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?