Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Household Food Insecurity
We have a well-established living costs and food survey, which has been running for many years and which informs our “Family Food” publication. It includes questions on household spend on food, including that of the lowest 20% of income households. This figure has remained reasonably stable, at around 16%, for many years.
May I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, because I believe it is your birthday? Happy birthday, Mr Speaker—I hope you have a good’un!
I thank the Minister for his response, but he knows as well as I do that that is simply not good enough. An estimated 8.4 million people in Britain live in food-insecure households. There have been repeated calls from me, the all-party group on hunger, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the Food Foundation, Sustain and Oxfam for the Government to adopt a household food-insecurity measurement. Why will the Government not just admit that the fact is that their resistance to introducing such a measurement is because once they have admitted the scale of hunger, they will have to do something about it and admit that it is largely caused by their punitive welfare reform policies?
I, too, add the best wishes of Government Members to you on your birthday, Mr Speaker. I understand that it is also the birthday of the House of Commons Chaplain, Rose. I am sure we will all want to add our best wishes to her, too.
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady. This Government have got more people back into work than ever before, and the best way to tackle poverty is to help people off benefits and get them into work. In the LCFS, which has been running for many years, we have an established measure of how much the lowest-income households are spending on food. It is a consistent measure and we are able to benchmark changes year on year. As I said, that has been very stable: it was 16% when the Labour party was in power and it is 16% now.
Food insecurity is a terrible thing, and it is exacerbated by low-income households spending too much on food that is not good for them. During the war, the wartime generation knew how to manage on a very tight budget, and nutrition actually improved for most households, including the very poorest. Could we learn some lessons from the wartime generation about how best to feed our people?
My colleagues in the Department of Health publish lots of very good guidance and run lots of very good campaigns to encourage healthy eating. In addition, we have the school food plan, which aims to improve the nutrition of food in schools so that children learn lifelong good habits. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is possible to eat good, nutritious food, the cost of which has been remarkably stable.
When I visit my local food banks, I hear that the number of people relying on them is going up. Is it not the truth that the Government do not want to collect data on that because they would have to admit the failure of their policies, not least the fact that getting a job is no longer a route out of poverty because of the levels of in-work poverty they have created?
This Government have introduced the concept of a national living wage, which will raise incomes for the lowest paid in our society. I, too, visit my local food bank, and I send my case officers into the food bank to help people who may be having particular problems or crises in their lives. Many complex issues contribute to poverty. I advise all Members to work closely with their local food banks, as my office does.
The United Kingdom complies with the EU legislation for nearly all air pollutants, but faces challenges in achieving nitrogen dioxide limits, along with 16 other EU member states. That is why we have committed more than £2 billion since 2011 to reduce transport emissions and the autumn statement provided a further £290 million to support greener transport. We should all recognise that air quality is actually improving, but we recognise that we need to go further and faster and will be consulting on a new national plan by 24 April.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but I believe the Secretary of State is aware of the GB Freight Route rail scheme, which will take up to 5 million lorry journeys off Britain’s roads each year, save thousands of tonnes of emissions, and radically improve air quality. Will she and her Ministers use their good offices to press the case for GB Freight Route in Government?
With Felixstowe in my constituency, I am fully aware of the advantages of rail freight. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that the Departments for Transport and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs work closely together on these matters. Shifting freight onto rail is a key part of any future strategy.
Is the Minister aware of the controversial proposal for a cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf in east Greenwich? With the air quality impact of that proposal in mind, will she tell us when the Government expect the recently promised review into shore-to-ship power and the assumptions that underpin port development to conclude?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that his own council carried out an environmental impact assessment, which it considered when looking at that particular planning application. As he will also be aware, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, is committed to looking further at what can be done, and I am sure that he is making progress with that.
Does the Minister agree that British businesses have made great strides in recent years in producing technologies that enable us to improve air quality, such as the taxis that now run in Birmingham on liquefied petroleum gas and the adaptation of buses that have significantly cleaned up the air in Oxford Street?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Her vast experience in this area is added to by her local knowledge of the city of Birmingham and the support going on there. This Government made a substantial transport settlement with the previous Mayor of London, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), and I know that air pollution has improved on Oxford Street over the past year, which is thanks specifically to the grants that were provided.
Camelford in north Cornwall suffers from very high levels of pollution, because of the A39 running straight through its town centre. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Camelford Town Council on the work that it has done to address the air quality? Will she work with the council and me to tackle the problem in the town?
The Royal College of Physicians has stated that air pollution contributes to approximately 40,000 deaths in the UK every year, and that diesel emissions have been poorly regulated. What progress are the Government making in that field?
Nitrous oxide levels have been falling, but I recognise that it is not happening quickly enough. The previous Labour Government signed us up to achieve deadlines by 2010, and failed spectacularly. We are continuing to invest in this area and will continue to do so and work with devolved Administrations on specific issues in other areas.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one way to make real progress on air quality is to forge ahead with ultra-low emission vehicles. Given that 25% of the cars on Norway’s roads are either electric or hybrid, does she agree that we need a real turbo-charged boost to get ahead in this area?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The low-emission vehicle industry is a competitive advantage for this country, which is why the Government are backing it through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles and the many millions of pounds that have been spent on improving the charging infrastructure up and down this country.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker, to both you and Rev. Rose.
The Government have lost the confidence of this House on air quality. More than 50,000 people are dying prematurely each year because of air pollution, and many more are suffering associated health conditions. With no guarantee from either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State that last December’s strict EU laws will be introduced post-Brexit, how can the country trust the Government to ensure cleaner air in future?
The hon. Lady refers to a lack of trust in this Government. I think that that is the pot calling the kettle black. It was the Labour Government who introduced fiscal incentives for people to switch to diesel cars, and it was the Labour Government who signed up to these guidelines. Air quality is better now than it was under a Labour Government. That is an uncontrovertible fact.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Hill farmers play a critical role not just in producing high-quality food, but in delivering environmental benefits for all the public in our beautiful landscapes. Leaving the EU gives us a great opportunity to look again at their contribution to delivering our very clear twin ambitions to have both a world-leading food and farming industry and, at the same time, a better environment for future generations.
I am grateful for that response from the Secretary of State. Of course, paying for environmental goods will only work as a strategy if the hill farms are financially viable. She knows that some of them are earning £14,000 a year, so income support mechanisms will still be necessary. Can she guarantee that in future trade negotiations she will not allow a flood of cheap New Zealand lamb that will put them out of business?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have undertaken, from our very first days in the job, to commit to the levels of current support for all pillar one payments until 2020 to give that continuity to farmers and businesses. We have committed to our consultation on the future of the food and farming sector in our 25-year plan, and that will look closely at the level of support that is needed. I absolutely agree that we will need to look at what we do for the future to ensure that hill farmers remain viable and sustainable.
The Secretary of State is right that there is now a real opportunity to create a system of rural support that is bespoke to the United Kingdom and that is an environmental, economic and social policy. In that respect, giving Ministers the opportunity to move the money up the hill to protect those who are clinging on economically is an opportunity that I hope she will grasp.
My hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in this area and his input will be extremely useful when it comes to our consultation. He is exactly right that this is a unique opportunity to create a policy that works for us, not for 28 EU member states. That is exactly what we will be consulting on and what we will be delivering.
Happy birthday from me, too, Mr Speaker.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State or, indeed, the chairman of the Rural Payments Agency would tolerate waiting 13 and a half months for their salary cheque to arrive, yet that is what 50 hill farmers have had to do as they wait for their December 2015 single farm payments. Hundreds more waited up to a year to get their payments. They have been told that in the 2016-17 year they will be at the back of the queue to receive their payments if they farm on the commons. Will she commit to ensuring that those 50 are paid immediately, and will she also commit that those commoners, those hill farmers, who were at the back of the queue last year will be at the front of the queue this year?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is just not apprised of the facts, which are that there are very few—[Interruption.] No. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) shouts 2,000 from the Front Bench, but people have received a payment and there are some challenges to those payments that are awaiting settlement. I would like to say to the hon. Gentleman that the RPA, under Mark Grimshaw, has strived to settle all outstanding claims. There are people challenging them, understandably, but that is what it is. Everybody has received a payment, apart from a very small number where issues such as probate are concerned, or where there are legal or inspection challenges. This year, many commoners have been paid across the board and we are up at 92.8% of payments so far, which is a good achievement compared with last year.
Happy birthday from these Benches, too, Mr Speaker.
Given that lamb as a product is facing large tariffs in its most important market, farm payments will become more important than ever. Long term is not just the three years to 2020. The farming Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), has said that we will get at least the same amount, if not more. Yesterday I challenged the Secretary of State for Scotland and he said:
“There is no suggestion that funding to Scottish agriculture will be cut”—[Official Report, 18 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 922.]
after 2020. Can the Secretary of State offer the same assurance that payments will not go down after 2020?
The assurance I can give the hon. Gentleman is that we will be looking at how to achieve our twin ambitions of a world-leading food and farming sector while ensuring that we leave the environment in a better state. We will be looking at the facts and then we will decide what level of funding is required to support those ambitions.
One of the great opportunities for farmers as we leave the EU is that of scrapping some of the bureaucratic rules that have limited their ability to maximise productivity and profitability sustainably—for example, the rule that dictates how many crops of what type they must grow, or the excessive number of inspections and farm visits to which they are subject.
Long life, Mr Speaker.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. As we free ourselves from the straitjacket of the common agricultural policy, which has added so many bureaucratic burdens to our farmers, what assessment has she made of the financial burden that our farmers are facing as a result of the common agricultural policy? What extra freedom will that mean for our farmers in the future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to this issue. It is something that we are determined to address as we develop new policies. Unnecessary rules cost farmers millions of pounds and up to 300,000 man hours each year, which says nothing of the lost opportunities. I will be paying very close attention to these issues in the coming months, as we look for better solutions that work for us rather than 28 EU member states.
I do not want to be nasty to anyone, especially on this day of all days—your birthday, Mr Speaker—but the fact is that these Government Front Benchers are sleepwalking into Brexit. We have heard so much from the Secretary of State before the Brexit vote; now we hear nothing. Our farmers and our people in the countryside know nothing about what is going to happen. They fear a new agricultural devastation in our countryside. What is she going to do about it?
If that is the hon. Gentleman’s definition of not being nasty to anyone, that does not really work very well. I am not sure that Labour has much support in the countryside because it has done nothing for country folk. It is the Government who have ensured that we continue with support until 2020 and with all agri-environment schemes that are signed up before we leave the EU for their lifetime, to ensure that continuity for business confidence. It is the Government who are committed to a world-leading food and farming industry, while at the same time to an environment that is better than we inherited. Those are great ambitions and we will achieve them.
I would be happy to meet and discuss that issue separately with my hon. Friend, but I can absolutely assure him that we looked very carefully at this issue. As ever, there is a balance between successful sustainable farming, food productivity and what is right for our environment.
May I also wish you a happy birthday, Mr Speaker?
Earlier this month, the Secretary of State told the Oxford farming conference how excited she was about
“scrapping the rules that hold us back”,
saying that we could all think of at least one EU rule that we would not miss. That may be true, but I am sure that each of us can also think of at least one rule that we would miss and would want to keep. Will the Secretary of State share her choice with us?
I have already shared a few choices—the three-crop rule, farm inspections, some of the rules around billboards and so on. I know that the hon. Lady cares a great deal about this matter, as I do. In the great repeal Bill, we will be bringing all environmental legislation—all EU legislation—into UK law, so that, as the Prime Minister said in her speech, the day after we leave the EU, the rules will be the same as the day before we left the EU. That is really important for continuity. At that point, we will be able to look at and change those rules for the better to suit the needs of the United Kingdom.
If only it was that easy. Of course, that was an incredibly vague answer—not a specific EU regulation mentioned. Those of us who value EU regulations, which set high standards for food safety, the environment and animal welfare, will not find the Secretary of State’s answer reassuring today. Of course I assume that some kind of objective criteria have to be applied and that rules and regulations are not just going to be thrown on to the Brexit bonfire on the Secretary of State’s whim. If that is correct, can she tell us what those objective criteria are?
I am sorry if the hon. Lady perhaps did not hear my previous answer. I made it extremely clear that the day after we leave the EU the rules will be the same as the day before. After that, we will be seeking to meet our twin ambitions of a world-leading food and farming industry and an environment that is better than the one we inherited. To give her one example of a manifesto commitment that Labour did not have in its manifesto, we will push for high animal welfare standards to be incorporated into international trade agreements.
Flood Defence Schemes
The Government are investing £2.5 billion between 2015 and 2021, delivering at least 1,500 new flood defence schemes and better protecting 300,000 homes. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, Government investment of £121 million is being made, delivering 18 schemes, better protecting more than 30,000 homes.
I am afraid that I was overwrought with the excitement of your birthday, Mr Speaker, and forgot parliamentary procedure.
The Minister will know from the events of last week that my constituency is under great threat of flooding. I am sure that she will join the Prime Minister and I in praising the response of the emergency services under the threatening tidal surge. Does she agree, therefore, not only that the Boston barrier cannot come soon enough, but that it offers a huge economic opportunity that will allow Boston to be protected from flooding and to seize a new tourism dawn that could be improved with a lock?
What a “fentastic” idea. A design for the Boston barrier has been considered by the Environment Agency and is currently subject to a public inquiry under the Transport and Works Act Order. Alongside the famous Boston stump, it could be a compelling reason to ensure that we visit this special part of rural England. I personally extend my thanks to the Environment Agency, councils, emergency services and volunteers who helped to ensure that people were safe last weekend.
Happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker. Many small businesses across the UK that operate in flood risk areas are facing enormous flood insurance excesses. Will the Ministers please commit to persuading the Treasury to extend the Flood Re scheme for affordable insurance to small businesses? If there are floods again not only will individual companies go out of business; many high streets in my constituency might actually disappear.
We all love trees. Woodland planting in England is supported through the countryside stewardship woodland creation grant. To further encourage tree planting we launched the second round of the woodland creation planning grant and the woodland carbon fund. We are committed to planting 1 million trees for schools during this Parliament in partnership with the Woodland Trust and other community trusts.
Happy birthday from the residents of Southend West, Mr Speaker.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Southend-on-Sea Borough Council on its memorial tree planting scheme, of which I am about to take advantage? Does she agree that planting a tree in memory of a deceased person is a fitting tribute and makes an excellent contribution to the overall quality of the environment?
I commend Southend-on-Sea Borough Council for its tree planting scheme, and I personally acknowledge my hon. Friend’s recent bereavement with the loss of his mother, Maud. I certainly agree with his tribute because trees can provide a longstanding reminder of the departed and offer bereaved loved ones a special place to visit that is living and growing. I know that from personal experience of the trees planted in Wrexham cemetery.
Having planted some 3,500 trees on my farm back home, I am aware of the incentives given by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Will the Minister indicate what long-term incentives there are for farmers to plant trees, and for the participation of community groups and schools in that process?
Perhaps planting a birthday tree would be a good idea, Mr Speaker.
Does the Minister agree that planting trees is an important part of keeping the whole environment in balance, and that the environment should be made a cornerstone of our post-Brexit agenda? There are enormous opportunities to sell our technologies worldwide and to show that we are world leaders. At home, we should weave the environment into everything to do with our economy and our social aims so that we increase productivity and security, benefit everyone and leave the environment in a better state than it was in when we inherited it.
My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of the tree, which can have multiple benefits, as she pointed out. Late last year, I visited St Vincent de Paul Primary School in Liverpool to support its tree-planting exercises. I can assure my hon. Friend that the environment is at the heart of the Government today, not just post-Brexit.
Leaving the EU represents a great opportunity for the rural economy because we will be free to design from first principles policies that really deliver for our own farmers and our own rural communities, without having to accept a centralised, one-size-fits-all policy set by the EU.
Happy birthday to you from me, Mr Speaker. President-elect Trump spoke last week of the UK securing a very quick trade deal with the US once it has left the EU, which has led to fears that that could mean harsh compromises on issues such as the environment, animal welfare laws and food safety. Will the Secretary of State today reassure the House and people across the United Kingdom that any trade deal with the US will not involve such compromises, which would jeopardise our food safety and animal welfare laws? Will she reassure us that she understands that a very quick deal is not necessarily the same as a very good deal for the consumer or the producer?
The Secretary of State made it clear earlier that the Conservative party is the only party that made a commitment to reflect animal welfare standards in trade negotiations, and that remains a commitment of the Government. There are opportunities for our agricultural sector in the US, particularly in sectors such as dairy, and possibly in sectors such as lamb as well. My colleagues in the Department for International Trade will obviously lead on these matters once we leave the European Union, but there will be potential opportunities for UK industry as well.
In his visit on Monday to Gryffe Wraes farm, which I visited last week, the farming Minister will have heard many Brexit concerns, one of which is about the potentially catastrophic impact on Scotland’s rural economy of ending free movement. At the Oxford farming conference, the Secretary of State hinted at some relaxation of that for the agri-sector. Can the Minister elaborate on that and assure the sector that taking on seasonal workers will not be a costly bureaucratic nightmare?
I had a very constructive meeting with members of NFU Scotland on Monday. We had a meeting for almost two hours, where we discussed a range of issues that are of concern to the industry, but also some of the opportunities that we have. As we move forward, we will work closely with all the devolved Administrations and with industry throughout the UK. When it comes to labour, we have heard the representations. We will be looking at those issues. It is a Home Office lead, but we are contributing to that debate.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that, having grown up on a farm and worked in the farming industry for 10 years, I will be very much listening to farmers and their views, and wanting to learn from their experience. We will be listening to everybody as we develop future policy.
We hear the reassurances that Ministers give about seasonal agricultural workers, but my hon. Friend will be aware that a great many farms and rural businesses rely on EU workers as part of their regular staffing requirement throughout the year. Will Ministers bear in mind the very real labour shortages that exist in much of the countryside as they discuss with ministerial colleagues how we tighten our immigration controls?
One of the things that I ran on my own farm was a very large soft fruit enterprise, where I had experience of employing over 200 people, so I am familiar with the challenges that certain sectors in agriculture bring to me. We are in discussion with a number of the leading players in this area to try to get an understanding of their needs, and it goes without saying that we are in discussion with colleagues in other Departments.
These issues are very much a matter that we will be discussing with all the devolved Administrations as we move forward. The Prime Minister made that absolutely clear in her excellent speech earlier this week. We are going to discuss this right across the UK and agree what the right UK approach should be.
This Government established the Natural Capital Committee, which we re-established in this current Parliament. We will also be publishing our 25-year environment plan in due course. We want to help everyone to understand how a healthy environment improves their lives and how spending time in the natural environment benefits health and wellbeing.
Live long and prosper, Mr Speaker.
As my hon. Friend knows, I have been running a national campaign to save the hedgehog. She may also know that 2 February marks National Hedgehog Day. What can she do to ensure that young people are involved in the campaign to save our wildlife, obviously including the hedgehog, in the run-up to 2 February?
I commend my hon. Friend for his continuing support of the hedgehog. The Government support efforts to make our gardens more hedgehog-friendly through the creation of havens, and the campaigns within local communities to work together to look out for the hedgehog, including that of BBC Suffolk; I encourage him to get BBC Devon to do the same. We do have a proud tradition, and we want to continue that with our next generation.
Indeed, Mr Speaker. Many happy returns.
Hedgehogs and other wild mammals, and precious bird species, are currently protected under European Union regulations. The Environmental Audit Committee’s report on the effects on the natural environment of leaving the EU recommended a new environmental protection Act. Has the Minister had a chance to read the report, and what is her assessment of our recommendation?
I read it from cover to cover on the day it came out, as is appropriate for a Minister in serving the needs of the House. I can honestly say that our intention is to bring environmental legislation into law on the day that we leave the European Union. As a consequence, we see no need for any future legislation at this stage.
I would like to place on record my sincere thanks for the commitment and hard work of the military, Environment Agency staff, local councils, volunteers and the emergency services during last weekend’s tidal surge. While a small number of properties were flooded, more than half a million homes and businesses were protected from flooding along the east coast as a result of their efforts. I am sure the whole House would like to join me in expressing our gratitude.
The consumer prices index is at the highest it has been for over two and half years, largely driven by rising food prices. Since the Government stubbornly refuse to measure and act on levels of food poverty, what will the Secretary of State do for the millions of people her Government have ignored for years now who cannot afford to eat?
Food prices are steady and have been reducing. There is a very recent small uptick, but generally food inflation has been low. As the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), explained to the hon. Lady earlier, we do monitor the levels of expenditure on food very closely.
We as a Government continue to invest in flood defences right around our coasts—a feature that my hon. Friend and I share in our constituencies. I reiterate our thanks to our emergency services and the military who helped people at risk last year. We continue to invest so that fewer homes and businesses will be at risk in future.
I was originally told that the study by the Small Area Health Statistics Unit investigating the potential link between emissions from municipal waste incinerators and health outcomes would be published in 2014, then 2015. In October last year, through a parliamentary question, I was told that it would be published this year. Is the Minister confident that it will at last be published this year?
I would, of course, be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. If we can get our diaries to work, that would be truly delightful. I would particularly like to see the success of the Pickering project, which has been one of the building blocks in securing the £15 million of funding that we announced in November last year, which is dedicated specifically to natural flood management schemes across the UK. This money will let us test new approaches to see how natural flood resources can help us in the future.
We do not have time to waste. Since the Westminster Hall debate in December, 4,007 elephants have been killed for their tusks. With China introducing a total ban on the ivory trade by the end of this year, will the Government reconsider their proposed and unworkable partial ban, which will still result in criminals being able to trade in ivory, and will the Government move immediately to a total ban on ivory, as Labour would?
I am sorry to say that the hon. Lady is talking nonsense. The Government are not proposing a partial ban. At the meetings I held in China and Vietnam at the illegal wildlife trade conference last year, we were very clear that we will do everything possible not just to enforce a ban on the trading of post-’47 ivory—enforcement is absolutely key—but to minimise exemptions. The hon. Lady needs to work with us to assure the protection of the species, not make party political points about it.
As I said earlier, I have experience in the soft fruit industry. I know many of the growers in Evesham, and indeed I have had correspondence recently with Angus Davison, from one of the largest growers in the west midlands, on this issue. We understand the concerns and we are in discussions with departmental colleagues on it. We want to get the right approach so that we can control immigration but ensure that we have the labour where it is required.
The Prime Minister gave the assurance that we seek a good deal, and that no deal is better than a bad deal; I do not think that anybody can disagree with that. I will simply say that in food and drink alone, we have a trade deficit with the EU of some £10 billion, so the EU has a great interest in having tariff-free access to the UK market.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that the consultation on microbeads is out there. It contains a call for wider evidence on the need to tackle other plastics. We are developing a new litter strategy, which may well address this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is personally interested in the matter and intends to set up an innovation fund that may explore new ideas to tackle it.
We will be looking at representations from all people. If we want to improve the farmed environment, we have to look at the whole farmed environment and not restrict our ambitions to the uplands or, indeed, the moorland areas. We are looking in a range of areas at how we can improve soil management and water quality.
Hill farmers in my constituency and elsewhere in the country will be concerned that their interests should not be compromised in any free trade deal with New Zealand. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that she will fight for farmers in any free trade deal and ensure that they are not put out of the market because of cheap imports of New Zealand lamb? Will she fight for farmers in the post-Brexit world?
It will be for us, as a free and sovereign Parliament, to determine the terms of any free trade agreements. I have already read out our manifesto commitment on the highest levels of animal welfare. Our manifesto also commits to food safety and traceability. In our ambition to be a world-leading food and farming sector, we intend to promote those commitments around the world.
There is a continuing problem of beam trawling, fly shooting and electronic pulse fishing in UK waters. Not only are those practices environmental vandalism, but they are having a devastating impact on local fishing communities. Will the Minister assure the House that he is doing everything he can to address the problem?
I am aware of the concerns, particularly about pulse trawling in the southern North sea. I have asked CEFAS, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, to look at the issue, do a review of current literature and give me a report on what we know about the science. In addition, there is a working group in the EU on the matter.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. At the time of the negotiations on the now stalled TTIP deal, the US Agriculture Secretary said that the EU needed to rethink its current bans on chlorine-washed chicken and beef from cattle raised with growth hormones. British consumers do not want those products on their shelves, but given that we are now in a much weaker negotiating position, how can the Minister reassure us that the Government will not allow them into the UK?
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Occupied Palestinian Territories
The Bishop of Southwark is currently visiting the west bank and Gaza and the Archbishop of Canterbury also intends to visit later this year. He is very keen that the House should know about the work of Embrace, whereby the Church of England is in partnership with 23 Palestinian Christian organisations to end poverty and bring justice to the Occupied Palestinian Territories—to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
Palestinian Christians are suffering the effects of the settlement. Two weeks ago, I stood on the hills behind Bethlehem and saw how the six-lane motorway and the wall carve through Palestinian farmland. Their houses are being demolished and I met a young man whose family had lost 18 trees, which are now being sold on the internet for £30,000. When the Archbishop and the Bishop go to the occupied territories, please could they make vocal their witness to the injustice that is happening?
Speaking out about injustice is precisely what Church leaders do, and they do it well. When the Archbishop visits, I am sure that he will look closely at the injustice that the hon. Lady described. It is scandalous that infant mortality is increasing in the occupied territories when, on the whole, it is in decline around the world. The Church supports the Anglican Al Ahli hospital, where 1,000 children and more than 15,000 adults are treated, so we give practical support to the territories.
There is an increasingly militant settler movement that treats Palestine like its own biblical theme park. To what does my right hon. Friend attribute the radical decline in the numbers of Palestinian Christians living in the west bank?
Both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have the advantage over me in having actually been to the occupied territories. I have not been there. Sadly, there is a huge pressure on Christians in the middle east. About 8% of the population of the middle east is Christian, with 80% concentrated in Egypt. As we saw at the Open Doors launch in Parliament last week, religious persecution is one of the main drivers of out-migration.
Best wishes, Mr Speaker. Will the right hon. Lady consider visiting Christians and others in the Palestinian west bank very soon? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), I too saw the land owned by 53 Christian families near Beit Jala, and the monastery and the convent. Despite protests and support from Christian leaders around the world, the wall proposal is going ahead through those lands. I hope the right hon. Lady will visit very soon.
I would love to have the opportunity to visit this very troubled part of our world and to see for myself the impressions gained by several hon. Members. The Church actively encourages its members to go and see the reality of life for Palestinian Christians. About 750,000 parishioners have taken advantage of this opportunity. I hope to add to their number.
I declare my interest, as I was on the same visit as the hon. Members for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury). It might surprise people to know that there are Christians in the Palestinian Cabinet. The Palestinian Authority are responsible for both Jesus’s birthplace and his family home. May I encourage my right hon. Friend to encourage the Church to develop as close relationships as possible between the Church in this country and Christian communities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories?
Human Trafficking/Vulnerable Women
The Church of England has launched a new project specifically to equip and resource Church of England dioceses to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking. The Lord Bishop of Derby has pioneered this practical support to tackling trafficking. Working together with local charities and the Mothers’ Union, the Church seeks to support vulnerable women alongside those who suffer domestic violence.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to the work of the Church and to the many generous Geordies who help to support vulnerable and trafficked women in Newcastle, which is proud to call itself a city of sanctuary. Unfortunately, it is not enough and not every woman has the support they need. What is the Church doing to work more effectively with local authorities and police forces, which are suffering extreme cuts, to ensure that every vulnerable woman has someone to turn to?
The Lord Bishop of Derby’s initiative I referred to is known as the Clewer Initiative. The objective of the Church is to share best practice in Derby with different dioceses. For example, Portsmouth diocese has expressed an interest in taking up what has been learned in Derby. Tackling trafficking and violence is about spotting the signs. Training will be given to parishioners and to members of the public, so that we all have our eyes opened to what is going on around us.
Adult victims of human trafficking are looked after by the most excellent Government scheme, which is administered on an umbrella basis by the Salvation Army. Many of the people who actually look after the victims are Christian groups. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is exactly how it should work?
I am sure we all remember the work of Sir Anthony Steen in raising our awareness of the terrible blight of trafficking. It is often down to local voluntary groups to provide that arm of practical support to the victims of trafficking, who are all around us in our society.
Prisoners and Prison Chaplains
The work of prison chaplains is especially important given the current pressures in the prison system. The Bishop to Prisons, the Lord Bishop of Rochester, will shortly be bringing Church of England chaplains together for a training and support event.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. My private Member’s Bill combating homelessness is currently proceeding through the House. One aspect of the Bill is to help ex-offenders leaving prison to find a proper place in society. What further action can the Church take to prepare ex-offenders for a life outside prison so that they do not reoffend in the future?
I commend my hon. Friend for his private Member’s Bill. We are all keen to see it become law and for action to flow from it. The Bishop of Rochester is sponsoring a new national initiative called “Prison Hope” designed to increase the level of volunteering around prisons, and I have seen it working in practice in my own constituency. A charity called Yellow Ribbon provides prisons with mentors from the parish to help offenders prepare for life outside and for going straight, with a job, a place to live, clothes to wear and some money to live on.
Will my right hon. Friend explain what measures are in place to monitor prisoners’ commitment to the Christian faith after their release from prison? It is sometimes suggested that prisoners only start attending church services in the belief and hope that it will help them gain parole. If prisoners at least know that their continued adherence to the Christian faith is being monitored, they might think twice before trying to take advantage of the genuine support offered by prison chaplains.
Prison chaplains are highly experienced and welcome all those who show an interest in matters of faith, but they have become reasonably expert at spotting those for whom it is perhaps a means to a short-term end. It is important to remember that the primary aim is not to check ex-offenders—there is a statutory process for that, not a Church process—but to encourage whatever degree of personal faith, however small or doubtful, might possibly provide a resource to help an offender go straight.
Many prisoners are veterans who have served in the Army and other armed forces. What deliberations has the right hon. Lady had with veterans charities and Army charities to ensure that specific help is given to veterans in prisons to support their spiritual or physical health?
I have not had any specific conversations with the Army charities, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have seen from the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), whose Bill is focused on homelessness, that there is a worrying nexus or correlation in relation to veterans leaving the Army and sometimes ending up homeless or getting caught up in a life of crime. All institutions, including the Church of England, need to work together to stop that happening.
Social and Digital Media
In the last year, the Church of England has been promoting a range of new social media projects. For example, 750,000 people watched the “Joy to the World” videos—among them, Mr Speaker, was your chaplain, which is perhaps cause alone to share a piece of birthday cake with her today. The Church is also engaging over other social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook.
It is merely four years since the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, and I am delighted to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that the service of evensong is showing significant growth, including, interestingly enough, among students and young professionals. Obviously, every church can now easily broadcast its services over the internet, and clearly evensong and the Book of Common Prayer find a place in our society today.
Many constituents have written to me concerned about religious persecution around the world. Does the right hon. Lady agree that digital and social media, through their very interconnectedness, offer an opportunity to promote interfaith tolerance?
I could not agree more. The digital world opens the world to our own eyes, and we become aware of the suffering of those who are being persecuted for their faith, which is something that our country stands up to combat. The Church will play its role in making more of us aware of religious persecution and seeing what we can do in action and prayer to combat it.
The Cathedral and Church Buildings Division works closely with Historic England to monitor lead theft occurrences. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 has substantially reduced the instances of churches having their lead roofs stolen, but I know that in the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham, lead theft remains a persistent problem.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
St John’s church in Corby Old Village has suffered a significant number of lead thefts in recent years, which has resulted in very high repair bills. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those who are responsible for those thefts, and will she also congratulate the congregation on their spirited efforts to put things right?
I am sure that we all condemn thieves who steal lead from church buildings, not least because communities face very big bills for its replacement. My own parish church is in the same position. After such thefts, it becomes difficult to insure churches again.
I commend the congregation at my hon. Friend’s local church. I point them to the ChurchCare website, which shows that there are now ways of fixing lead, and marking systems for signature materials to help to deter thieves.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
National Audit Office Expenditure
My Committee approves the NAO’s future plans and resource requirements. The Commission is conscious of the need for the NAO to practise what it preaches in terms of value for money, and also to have the right capability to perform its duties.
Since 2010-11, the NAO has, under our direction, reduced the cost of its work by 26% in real terms, excluding new local government work. The NAO’s budget is set to ensure that it has the resources that it needs to discharge its statutory functions to Parliament, while also meeting the external quality standards that govern its audit work.
It is obviously too early to say what the full impact of Brexit will be, but I can say that the NAO’s scrutiny will focus initially on the capacity and capability of Departments to deliver an effective and efficient exit process. The NAO is now the auditor of the new Department for Exiting the European Union, and will work with that Department and with the Treasury to ensure that disclosures in annual reports and accounts provide a transparent and balanced view of the impact on individual Departments. In my view, the whole point of this process is, indeed, to increase transparency and parliamentary accountability as we take back control of our own money.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
I am delighted to be able to announce that last month the Church of England received three awards at the Investment & Pensions Europe awards ceremony, including the award for climate-related risk management, which recognised, among other things, the Church of England’s comprehensive climate policy and commitment to ensuring the reduction carbon in its own portfolio.
It is not a question of a Church of England go-ahead. This is part of Government policy. On Tuesday, the Church released an updated briefing paper on shale gas and fracking. It does not endorse or reject the outright prospect of fracking, but fracking is acceptable to the Church only if it turns on three points: the place of the shale gas in the low-carbon economy, the adequacy and robustness of regulation, and the robustness of local planning. Of course the Church sympathises with the concerns of individuals and communities that are directly affected by it.
House of Commons commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
I am grateful for that answer from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), but the key thing about the date is that that is when the decant from this building is meant to have started, and there is a series of decisions that knock on one from another. If the Government do not bring forward the motion so we can start debating what is going to happen to the Palace of Westminster, is there not a real danger we will put that project and the public finances at risk?
I certainly agree that it is important that we have a debate on this matter very soon, and I hope that is going to happen, but although there are linkages between the Northern Estate and the restoration and renewal project, it is my understanding that any delay on R and R would have an insignificant impact on the Northern Estate programme itself.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Church of England actively promotes its 42 cathedrals as visitor centres, and together they contribute £220 million to the national economy. There are 10 million visitors to them annually, and 7,000 people are employed by them, supported by 15,000 dedicated volunteers.
Is the right hon. Lady aware of the excellent work of the clergy at Chester cathedral in increasing visitor numbers through tourist attractions, which of course has the added bonus of getting people into the cathedral for its original purpose of worship, and is there a lesson for other cathedrals to learn from this?
Yes, and I encourage all Members to visit Chester cathedral. Last year I invited the vice dean, Canon Peter Howell-Jones, to come and talk to us about how he had turned the fortunes of Chester cathedral around, making it a very attractive visitor attraction, and introducing a brewery and a falconry centre, opening the tower for tours and, intriguingly, removing the entry charge for all of that. He has now moved on to a new appointment and I wish him every success in that new cathedral.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Torbay as a tourist destination is blessed with places like Cockington parish church and the historic Paignton parish church. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that those who go to a church find the Holy Spirit, particularly if they are in distress, and an easy way of finding a place for prayer, rather than a ticket desk?
Yes. I have just been talking about Chester cathedral, where visitor numbers significantly increased with the removal of the entry charge. A church has always got to be a place where we can all go to find our spiritual base and recharge our spiritual batteries and, as my hon. Friend says, meet with the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit.