House of Commons
Thursday 19 January 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
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?
I have made it clear in this House before that national Government have their part to play in finding solutions to tackle local congestion issues, but so too does local government. Of course we will continue to work with my hon. Friend on that matter.
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.
Or even an incontrovertible 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.
What a delicious choice. Mr William Wiggin.
Having heard what my right hon. Friend has said, and knowing what sort of Minister she is, I cannot really believe that her team were fully briefed properly when they saw the nitrate vulnerable zones regulation rolled out to new parts of England.
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.
The events of the—
It is Question 5.
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.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that flood defences are a matter for his Government. He raised the same point in the Adjournment debate yesterday and if he had waited for my reply, he would have heard my response.
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?
As I have outlined, the countryside stewardship scheme acts as an incentive for tree planting. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is leading by example but, as he understands, the encouragement in Northern Ireland is led by his Government there.
Ah yes, we can learn all about tree planting in Taunton Deane.
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.
On hedgehogs and related matters?
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?
That is a timely reminder from the hon. Gentleman. I will look into the matter straight away and write to him.
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.
As the Secretary of State said earlier, we have now paid 92.8% of basic payment scheme claims for the current year. As a fellow Cornishman, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that 97% of claims in Cornwall have now been paid.
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 US represents US interests in negotiations; the UK Government will represent the UK in any future trade negotiations. As I made clear earlier, we will not compromise on issues such as animal welfare and food safety.
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?
That is exactly the purpose of Embrace the Middle East. We are in partnership with 23 Palestinian Christian organisations. The value of the support we give through this scheme is equivalent to £1.25 million.
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.
What is the Church of England doing to promote the Book of Common Prayer, especially traditional evensong, online?
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.
Now that this country is leaving the European Union with the clear vision set out the other day by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, can my hon. Friend say what impact he believes that that will have on the NAO and the auditing of its accounts?
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.
More than 60% of the existing NAO reports and investigations cover matters that exclude Scotland. Does the Chairman agree that Barnett consequentials should arise from that expenditure?
I serve on the Procedure Committee, and we do discuss such matters. This is more a matter for the Committee than for the commission, but I can say that it is undoubtedly true that there will be Barnett consequentials.
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.
I welcome the Church of England’s moves in this regard, but how does commitment to a low-carbon future sit with reports today that the Church has given the go-ahead for fracking on Church land?
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—
The target date for completion of work on the Northern Estate is November 2023, which is the date by which the buildings will have been reoccupied.
I call Chris Bryant.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker—although I recall that you did not wish me a happy birthday, or even call me, on my birthday last week.
Inexplicably, I was not aware of that great matter at the time.
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.
I should like to make a brief statement to the House.
The House of Commons Service has participated in Stonewall’s workplace equality index for the past five years. Stonewall is the largest charity in Europe in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. This year, Stonewall has announced that we have achieved a place in its index of the top 100 LGBT-friendly employers, ranking 28th with a score of 155 out of 200 points. Colleagues, this is an impressive rise of 88 places on last year’s index ranking of 116th, and the first time that we have been named in the published top 100. In addition to this score, ParliOUT, the parliamentary workplace equality network for LGBT equality, has been named one of Stonewall's “highly commended network groups”. Among its achievements in 2016, ParliOUT members raised money to buy the rainbow flag that flew over Parliament for the first time during London Pride weekend in June.
I should like to thank stakeholders from across Parliament for their support in this achievement, led by the redoubtable Anne Foster and her colleagues in the House of Commons Diversity and Inclusion team, and an achievement which I confess I have been passionately championing as Speaker. I hope that this news demonstrates our commitment to being an inclusive employer and institution.
We are pleased with the progress and we shall now redouble our efforts in the coming years to improve further upon it.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 23 January—Second Reading of the Local Government Finance Bill.
Tuesday 24 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Wales Bill followed by motion relating to the charter for budget responsibility followed by motion relating to the appointment of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.
Wednesday 25 January—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on prisons followed by a debate entitled “The detrimental effects on disabled people of Government plans on employment and support allowance and universal credit”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 26 January—Debate on a motion relating to statutory pubs code and the pubs code adjudicator followed by debate on a motion relating to access to Kadcyla and other breast cancer drugs. Both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 27 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 30 January will include:
Monday 30 January—Second Reading of the Pension Schemes Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 31 January—Second Reading of the Bus Services Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 1 February—Opposition day (20th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 2 February—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 3 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of January will be:
Monday 23 January—Debate on an e-petition relating to the banning of non-recyclable and non-compostable packaging.
Thursday 26 January—General debate on protecting civil society space across the world.
Monday 30 January—Debate on an e-petition relating to pay restraint for “Agenda for Change” NHS staff.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement, but we still do not appear to have a date for the summer recess. I ask him to think carefully about that and perhaps come back with it next week, possibly with dates for Prorogation and the state opening as well.
Mr Speaker, may I wish you a very happy birthday? I am afraid that the House cannot sing to you. As a tennis fan, I do not know whether your presents included new balls, but we all know how well you handle a racquet—both outside and inside the Chamber. I also wish a happy birthday to Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin. She was an inspired choice as Speaker’s Chaplain and provides great pastoral support for MPs. Perhaps the Leader of the House will join me in challenging you both to a doubles match for charity.
Sadly, this House is losing MPs, including a former Prime Minister, but I point out that many hon. Members have made an incredible contribution and that things can be done from the Back Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) amended the Finance Bill, highlighting gender-based pricing. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on stalking, and, with the help of the other place and the Government, has extended the maximum sentence for stalking to 10 years. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), when speaking about the loss of her baby, reminded us that we should allow coroners in England to investigate stillbirths so that errors in care can be addressed.
Many other hon. Members from across the House do great work, which is why many of us cannot understand why the Prime Minister refused to come and tell the House and its elected representatives about a major policy announcement that affects the whole country. The 12 points of principle are Government policy initiatives and should have been 12 paragraphs in a White Paper. The right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) said last week that his pleasure
“is magnified when I address the Chair and you, Sir, are occupying it.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 488.]
I wish he would say that to the Prime Minister. The 12 objectives should have been set out in a White Paper last September, which would have ended the speculation and uncertainty that have engulfed us for the past six months. However, we still need clarity on several issues, so I can see why the Prime Minister did not want to be questioned about them.
I welcome objective 4, which is about maintaining the common travel area with Ireland. The Prime Minister said that the devolved Administrations will be consulted, but, given the elections in Northern Ireland, will the Leader of the House confirm who from Northern Ireland will be sitting on the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations)? Gibraltar voted 96% to remain. What consultation do the Government intend to have with Gibraltar, and how, before Spain plants its flag? Spain has already threatened to plant its flag in Gibraltar.
The Prime Minister talks of a global Britain, yet principle 5 sets out the Government’s proposals to keep the world out. She said:
“And because we will no longer be members of the Single Market, we will not be required to contribute huge sums to the EU budget.”
In principle 10 she wants the UK to continue to be the best place for science and innovation, forgetting that in 2013 the UK received €8.8 billion, the fourth largest share in the EU, for research and development, with the private sector receiving £1.4 billion. And that is just one sector. We give but we get something back.
As we await the Supreme Court judgment on a point of law on 24 January—next Tuesday—let us remind the people that the judges are on their side, upholding the rule of law and holding the Executive to account. Can the Leader of the House confirm that, whatever Bill comes out after the judgment, it will not be a cynical, one-line Bill, as suggested by Government counsel? The Prime Minister wants to do this for our children and grandchildren, but our children between the ages of 18 and 24 voted overwhelmingly, 75%, to remain in the EU. They already feel let down.
As we remember Martin Luther King Day this week and Holocaust Memorial Day next week, let us remember the words of Martin Luther King and Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor who sadly died last year. And let us remember that the European Union was formed for nations to come together in peace, not hatred. We must remember that we are interdependent: we do not live in isolation, whether as individuals, countries or nations. Our constituents want justice—economic and social justice—both here and in Europe. In the months and years ahead, let those, too, be our guiding principles.
On the dates for the summer recess and Prorogation, although I hope to oblige the House as soon as I am able, the hon. Lady and others will understand that there are uncertainties about how long it will take to transact the business before the House in the weeks to come, so I am not yet able to give firm dates.
The hon. Lady made a number of criticisms and asked a number of questions about the Government’s handling of the forthcoming EU negotiations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union gave an oral statement to the House and answered Members’ questions for about two hours. In the hon. Lady’s strictures on the Prime Minister, I detect a sense of the frustration that I know is widely shared on the Labour Benches at the inability of the Leader of the Opposition to lay a glove on the Prime Minister every Wednesday on this or other matters.
The Ministers who have not resigned from the Northern Ireland Executive, in the way that Mr McGuinness stepped down as Deputy First Minister, remain as acting Ministers until the new Executive can be appointed, so the Government are able to talk to them. Of course, officials from the Northern Ireland Executive continue to attend meetings. I used to chair Joint Ministerial Committees on Europe, and I remember that after the previous Stormont elections it took a while for the Executive to be formed. During that period, Northern Ireland officials did attend the joint meetings to make sure that Northern Ireland was represented.
In line with the Prime Minister’s undertaking following the referendum, Ministers and officials are in regular contact with the Government of Gibraltar, from the Chief Minister down. More broadly, on the question of the European Union and the hon. Lady’s concluding words, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it very clear during her speech that the last thing she and the Government are seeking is a weakening or dismantling of the European Union. The Prime Minister said in terms that she wanted the European Union to succeed. My right hon. Friend and the entire Government are very aware of the fact that for much of Europe the mid-20th century was an utterly scarring experience, and that many Governments and many people in those countries still look to European institutions as a safeguard against anything like that happening again. We respect that outlook, which stems from their historical experience in the last century. We will go forward respecting and determined to implement the democratic verdict of the British people last June, but in a way that seeks to achieve a future relationship with our closest neighbours that is based on mutual trust, friendship, and continued alliance and co-operation on a range of policy measures.
Finally, Mr Speaker, I join the hon. Lady in wishing all the best to you and to the Speaker’s Chaplain on your birthdays today. I would be happy to accept the hon. Lady’s challenge, but I have to say that, knowing your prowess on the tennis court, I would regard the outcome of the encounter as something of a forgone conclusion.
It is a bit rich of the shadow Leader of the House to complain about parliamentary scrutiny of the matters announced to the media. I lived through the Blair and Brown years, when they never even bothered to turn up to answer anything, whereas this Government have been absolutely splendid—better than the coalition Government. Although the Opposition claim they want to discuss and bang on about Europe, yesterday’s debate on Europe finished early, as they did not have enough speakers, so will the excellent Minister continue to schedule general debates? Could they be themed debates, with one on each of the 12 points the Prime Minister mentioned, so that the Opposition could have as much time as they like to discuss this?
Finally, with your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would just like to put to rest a lie. The leader of the Liberal Democrats claimed that I might have written the Prime Minister’s speech, but I had nothing to do with it; it was her own words.
I do not know whether that last comment was a bid to join the ministerial speechwriting teams in the future. On the point about debates, there will be ample opportunities for the House to continue to debate all aspects of the forthcoming negotiation on the European Union.
May I, too, wish you a happy birthday, Mr Speaker? Lang may yer lum reek, as we say in these parts. May I also thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week?
This week has quite simply been a bad week for Parliament, and the Leader of the House, as this House’s champion, should be thoroughly ashamed of himself. The Prime Minister made perhaps the most important statement about the future of this country— not in here, where the elected Members are, but in an assembly full of the press and diplomats. We know now that it is almost certain that a Bill will be required in order to trigger article 50, so will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that this Bill will be subject to the maximum scrutiny, thoroughly amendable and properly debated in this House?
May we have a debate on how to win friends and influence people? The Foreign Secretary’s is currently touring Europe like a dodgy character out of “’Allo ’Allo!”, doing his utmost to upset the very people that global Britain needs to negotiate with to get a good deal on exiting the EU. We now know that this Government’s predominant obsessions—everything that underpins this approach to leaving the EU—are immigration and freedom of movement, so perhaps they could start by confining the Foreign Secretary to barracks here.
Steady on! Over-eagerness there from those on the Labour Benches.
Will the Leader of the House do what the Prime Minister failed to do yesterday and confirm that the English votes for English laws procedure will not be applied to the great repeal Bill? That Bill will cut across many devolved competences, it will be a very complicated Bill and there will be many jurisdictions involved in it, so will he do what the Prime Minister failed to do yesterday and rule out EVEL today?
Lastly, through no fault of our own, we lost about half our Opposition day on Tuesday. Obviously, it was very necessary that people had an opportunity to question Ministers on the two important statements, but will the Leader of the House pledge to give us that half day back in the future?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, I cannot promise to give the Scottish National party that additional day. I do, though, recognise that there was pressure on the party’s limited time because of what he himself acknowledged were, by anybody’s count, two important statements. I shall reflect on that request, but he will understand that there are other pressures on the parliamentary timetable.
The hon. Gentleman asked two questions about European Union legislation. On the first, it is clear that until the Supreme Court has ruled, we do not know whether any Bill is going to be required. Nevertheless, if it is to become law, any Bill has to go through the full parliamentary process in this Chamber and in the other place—that is the only route available to change primary law in this country. I hope that gives him some reassurance. The extent to which amendments are in order clearly depends on the rules of the House and, ultimately, on the interpretation of the Chair.
On his question about the EVEL arrangements, it might be helpful if I remind the House that for any matter to be subject to those arrangements it has to meet three tests. First, it must refer to a matter that is devolved to Scotland; secondly, the legislation must refer only to England, or only to England and Wales; and, thirdly, there must be a certification from Mr Speaker that the clause, Bill or statutory instrument meets those tests. We have not yet published or determined the final shape of the Bill that will give effect to our exit from the EU—the repeal Bill—but those tests continue to be the ones that would have to be met in any case. A measure that repeals the European Communities Act 1972 clearly has UK-wide implications and would not apply only to one part of the United Kingdom.
May I, too, wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker?
Yesterday, the all-party group on youth employment heard from several youth employment ambassadors. These young people were inspirational, but their achievements were not down to the careers advice they had received but because of their self-belief and determination. May we have a debate about how careers advice can be improved, because currently there are examples of where we are potentially letting young people down?
That sounds to me like an important issue that might well merit an airing in one of the Backbench Business Committee debates. It is an issue to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is giving close attention.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker. Forty is a difficult age, so beware. [Laughter.]
I thank the Leader of the House for notifying us of the Backbench Business on 26 January, and for confirming that there will be Backbench Business on 2 February—we have provisionally tabled a six-hour debate on the armed forces covenant for that day.
On Monday, the House adjourned at 7.40 pm, which I think was rather predictable, given the business on the day. Will the Leader of the House please consider, yet again, working with the Backbench Business Committee to schedule Backbench Business debates on such days in future? Those debates would, of course, take second place should Government business run its full course.
Will the Leader of the House also resolve a little thorny problem? We have had an application for a debate on International Women’s Day, which I am sure Members will know is on 8 March, which is when the spring statement is scheduled. Will he work with us to get a debate on International Women’s Day as close as possible to 8 March—probably beforehand, if at all possible?
I will do my best to meet the hon. Gentleman’s request on his last point.
I take seriously the problem he identifies apropos last Monday, and will see whether we can do more to accommodate it. The difficulty for Government business managers is that they are never certain until the day whether there will be urgent questions, which will take up time, or how many Members from all parts of the House will want to participate in a debate and for how long they will wish to speak. I can remember previous occasions when Backbench Business came under enormous pressure, resulting in a debate having to be abandoned or drastically curtailed, which was, understandably, immensely frustrating for Back Benchers who had altered their arrangements so that they were in their places and able to participate in the debate. The challenge is to try to strike that right balance.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the national schools funding formula, because if the proposals go ahead every single school in Southend will be worse off and Southend will be the 84th worst affected constituency out of 533?
I can understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I know that he is always a formidable and active champion of his constituents’ interests. The consultation run by the Department for Education is live now—it does not end until 22 March—so I urge him to ensure that he, on behalf of his constituents, and his constituents individually make strong representations to the consultation.
I am always willing to offer birthday congratulations to young people, Mr Speaker, be it to you or your chaplain.
Why is there constant delay and evasion in the Government bringing a motion before the House on the renewal of the parliamentary building? I know about the debate in Westminster Hall next Wednesday, but why is there the delay? Is it not essential for a decision to be reached so that, if a general election is to take place in 2020, those elected will know that they will not be sitting in this building and that the work will be carried out without Members or staff being present, which, hopefully, will mean that it will be completed in a much shorter time than if evacuation does not take place?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be in his place on his birthday, which, if memory serves, is 26 June. We look forward to that and to his undertaking his usual interrogation at that time.
I understand and share the hon. Gentleman’s wish to get on with this. As some have already said, there is the possibility of additional legislation being needed after a court ruling next week—we do not yet know whether that will be the case—but there is pressure on Government time. I hope that we can come forward with a clear date as soon as possible.
In addition to your birthday today, Mr Speaker, there was, last week, the slightly less illustrious 70th anniversary of Crawley being declared a new town. I appreciate that it is obviously for Her Majesty to confer city status, but will the Leader of the House speak to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see what process Crawley can initiate to explore that possibility?
I am happy to pass that request on to the Secretary of State, and I think that the whole House will congratulate the people and the civic leaders of Crawley on that achievement and their work over the decades in building a thriving and successful community.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree that community pharmacies are a very important part of taking the pressure off over-stretched A&Es at the moment, despite them seeing cuts to their funding just last month. The Government have introduced a pharmacy access scheme to help deal with some of the cuts in communities. I was really surprised to see that, in the Prime Minister’s constituency, 37% of pharmacies will be able to apply for that additional funding. In the three Hull constituencies, only 1% of pharmacies will be able to apply. May we please have a debate about why the most disadvantaged communities still suffer the biggest cuts from this Government?
I clearly do not know the details of the situation in Hull, but I am happy to ask the relevant Health Minister—I think it is my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat)—to write to the hon. Lady. The principle is that there are now 15% more pharmacies than there were just a decade ago, two fifths of pharmacies are within 10 minutes’ walk of two or more other pharmacies, the average pharmacy receives roughly £220,000 a year in NHS funding and, even after the recently announced changes, the community pharmacy budget will be 30% more than it was a decade ago, so I think that the Government have demonstrated that they remain committed to community pharmacies and their importance.
For disabled people, achieving a job can be a life-changing experience. Last Friday, I was privileged to promote a This-Ability event in Cleethorpes to encourage local employers to take on more disabled people. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Lorraine Alexander and her team from Grimsby jobcentre, who did a great deal of work to stage the event, as well as all the voluntary and charitable groups? Can we find time to debate the role of and opportunities for disabled people in the workplace?
I am very happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents on this successful event. It has been an important step forward that we now have a record number of people with disabilities in work. I am the first to acknowledge that more still needs to be done, but I am heartened by the fact that we are making progress and that local enthusiasm, such as that which my hon. Friend describes, is helping to highlight those opportunities for people with disabilities.
In contrast to just about every one of his predecessors for the past 30 years, the Leader of the House shows no inclination to defend the wider interests of the House as opposed merely to progressing Government business; his disgraceful treatment of the Bill on parliamentary boundaries is a case in point. A parliamentary Committee—a Select Committee—has unanimously recommended a White Paper before the invocation of article 50, so what representations did he make to secure that in the wider interests of the House, as opposed to a prime ministerial statement that was not even made in this place, motionless debates or a one-clause Bill that will be rammed through like some sort of thief in the night? Will he indicate to the House that he sees his job as securing effective parliamentary scrutiny of a major constitutional decision, however long it might take?
I am absolutely committed to full parliamentary scrutiny of this matter. Indeed, I had the delight of appearing for the first time in my current role before the European Scrutiny Committee yesterday to give evidence on one aspect of that subject. The right hon. Gentleman makes some incorrect assumptions about the role of the Leader of the House apropos individual Select Committee reports. It is for Select Committees individually to come to their view and make recommendations to Government, and it is then primarily for the Department to which those recommendations are addressed to recommend to Government colleagues what the response should be. There is a collectively approved Government response to that Select Committee report and if the right hon. Gentleman believes that any Government of any political colour is likely to agree with absolutely ever recommendation of every Select Committee, I do not think that he has read many Select Committee reports or Government responses to them over the years. It is a perfectly fair and transparent way of conducting business and of Governments responding to Select Committee recommendations.
With the decision of the Backbench Business Committee not to schedule a debate on settlements and the destruction yesterday of Umm al-Hiran, is there a possibility of a Government statement on what appears to be a significant shift in Government policy over recent days as we cosy up to the incoming American Administration in granting complete impunity to Israel?
The Government’s policy on Israel and Palestine has not changed. We remain committed to a two-state solution, involving a sovereign, independent viable Palestinian state living alongside Israel, with mutually agreed land swaps where appropriate and with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states. Our view on the settlements remains that they are illegal in international law, and that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’s policy.
I thank the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for putting me right earlier. I should have realised, on reflection, that he would never write such an extreme speech as that which came out of the Prime Minister’s mouth the other day.
On the matter of flood-hit communities, not least mine in Cumbria after the devastating floods in December 2015, will there be time for a debate on Government financial support for those communities, in particular in the light of the Government’s decision in recent days to spend the entire amount of the £15 million we have now got for the December floodings from the European solidarity fund not on giving support to the communities that it was for, but on paying off a historical fine incurred in 2007 by a previous Government? Whoever’s fault it was that that fine was incurred, for certain it was not the fault of communities such as mine in Cumbria. Will the Leader of the House commit to all that money coming to those communities or at the very least to hold a debate on the matter?
An Adjournment debate is probably the best way forward on that issue, as it affects the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In fairness, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers have worked with Department for Communities and Local Government Ministers to make sure that the Bellwin money has been made available more rapidly than has sometimes been the case in the past when communities have been badly hit by floods. I will look into his particular point about the European solidarity fund money, since I am not sighted on that, and I or one of the DEFRA Ministers will write to him about it.
Nene Park was once the home of Rushden and Diamonds football club and is still a fully usable football stadium, but the demolition notices have been issued. Will the Leader of the House join me in urging the owners to sit down with the local authority, AFC Rushden and Diamonds football club and the community to have one last look at whether a solution can be found that retains all or part of the stadium, because once it is gone, it is gone? May we have a statement next week on those matters?
That strikes me as a natural Adjournment debate opportunity, but I very much hope that the sporting and other organisations locally in Corby can come together and find a way in which to maintain a clearly much-loved community sports facility.
Notwithstanding that many of us were disappointed with the result of the referendum, we recognise that the people have spoken. Nevertheless, it is not just for the Government to decide the detail; it is very important that this House gets a proper say. In response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and other Members, the Leader of the House indicated that there will be ample opportunity for debate. Will he be more specific about how many days this House will get to debate and influence the Government’s thinking on how we progress the negotiations, so that businesses and our constituents who are very concerned have their views aired in this House, and we can reflect the views of the people about how this will go ahead?
As the hon. Lady knows, there have been a number of debates already on particular aspects of our leaving the European Union. I fully expect that there will be other such debates related to additional specific topics in the months to come. Whatever does or does not happen next week, we will have a Bill in the new parliamentary Session to repeal the European Communities Act 1972. That will provide plenty of opportunities as well. At my last count, more than 30 different Select Committee inquiries into different aspects of our leaving the EU were being conducted by Committees either of this place or of the House of Lords. Of course, mechanisms exist to bring those Select Committee reports to the Floor of the House for debate as well.
In this week, of all weeks, it is absolutely right that we say in the House of Commons that we want to proceed with the building of a Holocaust memorial museum. As the Leader of the House is responsible, at least in part, for the environs of the Palace of Westminster, does he accept that there may be merit in a debate on the siting of the museum? There is a view among many people that the best place for the museum would be within or outside the Imperial War Museum, so that its many visitors can see the link between the Holocaust and war and hatred, rather than siting it in Victoria Tower Gardens, which is one of the last green spaces around this Palace and visited by many hundreds of thousands of people each year. As the museum will be two storeys underground, there might also be a flood risk. There is a need for a debate on the siting of the museum.
My hon. Friend may well want to seek a Westminster Hall debate on the subject. The previous Prime Minister gave a commitment to the Victoria Tower Gardens site, and that has been reiterated by the current Prime Minister. Ultimately, the planning matters to which my hon. Friend alluded will be the responsibility of Westminster City Council.
Warm congratulations, Mr Speaker, as you approach the prime of life and the halfway point of your Speakership. You may be surprised to know that for all but two of your 54 years, Severn bridge users have been ripped off by the bridges being used as a cash cow. They have suffered double taxation, paying for the national road system and the local tolls. Can that rip-off now be ended as the bridges come into public control? It would be an immense benefit for accessibility on both sides of the Severn.
I have sometimes heard Welsh people say, “You have to pay to come to Wales, because it is such a privilege to visit, whereas everybody wants to get back to England in a hurry.”
Does the Leader of the House want to start again?
No, no—they say it in the nicest possible way—[Interruption.] The point that perhaps I did not make clearly enough is that my interlocutors say to me, “If you tried to charge people to get back into England, they would want to stay in Wales and never leave.”
The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) made a serious point, which I will take up with Transport Ministers. The tolls help to pay for the cost of the crossings and that is important, but I will get the relevant Transport Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman on the subject.
Will the Leader of the House give careful consideration to the time allocated to questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Trade and the Department for Exiting the European Union? We have only 30 minutes for oral questions and 10 minutes for topical questions to those Departments. Given the current relevance of them and their Select Committees, more time needs to be allocated. Will the Leader of the House give that consideration?
I am happy to give consideration to that proposal and to discuss it through the usual channels, because such matters are agreed by consensus if possible. However, if we add time to questions to those Departments, one of two things has to happen. Either we take time off other Departments or we extend the cycle of departmental Question Times to six weeks, rather than five, which leaves a longer gap before hon. Members have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State from any one Department.
This week saw the release of the damning National Audit Office report on the Concentrix scandal that demonstrated institutional incompetence and neglect at the heart of all the agencies involved. The vast majority of victims have not received compensation. I have written to the Prime Minister, asking her urgently to intervene in the matter, and I hope that the Leader of the House will support me in that endeavour.
We really must have a debate in the House about the scandal, because people who are receiving money that they should have had in the first place are getting it in instalments, as opposed to in one lump sum, which affects their ability to claim other benefits to which they are rightly entitled. We would like an opportunity to tell Ministers how much our constituents are being affected, so that justice can be done. This is an embarrassing situation for the Government which requires immediate rectification.
We are very clear that the service provided by Concentrix was poor, and it was right that the contract was scrapped. HMRC has apologised, and it knows that it has to learn some lessons from that contract and what happened there. When it became clear that Concentrix’s customer service issues could not be rectified by Concentrix, HMRC took back 181,000 incomplete cases, and rightly redeployed hundreds of its own staff to deal with this work. All those cases were finalised by 3 November. HMRC has then also had to deal with mandatory reconsideration requests, of which 36,000 have been received, and it has allocated additional staff to that work so that requests can be dealt with quickly and payments restored where claimants are entitled to them. There may be an opportunity for a Back-Bench or Westminster Hall debate on this issue, further to the airing it has already had in this Chamber, but I think HMRC was right to give priority to the incomplete cases and to deal with those first. It is now proceeding as rapidly as it can to sort out the remaining mandatory reconsideration requests.
Can we have a debate on dementia? I am sure the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating Incommunities—the social housing provider for Bradford, which is based in my constituency—on training its staff to support residents with dementia. In such a debate, we could encourage other organisations to do the same. We could also find out what more the Government could do to help people who suffer from dementia—an estimated 6,500 people in the Bradford district are affected by it—and what further support could be given to their families, who have the difficult job of caring for them.
I hope my hon. Friend will have that opportunity, perhaps in Westminster Hall. I add my salute to those groups and individuals in his constituency, and in many others, who have highlighted the challenges posed by dementia and worked not only to encourage more people to become dementia friends but to ensure that we treat people living with dementia with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled and that they get the solidarity and support from their fellow citizens that they are entitled to expect.
Can we have a debate on bravery? In March 1936, a young gay Conservative Member of Parliament, Captain Jack Macnamara, visited the Rhineland to celebrate its remilitarisation, because he was then a supporter of Hitler. But while he was there, he visited the first concentration camp, Dachau, and he saw such horrific violence to Jews and homosexuals that, when he came back here, he campaigned relentlessly against anti-Semitism and appeasement. He raised those matters in this Chamber, but he was spat at when he went to the Carlton Club that night. He was killed in action in the second world war, on 22 December 1944, and his shield is on the wall of this Chamber. Do we not owe a debt of gratitude to such people, and should we not be doing everything in our power to put an end to anti-Semitism and prejudice in our era? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]
I agree with every word the hon. Gentleman said. The tribute he has just paid was a most appropriate one as we come towards Holocaust Memorial Day.
I hesitate to spoil your good humour on such a day, Mr Speaker, but you will be aware that Tottenham Hotspur is rebuilding White Hart Lane, and, as a result, we have to find a new home. The current proposal is that Tottenham will use Wembley stadium for a season, which will increase the use of our national stadium by 60%. There is an important issue for my constituency, which becomes the car park for Wembley stadium on event days. Worse still, Chelsea football club intends to come to Wembley for three years thereafter. May we have a debate in Government time on the uses to which our national stadium can be put, so that we can put on record our concerns about the potential abuse of our national treasure?
My hon. Friend has put his constituents’ concerns on the record most effectively, but there may be an Adjournment debate opportunity if he wishes to pursue the matter further.
I gently make the point that the Emirates is a very, very, very special place in London.
It seems appropriate, Mr Speaker, that today we have not only an amazing exhibition of photographs in the Attlee Room on Syria and Aleppo by William Wintercross, a brilliant photographer—I hope people will be able to see it—but a debate on Holocaust Memorial Day. May we also, on this special day, think about having a debate on a report that came out, I believe, in July 2008—it was called the Bercow report—on children and young people? Owing to cuts to local government up and down this country, young people are in dreadful danger, because child protection is becoming very difficult to maintain. May we have a debate on the Bercow report so that we can see what progress has been made since those good recommendations?
I cannot promise a debate in Government time, but the hon. Gentleman can make a submission to the Backbench Committee.
As it is a double birthday today, Mr Speaker, may we have a pair of statements: one on the long-term future of HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, two of the most versatile and essential ships in the Royal Navy, whose future is threatened by a shortfall in the defence budget; and another on offering at least the same level of legislative protection to our veterans who served in Northern Ireland as is currently offered to the terrorists who fought against the welfare of the community that the veterans fought to defend?
On my right hon. Friend’s second point, the Northern Ireland Secretary has already said that he feels considerable disquiet at some of the reports of proposed prosecutions, and he is working very actively to try to secure agreement within Northern Ireland to legislate on the legacy of the troubles in a way that settles that issue as well as a number of others. On his point about the two naval vessels, I will ask the relevant Defence Minister to contact him about the detail.
Airdrie Savings Bank, the UK’s last independent savings bank, is to end all business activities after 182 years, with the loss of 70 jobs. Secured loans and mortgages will be transferred to the TSB, and customers will be helped to find alternative banking providers. As Unite the union has said,
“Airdrie Savings Bank has become yet another innocent victim of casino bankers.”
May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the state of UK banking?
Although I completely understand the concerns of the hon. Lady and those of her constituents who have accounts at the bank about the loss of this historic institution, the most important thing is that their savings are protected and that a banking service that is accessible to them remains in being. We have seen over the years a number of mergers of different banks and building societies. We have also seen a shift towards many, many more customers making use of online banking. Those factors are going to drive change, but having the service available is the key thing that we need to make sure is preserved.
Ah yes—Mr Bernard Jenkin.
Happy birthday, Sir.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for providing time quickly for the approval of the name of the candidate for the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, which was approved by the Health Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee yesterday?
As we have already heard, Tuesday 24 January is the day on which the Supreme Court is delivering its judgment. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that it would be expedient for the Government to plan to make a statement immediately on the future implications for business, even if a substantive statement on the longer-term implications of such a judgment will need to be made at a later date?
Clearly, I and other Ministers will want to brief Parliament fully on the substance and implications of the judgment once we know what it is. We do not yet know either its content or its complexity, and we are unlikely to get any prior knowledge—at most, it would be very brief—of what that judgment contains. I cannot make a promise today about the specific timing, but the principle at the heart of my hon. Friend’s question is one that I completely endorse.
Can we have a debate on the future of the Crown post office network? Crown post offices break even, unlike the post office network as a whole, and yet the Government are forcing through a change programme that puts at risk of closure scores of post offices across the country, including the one in Ulverston in my constituency. We need a guarantee that those services will stay. Can we have a debate about it, please?
The key point is that the services remain, whether they are carried out in a Crown post office or whether they are continued in a sub-post office. The sub-post office network provides post office services to the overwhelming majority of our constituents throughout the country. I certainly hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in Ulverston will continue to get that service. The experience in my constituency, where the Crown post office closed, is that those services continued but at a different location. That surely has to be the objective.
Many happy returns for today, Mr Speaker.
As chair of the all-party disability group, I am extremely concerned by reports that disabled people are much less likely to be able to access affordable credit, and that they are therefore being plunged into the hands of payday lenders and loan sharks. Can we have a debate on equitable access to affordable credit, so that we can ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are not left open to financial exploitation?
I cannot offer an immediate debate. The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, and I think that the banking industry has a social responsibility to ensure that its services are accessible to people with disabilities, to people on low incomes and to others who often find it quite difficult to get access to conventional banking. That perhaps needs something of a cultural shift.
Can the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate, before the Budget, on school funding? Across the country, many schools face a real crisis in their budgets over the next few years. Teachers are going to be sacked and per-pupil spending is going to go down. By 2019, Nottinghamshire County Council will lose £40 million. It is not good enough. Schools deserve better, and so do the children of this country.
Of course, the Government have had to take some very difficult spending decisions as a result of the need to continue to reduce the inherited deficit. I am pleased that the Government have, despite that difficult fiscal environment, been able to protect the core schools budget. The money that is going to be paid to schools, coupled with the rise in pupil numbers that we are expecting, should ensure that for most schools—depending on whether they are gaining or losing pupils—the overall core schools budget is protected in cash terms.
May I declare an interest as a crofter on the Isle of Skye? On 23 November last year, the Minister with responsibility for farming stated during Question Time that we would have a review of the allocations of the convergence uplift funding before the end of the year. I tabled a written question, to which I had a reply yesterday indicating that an update will be provided shortly. This is unacceptable. Can the Leader of the House make sure that the Minister makes a statement on the urgent review of the convergence funding? This is an important matter for crofters and farmers throughout the highlands and islands. Some €223 million euros of funding was given to this Government on the understanding that it would go to those in most need of it, and that has not happened.
The hon. Gentleman raised exactly that point during the debate on the rural economy on Tuesday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs replied to him that she recognised his point, that she continues to look closely at the issue and that,
“I will keep him up to date with progress on it.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 835.]
He has had a clear undertaking from the Secretary of State and he has reinforced his point.
Twice this week, I have raised my constituents’ concerns about cuts to council services and Ministers have simply swatted them aside. Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity to address those concerns and demonstrate that the Government are taking seriously the impact of Tory cuts on local people?
I accept that we have confirmed a settlement for local councils that is flat in cash terms, but we have also delivered what local authorities were asking for in certainty over a four-year funding period. We are planning legislation, which will be before Parliament soon, that will enable local government to keep all the business rates that it collects by the end of the Parliament. We have provided the power for local councils to levy a social care precept to help them with the challenges that they undoubtedly face in dealing with social care.
The terms of your earlier statement, Mr Speaker, mean that “happy birthday” is not a mere wish but an observation of fact. In passing, may I mention yesterday’s landmark 80th birthday of landmark statesman, John Hume, the pathfinder for our peace process?
Will the Leader of the House talk to Northern Ireland Office and Treasury Ministers to clarify that there is legitimate locus for the House, its Ministers and Committees in the renewable heat incentive debacle in Northern Ireland? There is no basis for pretending that the dimensions of abuse in the uptake of that scheme are confined to devolved expenditure and do not involve the annually managed expenditure from the Treasury. There is also a question about a period when the regulations for the scheme had run out, spending continued and it was not covered by the Northern Ireland budget. Did Treasury funding cover it in the period when there was no regulatory basis for that spending?
First, I join the hon. Gentleman in sending belated birthday wishes to John Hume. We all salute the heroic role that he played in helping to start and drive through the peace process in Northern Ireland.
On the renewable heat incentive scheme, the Northern Ireland scheme is fully devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive and is now the subject of an open inquiry by the Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee. It is therefore in their remit to investigate it. The scheme in Great Britain has budget management mechanisms in place to stop the sort of overspending that was experienced in Northern Ireland. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence that Treasury money was in some way involved in supporting the Northern Ireland scheme and that money was misplaced, I urge him to write with the details to Treasury Ministers and I am sure that they will respond.
Like many Members—and, I am sure, the Leader of the House—I have been appalled by the Foreign Secretary’s crass comments. It seems to me that the Prime Minister has three options: she can sack him, gag him or educate him. If she decides to educate him, can the whole House have a role in that process?
When I think of our relationship with France, I think about how we stood with the free French forces and the resistance fighters against Nazism; how we and France stood together against Soviet tyranny; and the very active work that we carry out with France today against international terrorism. We look for a relationship after we leave the European Union that enables us to build on those historical strengths and to continue to work as active, complementary partners on a whole range of issues.
Yesterday in Scottish questions, I counted 13 non-Scottish-based MPs asking questions of the Scottish Secretary and only 10 Scottish-based MPs. Was that not a rather humiliating exercise in circling the wagons to save the Scottish Secretary from being scalped? May we have a debate on how to make the Secretary of State for Scotland answer to Scotland?
The Secretary of State for Scotland, like every other Secretary of State, answers to the House of Commons. It has always been the case that it is open to Members from any part of the United Kingdom to participate in questions to any Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman’s party frequently complains about arrangements for English votes for English laws. It strikes me as a wee bit odd for him now to complain if Members from other parts of the UK want to ask questions of the Scottish Secretary of State.
On 16 December, Elton post office in my constituency closed without warning. Elton is a rural village and it is not easy for its residents to travel elsewhere. I understand that the closure was unavoidable, but we have no clear timetable for the reopening of the post office. May we have a debate on what more can be done to speed up the reopening of post offices in such situations?
This may be an Adjournment debate opportunity for the hon. Gentleman. I know from my own experience that the reasons for delay are various. Sometimes it is not easy to get a new manager to take over a franchise and operate the sub-post office. I hope very much for his constituents’ sake that the sub-post office is able to reopen as swiftly as possible.
Samir Chamek, a Christian convert from Islam, was accused of insulting the Prophet by republishing pictures and comments on Facebook, and arrested by the cybercrime unit in Algeria. He was given the maximum punishment for blasphemy under the Algerian penal code of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 dinars. On 8 January, a court of appeal upheld his conviction and sentenced him to one year’s imprisonment. May we have a statement on how we can encourage Algeria and other nations to repeal their blasphemy laws?
I do not know the details of this particular case, but my view and the Government’s view is that we should champion religious freedom everywhere in the world. We pride ourselves on being a plural society that respects people of different faiths and no faith. That view of the world and those values influence our foreign policy, and will continue to do so.
Every weekend, parkrun volunteers make it possible for thousands of people across the country to take part in 5 km runs. I myself completed the Cwmbran parkrun on Christmas eve. May we have a debate on the contribution parkrun makes to our communities, and to health and wellbeing all over the country?
I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those who organise parkrun. I myself completed the Aylesbury run. Parkrun is remarkable as a demonstration of how a voluntary grassroots initiative can help not just to get people more active, but to change attitudes towards activity by making people, who have perhaps been very shy of getting involved in organised sports, feel that they are welcome to come along and participate.
Debating with this Government, who have forsaken all reason on Brexit, is proving to be a bit like administering medicine to the dead. None the less, may we have a debate in Government time on Scotland’s place in Europe?
I think Scotland’s place in Europe is going to be prosperous and secure through its continued membership of a United Kingdom which, while it leaves the European Union, will be forging a new partnership on trade, security and co-operation against crime that will work to the benefit of everybody in Scotland, as well as everybody else in the United Kingdom.
The Leader of the House has previously told me and the House that the reason the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), which deals with constituency boundaries, could not proceed to Committee was that it did not have a money resolution attached. I have just finished serving on the Homelessness Reduction Bill Committee, and that Bill went to Committee without such a resolution—in fact, we did not get one until the last week of the Committee. Why is it one rule for one Bill and another rule for another, and when will the boundaries Bill go into Committee?
I am not in a position to announce anything further about that Bill.
Clydesdale bank’s latest tranche of bank closures includes the one in Giffnock, in my constituency, which has already been disproportionately affected by bank closures. As well as causing difficulties for our high streets, it is particularly problematic for people less able to get about, and the bank’s wilful disregard for any form of consultation is frankly shameful. Can we have a debate in Government time on the latest Clydesdale bank closures and on the role and responsibilities of high street banks?
It is right that the banks stick to their own code, which requires that particular attention be paid when the last banking outlet in a community is scheduled for closure, but these are independent businesses facing a future in which many of their customers are choosing to bank online rather than in person at a local branch. It is a challenge for them to get the balance right and to ensure that everybody in the hon. Lady’s constituency has the access to banking services that they need.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
The Government have commissioned a report on electoral fraud, but what we actually need is a review of the behaviour of political parties during election periods and the punishments available. The Lib Dems were fined £20,000 for non-declaration of £200,000 of spending—money down the drain, by the way—Labour was also fined £20,000 and there are investigations into the Leader of the House’s own party. The Electoral Commission has said that a fine of £20,000 is no longer a strong enough deterrent to ensure that the rules are properly followed. Can we have a debate on that in Government time and take a serious look at the punishments available?
We have an independent, investigative and legal system that can look into political parties and ensure that expenses are checked, but I have to say that for Members of the Scottish National party to give lectures about good practice during election campaigning is a bit rich. There are plenty of independent-minded journalists who very much resented the bullying to which they were subjected during the last Scottish election campaign and referendum.
Just before the Christmas recess, I served on a European Committee on asylum that had two glaring problems: first, all the deadlines involved had already passed, and secondly, the House had decided on the motion before the Committee the previous week. What steps is the Leader of the House taking to ensure that nothing like this happens again?
I dealt with this matter in some detail in my evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee yesterday. There was an error on the Government’s part in the handling of that business, for which an apology was given to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, and steps have now been taken to ensure that there is no repetition.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance regarding the response I got from the Leader of the House earlier. On 23 November, the farming Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), said,
“we will provide an update on the review of CAP allocations before the end of this year.”—[Official Report, 23 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 884.]
We have had no such announcement from the Government. If these remarks are to mean anything, what powers do Back Benchers have to compel the Minister to give a fair and honest response regarding his promise of an update on the review of the convergence uplift money? These are important matters. We are talking about money that should be in the pockets of crofters and farmers in Scotland, but once again we have not got it. On behalf of my constituents, I say that this is not good enough.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer is that the recourse available to him—and, I am afraid, the only recourse available to him—is his own quality of persistence. The hon. Gentleman must use the opportunities afforded by the Order Paper, and, indeed, those that he is able to create for himself through the tabling of further questions.
As the hon. Gentleman says, those matters are extremely important. However, I have no reason to believe that, at the time when the Minister said that an update would be provided by the end of the year, he intended anything other than to meet that deadline. It has not been uncommon, under successive Governments of all colours, in this country and around the world, for there to be slippage. Where there is slippage, it is not a matter of order for the Chair; it is a matter for a perspicacious Back-Bench Member to continue to raise. The hon. Gentleman has many qualities, one of which is his perspicacity.
I beg to move,
That this House notes the escalation in violence and breaches of international human rights on the Indian side of the Line of Control in Kashmir; calls on the Government to raise the matter at the United Nations; and further calls on the Government to encourage Pakistan and India to commence peace negotiations to establish a long-term solution on the future governance of Kashmir based on the right of the Kashmiri people to determine their own future in accordance with the provisions of UN Security Council resolutions.
Let me start by thanking my fellow members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me to stand down from the Committee briefly in order to apply for the debate, and for agreeing that it could take place today. I should also declare that I am the current chairman of the all-party parliamentary Kashmir group.
I thank all the groups who have campaigned so steadfastly on this issue for so many years. I particularly thank Raja Najabat Hussain of the Jammu and Kashmir Self Determination Movement, who works tirelessly to keep up the profile of the issue of Kashmir with MPs, but I also thank Fahim Kayani and the Kashmir Movement UK, Sabiya Khan and the British Muslim Women’s Forum, Azmat Khan of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Najib Afsar and the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Council, and Dr Syed Nazir Gilani and the Jammu and Kashmir Council for Human Rights.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. May I ask him also to put on record his thanks to all the ordinary Kashmiris, in this country and back in Kashmir, who fight time and again, in a peaceful manner, to ensure that this issue is high on the agenda so that we take some action?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I certainly put my thanks to those people on record.
Let me explain why the motion was tabled. Essentially, it was tabled because this issue matters to thousands of my constituents who are of Pakistani and Kashmiri heritage, and I know that it matters to the constituents of a number of other Members who are present today. Many of my constituents have families in Kashmir, and in some cases they have personally lost loved ones, or seen loved ones scarred for life as a result of violence.
Some Members may not be familiar with Kashmir. It is an area of territory that runs across the border between Pakistan and India. The root causes of the conflict can be traced back to 1947, when the colony of India was granted independence by Britain and was partitioned into two separate entities, India and Pakistan. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, with a predominantly Muslim population but a Hindu leader, shared borders with both India and West Pakistan.
The area has a long and complex history. Obviously there is not enough time for me to go into all of it, but suffice it to say that the argument over which nation would incorporate the state led to the first India-Pakistan war, in 1947-48, and there have been several further upsurges in the conflict since then. I do not need to remind the House that both countries are now nuclear powers. Just to complicate matters further, some of the historic territory of Kashmir is now under the control of China.
I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), the Minister for south Asia, in his place and I am grateful to him for taking the time recently to meet members of the all-party group on Kashmir. I know he will be aware that the fact that Britain was responsible for the partition leads many in the Kashmiri community to believe this country could and should be doing more to try and help resolve this matter. The fact that partition was 70 years ago demonstrates the intransigence of this problem, and I am under no illusion that there are any easy solutions.
I wish to cover two areas: the recent increase in violence and human rights abuses, and the longer-term issue of trying to resolve this long-running conflict. The most recent increase in violence began last year when, on 8 July, 22-year-old Burhan Wani was killed by the security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir. Tens of thousands attended his funeral, at which clashes broke out between the security forces and protestors. Security forces fired live ammunition into the crowd, killing several people and a police officer was also killed.
Since then the authorities have declared a succession of curfews and closed down mobile phone services and media outlets. Attendance at mosques and adherence to religious practices has been restricted. Protestors have organised a series of general strikes and there have been regular public rallies. Schools, colleges and universities have also been closed. The economy has been badly hit. Funerals have often led to further clashes between protestors and the security forces. Critically, scores of Kashmiris have been killed and many thousands of civilians have been seriously injured.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. He rightly points out the recent escalation in human rights violations, but does he agree this is a much longer-term problem and that human rights violations have happened in that region for decades?
As I have said, there is a long and complex history to this issue and, as the hon. Gentleman says, there have been many upsurges in violence over the years and many human rights abuses that have been catalogued and recorded.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that an international investigation into those human rights abuses is carried out as soon as possible?
Yes, I do agree, and that is something I will mention briefly later in my speech.
The use of pellet guns has left thousands of people, including children, injured and in many cases blind. Armed militants have increased their attacks on the security forces. In September 2016 an attack on an army base killed 19 Indian soldiers, the army’s worst loss of life for well over a decade. There has also been a serious flaring up of tension between India and Pakistan, with regular exchanges between their forces along the line of control. These have led to significant military casualties. Senior figures on both sides have been ratcheting up the hostile rhetoric, leading to growing fears of another major escalation in the conflict between the two countries.
I know the Government are concerned about any allegation of human rights abuses—Ministers have said so many times in answer to both oral and written questions—but I urge the Minister to condemn the attacks and the use of pellet guns. The fundamental human rights that are enshrined in the Indian constitution must be adhered to. There must be an end to the use of pellet guns on innocent civilians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other interested parties must be allowed free and complete access so that they can make an objective assessment.
I turn now to the role of the United Nations in securing a long-term settlement. There has been 70 years of inaction since the original resolutions requiring the conflict to be resolved by peaceful democratic means were passed, so it is easy to see why so many in the Kashmiri community think that the United Nations has lost interest in their problem. I have often said that the dispute is all too frequently ignored by the media. There is always some other conflict elsewhere in the world that grabs the headlines. I know that the United Kingdom, as a member of the United Nations, supports all UN bodies and wants to help them to fulfil their mandate, but there has surely been a failure on Kashmir if the resolutions have gone unfulfilled for so long. I appreciate that the Government have to tread a careful path and that we want to be friends with both India and Pakistan, but a candid and true friend is one who sometimes says things that the other friend may find unpalatable.
I support my hon. Friend’s motion. This is not a question of supporting either the Indian Government or the Pakistani Government; it is about supporting the people of Kashmir. He and I campaigned for many years for a referendum to decide whether our country should be part of and governed by the European Union, and the people of Kashmir should be afforded the same liberty of deciding how they want to be governed in future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In a few lines’ time, I will mention the historic decision that this country took on 23 June last year.
I concur with the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that this issue is about Kashmir, but it involves not just India and Pakistan, but China, so we have to concentrate on all of them to ensure that the civil and human rights of the Kashmiri are the priority in this debate.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the matter involves more than one nation and, crucially, is about the rights of the Kashmiri people.
We have to make it clear to both India and Pakistan that we want to help them find a permanent, peaceful solution to the conflict. Of course, this country cannot impose a solution, but we may be able to do more to bring the parties closer together. I want to be absolutely clear that this is not about taking sides and saying, “If you are a friend of Kashmir, you are not a friend of India.” The problem must be resolved by peaceful means. I want the people of Kashmir to be given the right to decide their own future through self-determination, a right which was so historically exercised by the people of this country on 23 June last year when a majority voted to leave the European Union.
No one believes that there is an easy answer, but anything has to be better than having a military-controlled line of partition between the two neighbouring countries. I suspect that there will always be a rivalry between India and Pakistan, but that rivalry should be contained on the field of sport. In responding to the debate, I ask the Minister to set out not only the Government’s position on Kashmir, but what more this country can do.
While I agree that we need a long-term solution that is in the hands of the Kashmiri people, does he agree that there is an important step to be taken beforehand? The Foreign Office and the Government can play an active role in getting both sides round a table to negotiate peace, stability and a calming of the situation, so that children’s lives are not ruined or lost in the meantime. Let us get a summit for peace going and then we can focus on the longer-term solution.
I entirely agree. Perhaps I should have finished my sentence, because that is exactly what I was saying. I ask the Minister to set out not only the Government’s position on Kashmir but what more this country can do, either through the United Nations or by working directly with India and Pakistan, to bring the two nations together to find a lasting and peaceful solution to this conflict.
I commend the motion to the House.
I declare that I am privileged to be the first Member of Parliament of Kashmiri heritage. I also have a significant number of Kashmiri constituents, who have a significant interest in this issue. I am sure that many other Members have been contacted by constituents with such an interest.
The key issues when discussing Kashmir are Kashmiri geography and Kashmiri self-determination, and many people are very concerned about that. For me, the key issue today is the violation of the human rights and civil liberties of the Kashmiri people—that is the most important thing. There have been violations of the Geneva convention by Indian armed forces.
As other Members have said, Kashmiris are having their human rights violated and abused. That has gone on for at least the past six decades, since Indian forces unlawfully invaded Kashmir in 1948. Kashmir was then an independent state under the reign of Maharaja Hari Singh. In 1953-54, a resolution was presented to the United Nations by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to allow the Kashmiri people the right of self-determination. To date, to the shame of the United Nations, such resolutions have not found their way to the General Assembly. People still wonder—certainly the Kashmiris are still wondering—whether the plight of the Kashmiris is worth its salt; it certainly seems not to be worth hearing in the General Assembly of the United Nations. That is very significant.
A number of Members wish to speak, so I will try to be as brief as possible. I recognise the work of the shadow Foreign Office team, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who has responsibility for south-east Asia, and the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). They have both made recognising human rights and civil liberties a significant policy issue for the Labour party. The shadow Secretary of State has written to the Foreign Secretary, ahead of his second visit to India, asking him to raise the issue of human rights and civil liberties in Kashmir when he discusses trade. I hope that, on his return, he will report to the House that he has raised those issues with the Indian Government.
There are currently more than 500,000 Indian troops in Kashmir, and they are protected by the Armed Forces (Jammu & Kashmir) Special Power Act 1990, which allows them complete free rein to abuse and torture people. There is no accountability when people go missing, and there is no court in India than can hold Indian troops to account. It is a clear violation of the Geneva convention for any military to be able to do such things, and I am surprised that we still do not raise it. I hope the Minister takes note and raises it with the Indian Government.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on securing this debate, and I congratulate him and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) on their powerful speeches. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a particular concern about the use of pellet guns in Kashmir? Does he agree with me and Amnesty International that there should be a ban on the use of such guns, which are causing such serious injuries to so many people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I will deal with that issue later in my speech, but I wholly agree with what she is saying.
I was talking about half a million soldiers in Kashmir who have no control over how they behave and how they abuse the people. There are serious concerns in Kashmir, particularly about the situation of the civilian population. We are very concerned that when a woman leaves the house, whether she be a mother, a daughter or a wife, we do not know what state she will return in—if indeed she will return at all. There have been gang rapes by the military—an absolutely atrocious act by any individual or community.
I am sorry to interrupt such an incredibly passionate speech. One thing the Government fail to recognise is the passion, worry and fear that our constituents, British citizens of Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri extraction, have about this issue. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister and the Government really need to listen and start paying attention to the needs and demands of their citizens?
I wholly concur with my hon. Friend, who makes a very valid point, particularly on the issue of the abuse of women. We do not allow and accept that in any way at home or in any other country, so why should we allow it to go unchecked when we are talking about the Indian forces in India and in Kashmir? Why should this be allowed to continue? I find it absurd and we should be making far stronger representations—I urge the Minister to do that.
When a man goes out of a house, whether he be a father, a husband or a son, there is no guarantee that he will come back and what state he will come back in. We have seen beatings taking place. We have seen videos on YouTube, Facebook and other social media of people being summarily beaten up in the streets—they are held by a disproportionate number of military personnel and beaten to within an inch of their life. They are tortured and taken away; people go missing. In some instances, when they go missing, they do not come back. That is a serious issue.
Children in Kashmir have no stake in their normal community or society. We expect our children to have a proper education in normal society, but Kashmiri children do not have an ounce of the protection needed in order to have that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, when they go out into the streets they are greeted with pellets and such like. They have no proper education facilities and no healthcare. They have no real stake in the society that they are part of, and the generations go forward: this is the sixth generation of Kashmiris growing up under this tyranny and they have no protection whatsoever.
The pellet gun issue that my hon. Friend raised is about a horrendous act by the military. They have not just fired these guns to warn off crowds; they have specifically targeted the upper body of individuals. They have aimed at the face and at the eyes, and a number of people have lost their eyesight. Aiming these guns at the upper body means that people cannot even receive medical treatment, because the medical people will not use a scan on them as magnets are used when a body is scanned and so a scan would further assist the movement of the metallic pellets inside the person. That might lead to further injury, be it in their head, eyes or upper body, including their heart, arteries and so on. That would cause a significant problem for most people.
Those are the issues involved with the use of pellet guns. When someone is penetrated by these pellets and they go through a security barrier, it is easy to assess that they have been involved in these sorts of activities and so they will be pulled out, again to be held accountable. We are talking about torture of a whole community and of a whole society. A report entitled “BURIED EVIDENCE: Unknown, Unmarked, and Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir” has been produced by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir. It was written by Angana Chatterji, a well-known human rights activist, whose report deals with a significant number of mass graves that she has found, through her organisation. Unfortunately, no notice is taken by anybody. No notice is taken by any Government—our Government in particular. If this was to happen anywhere else, there would be a huge outcry, with people clamouring for international war crimes tribunals to be held and for these things to be dealt with.
I appreciate that we have an urgent debate to come after this and that a significant number of colleagues wish to speak, so I wish to conclude by saying that this is about the abuse of human rights and civil liberties, and the contravention of the Geneva convention. I would like the Minister to take note of those three important things when he sums up, and to say what he is going to do about it and how he will have an interaction with the Indian Government to hold them to account. If India wants to be a serious trade partner with the UK, these are the responsibilities it must carry. These issues are very important to my constituents and to all of us in this place, so it must ensure that that is considered and taken forward.
In order to give everybody equal time and a fair crack of the whip, will Members please just take up to eight minutes?
First, I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on securing this debate and on being such a strong advocate for Kashmir and Kashmiris in the Chamber.
In 1947, India and Pakistan partitioned, bringing about the largest migration of people in history, with more than 14 million people—refugees—crossing the newly formed India-Pakistan border for safety. One border disputed to this day is Kashmir, a small piece of land in the Himalayas which today is an unstable home to 12 million Kashmiris. On 24 January 1949, the first group of United Nations military observers arrived in Jammu and Kashmir to oversee a ceasefire between India and Pakistan. Almost 70 years later, India and Pakistan have evolved but Kashmir is still a region beset by political disagreement, violence, and human rights violations. Its population is just 12 million, yet more than 3,000 people have disappeared during the past 70 years and the conflict has left more than 47,000 people dead, including 7,000 police personnel. The death toll continues, with both India and Pakistan at an impasse, as was depressingly noted in a House of Commons Library research paper on Kashmir. It stated:
“Currently, the two governments”—
those of India and Pakistan—
“are engaged in a process of rapprochement. This is not the first such process, but it has given rise to optimism.”
That paper was written in 2004, and India and Pakistan have still got nowhere. Optimism has run dry, and bloodshed and bullets in Kashmir have taken over.
UN observations have taken place at various times since 1949, at considerable cost, but to what effect? Resolutions have been passed calling for ceasefires, for security forces to be withdrawn, and for a plebiscite giving Kashmiris the opportunity to decide whether to join India or Pakistan, or even to determine their own future—that is the cornerstone of any civilised democracy.
The UN clearly has a pivotal role to play in Kashmir, but does my hon. Friend believe it has sufficient skills, resources and political will to do what we are expecting of it in securing peace?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would say that the UN has considerable skill and considerable resources, but it is falling down on political will. Seventy years have been lost and Kashmir pays the price with lost lives and livelihoods. Last year, it saw an unprecedented level of violence and curfew, with 68 civilians killed and more than 9,000 people injured during months of unbroken violence. This was the bloodiest episode in Kashmir’s recent history. The shame of the international community in failing to recognise the violence and offer support to Kashmiri civilians is a bloody stain on all our history books.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasised the importance of an
“independent, impartial and international mission”
within the conflict-ridden region, with “free and complete access”. Top UN officials have said that they continue to receive reports of Indian forces using excessive force against the civilian population under India’s administration, yet India has refused the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. I fully accept that Pakistan, not just India, has to allow the UN access to Kashmir so that it can evaluate the damage that the conflict has caused before it becomes another footnote in Kashmir’s history.
The UN has had 70 years to help Kashmiris, but instead has for too long wilfully sidelined the dispute. We need a renewed effort for honest UN involvement to resolve the current crisis, with the UN using all its powers to investigate the crimes committed. What pressure can the UK, by taking advantage of our privileged position on the Security Council, put on the UN? The UN has to show some humility and give some backbone to its statements. No resolution or reconciliation can resume until there is acceptance, not dispute, over the lives lost and damaged. Unlike at any other time in history, we have a real role to play, offering our hand of friendship and partnership. Pakistan is one of the biggest recipients of our aid funding and a partner in tackling terrorism.
Only last year, the Prime Minister visited India to secure a substantial trade deal. During that trip, what discussions took place on Kashmir? Will the Minister update the House on his discussions on Kashmir with his counterparts in both Pakistan and India?
Prime Minister Modi of India said that
“any meaningful bilateral dialogue necessarily requires an environment that is free from terrorism and violence”,
and he is absolutely right. The recent escalation of violence creates terror where no authority is trusted, not even those that are meant to offer protection.
In Kashmir, pellet guns are being used by security forces. The Indian Government have advised that pellet guns should be used rarely, and only in pressing circumstances, yet the Central Reserve Police Force continues to use them persistently. These guns cause life-threatening injuries and brutally blind people—so far, more than 9,000 people have been injured. By their very nature, these pellet guns are the antithesis of targeted precision. They spray and maim through a 6-foot circle. It is impossible to limit the number of casualties with a 6-foot fan of pellets. These are not precision weapons or defensive weapons, and their use in open public places must constitute a human rights violation.
With a pellet gun, anyone and everyone within that 6-foot circle is a target, even children sitting at home. Twelve-year-old Umar Nazir was in the courtyard of his home—he was not protesting—when his eyes were hit by pellets. Both his eyes are injured, with little vision left. He is recovering in Srinagar, where the ophthalmology department has stated that it lacks the medical supplies to proceed with surgeries for injured retinas because the demand is so high. Depressingly, a former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir was forced to tweet Prime Minister Modi to ask for eye surgeons and eye trauma experts to be sent to Kashmir to help those with injuries. People’s lives are being lost and people’s vision is being removed for life, and the best way to get help from Government agencies seems to be by sending a tweet. That is how desperate the situation has become.
Will the Minister ask his Indian counterparts what their justification is for using pellet guns in public spaces? I can see none. Does he agree that the indiscriminate nature of such weapons constitutes a crime when they are used in public spaces? The Central Reserve Police Force has refused to share its operating procedure for this lethal weapon. Will the Minister put pressure on India to disclose its justification? Perhaps the Indian authorities can share with us which other liberal democracy uses such a weapon on its own people. Will the Minister tell the House what aid or medical support is being provided to Kashmiri hospitals?
The human rights violations I have described should be argument enough for UN access for observation. Human rights violations will not disappear without observation; they will just be disputed. If the UN takes the Vienna declaration seriously, it must step up its activity and willingness to be involved.
This is not just a regional issue. India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons, so the stakes in the dispute are high. Pakistan is reputed to have the 11th strongest military in the world; frighteningly, it is also ranked as the 14th most fragile country. This regional dispute is not so regional: when two nuclear powers fail to resolve such a volatile dispute, it affects us all and has the potential to threaten us all. That is especially true as the terror has taken a new, violent form.
Access to books and education is key to building a strong community. For the first time, schools and educators have become targets. Village schools are being targeted for destruction, with at least 24 being burned to the ground last year. In one incident, the principal of a school in Bugam, Mohammed Muzaffar, rushed to the school as it was burning to the ground. He cried out that it was like his home being burned. It was no ordinary school: built in 1948, it housed 3,000 books.
With schools on fire, teachers fearing for their lives and books burned to ashes, the future is bleak for both young and old in Kashmir, as is its economic security. It is in all our interests that the crisis in Kashmir is recognised, that the full force of our international community is marshalled to support the UN in gaining access to Kashmir, and that all our diplomatic relations are focused on providing a resolution and respite for Kashmir.
First, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I send through you my good wishes to Mr Speaker on his birthday? There is a long queue of people wanting to wish him a happy birthday, and it is important to do so.
Two and a half years ago this House last debated Kashmir, and this is only the second debate in nearly 20 years. I declare that I am the chair of the Indo-British all-party group, and a person of Indian origin who was born in India, studied there, and then came here. I do not know how many Members have visited Kashmir; I think that, between my schooldays and now, I have visited Kashmir 14 times in my life, so I am quite familiar with the economic, social and political conditions there. I am not going to say anything that is hearsay; there will be no vested interests or ill-informed information here. I say that because I have seen practically what is happening and has happened, and the political situation over there.
Having listened to previous speakers, I feel sad that we are bringing together issues that are not linked at all and that are not happening in the way they are being presented. Let us look at the political situation. I strongly condemn any violation of human rights. For the past 45 years I have canvassed and campaigned on human rights issues. When India has violated human rights, I have criticised it—I have criticised India for many other traditions that the Indian Government or people have failed to tackle. That is why I feel strongly about the way we are debating the Kashmir issue today: the questions that are raised are untrue and not relevant to the situation.
My hon. Friend mentioned that he has visited Kashmir 14 times, but does he accept that the Indian authorities make it exceptionally difficult for British Members of Parliament to visit that part of the world?
I am sure that happens. The reason is that when someone wants to visit a place, they must be free of any prejudices before they go. If they have declared beforehand what they think is happening and publicly denounced it, no Government would allow them to visit. Give me one example of a Government who have allowed people to visit who have previously criticised their country.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is well respected in this House, for giving us his expertise. Does he at least accept that by speaking up against human rights violations in any country, one is not necessarily against that country?
Order. Can I help Members who are going to speak shortly? There is a danger that their interventions will take time away from somebody else. I do not mind having the debate, but Members must recognise that I want to treat everyone equally.
I am not saying that that is not the way one presents the argument or that that is not right. I am saying that no Government or authority would allow people to visit if they are not free of prejudice.
Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene?
No, I will carry on. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be speaking later. [Interruption.]
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I am chair of the justice for Colombia group in Parliament. I criticise the Colombian Government time and again, and they let me into their country where I criticise them again.
Let us look at what has been happening since 1947. In 1948, after a line of control and a ceasefire were declared, India and Pakistan advocated that they should be part and parcel of the negotiations. In 1965 and 1971, India was attacked in an attempt to change that line of control. Again, i