Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Mr Speaker, with your permission, may I take this opportunity to thank the emergency services, the Environment Agency and all who helped with the recent flooding? Our thoughts are with those who have been affected. Our £2.5 billion six-year capital floods programme to improve flood defences will provide better protection for at least 300,000 homes in the six-year period from 2015 to 2021.
As an ex-Tonbridge Grammar School girl, I know the area well. The Environment Agency is progressing business cases to increase the capacity of the live flood storage area on the River Medway, alongside new schemes at Hildenborough and East Peckham. The agency has estimated that these schemes qualify for a £15.5 million Government grant in aid. If approved, this will better protect more than 1,900 properties in the Medway catchment.
The Secretary of State rightly has a responsibility to protect buildings. In my constituency, in the lower Don valley, there is a lot of ex-industrial brownfield land that, with remedial work and protection from flooding from the Don, could provide homes for thousands of people and stop the building on greenfield sites. Does she accept that, as well as protecting existing buildings, the Government should be interested in protecting sites where buildings could be built?
Absolutely. Of course, it is important that we take into account the protection of new homes being built—that is what the Environment Agency does, as a key stakeholder in all planning decisions—and it is absolutely our intention to make sure that new developments are better protected.
Given that more than 5 million homes are at flood risk in Britain, is it not important that the Department continues its excellent work, not just in building flood defences with concrete, steel and earthworks, but in looking at how nature and land managers can be incentivised to create greater protection for households?
Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right. There are concrete barriers, which are very important, and we have had 130 new schemes since January, better protecting 55,000 homes. However, natural flood management—slowing the flow, and looking at ways to work with the contours of our environment to improve protection—is also vital. I can announce that we have been given £15 million to invest in further projects to do just that.
Through the Secretary of State, may I thank the Environment Agency in the west midlands? Its regional director told me last week that 34 more homes will be protected in the Blythe valley in my constituency. Will she confirm that the agency is constantly updating its modelling in response to rainfall records constantly being broken?
My right hon. Friend knows a great deal about this subject, and she will be aware that the resilience review, which we undertook across Government, contained an enormous amount of remodelling of the likely impacts of increasingly extreme weather events. Of course, the Environment Agency is always looking not just at what schemes can protect people better, but at where the best types of flood protection can be developed, whether through concrete barriers or natural flood protection.
I have just returned from being with my family in Devon, so I have personally experienced the floods caused by Storm Angus, and I would like to join the Secretary of State in thanking the emergency services and everybody who helped so quickly with the clean-up and with supporting people.
Yesterday’s autumn statement gave little hope to the residents of the 5 million properties at risk of flooding. In the March Budget, an additional £700 million of capital expenditure for flood defences and prevention was announced, but just how many schemes have seen a spade in the ground?
As I have already mentioned, this Government have in fact committed £2.5 billion to new flood defences in the six years to 2021. Just this year, since January 2016, we have had 130 new flood schemes completed, protecting a further 55,000 homes. We have also enormously increased our temporary flood defences and all our infrastructure capabilities. including incident control vehicles, light towers, pumps, sandbags and so on, to try to deal with the unpredictable nature of these extreme weather events, but we are committed to doing more.
Twenty-five-year Food and Farming Plan
We remain committed to publishing a 25-year food and farming plan. However, the context has changed significantly following the decision to leave the EU, which creates many new opportunities to do things differently and better. We will therefore develop the 25-year food and farming plan alongside our plans for leaving the EU, and we will consult with both industry and the public.
I thank the Minister for that response, which fills me with concern. I hope that he will bring the report forward as soon as possible, given that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recommended that it be published in April this year. Can he give me some indication of when we will see this important report?
The hon. Lady is wrong to be concerned, because as I have made clear, we are committed to publishing the plan. It is a manifesto commitment. There was no commitment to publish it in April; there is a commitment to do so in this Parliament, and as I have said, the context has changed significantly. It is right to develop the plan alongside our plan to leave the European Union, so that it bears relevance to the context.
The great British breakfast cereal Weetabix is made in Burton Latimer in the Kettering constituency, and the wheat for Weetabix is grown on farms within a 50-mile radius. What proportion of the nation’s food do we grow ourselves, and what proportion would the Minister like us to grow ourselves?
With regard to the food that we can produce in this country, my hon. Friend will be aware that we produce around 74% of what we consume. If we include foods that we are unable to grow here, the percentage is slightly lower. We have a commitment to having a vibrant, profitable farming industry. We want to grow more, sell more and import less, and if we achieve all that, our self-sufficiency will improve over time.
Given the impact that Brexit will inevitably have on the 25-year food and farming plan, which has yet to be published, what discussions will the Minister have with the Northern Ireland Executive about how the plan will accommodate Brexit, particularly when it comes to agricultural exports, on which we rely for the development of our economy, as he will realise?
I have already had meetings with Michelle McIlveen, and I recently visited Northern Ireland, where I met the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association and spoke at its dinner, so I am already in close engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive, and indeed the Northern Ireland industry, on these issues.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Wight Marque, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s rural development programme helped to establish, celebrates the Isle of Wight’s brilliant food culture by accrediting local produce. DEFRA fully supports accreditation schemes. They are an opportunity to showcase local and sustainable food, they can make a real contribution to local economies, and they are completely in line with DEFRA’s approach to strengthening our brand.
Rural Economy: Leaving the EU
Rural areas account for a quarter of all registered businesses in England. Small businesses continue to be an important part of the rural economy, with 29% of those employed in rural areas employed in small businesses that have one to nine employees. Leaving the EU gives us an opportunity to have policies to support the rural economy that are bespoke to the needs of this country.
Scotland’s food and drink exports are worth more than £2 billion to our national economy, and businesses in my constituency of Ochil and South Perthshire contribute significantly to that total. However, many in the agricultural workforce are seasonal workers from other EU states who take advantage of the single market’s free movement policy. Given that, can the Minister provide a guarantee to rural businesses in my constituency and beyond that those seasonal workers who come to Scotland for produce-picking and food and fish processing will still be able to work here after the UK has left the EU?
I attended the convention on international trade in endangered species in September this year, when we secured greater scrutiny of trade in trophies to ensure the sustainability of lion exports. We already have suspensions in place for some countries where hunting cannot be considered sustainable at the current time. For example, we are refusing imports of lions and lion trophies from Mozambique, apart from animals hunted in the Niassa reserve, where hunting is considered to be well managed and sustainable.
One of the characteristics of European structural funds has been support for post-industrial areas. Areas such as mine in west Wales have been huge beneficiaries of structural funds to boost training and businesses. What assurances can the Minister give that west Wales will continue to have access to such funding streams post-2020?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already given an assurance that schemes signed in advance of the autumn statement would be honoured in full. He has also continued to give the assurance that as long as funding schemes that are being developed offer good value for money, we will continue to support them in all parts of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that by leaving the EU, we have the chance to design policies that are bespoke to the needs of this country. My right hon. and hon. Friends are actively engaged in developing those options right now, with my support, and at looking at what potential environmental schemes could be at the heart of any future agricultural support.
Agricultural and fisheries businesses right across Scotland depend heavily on freedom of movement and access to the single market. Why will Ministers not simply guarantee that people will have their rights protected post-Brexit, which would clear up the uncertainty and allow those businesses to plan for the future?
Does the Minister agree that if we are to make a realistic attempt at becoming economically productive, we have to make sure that our infrastructure works—and that includes the internet? Small businesses in rural areas would be able to thrive if it did.
My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of access to the internet, and to other mobile network operators. That is why the universal service obligation has been enshrined in law through the Digital Economy Bill, and will be in place by the end of this Parliament.
Food and Drink Sector
The Prime Minister has set out our vision for making the UK a world leader in innovation, which includes spending an extra £4.7 billion by 2020-21. Food and drink is our largest manufacturing sector—bigger than cars and aerospace combined. Our £160 million agri-tech strategy is taking forward brilliant ideas, such as monitoring crops using the latest satellite data.
It is an indescribable delight to see the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). My surprise was merely at the fact that he has perambulated to a different part of the Chamber from that which he ordinarily inhabits. I am sure that we will enjoy the same eloquence as usual.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. As a migratory species, I am glad that you have noticed the different habitat that I am now in.
The Secretary of State will be aware that 80 years ago, the number of fish landed at British ports was 14 times the number we land now. The fishing industry has suffered grievously under the common fisheries policy. Now that we are leaving the European Union, can she say a little more about how investment, growth and innovation in the fish trade will ensure that we bring prosperity back to our great fishing ports?
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that we will do everything possible to preserve his habitat. I know that he has great knowledge of fishing. Just last week, in China, I signed a memorandum of understanding on seafood that is worth £50 million to UK fishermen, and I have met a number of fishing groups to hear their ideas about what we can do to ensure that our fantastic fishing sectors develop in a positive way once we have left the EU.
Although there are limits to what Governments can do when there is a global downturn in commodity prices, we have implemented a number of measures over the past two years. We made a crisis payment to farmers at the end of last year, we have extended tax averaging to make it easier to offset tax from good years, and we have supported intervention and private storage schemes. Looking to the future, we are working with industry to develop risk management tools such as futures markets, supporting new producer organisations, and opening new export markets.
I welcome efforts to increase exports of food and drink, but there is still concern about the domestic market in milk. What efforts are being made to ensure that farmers obtain fair prices from supermarkets, and what assistance could the Groceries Code Adjudicator provide?
My hon. Friend has made a good point. These have been two very difficult years for the dairy industry. However, I think we should give credit where it is due, and acknowledge that many of the major supermarkets offer their farmers aligned contracts that are linked to the cost of production. Those farmers have continued to obtain good prices over the last two years. Nevertheless, they are a minority, so we are investigating ways of strengthening the negotiating position of farmers in the supply chain, such as reviewing the operation of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, strengthening the voluntary dairy supply chain code, and strengthening recognition of producer organisations.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a small European Union scheme to support school milk, which is worth a few million pounds, but it is dwarfed by the much larger, much more important nursery milk scheme run by the Department for Education and the Department of Health, which is worth some £60 million a year.
The Government’s proposal to withdraw operating licences for approved finishing units with grazing in culling areas is causing great concern to dairy farmers in the south-west. Has the Minister assessed the impact that that measure will have on dairy farmers’ ability to sell their calves, and generally on the market for livestock in the south-west? I urge him to think carefully about it before introducing it.
I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend that I consider such issues very carefully. Approved finishing units do have an important role to play as we try to tackle the long-term challenge of bovine tuberculosis, but if we are trying to roll back the disease, the risk associated with grazing on approved finishing units is greater. It is still possible to have a licence for housed finishing units, and there will still be finishing units in other areas where there is no cull.
The Department’s farm business survey for last year shows that dairy farm incomes fell by 50%, largely owing to lower milk prices. Will the Minister consider introducing a statutory code to safeguard the dairy sector, and will he agree to expand the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to cover the primary producers’ relationships with their suppliers and provide more stability for those producers in the market?
A consultation on the Groceries Code Adjudicator is in progress and is, I believe, open until 10 January. We have issued a call for evidence from the industry, and from others who may have ideas about how we might be able to extend the adjudicator’s remit or consider it further.
Fishing Industry: Recruitment
We predominantly deliver training for new entrants and young people through the levy body Seafish. Since 2011, Seafish has run 97 courses and trained more than 850 new fishermen. There has been a renewed interest in fishing as a career in recent years.
The fishermen in Plymouth are very positive about the future of the fishing industry post-Brexit. They want to improve the commercial fishing facilities at Sutton harbour. Will my hon. Friend find a date to visit Plymouth Trawler Agents, which manages the fish market, and learn of its plans to build a fishing academy to train the fishermen and women of the future?
As we prepare to leave the EU, the mood in the fishing industry is certainly lifting, and there will be opportunities to do things differently and better. My hon. Friend’s constituency has a very proud maritime heritage. Last year I visited the Marine Biological Association and I would of course be more than happy to visit Sutton harbour to discuss the scheme he describes.
As my hon. Friend knows, we have the European maritime and fisheries fund, one of the EU structural funds, which will run until 2020. Looking beyond 2020, we will be developing and working to establish how best to support the industry. We have also top-sliced some of the uplift of quota linked to the discard ban this year to give the under-10s more quota than they previously had.
We have completed 130 new flood schemes this year, protecting over 55,000 households. All but three of the 660 Environment Agency flood defences damaged last winter have now been repaired and the three remaining assets have contingency plans in place. The Environment Agency recently launched its flood awareness campaign and last month we launched the property level resilience action plan on how householders can protect their homes from flooding. It also details measures that will allow them to get back into their home more quickly if they are, unfortunately, flooded.
This year, after the devastation caused by storms Desmond, Eva and Frank right across the country, the Government announced an extra £700 million of flood defence spending, but apart from saying £12 million of that would be spent on mobile flood defences to protect electricity and infrastructure assets, there has not been a clear plan from the Government about how the money is going to be spent. The Environmental Audit Committee made strong recommendations on the protection of roads and railways, and with Devon and Cornwall, the north-east and Scotland suffering landslips and ballast washaways in the recent flooding, is not now the time to set out a proper transport infrastructure resilience plan for the whole country?
The Minister may recall that in December 2013 there was a tidal surge that affected the Humber estuary. Many of my constituents had their homes flooded, and throughout the Humber hundreds were affected. Can the Minister reassure me that there will be no slippage in future flood defence spending on the Humber?
I learned recently that water companies are not a statutory consultee, despite companies such as Severn Trent Water wanting to be and having a great deal of knowledge not only about flooding areas, but also about, for example, whether storm drains can cope with additional water created by new building. Will the Minister have a conversation with her opposite numbers in the Department for Communities and Local Government about changing things so that water companies can be a statutory consultee?
I recognise that water companies are not currently a statutory consultee, but that does not stop them having conversations. The Environment Agency continues to provide advice on all planning applications, and in 98% of planning applications across England its advice is accepted.
Farmers and Environmental Groups (Funding)
My top priority on becoming DEFRA Secretary was agreeing with the Treasury continuity of support for farmers. We are guaranteeing that the agricultural sector will receive the same level of pillar one funding until 2020, which has provided vital certainty, but we are also guaranteeing agri-environment and rural development schemes under pillar two, which are vital to making sure we take every opportunity to improve our environment.
I join my hon. Friend in applauding the efforts of farmers across the country. In the past five years, our agri-environment schemes have delivered excellent long-term benefits, including 150,000 acres of habitats, the planting of more than 11 million trees and the restoration or planting of 950 miles of hedges. All of this supports our long-term pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better place than we found it.
I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that we will consult in great detail on future policy with all the devolved Administrations once we have left the EU, to ensure that we focus on what is best for our UK food and farming producers rather than for 28 EU member states.
Flooding is devastating for anyone who experiences it, and I have spent a great deal of time recently ensuring that we have the best possible preparation for the winter weather. There will be opportunities for all colleagues to play our part in ensuring that our constituents are as well prepared as possible—for example, by getting them to sign up to the Environment Agency’s free Flood Warnings Direct service or to visit the Floods Destroy website, which enables people to check their own flood risk. The Environment Agency will also be hosting a drop-in session for parliamentarians next Tuesday from 1 pm to 5 pm in Committee Room 9, where we will be able to hear more about winter preparedness.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I would like to ask her about her Department’s UK food and drink international action plan, which suggests that the Department will seek foreign direct investment to fill existing gaps in skills and production. How will she ensure that food standards, production rates and manufacturing skills will be maintained in the event of foreign takeovers of existing companies, as we have seen with Mondelez and UK biscuit production?
The UK has some of the highest animal welfare, food safety and food traceability standards in the world, and we will always seek to maintain them, notwithstanding our international food export action plan, which seeks to promote great British food abroad as well as to take advantage of foreign direct investment to make our sectors even more successful.
My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me before, so I am well aware of it. I am also aware that it is a matter for the local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Agency, although DEFRA does have a role in working with IFCA and signing off any proposals. I understand that this particular case is at the consultation stage, so local fishermen should make their views known at this point.
The pound has fallen, the cost of imports has risen and Brexit is costing the wine industry £413 million more in imports alone. From Marmitegate to the Toblerone gap, we have seen rising prices across the food industry. Customers are paying more for food while those working in farming and food production have been hit even harder. And it is getting worse. What is the Secretary of State doing to mitigate these factors?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have an incredibly thriving food and farming sector that employs one in eight of us. It is worth more than £100 billion a year to our economy. Our food innovation is second to none: we produce more new food products every year than France and Germany combined. Food inflation continues to be low, and our thriving sector’s exports are improving. They have gone up this year and we are doing everything we can to create a sustainable environment for the future.
The reality is that food inflation is at 5%. This is happening on the Secretary of State’s watch. It is her responsibility and her crisis. People are struggling now. The sector is calling for security: security of labour; security in the market; security of trade; and security in knowing the plans for the sector on leaving the EU. Labour can provide the sector with confidence today—we have a clear plan. Why will the Secretary of State not share her plan? Is it because there is no plan?
If I may say so, that was nonsense. Food prices have been dropping after peaking in 2008, and they do move up and down. On the hon. Lady’s point about the resilience of the food and drink sector, exports this year are well up on last year and growth in the sector is booming. We are doing everything we can on food innovation and getting young people into apprenticeships in increasingly high-technology jobs. This is a well-organised sector with great potential.
In several conversations with the National Farmers Union and farmers in south Wiltshire, complaints have been made to me about how the Rural Payments Agency has been working. Edward Martin and Will Dickson complain of unilateral changes to agreed eligibility calculations. What will the Minister do to ensure that such issues are sorted out so that I do not have any more complaints from my farmers?
Having ironed out some of the difficulties we encountered in 2015, we are in a stronger position this year. The RPA reports that over 80% of basic payment scheme claims were submitted online, meaning that the number of cases requiring manual data-entry was significantly reduced. If my hon. Friend would like to give me further details of those two cases, I will ensure that they are investigated and will personally get back to him.
In my fishing town of Filey, only seven boats have been licensed by the Environment Agency and all licences will expire by 2022, ending heritage fishing in the town. Will the Minister meet me to seek a solution to secure the future of fishing in Filey?
I understand my hon. Friend’s issue. The situation with wild salmon is particularly bleak at the moment, which is why we are looking at additional measures to reduce the catch through netting. However, I am quite sympathetic to the arguments made about the sustainability of T-nets, which I understand are used along the shoreline in his constituency, and I am more than happy to meet him.
Since the floods, small and medium-sized enterprises have received over £6 million of direct support from the Government to help with their resilience. On insurance, I recently met representatives of the British Insurance Brokers Association and expect them to be launching new products next month so that more businesses can get flood insurance.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that both the 2010 and 2015 Conservative party manifestos said that we would ban all ivory trade. Will she update the House on what progress she made towards that aim at the Vietnam conference last week?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The conference was superbly successful and some real steps were taken towards improving awareness of the importance of preserving endangered species, the elephant in particular. In this country, we have announced our intention to ban the trade in post-1947 ivory—that is 70 years—and we will consult on that shortly to consider how we implement that and what further steps can be taken to meet our manifesto commitment.
I think we have all been consistently clear that in leaving the EU we will be seeking the best possible deal for the UK. That will involve close co-ordination and communication with all the devolved Administrations to make sure that we absolutely understand what it means to get the best possible deal for all sectors within the DEFRA family.
Food and drink production has flourished under my right hon. Friend’s leadership; as we have just heard, record levels of hard cheese and sour grapes are emanating from the other side of the Chamber, and in my constituency the Hogs Back brewery, a very successful micro-brewery, is doing a roaring trade. May I invite her to join me for a knees-up in my brewery—something Opposition Members could never organise?
I would be delighted to do that. We have some amazing products. We have taken gin out to the Chinese, which was a great experience, and just look at the beers from the UK that the Vietnamese are drinking already. We are seeing market access and greater exports, and just yesterday we saw the beers at the “Taste of Cheltenham” event. My right hon. Friend is right to highlight produce from his constituency and I would be delighted to share in a knees-up with him any time.
I am meeting a Welsh Minister just today to discuss that very subject, and my colleagues have met a number of Welsh Ministers in recent weeks. At official level there are constant discussions, we have had informal stakeholder meetings and, as we have pointed out, formal consultations will be taking place, starting in the near future.
Thanks to the Minister, the sheep dip sufferers group now has access to documents including medical records from the poisons unit at Guy’s hospital, which show what many sufferers have known for years: there were long-term health impacts of using sheep dip. Will he meet us again so that we can act for those who still suffer?
The hon. Lady will be aware that I met her and others about a year ago, when we looked at this issue in depth. I subsequently went back through all the submissions that came from the chief veterinary officer in the early 1990s to establish precisely why we stopped using sheep dip, and it was not because of health concerns; it was because of a belief that it was not possible to tackle the disease. I note that she has now got the documents, but I simply say that the committee on toxicity looked at this issue exhaustively, examining 26 different studies over a period of more than a decade, and concluded that in the absence of acute poisoning there would not be meaningful long-term effects.
Traffic hotspots in the Broomhill area of my constituency create unacceptably high levels of nitrogen dioxide. The council is doing what it can, but it is frustrated by the Government on issues such as the deregulation of taxi licensing. We need joined-up action across government, and as the High Court said earlier this month, we need it urgently. So when will the Government produce an effective and comprehensive air quality plan?
We have accepted the Court’s judgment and we now have a new timescale for revising the plan. We have already said that we would update our plans on the basis of evidence on vehicle emissions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contribute to the clean air zones consultation, which was launched on 13 October. More than 100 councils applied for an air quality grant and these decisions will be made in due course.
The World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative published a report card on the UK last week which awarded zero points out of 10 to the Government’s plans for protecting infant and young child feeding in emergencies such as flooding. Will Ministers work with their colleagues in the Department of Health to ensure that when flooding or power cuts occur during the winter there are plans in place to protect infant and young child feeding?
I have already had discussions with officials from various Departments on our preparedness for winter. There is an inter-ministerial group meeting next week at which the Department of Health will be represented, and I will make sure that it is aware of the hon. Lady’s question.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
National Audit Office: EU
The National Audit Office uses its resources to provide direct support to Parliament and stands ready to support parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit. In my humble view, there should be more, not less, parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit. The NAO is keeping in close touch with Departments as their preparations for exiting the EU develop. This will be a major task for Departments and is likely to include additional work for the NAO, not least the audit of the new Department for Exiting the European Union.
The NAO’s scrutiny will focus initially on the capacity and capability of Departments to deliver an effective and efficient exit process. The NAO will work with all Departments to assess the potential impact of exiting the European Union on their financial performance and position. The NAO is already the auditor of the new Department for Exiting the European Union and will work with it and the Treasury to ensure efficiency.
Following the rather over-pessimistic forecast that we heard about yesterday from the Office for Budget Responsibility, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be interesting to have another independent assessment from the NAO, which might show a more optimistic post-Brexit forecast?
The National Audit Office will not actually assess any economic effects of exiting the EU, but what it can do is ensure that the civil service carries out its task with due diligence and efficiency. I am confident that our civil service, which is one of the most efficient in the world, will do the job properly. The NAO is certainly one of the best auditors in the world, and we will make this process work efficiently and smoothly as best we can.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Persecution of Christians
The Church of England remains concerned about a number of religious minorities across the world, not just Christian ones. Recently, the Lord Bishop of Coventry travelled to northern Iraq to visit the Christians in Mosul because it is clear that questions remain about their continued safety and the need to make their homes and businesses safe if they are to sustain themselves there.
Yes. There are a number of excellent organisations such as Open Doors, Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Aid to the Church in Need which are working to support the Christian community overseas. I plan to attend a reception for the launch of the 2017 World Watch List in January, and I encourage hon. Members also to attend.
The Archbishop of Canterbury made his second pastoral visit to Pakistan last weekend and met the victims and the bereaved of the recent suicide bomb attacks in Islamabad and Lahore. He also met the adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, where the conversation was warm and constructive on a range of matters, including the contribution of the Christian community in Pakistan and the suffering of many Muslims and Christians in the struggle against terrorism.
What representations has my right hon. Friend received in relation to the persecution of Christians in Iran? Last week, we had a conference attended by several bishops, and the concern there was that Christians cannot even congregate and are subject to military rule.
As I mentioned, the Lord Bishop of Coventry made a recent visit to Iraq, precisely to look at the terrible oppression that religious minorities, including Christians, are suffering. There is no question for any Member of this House but that safety and security are paramount issues, and we look to the Foreign Office to help us in our support for persecuted religious minorities in the region.
If we made it a criminal offence in this country for a Christian to become a Muslim, there would be outrage across the world. Yet people in many Arab countries face legal persecution and prosecution if they convert from Islam to Christianity. What representations is the Church making to these Arab countries that have such rules on apostasy?
Obviously nations are sovereign, and we know that in this country there is an appetite to respect sovereignty, but that does not preclude Government Ministers and Church leaders from speaking with force to the Ministers of countries where religious minorities are oppressed, to ensure that there is tolerance towards those minorities in their society.
The Church of England does provide advice and support to parish churches in the following ways: diocesan advisory committees, which give free advice; specific officers to advise parishes regarding the care of historic churches; the national ChurchCare website, which provides guidance; and grant schemes operated by ChurchCare.
Earlier this autumn, the Ministry of Defence announced that the Royal Citadel, which includes a royal chapel, will be released back to the Crown Estate. I suspect it will need significant restoration and investment. Who shall I speak to about the restoration, and what will be the status of St Katherine once the royal chapel and the barracks are fully released?
That is a specific question about a specific type of church, but I can assure my hon. Friend that if he takes up direct contact with me, I will take up that specific case on his behalf to see how we can assist this transition. However, the community that worships at that church is able, of itself, to look at the ChurchCare website to see what is available in theory to assist the church. My hon. Friend has seen for himself the way in which the Church has assisted St Matthias Church in Plymouth to transform itself to meet the needs of the student community, with services that are appropriate for that age group and with a style of worship it would enjoy.
When I was a curate, which was obviously in another millennium, one of the biggest problems that faced the Church in relation to conservation was not only meeting the cost, particularly for beautiful elderly churches, but finding the people who had the craft skills to do the work. Now that the head of the Church’s Buckingham Palace is going to be done up, at the same time that this Palace and many churches around the country are going to be done up, would it not be a good idea to have a joint industrial strategy to make sure that we get lots of young people trained up in these skills?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, during his curacy, knew what a struggle it is to maintain these ancient buildings. That is why the Church is participating in the ongoing review by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to examine the sustainability of Church of England churches. However, I am sure he will join me in once again thanking the Treasury for its assistance with the world war one centenary cathedral repairs fund, which helped 42 cathedrals around the country to make significant repairs and created jobs for many young people in the crafts he would wish to see flourish.
The Church of England welcomes very much the Red Wednesday initiative from Aid to the Church in Need. This is a multi-faith initiative. I would particularly like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing that the Palace of Westminster should join Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and Lambeth Palace in lighting their buildings in red yesterday to stand in solidarity with those facing persecution for their faith.
May I join the right hon. Lady in thanking all those who lit church and other buildings, including, as she said, our own Parliament? While I live in hope that religious persecution will diminish and one day end, will she join me in encouraging those responsible for all buildings to take part next year to make a public statement of our solidarity with all those suffering persecution on the grounds of their religious faith?
Yes, I very much hope that other significant buildings will join in with this. The fact that students from schools in many parts of the UK marked Red Wednesday by wearing an item of red clothing and holding prayer services is an example of how we extend the acknowledgment of the suffering and persecution of religious minorities. That is important, and I hope that this will catch on.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will join me at 11 o’clock this morning in the Grand Committee Room, where I am sponsoring an event for the wonderful organisation, Aid to the Church in Need. Indeed, I hope that all Members might consider turning up. Three quarters of the world’s population now live in countries where there is some sort of religious persecution. This is such an important issue that I hope we can all unite behind my right hon. Friend, the Speaker and everybody else to voice our concerns.
I had meant to mention myself that this event is being held just after this session of questions, so if hon. Members would like to divert to the Grand Committee Room they will indeed find the report being launched. We would all do well to read it.
The Church of England takes anti-Semitism very seriously and is supporting the work of the Chief Rabbi and the Holocaust Memorial Trust to counteract the growing anti-Semitic and extreme language evidenced in a report by the Home Affairs Committee.
With the incidence of anti-Semitic attacks rising by 11% in the first six months of this year, and the documented rise in hate crimes since the Brexit vote in June, what more could the Church of England, as the established Church in England, do in its leadership role in communities throughout the whole of England?
I could not commend strongly enough to all Members the Home Affairs Committee report recording the very disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. That is precisely why, last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi launched In Good Faith, a twinning arrangement between rabbis and priests in local neighbourhoods around the country. It is in its early stages, but it will involve a commitment to work together to counteract anti-Semitism.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Electronic Voting: House of Commons
The Commission has given no formal consideration to a move to electronic voting in the House. Its responsibility in this matter is limited to any financial or staffing implications of any change to the current system, were a change to be agreed by the House. The Procedure Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman has been a member since 2015, will be well placed to inquire into the matter and come up with proposals.
It is a pleasure to ask a question of a spokesman on the same side of the House. During the Report stage of the Higher Education and Research Bill on Monday we spent nearly an hour trooping through the Division Lobbies. Has the Commission ever made a calculation of the cost to the taxpayer of that dead time in terms of staff, security and utilities? If we are to be decanted as part of a restoration process, surely that presents an opportunity to devise a pilot for electronic voting if we are not going to replicate every last detail of where we are now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those two questions. On the time it takes Members to vote, he may not be aware that back in 1997 this House did consider substantial changes to the way in which we voted, and I am afraid it voted to keep things exactly as they were. I hope that by, perhaps, early next year we will have a substantive debate in this place on the restoration and renewal issue, and that would be the appropriate opportunity for him to raise his point.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his timely question as we prepare for the arrival of Advent this weekend. The Church of England will launch a new website—www.achristmasnearyou.org—on 1 December to help the 2.7 million members of the public who attend church over Advent, and the 2.5 million people who attend at Christmas, find their nearest church service or celebration.
Some 23,000 services have been added to the website by more than 5,000 parishes. It might interest hon. Members to know that it has filters, so, for example, disabled parishioners can find out how easily they can access a church, and there is a filter for those who wish to know whether mince pies and mulled wine will be served. The social media campaign also includes a video in which Mr Speaker’s very own chaplain makes her important contribution under the hashtag #joytotheworld. I recommend that we all watch that.