House of Commons
Thursday 5 May 2016
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Faversham Oyster Fishery Company Bill [Lords]
Lords message (4 May) relating to the Bill considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their resolution.— (The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Haberdashers’ Aske’s Charity Bill [Lords]
Lords message (4 May) relating to the Bill considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their resolution.— (The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Lords message (4 May) relating to the Bill considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their resolution.— (The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Great British Food Campaign
We set up the Great British Food Unit to drive export growth and help companies identify new opportunities. The British brand is world renowned for heritage and quality. In April, I was in the US championing products from the great British curry to gin and British beef and lamb.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that impressive response. Britain is famous for its seafood, and the delicacy of Morecambe bay shrimps, from my constituency, is internationally renowned. It is nice to know that the Government are doing all that they possibly can to ensure that such dishes are on international dinner plates; will she elaborate a little on what she is doing to make sure that they are internationally renowned?
I agree that Morecambe bay shrimps are a fine product, along with other great Lancashire products, such as Bury black pudding, the Eccles cake and the hotpot. May I make a suggestion? Yorkshire has three protected food names, whereas Lancashire has only one. At the Department we would be very keen to help Lancashire producers get that protected status, so that they can become world renowned, too.
My right hon. Friend will know that Weetabix, which is based in Burton Latimer in my constituency, is a great British breakfast cereal, because she launched the Great British Food Unit at its headquarters. Will she ensure that Weetabix is always served at her Department’s breakfast meetings and all the international trade symposiums it organises around the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Weetabix is a fantastic product. Not only is it exported around the world, but all of the wheat is grown within 50 miles of the Weetabix factory, so it is a real example of linking through from farm to fork. I proudly display my own box of Elizabeth Truss Weetabix on my desk at the Department for all visitors to see when they arrive at my office.
The Government are taking action to deliver a long-term strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England and protect the future of the dairy and beef industries. That strategy includes strengthening cattle testing and movement controls, improving biosecurity on farm, and badger control in areas where TB is rife. The veterinary advice is clear that there is no example in the world of a country that has successfully eradicated TB without also tackling the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population.
Badger culling in England costs around £7,000 per badger killed; in Wales, the badger vaccination programme costs around £700 per badger vaccinated. Lord Krebs, the renowned scientific adviser on the subject, has continually said that
“rolling out culling as a national policy to control TB in cattle is not really credible.”
Why, then, do the Government persist with a policy that is stupid, costly and ineffective?
The cost of doing nothing would be £1 billion in 10 years’ time. As for the cost of running the culls, there were one-off costs initially, but those were halved in the most recent culls last year. The right hon. Lady will also be aware that Wales has had to suspend the vaccination programme because of a lack of availability of vaccine and on the advice of the World Health Organisation. The vaccination programme was also in a tiny pilot area of about 1.5% of Wales. Wales has had success with cattle movement controls just as we have done, and that is the reason it has been able to bear down on the disease in the same way we have.
My hon. Friend the Minister has already pointed out issues with bovine TB. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile)—who is not in his place—and I share a love of hedgehogs. Years ago I brought a hedgehog into the Chamber, which was completely out of order—[Interruption.] Not in your time, Mr Speaker: it was under Baroness Boothroyd, who did not approve. It did something terrible in my hand, I dropped it and it scurried off. That is off the point, sorry.
The hedgehog population is falling, and it is partly because they are part of the food chain of badgers. Badgers may be cuddly, while hedgehogs have spikes but they are cuddly too, and we need to remember that they are being attacked by all the badgers where there is no cull.
My hon. Friend is a real advocate for hedgehogs, and many other hon. Members have supported their cause, including my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile). Some research suggests that badgers compete with hedgehogs for some foods and in their environment, but there are many other pressures on the hedgehog, including gardens that are not particularly hedgehog friendly. Everybody can play a role in helping hedgehog populations to recover.
It is, of course, national hedgehog week, and we need to do all that we can to protect their habitats rather than blaming badgers.
Usually when experts tell us that something is not working the sensible thing to do is to stop. So why, when the Government’s experts said that last year’s efforts were ineffective and inhumane, and when bovine TB increased by 34% in Somerset, is the Department so determined to push ahead with yet more culling? May we have a moratorium on the granting of any more licences this year until we have had a full public debate, with all the information in the public domain, so that we can decide whether it is worth proceeding with culling?
The country’s leading experts on tackling bovine TB are in DEFRA, including the chief vet and his veterinary team. Their advice is clear: we will not eradicate this disease unless we also tackle the reservoir of disease in the wildlife population. That is why we are committed to a roll-out of the cull in areas where the disease is rife.
The Minister was characteristically generous to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). Can he give us the figures for the increase in outbreaks of bovine TB in Wales and in England? For those of us who have constituents on the Welsh border, will he continue to roll out the cull and do as much as he can, rather than punishing beef and dairy farmers with post-movement testing?
My hon. Friend will be aware that in England we slaughter some 28,000 cattle a year. Last year, both England and Wales saw a slight increase in the prevalence of the disease, but that tends to move in cycles. In the previous year, we saw a slight reduction in the disease. I understand that the cattle movement controls we have put in place are frustrating for some farmers, but they are also a necessary part of eradicating this disease. We have to do all of these things—deal with the reservoir of disease in the wildlife population, improve biosecurity on farms and, yes, improve cattle movement controls so that we can reduce transmission of the disease.
As my hon. Friend knows, the randomised badger culling trials a decade or more ago found that the benefits of the culling of badgers were only seen some four years after the conclusion of the culls. The reality is that the programme is a long-term commitment and it will be several years before we can see the impact of the culls. From figures from last year, however, we know that perturbation, which several hon. Members have previously highlighted to me, was actually far less of an issue in years one and two of the culls in Gloucester and Somerset than people predicted.
Air quality is improving. Since 2010, emissions of nitrogen oxides have fallen by 17%. We will further improve air quality through a new programme of clean air zones, alongside investment in clean technologies.
Elephant and Castle, in my constituency, has the worst air quality in south London. Air pollution has a proven impact on people’s health and life expectancy. Nearly 9,500 people die each year in London due to poor air quality, which is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), a candidate for London Mayor, is planning to consult on bringing forward and expanding the ultra-low emission zone if he wins today. He knows London cannot wait. Why is the Environment Secretary waiting for a judicial review to force her to develop a comprehensive strategy for the whole country?
The fact is that it is my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) who has made cleaner air a priority of his mayoral campaign. He has a long-standing record of talking about environmental issues, unlike his opponent. The Government have set out a very clear plan for clean air zones right across the country to deal with this issue. We are prepared to mandate those zones to ensure we are in line with World Health Organisation limits.
DEFRA’s plan says that local authority action is critical to achieving improvements in air quality. On this local elections day, will the Secretary of State tell us what resources she will provide to struggling councils to do that, given that her Department has cut payments to councils under the air quality grant scheme by nearly 80% since 2010? Will she give councils the powers they need to tackle this problem, not just in the five cities but wherever people are suffering—in some cases, even dying—because the air is not clean enough for them to breathe?
We absolutely have given powers to all cities that want to implement a clean air zone. They are fully able to do that. We will also assist with funding for the five cities projected to be above the WHO limit of 40 mg of nitrogen oxide. We are working with those local authorities at the moment. We need to ensure the zones are in the right place so that the problem does not get moved from one part of the city to another. The resources will be available for those local authorities to put that in place.
Data and technology have a central role to play in increasing the productivity and competitiveness of British farming. Last October, I launched the first of our agri-tech centres of excellence, the agrimetric centre at Rothamsted. They will develop new software models to improve our ability to understand and utilise the huge volume of data that exist. In addition, we are on track to open up 8,000 data sets to the public, which can help food and farming to achieve its potential.
As a software engineer, I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s response. Does he agree that the implementation burden of vast changes, such as this year’s common agricultural policy, make it difficult to realise all these benefits? Does he agree that there is a simple solution, which is to vote to leave the EU?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Government’s position is that we should remain in the European Union. He will be aware, however, that I have exercised the option granted by the Prime Minister to disagree with the Government on this particular issue. From a personal perspective, I simply say that the vast majority of problems farmers complain to me about are the consequence of dysfunctional EU legislation.
These are undoubtedly very difficult times for many dairy farmers. The combination of oversupply around the world coupled with a weakening of demand in major markets such as China has led to a very depressed commodity price. We secured a £26 million support fund last November to alleviate short-term cash-flow pressure. We introduced a dairy supply chain code to improve dealings between dairy processors and farmers. Longer term, we are working on a project to introduce a dairy futures market to help farmers manage future risks. We are exploring the potential to facilitate investment in new dairy processing capacity, so that we can add value to our production.
A food-secure Britain needs British farmers to be able to make a living. Milk prices plummeted in March this year; they were at their lowest since 2009, with farm-gate prices as low as 16p per litre. This comes at a time when British dairy incomes are dropping; they are forecast to fall by almost half this year. I was disappointed that there was nothing for dairy farmers in this year’s Budget. What action will the Minister take now, working with supermarkets, retailers and farmers, to ensure a future for the British dairy industry?
We have introduced tax-averaging across five years to help farmers who face a tax bill; they can average it against difficult years. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has been clear that it will take a generous approach to the time-to-pay provisions to help farmers who may be under pressure with their tax bill. I completely understand that this is an incredibly difficult time for many farmers. There is a mixed picture; a small number are still on aligned contracts, and still receive a fair price. We constantly meet retailers to try to improve the contracts that they offer, and to encourage them to offer more aligned contracts and to source more dairy production. Many of them are now offering those aligned contracts, or higher prices, to their farmer suppliers.
Can the Minister tell the House and Britain’s farmers why the Government failed to support EU efforts to improve the school milk scheme, which provides a valuable market for our struggling dairy farmers? Can he confirm that the Government will roll out the scheme in our schools, and say what benefit it will bring for British farmers?
It is not the case that we did not support the school milk scheme. The European school milk scheme is very small; it is worth around £4 million a year. It is dwarfed by our domestic schemes. The one funded by the Department for Education and the Department of Health, for infants, is around £60 million a year. The issue that we had with the school milk scheme was the bureaucracy and administration that the European Commission was trying to add to it. We were keen to pare that out, but we certainly supported the scheme; it is not true to say that we did not.
In north Yorkshire, in the last 15 years, we have lost 50% of our dairy farmers, and 90% of those still in business are losing money, despite generous taxpayer subsidies. Does the Minister agree that now is the time for the supermarkets to start paying British farmers a fair price for British milk?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, and as I say, these are very difficult times for farmers. People often lay the blame on supermarkets, but we have to recognise that at the root of the problem is the worldwide issue of low commodity prices. There are very low prices in New Zealand—far lower than we have here—and many people have been driven out of business there. This is a global challenge. Some of the supermarkets have stepped up to the plate and offered aligned contracts, and many of them are selling their milk at a loss; we should recognise that and give credit where credit is due. Of course, we are always trying to improve the position of farmers in the supply chain.
Perhaps there is a win:win here. The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) made a suggestion about Weetabix; if we advocate having British milk with it, that might offer a little solace. The Minister has spoken about a commitment to strengthening the voluntary code of practice for the dairy sector; when will that be in place?
I have already had this discussion with NFU Scotland, and I have offered to meet it to discuss its concerns. The voluntary code of practice for the dairy industry is GB-wide, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but the reality is that it tends to help farmers more in a rising market, when prices are firming, than in a difficult time in which there is over-supply. The crucial element of it is that it gives farmers the ability to walk away at three months’ notice, and that enables them to extract a better price. That obviously only works when market prices are going up, rather than down, but I have offered to meet NFU Scotland to discuss its concerns. We will review the code again with a view to strengthening and improving it where we can.
The Government are determined to use all available measures necessary to eradicate this devastating disease as quickly as possible. We have continued to make improvements to cattle movement controls, most recently introducing a requirement for post-movement testing of cattle travelling from the high-risk to the low-risk area. At the end of last year, we launched a new project to promote better on-farm biosecurity in order to reduce cattle-to-badger contact. Finally, we also started a cautious roll-out of the badger cull to an additional area in Dorset last year, which was successful.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I recognise the specific challenges in parts of the edge area, notably in Cheshire, and we have therefore introduced much more frequent—six-monthly—testing in Cheshire to get on top of the disease, which has been a success. We have also increased the use of the more sensitive interferon gamma blood test as a supplement to the skin test to ensure that we can remove infected cattle from herds more quickly.
Rural Payments Agency
7. What recent assessment she has made of the effect on the farming community of delays in payments by the Rural Payments Agency. (904827)
All farmers in England have received their full payment or a bridging payment of half their expected claim. Overall, 90% of eligible farmers have received full payment.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am pretty sure that colleagues with rural constituencies will have numerous examples, as I do, of problems with Rural Payments Agency delays. I wish to raise the particular case of my constituent, Mrs Musson, who has been left in severe financial difficulties this year due to her payment being delayed, and has had extraordinary difficulty contacting the RPA, as far too many farmers do. The response I had from the RPA was that the payment would come “in due course” and that my constituent should call the agency for hardship assistance, yet that is precisely what she has been unable to do. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me and my constituents that farmers will not be left in such dire straits in the future, that the relevant help will be more easily available and that the RPA will be more easily contactable?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for his question. All eligible farmers should have received a bridging payment by the end of April, and if this is an ongoing issue for his constituent I would be happy to assist directly. This has been the first year of implementation of the new common agricultural policy system. All payments need to be made within the payment window between December and June, and all payments will be made within that window. I appreciate that farmers are struggling with cash flow because of this year’s low commodity prices, which is why we have put in place bridging payments for those final few farmers who have not yet received payments. All that data are now on the system, so 2016 will be much more straightforward and we should be able to pay farmers much earlier in the payment window.
I thank the Secretary of State for listening to the concerns of farmers in my constituency about basic payments. In order to move forward, can she reassure us of three things: first, that these problems have been heard across the piece; secondly, that solutions such as a dedicated phone line are being considered and sought; and, thirdly, that as we move into the 2016 registration period, the system really will be fit for purpose?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and I would be happy to assist any constituents who have outstanding issues. We have paid more than 90% of farmers, and the payment window ends at the end of June, so all full payments will have been made by then. The data are now on the system, so next year will be much more straightforward. I add that both Wales and Scotland have made fewer full payments than England, and that we are on track to do what needs to be done by the end of June.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) will know, the farming community of Lincolnshire will be gathering together on 22 and 23 June for the Lincolnshire show. If my right hon. Friend is not doing anything on those particular days and can find time to come to Lincolnshire, I could introduce her to a group of farmers who oppose our membership of the EU. Can she find time in her diary for that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I could not possibly imagine what anyone might be doing on 23 June. What I would say, on behalf of all farmers, is that the EU and the single market have brought about massive benefits for food and farming. For example, 97% of lamb exports and 92% of beef exports go to the European Union. There would be a real risk to the future livelihood of those industries if we were to leave and were not able to export our fine products to those European countries any more.
Broadband: Rural Businesses
Broadband is, of course, essential to farmers so that they can gain access to the latest precision farming techniques; to schoolchildren so that they can gain access to educational tools; and to small rural businesses so that they can overcome variance of distance and reach customers and markets that they would not otherwise be able to reach. That is why, from January this year, we have guaranteed a minimum of 2 megabits per second, with Government backing, and we aspire to reach 10 megabits per second by 2020 through a universal service obligation.
The Public Accounts Committee concluded that “digital focus” for the CAP delivery programme was “clearly inappropriate” because of poor broadband service in so many rural areas. Indeed, the Committee’s Chair said that the programme was “an appalling Whitehall fiasco” that should have focused on the needs of farmers, rather than ending up as a digital testing ground that caused payments to farmers to be severely delayed. What commitments will the Minister give to guarantee that farmers will receive the service that they deserve from broadband providers and the United Kingdom Government?
Some of those issues relate directly to farming and the Rural Payments Agency, but let me deal with the point about broadband, which is relevant to my part of the Department. We have made two separate commitments. First, if any farmer in the constituency of any Member wishes to gain access to a 2 meg connection that would provide access to Government databases, our grant scheme will provide the necessary infrastructure. Secondly, we have made a commitment to a 10 meg service through the universal service obligation.
During a very constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, the Church of England’s representatives offered the use of church towers and spires to extend broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural areas. Will the Minister update the House on progress?
Church spires are ideally located in remote rural areas to allow point-to-point broadband coverage and good cellular coverage. The offer from the Church Commissioners is greatly appreciated, and we are working closely with our colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to take advantage of the technological opportunities.
We have some of the best native breeds of cattle, pigs and sheep in the world, and we want to promote quality meat that is produced in the United Kingdom. Because we secured country of origin labelling legislation, such labelling is now mandatory on poultry, pigs and lamb, as well as on beef. Two weeks ago, the Secretary of State was in the United States, working to open the market there for British beef, and I was in Japan making the same case for our top-quality beef to the Japanese Government. We are also exploring ways in which to use the GREAT branding in retail settings to encourage more consumers to choose British products.
I greatly welcome that. I recall that, last November, Parliament was festooned with banners reminding us about something called “vegetarian week”, and urging us to try a vegan meal. In the interests of fairness, may I suggest that we organise a similar event to encourage people to try British meat—perhaps a “British meat May”? If we launch such an event, can we ensure that Opposition Front Benchers are invited as well?
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s suggestion will enjoy cross-party support. He makes the good point that we need to promote our top-quality meat. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board also performs an important role. I recently signed off two of its campaigns: a television advertising campaign to promote pulled pork, which is currently running; and a mini-roast television marketing campaign, which is intended to increase consumption of, in particular, underutilised lamb and beef cuts. There is already some very good work going on, but my hon. Friend’s suggestion of a parliamentary event is a useful one, and I shall be happy to explore it with him.
We have consulted a range of people on hedge cutting, from the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association to various environmental organisations, and we have come up with a deal on hedge cutting that provides both protection for birds and derogations for specific agricultural activities.
I thank the Minister for his answer. My constituent, Bob Rutt, is a contractor who specialises in hedge cutting, and the extension of the hedge-trimming ban has cost him thousands of pounds in lost revenue. He has no intention of harming wildlife, but the policy is seriously affecting his business. Will the Minister engage with farmers and contractors to ensure that conditions on the ground are taken into account so that arrangements can work for the contracting industry and conservationists?
I am happy to engage with my hon. Friend and indeed farmers on this issue. It is important to understand, however, that certain birds, including blackbirds, turtle doves, goldfinches, bullfinches and whitethroats, have longer breeding and rearing seasons that last through August and into the beginning of September. There are two specific derogations that could affect my hon. Friend’s constituent: one relates to the planting of oilseed rape; and the other relates to seasonal grass, which allows him to get his equipment in, in accordance with agricultural practices. I am happy to discuss the details with my hon. Friend.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that 60% of our food and drink exports go to the EU—that is worth £11 billion to our economy. That is vital income for our farmers and fishermen. If we were to leave, exporters would face crippling tariffs when selling their goods to Europe, such as up to 70% for beef products, which would cost £240 million per year.
I agree with the Secretary of State, the National Farmers Union and the Food and Drink Federation about how vital the EU is to our farming industry. The Secretary of State has given quite a full answer, but would she like to put a figure on what the lost trade would cost our farmers each year if we were to leave the single market?
What we know is that no country that is not a full member of the EU has full access to the agricultural market. Whether it is Norway, Canada or any other of the countries whose models the out campaign have talked about, none of them has full access without quotas or tariffs. I have given the example of beef, with a cost of £240 million a year. The sheep industry would be even harder hit because 40% of all the sheep that we produce here in the UK are exported to the EU.
The Government are taking action to help farmers to manage low prices and market volatility, which is why we have ensured that all eligible farmers have now been paid their full basic payment or a bridging payment for 2015. To help farmers in the future, we have extended the period of tax-averaging from two to five years, and this month I am convening farmers, food producers and the European Investment Bank to seek further investment in improved productivity and processing capacity.
I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Can she confirm that any grant money from the EU solidarity fund will be additional money to be spent in the communities that have been affected by floods, and that it will not be swallowed up by the Treasury as payback for money already spent?
T2. In a written answer to me today, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), has told me that restaurants in England are encouraged to show their hygiene scores on their doors. However, the truth is that those that have a very low score—one or two out of five—do not display their scores. In Wales, it is mandatory to show hygiene scores on the doors. What can my right hon. Friend do to encourage the Department of Health to make it mandatory, as it is in Wales, to show scores on the doors? This practice has been shown to raise hygiene standards in restaurants in Wales. (904809)
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign. Food safety standards are one of the reasons why British food is so respected around the world, and our exports are growing because people respect the work of the Food Standards Agency. It is important for consumer confidence that we have transparency in the safety of food, and I look forward to hearing more about my hon. Friend’s discussions with the Department of Health.
The Secretary of State will be aware that our largely foreign-owned water companies made £2.1 billion profit in 2014-15 and paid out £1.8 billion in dividends, but fell well short of paying full corporation tax. She will also be aware of the complicated structures that the companies operate, which can bamboozle us all. Does she agree that the expected water Bill to introduce competition into the domestic market could be used to ensure that companies are more open and transparent, and pay more tax in the UK?
We are introducing further measures to improve competition in the water industry and to carry on driving efficiencies. Under the Labour Government, water bills rose by 20%, whereas Ofwat’s most recent decision will lead to a fall of 5% in customers’ water bills.
I had hoped that the Secretary of State would have proved a greater water, consumer and taxpayer champion, so I will give her a second chance. Water UK, which represents the water companies, told the weekend media:
“Water companies are also providing more help than ever before for customers in vulnerable circumstances including social tariffs and other schemes to reduce bills.”
She will know, as I do, that such schemes are arbitrary and variable. Does she agree that the next water Bill could provide an opportunity to introduce a fair scheme for all vulnerable customers?
More social tariffs are being introduced right across the country, but the key point is that everybody is seeing a reduction in their water bills overall, because we have a good regulator and an efficient industry, and we are introducing further competition.
T4. Dairy farmers are suffering due to low prices—there is a lot of milk in the market. One of the markets that we still cannot get into is Russia. What is happening? Is there any chance that we can get back into that market? European and British dairy farmers are paying a high price for the ban on exports to Russia. (904814)
My hon. Friend makes the important point that the Russian trade embargo has exacerbated the challenges facing the dairy sector and others, such as the pig sector. However, we put in place sanctions against Russia because of its totally unacceptable conduct against Ukraine and its incursions into Ukrainian territory. It is important that we show solidarity with other European countries and do not accept how Russia has behaved towards Ukraine.
T3. We have already heard about the £1.6 billion profits of water companies and their £1.8 billion payout to shareholders. They are rich organisations, and some, to their credit, are already living wage accredited. Does the Secretary of State therefore back Unison’s campaign for the current living wage to be paid throughout the industry? (904812)
We have to tackle such issues directly with Ofwat. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is extremely important for the industry to ensure that there is a predictable future in which politicians are not micromanaging. We are going through a price review process and dealing closely with Ofwat, but we must ensure that neither I nor the Secretary of State try to micromanage an independent regulator from the Dispatch Box.
T5. The recent Groceries Code Adjudicator report showed that Tesco breached the code of practice by delaying payments to suppliers and demanding extra fees, which has been raised with me by farmers in my constituency. What are the Government doing to ensure that further such breaches do not occur? (904816)
As my hon. Friend will be aware, we introduced regulations at the end of the previous Parliament to make it possible for the Groceries Code Adjudicator to levy fines against retailers that breach the code. The action that she took against Tesco was evidence that that is starting to work, and that she is beginning to pick up on and deal with bad practice. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will shortly be leading a review of the role of and our approach to the Groceries Code Adjudicator. As part of that, we will be looking at ways in which we might be able to improve the code.
Recently, two of my constituents were sentenced to just six months’ electronic tagging for the brutal and horrific abuse of their pet bulldog. The community has been rightly outraged by the leniency of the sentence, because these people also videoed the abuse and were laughing as they carried it out. The dog was subsequently put down. I have written to the Secretary of State for Justice, but may I ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to chase up my letter and to review animal sentencing, given that the maximum sentence for animal cruelty is just one year?
We have looked at the issue of animal sentencing; there can be an unlimited fine, and my understanding is that the sentence can be up to five years for animal cruelty. I will check that point and write to the hon. Lady if that is incorrect. The evidence shows that for most offences the courts are not using the maximum sentence, so we do not believe there is a case for changing it. We have looked at the issue of fighting dogs and organised dog fights, where there is some evidence that the courts are restricted by current sentencing guidelines. The hon. Lady will be aware that this is an issue for the Ministry of Justice, and I am sure that its Ministers will want to discuss it with her.
As a keen rambler himself, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), will be familiar with the coast-to-coast walk, which runs across both our constituencies. It is one of England’s most popular long-distance walks, yet it is not an official national trail. Will he meet me to discuss my campaign to give the coast-to-coast the formal recognition it deserves?
There is growing concern about the environmental impact of microbeads, the tiny pieces of plastic that are found in many consumer products and are now swilling around in our oceans. The Americans and Canadians are moving to ban them. What are the UK Government doing?
We are very clear that microbeads potentially pose a serious threat, because the stuff does not biodegrade and it can collect toxic material. We have run a research programme and have been working very hard to make sure that the full 500 million members of the European Union sign up to a common position, but if we cannot get a common position out of the EU, we are open to the possibility of the United Kingdom acting unilaterally.
Part of the fantastically successful national forest falls in my constituency. Its benefits to the community are clear, as are those of woodlands and trees more broadly to the community and to air quality. What steps are the Government taking to encourage the planting of more trees across the UK, building on their success to date?
I had the privilege of being in the national forest, and I can tell any Members who have not seen it that it is an extraordinary project, found between Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. It has regenerated 200 square miles of brutalised countryside and created one of the great new forests in Britain. We will be looking at taking forward ideas like that in the 25-year plan, and of course we are committed, as a minimum, to planting another 11 million trees between now and 2020.
Log-burning stoves are one of the pleasures of living in the countryside and for more fashion-conscious townies. They tend to be produced by family-owned businesses, almost all of which are in rural areas in the UK. The industry is very concerned that this great way of life and tradition might be under threat because the stoves are needlessly brought into air-quality regulations. For the sake of everyone who enjoys them and for everyone who manufactures them in rural areas, will the Minister meet the industry to try to protect them?
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Same Sex Marriage: Clergy
I should first declare my personal position, which is that I voted in favour of same sex marriage when the decision was before Parliament, but I do recognise that it is difficult for the Anglican Church. The Anglican Communion extends over many different cultures and many continents, and not all cultures and societies move at the same pace. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the Archbishop of Canterbury managed to get a unanimous agreement among all the bishops of the Anglican Communion, in Canterbury, in January, that there should be a new doctrine condemning homophobic prejudice and violence, and resolving
“to work together to offer pastoral care and loving service irrespective of sexual orientation.”
I thank the right hon. Lady for her answer. She will be aware that many people feel called to ministry, including, naturally, many people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Although Church of England policies protect heterosexual couples if they are in a marriage by not taking their status into account when it comes to jobs within the Church, the same is not true for those who have entered same sex marriages. Is she aware of cases of written permission from bishops placed on file, and of refusals to issue licences when new positions are sought, including even secular positions? Will she do her best to ensure that LGBT clergy are not discriminated against here in the Church of England?
As I mentioned, the Anglican Communion is extremely diverse. What we must remember, living here in the liberal west, is that a typical Anglican communicant is in Africa and black, female and under 35; in many African nations there are also very strong views on this subject, and keeping the Communion together is a big challenge. It is open to Church of England clergy to enter into civil partnerships, and many do so. The Church of England in England is moving forward in its understanding with a shared conversation, three parts of which have already occurred. In July this year, the Synod will move forward with the shared conversation about sexuality—the nature of human sexuality. I reiterate the point that the whole Communion agreed unanimously that the Church should never, by its actions, give any impression other than that every human being is the same in God’s sight regardless of sexuality.
The Dean of Lichfield cathedral, Adrian Dorber, is always telling me how short of money the cathedral is. May I just say that I live for the day when gay clergymen can be openly gay and there will be gay marriages, which will be paid for in Lichfield cathedral and all the other cathedrals in England and the rest of the United Kingdom, in a liberal nation.
I look forward to visiting the Lichfield diocese. Indeed, the Government have been very generous in their funding for repairs to that beautiful cathedral. On the specific subject of human sexuality, I do not think that the Archbishop of Canterbury could have been clearer about his leadership in bringing the whole Anglican Communion together for the first time, united behind the doctrine that we should condemn homophobic prejudice and violence at home and abroad.
Near Neighbours Programme
I am so sorry that we do not have the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), as it would have given me an opportunity to thank Mr Speaker for hosting a reception in his apartment to celebrate the Queen’s birthday. What better opportunity could there be to bring the community together—people of all faiths and all backgrounds—in every one of our constituencies than to celebrate the birthday of the Head of the Church?
Specifically, in relation to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), I wish to highlight that a further tranche of £1.5 million-worth of funding has been made available for a Near Neighbours programme, which is administered by the Church urban fund to encourage people of different religions to come together to understand each other better and to improve the cohesiveness of our society.
I thank my right hon. Friend for a very full answer. In Lincolnshire, we have both coastal communities and, in the agricultural industry, many seasonal workers who come from all sorts of different faiths. Will she outline what additional work the Near Neighbours programme can do to support coastal communities and rural areas?
This kind of fund provides very small grants to communities, which are used to meet a range of pressing social needs, including employment skills, environmental work, homelessness, healthy eating projects and so on. It is significant that 71% of those projects have continued to run after the funding has ceased. It is precisely because of the diverse backgrounds of the seasonal workers in Lincolnshire—many are from the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church—that such grants could facilitate the cohesiveness of the society in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Iraq: Christian Communities
In March, the Bishops of Coventry, Leeds and Southwark, who play a leading role for the Church on international development issues, travelled with Christian Aid to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they met internally displaced people from Iraq and refugees from Syria, and saw at first hand the pressures that Christians in those communities suffer.
I appreciate the good work that the Church Commissioners are doing with the Christian communities in Iraq. What role are they playing in communicating the outcome of those discussions back to Government, and indeed congregations in the UK, and is there more that concerned Christians in my constituency can do to show the strength of feeling on that important issue?
Yes, immediately upon their return the bishops, with their first-hand knowledge, wrote to the Foreign Office, drawing its attention to the persecution suffered by the Christians in those countries. In order to inform our congregations, many of us have Church-based non-governmental organisations who have produced excellent briefing documents, which are shared with parishes up and down the country so that they can pray in an informed way. I have written to the Foreign Office about what is effectively genocide, particularly of the Yazidi community, and I recommend other like-minded Members of Parliament to do the same.
Persecution of Christians is an increasingly worldwide concern. I recently hosted the launch by Open Doors of its report on northern Nigeria—I visited Nigeria with the International Development Committee just a few weeks ago. The report, entitled “Crushed but not defeated”, outlines how more than 1 million Christians there have been affected by targeting, discriminatory practices and violence, including by Boko Haram. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is crucial that the whole international community helps to address this, to restore reconciliation in communities there?
Yes, we are all familiar with the terrible pictures from northern Nigeria. When the Archbishop of Canterbury convened representatives of the middle east Churches, he actually spoke at a prayer vigil, where he highlighted that this is a moment for such evil to be brought to an end. He said:
“It must stop…If it does not stop…in…places around the world, such as northern Nigeria…it will continue to spread.”
The Church is well aware, as I am sure we all are, of the need to make a stand against this evil, so that it does not spread further.
I spent several years as special envoy on human rights to Iraq, so I met many of the beleaguered minority religions of Iraq. I hope that the Church Commissioners will look at the plight of all of them—the Mandaeans, the Yazidis and the Turkmen, to mention just a few. Will the right hon. Lady pay particular tribute to Canon Andrew White, who was known as the Bishop of Baghdad for his work over the many years that he spent in the country, attempting to bring all the warring sides together?
The position of the Church of England is indeed to speak up for all religious minorities where they have been persecuted in that region, and those Church representatives could not have put it better in stating that the region is
“in desperate danger of losing an irreplaceable part of its identity, heritage and culture”
in all those religious minorities. The hon. Lady is right: Canon Andrew White has done a remarkable job speaking up for the plight of the Christians in the region. I am regularly in receipt of his email and I recommend that other Members of the House who are interested in the subject read his emails.
The Church of England supports the Government’s drive to increase the number of apprentices. Apart from some of the central bodies and larger diocesan offices in cathedrals, most Church bodies will not be affected by the levy, because their payrolls fall below the £3 million threshold, but the Church is in the rather unusual position of having 8,000 office holders out of its total 24,000 employees, and the Church would very much like to see the levy being used to train more ordinands.
In a way, the Church is an anomaly. Quite a lot of organisations have office holders—unless I am much mistaken, MPs are technically office holders—but every vicar in every parish is not in a position to employ an apprentice. Indeed, having a curate is quite a luxury, as it takes so much to train people. I hope the Government will support the Church’s quest to use some of the moneys from the apprenticeship levy to meet its shortfall of approximately 40,000 ordinands.
My right hon. Friend highlighted the shortage of clergy for parishes, and it is important that the apprenticeship levy does not compound that situation. Does she agree that it is also important that it is not compounded by an enforced retirement age for clergy who are able and willing to continue serving their parishes where there would often be a long interregnum otherwise? Will she take this matter up with the Church Commissioners?
I expect all of us have met or been ministered to by a wise elderly priest, but the statutory retirement age for clergy is 70. Exceptions can be made. Although that is officially the retirement age, clergy may be given permission by the bishop to continue to officiate. A team vicar may have their term extended by two years, and a further extension may be achieved by a fixed-term licence, particularly in a diocese where there is special pastoral need. So there are ways in which exceptionally able clergy can continue to serve beyond the age of 70.
ExxonMobil: Climate Change Policies
The Commissioners have co-filed a resolution with the New York State Common Retirement Fund so that ExxonMobil’s shareholders can indicate to the company their wish to see better corporate reporting on the long-term risks that the transition to a low-carbon economy presents to Exxon. This includes a scenario in which the implementation of the Paris agreement restricts warming to below 2°C.
Before they are too critical of the oil companies, may I suggest that the Church of England Commissioners read the Bible—Matthew 25, the parable of the oil lamps and the 10 virgins—and remember that it was the five virgins who lived happily ever after and who had a cheap and ready supply of this much-maligned fossil fuel?
My hon. Friend and I perhaps do not share the same interpretation of the Bible when it comes to belief in climate change as a phenomenon. When I shortly visit the diocese of the Arctic, I shall have very much in mind the recent news that the British research station is in danger of sinking into the sea, as was shown in a documentary on television last night. Will my hon. Friend recognise that the Church Commissioners have been commended with a number of prizes for their work on an ethical investment strategy, which includes taking account of the risk that climate change poses to investments?
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 9 May—Debate on a motion relating to BIS Sheffield proposal and Government Departments outside London. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration Bill.
Tuesday 10 May—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 11 May—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Armed Forces Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be recommended by the Backbench Business Committee, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 12 May—Consideration of Lords amendments.
The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.
I should inform the House that Ministers will provide a quarterly update on Syria before Prorogation.
Talk of the fag end of a parliamentary session, the business the Leader has just announced is the sludgy, slimy, foul-smelling, trashy, ych a fi dregs of politics.
Yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions showed me, if nobody else, that there ain’t no gutter low enough for the Prime Minister to slop around in. That kind of despicable smearing of one’s opponents degrades the whole of politics, and I would gently say to the Government that those who live by the gutter die in the gutter. I am absolutely certain that that kind of politics is not welcome to British voters.
What a year it has been! Every single economic target missed. Growth forecasts constantly downgraded. Debt up. Homelessness up. The use of food banks up by 19%. Absolute child poverty set to rise. NHS waiting lists up. Libraries closed. Net migration higher than it has ever been. There has been one Budget in which the Chancellor attacked working tax credits, and another in which he attacked welfare payments. Morale at rock bottom—in the NHS, the teaching profession and the police. Election rules bent to benefit the Tories in marginal seats. Financial rules rigged to give more cash to the richest councils. Standing Orders changed to benefit the Tories in this House. Was it just a cruel joke last year to make Her Majesty say:
“My Government will…adopt a one nation approach”?
Come off it, this is not a one nation Government: it is a nasty, vindictive Tory Government, balancing the books on the backs of the poor and the vulnerable. I hope voters today will say, “Enough! Now go!” and will vote Labour in London, Wales, Scotland and across the whole United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is in the United Kingdom, in case the hon. Gentleman has forgotten his history.
You can tell state opening is coming. The awnings are going up outside the Lords. The Doorkeepers have been rubbing up their brasses. Countesses have been brushing off their tiaras. The Clerk has had a haircut—you cannot tell, but underneath his wig, he has had a haircut. And I gather you have even had your annual bath, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] Don’t do that mock outraged look, it doesn’t suit you. Could we introduce an innovation this year at state opening? I know the Leader of the House does not want to listen to the President of the United States of America, but could we have a roll-call of ambassadors and high commissioners, just to check which of our allies want us to stay in the European Union? So far as I can see, they include not just our oldest ally, Portugal, and every other EU country, but the Commonwealth countries of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and doubtless many more. Who knows, perhaps we will be adding Japan later today and of course Norway—so the Norway model is that we should stay in. The only international figure who wants us to leave is Donald Trump—Grayling with a hairpiece. How on earth can the Leader of the House argue that we would increase our influence in the world by leaving the European Union?
May we have a debate about the BBC? The Culture Secretary says he relishes the demise of the BBC. He wants to ban “Strictly” and “The Voice” and to force the BBC to make deliberately unpopular programmes. He has even said that if he does not renew the BBC charter by the end of this year,
“it may be that the BBC will cease to exist”—
something he calls “a tempting prospect.” Now, I do not want to get into the Culture Secretary’s temptations, but when will Ministers get it into their fat heads that the British people love the BBC? They are proud of it and see it as our greatest cultural institution, and they do not want some right-wing Minister pursuing a personal agenda and handing British broadcasting over lock, stock and barrel to his chum Murdoch. Will the Government publish the White Paper next week, stand by the financial deal they signed up to with the BBC last year and guarantee that there will be a new 11-year BBC charter in place this autumn?
In recent years, some of the most destructively powerful people in the land have done their level best to avoid appearing before Select Committees of this House. The Maxwells, Rebekah Brooks, Rupert and James Murdoch, Philip Green, Matthew Elliott—they all initially refused to attend and had to be formally summonsed or persuaded to attend. Irene Rosenfeld, chief executive of Kraft Foods, point-blank refused to appear to discuss the takeover of Cadbury and got away with it. Surely that is not just a clear contempt of Parliament, but a contempt of the British public as well. Our constituents want us to hold the powerful to account, and we should not be shy of doing so. Some people think our powers are unclear, and witnesses are beginning to call our bluff, so we have to do something. In 2013, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege recommended changes to Standing Orders to make it absolutely clear that Parliament can arrest, punish and fine offenders, saying that
“if the problems we have identified…are not resolved…today’s Parliament should stand ready to legislate”.
The Committee said that doing nothing was not an option, but that is exactly what the Government have done—absolutely nothing. So surely it is time for us to make it a criminal offence to fail to appear or refuse to appear without reasonable excuse before a Committee of this House.
The mayoral election ends today, so will we finally now get a decision on Heathrow? In the words of Bucks Fizz in their epic Eurovision-winning number, “Making Your Mind Up”, just before they so memorably tore off their skirts,
“Don’t let your indecision
Take you from behind.
Trust your inner vision
Don’t let others change your mind.”
Incidentally, good luck to Joe and Jake next week—let us hope the UK agrees with them that “You’re Not Alone” in the European referendum on 23 June.
May I start, Mr Speaker, by congratulating you on your indulgence and your patience? I am sure you have powers that would enable you to take much more robust action against comments such as the ones we have just heard.
What a load of twaddle we just heard from the shadow Leader of the House. Let us be clear: we have spent the past 12 months fulfilling the trust that the public put in us at the general election last year when we defeated the Labour party. Let us look at the things that this Government have done. We have introduced new powers to turn around failing schools. We have paved the way for the northern powerhouse. We have passed the European Union Referendum Act 2015. We have provided substantial new powers of devolution to Scotland. We have paved the way for the national living wage. We have passed English votes for English laws. We have passed a childcare Act that doubles the amount of free childcare each week. We have taken further important steps to consolidate peace in Northern Ireland. These are real achievements that Government Members are proud of.
The hon. Gentleman talks about a one nation party. I am proud to be part of a Government who have seen unemployment fall to its lowest levels since the 1970s. It is worth remembering that there has never yet been a Labour Government who left office with unemployment lower than it was when they started. I am also proud that we are living in a nation where we now have more than half a million fewer children growing up in workless households than there were in 2010—a legacy of poverty that we inherited from the previous Government and that we are turning around.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the language of politics. I hear the language of politics on the Opposition Benches as Labour Members fight like ferrets in a sack, desperately working out how to deal with their leadership crisis and trying to deal with the endemic problem of anti-Semitism in their party.
It is worth saying today that this week marks the 37th anniversary of a great step forward in equality in our society: the moment we elected our first woman Prime Minister. I am sure that everyone, even the shadow Leader of the House, would agree that that was a really crucial moment in our political history that we should mark unreservedly.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the BBC. Once again, he is making the mistake that I am surprised he does make of always believing everything he reads in the papers. He needs to wait for the White Paper on the BBC, which will be brought before the House shortly. He and his colleagues will have the opportunity to question that White Paper when it appears, but I say simply that Conservative Members expect the BBC to have a strong future in this country.
The hon. Gentleman made a serious point—among others—about attending Select Committees. On this point, he and I do agree. It is essential for the workings of this House that if people are summoned to appear before a Select Committee, they do so. I am very happy that in the new Session we hold cross-party discussions on how we ensure that happens.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Heathrow. I am surprised, because Labour Members have been raising issues about air quality, and the reason we are taking time over the airport decision is precisely to address air quality and NOx emissions around Heathrow. If they were in government, they would be doing exactly the same thing.
As the hon. Gentleman said, today is of course local election day. There are not just local elections—we have mayoral elections and police and crime commissioner elections. I think we should send our thanks from this House to everyone involved in those elections—the officials, the counting agents and the police, as well as every participant, regardless of their political persuasion, because without them putting their heads above the parapet to stand for election we would not have a democracy in this country. Obviously, I want Conservatives to win. We will watch with great interest, though, after the Labour leader said that he was going to lose no seats at all at these local elections, to see whether his forecast is fulfilled. The next few days will be big ones for the shadow Leader of the House, because we know how much disquiet there is among Labour Members about the leader of their party. Members of the Shadow Front-Bench team are seriously considering quitting over the next few days because of their despair about their leader.
The shadow Leader of the House has other targets in mind. He has a campaign group set up, and he has been courting support from Conservative Members for his plan in due course, when you decide to hang up your hat, Mr Speaker, to take over from you. If he has a different goal, if his Front-Bench position does not matter to him and if he really does not approve of his party leader, will he join those who are looking to put principle before career in the next few days and resign after these elections?
Will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a short debate on the Government’s 2014 review of sections 135 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983? I raise the matter because I am particularly concerned about the application of section 136 in private premises, where the ability of the police to intervene for the safety of a disturbed individual, even in an emergency, is pitifully limited.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The issue of mental health causes concern on both sides of the House, and I will make sure that the Health Secretary is aware of the comments that he has made. We have Health questions next week, and I am happy to make sure that the Health Secretary is aware of the matter. It is also a matter for the Home Secretary, and I will make sure that she is aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing what amounts to, and what is left of, next week’s business. It is great to have such overwhelming support from my Scottish National party colleagues, who are, of course, in Scotland fighting to ensure that we get an unprecedented third term of SNP Government, and that we get a majority SNP Government in a Parliament that is designed to ensure that that prospect does not happen. I echo the thanks of the Leader of the House to all who are involved in today’s elections, and I congratulate them on the efforts they are making.
Our attention now turns to what will happen once the elections are concluded. It is hard to believe, but the Conservatives have been quite constrained, thus far, to try to ensure that they get the best possible result today. After today, I see the prospect of them tearing lumps out of each other. Friendships forged in the playground of Eton will amount to nothing as they get oiled up for this gladiatorial contest. It is going to be the greatest Tory show on earth. Perhaps we should look at getting in the peacekeepers, because Labour’s result tomorrow will result in them tearing lumps out of each other, too.
We need an urgent statement on what is going on with the investigation of the Conservative party for breaking campaign spending rules in last year’s general election. The claims are absolutely extraordinary, and they centre around 28 Conservative candidates failing to register the use of a battle bus for local campaigning and some £38,000 of accommodation for local campaigns. If anybody is found guilty of such a charge, they could face one year’s imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Surely, we must hear the Government’s view on that. There must be no whiff of a suggestion that this Government cheated their way to power.
I think that we in this House all welcome the apparent U-turn on child refugees made by the Prime Minister yesterday in response to sustained questioning from my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). It would be useful, however, to know whether the Government intend to accept the Dubs amendment on Monday without any amendment of their own. It would be good if the Leader of the House announced that today, so that the nation knows whether the Government are going to do the right thing.
Finally, it is worth while, as the Labour shadow Leader of the House said, acknowledging what has happened with our business this year. The biggest innovation in the workings of the House has been English votes for English laws: something so divisive, so useless and so incomprehensible has defined Parliament in the last Session. As we go into the next Session of Parliament, an urgent review is very much required, and I seriously hope that English votes for English laws will be hopelessly consigned to the dustbin of history and that we will become a House that has one class of Member once again.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the election in Scotland, and my comments about those who are involved in today’s elections very much extend to those involved in Scotland. We should be grateful to everyone who works hard to make these elections a success. I have a sneaking suspicion that he and I have a shared interest in today’s elections in Scotland, because we both want the Labour party to do badly. I am confident that under the leadership of Ruth Davidson we have every chance of consigning the Labour party in Scotland to third place—frankly, that is where it belongs.
The hon. Gentleman talked about civil war within political parties, but I am afraid he is looking in the wrong direction. It is very clear that, even though the shadow Leader of the House will not put principle before career, many of his Front-Bench colleagues are clearly profoundly unhappy with their party leader. I expect to see all kinds of trouble in the Labour party after the elections, which the hon. Gentleman and I will both watch with interest. He will not see anything like that among Members on our Benches, because the hostility existing between people in the same party in this House is all to be found on the Labour Benches.
On the issues relating to electoral and other activities, I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that it is for the proper authorities to address such issues whenever they arise. I have been very careful to say that that is the case when those issues have affected the Scottish nationalists, as we have seen in recent months. On the subject of child refugees, the Prime Minister set out our position very clearly during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday.
On English votes for English laws, we have had this debate many times over recent months, but I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that people in Scotland are today electing a new Administration that will have more power to govern Scotland than ever before. It is for the SNP to decide how to use those powers if it is successful in today’s elections. I think the Scottish nationalists will find it is much tougher than they expect to take real decisions, rather than simply to talk about things. We stand by our view that it is right and proper to ensure that England has a share in the devolution settlement as well, and that is what we have done.
May we have a debate in this place so that we can be truly obnoxious and rude about the debacle of connecting Devon and Somerset with broadband? It has been an absolute fiasco. The two people who have caused the most trouble—the Laurel and Hardy of this entire affair—are John Hart and Peter Doyle. It is beyond a joke: they are just not connecting Devon and Somerset. May we have a chance to vent our spleen in this place to make sure they clearly get the message that they should just go and should let someone who can actually connect Devon and Somerset get on with it?
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Members will have noted that time has been allocated for Backbench Business Committee debates on both Tuesday and Wednesday. Because of the uncertainty of the timing of business for next week, the Backbench Business Committee has had to make contingency plans. We have prioritised outstanding applications for the remainder of the Session for 10 and 11 May, when we hope to secure debates on the effect of the implementation of universal credit on children and on the frozen pensions of UK pension recipients residing abroad. Which debate will be on which day is a matter for negotiation with the primary sponsors of the applications for those debates, but we hope to be able to inform the House about that as soon as possible.
May I thank the Clerk and the support staff of the Backbench Business Committee for their professionalism, patience and, in my case, humour in our dealings with them in the past year and during this Session?
As we near the end of the Session, it is appropriate to thank the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee for the work he has done over the past few months and, indeed, to thank the other members of the Committee for their work. It is also appropriate for me to express my good wishes, because I know that this is a tense and nervous time for the hon. Gentleman. There are a few days left before he learns the truth, but we will keep our fingers crossed. His team is just above the relegation zone, and I am sure he will keep fingers firmly crossed, although perhaps not quite in the same way as his colleague, the former shadow Chancellor, will be doing over in Norwich. It will be a tense few days.
I echo the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I very much hope that, over the coming Session, he will see greater participation by Members in bringing forward ideas for debates. I know that, on occasion, not as many subjects for debate have been suggested as the Committee would wish. My message to the House as a whole is that this involves a large slice of parliamentary time and hon. Members on both sides of the House should try to use it as fully as possible.
May I echo the words of other Members about today’s elections? I of course hope that people will vote Conservative, but given the amount of effort put in, there will be far more losers than winners. I think we should have a statement next week on how well our parliamentary democracy and our local government elections are working.
May I also take this opportunity to thank both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for the way in which they have conducted business questions in this Session? I wish the shadow Leader of the House in particular all the best for the future—I am not referring to his alleged efforts to take your place, Mr Speaker, as I hope you will be here for a very long time to come; I was thinking in other directions.
May we have a statement next week on whether we are going to go forward with changes to the relationship between this House and the other place? If we are to go ahead with those changes, can we make sure that we have proper and lengthy consultation first, because it is clearly a constitutional matter?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I did not actually say this, but because next Thursday is when we are due to prorogue there will be no business questions. I am grateful to him for his comments and for being such an assiduous attender of these sessions, bringing colour to the occasion, if nothing else. [Interruption.] The shadow Leader of the House says that my hon. Friend has not been here for weeks, but you and I will remember, Mr Speaker, that his tie has been a regular attender in recent times; we could not really miss him, could we?
I give my hon. Friend an assurance that changes that have a constitutional impact will never be brought before this House without proper time for consideration of their implications and purpose.
May I say in defence of the shadow Leader of the House that, unlike other Members in this place, he is going to be safe in his constituency for as long as he wishes to stay there, because time after time the Rhondda gives one of the largest majorities in Britain to its MP?
I have been here for more than 30 years, and have never felt so devalued as I did during the vote earlier this week on the Housing and Planning Bill, when I trooped through the Lobby and my vote was not counted in the total. It is an outrageous situation. I hope that the House of Commons will look at this issue again. We have always believed that Members are of equal value, wherever we come from—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales—but it appears that we no longer are.
If I may stretch your patience a moment longer, Mr Speaker, may I say to the Leader of the House that I do not think that the Prime Minister made the situation about child refugees clear? In fact, all the commentators were saying it was much too vague. Who will the child refugees be, when are they coming, in what numbers, where are they going to go and what preparation will be made on their behalf? I already feel totally distressed by the failure over the past months to deal with the child refugees—in fact, all the refugees—as we should have. This country has always had a proud tradition on this, but I am afraid the present Government have devalued that.
Although I do not doubt, given the popularity of the shadow Leader of the House in Wales, that his position is secure for the foreseeable future, I am surprised that the right hon. Lady seems to be countenancing the idea that a number of other Labour Members will not be here in the future. Perhaps that is what will happen under their current leader.
On the issue of the counting of the right hon. Lady’s vote, it is never acceptable for any Member’s vote not to be counted. Of course mistakes sometimes happen, but I am sure you have listened to her point, Mr Speaker. Within the rules of the House, everyone participates in all Divisions that take place except those in the Legislative Grand Committees.
I have to say that not only do I disagree with what the right hon. Lady said about child refugees, but her actual comments are deeply disparaging to those working in the camps in and around Syria, supported by British money, to help bring refugees from those camps to the United Kingdom. We are doing more than virtually any other country in the world to provide support to those refugees. She should be proud of that.
A criminal in Bradford—who was, incidentally, out on licence from a four and a half year prison sentence—evaded arrest by throwing acid in the face of a police officer and was given only a 20-month sentence for that assault, to the understandable disgust of the Police Federation. That was not, in my view, the fault of the judge, who did his best within the sentencing guidelines. Assaults on police officers and other public servants are aggravating factors in sentencing, but no guidance is given as to how much longer a sentence should be for such an assault. May we have a debate on the topic, so that we can consider the length of sentence that should be added in the case of aggravating factors such as assaults on police officers and other public servants, so that they are treated as seriously as they should be by the courts and so that public servants are given the protection that they deserve?
I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s points, and he will remember that I legislated to introduce a mandatory whole-life tariff for those who kill police officers or prison officers in their line of duty. Other issues are related to attacks on police officers, and I am sure that the Justice Secretary will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments. We should always work to provide the maximum possible support for our public servants and give judges the powers they need to deal with appalling situations such as the one he describes.
May I add my voice to those of the many hon. Members who have congratulated Leicester City on their premier league win? To win the title as 5,000:1 outsiders is a truly remarkable achievement. I am a regular member of the parliamentary football team and sadly odds of 5,000:1 are about right for us just to win a match. However, all hon. Members are welcome to come and watch our next match at Millwall on 23 May, when we will mark the 20th anniversary of “Show Racism the Red Card”.
The average age of a premier league season ticketholder is now well into the 40s, and there is a real concern that younger people are being priced out of the game. May we have a debate on what more can be done to enable the next generation of football fans to attend premier league matches regularly?
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Leicester City’s extraordinary achievement, which will live in the annals of sport in this country for a long time to come. Of course, we will all be cheering them on in the champions league next year. It is also appropriate to express our congratulations and condolences to Tottenham Hotspur. At the start of the season, nobody would have expected the top two in the premier league to be Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about premier league prices. I commend those clubs that are trying to make cheaper tickets available to young people. It is of paramount importance that in today’s world football is a family occasion in a way that it was not perhaps a generation ago. If we look back to the terrible events at Hillsborough that were described in the House a few days ago, we can see that it was a different world. Football has become a much more family-friendly and open place. We would not want that to change because of high prices.
May we have a debate on the future of the UK’s military partnerships? NATO has been the cornerstone of our defence since 1949 and has helped to keep the peace in Europe, but now Germany and other members of the European Union want an EU army.
That question gives me an opportunity to speak for both the Government and the leave campaign, which—as people know—I support. It is everyone’s view on both sides in the Government—and I would hope on the other side of the Chamber too—that we do not want the creation of a European army, or our armed forces subsumed into such an army. That is a uniting factor on our side of the House.
Given the seriousness of the election fraud allegations made by Channel 4, the Leader of the House’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was just not good enough. Does the Leader of the House not agree that it is incumbent on the Government to take action and work with any investigation, police or otherwise—and if there is none, to instigate one—especially as the allegations have been made against the party in government?
There seems to be some confusion out in the country about whether people need to re-register to vote in the EU referendum on 23 June. I would of course never seek to pass comment on these matters, but I have been led to believe that some of this confusion is emanating from the Government’s pro-EU propaganda. May we have a statement next week to put this matter beyond doubt and clarify the situation?
A Kent firm has bought the profitable community pub, the Bull’s Head in Rochdale. Behind the backs of the landlord, landlady and regulars, it is now trying to turn it into a veterinary surgery. I accept the Government have done some good work to protect pubs, but perhaps we need a debate on whether planning powers need strengthening further to protect excellent pubs like the Bull’s Head.
Our changes to planning laws have given local authorities greater control. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point: we have seen a distressingly large number of pubs disappear around the country. Local authorities and local communities have greater powers than they did. I share his view that it is a great shame if a much loved local pub disappears. One hopes that that does not continue in this country; we have lost too many already.
The Scottish National party manifesto for today’s Scottish Parliament election commits to examining the feasibility of extending the Borders railway, which was opened last year and has proved to be a huge success. I support its extension to Hawick and Carlisle. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on this matter, so that we can hear and discuss how the UK Government would propose to support such a significant and exciting national infrastructure project?
The new Administration in Scotland, whatever their political persuasion, will be able to pursue devolved matters, including transport. If the line crosses the border into England, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will wish to discuss carefully and constructively with the new Scottish Administration how we can ensure that the route is completed.
May we have a debate on the future of the Crown post office network—Post Office Ltd is looking to franchise 39 of the Crown post offices, including Lancaster in my constituency—and the relationship MPs have with Post Office Ltd? Many MPs will agree that they have found Post Office Ltd difficult to work with and to get clear answers from.
I am sure the hon. Lady’s comments will be noted by the Post Office. It has been through big changes in this Parliament, but we have now finally reached a point where it is much less of a drain on the public purse, and we can spend the money on other priorities. I understand the point she makes, but it is in all our interests in today’s world to spend money where it will be most useful.
Last week, we had a 60-minute debate in Westminster Hall on East Anglian devolution. It was massively oversubscribed, reflecting the unhappiness of Members across the House about what has been going on. I suspect we would find similar disquiet in other parts of the country. Thousands of people are standing for election to local councils today. A complete constitutional mess is being created in this country. Will the Leader of the House allow a proper discussion in this House on what we are actually doing?
We just heard from the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee that it does not necessarily have enough applications for business at the moment. That will, of course, carry through into the new Session, when more time will be available. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find a ready audience for such a debate.
Voluntary Sector: Faith Organisations
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of faith organisations to the voluntary sector in local communities.
Christians possess a rich heritage of social reform and charitable care that is alive today. In the 19th century, William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury led campaigns for the abolition of slavery and child labour. Others, such as Barnardo and William and Catherine Booth, were involved in founding charitable organisations, covering every conceivable form of human need, as an expression of Christian love. The Christian principles that drove Wilberforce and Shaftesbury are still very much alive in Britain today and are as relevant as ever.
The Evangelical Alliance, the largest and oldest body representing evangelical Christians in the UK, estimates that there are more than 2 million evangelicals in the UK. This is an increasingly diverse constituency, including 500,000 Christians from black majority churches and, more widely, over 1 million UK Christians from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities.
To clarify, I shall speak mainly about the contribution of Christian communities, as those are the ones I know best. I am sure that other hon. Members will speak about the contribution of other faiths to our local communities.
The 2014 national church and social action survey listed the top 10 activities of churches sampled as involving: food distribution; parent and toddler groups; school assemblies and religious education work; festivals and fun days; children’s clubs for those aged up to 11; caring for the elderly; debt counselling; youth work for those aged 12 to 18; cafés that are open to the public; and marriage counselling courses. Every one of these activities takes place in my constituency, most multiple times. The tremendous work done by church members in my constituency is, I am sure, representative of that taking place across the country, often in the toughest and most challenging situations and areas. I am talking about street pastors helping the homeless at night; addiction support; job clubs, which are particularly successful in New Life church in my constituency; helping victims of human trafficking; supporting children with special needs; prison visiting; literacy projects; fostering and adoption support; and getting alongside those with mental health problems.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. To add to her list, over Christmas when we had terrible floods in Yorkshire, some of the people who helped the most in our communities were from faith-based organisations. I should particularly mention the Salvation Army and the mosques in Bradford; people from them came over to my constituency to help with the clear-up operation. They play a vital role when there is an emergency such as flooding.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and indeed the Brethren also play a vital role in disaster relief support. The value of these activities to society is vast. They represent a glue that holds together the fabric of our communities, particularly in many needy places. Indeed, I have heard it said that youth work in this country would collapse without the churches’ involvement. Toddlers might miss out on the developmental benefits of playing with others at a vital age, and their mothers—particularly young mums—would miss out on relationship building and support. Cafés provide not only nutritious, wholesome and economical meals in pleasant surroundings, but a place with a listening ear for the vulnerable, the lonely and the low.
Marriage counselling services invest in families and stable homes, which we know bring massive benefits to society, in terms of children’s mental health and educational attainment. When things go wrong, there is a great emotional cost to families and society. In fact, the Marriage Foundation has estimated that the cost of family breakdown is greater than the entire defence budget. That shows the invaluable contribution that strengthening family life can make to our society.
On caring for the elderly, we know what a strain our social services are under, caring for an ageing population and providing them with dignity, when families are often at a distance. It is so often the church that fills the gap when things do not work out as intended. Faith-based organisations and charities often go the extra mile in ensuring that someone is seen, remembered and reassured. They often provide bereavement support, too.
Faith groups and churches are doing vital work on debt counselling, helping individuals to best manage their finances. We know the cost of spiralling debt: it can lead to family breakdown, emotional heartache and misery for many. I commend the work of Christians Against Poverty, which works with the whole person to provide a range of services for those in debt, without any public funding. It was recently named debt advice provider of the year at an industry awards ceremony.
I can confidently say that most of these services are provided without public funding. Where public funding is obtained, the value for money is outstanding. To speak for a moment in monetary terms, a recent report by the Cinnamon Network, the “Cinnamon Faith Action Audit”, estimates that collectively the Church provides over £3 billion of social support to UK society. It also found that faith groups deliver 220,000 social action projects, serve 48 million beneficiaries, and mobilise 2 million volunteers. The Church may not be perfect, but without her society would certainly notice a difference.
Research by the Evangelical Alliance found that 81% of evangelical Christians do some form of voluntary work, serving in the wider community with their church at least once a year, and 37% do so at least once a week. At the recent mayoral hustings for churches in London, the Church of England was quoted as having three times as many outlets in the capital as Starbucks. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) said in his remarks at the end of the debate:
“The Evangelical Alliance is part of the Big Society, on the front line tackling crime, on the front line tackling homelessness, and so many other of the challenges London is facing.”
That is so true.
I shall now refer to other quotes from both individuals and organisations, including one from the Prime Minister who said:
“I’m an unapologetic supporter of the role of faith in this country…Across the country, we have tens of thousands of fantastic faith-based charities. Every day they’re performing minor miracles in local communities. As Prime Minister, I’ve worked hard to stand up for these charities and give them more power and support. If my party continues in government, it’s our ambition to do even more.”
I was very pleased indeed to hear that. Similarly, several local authorities have spoken positively of the contribution that church groups make to our local communities, many of them speaking of the fact that they are closely embedded and close to the grassroots of their communities. They speak of their continuing involvement in local communities, which is so important.
Today is an election day. Political parties will come and go when it comes to their authorities in our communities, but the Churches will be there enduring—this century, as they did last century and for centuries before. That is why it is so important that we support them in the way that we need to.
Does my hon. Friend accept that these faith groups are the unsung heroes of society, who—day in, day out—selflessly look after others and provide help within our communities without looking for any thanks whatever, doing so purely for the satisfaction of being able to help people less fortunate than ourselves?
I absolutely agree and thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention.
Churches across the country are not just buildings that bring people together; they are made up of people of all ages, of all political persuasions, the well-off and the not so well-off who, compelled by compassion, work—day in, day out—alongside some of the most vulnerable on our streets and estates to support our local communities.
Local authorities, however, would do well to improve their understanding of what faith groups do and the way that they work. I believe this has improved over recent years, but I still think more could be done. During the last Parliament, the all-party Christian group produced a report that dealt with this issue. Some of its recommendations still stand today. Local authorities have been concerned about, for want of a better word, the “motivation” of faith groups, while faith groups themselves often have a limited understanding of how local government works and the language required to engage with it.
Guidance from central Government on how to improve these relations and how to improve religious literacy on the part of all of us working in our local communities would be helpful. Steps should be taken to help us all understand the diversity of beliefs in today’s United Kingdom —a key factor in strengthening civil society and promoting community cohesion, stability and resilience. Also helpful would be an approach by local authorities to provide what has been termed “reasonable accommodation” of religion and belief, wherever possible.
Faith groups do not expect funding for what is often called “proselytisation”, but they do ask to be free to be open about their beliefs and values. If, for example, a conversation starts naturally during voluntary work, it is not unreasonable to be allowed to continue it, particularly if it was initiated by those who are being helped. It is, after all, their faith that motivates religious people to work in their local communities in the first place. An approach should be adopted that allows faith groups to be open about their beliefs and values and the practices they encourage rather than promoting a privatisation of belief. This would provide for authentic religious expression.
Many Christians, in particular, are deeply concerned about their religious liberty and freedom of expression. Not so long ago, the Evangelical Alliance conducted a poll, and 97% of those who responded said that
“policies which ensure religious liberty and freedom of expression were important to them”,
and 71%—1.3 million people—said that it would affect their votes. That is almost an election-shifting number. Of all the concerns that were highlighted in the poll, that was the one that mattered most to Christians, even more than issues such as euthanasia and policies to reduce the availability of pornography. The Government would do well to note that.
Many of the recommendations contained in the Christians in Parliament report “Faith in the Community”, produced in 2013, remain relevant today. Only last week, the Oasis Foundation published a report entitled “Faith in Public Service—The Role of the Church in Public Service Delivery”. Time prohibits my quoting from it in as much detail as I should like, but I do want to quote from one or two sections. For instance, the report stated:
“Local authorities…have yet to grasp the opportunities for engagement with the voluntary sector”.
That, I think, is very relevant to the work of the churches, which is what the report was highlighting. It also stated that
“the Church possesses…An unparalleled reach and volunteer membership…A sense of ‘place’ both in terms of physical presence and as a bridge into local communities…A traditional and largely accepted…role in community cohesion and regeneration…The ability to deliver locally-specific integrated services, tailored to individual needs, with both personality and precision. These strengths have enabled individual churches around the country to engage confidently in the delivery of…important projects that have benefited their local communities. Research commissioned for this report finds that churches feel confident in that delivery and the public feels confident in the competency and abilities of church groups to deliver those services.”
I pay tribute to organisations such as the Cinnamon Network, the street pastors, the Trussell Trust and Christians Against Poverty, all of which have done important work in encouraging that level of confidence. They have rolled out programmes that churches have been able to adopt, knowing that they will be successful and effective. However, according to the 2013 report:
“There remains a perception on the part of local authorities and the public that faith organisations will be conditional in who they deliver services to and that they will seek to proselytise…that fear is more one of perception than reality”.
I ask Ministers to think about how we can get the balance right, ensuring that there is the freedom of religion that is so yearned for by people of faith while also ensuring that local church groups are confident that they can engage with local authorities, that the expression of their faith will be accepted and understood, and that they are able to exhibit it freely. We can all do more in that regard.
Let me make one more point before I end my speech. A great many organisations and volunteers are concerned about a proposal, on which consultation took place a few months ago, for Ofsted inspectors to regulate and inspect out-of-school activities among young people that take up more than six hours a week. Earlier this year, the Schools Minister told us that there had been more than 10,000 responses to that proposal, although the consultation had taken place over the Christmas period. It is proposed that if members of a Christian youth group engage in sport or games on one day a week, or meet on one evening a week and, perhaps, on Sundays to discuss their faith, Ofsted inspectors can visit them to establish whether their activities are compatible with a list of British values drawn up by the Government to find out whether they are extremist. Could any of the types of work that I have described today be described as extremist? Actually, perhaps they could, because of their love, care and concern for the most vulnerable and needy in our society. However, I submit that there is nothing less British than the Government restricting the expression of religious faith based on an arbitrary set of values drawn up in Whitehall. That is the very opposite of what I understand conservatism to be.
Ofsted inspectors are unlikely to be looking for illegal activities. They will be looking for activities that fit into a vaguely defined list of sentiments such as non-violent extremism. This was criticised only yesterday at the Joint Committee on Human Rights—a Committee of both Houses on which I sit—as being an impossibly vague definition. It is not clear what the list of British values actually involves. There have been countless statements on the matter from Ministers, including the Prime Minister, and a number of uses of it in regulations. If the Government do not have a clear idea of what these values are, how can anyone else do so? As we in this House should be well aware, vague laws and vague policies are a breeding ground for abuse and misapplication.
There is grave concern on the part of many Christians across the country about these proposals, and rightly so. A witness who appeared before the Joint Committee yesterday told us that the proposals could deter volunteerism. That is by no means the first time we have heard that opinion being expressed, including by many faith organisations. Many small immensely valuable initiatives fear that if they use the wrong word or if their words or phrases are misinterpreted, they will come under unfair scrutiny from inspectors, whose job is to inspect schools.
Does my hon. Friend agree that concerns have also been expressed by teachers? Many of the volunteers who work in Sunday schools and other youth organisations are teachers, and they are afraid about possible damage to their professional reputation following an Ofsted inspection. This could well result in their withdrawing from such work, which would be hugely damaging to those organisations.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that teachers are concerned about their professional reputations and even about their jobs.
Ofsted’s job is to inspect educational standards in schools, not to make ideological judgments about church youth groups or any other voluntary initiatives. Professor Julian Rivers told us in his evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the proposal could well be in breach of the European convention on human rights because even the registration—let alone the inspection—would restrict the free exercise of religion.
A joint statement made last month by several national organisations representing millions of Christians said of the proposals that
“the scope for vexatious complaints is considerable, especially in the current climate of aggressive secularism and religious illiteracy.”
That is something that I mentioned earlier. The statement went on:
“Whilst Christians wholeheartedly support reasonable measures to prevent terrorism and violent extremism, these proposals will lead to a loss of civil liberties and create a large bureaucracy that will divert resources away from restraining extremists who reject UK law. Such individuals will simply ignore or effortlessly circumvent the registration requirements. We urge the government to drop these proposals and develop a targeted, intelligence-led approach that will genuinely inhibit the activities of violent extremists.”
I ask the Minister to consider this and supply a response to these concerns, perhaps not in this debate but later.
I should like to give the House an example of an organisation that is concerned about the proposals. Christian Camping International UK provides in excess of 30,000 children and young people with more than 500 events across more than 250 venues. They are experts in this sector. My own boys have benefited from camping holidays run by faith groups. The organisation has listed a number of potential unintended consequences from the proposals. It says:
“Much of the activity referred to above is dependent on a large number of volunteers. Finding volunteers is a constant issue and the Government should be aware that increasing the level of bureaucracy involved in providing such events will only exacerbate the difficulty.”
The organisation points out that it is already regulated in a number of ways, including under charity laws and regulations and safeguarding regulations, and through the Disclosure and Barring Service. It says that
“there are no examples of such Christian ministries in the UK teaching extremism, nor encouraging young people to celebrate terrorism or become terrorists…The proposals have the potential both to overload the sector with more costs and red tape…which the Government seems to have radically underestimated”.
I ask the Minister to respond to that.
The Government have begun to roll back on some of the proposals put out in the consultation document. Earlier this year, the Minister for Schools said that one-off residential activities would not be included, and we have had an indication that Sunday schools would also not be included. While I welcome those intentions, I point out again to the Government that the proposals have severe issues that run far deeper than those few qualifications can address.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate. She has certainly kept the Backbench Business Committee busy in recent weeks and to great effect, not least on this occasion. I agree with everything she said, including her apposite criticism of the Government’s dreadful proposal in effect to turn Ofsted into a state regulator of religion. I hope that her criticisms will be heeded by the Minister and that the proposal will be abandoned in due course.
I hope that this debate will achieve two things. First, I hope it will draw attention to the extraordinary scale and importance of the contributions made by faith-based organisations to communities up and down the country. The hon. Lady set out well the breadth of what is being done. Secondly, I hope that the debate will allow us to consider a specific proposal made by the all-party parliamentary group for faith and society, which I chair, to ease the constraints that currently hold back faith-based organisations when they seek to work with both national and local government. I will set out that proposal and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to it.
There is undoubtedly a new movement of faith-based social activism in Britain today. Its significance has not yet been fully understood or acknowledged, but at a time when some people argue that religious faith is on the way out, there is no doubt that the movement is making a growing and immensely positive contribution to our society. The movement is one of the most hopeful developments around.
I chaired the advisory group for a report by the think-tank Demos called “Exploring the role of faith in British society and politics…”. It was published in 2013 and is available on the Demos website. The researchers analysed the UK findings of the European Values Study, a regular, highly regarded pan-European survey, and found that about one in eight people in Britain say when asked, “I belong to a religious organisation.” Demos cross-tabulated that with participation in volunteering, and the analysis showed that people who say that they belong to a religious organisation are far more likely to volunteer than others. More than that, it showed that for quite a number of the types of volunteering examined, including volunteering for a trade union, on local community action, on women’s issues, on international development and on human rights, the one in eight who belong to a religious organisation account for a larger number of volunteers than the entire seven in eight who do not. That tells us something important and surprising—perhaps even rather unsettling for some—about where the capacity to change things for the better can be found in modern Britain.
The most striking example, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Congleton, has been the food bank phenomenon. If we had speculated 10 years ago about what would happen if tens of thousands of people were suddenly, following changes of Government policy, unable to afford enough food for themselves and their families, I certainly would not have predicted that the faith groups would have been the ones to step up to meet the need. That, however, is what has happened. The 400-plus food banks organised by the Trussell Trust have provided food for more than half a million households in the past year, giving, on average, just over two lots of three-day emergency food supplies to each of them. Every one of those food banks is based on a Church. Islamic Relief has organised in a number of areas in the mosques to collect food in support of those food banks, too. It has turned out that in 21st century Britain it has been the Churches, uniquely, that have had both the motivation to tackle this problem, which has erupted so quickly, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the capacity and the resources to take it on. Nobody else has been able to do that, but the faith groups have. That again tells us something very important about the realities in Britain today and where the potential for changing things for the better resides.
One striking example of this new movement of faith-based social activism, and a very distinctive element in the voluntary sector we are reflecting on in this debate, is London Citizens. It is made up of churches, mosques, a synagogue, schools, trade union branches and community organisations, and it campaigns on issues that the members collectively agree are pressing in their community. For example, it has campaigned in favour of a living wage at a higher level than the statutory minimum wage, with the aim of making life easier for the lowest-paid workers. That specific initiative taken by London Citizens lies behind the Government’s national living wage initiative. Its campaigning, of which that is an example, has had a remarkable impact, and there is no doubt that the faith commitment of the Muslims, the Christians and others of faith involved in London Citizens has been key in its work. Last week, it gathered 6,000 people at the Copper Box on the Olympic park for its accountability assembly with the two main candidates for today’s elections for London Mayor.
Four years ago, we established, in the House, the all-party group on faith and society, which I chair. Its role is to support faith-based organisations in the contributions they are making to serve their communities, helping to make their contributions better understood and, where we can, to remove some of the barriers that hold them back. The secretariat of the all-party group is provided by FaithAction, which has a pioneering contract with the Department of Health, and I commend the leadership the Department has provided in acknowledging and supporting the contribution of faith-based organisations. That contract is to enable FaithAction to support faith-based health initiatives. Following its establishment, the all-party group held a series of meetings with representatives of faith-based organisations. We held one for organisations contributing to welfare to work; one on health and well-being; one on work with young people, recognising that most youth work in Britain today is undertaken by faith groups, as the hon Lady mentioned; and one on international aid and development.
The organisations we met included: the Sikh Nishkam Centre in Birmingham, where we discussed its work to support unemployed people into jobs; the Muslim-led Faith Regen Foundation, where we discussed its contribution to the Government’s Work programme; the Spear programme, based at St Paul’s church in Hammersmith, which is literally transforming the life chances of unemployed young people; the LifeLine Institute’s alternative school, run by the LifeLine church in Dagenham; the Faith, Relationships & Young People project, based in my borough of Newham; the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade; the Hindu-led, Peepal Care; the Parish Nursing initiative; and Jewish Care, which provides outstanding residential care. Of the organisations that are focused overseas, we met Hindu-led Sewa International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Sikh-led KhalsaAid and Muslim Aid. After those discussions and meetings, we reflected on what all the groups had said to us. A theme that emerged was that many organisations experienced a little bit of difficulty with their local authority—not so much with the members, or councillors, but with the officers.
Council officers frequently find it quite difficult to deal with faith. They are nervous that, if they deal with one faith group, they will find themselves, in fairness, having to deal with all the others, and who knows what that might amount to. They are a bit uneasy anyway that the people involved in these groups may be a little bit out of the ordinary. It just feels to them like quite dangerous territory, which it is probably easier to avoid altogether. Frankly, life would be much simpler if it were not necessary to deal with faith groups at all.
More substantially, local authorities are nervous that if they were to commission services from faith groups, one of two things would be likely to go wrong—either that public funds would be used to try to convert people rather than to deliver the service, or that there would be bias in delivering the service in favour of members of that faith group. The evidence—in so far as there is evidence—is that neither of those things happens in practice. The Demos report touches on that. In its conclusion, it says:
“We found little evidence to confirm critics’ fears about faith group service providers: that their main motivation is proselytising, they are exclusivist and they discriminate. Rather, faithful providers”—
that is the term that Demos uses for them—
“are highly motivated and effective, and often serve as the permanent and persistent pillars of community. Faith appears to be an effective motivator for community service providers, akin to the notion of a public sector ethos.”
That positive affirmation for those groups is correct, but, of course, it is not inconceivable that one of those concerns felt by local authority officers might, in a particular case, turn out to be well-founded. It is not inconceivable that one of those problems could arise.
The all-party group on faith and society decided to develop what we call a covenant—it was actually the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)—in the hope of building trust on both sides, between local councils on the one side and the faith-based organisations in their area on the other. The text of that covenant is on the website of the all-party group. Let me read the preamble to the covenant, because it explains what our intention is.
“The coming decade will see the country facing new social needs and tough new challenges. There will be fresh demands on public health, social care, education, employment support and community inclusion. These challenges will require the identification of a new set of resources. We will need to unlock the potential of every part of our society to contribute towards solutions. We believe that one important resource can be realised by supporting faith-based organisations to work with local authorities constructively and effectively, as part of civil society. That will mean ensuring that local authorities are confident in commissioning services from, and transferring assets to, appropriately qualified faith-based organisations, and that they include faith groups when they look for solutions to social needs.
The APPG on Faith and Society is convinced that faith groups have a great deal to offer as providers and advocates for the communities in which they serve, and that some of their potential is being unnecessarily overlooked at present. To help tackle the problem, the Group has drafted a Covenant which can be adopted by faith groups and local authorities in cities across the UK. Together, local authorities and faith communities should work out a local version of the commitments below, according to the priorities and needs of that locality. The Covenant is a joint commitment between faith communities and local authorities to a set of principles that guide engagement, aiming to remove some of the mistrust that exists and to promote open, practical working on all levels.”
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his work in the all-party group on faith and society, which he chairs, and for jointly securing this debate with me. He might not be aware, so I thought I would mention, that a report published by the Oasis Foundation last week, “Faith in Public Service”, highly commends the work of the all-party group and says:
“The Covenant which the APPG has developed in partnership with FaithAction provides a framework in which faith organisations can make explicit commitments to good practice, not least in terms of inclusion, while having their faith identities fully respected.”
The report states that a mere handful of localities
“have yet adopted the Government’s provisions”,
so it calls for
“greater national urgency in driving forward this…work, both from central government, through the Local Government Association and through national Church denominations.”
It argues that the Church could even develop a national inclusion charter and kitemark, based on the covenant, so that individual churches could signal to their local authorities and the public their commitment to inclusion. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with those recommendations?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to what the Oasis Foundation has said. I was aware of that—I was going to refer to it later—and I very much appreciate it. It underlines the importance of making progress in this area.
I was pleased that the first local authority to sign up to the covenant, in December 2014, was the city of Birmingham, the biggest local authority in Europe. Like all local authorities, it faces an enormous challenge over the next few years, as big cuts in spending have to be made. Members of Birmingham City Council rightly concluded that working with faith groups could be one way to help them to get through. They might commission some services from faith groups, perhaps transfer some assets and buildings to faith groups, and ask them to run services—a variety of possibilities might be pursued.
I believe that many such things will have to be done if services are to be maintained.
When our all-party group paid a visit to Birmingham, we visited the central mosque and the central synagogue. At the remarkable Sikh Nishkam Centre, where an enormous number of things are being done, we took part in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Bishop of Birmingham, David Urquhart. The faith group leaders in Birmingham have been meeting regularly ever since 9/11 and have a very good relationship, and the new partnership between the faith groups in the city and its civic leadership, signified by its signing up to the covenant, is blazing a trail that others will want to follow. The covenant has since been signed by several other local authorities in Leeds, Northamptonshire, Barnet, Solihull and, most recently, Calderdale.
It is difficult in such a debate to do more than scratch the surface of what is being delivered. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned the Salvation Army. It has been providing community services for 150 years, especially to those who are vulnerable and marginalised, and today it says:
“Motivated by our Christian faith, we continue to offer local provision in over 700 centres throughout the UK to all who need them.”
A recent initiative has been #TOYOURCREDIT, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s task group on responsible credit and saving, which was launched in 2014. There has been a pilot in London and Liverpool, and you might remember, Mr Speaker, what the Archbishop had to say about Wonga when this all began.
The pilot in London and Liverpool has engaged more than 200 churches, trained 150 credit champions and is on target to bring in 3,000 new credit union members. The planned 18-month roll-out to 30 dioceses aims to benefit 2.5 million people. Next month is the first credit union month across the London diocese. I welcome the initiative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to host a celebration of positive grassroots action of faith communities at Lambeth Palace in a couple of weeks’ time, including a presentation from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s Near Neighbours initiative.
Like the hon. Member for Congleton, I commend the Cinnamon Network, which identifies successful and effective initiatives undertaken by a church in one area, and encourages the adoption of that idea on a franchise model by congregations elsewhere. I welcome, too, the important work of the Inter Faith Network and its director, Harriet Crabtree.
It is interesting to look at how such work is carried out in other countries. In Germany there is a formalised arrangement for the main Protestant and Catholic Churches to deliver some welfare services on behalf of the state. In 2009, in the USA, President Obama set up a diverse advisory council on faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships. He asked it to recommend how to strengthen the social partnerships between Government and non-Government providers, including how to strengthen their legal basis. That led to the publication at the end of March of Executive Order 13559 on fundamental principles and policy-making criteria for partnerships with faith-based and other neighbourhood organisations. The order makes it clear, rather as our covenant does, that faith-based organisations can participate in federally-funded social service programmes on the same basis as any other organisation, and it specifies, for example, as a condition of direct federal assistance that an organisation must not discriminate on the basis of religion, or require a beneficiary to attend or participate in any explicitly religious practice. Other points along those lines are also set out.
That executive order is 304 pages long and represents a very different approach in the USA from the light-touch voluntary covenant advocated by our all-party group. Nevertheless, looking at examples from other countries strengthens the case for a Government initiative in the UK.
The hon. Member for Congleton intervened a few minutes ago to draw attention to the Oasis Trust. That multi-academy trust is one of the biggest school providers in the country. The Oasis Foundation aims to carry out research in this area and to publish reports. As the hon. Lady noted, its first report, “Faith in Public Service”, points out correctly that the covenant that I have described has been taken up by only about half a dozen local authorities so far.
I commend to the Minister the report’s call that the Government, under the auspices of the Office for Civil Society, should
“articulate a clear strategy for national and local engagement with faith organisations, to include…sponsorship of the Covenant developed by the APPG on Faith and Society”,
and should offer further encouragement to local authorities to engage churches and church-based organisations in their commissioning decisions. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), who speaks for the Opposition on Office for Civil Society matters, is in the Chamber. I welcome the further endorsement of the covenant provided by the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, chaired by Baroness Butler-Sloss, in its comprehensive and thoughtful report “Living with Difference: Community, Diversity and the Common Good”, which was published last December with the support of the Woolf Institute of Cambridge.
I want to read part of a newspaper article that appeared some time ago. It was written by Neal Lawson of the think-tank Compass, and it is about the role of faith groups in our society. I will not quote much of it, because quite a large amount comprises criticism of people such as me who were Ministers in the last Labour Government. However, it goes on to say something about faith groups that I very much agree with:
“they don’t just talk. They do. Religious communities are among the increasingly few places that bring people together as citizens rather than as consumers—fighting for a living wage and against poverty.
For me, as an atheist and a full-time politico, this is unsettling…I am a secularist and believe in the disestablishment of church and state—in particular, I want to see the end of faith schools. And, of course, religion has been the cause of terrible deeds—although none perhaps in recent years as abhorrent as those of atheists. But in words and deeds, in the world I see around me, the positive role faith plays far outweighs the negatives.”
I think that that will be the view of a growing number of people—including, surprisingly, people such as the author of that article—as they look at what is happening in our society and think about where we can find signs of optimism and hope, as well as new ideas about changing things for the better.
I hope that, through this debate, we will be able to draw attention to the extraordinary scale, range and quality of the contributions that faith-based organisations make to communities up and down the country, and that the Minister will be able to acknowledge that contribution at the end of the debate. I also hope he will consider the proposal from the all-party group on faith and society that the covenant should be signed in local communities—by local councils and by the faith-based organisations wanting to be commissioned by them—to try to get over a number of the barriers that currently hold back some of the activity we have talked about.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing this incredibly important debate on voluntary organisations and faith groups. We should not forget that a tremendous number of people of faith also work in voluntary organisations that are not specifically faith based, so the work of people of faith extends far and wide—further perhaps than that of the organisations we are talking about today.
One excellent example from my constituency is the Middlewich Clean Team—more than 200 people from the Middlewich community who are out and about every weekend keeping Middlewich clean and tidy. The team welcomes members from all faiths and none, and it was initiated by a lady who, in prayer, sought something meaningful she could do for her community.
Every Member will probably see an example of that in their constituencies.
I do not want to go over all the things that have been mentioned in the two excellent speeches so far, but I do want to talk about a few organisations in my constituency, perhaps to draw some conclusions about how we go forward and to seek some guidance from the Minister.
In Stafford—as, I imagine, in most constituencies—we have faith groups running nurseries. We also have faith groups doing youth work. I am involved in that a little myself, and it gives me great pleasure, because it is a little outside the run of normal politics.
The street pastors work right across the country. They do tremendous work, and I have been out with them a couple of times. I have seen what they do, in a very gentle way, to support and counsel people on the street, who are often in great distress. It is not easy work; they go out at 10 o’clock, often on a cold winter’s night, and they may be up until two or three in the morning. I have to say that I usually knock off earlier than the rest of the team, and I have great respect for their determination.
We have a children’s bereavement charity, which is so important for children who have lost loved ones, and which is run by people of faith. We have the Salvation Army and the Plymouth Brethren. We also have based in Stafford international faith-based voluntary organisations, the most notable of which is the Dalit Freedom Network, which seeks to work with organisations in India that support Dalit people and their rights.
We have an organisation called House of Bread that started up a few years ago. Last week I had the honour of being the speaker at its fundraiser, and it was wonderful to see how many people were there—how many people it is involved with—and the extent of its work. It started by providing a hot meal on a Wednesday evening to anybody who needed it, whom it invited to a building then owned by one of my local Anglican churches. The Wednesday meal has since gone around the town to various buildings, including Trinity Methodist church, as well as St Mary’s church. It even spent a year and a bit at the Stafford Conservative Association club because we believed it was so important to give a home to this wonderful work. It is now looking to secure its own premises, which is vital because it provides not only meals and food banks but all sorts of support work for people with addictions, as well as family support work.
Housing is an area in which Christian organisations, or faith-based organisations, were, traditionally, involved but tended not to be for many years and have now come back into it. Throughout this time, the YMCA has operated across the country. In my area, YMCA North Staffordshire, based in Stoke-on-Trent but covering Stafford borough, is doing tremendous work in providing homes for young people—perhaps a bedsit—as well as support and opportunities to get into work. It now wants to help them get out from the bedsit into their own home—a flat or a small house in the community—and be able to stand on their own two feet. I pay tribute to the work of YMCA North Staffordshire and its inspirational leader, Danny Flynn, who is a great friend of mine, and who has done a tremendous amount for young people throughout north Staffordshire, as have his whole team. The fact that the number of staff has almost trebled in the past five or six years shows how these organisations can grow. They have managed to build nearly 100 units for young people at a time when funding has not been that easy.
I also pay tribute to the organisations of other faiths that provide services within my community, whether Sikh, Muslim or Hindu, and particularly to Hifsa Iqbal, who is always trying to work on behalf of people of all faiths and none from within her community.
I would like to raise four points, starting with funding, because that is probably the most discussed. We need funding arrangements that are not short term. When there is an arrangement between the voluntary sector and the public sector, within the voluntary sector, or between the voluntary sector and the private sector, the key thing is consistency—a long-term approach. The last thing we want is for money suddenly to be made available and then, just as quickly, for it to be pulled and the service to be discontinued. It is almost harder and more heart-breaking to a see a service stop suddenly and people left without it than it not to start in the first place.
My hon. Friend raises the critical issue of funding. Does he agree that it would be very helpful if local authorities offered faith-based organisations more proactive help with bid-writing, because navigating the thickets of complexity in these documents often dissuades them from even embarking on the process?
I totally agree with that. I think we should be looking for funding that is available for many years, even if it is at a lower level and starts in a modest way, rather than writing a big bid. The tendency is to say, “Let’s bid for as much money as we can.” We get the money and the money is spent—it has to be spent within a fairly short period because of public accounting rules—and then there is nothing, and no provision has been made for the continuation of that service.
I am always in favour of cutting red tape and of simplification, but let us look long term. Let us look not for one or two-year contracts but for five-year or 10-year programmes. Of course, there has to be quality assurance, and if a programme is going off track, it needs to be looked at.
On funding, I also want to mention the local housing allowance, particularly when it comes to housing support. I know that the Government are looking carefully at this, but it will be a big issue if the cost of support—particularly for young people, but for vulnerable people of all ages—is included in the local housing allowance assessment, and therefore the contributions cover only rent and not the cost of support. Unless we sort that out, quite a lot of programmes will close in the coming years, because it will not be possible to run them within the local housing allowance framework unless the support element is removed from that.
My second point is about co-operation, which has been addressed at some length and very well. I pay tribute to local authorities generally, and certainly to my own local authorities Stafford Borough Council, Staffordshire County Council and South Staffordshire District Council. They are never afraid to work with faith organisations, and they are very practical about that. That goes for both the elected members and the officers. Of course, some people are a bit nervous about it, as the right hon. Member for East Ham has said, but in general I have found people to be positive. That has probably improved over the last 10 years since I was in local government.
That is a very good point, and that may well be the case. Sometimes in faith-based organisations we are a little bit reticent. We do not want to appear to be thrusting ourselves on an unwilling local authority, even though there may actually be a great willingness in the local authority to work together.
My third point is about training and support. We are talking about people giving up an awful lot of their time. In some cases, they are really passionate about something but they need training to enable them to be most effective. Although I am not asking for large sums of money for training or support, perhaps we need to ensure that all proposed programmes contain a training element, because volunteers really appreciate that. Often, such training is done within the programme. Street pastors has excellent training programmes, as do most other organisations. Such training is necessary; without it, people may soon feel out of their depth and become discouraged, which may make them less able or willing to volunteer. We must recognise that these programmes are not for the short term. People often give up years— sometimes decades—of their life for such programmes, and they need to be supported with refresher courses as well as initial training.
Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has so eloquently put it, we need to allow these organisations space to be who they are. They are faith organisations and people who work in them have faith, so they must not be afraid to show that faith in an appropriate way. We cannot expect them to deny the source of their motivation.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this subject, and I ask the Minister to touch on some of the points I have raised. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and the right hon. Member for East Ham for bringing such an important subject forward for discussion today.
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing a debate on such an important subject, and it is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy).
I will talk about a number of things, but I first want to state that I have a great deal of experience in this regard, as hon. Members will know. I was born into a family whose members have devoted their lives to Christian service in running several Christian charities and, indeed, churches. That has been my experience for my whole life, and I speak as someone from that background.
There is no doubt that faith-based organisations play a very significant role in our local communities up and down the country. The vast majority of those involved are volunteers, who freely give their time, their talent, their energy, their love and, very often, their money for the good of other people. As I say, they do so freely and willingly. As we have heard, they do so in the vast number of food banks that have sprung up throughout our country to meet a very important need in our communities; in the pre-schools or youth clubs that are run by Churches and other faith organisations to provide such vital services to families and our young people; in the groups that provide meals and shelter for the homeless, the elderly or the lonely; or organisations working with ex-offenders and those suffering from addiction and, as has been mentioned, the street pastors who go out in our towns and cities to provide a very important service at weekends. They all provide vital services in supporting some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our country.
Back in 2014, a report commissioned in Cornwall sought to put a value on the amount of time given by volunteers from Churches and other faith-based organisations. The report came up with a figure of £20 million every year for the value of the time given by volunteers from Churches in Cornwall, which has a relatively small population. If that was reflected across the whole country, the amount contributed by such volunteers to our country would be several billion pounds a year. I should say that that figure was based just on measuring the contribution of Christian Churches, but many other faith organisations also contribute significantly to our communities up and down the country. We are therefore talking about groups of people who make a very significant contribution to our society, and they should be respected for that.
It is clear that people of faith make such a contribution across the country, but this is not a new trend; it has gone on throughout the history of our nation. Our very nation has been shaped throughout our history by great men and women of faith who have stood up to be counted and who have broken new ground, such as Wilberforce in abolishing slavery, Florence Nightingale in nursing injured soldiers, the Rev. Chad Varah in founding the Samaritans or, more recently, the street pastors. Throughout our history, people of faith have brought change and reform to our society, and it is very much because of their faith that they have carried out such work.
Will my hon. Friend join me in commending Marriage Care for the work it does? It provides relationship counselling and marriage preparation classes across local communities in England and Wales, with 600 trained volunteers. It was founded 70 years ago, after the war, to help ex-servicemen and their families to rebuild their relationships.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating that group. The Church and other faith groups can make a huge contribution to our society in supporting marriage and the family in general. Family breakdown is the cause of many of the challenges and difficulties that our communities face, so the more that families can be supported, the better it will be for our communities. The Church has a very important role to play in doing just that.
The Church can and should be proud of the contribution that it has made and continues to make to our society and our local communities. Often, the Church and other faith-based groups are best placed to meet and address the very real needs that our communities face. They are often very close to or embedded in those communities, and are aware of communities’ needs from a place of involvement. They are often flexible and adaptable, and are able to respond quickly when a need arises—we heard earlier about faith groups responding very quickly to crises such as flooding. They are also very practical. They go right to the point of need, rather than getting caught up in process and bureaucracy. They can see the needs that people face and respond quickly and practically to meet them.
It is also pleasing that we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to acknowledge the work of the Church and other faith groups in our country. It is pleasing to hear him stand up in this House and declare that we are a Christian nation, and that it is our Christian heritage and the values it has given to our country that have made us the great country that we indeed are. He also actively supports the Church, other Christian organisations and other faith groups in their vital work. It is incredible that, in the 21st century, we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to stand up and make statements like that, including in this very Chamber. We should be thankful that he is prepared to do so; it is quite refreshing, especially in an age when the Church is increasingly marginalised and is even sneered at in some quarters for its work.
Christians often feel that they need to play down their faith when they volunteer or are carrying out the work that they do. That is deeply regrettable. It is their faith that motivates them, so to find that they have to apologise for or in some way play down the role it plays in the work that they do is deeply concerning.
Will my hon. Friend join me in extending deep appreciation to Her Majesty the Queen, who has made it clear in a number of her Christmas broadcasts that her own deep personal faith has sustained and motivated her in her great sense of duty towards her citizens over so many decades?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Her Majesty the Queen is a shining example of someone of deep faith and conviction who has given her whole life to the service of our country and is prepared to acknowledge her faith and say that it is one of the reasons why she has been the person whom we all love and respect. We should be very grateful for that.
We often find that the place of Christians and the Church in our society is being eroded and undermined. There is a growing feeling that the work of the Church and its freedom to stand up for what it believes to be right and true are under attack. I have stated in debates elsewhere in this House that I believe that we have surrendered too much of our liberty in the name of equality. The Christian Church has often felt the brunt of that erosion of freedom of speech. We should never be afraid to make the connection between the excellent work that the Church, Christian organisations and other faith groups carry out in our society and the deep faith and conviction that motivate them to do that work.
I put on record that I believe we should show our great gratitude to the many thousands of men and women of faith who work tirelessly and give of themselves for the good of others in many of our communities. It is right that today we show our appreciation of everything that they do. We should also celebrate and value the work of the Church, but we should not seek to restrict the freedom to exercise faith. Hon. Members have already touched on the proposal to force Sunday school and other Church groups to register with Ofsted, and I am already on record as describing that as a deeply regrettable move. I hope that the Government will drop that proposal. We should not seek to restrict further the work of the Church: we should seek to do all we can to encourage it, support it and help it to do more of the excellent work that it does.
I hope that the Minister will clearly state that our country needs the Church and faith organisations. They often carry out work that the state is not able to do, and if they did not do that work it would place an even greater burden on the state and public finances. The work of the Church and faith groups is therefore very necessary and we should do all we can to encourage and support them. I hope we can send a strong message from the Chamber today that we are grateful for the work that men and women of faith do, and that we will do all we can to help, encourage and support them in doing it.
I join those who have thanked the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for bringing forward today’s debate on an issue of real importance. I also wish to place on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, which plays an important role in the democracy of this place and the ability of hon. Members to give voice to issues that may not be urgent, have a high profile or be raised on the “Today” programme, but are none the less important to the fabric of our society and deserve time in the Chamber. Today’s debate is an example of just such an issue.
Some really interesting points have been made and valuable experience relayed by hon. Members today. The hon. Member for Congleton gave a real sense of the breadth of the services and support provided by faith communities from cradle to grave. I was struck by some of the examples she gave, especially on early intervention and groups that support people before they get into crisis and the state has to intervene, often at great expense. Those groups are there to prevent that. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned, they often save the state money and do things that the state would not be able to do. They play a huge role.
The hon. Lady also mentioned extremism, in the context of Ofsted, which is an issue of grave concern to many civil society and faith groups. Some analysis in The Guardian showed that more than a quarter of the statutory investigations launched by the Charity Commission since 2012 have been directed at Muslim charities associated with running mosques, providing humanitarian relief or undertaking aid efforts in Syria. Of course we have to be vigilant and no one would want to see a single penny devoted to terrorism or those forces that we are trying to tackle here and abroad, but our counterterrorism strategy has to have support from, and integration and communication with, civil society and faith groups at its heart. We must not alienate communities further, and I look forward to working with the Minister with responsibility for civil society and the Charity Commission to ensure that we do not tip the balance too far the other way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham raised some interesting issues. He mentioned the Trussell Trust and I was struck by how many faith groups are there in times of crisis. Sometimes we take it for granted that when the state has failed—and we in this place have failed—faith groups are there to pick up the pieces. I was struck by the examples he gave of what a powerful force multi-faith groups are, across the breadth of faith communities, when they come together. They are a real source of energy, determination, commitment and passion to build a better society. I am grateful to him for the examples he gave of where that is working. I will come on to mention the covenant, raised by the all-party group, later on in my speech. I give it my wholehearted support. I think it has huge potential for clarifying some of the misunderstandings and myths. I hope it will play a role in supporting faith groups to deliver more services.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) mentioned some important points that affect a lot of civil society groups—not just faith-based groups— and they include the huge issue of long-term security of funding; training and support; and the space to be who they are, something that struck me in particular. Civil society groups play a different role from public services. They are not an arm or an agent of the state, but they are often able to do work that our public services cannot. They can respond quickly, be flexible and take risks. There are times when public services are not able to do that, and it is vital civil society is able to respond and react to problems.
The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also raised a lot of interesting points. I was struck by the £20 million value put on the work of church groups in Cornwall—a huge contribution to local society, one that is reflected throughout the country. I join him in paying tribute to all the volunteers who give up so much time, effort and money to contribute to our society.
I want to continue my speech by sharing, as other hon. Members have, in the celebration of the role of faith groups in civil society. Indeed, throughout our history the role of faith and faith organisations has run through centuries of social progress: from before the Reformation, when religious duty meant Christians undertook their seven corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked or visiting the prisoner; the church parishes that administered the Elizabethan poor laws; to the work of Victorian Quakers, such as Rowntree, who studied and worked to remedy the destitution and slums of the industrial revolution. In recent years, it was the energy and imagination of faith groups that drove the Make Poverty History campaign and helped to ensure the Government’s commitment to international aid. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham mentioned London Citizens, a multi-faith organisation that has done so much to shape and drive the debate on the living wage. It has made a real difference to people’s lives. Today, we see many faith-based humanitarian groups saving lives and bringing aid and succour in some of the darkest and most desperate parts of the world.
Faith has driven much of the social progress of British society. Faith organisations continue to be a source of energy, new ideas and passion in civic society today. A recent Demos publication, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, found that religious people are more likely than non-religious people to volunteer regularly in their local community and to feel a greater sense of belonging. They also feel they can influence decisions locally and nationally, and are more likely to take decision-making roles, such as being a councillor, school governor or magistrate.
In my constituency, I see fantastic work undertaken by local faith groups every single day. Footprints in the Community is a faith-based group linked to the Trussell Trust which runs our local food banks in Redcar. It also runs what it calls a men’s shed: a workshop space in which men can meet, learn new skills, and tackle social isolation. Our local mosque in South Bank is so much more than a place of worship; it is a community hub and a resource centre that helps people to learn English, get into work, get help and advice, and tackle problems such as social isolation. We also have the Redcar Beacons Street Angels—other hon. Members have mentioned them—who help people on a Friday and Saturday night in the centre of town. I know from my own experience the role that Christians Against Poverty plays in my local area to help those struggling with debt and financial exclusion.
As has been explored today, many faith groups feel there is a reluctance among local authorities and others to commission services from faith-based providers. Conversely, many local authorities and commissioners have important concerns, which cannot be ignored, over the use of public funds to support faith-based services. It is vital that we try to tackle any misconceptions that exist. There can be a perception that potential users could be excluded on grounds such as religious belief, or that support is founded on outdated views of faith-based morality. However, Dr Sarah Johnsen’s in-depth study at the University of York in 2009 concluded that there was no evidence that faith-based organisations used public funds to propagate religion, or exclude potential users on grounds of religious belief or sexual orientation.
In the coming decade, this country will face new social needs and tough new demographic and economic challenges. There will be fresh demands on public health, social care, education, and employment support services, and on community inclusion. These challenges will require new resources. We need to unlock the potential of every part of our society to contribute towards solutions, and faith groups will be a vital part of that.
As the hon. Lady says, faith groups are playing, and will increasingly play, an important role in promoting community cohesion. Does she think that both local and national Government should do more to reach out to faith groups, to help them to fulfil their potential in that respect?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Faith groups will play an increasingly important role, and not just in the way we deliver services. She mentions community cohesion; we have in our society challenges of integration and understanding, and in dispelling myths. Community groups are right on the frontline of communities and are able to bridge divides and break down myths and boundaries. I wholeheartedly support local and central Government in taking steps to build on that.
The big society promised to unleash great civic power, but for many groups it has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Many faith groups, instead of benefiting from a huge unleashing of opportunity, are simply picking up the consequences of policy failure, desperation and crisis, as we have seen with food banks. I would like faith-based organisations to be seen as an important resource throughout the delivery of public services. If they are to be supported in working constructively and effectively as part of civil society, it will mean ensuring that local authorities are confident in commissioning services from them and transferring assets to them, and in working with appropriately qualified faith-based organisations. We need to make sure that local authorities include faith groups when they look for solutions to local social needs.
I recognise the work of the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society in demonstrating that faith groups have a great deal to offer as providers and advocates for the communities in which they serve. Some of their potential is unnecessarily being overlooked. To that end, I welcome the covenant that the group has established, which my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham explained in such detail. The covenant could be adopted by faith groups and local authorities in cities across the UK, and I would like to see it more widely promulgated. It could go a long way towards breaking down myths, providing confidence and, by establishing agreed frameworks, building a relationship of trust and practical support.
Politicians of all religious beliefs and none do well to remember that we do not have a monopoly on the social conscience of this country, nor on social action. That is why the support of, and respect for, civic society is so important, and must remain at the heart of the Government’s vision for public services and social change.
I welcome this debate on today of all days, when I sincerely hope with all my heart that we will celebrate having the first ever Muslim Mayor of our capital city of London. That will send out the message to people around the world that our society in Britain is a place of openness, decency, and tolerance; a place where a person’s love of their community and city, and their commitment to others, to public service, and social good, is what defines them; and a place where faith is a source of positive energy, not something to be perverted as a smear. I sincerely hope that today’s election result shows us, in the spirit of this debate, that hope and unity will triumph over division in both British politics and civil society.