House of Commons
Thursday 4 February 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Chemical Spills (River Tamar)
1. What steps her Department is taking to monitor and prevent future chemical spills from quarrying in the headwaters of the River Tamar. 
We take the issue of chemical spills very seriously, particularly in the context of the Tamar. Such spills have caused significant damage to biodiversity and, specifically, to fish. We are analysing the pH levels and the dissolved solids to prevent future occurrences.
I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Will he ask his Department to review the decision of the Environment Agency not to pursue legal action against Glendinning for the major pollution incident relating to Pigsdon quarry in 2014?
Legal proceedings were brought and the decision was made by Truro Crown court, under the hon. Judge Carr, to instead impose an enforcement order. Some £70,000 has been contributed by the company, but, much more importantly, five new lagoons have been put in place to deal with the incident and chemical processes are being used to prevent a recurrence.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman comes in, I emphasise that we are discussing the Tamar, not the Dee.
Indeed, sir. Cornwall is well-known for its history of mineral extraction, whether it be china clay or Cornish tin. Cheshire is about to enter into mineral extraction as well through fracking. The Government have gone back on their pledges on monitoring and preventing chemical spills from fracking rigs. While the Minister is considering the potential pollution of the Tamar, will he also consider whether there is sufficient monitoring to prevent chemical leaks from fracking in the headwaters of the River Dee, like that in the headwaters of the Tamar?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for an ingenious connection, although the nature of the extraction in the two cases is quite different. The Environment Agency takes its responsibilities very seriously, whether in respect of quarrying or fracking. If there are particular concerns, I would be happy to sit down with him to discuss them in more detail.
Emissions Standards: Fines
2. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the proposals by the European Commission for it to levy fines on vehicle manufacturers that do not meet emissions standards. 
In the wake of the Volkswagen engines scandal, it is extremely important both that we have monitoring in place to check the real levels of emissions of nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants from engines, and that we have proper fines in place. This Department and the Department for Transport will look very carefully at the proposals that were put forward by the Commission last week.
I am grateful for that very positive response from the Minister. Does he agree that it is time to break the relationship between industry, testers and regulators, so that the process is truly independent and so that Government agencies, whether they be in his Department or the DFT, act wholly in the public interest?
As a matter of principle, it is incredibly important that regulators are entirely independent of the industry they regulate. This is essentially an issue for the DFT. The reason the Commission’s proposals are interesting to ourselves and the DFT is that they include both the commitment on spot checks, with a clear indication of the fines, and a separation, as the hon. Gentleman says, the regulator and the industry.
Car emissions are a main contributor to poor air quality in this country. Many of the former local authorities that covered my constituency were among the first to sign up to the Clean Air Act 1956, but much of that progress has gone backwards as a result of poor air quality in urban areas. Is it not time for a new clean air Act that is fit for the 21st century?
Clean air is certainly an issue of significant concern, but air quality has improved significantly over the past 30 years. The levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, PM2.5 and PM10 have improved.
Not around here.
Air quality has also improved here. However, we will work very closely with individual local authorities on clean air zones to meet the level in the ambient air quality directive of 40 micrograms per cubic metre.
On the foot of the ongoing discussions with the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in relation to our inquiry into air quality, will the Minister hold the car manufacturers to account to ensure that car owners throughout Britain and Ireland who have been affected by the defeat devices are compensated?
This is a DFT lead, but the issue raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) about the Commission’s proposals addresses the relationship between the manufacturer, the vehicle owner, and the kind of fines that could be imposed. That is why member states will be looking closely at that Commission proposal.
3. What steps the Government plan to take to meet the UN target of halving food waste by 2030. 
Our commitment to the UN target of halving food waste is immensely important, and work on that is being taken forward by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—and the Courtauld 2025 agreement. It will aim to build on work that we have achieved since 2009, which has reduced household food waste by 17%.
The Minister is right to highlight the reduction in household food waste, but he will know that that is not being matched by the food industry. Will he explain why Government Whips objected to the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill, which was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) last Friday? Would it not be better to get the Bill into Committee, where its provisions and the positive course of action that it proposes could be properly considered, and we can take the opportunity to end the scandal of food waste?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has campaigned strongly on this issue for a long time. We have significant concerns about the targets set in that Bill, and we believe that its proposals include perverse incentives. Voluntary measures have increased by 70% the amount that retailers have managed to redistribute to charitable organisations, and the real key will be getting councils and retailers to work on a unified system.
While visiting the anaerobic digestion plant belonging to Severn Trent, which is near to my constituency, I was impressed by the energy recovery from food waste. However, does the Minister agree that too much edible food is still going into waste? How do the Government plan to intercept that food for redistribution while it is still edible?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, because at the moment the average household in the United Kingdom wastes more than £60 a month on food waste. We must ensure that food is not wasted in the first place on its way from the farm gate to the house, and if food cannot be consumed by humans, we must ensure that it is consumed by animals, and that it goes to anaerobic digesters only as a last resort.
The Soil Association estimates that between 20% to 40% of UK fruit and veg is rejected before it even reaches the shop—it is deemed as being a kind of “wonky veg” because it fails to meet the supermarket’s strict cosmetic requirements. Will the Minister ensure that supermarkets and manufacturers transparently publish their supply chain waste—I think Tesco is doing that with food waste hotspots? That is vital if we are to achieve a meaningful reduction in waste.
I absolutely agree that that is vital, and we recently held a round table with retailers on that issue. One solution, although not a total solution, is being pioneered by Tesco and Co-operative supermarkets, which are looking at individual varieties—for example, of potatoes—that result in much less food waste on the way from the farm gate to the shelf.
My constituents in Kettering, especially those from the wartime generation, are horrified about the amount of food that is wasted. How can we get back to the principle that we do not put more food on our plate than we can eat, and that we consume the food that is on our plate?
My hon. Friend has drawn attention to one of the central points of this issue, which is human behaviour and culture. Certain things can be done by the Government and others by retailers, but in the end a lot of responsibility rests on us all regarding how much food we buy, how we use it, and how much of it we throw away.
Flood Defence Programme
4. How many schemes will begin construction under the Government’s six-year flood defence programme in 2016. 
A total of 246 schemes will begin construction in 2016-17 as part of our first ever six-year programme of investment in flood defences. That £2.3 billion of investment represents a real-terms increase on the last Parliament, and will protect an additional 300,000 homes.
I congratulate the Minister on championing this cause. Does she agree that when it comes to investing in new flood defences and improving existing ones, getting the support of local authorities, drainage boards, and the private sector is incredibly important? Will she pay tribute to Mike McDonnell in my constituency, who has helped to set up a community interest company to invest in sea defences along the stretch of coast adjacent to Snettisham and Heacham in west Norfolk?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When internal drainage boards work with local businesses and local councils, we can get really good local solutions. The community interest company is a particularly interesting model, which is being pioneered by him and his constituents in North West Norfolk. It could potentially be used elsewhere.
Sheffield remains £20 million short of the investment it needs to protect our city. The Department is holding a teleconference with council leaders, but will the Secretary of State commit to visiting Sheffield to see the innovative flood defences we have planned that will protect the city from a potential £1 billion of economic damage?
As part of the national resilience review being led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Sheffield is one of the core cities that will be looked at in particular to make sure it is sufficiently resilient to flooding. I am sure that as part of that review there will be a visit to Sheffield to ensure that that very important city has the protection it needs.
Flood Re insurance will help many householders in Thirsk and Malton affected by recent floods, but it does not cover small businesses or leasehold properties with more than three units. In one such development in my constituency at Topcliffe Mill, residents of a two-bedroom flat now face a premium of £4,000 a year and an excess of £40,000. Will Ministers agree to meet me and representatives from the insurance industry to consider how we can provide a solution to this problem?
We are providing £6 million to help small businesses as a result of this winter’s floods. The issue my hon. Friend raises with regard to leaseholders is important. Ministers will be very willing to meet him to discuss it.
On the defence programmes and the victims of flooding, will the Secretary of State confirm whether her Department is making an application to the EU solidarity fund to draw down funds for victims and businesses?
We have not ruled out an application to the EU solidarity fund. We have until the end of February to apply. We need to find out the total cost of the floods before a potential application is made. Our priority has been to make sure we get funding to affected homes and businesses as soon as possible. In fact, for the floods that took place on 26 December, funding was with local authorities on 29 December. Our priority has been making sure we make £200 million available to fix the damage and help communities to get back on their feet.
The devastating floods across the country are extremely well documented, as are the knock-on effects of the Government’s decision to postpone or cancel capital schemes—an estimated cost of £5 billion. Communities, families, individuals and businesses have suffered ruinous consequences. It is imperative that the Government do everything possible to maximise resources from all areas. The Secretary of State mentioned the EU solidarity fund. Time is running out, with only three or four weeks left for an application in relation to Cumbria. Will she just get on with the job and do it now, please?
This Government have invested more in flood defences than ever before: a real-terms increase on the previous Parliament, which was a real-terms increase on what was spent under Labour. The fact is that the Labour Government spent £1.5 billion and we are spending £2 billion in this Parliament. We have got money to affected communities as soon as possible—that is our priority.
5. What the role is of the Great British Food Unit in promoting British food (a) in the UK and (b) overseas.
9. What the role is of the Great British Food Unit in promoting British food (a) in the UK and (b) overseas. 
10. What the role is of the Great British Food Unit in promoting British food (a) in the UK and (b) overseas. 
We launched the Great British Food Unit in January. It brings together expertise from UK Trade & Investment and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to create a team of 40 people in London and teams around the world, including five people in China, to promote great British food. I am pleased to say that food and drink manufacturers have already agreed to expand their exports by a third by 2020.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I am concerned that the Secretary of State is anti-European, because she is denying our European colleagues the opportunity to drink great British beer. Although we imported £418 million of beer last year, we exported only £494 million of beer. Given that we brew the best beer in the world, that figure should be much higher. What is she doing to promote the British beer industry and to encourage our European friends to sup up?
I know that beer is my hon. Friend’s passion, and I congratulate him on his role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on beer. Also, his constituency is home to some of the finest water in our country that produces some of the finest beer. In fact, Lord Bilimoria, one of the founders of Cobra, is one of our food pioneers helping to promote great British beer not just in Europe, but in India and China—we recently promoted great British beer at the Baker Street brew pub in Chongqing.
We are all now better informed.
The success of the food industry, not least in counties such as Essex, is largely down to the innovation and skill of the workforce. How will the Great British Food Unit encourage more people into the industry, particularly through apprenticeships?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are fantastic jobs to be had in the food industry, from farming to engineering and food technology. Food and drink is our largest manufacturing sector, and we need more apprentices in this vital sector. We have an ambition to triple the number of apprentices by 2020, and I will be holding a round table shortly with some of the leading figures from the industry to make sure they commit to that goal.
The Great British Food Unit and the enthusiastic Secretary of State will know that some of the greatest food on earth comes from the Gloucester Old Spot pig and from Gloucester cattle, including the single Gloucester cheese, which is famously used in the annual cheese rolling race. There is no better place to see these and 130 other great Gloucester producers than the Gloucester services on the M5, described by The Telegraph as probably the best service station in the UK. Were she to find herself near the M5 in the near future, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) and I would give her a warm welcome and a Gloucester Old Spot sausage. [Laughter.]
I thank my hon. Friend for his extremely kind invitation. It is one of the best offers I have had all year. [Laughter.] Next time I am driving along the M5, which I frequently am, I will be very happy to meet him at this amazing service station.
The Secretary of State has made the hon. Gentleman’s day, possibly his month and conceivably his year.
To hit a more serious note, after that interesting and humorous exchange, may I say to the Secretary of State that to produce great British food, we need great British technology? The news yesterday that Syngenta, our leading European food innovator, which produces wonderful technology and innovation and has a large plant in my constituency, is to be taken over by ChemChina means that overnight the European capacity for innovation in food technology and much else will be wiped out. Should the House not debate that very seriously before it goes through?
We are investing in science and technology. Last year, the Prime Minister announced a food tech innovation network, and, in terms of DEFRA’s capital budget, we are doubling our spend on investment in science and animal health research precisely so that we can take advantage of these huge opportunities.
The Great British Food Unit depends on great British farmers producing the goods for the unit, but many farmers are still experiencing problems with the Rural Payments Agency. One of my constituency farmers was only told late on Sunday afternoon of the failure to issue his payment, and even then it was done by email. What will the Secretary of State do to make sure that farmers are properly supported by the RPA?
The hon. Lady is right: farmers are facing difficult cash flow at the moment. We are doing all we can to get those payments out as soon as possible. It is the most complicated common agricultural policy that has ever been introduced. We were still getting the final details of it in February last year, but up to 77% of farmers are now being paid, and £1 billion has gone out the door to farmers. We are working to make sure that the farmers get their money as soon as possible.
Scotch whisky is a great Scottish and UK success story, with exports totalling £4 billion annually. Does the Secretary of State agree that reducing the 76% tax burden on an average bottle of Scotch in the coming Budget would send an important message that the Government support the industry? Will she speak to her friend the Chancellor and ensure that such a reduction is included in his statement?
I am sure that the Chancellor and the Treasury team have heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say. I agree with him that Scotch whisky is our top international export. Other products such as Scotch gin, which I promoted recently with the Scottish gin trail, taking people from the golf clubs of St Andrews to the distilleries around the north of Scotland, can also play a massive part. We have fantastic products in Scotland and fantastic products right across the UK. The Great British Food Unit is all about promoting them around the world. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on that.
17. In supporting Dorset food and exports internally and across the world, will my right hon. Friend pay particular tribute to some notable producers in my constituency: Fudges, the Blackmore Vale dairy, Sixpenny Handley brewery and the Langham estate? Without wishing to outdo my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), I should also add to that list the manufacturer of Dorset knobs, which I am very happy to offer the Secretary of State. Will she also take into account in all that her Department does the burden of regulation and the impost of the living wage, because many of these producers are very small, so those burdens fall particularly heavily on them? 
I would be delighted to visit some of the fantastic producers in Dorset that my hon. Friend mentions, such as the Blackmore Vale dairy, and to see what they have to offer as well as using the Great British Food Unit to promote them both here and overseas. We are working to reduce regulation on our food and farmers, and over the course of this Parliament we are looking to reduce the costs by £500 million, so that we can see more new businesses opening, more exporting and more selling their fantastic food here in Britain.
Flooding: Agriculture Industry
6. What assessment she has made of the effect of recent flooding on the agriculture industry. 
Farmers in many parts of the country have been affected by the winter flooding, notably in Cumbria, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Scotland and, of course, areas of Northern Ireland. We identified 600 farmers in Cumbria alone who suffered flooding after Storm Desmond. Unlike the Somerset floods two years ago, the flooding events have been relatively short-lived. However, in their wake, considerable damage has been done to stone walls, hedges and tracks. In England, we have established a farm recovery fund to help farmers get back on their feet.
In Northern Ireland, there is a long-established relationship with the Republic of Ireland Government in relation to Lough Erne and its levels. The UK Government had a relationship, too, from 1950, when that deal was made. Have there been any discussions with the Northern Ireland Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development about reviewing the levels of Lough Erne to stop farmers from being flooded in the area?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, flooding is a devolved matter, but if there is a need for discussion with the Irish Republic and if the Northern Ireland Administration would like me to be involved in that, I would be happy to have that conversation with them.
Farmers in areas in the south of my constituency, around Methley and Mickletown, have had large areas of their land flooded to hold water in order to prevent flooding of housing, which the farmers themselves agree with. However, what they do not agree with is the Environment Agency saying that it could take up to six years for this water to drain off the land. One particular farmer in my constituency had 80% of his land covered. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Environment Agency to speed up the draining of the water from this land?
That is a good point. Natural flood plains play an important role in alleviating the risk of flooding in urban areas. We intend to use the countryside stewardship scheme to help us to deal with flood problems. As for my hon. Friend’s specific point about the length of time for which land has been flooded, I shall be happy to take it up with the Environment Agency and see what can be done.
I am still waiting to hear the date of the meeting with Members whose constituencies lie along the River Wharfe to discuss the flooded farmland in Pool-in-Wharfedale and Arthington, in my constituency. We particularly need to discuss what can be done upstream to prevent the water from coming down and threatening both farms and housing. When can we have that meeting?
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), the floods Minister, has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and will be willing to meet him to discuss his concerns. My hon. Friend has already had many meetings with the many Members who have been affected by winter floods.
The Secretary of State says that DEFRA wants to be able to spend more on flood defences by reducing the millions paid in penalties to the EU every year. However, the National Audit Office says that the Rural Payments Agency fiasco could cost the country a whopping £180 million a year in penalties. Can the Minister confirm the most recent estimate of the amounts that are being paid to Brussels in fines, rather than being spent on British agriculture and dealing with flooding?
The “horizontal” regulation that governs the disallowance system has been changed, and the penalties that the Commission can charge, and their frequency, have increased. That is the issue of concern in this instance, rather than any particular issues involving the rural payments system. I repeat that we are spending £2.3 billion a year on flood defences, and have provided £200 million to help people to get back on their feet after the most recent episode.
Nature Improvement Areas
7. What assessment the Government have made of the contribution of nature improvement areas to habitat creation and wildlife conservation. 
The nature improvement area report has been overwhelmingly positive, which is quite a rare feature of monitoring reports of this kind. I pay particular tribute to the Wild Purbeck nature improvement area, where there has been an extraordinary combination of activities: saving the ladybird spider, which has included 3,000 volunteer hours, and involving schools through the forest school learning initiative. These are great, great projects.
I thank my hon. Friend for our hedgehog summit on Monday. What measures does he propose, along with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to increase the number of hedgehogs, which, as he knows, has declined by between 30% and 50% over the last 15 years?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has become a doughty champion of the hedgehog. The most important thing for hedgehogs, which are a much-loved species, is their habitat, and we are dealing with that by means of our hedgerow schemes, as well as the woodland planting schemes that the Secretary of State is promoting, which include the planting of 11 million more trees over the next five years. The real challenge for all of us, however, is to see hedgehogs in a suburban context, and, in particular, to consider the possibility of providing them with access and corridors through garden fences.
The 12 nature improvement areas were the right response to the Lawton report, but they were supposed to create 1,000 hectares of new woodland, 1,000 hectares of new chalk grassland, and more than 1,500 hectares of new wetland. How many hectares of each of those have actually been created?
I cannot give every one of those figures, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the target for chalk grassland was 1,000 hectares, and a single project achieved 1,773 hectares.
That was a wonderfully precise answer, worthy of a boffin, although the hon. Gentleman is not a boffin; he is a distinguished Minister of the Crown.
I am proud to say that Northern Ireland has eight areas of outstanding natural beauty, 47 national nature reserves, 43 special areas of conservation, and 10 special protection areas. The charities—especially the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—are working very hard in campaigning for support for wildlife in urban areas. What discussions has the Minister had with his Northern Ireland counterpart about preserving the countryside and ensuring that housing does not expand further from urban areas into rural locations, often encroaching on the wealth of wildlife in those locations?
We work closely with our Northern Ireland counterparts. Some of these issues are of course devolved, but we would love to work more closely on issues such as these, and if there are opportunities to do that, I personally would be delighted to engage more closely.
Flood Defences: Farmland
8. How many acres of farmland will be protected by Government investment in flood defences over the next six years. 
As a result of the Government’s £2.3 billion programme, more than 420,000 acres of farmland will be better protected by 2021. That means that over the course of the decade between 2010 and 2021, we will see 1 million acres of farmland being better protected from flooding.
I recently visited the River Steeping in my constituency with representatives of the Environment Agency and saw the huge amount of damage that badgers are doing to flood defences in that area—[Interruption.] Don’t worry. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Environment Agency’s preferred method of creating artificial setts to relocate badgers will have a meaningful effect on the riverbanks and secure the area for the future?
I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend and representatives of the local internal drainage boards to discuss flooding in his constituency, and I am pleased to hear that the Environment Agency has found a solution to this issue. I note that 100,000 acres of agricultural land in his constituency will be protected as part of our six-year programme.
While the Government are prevaricating, farms and businesses in the north of England and in Scotland are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the December floods. Can the Secretary of State explain why she needs to find out the total cost before applying to the EU solidarity fund, and will she be able to do this in time to meet the deadline?
The hon. Lady should be aware that we have made a farming recovery fund available, and that we have already paid out money to farmers worth up to £20,000 for each farmer. As soon as the floods took place, we looked on satellite mapping, identified the affected farmers and got on with paying them and sorting the issue out.
11. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of slow broadband services on farmers and other rural businesses. 
Access to fast reliable broadband is of course important for rural areas, as the hon. Lady well knows. There are two indicative measures that we have taken. One was to ensure that by the end of last year anyone who wished to have a 2 megabit service could access such a service. Perhaps more important is the universal service obligation, which will be in place with 10 megabits by 2020.
In 2012, when I criticised the Government for abandoning Labour’s universal broadband commitment, the then Secretary of State said:
“We have a plan and we are going to deliver it.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 1059.]
So was it part of the plan that, in 2016, farmers would still be unable to get the broadband access they need in order to fill out the forms that the Department makes it mandatory to complete online? What is the plan now?
As the hon. Lady is aware, farmers are able to make applications on paper. Also, she is even more aware than I am of the fact that this is an extremely difficult issue to deal with in rural areas. We have just carried out seven very interesting pilots with operations such as Cybermoor to look at different technological solutions, but the key indicator is the universal service obligation of 10 megabits by 2020.
The roll-out of superfast broadband in Devon and Somerset is being hampered by the poor performance of BT Openreach, which still has a virtual monopoly in the area. Is it not time that the Government did something to tackle that monopoly?
The Department for Communities and Local Government leads on this issue. The reason that the seven pilots have been interesting is that they are community-led pilots that have looked at different technological solutions ranging from satellite through to point-to-point wireless connections. We are going to need all those solutions and to involve all the different parties in order to deliver the difficult challenge of rural broadband.
T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. 
Following the severe flooding in the north of England over Christmas, the Government are working to help communities to get back on their feet and to restore critical infrastructure. We are taking forward two important areas of work: the national flood resilience review to assess how the country can be better protected from future flooding and increasingly extreme weather events and, in those areas affected by flooding, we are taking a catchment-based approach looking at what improvements are needed to flood defences and at upstream options for slowing the river flow.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the supermarkets and farmers about food waste by the supermarkets?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I held a round table meeting, with not just supermarkets, but food manufacturers, because we need to address the issue of food waste right through the food chain. We are working on the next step of the Courtauld agreement—Courtauld 2025—which will have voluntary targets to get both supermarkets and the food manufacturers to a better level.
T6. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will reallocate fishing quota from those who hold it only as an investment to active, small-scale fishermen such as those who fish out of Lowestoft, who bring real benefits to their local community? 
My hon. Friend will be aware that we had a manifesto commitment to rebalance quotas, and we have already commenced that this year, with the quota uplift that comes with the introduction of the landing obligation. We have made it clear that we will give the first 100 tonnes, and 10% thereafter, to the under-10 metres, and this year it will give them an extra 1,000 tonnes of fish.
T2. The recent Tesco case has shown the importance of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Does the Secretary of State share the view of the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales and many in the dairy sector that now is the time to consider extending the adjudicator’s remit right across the supply chain, from gate to plate, even if that requires legislative change? 
I am aware of the representations made by the NFU and of the conclusions of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in this regard. I know that colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are about to commence a review of the role of the adjudicator so far, and it may well be that as part of that they look at how the code is implemented. There would be challenges involved in trying to regulate things that far up, with thousands and thousands of different relationships to police, but we hear what has been said and we will look at this matter.
T8. Cross-compliance rules prevent hedge cutting in August, yet the only bird that seems to be nesting at that time is the very prolific wood pigeon. The rules are preventing farmers from doing vital work, as they are unable to get on to that land during August. Will Ministers agree to look at this to see what can be done to change these rules? 
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I am always looking at the cross-compliance rules to see whether we can introduce proportionality. I do not agree with him that it is just the wood pigeon that is being protected; yellowhammers and other rare species that we are trying to encourage to recover also have second broods later in the year.
One less well-publicised deal the UK has been negotiating with our European partners recently is the circular economy package, which could not only bring about significant environmental benefits, but create jobs and growth. The Government, however, do not seem to have a strategy for achieving the ambitious waste targets set out there or for unlocking the economic opportunities that would come from greater resource efficiency. When are we going to have a proper waste resources strategy from the Secretary of State?
The circular economy package is absolutely central, and we are looking closely at it. We sat down with a number of different people last week specifically to address it. The key is in getting the right balance between preventing the resources from being wasted in the first place and the targets that the European Union is setting, but I absolutely agree that this is vital and I am very happy to include the shadow Secretary of State in these discussions going forward.
I thank the Minister for that response —I hope the Secretary of State can reply to the next question. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says that the huge growth in plastics production means that by 2050 there could be more waste plastic in the sea than fish. Just 5% of plastics are recycled, 40% end up in landfill and a third end up polluting our ecosystems. What is the Secretary of State doing to combat plastics pollution? For starters, how about doing what President Obama has just done and ban microbeads in cosmetic products?
We are looking at the issue of microbeads, but I would point out that the plastic bag charge that we have introduced has brought about an 80% reduction in the use of plastic bags.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the multimillion pound joint investment by the Environment Agency and my local authority in the work on the River Avon, which runs through my constituency, as it will help to reduce flooding for hundreds of homes and businesses across the constituency? Will she also look at further funding should the flood risk increase?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I congratulate the Environment Agency and his local authority on that work. What we are doing as part of the national resilience review is making sure that we are properly protected right across the country. We are investing a record amount in flood defences, and doing it in a way that is fair. Therefore, our flooding formula reflects the number of houses and businesses protected wherever people live in the country.
T3. I welcome the announcement of further marine conservation zones around our coast to protect our wildlife. However, back in November 2012, when the previous round of MCZs was announced, many in my constituency were very concerned that the zone to protect Hilbre Island was dropped at the eleventh hour, especially in the light of the licence for underground coal gasification that exists in the Dee. Why was Hilbre Island not included in this latest round? 
We ruled out Hilbre Island, following assessments by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, because the simple truth was that the features that people said were there were not there sufficiently for us to designate those areas.
For farmers, farmgate prices are so low that the single farm payment is absolutely essential. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the Rural Payments Agency recognises that there are still too many farmers who have not received their payments, and that work is being done to ensure that, next year, we catch up so that we are not late in paying again?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. A number of farmers are facing cash-flow issues, which is why we are putting as much resource as possible into the RPA. We are now up to 77%, and we have paid out £1 billion. The cases that we are now dealing with are the more complicated ones, including those involving common land and cross-border land, which take extra time. As I have pointed out, we are dealing with a very complicated cap. One of my main efforts is to try to simplify that cap and enable farmers to make claims online this year so that the system will be faster next year.
T4. No ifs, no buts, will the Secretary of State commit to maintaining the ban on foxhunting with hounds? 
We have been very clear in our manifesto. We retain our commitment to a free vote on this issue, with a Government Bill in Government time.
Will the Secretary of State undertake that the Great British Food Unit will promote the superfood, Bury black pudding?
I certainly will. I have had the opportunity to sample the great British Bury black pudding in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I hope that it will become known around the world.
T5. London breached annual pollution limits just days into 2016, repeating what happened in 2015. The Government were forced by the Supreme Court to publish plans on reducing air pollution. Does the Secretary of State think that her Department is doing enough to tackle air pollution? It is projected that there will be five years of this in London. 
As the hon. Lady said, we published plans just before Christmas to ensure that we comply with those air pollution levels. The level of roadside nitrogen dioxide has fallen over the past five years. We have invested £2 billion in that already, but we do need to do more, which is why we issued the plans just before Christmas.
Seafood is nutritional and healthy and many thousands of people in the Cleethorpes and Grimsby areas work in the industry. What initiatives is her Department planning to promote the seafood industry?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. The Great British Food Unit has not just outposts around the world, but regional teams to help local businesses, whether they are in Cleethorpes or elsewhere in the country, to promote their food both in the UK and overseas. Certainly, seafood is a huge part of that.
T7. Can the Secretary of State confirm that it was her signature on a letter last July promising to drive forward fracking in sites of special scientific interest and national parks, in complete contradiction to assurances previously given? May I respectfully suggest to her that, since she is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, she should be standing up for the interests of the environment and rural areas, and not the interests of big globalised fracking companies that want to frack in rural Cheshire? 
As the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering made clear in their report, shale gas extraction is safe and has minimal impact on the environment, provided that it is correctly regulated. I am absolutely confident that we have very strong protections in place through the Environment Agency to do that.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I fear that this will be the last question. I am sorry, but progress has been very slow—very long questions and very long answers.
Has my hon. Friend thought through the impact of the introduction of marine conservation zones on the under-10-metre fleet? That could have an effect on smaller, non-nomadic boats, which might be banned from fishing in their own grounds.
I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that the interests of fishermen are taken into account when we make decisions on these designations. It is important to note that designation does not mean that we ban fishing; it may mean, for instance, limitations on the particular types of bottom-trawling gear that do most damage.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we really must move on.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
1. What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential effect of the date of the EU referendum on mayoral, local, and devolved institutions’ elections. 
The Electoral Commission recently wrote to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, following that Committee’s recent evidence session, on a number of issues, including the potential impact of the date of the referendum if it were to be held in June. A copy of the letter is available on the Committee’s website.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer. As he will know, early-day motion 1042, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), has cross-party support in the House. It calls for the EU referendum not to be held in June.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that holding the referendum in June would seriously undermine the democratic process? Furthermore, yesterday the First Ministers of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales published a joint letter calling for the EU referendum not to be held in June. Does he not agree that the Government should respect the calls from the devolved Administrations and defer the referendum?
It is for the Government to decide how they respond to the letters from the heads of those Governments. The Electoral Commission has strongly advised the Government and the House about the date of the referendum. The Government listened; they are not holding the referendum in May. I am sure that, as soon as a specific date is announced, the Electoral Commission will give further advice.
Given the lengthy procedure for determining the lead organisation, will my hon. Friend make it clear that the Electoral Commission will ensure that it appoints a lead organisation in sufficient time—and not halfway through the campaign?
The Electoral Commission is extremely exercised about the issue of appointing the lead campaigns, and it will do that as soon as possible.
Will my hon. Friend confirm whether the Electoral Commission has given any views about potential dates for the EU referendum in June?
My hon. Friend has his finger on the pulse. Let me read one sentence from the appropriate letter:
“As may be expected, the impact is greater the closer together the dates of poll and is particularly significant for the first two Thursdays in June (2 and 9 June in the case of 2016.) I would encourage that these dates are avoided if it is possible to do so.”
That is the advice that the Electoral Commission has given the Government.
Policy Development Grants
2. What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effect of the level of policy development grants on the operation of political parties. 
The Electoral Commission has recently written to the Government setting out its recommended approach to implementing the reduction of policy development grants, which the Government announced in the spending review and autumn statement of 2015. A copy of the Electoral Commission’s letter will be placed in the House Library.
Policy development grants allow political parties to develop considered, costed policies to the benefit of the people living in the UK. As the hon. Gentleman said, the grants are to suffer a cut, which will save the Treasury a very small amount of money relatively but have a big impact on political parties. Does he agree that there could not be a less appropriate time for such a cut?
The important thing is how the money is allocated among the various parties. The hon. Lady will know that the Electoral Commission has consulted the smaller parties. It has written to the Government recommending that those parties should be disproportionately protected—that is, they should get a smaller cut than the larger ones. The Electoral Commission is waiting for the Government to respond to that advice.
Is this issue not a real worry? In a healthy democracy we need parties to be able to develop policy. What is going on in the House of Lords and in this Chamber is penalising the Opposition in terms of the Short money and the policy development grant they get. That cannot be good for democracy, can it?
The hon. Gentleman always speaks very clearly and powerfully on these issues. Unfortunately, the issue he raises is a matter for the Government, not the Electoral Commission. It is for the Government to decide the size of the grant; the Electoral Commission will advise the Government on how the grant should be allocated.
This mean, despicable cut will hamper the power of Oppositions—the Conservative party will be in opposition in the future, as they were in the past—to reduce the democratic accountability of this place. Would it not be a great improvement, if the Government wish to improve the quality of our democracy, to cut the number of hereditary chieftains who sit in the House of Lords and the number of people in the House of Lords who buy their places by making donations to political parties?
Once again, a very powerful outburst from the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid these issues have absolutely nothing to do with the Electoral Commission.
That has never stopped the hon. Gentleman before. [Interruption.] I have never accused the hon. Member of indulging in an outburst—more a spontaneous articulation of strongly held opinions.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Queen’s 90th Birthday
3. What plans the Church of England has to mark the 90th birthday of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. 
The Church of England will mark the 90th birthday of Her Majesty with a large number of events and activities at national and local levels. Alongside these events, the Bible Society and HOPE have released a companion book titled “The Servant Queen”, with a foreword written by Her Majesty that discusses how her faith has influenced her service of this nation over the last 90 years.
I am sure I speak on behalf of the whole country when I say that the opportunities for the Queen to be celebrated are most welcome. The Church is recommending that every parish church organises an exhibition or festival on the weekend of 10 to 12 June. Will my right hon. Friend use her office to encourage residents to challenge local authorities that seek to charge for road closures or to require events to have public liability insurance?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, because there will be a large number of activities in London, not least a special service at St Paul’s on 12 June, and his constituents will no doubt want to be there. While this issue is not directly my responsibility, I will use my good offices with the Local Government Association to try to make sure that our constituents are not impeded in celebrating Her Majesty’s birthday in the best possible way.
Street Pastor Teams
4. How many street pastor teams the Church of England works with. 
The Church of England has supported Street Pastors since its formation in London by the Ascension Trust in 2003. A large proportion of its clergy and members of the congregations are involved in Street Pastors. In Kettering, nine of the 27 street pastors are Anglicans.
Kettering is indeed fortunate to have a superb team of street pastors, who go out in the town centre at weekends to speak to, often, vulnerable people and to many young people who are the worse for wear and who have had too much to drink. That really is an excellent example of faith-based action. May I urge my right hon. Friend, through her good offices, to encourage the Church of England to get even more involved in supporting such a worthwhile cause?
I could not support that recommendation more. There are now 12,000 trained street pastors in our country, serving 270 towns and cities. It is particularly interesting that the nightly reporting inventory for the last year for Kettering showed remarkable attention to detail. It refers to giving away 125 pairs of flip-flops, 294 bottles of water and an amazing 2,299 lollipops.
In my constituency, Street Pastors started in September 2015. Its vision is to go out to help vulnerable people and to do the best for them, and the results have been excellent. What discussions has the Church of England had about working with other Churches? We are better together, as we all know, and if we can do these things together, we can reach more people.
As I indicated, the concept of street pastors did not actually originate with the Church of England, and we acknowledge that. However, Anglicans support absolutely what the street pastors do. Churches should work together; indeed, we should look to work with other faiths. In the city of Birmingham, near my constituency, there are also street pastors of the Muslim faith, and I have seen for myself what an impact street pastors have on gang culture and on tackling knife and gun crime.
Ethical Investment Policy
5. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Church Commissioners’ ethical investment policy. 
During 2015, the Church Commissioners’ ethical investment strategy won awards at the Portfolio institutional awards in the category of responsible investment. The commissioners have also had success in leading shareholder resolutions on climate change behaviour with BP and Shell, and they will continue to work with other institutional shareholders on filing similar resolutions at their annual general meetings.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that full response, but is not the correct principle that the commissioners actively seek to shun investment in companies guilty of what the Chancellor calls “aggressive tax avoidance”?
Yes. Indeed, it is just a year to the day since the Archbishop of Canterbury said that a good economy is based on
“the principle that you pay the tax where you earn the money. If you earn the money in a country, the revenue service of that country needs to get a fair share of what you have earned.”
I could not put it better myself.
One of the ways in which the Church deploys its investments, ethical or otherwise, is in supporting schools across the country. Will my right hon. Friend use her offices to persuade the Church, and particularly certain dioceses, to take a more responsible and open-minded approach to joining academy groupings where some of their schools, particularly primary schools, are underperforming and need to change?
The Church of England is the largest provider of education in this country, and it is co-operating with the Government in trying to address poor performance in schools. Eighty per cent. of Church of England schools are rated “good” or “outstanding”, but the Church recognises the need to work with schools where the performance is not as good as that. Multi-academy trusts present a great opportunity for successful Church of England schools to mentor and help with the raising of standards among those which find this more difficult.
Church Leadership: Women and BME Groups
6. What further steps the Church of England is taking to increase the representation of women and BME groups among its leadership. 
The Church of England needs to increase its vocations for ministry by around 50% in the next 10 years in order to sustain the 8,000 clergy it currently has in parish ministry. The representation of women in the Church has grown significantly, with almost equal numbers being recommended for ordination training. Currently, those of black, Asian, and minority ethnicity make up 3% of the clergy population, and the Church is committed to increasing that percentage.
I welcome that answer. May I ask that, when trying to increase the range of people available to take up positions that are currently vacant, we pay particular attention to churches that have been vacant for long periods, because that is damaging to communities such as that at St Matthew’s in Skegness?
I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend on this, because as recently as Tuesday night in this House we passed the obscurely titled Diocesan Stipends Fund (Amendment) Measure. That Church Measure—it originated from the diocese of Lincoln, which covers his constituency—should enable his diocese to invest in the training of more clergy by releasing money from the funds for that purpose.
7. What support the Church of England provides to local credit unions. 
Churches and dioceses across the country have responded enthusiastically and creatively to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call to support credit unions and community finance, often building on pre-existing initiatives and helping to build financial resilience in communities. The diocese of Gloucester has recently part-funded the appointment of a credit union development worker for Gloucestershire Credit Union and established collection points in local churches.
The diocese of Gloucester has shown real commitment to breathing new life into Gloucester Credit Union; I should declare an interest as a long-standing member. However, we need to do much more to reach effectively those who are most vulnerable to loan sharks. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, while the Church of England builds and promotes its own new credit union, that will not distract from the important work it does in supporting existing local credit unions?
I absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Every Member of this House would recognise the importance of credit unions at the local level, but that goes hand in hand with, and does not detract from, the Archbishop’s task group on responsible credit savings, which has sought to harness the Church’s national and grassroots resources in support of developing a stronger community of finance.
As chairman of the all-party group on credit unions, may I welcome my right hon. Friend’s last answer? I also welcome the leadership that the Archbishop of Canterbury has shown on the issue of problem credit. Does she welcome the launch of Fair For You, and will she comment on how the Church can support that community finance initiative in the rent-to-own sector that is taking on some of the challenges in that sector and showing that responsible, local community finance can compete?
I will certainly take that suggestion back to Church House. The Church has shown commitment to helping people manage their money and invest safely, and to teaching our children at the very earliest age—through its LifeSavers project, with assistance from the Treasury—how to ensure that they do not get into debt. All that is evidence, I think, that the Church will be supportive of my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
Return of Kings
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Home Affairs if she will make a statement on events planned by the group Return of Kings.
Roosh V is a US, self-styled pick-up artist. Media reporting has suggested that supporters of Roosh V and the Return of Kings website were scheduled to hold nine events across the UK this Saturday 6 February. An announcement on the group’s website has been publicised in the press this morning, stating that no Return of Kings events will be held on Saturday.
The Government condemn in the strongest terms anyone who condones rape and sexual violence or suggests that responsibility for stopping these crimes rests with the victims. Responsibility always unequivocally rests with the perpetrator of these serious crimes.
Any form of violence against women or girls is absolutely unacceptable. The impact of domestic and sexual violence on the victims—physically, psychologically and emotionally —cannot be overstated, and the Government are working closely with victims and survivors, support services, the police and criminal justice agencies to end these terrible crimes. If criminal offences have been committed, including incitement of violence against women, the Government would expect local police forces to deal with any offenders appropriately.
The Government do not routinely comment on individual immigration or exclusion cases, but the Home Secretary has powers to exclude an individual who is not a British citizen, if she considers that their presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good. This Home Secretary has excluded more foreign nationals on the grounds of unacceptable behaviour than any before her. That can include, and has included, exclusions based on threats posed to women’s safety because of encouragement of violence against women.
The Government are pleased that the Return of Kings events appear to have been cancelled, and I look forward to this afternoon’s full debate in Westminster Hall on the subject of the role of men in preventing violence against women. I am sure we will discuss these issues at length.
I welcome the Minister’s response. There has been widespread ridicule of, and revulsion at, the antics of the group Return of Kings, including from the respected police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, Vera Baird, and parliamentary colleagues. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has written to the Minister about the matter, and there has been widespread coverage in the media. The public, in this country and worldwide, have also responded. Indeed, there are 63,000 signatures to the online petition calling for the events to be banned, so I am very glad that they will not go ahead this weekend. That is in no measure, as far as I can tell, due to the action of the Government, but we need assurances for the future, because Roosh V has said that he cannot stop men attending private meetings.
The Minister has said that the Home Secretary has the power to exclude individuals from the UK. What information do the Government hold about Roosh V’s plans to travel to this country in future, and is it the Minister’s expectation that he would attract a ban? Has she or the Home Secretary considered classifying Return of Kings as a proscribed group?
Events were advertised to Roosh V’s followers, which led to plans for counter-demonstrations in a number of UK cities, creating a threat both to public order and to women’s safety. The Minister has said that the police have powers to act if they believe that crimes have been committed. Does she believe that the threshold for incitement to rape or hate crimes has been met? What discussions have been had with the police, and what guidance has been issued to them, about handling such activities? In relation to the online advertising of the events—at which participants were apparently required to give the password “pet shop” before being admitted—what discussions have the Government had with internet providers and Facebook about taking down those offensive posts?
The events take place against the backdrop of a 41% increase in rape in the past year and the loss of much specialist provision. According to the Women’s Budget Group, 29% of the cuts announced to local authorities in the 2015 spending review could fall on services to support women who are suffering from violence, and 32 specialist refuges closed between 2010 and 2014. Many rape crisis centres have told me that they have no guarantee about their funding after next month. Will the Minister assure the House that that funding will continue from April this year?
As the Minister has mentioned, there will be a debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon on the role of men in tackling violence against women, and that is welcome. I expect that it will cover perpetrator programmes and compulsory sex and relationships education in schools, for which Labour has been pressing for many years. Will the Minister commit to introducing compulsory sex and relationships education as part of the personal, social, health and economic education curriculum in every school?
Finally, when will the Government ratify and implement the Istanbul convention, which was signed in 2012? What is the explanation for the delay?
I start by agreeing with the hon. Lady that the comments of this individual and the proposals of this group are absolutely repulsive. I am sure that everybody in the House will join us in condemning what they have said. Such things have no place in British society. I assure her that the Government are taking all the steps we can to deal with the matter, and I will be happy to write to her on the specifics of what the Government can do. She will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, and many of the things that she asked about are operational matters for local police. I will be happy to write to her about what local police can do to stop such activities, but it would not be appropriate for me to go into detail here.
The hon. Lady talked about ridicule, and I share her view that we should ridicule the group and show contempt for them, because they hold the most ridiculous views. She mentioned Vera Baird, with whom I agree that we should make a point of ridiculing the comments. If we can show that they are ludicrous, people will not want to be part of this.
The hon. Lady asked about internet providers. As she knows, we talk with internet providers about many topics, including indecent images of children online, children having access to pornographic material, and inappropriate material. I will certainly take this point up with the internet providers when I see them at the UK Council for Child Internet Safety board next month.
The hon. Lady asked about the Istanbul convention. We have an issue on article 44 of the Istanbul convention, which concerns an extraterritoriality matter. We are discussing it with the devolved Administrations, because it needs primary legislation, and I am not going to ratify the convention until I am absolutely certain that we comply with all its measures. We comply with everything except that one point, and I want to make sure that we deal with it before ratification.
The hon. Lady mentioned the debate this afternoon in Westminster Hall. I pay tribute to the white ribbon campaign, which has been instrumental in making it clear that men do not want to see violence against women and girls.
Finally, I want to take up what the hon. Lady said about the 41% increase in rape. That is a 41% increase in reported rape, and we welcome that, because it shows that victims have the confidence to come forward and that they are reporting those crimes. If they do so, we can get convictions, which are at their highest ever level. The crime survey for England and Wales shows that the level of those crimes is not going up, and we welcome that. We want to see more reporting, and I hope she will join me in welcoming the increase in reporting.
I welcome the Government’s commitment, through education, to raising awareness about sexual and relationship abuse with its “This is Abuse” campaign. Does the Minister agree that more emphasis must be placed on tackling controlling behaviour and emotional abuse, which often go unreported?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The “This is Abuse” campaign has been extremely successful, and I am very pleased that the Government announced, just before Christmas, that we are continuing with it. It is so important that young people understand what is appropriate, understand what is appropriate in relationships and understand what a normal loving relationship is, as opposed to an abusive one.
My hon. Friend will know that the new domestic abuse offence—the offence of coercive or controlling behaviour—was commenced on 29 December. The new offence had been called for for many years. It was a difficult thing to do, which is why the Government made sure that we got it right, but we now have the ability to prosecute and convict offenders who never commit physical violence against their victims, but have abused them for far too long.
I thank the Minister for her comments. I join her in condemning rape and violence in any form and, in particular, any attempt to blame the victims. I wholeheartedly agree with her that responsibility must always rest with the perpetrator.
We in the Scottish National party are pleased that the events have been cancelled. The anti-women agenda behind them is utterly and completely repugnant. In Scotland, our petition against the events, which were due to take place in Edinburgh and Glasgow, has attracted about 40,000 signatures. Members may be aware that SNP Members have signed an early-day motion condemning these sexist and hate-mongering meetings and the misogyny behind them.
In Scotland, Police Scotland has been working closely with anti-violence against women organisations. It put out a fairly strongly worded statement about the policing of the events that were to have taken place. It is obviously absolutely paramount, as I am sure the Minister would agree, that women should be able to go about their lawful business, day and night, in our cities and towns without being subjected to this sort of intimidation.
The Scottish Government and Police Scotland have worked hard on the investigation of sex crimes in Scotland. The Minister will be aware that a number of years ago —in 2008—the Scottish Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service set up a specialist national sexual crimes unit. I was very proud to be one of its founding prosecutors. Our conviction rates for rape and sexual violence have indeed increased, but we are still working very hard on that, as these are challenging crimes to prosecute.
I associate myself with the questions raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), and I thank her for asking this important urgent question. SNP Members, too, want the Istanbul convention to be ratified as soon as possible, and I am sure the Minister will reassure me that she is continuing to liaise with the devolved Governments about that.
Will the Minister reassure me about one point raised by the Member for Stretford and Urmston? If the Home Secretary becomes aware of any plans this gentleman—I use the word loosely—may have to enter the United Kingdom, will she liaise with the Scottish Government, and indeed the other devolved Administrations, on any future events?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her comments. I assure her that I will copy her into my letter to the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). We want to take all the steps we possibly can, and I want to set out in depth the steps that the Government can take and what we will do.
The hon. and learned Lady mentioned the Istanbul convention. I assure her that we are liaising with the devolved Administrations to make sure that we ratify it as soon as possible. She talked about police forces. I want to pay tribute to Police Scotland, and to all police forces across the United Kingdom. It is worth making the point that such criminals do not recognise borders, and police forces need to work together to make sure that we tackle these crimes. Such crimes are not acceptable in the United Kingdom—and I mean the whole United Kingdom.
I very much support what the Opposition Front Benchers have said. We defend our cherished liberty of free speech to the utmost, but with that freedom must come responsibility. May I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that I am pretty certain all Conservative Members would welcome the proactive engagement of the Home Secretary and her Department not only in excluding this man—frankly, he is an embarrassment to all men—but in proscribing his organisation?
I want to reassure my hon. Friend that he would struggle to find a more proactive Home Secretary. This Home Secretary has excluded more people and done more to tackle violence against women and girls than any Home Secretary in history, and I am very proud to serve in her Department.
These planned meetings may well have been simply a publicity stunt by an attention-seeker so insecure in his own masculinity that he goes to such lengths to augment the size of his—er—following. I have been contacted by many constituents—men and women—who are outraged and revolted and also frightened by the planned meeting in Newcastle, so can the Minister reassure them that anyone meeting in Newcastle or anywhere else, or coming to this country to plan or condone rape, would be treated in the same way as anyone planning or condoning murder, terrorism or any violent act?
I can assure the hon. Lady that that is a criminal offence and such people would be treated in the same way. I join her in her comments about the possible reasons why this individual is doing what he is doing—to ensure that he gets publicity, which he may need for other reasons. I will say no more.
Can we be really robust in deciding who is allowed into this country and who is not? Rather than relying on individual police forces to intercept such individuals after their arrival, if the Government have clear intelligence that an individual or a group are seeking to incite criminal activity in this country, the Government should have no qualms at all about making it clear that these people are excluded from our country, so that we do not have to put extra pressure on our police forces, who have many other things to do.
My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but I agree that it is much better to exclude than to deal with such people when they are here. This Home Secretary has excluded more foreign national offenders and foreign nationals than any other.
I can see no possible benefit from this individual being allowed into the UK now or in the future, so may I add my voice to those of hon. Members who say that, although we understand that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases, we hope that very soon she will be able to do so by saying that this person is excluded permanently from the UK? She cannot talk about operational police matters; is there a general steer that she would hope to give to the police as to their response to this matter?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been heard. I have the Police Minister sitting next to me and he has also heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.
Although I share the revulsion at this group’s views and the need to exclude such people from the UK, there is a substantial weight of evidence now to suggest that this group has no plans to meet and is concocting these plans across the globe to generate maximum publicity for its vile views, and that it is taking politicians and the media across the globe for a ride. I welcome the news that these alleged events have been cancelled, but has the Minister seen or heard any evidence to suggest that there was actually a plan to hold any of these events in the UK?
I have as much information as my hon. Friend as to how valid the plans may or may not have been, but he makes an important point. We should all remember, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, to treat such people with ridicule rather than seriously.
I, too, welcome the public revulsion which has resulted in the cancellation of the Return of Kings meetings, including one in Cardiff, which Plaid Cymru was set to oppose. How will the Minister address the wider question of the balance between free speech online and the incitement of violence against women as though it was socially acceptable?
The hon. Lady asks about online specifically. I assure her that what is illegal offline is illegal online. If it is a criminal offence, it is a criminal offence, no matter where it happens.
As part of the review of public order, will my hon. Friend review the weighting of the community impact element when the police decide when to intervene? One of the problems with such public order decisions is that the police take quite a black and white decision about whether the law has been broken, rather than taking a wider view of the impact that that has on the community involved.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he has personal experience in his own constituency. I can assure him that we will look at those points.
This is not the first time that a campaign of violence and aggression has been orchestrated via the internet, and it will not be the last. Although we hear warm words from the Government every time there is an incident, nothing ever seems to happen. I press the Minister to say what action the Government will take over the ease with which vile messages can be distributed via the internet.
I assure the hon. Lady that it is a criminal offence to make these kinds of comments. The Government do not take these matters lightly. We work hard and at length with the internet service providers, which have a responsibility to ensure that such messages are not distributed.
This individual’s offensiveness and arrogance are exceeded only by his ignorance. There are real worries about whether the meetings were anything other than a publicity stunt to get a reaction. Does the Minister agree that the key thing is to ensure that there are positive role models for young men, which the majority of people are, and that the key mistake this individual made was to think that many men would want to attend meetings so vile in their intent?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend.
On the very day when we will discuss for the first time at Westminster the positive role that men can play in preventing and ending violence against women, does the Minister share my concern that this small, small man’s abhorrent views and publicity seeking risk distracting us from the positive role that the vast majority of men —real men—would like to play in ending misogyny in all its forms?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point and I look forward to debating the matter this afternoon. He is absolutely right that men have a positive role to play, and the vast majority of men do so.
Does the Minister agree that this situation is symptomatic of a much bigger, awful trend towards misogyny, hatred against women and violence that we are seeing on all sorts of media, including Twitter, which is international? What efforts is she making to promote an attitude of zero tolerance towards that trend, not just in Britain, but by taking leadership internationally to address it at its roots?
The hon. Gentleman leads me into an answer that could potentially last many days on the different things that need to be done internationally to promote women and women’s rights, such as the action that the Government are taking to tackle female genital mutilation and forced marriage. All people have a right to exist and live equally. These views and comments are not acceptable.
It is a ridiculous irony that the events have been cancelled for the safety of this man’s supporters, given the nature of the events. I join everybody in their condemnation of this sick individual and his misogynist followers. Will the Minister pay tribute to the groups of campaigners across the country, particularly in Glasgow, who have helped to force the cancellation of the events? Will she also pay tribute to Police Scotland, which has worked closely with the campaigners in Glasgow and Edinburgh to ensure their safety at the events? There was unequivocal condemnation in the Police Scotland statement, which said that
“sex without consent is rape.”
I agree with the hon. Lady. I pay tribute to Police Scotland and to all police forces across the country, which work equally hard to deal with these crimes and to make that message heard.
I agree with the Minister that most men will not support these vile, anti-women, misogynistic, pro-rape views. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will support the Home Secretary unequivocally in making sure that Roosh V never sets foot on British soil. What more are the Government doing to make sure that the small number of individuals who do support these abhorrent views learn the error of their ways and see that such views are not acceptable in a decent society?
The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that prevention and education are incredibly important to make sure that the young men—and older men—who hold these views understand that they are wrong. The “This is Abuse” campaign, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) mentioned, is part of that, as is our work to end gang and youth violence and exploitation, because young men who are in a circle where it is seen as acceptable to exploit young women and treat them as no more than sex objects have to be educated that that simply is not right.
The fact that this event in Glasgow has been cancelled shows that people do make Glasgow. Does the Minister agree that any event planned to coach men how to coerce women into having sex. is not a free speech issue but an issue of public safety and order? Will she join me in condemning the sick-minded halfwits who support these events and were planning to attend them, and does she welcome the fact that this weekend they will now be sitting in their underpants, eating cold ravioli from a tin?
The hon. Gentleman conjures up quite an image—I think I will leave it at that!
Such grotesque misogynist and homophobic views are not masculine—they are a perversion of masculinity and are cowardly. Does the Minister welcome initiatives by the National Union of Students and student unions—including in Leeds—to train bar staff to spot signs of sexual harassment? We must stamp out sexual harassment in all our society.
I would be very interested in learning more about what the hon. Gentleman says, as that is exactly the kind of initiative that we need to ensure that it is clear that no woman can ever be guilty of inciting her own rape. Rape is committed by the perpetrators, and they are the only people who are responsible.
As the Minister will know, I wrote to the Home Secretary on this issue in response to the outrage and anger of my constituents who contacted me about it. The Government of Australia have publicly stated that they will continue to monitor any application from Roosh V, or anyone else associated with the Return of Kings. Will the Minister assure the House that the UK Government will do likewise for any individual associated with this group who is promoting a diet of hate?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Secretary keeps a very close eye on all these matters, and that the Government take every step they possibly can.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business, and all that jazz?
There is not much jazz in this, unless there is an MP4 concert coming up, but that is not something I know about. The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 8 February—Motions relating to the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2016 and the State Pension (Amendment) Regulations 2016—that certainly doesn’t have any jazz in it—followed by debate on a motion on the future of the routes of the Great Western Railway. The subject for that debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 9 February—Opposition day (un-allotted day). There will be a half-day debate on the European referendum on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, followed by a half-day debate on housing on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. That will be followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the House of Commons (Administration) Bill.
Wednesday 10 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports, followed by a motion relating to the Procedure Committee report on the notification of arrest of Members.
Thursday 11 February—Debate on a motion relating to Equitable Life, followed by debate on a motion on the conservation of sea bass and the effect of related EU measures on the UK fishing industry. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 12 February—The House will not be sitting.
We have yet to finalise the full business for the week commencing 22 February, but provisional business will include:
Monday 22 February—Second Reading of a Bill—[Interruption.]
Hon. Members will just have to wait—anticipation for next week.
I also inform the House that the business for Westminster Hall for 11 February will be:
Thursday 11 February—General debate on the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims and other religious minorities in Pakistan.
It has been quite a week, hasn’t it! I thought I was hearing things yesterday morning when listening to the “Today” programme, when they said that a “Belgian loon” had given the Prime Minister his backing, I thought, “Is that gross BBC bias? Inappropriate stigmatising language?” Perhaps they were talking about a Walloon? No, it was Mr Sander Loones, the vice-chair of the New Flemish Alliance. So now we know—the Loones back the Prime Minister.
As far as I can see, the only people Leave.EU hates more than the EU are Vote Leave. And Grassroots Out, of course. Oh, and then there is Better Off Out, which I thought was a gay organisation but apparently is not, and is a completely different organisation from Get Britain Out, which also is not a gay organisation. “Splitters!” we might all shout. Leave.EU believes that Vote Leave does not really want to leave the EU. Vote Leave believes, however, that Leave.EU is a bunch of right-wing homophobes—it is not far wrong. Leave.EU thinks that Vote Leave are a bunch of hippy-dippy, let-it-all-hang-out libertarian lunatics. And everyone hates Iain, apparently. Will the Leader of the House tell us which group he is going to join? Will it be Grassroots Out, Vote Leave or Leave.EU, or will he just sign up to the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean Popular People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea all at the same time?
I note that the Leader of the House just announced the Second Reading of “a Bill” for 22 February. That is not an announcement—it is a non-announcement. What Bill will this be, or does the Leader of the House even know? Has the Chief Whip not told him yet? He could whisper in his little ear and tell us all later. For all we know, following what the Minister for Europe said earlier this week, it could be the putting children up chimneys Bill. Frankly, I would not put it past this lot. Now that the new Justice Secretary has consigned yet another preposterous policy that came from the pen of the former Justice Secretary, will the mystery Bill be the Chris Grayling abolition Bill?
Incidentally, Mr Speaker, I can let you in on a secret, as long as you do not tell anybody else. Apparently, members of the Cabinet refer to the Leader of the House as the Dark Lord, although at this rate I think he is going to be the Invisible Lord. Will the hon. Member for Mordor ensure that the Work and Pensions Secretary comes to the House next week to make a statement on the despicable appointment of Doug Gurr, the head of Amazon China, as a non-executive director of the Department for Work and Pensions? Is this some kind of cruel joke or deliberate insult to benefit claimants and people in receipt of pensions?
For years, Amazon has used anti-competitive practices to crush competitors. It has used deliberate and calculated means of avoiding paying its fair share of tax in this country and it has systematically refused to co-operate in tackling VAT fraud. If it was a benefit claimant, people would be accusing it of fraud. The figures are shocking. It took £5.3 billion of sales from British internet shoppers but, according to Companies House, paid just £11.9 million in UK tax. That is a tax rate of 0.002%—not 0.2% or 2%, but 0.002%. Those are best mates rates. Is it not always the same with the Tory Government? There is one rule for the rich and powerful, and quite another for the rest.
When the Work and Pensions Secretary comes to the House, will he explain this to us all? Under his rules, if we take two twins born in 1953—let us call them, for the sake of argument, Jack and Jill—Jack gets £155 in state pension, while Jill gets £131 just because she is a woman. And that is not all. Less than one in four women born in the 1950s will qualify for the full flat-rate state pension. That is a disgrace! It is unfair, unjust and immoral.
On Tuesday, we had the Second Reading of the Enterprise Bill. The Bill has already been through all its stages in the House of Lords. As it started in the Lords, the Public Bill Committee in the Commons cannot take any public evidence. Yet in a case of startling hubris, the Business Secretary announced that the Government intend to add a whole new section to the Bill to liberalise Sunday trading. This was not in the Conservative manifesto. It was not even mentioned in the Lords. Who are the Government frightened of—the bishops or the voters?
Lent starts on Wednesday, so may I suggest a new Lenten discipline for the Leader of the House and the Government? Tell the House first. Today is Time to Talk day, when we talk about mental health. Will the Leader ensure that the NHS England mental health taskforce report, which has been constantly delayed and was originally promised for before Christmas, is not published during the recess, but when the House is sitting next week? Leaks from the report suggest a £1.2 billion gap in mental health provision. Warm words about mental health and parliamentary sovereignty are all very well, but we will judge the Government by their actions, not their words.
I want to end with a few words about personnel in the office of the Leader of the House. I understand that he has decided to do without the services of his head of office, Mike Winter. I cannot say how retrograde a step I believe this is. Mike is a man of complete and utter civil service professionalism. He served Labour and Conservative Leaders of the House with complete impartiality and dedication, working closely with Members of all political parties, putting in extremely long hours and leading his team admirably. He frequently put me right. His total focus has been on serving the House, which I gently suggest to the Leader of the House should be his focus too. I wish Mike well.
Mr Speaker, your request about the length of the shadow Leader of the House’s contribution lasted just one week.
The shadow Leader of the House made several requests for statements. I simply remind him, as I do each week, that I provide him with extensive opportunities to debate matters in the House, but we have established in recent weeks that each week he stands and asks for debates, and almost never do they get tabled when the Opposition are given time for them. He and his party table debates on fewer than one in six of the subjects he asks for debates on. Either he is not seriously interested in them, or his own party is not listening to him.
The shadow Leader of the House asked about tax paid. I simply remind him that our steps to recover tax from companies such as Google are necessary because, during its 13 years in power, Labour did nothing about it. I sit and listen to the hypocrisy of the Opposition—they ask why we are doing this now and they talk about mates rates—but they did nothing about it in government. He also talked about pensions, which they did nothing about in government either. We are introducing a new single-tier pension that will deliver fairness for people in our society and ensure that everybody has a decent retirement. In the 13 years Labour was in power, when did it ever do anything about that?
The shadow Leader of the House talked about the changes in the Enterprise Bill. I simply remind him that we are the elected House, and we will debate a matter related to devolution, which is something that Labour is supposed to support but which it clearly does not any more.
Once again, we heard nothing of this week’s events in the Labour party and its latest madcap idea. As if using nuclear submarines as troop carriers was not enough, the shadow Chancellor now wants to get rid of borders. Yes, no borders at all! We would have terrorists crossing borders, organised crime spreading its nets and more and more migration against the wishes of the people of this country. The Labour party has been seized by a madcap ideology, and the shadow Leader of the House is still sitting there and supporting it. I do not understand why.
Will the Treasury take a closer look at the proposed changes to the disbursement of landfill tax revenues through the landfill communities fund before they become effective in April? Currently, 10% of the funds for every project are raised by a third party—usually the applicant—but the proposal is to transfer that 10% to the landfill operator. The concern is that many small operators might withdraw from the scheme, meaning that fewer projects can be considered. I am sure that this is an unintended consequence.
I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I can assure her that the Department for Communities and Local Government is in discussions with industry representatives and is trying to do what it needs to do in the right way. It has to take some decisions, but it is fully aware of her concerns as it looks to reach a decision.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. Mr Speaker, I am sure that you and the rest of the House would like to know that today is World Cancer Day. Almost every household in the country is touched by cancer, so this is a great opportunity to pay tribute to all the wonderful staff who work in the hospitals across the whole of the United Kingdom and treat people with this still appalling condition.
This morning, the Daily Mail intriguingly asked, “Who will speak for England?” I have no ambition in that department, but I was thinking that the Leader of the House is perhaps the ideal candidate. He is “Dr EVEL of Lore”, the man who liberated English legislation from the oppression of we pernicious hordes of Scots MPs and he is also one of the leading Eurosceptics in the Cabinet. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
We have an opportunity to debate this matter because we have a European debate next week, courtesy of the Democratic Unionist party—I am grateful to DUP Members for bringing it to our attention again. Perhaps we will have another opportunity to discuss the joint letters from the First Ministers of the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments from across the UK. Perhaps it will not be so contentiously dismissed as it was yesterday by the Prime Minister when it was raised here. A little bit more respect for the First Ministers of the various Assemblies and Parliaments would be in order this time round.
We have only one week in which to secure a deal on the fiscal framework—the critical financial arrangement that underpins the Scotland Bill—yet the two Governments could not be further apart. We had only an hour or so to debate it yesterday, unfortunately, as a result of the extended statement, and there will be no further opportunity to look at this before agreement is to be reached next Friday. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said something intriguing yesterday in front of the Scottish Affairs Committee. He said that if agreement on the fiscal framework is reached, it would have to come back to this House for a possible debate, and he hinted at a possible vote. I do not know what the Leader of the House knows about what the Chief Secretary was saying yesterday, but it raises some intriguing questions. If it does come back to this House and the House then rejects the fiscal framework, what on earth happens to Scotland? I want to hear the Leader of the House respond on this matter.
I know that urgent questions are a matter for you, Mr Speaker, and that you decide whether or not they happen. Could we have a little debate or even just a conversation about urgent questions on sitting Fridays? There were two last Friday, and that presents immense difficulty for Scottish Members—in fact, for Members of any constituencies other than those in London—because we cannot get to the House on a Friday morning. We have to make some critical decisions on whether to stay for the urgent questions or go back to serve our constituents on a Friday—the one working day when we have such an opportunity—given that we have to spend a day travelling back and forwards to this place. May we have a conversation about that, Mr Speaker?
May we have a debate on tax arrangements across the United Kingdom? Apparently, Labour wants to tax workers on below-average earnings in Scotland, but also to reduce taxes for the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not know whether this is Labour’s Better Together tax or the Tory austerity tax, but I would like to have some clarity about Labour’s plans for the whole UK.
Lastly, I come to an issue on which we might all be able to agree—MP4 for Eurovision! The time has come. I know that you are a fan, Mr Speaker, as is the Leader of the House. This is a political contest, as we know, and we have had all these young starlet acts trying to achieve a win, but now is the time for grizzled old politicians to get in there and do their bit for the United Kingdom. I am sure I will secure the support of the whole House for MP4 for Eurovision.
I think that is a great idea. The hon. Gentleman and I do not always share exactly the same views on European matters, but I can tell him that I will happily champion the cause of MP4 in Eurovision. I just hope that there is a change when it comes to those difficult votes, because countries in eastern Europe unfortunately tend to award the UK entrants “nul points”. Let us hope that MP4 will turn things round. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have the support of the whole House in doing so—
Oh no. I am sorry to say that the shadow Leader of the House will not be supporting MP4 for Eurovision. I think that is a shame and a betrayal of the principles of the House, but never mind.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asks whether I am going to speak for England. I have to say that I speak for the United Kingdom, and I think all of us here should speak for the United Kingdom. He called me Dr Evel—I have been called Dr Evil and the Dark Lord today, so we are mixing our books somewhat—but on the EU vote, we were very clear, as was the hon. Gentleman’s former First Minister, that there should be a sensible gap between the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections and a referendum. The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that there will be a gap of at least six weeks, which is the gap requested by the hon. Gentleman’s former party leader. He will therefore forgive me if I treat his comments today with a degree of scepticism. We are simply doing what the Scottish nationalists asked for.
The hon. Gentleman is more pessimistic than I am about the fiscal framework. I am sure that the constructive dialogue between the Government at Westminster and the Government in Edinburgh will ensure that there is no problem with it, and that we will reach agreement. We all want to see a Scotland Act, rather than a Scotland Bill, in time for the Scottish elections, and we will continue to work to that end.
Urgent questions on Fridays are, of course, a matter for you, Mr Speaker, but I am sure that the Scottish National party will want to participate in Friday debates just as actively as any other party in the House.
There is one more thing on which we can agree today. The hon. Gentleman talked about Labour’s tax rise proposals. I do not think that they are good for Scotland either, and I think that that is why the Labour party is struggling in Scotland. Saying to people, “Vote for us and we will increase your taxes” has never, in my experience, been a good platform for an election.
Let me give the Leader of the House an opportunity to be a white knight for the people of Lancashire. The county council has embarked on a consultation about the withdrawal of subsidies from bus services. The consultation will close at the end of March, but in the meantime the council has already told bus operators that it will withdraw the subsidies, and some services will cease on 21 February. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make a statement about this sham consultation, and about what can be done to help some of the most elderly and vulnerable people, living in villages, who will be isolated if the bus cuts go ahead?
My hon. Friend has made his point in his customary forthright manner, and he is right. It is not acceptable for a county council—a Labour-controlled county council—to announce a proposal, to consult on that proposal, and then to start to take action before it has even seen the responses to the consultation; but that, of course, is what Labour is really like when it holds power.
When can we debate the Government’s planned cut in funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit, which is welcomed only by those sadists who think it fun and amusing to torment defenceless wild animals? Will the Government cancel the threatened cut, or will they proceed with it and reinforce their reputation as the nasty party which does not care about animals’ suffering?
I know that a number of Members have expressed concern about the issue. The Home Secretary will be in the House on Monday week, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise it with her then.
Last Saturday I sent the Fisheries Minister an image of a chart showing a French-registered fishing vessel inside the United Kingdom’s six-mile limit. Looe Harbour Commissioners would like to know what investigations the Minister has carried out. As today is my birthday, will the Leader of the House give me a present by asking the Fisheries Minister to come here and make a statement? Perhaps he could also tell us how he will deal with the imbalance in the haddock quota, whereby UK fishermen receive about 10% of the total allowable catch while French fishermen receive about 80%.
Let me begin by wishing my hon. Friend a very happy birthday, probably on behalf of all of us. She is still a very powerful advocate for the fishing industry and the communities that she represents. The Fisheries Minister is, of course, a neighbour of hers, but I will ensure that he is made aware of the point that she has raised. It is a matter of great concern to our fishing communities that such matters are dealt with properly and the rules are followed. We should certainly take action when they are not.
I welcome the announcement that DONG Energy is to proceed with Hornsea Project One. May we have a statement on how the project can be used to assist the development of the South Humber bank, and how the Government will use their new procurement guidelines to ensure that UK steel is used in that development?
We are anxious to ensure that UK steel is used in UK projects. As the hon. Gentleman will know, many of the big infrastructure projects are using it, and we will continue to work to ensure that that happens. We want the sector to be developed on Humberside; it is already a very important part of the local economy. There will be questions on this very subject next Thursday, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raise it with the relevant Minister then.
It is one thing for the Leader of the House to poke fun at the Leader of the Opposition over his strange ideas about the Trident successor, as he did today. It is quite another thing for No. 10 to adopt this policy on the question of delaying a vote which everyone, including the Ministry of Defence, industry and both sides of the nuclear debate in Parliament, expected to take place in the next few weeks. Can the Leader of the House look the House in the eye and tell us that those at No. 10 are not playing party politics with the nuclear deterrent? If they are, it is beneath contempt.
My right hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate for our nuclear deterrent—a view that I support wholeheartedly—and he has been effective in highlighting the flaws in the Opposition’s policies. He will know that it is the Government’s intention to debate this matter in the House in due course. I cannot give him an announcement today on when that will happen, but I will ensure that my colleagues are aware of the concerns that he has raised.
Last year, Dublin’s Special Criminal Court convicted Thomas “Slab” Murphy of tax evasion. On Tuesday evening on the BBC, he was exposed as a former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA and a godfather of serious and organised crime. Putting the Accutrace S10 marker in British fuels was supposed to stop the laundering of British fuels across the whole of the United Kingdom, but this man’s crime syndicate continues to launder these fuels. When is the Treasury going to get a grip on HMRC and get a new marker into British fuels that actually works? This week, 59,000 litres of fuel were wrongly seized by HMRC because the roadside test for Accutrace is a dud. Will the Leader of the House urge the Treasury to get this criminal activity stopped?
We all want to see this kind of criminal activity stopped, because it damages legitimate businesses and it damages the economy of Northern Ireland. I will ensure that the point he has raised is brought to the Treasury’s attention, because it is clearly something that it would not want to see continuing either.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on pharmacy services? Having visited a local pharmacist in Prittlewell this week, I was horrified to find that as a result of overall reductions in the budget of £174 million, there is every likelihood that the wonderful range of services that our pharmacists offer will be diluted.
This concern was raised last week, and the Minister responsible, the Minister for Community and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), happened to be on the Front Bench at the time. I was able to provide an assurance to the House that he would treat this matter with great care. He is aware of the concerns that hon. Members have raised and he will be back in the House next week. This is something we have to get right, because pharmacies play an important role in local communities, and the Minister is well aware of that.
The Leader of the House might not be aware that, before I entered the Parliament, I had a proper job outside this place—
In the 19th century.
No, in the 18th century, with you! One of my employers was ICI—Imperial Chemical Industries—which has now become Syngenta. Is the Leader of the House aware that Syngenta is one of the three largest chemical companies in the world, and that it now looks as though it could be taken over by ChemChina, a Chinese Government-based organisation? This will put thousands of UK jobs in danger and could eradicate them from the market. May we have an urgent debate to discuss this? Just like steel, the chemical industry is a big employer at the heart of our economy.
I am not aware of the details of the proposals, but as ever the hon. Gentleman certainly makes a powerful case. I am sure that his comments will be listened to by the Business Secretary, but may I suggest that he seek to secure an Adjournment debate in order to bring Ministers to the House to discuss the matter?
In this country, 320,000 people are both deaf and blind, yet local councils are only required to provide a register of those who are blind only. Would it not make more sense for local authorities to have a register to collect information on those who are both blind and deaf in order to better co-ordinate care for all those who suffer in this way? May we have a debate on this matter?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the important work he does in this area and on the support he provides for those who suffer from both those disabilities. The relevant Minister will be in the Chamber next week and my hon. Friend will have the opportunity to make that point then, but I will also ensure that his concern is raised with the Department before then.
The Leader of the House may be aware that the House of Representatives in Australia has deemed this week that bairns in arms are no longer visitors in the Chamber and can be brought in to be breastfed or bottle-fed by their parliamentarian parents. Would he support such a change in this Parliament?
There are a few people who believe that such a change is necessary, but of course it would be a matter for the relevant Committees and for the whole House to discuss. We have to make sure we have a family-friendly Palace of Westminster and House, but we must also be careful to maintain some of the traditions of the House as well.
May we have a debate to celebrate the work done in this country by organisations such as the Arts Council and the Royal Ballet, which bring in so much tourism, and by the wonderful organisations in my constituency that add to the different tourism offer we have in the area? That has been recognised by the Chancellor in his autumn statement.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am glad that the Chancellor did recognise that in the autumn statement. It is very important that we maintain the strong arts bodies in this country. They make a valuable contribution to our culture, as well as attracting business from overseas. She makes an important point, and may I take advantage of this opportunity to wish her a happy birthday, too?
Last Saturday, the extremist group Britain First came to Dewsbury town centre, carrying crucifixes and proclaiming the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile. There was understandable concern among our community, with many businesses closing for fear of violence. A huge police operation took place, which clearly cost a lot of money. I pay tribute to the wonderful people of my constituency and the police, who carried themselves in an exemplary manner. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should now have an urgent debate on where the balance lies between freedom of expression and incitement of racial hatred?
I very much agree with the hon. Lady on that; we benefit from being a multicultural, multi-ethnic society. The different communities in the United Kingdom bring great strength to it. Those who would seek to divide us should be unreservedly condemned. I pay tribute to her constituents and to those police officers, who often put themselves at risk in dealing with incidents of this kind. There can never be an excuse for the incitement of racial hatred. We have strong laws in this country, and it is of course for the police and the prosecuting authorities to decide when and how to use them, but I am sure she would find universal support in this House for what she says. Racial hatred is something to be abhorred and to be prevented at all cost.
The Government are rightly taking steps to counter the threat of violent extremism and to promote community cohesion, and I am sure everyone in this House supports that. The Leader of the House will, however, be aware of the recent Westminster Hall debate on the registration of out-of-school settings, which highlighted considerable concern about that issue. Does he agree that it is essential that there is widespread consultation on any other proposals in the Government’s counter-extremism agenda before a counter-extremism Bill is brought before this House?
I absolutely accept the point my hon. Friend is making. It is very much the intention of those in the Department for Education who are working on this to listen carefully to representations from hon. Members to try to get this right. We all share a common objective in these matters. What we do not want is inappropriate, unnecessary regulation placed on small groups that do small amounts of work each week to the benefit of local communities.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), I learned from my constituents this week that the snaring of wild animals is still not illegal. It is, of course, cruel and sadistic, so do the Government have any plans to introduce legislation to ban snaring and to protect our wild animals?
I am aware that this matter is subject to campaigning at the moment, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give careful consideration to it. I am not aware of any current plans, but given the concerns raised in this House, it is certainly something we need to give some consideration to.
May we have a debate on unitary authorities and the potential efficiencies that they can create?
Many in this country believe that unitary authorities are a better way of running local government. Equally, there are parts of the country where the two-tier approach works extremely well. What we are seeking to do through the changes we are pushing through to the relationship between central and local government is give greater freedom to local authorities to decide what is right for their area and to give them the opportunity to put forward reforms that will involve both change and greater devolution. If my hon. Friend feels that is right for his area, I encourage him to get into discussions with the relevant Department about it.
Can we have a statement from the Government on when they will review the 1955 treaty on tax treatment that operates between the UK and Malawi, as the treaty operates to the considerable disadvantage of one of the poorest countries in the world?
I am not aware of the specific detail of that treaty, but I will ask the Foreign Office to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets a proper response to the concerns that he has raised.
I am pleased to say that employment levels in Crawley are at a record high, with the jobless claimant count now at 1.5%. Of course there is always more that can be done and, one month today, I am holding an apprenticeship fair in Crawley civic hall. May we have a debate on the importance of further encouraging apprenticeships to help promote economic growth?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he is doing locally on this matter. One of the most important parts of achieving our collective goal of 3 million apprenticeships in this Parliament is the work done by individual Members to encourage local employers to provide apprenticeship places. I commend him and other Members around the country for the work that they are doing in this regard. Apprenticeships are a central part of our future economic success.
Yesterday, we heard from the Prime Minister that in-work benefits for EU migrants are a pull factor, but we cannot judge that to be the case as the information has repeatedly been withheld after freedom of information requests. Given that the Leader of the House is such a fan of FOI, will he request Ministers to put that information before this House alongside a statement?
We will be debating the renegotiation and the package that we have been offered, and statements will be made by the Prime Minister in this House once the renegotiation is complete. I have no doubt that all the information required by Members will be there when those debates take place.
Carlisle and Cumbria are starting to experience recruitment issues, and, in time, there could well be a skills shortage. In many respects, that is partly an indication of success, but that success will be further exacerbated by the potential large investment into Cumbria, which will raise issues about attracting the right people with the right skills into the county. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on those issues, and on what central Government can do to assist in creating the opportunities from which Cumbria can benefit?
The challenges to which my hon. Friend refers are a symbol of the success of this Government in generating real economic improvement in parts of the country that have, all too often, been left behind. In many respects, I am pleased to hear of the pressures that he describes, but clearly we have to react to them and help businesses in Cumbria to secure the skills it needs. That is why this Government’s programme to build apprenticeship numbers and other measures that we will take to improve our skills base are so important. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue.
November 2015 is the latest month for which we have A&E figures. The Royal Free recorded 1,592 patients not seen within four hours, and the North Middlesex a shocking 3,306 patients. Both hospitals are now supposed to serve the people of Enfield North, as the Government have closed the A&E at Chase Farm hospital. May we have an early debate on the Government’s mismanagement of the NHS, as the people in Enfield and across the country are being badly let down when they arrive at A&E in need of treatment?
The right hon. Lady will have an opportunity to raise her concerns on Tuesday when the Secretary of State for Health is in the Chamber. I simply say that, under this Government, the NHS is receiving more money than ever before and is treating more patients than ever before.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I have been campaigning to save the hedgehog for several weeks now. On Monday, we have the hedgehog summit with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. Next week, I plan to launch a petition to make the hedgehog a protected species—I very much hope that everyone in this House will participate in it. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, if we get more than 100,000 signatures, we will be considered for having a further debate on this very important issue?
I have to congratulate my hon. Friend on his diligence on this matter; the hedgehog has a much better chance of survival with him around than might otherwise have been the case. If he secures 100,000 signatures on his petition, I am almost certain that the Petitions Committee will feel obliged to have a debate on it. Given how strongly he has pushed the issue in the House, I am sure that his request will also have universal support across the House.
My constituent David Chamber has raised with me his not uncommon problem: he is a graduate unable to find graduate work. The Prime Minister has said that he does not want foreign graduates doing what he describes as “menial” labour. May we have an urgent debate on what help we can give our UK graduates to get graduate jobs, on which the student loan repayment system depends?
When I was employment Minister in 2010, and we had inherited unemployment levels almost twice as high as they are now, conversations with young people entering the job market were challenging. Today, the situation is very different—unemployment has come down by almost half and job opportunities for young people in this country are better than they have been for a very long time. Under Labour, things went badly wrong; this Government have sorted them out.
My constituent Cordelia Law was left with a legal bill of nearly £3,000 after being threatened with a libel action by a developer whose planning application she commented on to her local council. May we have a debate on our libel laws? I would not endorse every comment that Cordelia Law made, but that type of reaction from developers could deter many other people from commenting on planning applications in which they have an interest.
Obviously, I cannot comment on the specific detail of that case, because I do not know enough about it, but it is always right and proper for those putting in planning applications to treat local communities with respect. If people feel that they have been let down by local authority processes, they can and do go to the ombudsman to seek a determination of maladministration. It sounds as if my hon. Friend is doing a fine job of representing his constituent anyway.
Civil society organisations have legitimate concerns about restrictions on their ability to challenge school admission arrangements. May we have a statement about the proposed ban on objections from these organisations so that we can better understand who will and will not be affected?
These things are, of course, predominantly for governing bodies and local authorities to decide, but the hon. Gentleman is free to raise this issue as an Adjournment debate and bring a Minister to the House to respond to his concern.
People in the villages of Lincolnshire are desperate to get to Cleethorpes, where they will find excellent shopping and the finest fish and chips in the land. Unfortunately, however, the Cleethorpes economy could be set back owing to cuts in rural bus services. May we have a debate about the funding of rural bus services, which clearly needs a rethink?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. That is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government, which will come before the House on Monday. I encourage him to bring his point to the attention of the Ministers with the most direct responsibility for addressing these issues.
Yesterday, the Bank of Scotland announced that it will close its Mount Florida branch in my constituency, which serves thousands of people in that community, King’s Park, Battlefield and slightly further afield. The bank has announced the closure without having done any community consultation at all; a lot of older people in particular will have to travel quite far to get to their local branch. May we have a debate on how the big banks are able to do such things without proper consultation with the community and to the detriment of local people?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that issue has been raised by a number of hon. Members in the past few weeks. If the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee were here, I would be saying that there is clearly a demand across the House for a debate on this subject, and I encourage the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) to make such a request. I should also say that the Post Office now offers many alternative banking services. I hope local communities will take advantage of the Post Office, to make sure that it can offer those services in their local communities.
The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee has been called away on urgent business, so he has asked me to say that the Committee has scheduled every debate that has been requested. We are very much open for business as far as debates after the recess are concerned. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, debating time in this Chamber and Westminster Hall is extremely precious, so I encourage Members to put applications in.
The Community Security Trust reported this week that the number of anti-Semitic incidents has fallen by a welcome 21%. However, before we all get complacent, that is the third highest level on record, and it follows the highest level ever recorded. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary responding to that report to make clear what action the Government will take to make sure that anti-Semitic incidents are not only treated seriously, but combated across this country?
I absolutely echo that point. I commend the work of the Community Security Trust. This is every bit as much of an issue as the events in Dewsbury last week, which were mentioned earlier. Anti-Semitic racist incitement in our society is utterly unacceptable, and so is incitement of race hatred against any group in our society. All of us in this House should stand against it when we discover it and see it. It is unacceptable and should never be tolerated.
Does the Leader of the House detect any difference between his view of the European convention on human rights—when he was Lord Chancellor, he said:
“We have a treaty right to withdraw…We would exercise that right. There is always a first time for everything”—
and that of the current Lord Chancellor, who said this week that the Government were
“not planning to derogate absolutely from any”
of the ECHR rights? Should we now expect any repeal of the Human Rights Act in this Parliament, or has that vanished with the rest of Leader of the House’s programme when he was at the Ministry of Justice?
I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but Government Members believe that the Human Rights Act should be replaced. Labour do not. The public support us. Labour are wrong, we are right.
Hundreds—probably more than 1,000—British nationals have taken the very brave decision to go and fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, joining the YPG and the foreign fighter forces of the Kurdish peshmerga. Those people include my constituent, Aiden Aslin, a former care worker from Newark. It is now Home Office and police policy to arrest these individuals under counter-terrorism legislation on their return to the UK. Even if, as is most likely, they are not charged, that will remain on their record, and constituents such as mine, who have taken an extremely brave decision—one could argue that it is foolhardy, but it is extremely brave—to fight with our allies, will not be able to, for example, enter the United States for the rest of their lives. What can my right hon. Friend do to raise this issue with the Home Secretary and the relevant authorities so that we adopt an appropriate policy towards these brave citizens of this country?
Of course, this issue has to be treated with great care. I will make sure my hon. Friend’s concerns are raised with the Home Secretary, who will be in the Chamber on Monday week taking questions. I encourage him to raise that point with her, but I will make sure she is aware of the concern he has raised.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to nag his colleagues in the Department for Transport? The very expensive public inquiry into the New Generation Transport trolleybus scheme in Leeds concluded in October 2014, but the report has been gathering dust in the DFT for about six months. Can we finally have a statement on the issue so that we can get an answer? I hope it will be a no, so that we can then progress with a genuinely modern scheme involving light rail and/or tram-train.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I will make sure that it is raised with the Department today and ask it to write to him.
I recently met Noor Mukhtar, Pendle’s Member of the Youth Parliament, at Nelson and Colne College to discuss the UK Youth Parliament’s anti-racism and anti-discrimination campaign. Given recent Government initiatives on the issue, and the fact that the Prime Minister used his new year’s speech to talk about discrimination in Britain today, may we have a debate on this important issue?
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point about the need to avoid discrimination and racist behaviour in our society, and I think the whole House would agree with that. On behalf of the House, could I—particularly a few days after you, Mr Speaker, hosted Members of the Youth Parliament in your state rooms to celebrate the achievements of some of those young people—pay tribute to all those involved in the Youth Parliament, who make a really important contribution to discussions between young people and parliamentarians around this country?
On Monday, I attended the Women Against State Pension Inequality debate in Westminster Hall. It is such a big issue, and the debate was so busy, that I had to sit in seats normally occupied by Tory MPs. The novelty quickly wore off as I had to watch colleagues point their fingers at Members on the Benches opposite. On a serious point, however, the Minister in that debate yet again hid behind the excuse of the deficit, so can we have a real debate about alternative measures we can put in place to end the injustice to women of the inequality of the state pension increase? We should bear it in mind that this Government recently allocated an extra £6 billion to Trident, with a £10 billion contingency—that is £16 billion right away that could be better spent.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I always value the moments when we find ourselves sitting alongside the SNP, as it were, because they are all too rare. We talk about the deficit because it is true: over the past few years this country has had a major crisis in its public finances. We have made good progress in turning that around, but we have a way still to go. It has led to some difficult decisions. The pension issue is about equality. It is about ensuring that men and women have the same state retirement age, and it is also about our retirement age reflecting the good news that we are all living longer.
May we have a debate on the impact of relaxing planning rules? Such a debate would give me the opportunity to raise the plight of Haughton Green in my constituency, where, in recent times, residents have seen a loss of their heritage with the bulldozing of the old rectory and have been deprived of a say over the future use of the Methodist church, and where there is likely to be extensive in-fill development, even though that will require the use of already congested medieval road infrastructure.
The hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to raise these issues with Ministers on Monday. There is a balance to be found in making sure that we protect local environments and the character of local areas but also provide adequate housing for the next generation, because that is also important.
You probably know, Mr Speaker, that children living in low emission zones have a 10% lower lung capacity than children living outside, partly because diesel emissions from cars cause pollution worse than that of many lorries, and Volkswagen has obviously been involved in emissions testing scandals. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on improving the cleanliness of the air in our city centres for the sake of our children’s health, including the possible restriction of diesel vehicles, given that 52,000 people die each year from diesel pollutants?
This matter is now attracting widespread concern. It is obviously important to ensure that we have proper air quality and that we look after public health. Ministers are taking the matter very seriously and investigating it carefully.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to go back to the issue of the Second Reading on 22 February of a Bill as yet unannounced. There is no Bill sitting waiting to be finished off in the House of Lords, as a Lords starter, and no Bill that has had a First Reading in this House, as yet, so the only possibility is that the Government fully intend next week, by the time we are back here next Thursday, to have the First Reading of a Commons starter Bill that will then have its Second Reading on 22 February. Would it not be grossly discourteous to this House for the Leader of the House, who knows perfectly well what that Bill is going to be, not to stand up and tell us exactly what it is going to be, because otherwise he will have published it by the time he is back here next week?
Does the Leader of the House wish to respond?
Can I just say that the shadow Leader of the House is talking absolute nonsense?
Right. Pursuant to the hon. Gentleman’s point of order, I can say only, at this stage, that I have no knowledge of the matter. I heard what the Leader of the House has said. I think it is a fair point to make to the House as a whole that it is not obligatory, but it is desirable, for words uttered to be genuinely meant. On one or two occasions in the past, I have come across language used such as “Second Reading of a Bill” which turns out really just to be a kind of holding statement, if you will, and what eventually transpires is something somewhat different—perhaps quite specifically not a Bill, and not a Second Reading of a Bill, but something else. On a serious note, in terms of the intelligibility of the proceedings of the House and the transparency with which we operate, I know that the Leader of the House will want to hold himself to a rather higher standard than that, and I am sure we can be assured of that.
In 2009, the House resolved that hon. Members should register all outside earnings within 28 days of their receipt, whether connected with their parliamentary duties or not.
For a prolonged period last year, I very much regret that I failed to comply with that rule in respect of my professional earnings as a barrister.
The House has a right to expect of its Members, particularly those on the Standards Committee, as I was, that they will uphold its rules to the fullest extent. For that reason, I have stepped down from the Standards Committee, and I hope that the House will accept my sincere and full-hearted apology for my failure to observe this important rule.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for what he has said.
Collapse of Kids Company
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee
Select Committee statement
We now come to the Select Committee statement. The Chair of the relevant Select Committee, Mr Bernard Jenkin, will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which, as those familiar with the procedure will realise and those who are not will now learn, no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I or whoever is in the Chair will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and call Mr Bernard Jenkin to respond to these in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to make this statement on our report entitled, “The collapse of Kids Company: lessons for charity trustees, professional firms, the Charity Commission, and Whitehall”.
We found that an extraordinary catalogue of failures of governance and control had taken place in the charity. It is obvious that many will feel blamed by our report. However, we very deliberately set about investigating the matter with a view to find lessons to be learned, not to find blame. Unless we can learn lessons, there will be an increased likelihood that such events will be repeated.
First, on the question of professional firms, the charity’s auditors repeated in every audit letter their concern that reserves in the charity were very low. The charity never acted on that advice. Instead, it was all too keen to trumpet the fact that it had received what it called a “clean audit” in every year of its existence. Under questioning, the auditor said that the charity had been living permanently “on a knife edge”. That sense of urgency was not communicated in formal advice to the charity. He also candidly admitted that the auditors should have notified the Charity Commission of their concerns about the charity, in accordance with the duty placed on auditors of charities under section 156 of the Charities Act 2011. That is a lesson that I hope all auditors will learn.
We also cross-examined Pannell Kerr Forster, which did an investigation into the governance and controls of the charity, on behalf of the Cabinet Office. We were concerned about how it evolved the remit of its report into being an investigation into governance controls rather than governance and controls. The report ended up being of rather limited value in the Cabinet Office, although it was read as what it was originally intended to be. That gives rise to the question of how the Government manage professional firms, as well as of how professional firms conduct themselves in respect of their responsibilities.
The charity also commissioned advice from PricewaterhouseCoopers, but it had so little time to produce anything in the run-up to the collapse of the charity that what it produced was of extremely little value. The Government took too much comfort from that report as well, and PwC should have been more candid and direct with the Government about how valuable its work could be to them.
The Charity Commission has a statutory duty to prevent, detect and tackle abuse and mismanagement in charities. It did not do so with Kids Company. Prior to 2015 the Charity Commission did not engage with Kids Company, because it received very few complaints. Why did so few people complain to the Charity Commission, given that this was, for a long period, a charity with a mixed reputation that excited a lot of public comment? In order to attract complaints, the Charity Commission should have a much higher profile as an avenue for complaints. It needs to be much more proactive in responding to concerns that are raised in public about a charity. In the case of high-risk charities with many employees and dependent beneficiaries, it should be equipped and funded to do more to provide scrutiny and, more importantly, advice and support to struggling trustees.
The Government need to reverse cuts to the Charity Commission to enable it to carry out its statutory function. We also recommend that the Charity Commission take new powers to hold hearings and to produce reports and recommendations about charities. It really should not fall to a Select Committee of the House to produce reports on the activities of individual charities. Kids Company received more than £42 million in grants from central Government across several Administrations, and it has not had to compete for a grant since 2013. Other charities have voiced bitter discontent at the unfairness of that. Government will need to work hard to restore faith in the grant-giving system of Whitehall.
Kids Company enjoyed unique, privileged and significant access to senior Ministers, and even to Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition, throughout successive Administrations. Some witnesses stated that they were intimidated by that high-profile support, and questions have been raised about whether it affected funding decisions; it certainly discouraged people from raising concerns. Government lacked any objective assessment of Kids Company’s activities and outcomes, and the effectiveness of its governance. Government must improve their capability so that they are less reliant on external reviews when making assessments about charities.
The civil service should be commended for resisting the hold that Kids Company seemed to have over so many others, but the advice of the civil service was, in the end, overridden. Ministers should not allow charity representatives to exploit their access to Government in a way that might be construed to be unethical. Ministers should not override, or risk creating the perception that they are overriding, official advice to hand over funding to charities on the basis of personal prejudice or political considerations. That raises questions about how conflicts of interest for Ministers are addressed in Government with respect to charity funding. The awarding of commercial contracts could never have been conducted on the same basis.
The real message of the report is about charity trustees. It is the same as the message in our report about charity funding last week, in which we found that trustees of some of the most famous charities in the country had failed to understand what was being done in their name. Both reports highlight the role of trustees of charities. The primary responsibility of trustees is the good governance and the maintenance of the reputation of their charities. The primary responsibility for Kids Company’s collapse rests with the charity trustees, who failed in their duty concerning the governance of the charity. I do not for a moment doubt the good faith of every trustee who served the charity, and I have evidence that some tried very hard to do the right thing. The only conclusion that anyone can reach is that either they did not know or understand the implications of what was going on in the charity, or they knew and failed to act.
The Charity Commission’s guidance requires trustees to
“make decisions solely in the charity’s interests. They should not allow themselves to be swayed by personal prejudices or dominant personalities.”
That seems to be exactly what happened in Kids Company, however, and it must be in danger of happening in every large charity that has been built up by a powerful and influential founder. The lesson is a universal one for all trustees. The trustee body of Kids Company did not have the necessary knowledge or experience of, for example, psychotherapy or youth services to be able to interrogate the operating model and safeguarding procedures.
In conclusion, it would be wrong to scapegoat any single individual for what occurred in the charity, but there are lessons that the House, the Government, the Charity Commission and professionals should draw from the situation. Most importantly, the Government need to understand what went wrong and how it can be rectified in future.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and the members of the Select Committee for this important report. It has shone a light on what is a very sorry saga for all concerned, not least the vulnerable children who turned to Kids Company in their hour of need. I also pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers and workers in the sector who do so much to support vulnerable young people, usually without the same levels of funding and freedom that Kids Company clearly enjoyed. It is a deep shame that so much good work is at risk of being tarnished by this unique, high-profile failure. Having read the report, particularly the evidence given to the Committee by the senior civil service, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman about the way in which grants were administered, and whether he feels anything has changed since his report.
The Government have just passed the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, which was supported by Labour, to beef up the Charity Commission’s regulation of the sector, particularly when it comes to trustees. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Government have learned their own lessons? For example, it is clear that rules applying to other charities did not apply to Kids Company. As he said, it had not had to compete for a grant from central Government since 2013. The Committee was told by a former Conservative Minister that Kids Company
“appeared to have a lower threshold of proof in order to get money from public funds”
and that its chief executive
“was almost the poster girl at the Big Society summit”.
I ask the Minister whether the Government—both Ministers and civil servants—have actually acknowledged their role in this sorry saga, and whether they have taken any concrete steps to ensure that they are never complicit in such a tragedy again.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. Let me emphasise, as she did, that it is plain to see that there was much good work going on in the charity, and that has been lost; that many vulnerable young people were dependent on the charity, and they have been left forlorn and bereft; that many of the employees and volunteers were deeply committed to the charity’s work, and they feel deeply betrayed and let down by what has happened; and that this has caused a great deal of distress. I am pleased to be able to inform the House that there is already evidence of things being salvaged from Kids Company and of things being rebuilt in the sector. We wish every success to those who are going to fund and support those things, because there is a gap, which the charity was seeking to fill, in meeting the needs of our society.
Yes, we are recommending even more powers for the Charity Commission than those in the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill. We very much want the Charity Commission to recommend courses for charity trustees, so that they have somewhere to go to learn. The Institute of Directors runs courses for non-executive directors. Where is the equivalent for charity trustees, who have just as onerous a set of responsibilities? It is not the executives and the chief executive who are responsible for the conduct of a charity, but the trustees, who are jointly and severally liable, and it is not just the chairman who is responsible, but all the trustees.
We want the Charity Commission to have the power to hold legally privileged hearings, like those of a statutory inquiry, so that it can hear and receive evidence that cannot be impugned in the courts. That would mean that people with concerns about charities could go to the Charity Commission without the fear of losing their job, of reprisals or of being traduced in the press. The Charity Commission would be able to hold proper hearings and people could speak to it without fear or favour, as they do before Select Committees.
The hon. Lady raised the question about conflicts of interests that Ministers did not quite understand and that the system has not quite grasped. If the senior executive of a charity appears on a public platform with someone who then becomes the Prime Minister or is photographed in the Cabinet room with the Prime Minister at the launch of a Government initiative, they have a mutual interest, and that was not reflected in the way decisions were made in this case. If the political interests or the financial interests of the charity become aligned with the political interests of certain Ministers, those Ministers should recuse themselves from those decisions, as they would in any commercial arrangement. There is going to be a new arrangement. We are going to require the Government to think about this very seriously and possibly even amend the ministerial code accordingly.
As my hon. Friend has said, the ultimate responsibility for the failure of Kids Company lay with the board of trustees. Does my hon. Friend agree that, among the many lessons to be learned from this sorry episode, is that the board of trustees should include members with appropriate qualifications for the sort of charity they are operating, and in addition that the board of trustees should be regularly refreshed? In the case of Kids Company, the chairman had been in that role for many years. That, I would suggest, led him to become far too close to the chief executive, and ultimately to be dominated by her.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, and I am grateful to him and all members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, who were all so fully engaged with this inquiry, which made our report so much more valuable. My right hon. Friend is right about the appropriate skills that trustee bodies need. Very often people think they need business skills, whatever those are, or accounting skills or some kind of technical skills. Actually, they need other skills. They need skills in the sector in which the charity operates. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, there was nobody with psychotherapy experience, and the charity was a psychotherapeutic charity. There was nobody with youth sector experience, and this was a charity in the youth sector.
Boards of trustees also need people who are able to hold the right kind of conversations, who are fearless about hearing what needs to be heard, and who are capable of confronting people if necessary, but with kindness and understanding, in order that the truth reaches the charity trustees and the messages are heard. This charity prided itself on being open and consensual. I am afraid the evidence is that it was precisely the opposite. There were many people in the charity who were fearful of those who wanted to suppress the truth because the truth was so difficult to deal with. The truth was very difficult for individuals to deal with, and if there is no truth, there will be no enlightenment and no judgment. There is no substitute for charity trustees exercising broad and enlightened common sense and judgment. It is not just about sets of skills.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. The answers have been very thorough, but they need to be a little shorter.
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee. The inquiry was quite a harrowing experience for all of us and he handled a difficult situation extremely well. Will he comment a little further on the role of journalists and the media in the inquiry? Incredibly detailed work was done by Miles Goslett, for example, and The Spectator was willing to publish when no one else was prepared to do so. That journalist had to go round all the media, which did not want to know because of some of the issues that have been referred to. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the role of media in such investigative journalism and the role of freedom of information are even more important now?
I agree with everything the hon. Lady says. There were journalists who tried to get things published, but the editors and the publications that might have carried those messages were also scared of confronting what appeared to be a very powerful charity with very great influence leading to the heart of Government. There is a message there.
There is a message, too, for the Charity Commission. Even when things were published, why were those journalists not invited to the Charity Commission, and why did it not say, “Tell us what you think is going on here, because we probably ought to know”? I hope journalists will feel a sense of obligation, not necessarily to reveal their sources or anything like that, but where they think a big charity is in serious trouble, to offer their advice to the Charity Commission. It would be a public-spirited thing to do. They would do that in respect of a serious risk to national security; they should do so for the security of the charitable sector as well.
I join my colleague, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), in paying tribute to our Chairman, who led the inquiry, and to the staff of our Select Committee, who did some very valuable work in the course of the inquiry. The last tranche of Government money, £3 million, was given to facilitate restructuring, but I was surprised to see in the television programme aired on BBC 1 last night the impression given that the management and the chief executive had other ideas about how that money was going to be spent. Do we know whether the £2 million balance of the unspent £3 million that was given has been recovered by the Government? Will there be any further investigations into that money passing to Kids Company virtually 24 hours before it shut down, or is this report the end of the matter?
That last question is very interesting. There is an ongoing investigation by the official receiver, which should be able to tell us what happened to that money and if any money is due to be returned to the Government. I am not a legal expert, but I think that once the Government handed over the money, it belonged to the charity. It no longer belonged to the Government and, although the Government might be a creditor, they will probably have to queue up behind other creditors. I very much hope that the Government might accept that the employees who lost their employment very abruptly are entitled to some measure of recompense, perhaps out of those funds. The answer is that I do not know. What was evident from that programme last night was how the restructuring was resisted to the very end. I am not sure whether that was known to the Minister who signed the letter of direction.
I, too, would like to pay tribute to the staff of the Committee. They do not usually like their name up in lights—it is not the tradition of the House service—but we are very fortunate in our Committee. We have very good staff.
Having watched the BBC documentary last night and seen the founder of Kids Company laugh about breaking the law and be dismissive of a vast amount of UK taxpayers’ money which was handed out so freely by both Labour and Conservative Governments, it is clear that lessons have to be learned. One of the lessons that we failed to learn in the past was that brash, bright, colourful, flamboyant characters who are favoured by senior politicians should be open to the same scrutiny as the many conscientious hard-working individuals who work tirelessly for a charity with only the best of intentions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the report should be only an opening salvo and must be followed up?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Yes, this is an opening salvo—both reports are opening salvos—about governance. The question of governance extends beyond charities to how the whole of Whitehall is governed—all the public bodies and the civil service, and how we govern the contractual exchanges between the public and the private sectors from Whitehall. Governance is not just about compliance and box-ticking. Governance is about the exercise of judgment by the people who are accountable for what occurs, and I hope that fellow Select Committee Chairs and I will pursue the matter of governance across the whole of the public sector and the parts of the private sector that are funded by the public sector.
I commend my hon. Friend and his Committee for his report and for his statement to the House today. On pages 47 to 49 of his excellent report he is excoriating in his criticism of the two Ministers who signed off the direction in June 2015 to give Kids Company £3 million, against the advice of the permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office. One of those Ministers, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was good enough to give evidence to the Committee and has shown courtesy to the House by being here today. The other, the Paymaster General, does not appear to have given evidence to my hon. Friend’s Committee and is not in the House today. In his report, the Chairman writes:
“In neither his letter of direction nor his oral evidence has Mr Letwin provided convincing justification for his and Mr Hancock’s decision to ignore the comprehensive advice of senior officials . . . This grant should not have been authorised contrary to advice.”
In the Government’s response to his Committee’s report, can we expect a ministerial apology from both Ministers involved and a clear explanation of how the £2 million which is still missing will be found?
I have heard everything that my hon. Friend has said. The report speaks for itself. I hope very much that the Government will give a full and clear explanation in response to the report. I am sure that they will. I have never doubted the integrity of the two Ministers who signed the letter of direction at all. We must wait for the Government’s response. In the end, I am not responsible for the Government’s response.
May I add the name of Harriet Sergeant to that of Miles Goslett as she, too, exposed this fraud? This was British journalism at its very best and the report shows our Select Committees at their very best in the way that it exposes the waste, extravagance and delusions of this sad episode, which robbed far better charities of vital funds to help children in distress.
Is it not vital that the conduct of the Ministers who ignored the advice and wrote the letter of direction is considered by the adviser on Ministers’ interests? Is it not crucial that we get to the nub of this terrible waste? The buck stops with the Prime Minister. We should have broken the taboo that exists—I would like the Chairman to make this suggestion. As this charity was linked in every way with the big society stunt that was being run by the Prime Minister at the time, the person who should have given evidence to us was the Prime Minister.
This matter will not be put to rest until the Prime Minister explains why he set up what was virtually a slush fund, by getting funds moved from the Department for Education, where Ministers might have stopped this, to the Cabinet Office, from where the money was going out. That was wrong, it was damaging to many of the children who were allegedly being helped by Kids Company and it was very damaging to those charities that could prove the worth of what they were doing through statements and evidence, which Kids Company never did. Should we not look forward to this never happening again and to moneys being moved out of the Cabinet Office’s control?
It is in the nature of politics that some people will always be readier to pin the blame and extract some action as a result. I hope that I am conducting the Committee in a way that all its members support. I think that we get so much more from witnesses and that our reports have more authority if we do not try to pin blame on individuals, but the House will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said.
The hon. Gentleman touched on the important issue of why youth funding was moved from the Department for Education to the Cabinet Office. We really did not get an explanation of that, except for a denial that it had anything to do with wanting to be able to continue funding Kids Company, which the Department for Education had clearly become reluctant to do. One of our conclusions is that Departments should be responsible for allocating funding to outside bodies, rather than the Cabinet Office, because it is, by its nature, too close to the political centre of power in Government and a suspicion can be created, at the least, that decisions are being influenced.
We made a recommendation about the LIBOR fund, which was set up by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to support military charities. It is clearly a very worthwhile initiative, but any possibility that it could be construed as a fund under the personal control of the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be very clearly checked.
Somewhat tighter answers would be appreciated. They are way too long.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement and his Committee for the work it has done in preparing the report. Does the Committee plan to review the extent to which the valuable and important recommendations in its report are complied with and carried out?
We always make sure that our recommendations are followed up and the Government have to give a very clear response to them.
I commend the hon. Gentleman and his Committee for this very good report. He is absolutely right that a focus on governance is vital. The Public Accounts Committee is very clear that we will follow governance and accountability in respect of taxpayers’ money wherever they lead. In the evidence that we heard from senior civil servants about the use of ministerial directions, there was clearly a reluctance on the part of permanent secretaries to call for a ministerial direction because of the relationship that they had with their Secretaries of State. Has he had any thoughts about undertaking further work with his Committee on the use of ministerial directions and whether that system is working well in Whitehall?
There has been controversy about the role of ministerial directions. The former Minister for the Cabinet Office, who was responsible for civil service policy, urged permanent secretaries to ask for ministerial directions to facilitate the making of decisions. That was understandable because he felt frustrated that, as he saw it, decisions were being blocked. On the other hand, senior civil servants pride themselves on having a good relationship of trust and understanding with their Ministers and are therefore reluctant to reach for the requirement for formal direction. They would far rather have a relationship with their Ministers that is based on a shared understanding of the concerns about a particular issue. I am bound to say that I rather side with civil servants on that one. If we had a system that was run just on instructions, it would be impossible for civil servants to give their best advice to Ministers. That is the system that Northcote-Trevelyan set up and that we should attempt to sustain.
I apologise to hon. Members and to you, Mr Speaker, that I have only just arrived in the Chamber. I was speaking to a group of schoolchildren from my constituency in the education centre and I could not miss that.
I want to say a few words in support of the Chair. This was a difficult report to achieve consensus on and he did a very good job of getting us as close to consensus as was possible. I caught the tail-end of what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was saying and I sympathise with a lot of what he said. I also heard my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. The National Audit Office ought to have a stronger look at all of this, particularly at where Ministers are instructing civil servants on matters of funding in this way. I hope that this sort of thing will never happen again and that this report will go some way towards mending fences for the future. That being said, I think that this is the tip of the iceberg and that the story will continue. There is probably a lot more that we have not reported on.
I feel sure that the House will agree that the Chamber’s loss was the school students’ gain.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support and for his work on the Committee. The one point that I will pick up on is his comment that this must never happen again. I can tell you for certain, Mr Speaker, that it will happen again. The question is whether we have a system in place that allows us, each time it happens, to learn, rectify and prepare for the future to make sure that it happens less and less often. That is what our recommendations are really about.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on bringing forward this report. Many points have been made about the governance of the Charity Commission and I welcome the specific recommendation that he mentioned, but what role should the Care Quality Commission have played in inspecting some of the services that Kids Company claimed to be providing? There seems to have been a gap there. It might have helped to identify the fact that the numbers did not stack up. Will he join me in congratulating the director of social services at Southwark Council, David Quirke-Thornton, who stepped in to make sure that vulnerable young people received support quickly when Kids Company collapsed?
I am certainly very grateful to David Quirke-Thornton. There are still discussions to be had between statutory social services and the charitable youth sector about what gaps in provision exist. Those would be productive discussions.
The question of inspection that the hon. Gentleman raises is a very important one. Ofsted did go into parts of Kids Company, but the senior executives of the charity did not find that very welcome. If social services are inspected, perhaps there is a case for inspecting charities of this nature, particularly if they are in receipt of public funds and if they have caring and safeguarding responsibilities. The private sector is investigated in that way—boarding schools and so on—and charities should be treated in the same way.
Notwithstanding what I said earlier about the prolixity of some of the answers and the relatively slow progress, the hon. Gentleman has received, and warmly deserves, the appreciation of the House for bringing before us this very important report on behalf of his Committee. It is a practical expression of his decades-long commitment to this House, its integrity, and its centrality in the affairs of the country, and he deserves our thanks.
Parliamentary Sovereignty and EU Renegotiations
[Relevant Documents: Fourteenth Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, on UK Government’s renegotiation of EU membership: Parliamentary sovereignty and scrutiny, HC 458.]
To move the motion I call not a baron, but the Baron in the House.
As ever, you have been very generous, Mr Speaker.
I beg to move,
That this House believes in the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty; and calls for the Government’s EU renegotiations to encompass Parliament’s ability, by itself, to stop any unwanted legislation, taxes or regulation.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and Members on both sides of the House who supported the application for it.
There can be no greater issue for this Parliament to debate and defend than the country’s sovereignty, as that goes to the heart of everything we do. Without it, we cannot truly have the final say on a host of issues, including the primacy of our laws, the integrity of our borders and the extent of burdensome regulation. As our EU renegotiations proceed, however, it appears that little effort is being made to truly restore parliamentary sovereignty. It is not a priority, which I suggest is a great opportunity missed.
We have a golden opportunity to pitch for fundamental change in our relationship with the EU for the benefit of both parties, as the Prime Minister promised in his Bloomberg speech, but we are missing it while No. 10 tinkers at the edges. Without consulting his parliamentary party, in my view the Prime Minister is sidestepping the issue completely by arguing for temporary measures, and measures that require us to club together with other Parliaments, in the vain hope of stopping the EU. That is not restoring parliamentary sovereignty. If we as a Parliament and a country cannot on our own stop any unwanted EU taxes, directives or laws, then it is clear that if we vote to stay in, we vote to stay on the conveyor belt towards ever closer union, as laid out in the EU’s founding treaty. Parliament will become nothing more than just a council chamber of Europe.
To those who say that the UK already accepts a certain pooling or loss of sovereignty when joining other international organisations, I say that only the EU can force us to take in economic migrants despite the strain on our infrastructure, override our laws, and foist burdensome regulation on our companies, despite the vast majority not even trading with the EU.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this important issue, and I agree with everything he has been saying. The great 19th-century constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, divided politics into the “effective” and “decorative” parts of the constitution. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this place must be the effective part of our constitution, not just a decoration?
I completely agree, and that is why I suggest that the issue of sovereignty goes to the core of our relationship with the EU. If we do not take the opportunity to address it now, it could be lost for a generation.
I wonder whether all those years ago Enoch Powell was right, and that we have been dodging this issue ever since 1972. The question he posed was that if we join the EU, this Chamber and democratically elected House loses its sovereignty. Now an historic moment is approaching, and the British people have to make that choice. Will they reclaim that sovereignty or not?