthew 25 and the parable of the talents?
My hon. Friend may not agree with me about the underlying causes of climate change, but I think he has to accept that, with the collapse in the oil price and the volatility of oil as a commodity, it makes eminent good sense for the Church Commissioners to diversify their portfolio, particularly away from the extraction of materials that may be detrimental to the environment.
Dr Huq, we will get to you. Your question is different, but we will reach it.
In people’s minds, fossil fuels are obviously a cornerstone of the Paris accord. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the involvement of faith groups was absolutely vital in getting that agreement? Everyone from the Pope to Christian Aid, and many other organisations, was fundamental in making sure that the moral case for tackling climate change was heard.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The engagement of faith leaders in securing a successful agreement in Paris last weekend was very important. I want to commend the work of the Bishop of Salisbury, who led an initiative in which 200 pilgrims from the Church of England walked 200 miles to Paris to show their commitment to reaching an agreement.
3. If the Church Commissioners will provide guidance to dioceses on ensuring that church property is hedgehog-friendly. 
My hon. Friend has pricked all our consciences with his campaign for the protection of the hedgehog. The Church of England recognises that its churchyards are important not only as places of burial and quiet reflection, but for their characteristic habitats and as refuges for wildlife and plants. The conservation movement Caring for God’s Acre recognises the hedgehog as a flagship species in need of protection.
The Church of England is one of the largest landowners in the country, so do the dioceses across the country have ecology strategies for the protection of animals and wildlife throughout their churchyards?
The dioceses give proper weight to the conservation of natural heritage. I refer my hon. Friend to the ChurchCare website, which provides guidance on managing churchyards for wildlife, including by carrying out surveys and managing grassland. The aforementioned initiative, Caring for God’s Acre, encourages all of us as MPs to talk to our local churches about leaving some sections of their churchyards in a state that is conducive to the protection of species that are endangered, such as the hedgehog.
4. What support the Church is providing to people in Syria. 
I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, which focuses on providing support for people in Syria. International aid agencies, many of which are Christian in origin, always stress that it is important to provide for refugees in situ, so that they can subsequently help with the rebuilding of their country. The Church is working with the Department for International Development to get the aid committed by the UK Government to those in need and is assisting those who remain in the camps with clothing, health and hygiene kits, shelter and education.
York Minster is playing a pivotal role in welcoming refugees to our city. However, Christians in Syria remain at risk and many do not feel safe to go to the UNHCR camps. What steps is the Church taking to ensure that Syrian Christians and other minority groups can find a place of sanctuary?
That excellent point was raised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he pointed out that the percentage of Christians in the camps is below the percentage of Christians in the population of Syria before the start of the conflict. Through the ecumenical networks, we are trying to help the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees to reach Syrian Christians who may be fearful of presenting themselves in the camps.
I am sure that many hon. Members have received generous offers of accommodation for Syrian refugees. Many of those have come from members of church groups, which are able to offer the support structures that are so necessary to look after refugees when they come to this country. Has my right hon. Friend had any conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, because all the offers of accommodation are currently going through local authorities and churches have a real role to play?
I spoke to the Minister as recently as this week, because the Church has made a number of offers of accommodation. The Christian charity, Home for Good, has 8,000 families who are willing to offer accommodation to an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. He reassured me that he is speaking to faith groups and that 50 local authorities across the length and breadth of the land are taking the offers from the Church very seriously indeed.
While it is important that we look after the people in Syria, it is also important that we look after the Syrian refugees. Just this week, Northern Ireland has taken in its first Syrian refugees, who have arrived in Belfast and Londonderry. Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner outline the ways in which the commissioners can assist Northern Ireland to settle these first Syrian refugees?
It is true that the first Syrian refugees are coming to our country. I believe that the Prime Minister said yesterday that 1,000 will have arrived before the end of the year. There are many ways in which churches can help. The Under-Secretary of State for Refugees has asked the Church for volunteers to help with learning English and with welcoming the refugees. Many dioceses are preparing themselves to make the refugees feel welcome in our midst.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
5. What guidance the Electoral Commission issues on the handling of completed and sealed postal votes by political activists. 
The Electoral Commission has developed a code of conduct for campaigners, which makes it clear that:
“Campaigners should never handle or take any completed ballot paper or postal ballot packs from voters.”
The code of conduct is non-statutory, but it applies to all campaigners at elections and referendums in Great Britain.
I declare an interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. Kettering was one of the first authorities in the country to get all local activists to sign up to the code of conduct, which I am pleased to see the Electoral Commission has adopted. Will the Electoral Commission apply the code of conduct to by-elections, because in the recent by-election there were disturbing reports that activists were handling other people’s postal votes?
Where Kettering leads, other parts of the country will surely follow. My hon. Friend is right to say that this matter is now embraced in the national code produced by the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission spoke to members of UKIP recently and, as I understand it, they have still made no formal complaint. Perhaps a lesson for all of us is that if we make allegations, we should back them up and refer matters to the police.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Electoral Commission is of the view that electoral fraud cases are few and far between?
That is certainly the case, and we are fortunate in this country that there are very few cases of electoral fraud. Of course there are allegations, and the police now have special officers to investigate them, but mercifully at the moment, electoral fraud does not trouble us greatly.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
6. What support the Church of England and the diocese in Europe are providing for Syrian migrants in Europe. 
Within the diocese of Europe, the Anglican chaplaincy of Athens and the chaplaincy to Southern Italy are supporting migrants and refugees by providing spiritual and psychological support, clothing and healthcare. Local churches across the diocese of Europe are also acting as a messaging service to try to bring families back together if they have been disunited.
I am grateful for that answer. Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), many churches and other local groups have contacted me in my constituency and the wider county of Dorset, offering help with accommodation. Will my right hon. Friend set out how those offers can be logged, assessed and, where appropriate, taken up?
That is an important point that the Minister responsible will want the House to take on board. We need social landlords who are willing to offer accommodation to refugees, so that if possible we do not add to housing waiting lists and cause cohesion issues in our society. Within the Church of England we are looking for Christian social landlords who will provide accommodation for refugees which the Government will pay for.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Voter Registration Rates
7. What recent steps the Electoral Commission has taken to improve voter registration rates. 
The Electoral Commission provided guidance and resources, and set performance standards for electoral registration officers to improve registration in their local area during the recent autumn canvass. The commission also ran a major public awareness campaign ahead of the May 2015 polls. The campaign resulted in more than 1.5 million additions to the register, which was more than three times the amount achieved during a similar period before the 2010 general election.
Against the explicit advice of the Electoral Commission, the Government rushed through by a year the individual electoral registration on which the new boundaries will be based. HOPE not hate predicted that 1.9 million people will fall off the register. The hon. Gentleman has said that there has been an increase in registration, but I would like to know the net figures. It is predicted that those who will fall off the register will typically be the young, those in houses of multiple occupation, and students. What was the net result at the end of all this? It sounds like a cynical attempt to make my electors disappear.
The decision that the hon. Lady mentions was a matter for the Government and was taken, as she rightly says, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. I will have to write to her about net impact of that decision. The reality is that we must all do whatever we can to encourage our local electoral registration officers to contact as many people as possible, particularly in groups that are hard to reach. I am sure that the public awareness campaign in early 2016 will have great success, as it did in 2015.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
National Insurance Contributions (Rate Ceilings) Act 2015
European Union Referendum Act 2015
European Union (Approvals) Act 2015.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week, and preferably the recess dates for next year as well?
The business for next week will be nothing at all, because I hope that everybody will be enjoying a good festive break. The business for the House in the week commencing 4 January 2016 is as follows:
Monday 4 January—The House will not be sitting.
Tuesday 5 January—Remaining stages of the Housing and Planning Bill (day 1). I remind colleagues that this day will have a Monday timetable and will start at 2.30 pm, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also expects to make a statement to the House.
Wednesday 6 January—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 7 January—Debate on a motion relating to the effect of the equalisation of the state pension age on women, followed by a debate on a motion relating to children in care. The subjects for those debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 8 January—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 11 January will include:
Monday 11 January—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
I inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Thursday 7 January and Monday 11 January will be :
Thursday 7 January—General debate on the armed forces covenant annual report.
Monday 11 January—Debate on an e-petition relating to the NHS bursary.
Colleagues will wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Easter recess at the close of business on Thursday 24 March 2016 and will return on Monday 11 April 2016.
My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has a particularly festive air today in aid of charity—I commend her for her work in support of charity. In this festive week, I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to wish you, her, the shadow team and all Members of the House a very happy Christmas. I wish those from north of the border a very happy Hogmanay as well.
I am sure the House will join me in recognising the important work that goes on to support the House throughout the year. I thank all the staff working throughout the Palace of Westminster and wish them a restful Christmas and a happy new year. There are always staff on duty in part of the Palace, and I particularly want to wish those who have to work over the Christmas period a pleasant break when they have one, and to express our gratitude to them for the work they do over the festive period.
Despite the caterwauling yesterday from the Leader of the House—he seemed to suggest that I would make lame, laboured jokes about “Star Wars” today, as the Prime Minister did yesterday—I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that I have a complete UK exemption from “Star Wars” related humour. I have some perfectly good lame, laboured jokes of my own without resorting to that.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the panto season is upon us—[Hon. Members: “Oh no it isn’t!”] Oh yes it is. “Cinderella” is on at the Park & Dare in Treorchy. Apparently, auditions were last month, so unfortunately the Rhondda will have to do without my Prince Charming this year. However, I see that the Epsom Playhouse in the constituency of the Leader of the House has “Beauty and the Beast” on at the moment. There is a rumour going around that the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House will appear in that production on select nights. The only question is which parts they will play. I am pretty certain that the Deputy Leader of the House will be playing Mrs Potts—she would obviously be Mrs Coffey Potts. That is the worst laboured joke today. [Interruption.] It may not be actually.
As for the Leader of the House, he is no beast, but I hear that there was a mystery bidder earlier this week at the sale of Mrs Thatcher’s frocks. There is a rumour that he will be seen waltzing across the stage in that black printed chiffon number as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” this week.
May we have a debate on food waste? Last year, 1.2 million sausages were sent to landfill in Rhondda Cynon Taff alone, which is why it is great that the local council is signing everybody up to proper food recycling. New figures show that, last year, the House wasted 45,000 meals—they were just tipped in the bin. With 33 Trussell Trust food banks within the M25 and an estimated 70,000 children in London going to bed hungry each night, is it not time for the Leader of the House to institute a new scheme to donate unused food from this Palace to local London food banks?
The Leader of the House announced that the Prime Minister will make a statement on the first day back in the new year. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the statement is on the Prime Minister’s renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU and how that is going? I ask because I gather that his EU counterparts are now so heartily sick of his endless whining that he is finally going to be allowed to speak tonight for a couple of minutes during dinner—while the waiters are clearing away the plates, somewhere between the boeuf en croute and the tarte tatin. He is becoming rather like one of those really irritating relatives who pops round for tea every now and again, casually asks if he can doss down on the sofa for a couple of days, drinks all your whisky while telling you where you’ve gone wrong in life and then, when you finally summon up the courage to ask him to leave, says, “Do you mind if I redecorate the bathroom?”
I ask because there seems something utterly illogical about the whole renegotiation process. The Prime Minister seems to think that EU citizens in Poland and Romania sit around trying to work out which is the most generous benefit system in Europe before they decide where to go to live and work. Is that really what Conservative Members think people do? Do they think that this is the kind of conversation they have? “Hey Bogdan, which do you think is better, the UK’s employment and support allowance or Denmark’s flexicurity?” “Well, Pavel, I’m not so sure, but I certainly prefer the Scandinavian model to the Rhine capitalism system of contributory benefits.” Honestly, all of this is a complete nonsense!
You’re right: it is a complete nonsense.
And he’s Cleverly enough to know it. Every single one of us knows it. EU citizens come here because we speak English, because there are jobs and because this is a great country. The Government are trying to undermine every single element of that, but even the Work and Pensions Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary have told the Prime Minister his proposal will make absolutely no difference to net migration figures. He is barking up the wrong tree.
So why do we not just get on with the referendum now? It is a simple question: in or out? Remain or leave. As Sir John Major said, flirting with an exit would be dangerous for this country. It is one thing to choose to leave—honourable, but in my mind foolish—but it would be quite another to end up leaving by accident. That would be incompetent and dishonourable.
I am absolutely delighted that the Leader of the House has given us the dates for the Easter recess, but could he extend a little bit to the Whitsun recess? I will give him the date of Whitsun: 15 May. Why can he not give us the recess dates for the whole of next year?
As Boxing day approaches, can I just ask for an assurance from the Leader of the House that the draft Hunting Act 2004 (Exempt Hunting) (Amendment) Order 2015, which was withdrawn earlier this year, is not back on the horizon? It is rumoured to be so in the press. Surely, if the Government want to bring back hunting they should be open and honest about it and not try to sneak it back in through the back door. Let us have primary legislation, not secondary legislation.
With the new year coming up, may I suggest the Leader of the House makes a single resolution? Will he please repeat after me? “I will always…” Come on. “I will always…” Oh dear. “I will always guarantee that all major announcements of Government policy are made to this House first and not leaked to the press. And if that guarantee is breached, I will resign immediately.” I thought the Prime Minister treated the House, and you Mr Speaker, with utter contempt last week when, after you said in this House that any announcement on the decision, the process of the decision, or even the process of the non-decision regarding Heathrow, Gatwick and airport capacity should be made in this House, the Prime Minister, that very afternoon, went out and made statements on the television. That was a gross discourtesy to this House and the Leader of the House knows it perfectly well. He should have excoriated the Prime Minister for that and he should do so every time he tries to do it again.
There are 36 written ministerial statements on the Order Paper today, conveniently on the very last day so as to avoid scrutiny. One of them is on a particularly serious matter, the Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, where the deaths of 1,000 people with disabilities and mental health problems were not properly investigated. The written statement will be made available only late in the day today, long after hon. Members will be able to quiz the Government about it. Again, that is a gross discourtesy to this House.
It is Christmas time—well, Advent—but Christmas is not as snug as it might seem in the adverts or carols. Jerusalem does not lie still. Not the hopes but the fears of all the years are met in her tonight and every night. Age UK points out that more than 1 million old people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member over Christmas. Many people will overeat, but thousands of families will have to choose between heating and eating. The real Christmas story is about an unfair tax, a brutal dictator slaughtering innocents, a young unmarried woman giving birth in a stable and a family harshly forced into exile. All these things have been repeated in Syria in the last week alone, yet Christians dare to believe that in that story lies hope for the world. So I wish you, Mr Speaker, a merry, harmonious and hope-filled Christmas, and through you, to the Clerks, the Doorkeepers, the police, the catering staff, the cleaners and all who work with, in and for Parliament, and to our armed forces, our security services and all those who keep a watchful eye while we are merry, I say, in the words of your favourite Dickensian character, Tiny Tim, God bless us one and all.
I didn’t think he was going to finish!
I would like to update the House on progress made around the provision of security for Members. You know, Mr Speaker, that this has been a matter of considerable concern to Members in recent weeks, and I have been working along with the Chairman of Ways and Means to identify a way forward for Members. I am pleased to inform the House that the security measures available to all Members are to be standardised in a security package. The package will address MPs’ personal security offsite, including at constituency offices and homes, and will include consideration of staff safety.
Is this a statement?
This has been raised as a concern by many Members, and it is important for us to recognise those concerns.
Many colleagues will already have adequate security arrangements, but the standardised package will provide a consistent approach and accelerate the procurement of security items. The Chairman of Ways and Means, as Chair of the Consultative Panel on Parliamentary Security, will write to colleagues today, and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be in touch with Members in the new year with details of how to access the package. I hope this will serve to allay Members’ concerns and create a system that is fair, appropriate and flexible.
This has been an eventful year. The Conservatives won the general election. Labour lost the general election. The Liberal Democrats shrank in number and I think have put on invisibility cloaks since then. There has been a slight change in the numbers on the Scottish National Benches. Then, of course, we all came back to Westminster, and you will remember, Mr Speaker, those happy early-morning sprints, as the Labour left and the SNP rushed for the best seats. But of course they do not need to do that any more, because the Labour left has moved from those seats to the Front Bench and the leadership of the Labour party. We will see in the new year whether the shadow Leader of the House, who has a proud record on these things, decides to do anything about it.
The shadow Leader of the House asked about food waste. Some 1.4 million sausages were sent to landfill in his constituency alone, so if he is talking about food waste and the need to provide extra resources for food banks, I suggest he considers starting slightly closer to home. I think the produce of Welsh farmers is first rate. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to send it to food banks at all, so perhaps he should start closer to home.
I said that the Prime Minister would be here to make a statement, and he will of course address EU issues, but it is also important that Members get to question him about, for example, progress on the Syrian peace talks, which he will be able to update people on after Christmas as well. Of course, he will answer questions about Europe, but he will also be available to address other issues, if necessary.
The shadow Leader of the House talked about jobs. At the end of the year, one of the things the Conservative party can be proudest of is the unemployment figures we saw yesterday. When I was employment Minister, more than 1.5 million people were claiming unemployment benefit and jobseeker’s allowance. That number has almost halved in the past four years. More and more people are in work and finding opportunities in this country. The legacy of unemployment we inherited from Labour has been well and truly turned around, and when it comes to Europe, I will take no lessons from the man who, a decade ago, expressed deep distress that Britain was not joining the euro.
The hon. Gentleman talked about leave dates, and I am glad to be able to announce the recess dates. Further recess dates will, of course, be subject to the progress of business, because we as a party believe that it is more important to ensure that the essential business on the basis of which we were elected last May gets through Parliament and can be enacted to make a difference to this country.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned hunting. Let me say yet again—we get this every week—that he must stop believing everything he reads in the papers. When and if this Government have a new measure, we will announce it. He talks about written ministerial statements. I have stood in this Chamber over the last few weeks and received numerous requests for updates before Christmas. I thus make no apology for the fact that today we are providing the House with plenty of updates before Christmas.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman made a serious point about lonely people this Christmas, which was also made by one of my hon. Friends last week. I hope everyone in this country will think, “Do I have a lonely person next door who I can invite round for a drink over Christmas and bring a bit of light into what would otherwise be a lonely life?” I hope everyone in this country has a very happy and joyful family Christmas.
In the absence of the Christmas Adjournment debate, which would have allowed colleagues to raise urgent matters, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on c2c timetable changes, which have unfortunately transformed what used to be the happy line back into the misery line once again?
On the Adjournment debate, I see in his place the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, and I would simply say to my hon. Friend that what has happened is quite clearly the will of the House. I understand the situation this time round, but it is the clear will of the House that we should return for at least part of the last sitting day to the traditional format. A number of Members have made representations to me about it, and I hope that we will return to it next time round. It is, of course, a loss that we will not hear the characteristically eloquent contribution from my hon. Friend. He made his point about c2c very well, and I am pretty sure that, with him on the case, if the happy line has turned into the misery line, it will soon be back to being the happy line again.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next year’s business, and I would like to wish you and your staff, Mr Speaker, all the best for a peaceful and merry Christmas. I extend my good wishes to the Deputy Leader of the House, who I hope has a very enjoyable time. I know that my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party would like to wish all members of staff a merry and peaceful Christmas. We all signed early-day motion 895.
[That this House respects the unrivalled professionalism, skill and commitment of all support staff employed on the House of Commons estate; acknowledges that all hon. Members receive invaluable help from the entire workforce, from doorkeepers and police officers to the library team and postal service, from catering staff to staff of the Department of Chamber and Committee Services; thanks them in particular for the generous support and warmth shown to newly-elected hon. Members in 2015; and wishes each of them a restful and peaceful Christmas and the best of everything in 2016.]
We wanted to congratulate the staff on all the work they have done to make sure that new Members here are accommodated and looked after. A merry Christmas once again to all the staff.
I am quite surprised to see so many of my hon. Friends in their places here today, because last night it was the SNP’s Christmas party. There were fine renditions of “500 Miles” and “Loch Lomond”, so I am indeed impressed to see so many of SNP colleagues at business questions today. In Perth concert hall, “Beauty and the Beast” is our annual pantomime. Looking at the Labour Benches, however, I thought “Sleeping Beauty” might have been more appropriate for them. I always like a good pantomime horse, so what about a pantomime stalking-horse from Labour colleagues as they go forward into next year?
There is growing concern in Scotland about what is happening in the debate over Europe, with UK opinion polls now showing a majority of people throughout the United Kingdom favouring a Brexit and leaving the European Union. Yet we see the Prime Minister flirting with our exit, as John Major has said, trying to renegotiate our membership terms with European leaders who could not care less. He is appearing there like Chewbacca without the fur, trying to renegotiate our membership of the European Union to European leaders who could not care less and want to see the back of him.
All recent opinion polls show that the Scottish people remain determined to stay within Europe, yet there is a real growing fear that our nation might be taken out of Europe against our will. That is totally unacceptable to us, and it would be the first time ever that a nation in Europe had been taken out of Europe against its will. During the referendum, we were told that a no vote would secure our place in Europe, and that if we dared to vote yes, it would see us dragged out. So I offer the Leader of the House a solution. I am asking for a debate on a quadruple lock. If we are indeed a family of nations within the United Kingdom, one nation of this Union cannot determine the membership rights of every other nation within the UK. We have an opportunity to resolve this to make sure that no nation is taken out of Europe against its will. I ask the Leader of House to agree to that debate next year.
Yesterday’s events on fracking were simply appalling. There is an apt and appropriate Scots word for it— “sleekit”. It was a sleekit debate—there was no debate at all but a vote on fracking to desecrate the national parks of this country with the frackers. Thank goodness we have the necessary powers to ensure that our country will not be desecrated by the Tories’ fracker friends—and that is a very difficult thing to say after a good night out, Mr Speaker.
We are going into the new year and there is still no agreement about the fiscal framework, the engine that will allow the fiscal arrangements in the Scotland Bill to operate and progress properly. We need that agreement, and we need to know how the Government are approaching the matter. I assume that the Leader of the House will not consent to any sort of debate about it, but will he ensure that Treasury Ministers agree to appear before the Scottish Affairs Committee as we look into the whole issue of the fiscal framework? All that he needs to do is go to the Treasury and ensure that the necessary Ministers appear, so that we can put our points to them.
This has been some year, Mr Speaker. The real news of the year has been the emergence of my hon. Friends in the Scottish National party, which won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland. We now have just one Conservative Member of Parliament, who barely won his seat. Let me say to you, Mr Speaker, that what you will have here is a determined, united opposition—the real opposition to the Tories. The Tories will get away with nothing for as long as SNP Members are sitting here providing that real opposition. We can no longer rely on this disunited, dispirited, forlorn Labour party; it is the Members on these Benches who will provide the opposition.
The hon. Gentleman is in his characteristically flamboyant form. Whether that is because he had an abstemious night or because he has been tasting quite a lot of single malts I do not know, but I wish him and all his colleagues a very happy festive period, and I hope that they will have a relaxing and enjoyable time.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that our nation will not be taken out of Europe against its will. His nation and my nation are the same thing. Let me remind him that if he had had his way—and he did not, because the Scottish people voted to remain part of the United Kingdom—the Scottish Government would now be at the doors of Westminster with a begging bowl, because the collapse in the oil price would have shot their financial plans to pieces. I think that the Scottish people made an eminently sensible decision, and one that has proved remarkably prescient. Let me say again that our nation will decide our future in the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman said that fracking would desecrate some of our finest areas. That is nonsense. Fracking is a technology that has existed in the oil and gas industry for years. It has been used in oil exploration in the south-east of England, in some very attractive parts of the country, and people did not notice it for decades. I do not believe—and nor is it the Government’s intention—that taking advantage of shale gas, which is an important resource for the future, will in any way desecrate the finest areas in the country.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether a Treasury Minister would appear before the Scottish Affairs Committee. Questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland will take place during the first week after the Christmas recess, and he will be able to ask questions then. However, as the Chair of the Committee, he will know that if a Minister is asked to appear before a Select Committee, it would be almost unprecedented for the Minister to say no, so I suggest that he simply extend the invitation.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Scottish politics. It is true that the Scottish National party had a very good year, but it is also true that the Conservative party came within a whisker of being the second party at Westminster in Scotland. Our goal is to be the second party of Scotland at Holyrood next year, and I wish all my Conservative colleagues well for the campaigns that they will be fighting in the coming months.
Unlike the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Gentleman dropped a “Star Wars” joke into his speech. I must say to him that, although I have yet to see its members in action, MP4 strikes me as being a class above that famous band in the bar in the movie. However, I was a little disappointed that the shadow Leader of the House did not want to tell any “Star Wars” jokes, because during the last few days a number of people have described him to me—very unfairly, in my view—as the Jar Jar Binks of the Labour party.
Season’s greetings to everyone.
International Women’s Day will be on 8 March 2016, and the theme will be “make it happen”. Will the Leader of the House offer us a chance to focus on opportunities to secure more female representation in the House of Commons—and, of course, all the other Parliaments around the world—on that day, and perhaps allow a debate on the subject shortly beforehand, or even on the day itself?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and getting a much better gender balance in this House has been, should be, and will continue to be a priority. I am delighted to see a really good intake of new women Members of Parliament on both sides of the House. The House is a better place for it, and long may that continue.
On the question of International Women’s Day, there was of course a debate on International Men’s Day and I think it would be entirely appropriate if there was one on International Women’s Day. The man who will help in taking the decision on that is of course sitting opposite, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), and will be noting this. The most interesting debate might be one between my hon. Friends the Members for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) and for Shipley (Philip Davies)—a combined debate, perhaps.
On behalf of the Backbench Business Committee and its staff, may I wish everyone in the House a merry Christmas and a happy and healthy 2016?
I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for advance notice that we are to be allocated some time on Monday 11 January following consideration of the remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill. Will that be protected time, as was the case a number of Mondays ago for a Backbench Business Committee debate? We were given three hours’ protected time then, and that would be useful again just in case consideration of the remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill overruns.
May I also apologise to the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess)? The Backbench Business Committee made a decision about the allocation of time for today in good faith, based on the information provided to us at the time. I have to say to the Leader of the House that I have not been inundated with complaints from other Members about the decision we have made. I was aware of the concern of the hon. Gentleman and my colleague from Leicester, Valerie Vaz, but there are two important debates this afternoon that have a lot of support and it was on that basis that the Backbench Business Committee took this decision.
I am aware of the issue of protected time for the Backbench Business Committee and I will give consideration to it, but judging by the speed at which the Armed Forces Bill has made progress so far, there is, I think, consensus on both sides of the House about it, so the likelihood is that on that day the Backbench Business Committee will end up with more time, rather than less, for its debates. I will continue to review the issue, however.
May I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work he is doing? The Backbench Business Committee works well. It has provided an interesting range of topics for debate. It is not for Government to interfere, but my one request to it would be that there have always been a number of points in the calendar for debating how we deal with veterans and the armed forces, and I hope the Committee will always look to maintain that as part of its calendar.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I do not wish to be pedantic, but I would just add that I think the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee had the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) in mind; it is in fact her little brother who represents Leicester East.
The directors general of both the Royal Armouries Museum and the National Army Museum have warned that significant damage will be done to their collections of firearms, leading to the near destruction of thousands of historic guns, if the proposed changes to the EU firearms directive go ahead. May we have a statement from the Government on what they are doing to stop this happening?
We will have questions to the Foreign Secretary shortly after our return in January, but it is important, whether in this place or in Brussels, that new legislation is thought through carefully and any possible unintended consequences are planned for in advance, and dealt with and addressed. My hon. Friend has identified an issue. We understand the policy and, of course, we want dangerous firearms to be removed from Europe, but that should not be at the expense of museums. I am sure the Foreign Secretary will take careful note of what he says.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I call Valerie Vaz. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is not seeking to catch my eye at this time. My mistake; I apologise. She is firmly rooted in her seat.
On 6 December, my constituent, Kabba Kamara, was tragically stabbed to death while on a night out with friends and family in central London. He was a valued member of the community, the father of a three-year-old boy and a carer of his elderly grandmother. He was warm, intelligent and kind. A few weeks ago, I told the House about two other constituents who had lost their lives to youth violence and I asked the Leader of the House if we could have a debate on the matter. He dodged the question and gave no answer. Today, I ask him this again. Will he honour Kabba Kamara by allowing us time to debate serious youth violence?
Let us be clear that any knife crime is tragic. As Secretary of State for Justice, I legislated in the last Parliament—together with the former Member for Enfield North, Nick de Bois—significantly to increase and extend the penalties for carrying a knife and to create a presumption of a mandatory jail sentence for anyone caught carrying a knife for a second time, for which, to my mind, there is little excuse. I will give careful consideration to what time can be made available for such a debate, but a lot of the time that is provided in the House is now in the hands of the Backbench Business Committee, and I encourage the hon. Lady also to talk to the Committee about this.
Given that the Lord Chancellor has announced that he is undertaking a sentencing review, does the Leader of the House think it would be sensible to find time for a general debate on sentencing, so that the Lord Chancellor can get a sense of the wishes of the House before he introduces any legislation?
There is certainly a logic in Members having a chance to express their views as the Lord Chancellor prepares his review, and I will talk to him about how that might best be made possible.
Yesterday, the National Audit Office published its report on the future of acute hospitals, which showed that 181 of the 240 acute hospital trusts have been in deficit since six months into this financial year. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor unveiled extra money for NHS England, but we now know that this is likely to be swallowed up by those deficits. Given that sleight of hand by the Chancellor, will the Leader of the House ensure that either the Chancellor or the Secretary of State for Health comes to the House to explain how the Government are going to ensure that our hospitals do not close?
The reason that health service finances are under pressure is that the health service is doing more today than it has ever done before. It is treating more patients, employing more people and providing more treatment options. It is right and proper that we as a Government should continue to try to do everything we can, which is why we have provided more money for the national health service and will continue to do so. The Health Secretary will be here to answer questions on the day we return, and the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to raise her concerns again then. We take these issues very seriously, but it is because the NHS is doing more that it is facing pressures.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in the new year to discuss the cherished relationship between the United Kingdom and the other 15 realms of which Her Majesty the Queen is Head of State? Does he share my concern that the Government of Barbados are intending to declare the country a republic without even giving the people of Barbados the right to have a referendum and make their own choice?
My hon. Friend makes his point with customary eloquence. I would always hope and expect that constitutional change in a Commonwealth country would involve giving its people the opportunity to express a view. I commend my hon. Friend on the work that he does on Commonwealth matters. We derive enormous strength from our ties with the Commonwealth, which provide a real opportunity not only for cultural exchange but for economic development and working together.
May we have a debate on the UK Border Agency in the new year? This affects one of my constituents in particular, community councillor Michael Affonso. He has lived in the UK for 31 years and is married to a British national, but he is still struggling to achieve permanent residency and the Home Office seems reluctant to engage with his case. Also, Mr Speaker, from west Wales, may I wish you and everyone else nadolig llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda?
We will see whether the Speaker can respond in kind. I don’t think I would be able to! The hon. Gentleman is clearly pursuing his constituency case assiduously. It is difficult for me in this position to comment on the specifics, but I will make sure that his concerns are passed on to the Home Secretary.
Earlier this week, the European Commission imposed on fishermen in the south-west a draconian and premature ban on the catching of sea bass. May we have either a policy statement, as used to happen when a fisheries Minister came back from Europe, or a debate in the new year to examine the implications of the Fisheries Council decision on the UK fishing industry? For years we used to have debates after the event and we used to have a statement from the fisheries Minister in the Chamber so that he could be questioned. Could we please have that?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will discuss this with the fisheries Minister and make sure that her concerns are raised. We have a difficult balance to find; we have a duty to try to ensure that we protect fish stocks, but I do understand the implications of change for communities such as hers. I will make sure that the fisheries Minister gets in touch with her and address her concerns as soon as possible.
The Leader of the House might know that not only is Christmas known for over-indulgence in many ways, but it is also a time when many of our constituents get out to have a wonderful walk over the holiday, often on Boxing day. He will know that many Members believe that children learn best outside the classroom, so may we have an early debate when we get back on the value of out-of-school learning? Will he and other Members join those Members of Parliament who have raised £5,000 in their constituencies to make sure that 10 schools get out into the countryside? If that involves a partnership with the John Clare Trust, we would be happy to help.
I would be delighted to find out a bit more about what the hon. Gentleman is doing. I absolutely agree with him about the need to get all of us, our families and our constituents out exercising and taking advantage of some of our beautiful countryside over the coming weeks. That is a necessity after a good Christmas dinner, and he makes an important point. What is also important is something I sought to change in the last Parliament: the unnecessary health and safety rules that put schools off taking young people out on visits. Those need to be eased, so that there is a balance between appropriate safeguards and common sense.
First, may I extend my best wishes to everybody for Christmas, particularly the team behind the Select Committee on Education? With Christmas in mind, can we spare a thought for the turkey as it is prepared for the oven and completely stuffed? Does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate on the consequences of leaving the European Union after a referendum?
That was an interesting segue. Many turkeys will be gracing our tables at Christmas time, possibly with pigs in blankets, except in the Rhondda, where the sausages are all thrown away. The consequences of leaving the European Union will be debated and discussed in the coming months, strong views will be articulated on both sides and then the people of this country will decide.
The Leader of the House will be aware that one of our most eminent conservationists, Chris Patten, talked earlier this week of the 75% decline in butterfly species, saying that it was a final warning to the UK. May we have a debate on the decline in species in this country and the need to take urgent action to meet our Aichi targets?
I ought to declare a particular interest in this subject, as not only is the grayling a species of fish, but it is a species of brown butterfly. Like the hon. Gentleman, I would not wish butterflies to disappear from our country, and I share the concerns that he has raised. It is important that in this country we have a balanced policy that ensures that we protect our countryside and protect habitats, as well as providing space for agriculture. The points he makes are well made and I will make sure that they are communicated to the relevant Secretary of State, whom I am sure shares the views that he and I both do.
As co-chair of the all-party group on mountaineering, which we think is the apex of all-party groups, I welcome the sports strategy presented by the Government today, which goes beyond traditional sport to put further focus on outdoor recreations, such as walking, cycling and mountain sports. Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a further debate to highlight the benefits of outdoor recreation, in terms of physical health, mental wellbeing and benefits to the rural economy?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Government’s sports strategy sets an appropriate path for the future. Engaging younger children in sport is very important. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for the work that she has done in assembling the sports strategy. I also wish her all the very best for the next few weeks. As we all know, she is expecting her first child in the new year. We wish her a successful birth and a happy time with her newly born child.
I extend my good wishes and hope that you, Mr Speaker, all the Deputy Speakers, everyone who works in the House and all MPs have a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
During the Smith commission process, the Scottish Government argued in favour of devolving employment law, including trade union legislation. That was blocked by both the Government and the Labour party. Given that one of the two has had an epiphany and now wishes for the Scottish Parliament to have power over trade union legislation, may we have a debate on further devolution beyond the Scotland Bill?
May I simply remind the hon. Lady that there were extensive negotiations and discussions around the Smith commission? Lord Smith himself has said that we fulfilled the terms of the Smith commission. To be honest, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Administration would do well to concentrate on using the powers that we are giving them rather than asking for more. So far, there is little evidence that, when we give them powers, they make use of them.
May we have a debate in Government time on the airport commission’s report, particularly in the light of the shambolic performance last week with the non-decision and the manner of its non-announcement to this House, to discuss the unanimous conclusions of the five commissioners that Heathrow was the right site for a new runway? Can the terms of that debate be set widely enough to include consideration of the extraordinary proposition from Gatwick that it can put five times as many passengers up the Brighton main line, particularly in the light of Southern Rail’s performance in the past week?
Let me repeat a tweet from my constituent Jonathan Freeman, managing director of a Prince of Wales charity, who was travelling to work. He wrote:
“Really @SouthernRailUK?!Again?!Are you on some sort of sponsored screw up?”
We realise how desperate the situation is, when he says:
“CrispinBluntMP-you are our only hope!”
The situation was clearly deeply wretched. I think we are in danger of getting into the detail of the policy. As reference was made earlier to the fact that there was no statement on the day in question—on the Thursday—I should just say that it was a very regrettable state of affairs. The Secretary of State did deliver a statement on the Monday, and there can be no doubt that a Minister was going to have to appear at that Dispatch Box either to deliver a statement or to respond to an urgent question, as the Leader of the House knows. In future, rather than delivering the statement belatedly when it was going to have to be delivered, it should be delivered on time, as courtesy to the House of Commons requires.
Mr Speaker, you know that I always endeavour to ensure that announcements are made to the House. No public statements have been made by the Government about the Strathclyde review, which has now been published, and which is the subject of a statement in the Lords. There will also be a statement on it in this House, which I will deliver shortly. However, I must make the point that the Government have to deal with market sensitive information. None the less, I have noted the comments.
The phrase, “Our only hope is Crispin Blunt” is one that I have never heard before in this House. How often it is heard in future I await with interest to see. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the Brighton main line. At a time when there is discussion about reopening the line from the south coast to London via Uckfield, the truth is that the Brighton main line is already heavily congested, and those who have constituencies in and around the area will need to be persuaded about that aspiration substantially to increase the number of passengers on it.
To pick up on the previous question, the service that has been provided by Southern trains with Network Rail to hundreds of thousands of commuters in my constituency in London and the south-east has been an appalling joke—an absolute joke. Southern has admitted that it does not even have enough drivers or enough decent trains, which are basic requirements to provide a service. Will the Leader of the House get the Transport Secretary here to give a statement or at least to write to both the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and me explaining what he is going to do to get those companies to sort their act out? They have broken promise after promise. Enough is enough.
I understand the pressures on the line that passes through the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Those are affected by the massive investment taking place at London Bridge, which will create a much better infrastructure for the future, as well as the completion of the Thameslink service on what is now the integrated franchise. I take note of the comments of the hon. Gentleman and of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and I will make sure that the Transport Secretary is aware of them. However, in defence of at least part of the Southern service, at present on the line via Epsom the service seems to be working reasonably well.
My constituents value the right to compensation for certain flight delays of more than three hours. Unfortunately, there is one airline in particular that does not seem to abide by this—Etihad Airways, which has denied my constituent, Mr Hill, compensation for an extremely long delay caused by a connecting flight. Both flights were on Etihad Airways. May we have a debate about airlines fulfilling their obligations under European regulation EC261?
That is a legal requirement and any airline that fails to fulfil its duty under the law is subject to legal action. Although it would not be appropriate for us in this House to offer legal advice in such a situation, there are channels, such as the small claims court, available to somebody who wishes to pursue a legal claim against any organisation.
BT’s handling of broadband infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired, and businesses in my constituency constantly complain about the service they receive. Even my constituency office has a problem. We still have no broadband and no phone connection nine weeks after moving into a brand-new building. Given BT’s constant failure to deliver in a timely fashion the broadband infrastructure this country so badly needs, may we have a debate on whether it is time to consider separating the infrastructure element and retail element of that badly failing inefficient company?
The hon. Lady makes her point eloquently. If she wants to raise the specific concern with the Department and ask it to put pressure on BT about that, and if she writes to me with the details, I will make sure that that receives attention. I also will make sure that the points she makes are passed on to the Business Department.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.
In previous years there has always been a statement or a debate in the House on the police grant. I note on today’s Order Paper that there will be a written statement. Given that we have good news to talk about on the police grant, and that the Mayor of London announced today that the police funding will now ensure at least one police constable and one police community support officer for every ward across London, surely we should have a debate so that we can highlight the proposal from the Opposition to reduce the police grant by 10%?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is a sign of the way in which we have turned the economy of this country around that we have been able to take the kind of decisions that were taken in the spending review to protect police budgets. Although a written statement today sets out what is happening on that, the matter will return to the House in the new year for approval, and my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to make the important points he makes and to put the Opposition to shame over their record.
I join the festive compliments, Mr Speaker, by wishing you Nollaig Shona duit, a Cheann Comhairle!
Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for us to have a debate in Government time on Saudi Arabia—roles, relationships and rights, given that the Government seem to be giving ever more status and influence to that state, and given that serious questions are being raised about whether the UK is in breach of the arms trade treaty? Many of us are concerned that this is a wolf that is increasingly being dressed up in sheepdog’s clothing.
I say first to the hon. Gentleman that when one wishes people a happy and peaceful Christmas, one particularly stresses the “peaceful” part when wishing it to people in Northern Ireland. It is very much my hope that 2016 will prove to be a productive and peaceful year for Northern Ireland. With regard to Saudi Arabia, we have long had ties with Saudi Arabia. We always raise matters related to human rights with the Saudi Government when the opportunity arises—I have done so myself—but we also have important treaty relationships with that country. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns, he will have the opportunity in the new year to raise them. The Foreign Secretary will be here shortly after the return in January. Saudi Arabia is a nation with which we have a long-standing partnership.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On Monday the all-party group for excellence in the built environment, which I chair, held our last evidence session on the quality of design for new housing developments. When we publish our report, which we expect will be in the spring, may we please have a debate in Government time on ensuring that we are not building the slums of the future and that we are protecting those people who are investing in new properties?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I suspect that most of us, as constituency MPs, are contacted from time to time by constituents who have been badly let down when buying a new home. I commend him for the important work he is doing in that area. When his guidance is published, I trust that it will recommend the provision of hedgehog super-highways in all future developments.
I draw the House’s attention to the excellent news that the Home Secretary has agreed to withdraw from legal action and will now lift the ban on the International Sikh Youth Federation, which is a very welcome Christmas present for the Sikh community. Will the Leader of the House urge her to lay before Parliament the necessary order as soon as possible so that it can be voted through speedily by both Houses?
I will certainly do that.
The Leader of the House will be aware of the Government’s consultation on proposals to regulate all after-school training environments used for six hours or more in any one week, which would cover thousands of faith and non-faith groups, such as scouts, summer camps and church youth groups, and require them to register with the Government and to be available for Ofsted inspections. Given that the consultation, which is already short, falls over the busy Christmas period, and therefore offends the Government’s own published good practice and consultation principles, will he use his influence to seek an extension of the 11 January deadline?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes an important point. She has been a great champion for these issues. I will ensure today that my office passes her request on to the office of the Secretary of State for Education.
I have been made aware that an economic impact assessment was published this week by the fisheries organisation in my constituency, indicating that there will be up to 30 job losses as a consequence of the Ministry of Defence unilaterally taking action to close fishing grounds between the mainland and the island of Raasay. May we have a debate on the MOD’s powers, particularly the need for it to conduct an economic impact assessment and recognise the wider community interest as well as the national security interest in the actions it takes?
I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I am not aware of the details of the situation. Given that we will not have Defence questions for some time after we return in January, I will ensure that his concerns are passed to the Ministry of Defence today and try to get an earlier response for him.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.
May we have a debate on planning law so that we can discuss rejected applications for fast food takeaways in very close proximity to schools not having a right of appeal? That would have assisted local residents of Shirley in my constituency in their opposition to a KFC just yards from the entrance to a primary school.
That is a customary example of the way in which my hon. Friend has campaigned on behalf of his constituents since his election earlier this year, and I commend him for that. He makes an important point. Work is ongoing to try to make our planning system as effective and efficient as possible. Those concerns will undoubtedly be noted, as the Minister for Housing and Planning is sitting beside me on the Front Bench, and I am sure that it will be given due consideration.
While we leave this place to celebrate the holidays, we must spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of children who qualify for free school meals and who, from next week, will not have their main hot meal each day. May we have an urgent debate in Government time to discuss the impact on their lives, their health and their long-term aspirations?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I am proud that since we took power in 2010 there has been a fall of nearly 700,000 in the number of workless households. Of course, the best way we have available to us to ease poverty and to help children is to get their families working and moving up the income scale, and that is a priority for us.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I was appalled earlier this morning by the announcement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that we are no longer vaccinating badgers. May we therefore have a very long debate about the performance of DEFRA? Given that it is a charitable and generous time of year, perhaps my right hon. Friend should not be too generous, because I do not think the debate would be very complimentary?
My hon. Friend, who has been a champion of the farming community, knows full well the impact that bovine TB can have on the farming community and that it is spread by badgers. That is one of the reasons the difficult decisions that we have taken in the past two or three years have been necessary. Another consequence of the growth of the badger population is the impact on the hedgehog population, which is partly why my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has been doing such sterling work in campaigning to try to raise awareness of the plight of the hedgehog.
Next year, Seafarers UK, one of the leading, if not the leading, maritime charities in the United Kingdom will be getting ready to celebrate its centenary in 2017. May I prevail on the good offices of the Leader of the House to ask whether the Cabinet Office and/or the Department for Transport will be able to help this excellent charity prepare for this historic centenary?
I will certainly pass that request on. I think we should celebrate this. We have been a maritime nation for centuries. I would not usually pay tribute to work done by a Labour Government, but I do think that the efforts put into rebuilding the British flag merchant fleet by the former Deputy Prime Minister was a real benefit to this country.
In the third quarter of this year, turnover of small businesses in my constituency had increased by 20% over the previous year—well ahead of the national average. May we have a debate on the importance of small businesses not just to our national economy but to the future of the northern powerhouse?
I thank all the Members—I know my hon. Friend was one of them—who took part in events around small business Saturday. I know his constituency well, and I know what an important role small business plays in the area that he represents. I pay tribute to him for the work he does in championing these efforts and supporting members of his local business community; I have no doubt they will express gratitude to him for doing so.
I have been contacted by Ballantine Castings of Bo’ness, a local foundry in my constituency, to highlight its concerns about the severe hike in the energy costs it is facing—some 17% year on year. Can a statement be made about the progress of discussions with the European Commission in relation to further compensation for heavy industries such as the iron and steel industry?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He knows that this is a matter of ongoing concern for the Government. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will be here on the Thursday after we return. I will make sure that her office is aware of his concern so that if he would like to raise it then, she will be better prepared to answer him.
In the previous session of business questions I raised with my right hon. Friend the subject of the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality—campaign and the problems with the pension equalisation measures. I am glad to say that the Backbench Business Committee has granted a debate in the first week back. The campaign petition by WASPI has now exceeded 70,000 signatures, while my own podcast has now been listened to over 141,000 times. Will he make sure that the Secretary of State himself comes to respond to that debate, particularly given the comment by the former Minister for Pensions, Steve Webb, that the Government got it wrong?
My hon. Friend is clearly making very effective use of social media in his campaigning, and I commend him for that. I will make sure that his request is passed on to the Secretary of State.
The Manchester Evening News recently ran a piece highlighting premises in Greater Manchester with poor food hygiene ratings, and featured the Red Lion in Denton. Unfortunately for the Manchester Evening News, the Red Lion is under new ownership. The editor has apologised to the proprietors, but they tell me that it got the information from the gov.uk website. May we have a debate in Government time on how up to date the information on Government websites is, and whether, when information is incorrect, it can be corrected promptly?
Most importantly, before any newspaper publishes a list of people to name and shame them, it is good practice to telephone them first to put it to them. If the newspaper had done that, it would have been able to be corrected. I always want and expect gov.uk to be as up to date as possible, but tracking every change of management in an organisation that has had a poor report would be impossible. It is good journalistic practice to phone up and ask for a comment and then discover that the change has happened.
The number of off-licences in my constituency has led to a rise in antisocial behaviour and street drinking. May we have a debate on what it means to be a socially responsible business in the 21st century and the cumulative impact of businesses that do not take their social responsibilities seriously?
Of course, local authorities have extensive powers, which are not always used, to deal with problem premises. However, if local planning rules are not working, the whole Department for Communities and Local Government team are now sitting on the Front Bench and I am sure they would be very happy to look at specific issues, to see whether the situation can be improved.
If the Leader of the House is going to get Southern, Network Rail and the Transport Secretary to write to Members on the subject of abysmal train services, may I add my name to the list of people who would like to receive those letters?
Has the Leader of the House had a request from either the Home Office or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to debate the Disclosure and Barring Service? I am not sure whether he is aware that the DBS has 70,000 outstanding cases at present, which is having a huge impact on people’s ability to take up jobs.
This issue has come up in some of my constituency cases in the past. I have not had any such cases recently, but it is always a matter of concern to us. We do not want people not to get jobs because the appropriate certification has not come through. I will make sure that the Home Secretary is aware of the concerns raised by the right hon. Gentleman.
Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker. May we have a debate on the access to elected office fund, which supports disabled candidates in elections, given the Government’s decision to cut funding?
Of course, we have regular Electoral Commission questions—we have just had them—so the hon. Lady has an opportunity to raise such issues. We continue to try to provide support where we can for things that require it. In recent years, however, we have had to take some difficult decisions in order to make sure that we have stable public finances.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early statement in the new year about progress towards the publication of the Chilcot report?
Sadly, that is not a matter for Government; otherwise, it would have been published a long time ago. It is entirely in the hands of Sir John, who has set out a timetable to publish the report next year. The Government, the Conservatives and, frankly, the whole House have been very clear that we want the report to be published as quickly as possible. There is absolutely no benefit or incentive for the Government to delay publication, because we were not in power at the time of the events it covers. It is in all our interests that the report is published quickly, and I hope Sir John will be able to do so as soon as possible in the new year.
We all agree on the importance of the NHS and its staff, yet my constituent Sharmila Chowdhury faces Christmas jobless because, as a radiographer at Ealing hospital, she exposed the malpractice of consultants taking extra financial inducements. May we have a debate on whistleblowers in the NHS? According to the House of Commons Library, there has not been such a debate since 2009, despite the Francis review. Can the Leader of the House not be a Scrooge and at least grant us a debate or, if not, a statement?
What I can offer the hon. Lady is the Health Secretary on the first day back. She makes an important point. It is not our Government’s policy to see whistleblowers penalised. Obviously, I do not know all the details of the case she raises, but if she writes to the Secretary of State or to me, I will make sure he has the information available to him before he comes to the House on the first day back.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, Mr Speaker. I have received a letter from a constituent—a Mr J. Marley—who confirms that a Government Minister is to receive a visit from three spirits on Christmas eve. Will the Government make a statement in the new year, having confirmed a new and munificent attitude to life, to address the many iniquitous parts of our current social security system, or are the hopes and aspirations of many merely a humbug?
If anyone received a visit from the three spirits of Christmas these days, the spirit of Christmas past would show them a country in trouble, in debt and with high unemployment, the spirit of Christmas present would show them a country moving forward, with falling unemployment and a falling deficit, and the spirit of Christmas future would show them a high-tech, exciting country, with opportunities for all.
I warmly endorse the Leader of the House’s tributes to the staff of this place. Talking about them, may we have a debate on staffing in Parliament to give the Government an opportunity to explain why, at the same time as they are allowing the number and cost of special advisers to skyrocket unchecked, they are reducing by almost 20% the amount of Short money support given to opposition parties?
This Government spend more right now and will carry on spending more on Short money than on special advisers.
I have been contacted by a constituent, Stephen from Newmilns, who thinks Scottish National party Members are doing a great job of providing a real opposition to the Tory Government and wants us to keep asking tough questions. He would like a statement on how we can afford to fund bombs for Syria and nuclear weapons while people in this country have to use food banks. I would add that we do not want to hear any waffle about their use in Germany. How can we afford such things in this country while people are going to food banks?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we are affording military support to people who, last year, rescued Yazidi refugees from Mount Sinjar. We are funding support to try to rescue a civilian population who have been through a trauma unlike any experienced almost anywhere on the planet in the past 50 years. The job or goal of our forces in Syria and Iraq is to restore peace to people wandering around the region desperately looking for a home, because we need them to be able to go back to their own homes.
Local Government Finance
I believe that our gloriously diverse country will prosper more if the districts, counties, towns and cities that make it up have more power. If we accept that, it follows that we must believe councils to be capable of exercising that power.
Over the past five years, councils have shown great responsibility. Given that local authorities account for a quarter of public spending, it was always going to be the case that they would have to carry their share of the burden of reducing the largest deficit in peacetime history. Not only have they done so, but public satisfaction with their services has been maintained or has improved. I especially want to thank the staff of councils most deeply involved with the recent floods: their commitment to their residents is exemplary. However, I cannot credit councils with acumen and then deny them candour. More savings need to be made as we finish the job of eliminating the remaining deficit.
I listened carefully to councils as I prepared this settlement. Councils asked for the right to spend locally what they raise locally; for help with adult social care costs; for expenditure savings that recognise what has already been achieved by local government; for recognition of the higher costs of providing services to sparsely populated rural areas; for encouragement for cost-saving innovation; for rewards for new homes; for complete transparency with regard to resource allocation; and for a move beyond one-year-at-a-time budgeting. As I will explain, this provisional settlement meets all those objectives.
Local government will be transformed by localism. In 2010, councils were 80%-dependent on central Government grants. By 2020, they will be 100%-funded by council tax, business rates and other local revenues. The retention of 100% of business rates will forge the necessary link between local business success and local civic success. To support that further, we will increase the local growth fund to £12 billion by 2021. This is a Conservative-led revolution, transforming over-centralised Britain into one of the most decentralised countries in the world. Authorities will also be able to spend 100% of capital receipts from asset sales to fund cost-saving reforms. We will publish guidance for local authorities on that matter.
The spending review set out that, based on the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility, overall local government spending would be slightly higher in 2019-20 than in 2015-16. In this settlement, the core spending power for councils will also remain virtually unchanged at £44.5 billion in 2015-16 and £44.3 billion in 2019-20. In real terms, that requires savings of about 6.7% over the spending review period, compared with the 14% required at the beginning of the spending review period in 2010.
The unanimous view across local government is that the biggest cost pressure is care for our growing elderly population. In September, the county councils and the Local Government Association wrote to me, estimating that those costs would require an additional £2.9 billion by 2019-20. Some local government leaders proposed an innovation: a social care council tax precept of 2% a year, guaranteed to be spent on social care. That is equivalent to £23 per year on an average band D home. In the spending review, the Chancellor and I agreed, and we will ensure that the precept is transparently itemised on residents’ bills.
However, we will go further. We know that for some councils, the precept will not raise enough to meet the growing costs, so we have announced a fund of £1.5 billion a year to support councils in working with their local NHS to address the pressures on care. Today, I allocate that £1.5 billion to complement the new precept, so that more goes to councils that raise least from the precept. We recognise in the distribution of resources the particular needs of councils with social care responsibilities.
Local government has asked for £2.9 billion by 2020 as a contribution to the costs of social care. In this settlement, we make up to £3.5 billion available by that year, distributed fairly towards local authorities with social care responsibilities. I applaud the maturity of local government as a whole in telling me that it accepts that this prioritisation implies that, over the next few years, those councils with social care responsibilities should have relatively more resources than those councils which do not have them. Some district councils—those with low council tax bases or those which serve the most rural areas—face particular pressures, so while this settlement maintains the core referendum threshold at 2%, the threshold for the lowest cost district councils will be £5 a year, so that they are not punished for being economical while those who have spent more in the past are allowed to spend more now.
I will increase support for the most sparsely populated rural areas by more than quadrupling the rural services delivery grant from £15.5 million this year to £65 million in 2019-2020, by which time, when 100% business rate retention has been achieved, we will be able to consider what further correction is due. I will also protect, in real terms, the £30 million funding for lead local flood authorities, and the £2 million for those authorities to act as statutory consultees in planning sustainable drainage systems.
The new homes bonus provides valuable funding and, as importantly, encourages house building. I can announce today that I will extend the new homes bonus indefinitely, but with some changes on which I am consulting. All savings will be retained by local government to contribute towards social care.
In a world in which only a small proportion of councils’ funding will come from central Government grant, we require transparency on the components of the financial resources available to councils. I have noted the criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and the Communities and Local Government Committee of previous inclusions of the existing better care fund and the public health grant in councils’ spending power. I will follow their advice and, henceforth, report only resources over which councils have discretion.
In addition, in all the figures in the settlement, I have chosen to understate the maximum resources available to councils. For example, in line with the OBR, I assume that councils will increase council tax in line with inflation, rather than the referendum threshold of 2%. I expect that, as previously, councils will increase bills by less than their full entitlement. Had I assumed the maximum figure, more than a quarter of a billion pounds extra in total resources would have been recorded as being available to councils.
The main reason councils keep liquid reserves is as a buffer against unpredictable year-to-year budgets. Local government has consistently told me, and for generations told my predecessors, that greater certainty about their income over the medium term would allow local authorities to organise more efficiently and strategically, and to put some of those safety-net reserves to more productive use.
Therefore, in this settlement, I do something that local leaders have yearned for. For the first time ever, I offer a guaranteed budget to every council that desires one and can demonstrate efficiency savings, for next year, and every year of this Parliament—a four-year budget to give certainty and confidence. It is a settlement that maintains the financial resources available to councils in 2020 at around the same level as they are today, while giving incentives for local government to make significant savings, and it directs up to £3.5 billion to care for our elderly citizens. This historic settlement does what campaigners for devolution thought they would never live to see: local councils answerable to local people, rather than to central Government, and I commend it to the House.
I am grateful for advance notice of the statement. That is particularly welcome given that the Secretary of State’s predecessor rarely turned up in person on these occasions, and when he did it was often with a snarl, rather than with the Secretary of State’s customary smile.
Labour Members join the Secretary of State in rightly paying tribute to local councils and all their staff. The statement contains a number of details that look welcome, and we shall return to them in due course. Sadly, however, the central message is the same as always: cuts, cuts and more cuts.
The Secretary of State admits to a cash decrease of £200 million between now and 2019-20, but he forgets to say that the additional spending pressures amount to at least £6.3 billion, according to the Local Government Association. That is the scale of the cuts that will be inflicted on our communities by this settlement. What calculation has he made of the additional cost to local government caused by inflation? What about demographic change, which means that more elderly people need support than ever before? What about the additional statutory duties that he is giving to local government? How will all that be paid for?
This settlement massively reduces the central Government grant to local government. Does the Secretary of State agree with the House of Commons Library, which has calculated that even if the central Government grant was maintained at its current level throughout this Parliament, the Government would still run an overall surplus on the revenue account of more than £4 billion a year in 2019-2020? Is it not the truth that these cuts are a political choice made in No. 11, rather than an economic necessity?
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his Conservative colleague, Lord Porter, chair of the LGA, who said:
“It is wrong that the services our local communities rely on will face deeper cuts than the rest of the public sector yet again and for local taxpayers to be left to pick up the bill for new government policies without any additional funding. Even if councils stopped filling in potholes, maintaining parks, closed all children’s centres, libraries, museums, leisure centres and turned off every street light, they will not have saved enough money to plug the financial black hole they face by 2020.”?
The Government promised not to cut the budget for the NHS, but then they delegated public health functions to councils. Now they have cut that budget. Does the Secretary of State think that anyone is fooled when the Government act in such a way? Is it not a false economy to cut council funding for adult social care and public health? What is his estimate of the impact of those local government cuts on the NHS? Is it not obvious that if there is less care in the community and preventive health action by councils, there will inevitably be more pressure on more expensive acute provision within the NHS? Is that not the worst kind of Osbornomics? It is short-termist and tactical, rather than strategic and long term.
Does the Secretary of State accept that some of the councils facing the greatest needs in social care have the least ability to raise extra funds by levying the 2% precept? What about the northern powerhouse? Does he agree that cuts to northern local councils amount to tens of millions of pounds more than the relatively small sums that constitute the so-called powerhouse? No wonder the latest economic indicators show the north falling further behind.
The Minister mentioned council reserves, as if he thinks that councils are underspending on the revenue account and thereby building them up. What is his estimate of the quantity of the reserves earmarked by the Government for the Government’s specific objectives? What is his estimate of the amount of the reserves that are in schools’ accounts, and therefore inaccessible to councils? In any event, is it not the case that the reserves are often built up from asset sales and should not generally be used to prop up day-to-day spending?
The Secretary of State mentioned business rates. It is right that the money should be directed into town hall budgets—we welcome that—but the question he has failed to answer is this: how will business rates be distributed? Given that that income is notoriously uneven as between one council and another, how does he intend to make an equitable distribution of those funds? Does he accept the wise words of the Institute for Fiscal Studies:
“If you’re somewhere like Westminster, it’s easier to win from this system than if you’re somewhere like Wolverhampton”?
What estimate has he made of the distributional impact of the settlement on different councils? Does it maintain the trend of the past five years, when poorer urban councils lost out relative to more prosperous areas? Does some of his announcement not make the situation worse? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that local authorities in deprived areas have seen cuts of £220 a head while more affluent areas have seen cuts of £40 a head.
Will the Secretary of State agree to look once more at the formula by which the Government distribute support to local government? He was not the author of the formula, but will he now re-examine the patent injustice in the way in which the money is distributed?
Finally, the country needs a new political and democratic settlement. A renaissance of democratic, relatively fiscally autonomous and locally accountable councils needs to be at the heart of a new settlement. The recent floods showed councils and their employees at their best. We welcome any additional funding to help with flooding, and we also welcome the multi-year funding that the right hon. Gentleman talked about—the Opposition proposed it in the Cities and Local Devolution Bill but the Government voted against it. Will he come back to the House with more details as soon as possible?
The Secretary of State pays lip service to local government renaissance, but does not the announcement, with top line cuts of billions of pounds invariably falling on the poorest areas, reveal that the Treasury’s heavy hand means that the Government are unlikely to deliver the renaissance that is so necessary for our country?
In the spirit of Christmas, I will be charitable to the hon. Gentleman, who understandably wrote his response before hearing the statement. Far from its being a tactical settlement—that is how he put it—there could be nothing more strategic than a settlement that, for the first time ever, gives what local council leaders have long called for: the certainty of a four-year funding settlement, previously denied them, which gives them the chance to manage their affairs in exactly the way they want.
As the hon. Gentleman might have expected from our previous exchanges, during the past few months I have spent a lot of time with local government leaders, listening to them talk about the most important pressures on them and the most important concerns that they would like to see reflected. They communicated very clearly that funding adult social care was the major priority for all kinds of councils, and in this settlement we deliver the extra resources that we promised. The distribution among the authorities reflects that—something I would have thought he would give us credit for.
On the overall settlement, few authorities would even a few months ago have expected the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to be able to announce, in effect, a flat cash settlement for local government for the whole of the spending review period.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned reserves. The fact is that local council reserves have increased over the past five years from £13 billion to more than £22.5 billion—a 71% increase. We do not assume in the settlement that local councils will make use of them, but they have the opportunity to do so because of the four-year settlement we have granted them.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the head of the LGA. I have met all the leading groups in the LGA, including his Labour colleagues. Because we are the biggest party in local government the hon. Gentleman suggests that the LGA is Conservative-controlled, but I have met local government leaders of all sorts. Lord Porter regards our discussions as fruitful and thinks that this is a fair financial settlement for all types of council and addresses the concerns they have put to me during the past few years.
Let me just refer to the expectations and the advice we received from those on the Labour Front Bench. When we had the financial statement last year, the previous shadow Secretary of State said that what councils needed was help with longer-term funding settlements so they could plan to protect services, and more devolution of power so they could work with other public services locally to get the most out of every pound of public funding, and that nowhere was that needed more than in social care. That is exactly what we deliver in this spending review settlement: prioritising social care, exactly what local government asked for; multi-year settlements, for which local government campaigned for many years; and the devolution of power to councils through the localisation of income, with councils responsible to electors and not to Whitehall.
May I, too, wish you, Mr Speaker, and other Members a happy Christmas? I wish I could wish a happy Christmas to those on the Opposition Front Bench, but given that they look as flat as a soufflé that has gone off, we need not bother.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on delivering what is, frankly, the most imaginative local government settlement I have heard in my time in the House, including those that I had to deliver myself. He has listened to local government. I particularly welcome the reflection he has made on the importance, stressed by the London Borough of Bromley and others, of the pressures on adult social care. Will he ensure that the same can-do attitude, which my local authority and all the people he talked to in the LGA have, is reflected in the health sector? Where we have co-terminosity with clinical commissioning groups, we really need the drive of local government, and the accountability of local government, to take those partnerships forward.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and characteristically self-effacing. During his time as a Minister in the Department, he made an enormous contribution to reforming and driving forward decentralisation.
I can confirm that part of the point of the money we have secured for the better care fund is that local authorities and the NHS work closely together, and to recognise that our elderly people, whether they are cared for in hospital, care homes or at home, are our joint responsibility. This provides the opportunity for councils to work together in the interests of our growing elderly population.
To show there is some charity, at least on the Labour Benches, I welcome what the Secretary of State says about the ending of double-counting of the Better Care fund. On the four-year settlement, we may have disagreements about the details, but the principle is correct.
May I draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the 6% real cuts figure? According to the LGA, it does not take account of increasing demand from the growing number of elderly people, nor of the extra costs imposed on local government by specific central Government policies. I also draw his attention to two other things: the increase in the minimum wage will have a particular impact on the cost of social care, and the pension changes will have a cost in national insurance. Do the Government recognise them as new burdens? If they do not fund them as new burdens, does the right hon. Gentleman recognise there will be extra cuts to local government services that are not recognised in his statement?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. His Select Committee and its predecessors have long called for four-year settlements and the devolution of powers. We have made a choice, advised by local government, on a flat cash settlement over the spending review period to prioritise adult social care. That is what we have done in this settlement. As I made clear when I talked about candour at the beginning of my statement, that of course means that authorities need to continue to make savings in areas outside those for which we have provided extra funds. That is accepted and understood. We have also agreed that they should be at a lower rate than was necessary at the beginning of the previous Parliament. I think local councils will welcome that.
Conservative-controlled Leicestershire County Council is one of the best in the country, but its funding is the worst. I am sure the Secretary of State’s innovative statement today will be welcomed in the county, not least because it gives additional freedoms. Market Bosworth is now world-famous since the reinterment of Richard III, something my right hon. Friend can check when he goes overseas and asks anybody. The initiatives for rural areas will be very welcome. In the rural parts of my constituency, there is a feeling that they have been neglected. Will my right hon. Friend explain a little more about the social care precept of 2% and how it will affect hard-pressed Leicestershire, which has terrific difficulties in meeting its social care targets at the moment?
I join my hon. Friend in praising Leicestershire County Council, which was one of those that made representations asking that its substantial social care costs be recognised. As a result of the settlement, by the end of the spending review period, in 2019-20, the resources available to Leicestershire will have increased by 3.5%, which will help to meet the costs he describes. I am certain that a council as well run as Leicestershire will make use of that to the great benefit of his elderly constituents.
Erdington, which is rich in talent but one of the poorest constituencies in England, lies in a city, Birmingham, suffering the biggest cuts in local government history. The consequences for the city will be serious: for children’s safety when travelling to school, with the cutting of school crossing patrols: for vulnerable families, with the end of Home-Start after 25 years; and for vulnerable and disabled people in need of social care. In my experience, the Secretary of State is a decent man, and he said today he was prepared to listen. Will he therefore agree to meet me and my Birmingham colleagues to hear the case for a fair deal for Birmingham?
Of course I will. I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman and his Birmingham colleagues, as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) who shares his commitment to that great city. The spending review recognises the increased costs faced by social services authorities such as Birmingham;, and in recognition of those pressures, by the end of the spending review period, in 2019-20, his city will have a spending power per dwelling £200 higher than the national average.
Mr Speaker, I wish you and everyone else in the House a very merry Christmas.
I ask the Minister not to penalise councils that are already very efficient. In the £3.5 billion made available for social care, will he please take into account Richmond upon Thames Council, which is efficient but has great needs because of the disproportionate number of over-65s living alone? Will he please meet me and council leaders to discuss next year’s budget?
I think that my colleagues and I are going to be busy after Christmas meeting many hon. Members, but I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the efficiency of Richmond upon Thames Borough Council. The two contributions—the proposed precept and the addition to the better care fund—will be allocated in complementary ways, which is what local government leaders across the country have recommended to us.
This is a highly political statement dressed up as localism. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the distributional effect of his proposal means that every single local authority in the north-east of England will lose out? Will the intervention he announced on social care cover children in care as well as adults?
The right hon. Gentleman must have second sight to know what the impacts will be before he has looked at the figures for those particular authorities. Of course, by prioritising social care we are directing resources to authorities with responsibility for children’s social services as well as adult social services. Compared with what would have happened in the steady state, as it were, authorities such as his own in Newcastle upon Tyne will benefit.
Conservative-led Hertfordshire County Council and St Albans District Council are among the most efficient councils in the country, but they face a large problem in the form of a sinkhole that is costing millions and will be an ongoing event. This is a big deal in St Albans. Will recognition be given to special events, such as the Cumbria floods, that require from councils a significant ongoing commitment to emergency repairs?
I understand that every local authority has unique circumstances and faces unique pressures. Part of the responsibility of local government is to anticipate and prepare for them. In the course of the consultation on the settlement, either I or one of my ministerial colleagues would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to understand the particular circumstances of her council.
I do not know what happens in Tunbridge Wells, but let me tell the Secretary of State that in the real world of the Walsall borough hardly a week goes by without news of further cuts to essential services and facilities or of services being abolished altogether. Even the Tory leader of the council has made it known how concerned he is at the impact of these cuts on the borough. Would it not be wise to understand that in areas of deprivation and low income, it is essential for the Government to adopt a different direction of policy? Otherwise, it will certainly not be a merry Christmas or a happy new year for the people most vulnerable to the cuts.
I have some news that might cheer up the hon. Gentleman—it looks as though he may need it. By 2019-20, as a result of this settlement that, as I have said, recognises the pressure on authorities with social care responsibilities, the resources available to the hon. Gentleman’s council in Walsall will have increased by 1.5%.
Yesterday, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), I met the leaders of East Sussex County Council to discuss their budget plans and priorities. They will welcome today’s announcement, especially the focus on longer-term funding and the recognition of the difficulties of rural councils. East Sussex has the highest number of 85-year-olds of any county in the country, and I believe that my Wealden constituency has the highest number in the country. Will the Secretary of State give my council further confirmation that the differing demands on local authorities in respect of adult social care will be taken into account?
I know my hon. Friend’s constituency very well as she is my parliamentary neighbour. I understand that the pressures on adult social care for elderly people are significant. She will be pleased to know that by 2019-20 the resources available to East Sussex County Council will increase by 1%.
My local authority faces cuts of £77 million next year, and as the Secretary of State has indicated, there will be precious little left to invest back into social care costs. If my council is to meet the growing demand for social care, it certainly needs to be able to ensure that extra funds are made available from the savings it can make. Is the Secretary of State confident that the funds made available will mean that people will not miss out on social care over the next five years?
These are, of course, decisions for the local council. In the settlement we have prioritised councils that have social care responsibilities. In his own borough, the un-ring-fenced reserves are nearly a fifth of a billion pounds, so the council can itself make some contribution to meeting those costs.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right that local councils are answerable to local people. As he is aware, there is a very lively debate going on in Yorkshire at the moment about the relative merits of a West Yorkshire model and a Greater Yorkshire model of devolution. Will my right hon. Friend update us on when he sees a deal eventually being done in Yorkshire?
I am keen to see a deal in that great county. I know that discussions are at an advanced stage. I do not think it is going to be an early Christmas present for my hon. Friend, but I hope that early in the new year, the good people of Yorkshire will agree to take on the powers and resources on offer through our devolution programme.
A merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for calling me earlier. I am afraid I came into the House after the start of the statement, so I did not deserve to be called in that way.
In Walsall South, libraries are closing, there is a disproportionate cut to the public health budget, and it is difficult to recruit and retain social workers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that under the settlement that he has just announced, all those services will be protected and there will be no need for further cuts in those areas?
The hon. Lady is a model of candour, whose example should be imitated by all Members.
I am happy to answer the hon. Lady’s question. As I said to her hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), the resources available to Walsall will increase by 1.5% by 2019-20. Of course, as I said in my statement, savings will continue to need to be made in other areas right across local government. It is for the councils themselves to make those decisions, but they now have the ability with the certainty of four-year budgets and a possibility of reform within those years to make those savings, to protect those services and to make sure that elderly and vulnerable people are well looked after.
I welcome today’s statement and the increase in the rural services delivery grant, which will increase the amount per head from around £1.10 to about £5.50, I assume. I also note that in comparison with urban authorities the gap in central Government grant will remain at £130 per head. Will the Secretary of State meet me and other colleagues to discuss the next steps beyond this to make sure that we get a fair settlement for rural and urban alike, and so determine whether rural colleagues will be able to join the Secretary of State in the Lobby in support of the settlement in February?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a persistent and effective campaigner, drawing attention to the special costs that the most sparse rural authorities face in providing services. We have gone a long way, based on the evidence we have seen, to address those needs. I and my colleagues will be happy to meet my hon. Friend and other colleagues to discuss how it will work out in practice.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the paradox of the statement is exemplified by my own city council, which has had a reduction of nearly 50% in its central Government grant since 2010, yet also a massive increase in responsibilities? Pretending that adult social care can be picked up by a 2% increase in council tax is obviously nonsense. He realises, I am sure, that to resolve his dilemma, he should enable—as every other western democracy has—local authorities throughout England to retain and raise funds of their own so that they can effectively no longer be an agent of central Government. That, surely, is the difference between devolution and decentralisation.
The hon. Gentleman will know more than most that simply looking at central Government grant in an age in which local councils, at their own request and following their own campaign, are increasingly in charge of their own resources, is not the right way to consider the issue. We should look at the total resources available, including the business rate revenues, in respect of which Nottingham and Nottinghamshire authorities are doing very well, rightly attracting more businesses and expanding businesses. That is a buoyant source of income for his city and his county.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) said, we met local councils yesterday and we were told that the counties of East Sussex, West Sussex and Surrey are joining together for a devolution bid, called “The three southern counties” bid. Currently the area’s contribution to the Exchequer’s revenue is second only to that of the City of London. Can the Secretary of State inform us what influence, if any, devolution bids such as “The three southern counties” bid will have on today’s funding settlement?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and I look forward to the discussions with the council leaders about the devolution deal. Today’s settlement does not include the effects of those deals. One proposal that we will consider is for the earlier retention of business rates. I am delighted that such imaginative proposals have been put forward locally.
The Secretary of State said that he would take account of demography: the ageing population and the density of population. I also urge him to take note of the few places in the country that have an extremely young population. In Birmingham, 30% of the population is below the age of 15. When he meets the group of MPs, can we discuss how his settlement will affect the special needs of the city?
Of course I will, and when we have that conversation, the right hon. Lady will make the case for Birmingham. As I have said, it is important to recognise the need to help with social care pressures, and that is what we have done in the settlement.
I welcome this excellent statement on behalf of the people of Herefordshire, but may I ask the Secretary of State to keep a watching brief? I know that he has set four-year budgets, but each county faces specific challenges.
I will certainly consider the case that my hon. Friend has made. However, one of the advantages of a four-year settlement is that local authorities can prepare for the future and manage their resources well, rather than being subject to occasional year-to-year variations in the national Government income. It gives them a greater proof against the uncertainty that they have experienced for a long time about what is coming each year.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State has noted the criticism by the Public Accounts Committee of the handling of the better care fund and the public health grant. However, a year ago the National Audit Office reported that his Department had
“a limited understanding of the financial stability of local authorities”,
and the position is being made worse by the complexity of devolution.
The Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, considered city deals, the Care Act 2014, and—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts)—the new burdens that are being imposed. Bristol’s people service was already £6.3 million overspent by November. What assurance can the Secretary of State give us that he is heeding the Committee’s recommendations, and that, given the various announcements about policy and cuts, he really understands and has a grip on the financial sustainability of local authorities?
The hon. Lady suggests that uncertainty is a source of concern in local government. That is exactly why we heeded the calls of local government for us to provide the certainty of four-year budgets.
Enfield Council lays the blame for the cuts in adult social care provision fairly and squarely at the Government’s door. It has already consulted my constituents, and it says that the cuts will amount to some £10 million by 2018, including £900,000 of transport cuts that will affect vulnerable people. Can the Secretary of State confirm—not least to Enfield Council and my constituents—that the council will have the resources and the choice that will enable it to protect the vulnerable?
We responded to what local authorities had said about the need to recognise the importance of social services. My hon. Friend’s borough council has both upper-tier and lower-tier responsibilities, and in respect of the activities that it is required to perform in order to discharge its social services responsibility, it will benefit from this allocation.
My best wishes for Christmas to you and all your staff, Mr Speaker.
I do not think that the Secretary of State answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth). Let me repeat, according to the National Audit Office,
“The Department has a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities”.
The NAO advised the Department to
“look for evidence of financial stress in local authorities”
to assure itself that they were able
“to deliver the services they are responsible for.”
May I give the Secretary of State another opportunity to explain in detail—rather than repeating his mantra about a four-year budget—what work he did, before making his announcement, in order to understand the financial sustainability of different authorities?
Every council has a statutory responsibility and a section 151 officer who is required to report, in real time, on the financial sustainability of the council. I have received no representations from a section 151 officer suggesting that a council is unviable. In recent years, the Local Government Association has been helping councils that require advice and assistance, and I expect that it will wish to go on doing so.
The Secretary of State is shortly to visit my constituency to discuss generation in the local economy. Will he expand a little on how the settlement will help local authorities in that regard? The other major challenge facing my authority is adult social care. When he visits the constituency, will he also discuss that with council leaders?
I will indeed. My hon. Friend is a long-time campaigner for more independence and autonomy in local government. I know that his council will welcome the certainty of a four-year budget, and I shall be happy to meet its representatives when I visit his constituency again.
Whatever the Secretary of State says about available resources and reserves, he should be in no doubt that, in Lambeth and elsewhere, the reduction in central Government grant has led to, and will continue to lead to, cuts in front-line services. It is important that those who object to those cuts, and who demonstrate against them peacefully, protest not about our Labour councillors who have been forced to make the cuts, but about this Tory Government. Protesters should not be doing the Government’s dirty work by misattributing blame.
May I ask the Secretary of State how he expects my borough of Lambeth to carry on providing basic services when the Government have cut its budget by 56% since 2010?
I think the hon. Gentleman’s local residents will be relieved that a Labour Government were not returned after the general election, not least because it was the Labour party’s stated commitment to cut local government funding. As for Lambeth, we have, against all expectations, been able to protect the resources available to the council so that it can make decisions that will help vulnerable residents, as I know it will wish to do.
I commend my right hon. Friend’s wise decision to heed the recommendations of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. I trust that that will continue into 2016 and beyond.
My right hon. Friend will be aware of concern about the fact that councils are increasing charges for monopoly services above the rate of inflation. What action is he taking to ensure that residents are not overcharged for services that they cannot obtain anywhere else?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. When councils charge for services, the general principle should be cost recovery and no more. I would expect councils then to become more efficient and to pass on their efficiency savings to their residents, as they ought to do.
Hartlepool Borough Council’s grant has been reduced by 40% over the past five years. That equates to a cut in spending power of £313 per Hartlepool resident, which is twice the national average. In addition, the council has lost—this year, and in recurring years—£3.9 million from the business rates of the nuclear power station, which previously equated to a quarter of all business rates collected in the town. The council had no say, no power and no influence in regard to that decision, which makes a mockery of the Secretary of State’s claim in his statement that retaining 100% of business rates would “forge the necessary link between local business success and local civic success.”
Given the real threats to the provision of local services, and the somewhat distinctive nature of the local economy and the business rates base, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that Hartlepool faces a real problem, and will he agree to meet me and discuss ways of mitigating the massive pressure on the council’s budgets?
Of course I recognise that in particular instances—such as the nuclear power station that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—there is a very specific impact, and I shall be happy to meet him to discuss that. However, as Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, he will know that businesses have long called for a closer connection between councils and the businesses in their areas. The 100% retention of business rates will create an unbreakable link between the success of businesses and councils, and I would expect the hon. Gentleman to welcome that in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee.
Coastal communities such as Torbay, which has both an ageing and a younger population, face a range of unique challenges. How will the settlement deal with the needs of such communities?
My hon. Friend has made a good point in drawing attention to the fact that coastal communities such as his contain a high proportion of elderly people, and often require child social services as well. The settlement will direct funds to authorities such as his for precisely the reasons that he has mentioned.
Following your earlier entreaty, Mr Speaker, that Members should demonstrate candour, I should perhaps start by declaring an interest in that my wife works for a district council.
The Secretary of State casually shrugs off the impact on councils of the cuts they will have to make by 2020, ignoring the fact that now the number of children’s services rated as inadequate outnumber those rated as good, well-run councils are having to consider closing youth centres and adult social care services are under huge pressure. Does he accept that a shortfall in central Government funding for local services risks hitting the most vulnerable first and that devolving responsibilities to local councils without associated funding simply puts councils in charge of implementing his Government’s cuts?
From listening to the right hon. Gentleman, we would think he wanted to centralise the power and take the resources back to the centre. I seem to remember working with his colleagues in government who purported to be in favour of decentralisation. When I was in the Department at the beginning of the previous Government, of which his party was a member, the savings that were required of local government were higher than we are proposing in this settlement.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the ongoing need to control costs means it is more important than ever for local councils to look at innovative ways of combining back-office functions across local authority boundaries?
I agree with my hon. Friend and, as I have said throughout the statement, prioritising social care means savings do need to be made in other parts of councils’ operations. An excellent way to do that is to combine councils’ administrative services that cross borders.
May I put it to the Secretary of State, the Member for Tunbridge Wells, that while the Government talk about the revival of our great cities of the north and midlands, this statement follows the long-standing policy of discrimination against the metropolitan boroughs, with disproportionate cuts not only to local council budgets, but to police and fire services as well? Will he now answer the question posed by the Opposition spokesman as to how he will deal with the dramatically different income levels from the business rate to boroughs, especially those in central London compared with the rest?
I would have thought the right hon. Gentleman would have taken the opportunity of being here today to applaud the success of the west midlands. It has agreed a devolution deal that will bring £1 billion of extra resources into his area. On the 100% business rate retention, of course that needs to recognise that some places will need to contribute to others. That is well understood and during the months ahead we will be working with local government to find the best way to address that requirement. That is not part of this settlement because that comes in from 2019-20.
I applaud the certainty of long-term budgeting that the Secretary of State has brought in, but what is not certain is how the 2% precept for elderly social care will stretch for areas with very high very elderly populations such as mine. Some 4.6% of the population of Worthing is over the age of 85; they live a long time in Worthing, thank goodness. What consideration has he given to those additional costs on social care for the very elderly?
I understand the point my hon. Friend makes. In moving money within the system to authorities with social care responsibilities, we have taken account of the pressures. I am sure he will want to meet me and my colleagues to talk about the particular circumstances of Worthing. West Sussex as a whole has the responsibility for this, and I can tell my hon. Friend that its funding will increase by 2.9% by 2019-20, which will provide a big help in meeting these costs.
The full integration of health and social care in Tameside has already led to £30 million of recurring savings being identified, but that still leaves £40 million to find through other efficiencies. The Chancellor’s social care levy on the council tax only raises £1.4 million because of the low council tax base, against a social care shortfall of £16 million. So how much of that extra money announced today will Tameside receive—not as a percentage, but in real cash terms—and how much of that £16 million social care gap does the Secretary of State anticipate will be filled?
What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the allocation of the better care fund is done in a way that is complementary to the 2%, to recognise the particular pressures in authorities such as his. The answer to his question is that the package for adult social care, including both elements, will add almost £16 million to Tameside by 2019-20.
Somerset County Council, of which I am a member, has faced significant challenges over the last few years both on account of the fact that it is a rural council, which means it has not had as much money as some of the urban ones, and because it has had to deal with nearly £400 million-worth of debt, which the previous Liberal Democrat administration had run up. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the council leaders to help to welcome this, and also to talk about how things will work for Somerset in practice over the next four years?
I and my team stand ready to meet colleagues to discuss local circumstances. I can tell my hon. Friend that as a result of this settlement Somerset will receive an increase in its spending power of 4% by 2019-20, which I know will be a big help.
Cheshire West and Chester Council’s budget is being cut by central Government by £47 million. I hope the Secretary of State is clear that when local services are scrapped or cut, responsibility for that will lie squarely at the feet of himself and the Chancellor.
May I ask the Secretary of State about the new homes bonus grant, particularly in the light of his longer-term and four-year budgetary proposals? I understand that when it was first introduced, payments were to be made to councils for six years, and councils have planned their income on that basis. We understand now that payments might be made for only four years, which will of course restrict the ability of councils to respond to that grant. Will the Secretary of State clarify the situation?