Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
We ran a consultation between 20 December and 28 February on proposals to ban microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. The consultation also sought evidence on the extent of the environmental impact of microplastics found in other products. We are now reviewing the responses to the consultation and any new evidence will be used to inform future UK actions to protect the marine environment.
May I welcome the proposed ban as far as it goes? However, it appears that several products such as make-up and sun cream will be excluded. I therefore urge the Minister to adopt the Greenpeace definition of microbeads, which is,
“all solid water-insoluble microplastic ingredients of 5mm or less in any dimension used for any purpose.”
The US ban has not yet come into force, but we will continue to monitor its progress and consider any learning from that approach. Our proposals so far are supported by evidence, which shows that rinse-off products can damage some marine environments. We have extended the consultation and issued a call for evidence on other matters.
The Government’s progress on banning microbeads is welcome, but other forms of plastic are polluting our seas, including the 15 million plastic bottles that are thrown away every day. The Cornish-based charity, Surfers Against Sewage, has obtained 209,000 signatures to a petition that calls for a plastic bottle deposit-return scheme. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can advance that petition and make progress?
I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. As I informed the House at the previous Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Question Time, we are looking at the issue in the context of the litter strategy. Let me take the opportunity to publicise this weekend’s Great British Spring Clean campaign, in which I am sure many hon. Members will be involved. I also want to advertise BBC Suffolk’s “don’t be a tosser” campaign. Frankly, we do not want people who toss litter about to flood our beaches with the plastic bottles that my hon. Friend mentions.
A microbeads ban would be welcome, as would extending it to more products. However, as has been said, larger plastics that break down and become microplastics in the marine environment are the biggest problem. A deposit-return scheme would make a big difference. What is the Minister doing with the circular economy to try to get manufacturers to design out such products so that we do not have the problem of what to do with them in the first place?
The advance of plastic packaging reflected consumer desire for on-the-go, safe products that individuals can carry. I welcome instances of manufacturers introducing their own recycling schemes. When we were children, we perhaps got pocket money on some of the deposit-return schemes, but we now have kerbside recycling, which has successfully increased the amount of recycled plastics.
The Minister has shown real leadership on the issue and I applaud the Government’s efforts so far. However, for us to make a genuine difference we need other countries to get on board. Will my hon. Friend say more about what she is doing to ensure that we work collaboratively across borders to tackle the problem?
My hon. Friend is right. I understand that the recent explosion of nurdles in the world’s oceans is due to the fact that several containers fell off a ship and the contents were dispersed. We are all stewards of the ocean and we therefore want to work with other countries and support efforts to ensure that our oceans are as clean as they can be.
Having visited the nurdle hotspot at Kinneil, we clearly need to know much more to quantify their impact and presence in our seas in order to eliminate them. To date, the European Union has co-ordinated and funded much of the research by scientists in the UK under the marine strategy framework directive. Can the Minister give any certainty that those scientists will still have funding or opportunities for collaboration with European scientists after the UK leaves the EU?
The United Kingdom is a leading player in OSPAR. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we protect more than half the seas of this region. I am confident that we, and our scientists, will continue to work with many other countries to tackle this global issue.
Leaving the EU: Fisheries
First, may I welcome the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) to her place? It is very good to see her on the Opposition Front Bench and I look forward to working with her.
Mr Speaker, may I convey the sincere apologies of my farming Minister, whose plane has been delayed? He sends his very sincere apologies and we will write to you shortly.
Since the referendum, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers and officials have regularly met representatives from across the fishing industry. Fisheries will be a key area in negotiations. As a coastal state outside the EU, the UK will be responsible under international law for controlling UK waters and for the sustainable management of the fisheries within them.
I have an instinctive sympathy for anybody who is delayed by planes. It is a big part of my life.
The Secretary of State will be aware that before we had the common fisheries policy we had the London convention of 1964, which governed the access of foreign vessels to the six to 12-mile-limit waters. Is it the Government’s intention to remain a party to that convention after we leave the European Union?
There is no doubt that when we went into the EU back in the 1970s fishermen had a very poor deal on the amount of fish they could catch and on quotas. Is there not now a real opportunity to ensure we have better access to our waters and to larger quantities of fish, so that the industry can progress much further?
The Secretary of State knows that our fish processing industry is more important to our economy than the catching sector, and that it is very dependent on imports. We export more than 80% of what we catch, so is not maintaining tariff-free and other barrier-free access to the single European market more important than sterile arguments about fishing rights that could result in battles or worse?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. Our fishing communities around the UK provide a vital vibrancy to local communities and the rural economy, so I do not agree with the suggestion that processing is somehow far more important. We will seek the freest possible access to European markets, but when I was in China last year I signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese worth £50 million, which included UK seafood. It will be very important for us to be able to find new export markets.
Last Friday, I spoke at a seafood processing and fishing industry seminar in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area. The industry recognises the opportunities of Brexit, but understandably it has some concerns. I welcome the Secretary of State’s reassurances to date, but can she give an absolute reassurance to the seafood processing sector that it will form a key part of the negotiations?
I had a very happy fish and chip lunch in Cleethorpes with my hon. Friend and I look forward to further such opportunities. He is right to point out that seafood processing is an absolutely vital part of our fishing sector. We are very much taking it into account in our negotiations on leaving the EU and in looking at opportunities around the world.
Despite the fact that we are eight months on from the referendum, at a recent meeting with Scottish Ministers the Secretary of State was unable to provide any information on what powers over the rural economy will flow to Scotland after Brexit. Has Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, let the cat out of the bag today in The Times? It looks like there will not only be a power grab, but a cash grab. When will the Secretary of State come clean and own up to what the Government plan to do with Scottish fishing and Scottish farming?
I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the UK market is incredibly valuable to all our fishing communities. It will continue to be very important. The Prime Minister has been very clear that no powers that are currently devolved will be, as he says, grabbed. They will continue to be devolved. What we are looking very carefully at is the best possible deal for all parts of the United Kingdom as we seek to negotiate Brexit.
Domestic Food Market
Mr Speaker, I apologise for being a little late. I was at the Gulfood exhibition in the Gulf and my plane was sadly stranded because of fog.
The Government want the UK to grow and sell more British food and drink. Through the introduction of a new plan for Government procurement, we have sought to enable Departments to source more local food, and recent successes include the Ministry of Justice implementing the plan in prisons. Last year, exports of food and drink increased by 9% to £20 billion.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The quality heritage of our local food, such as Sussex Charmer and all the great wines produced in the South Downs, is second to none. That is why we have set up the great British food unit—to promote our food at home and abroad. It is also why I have just returned—late, sadly—from Gulfood, the world’s largest annual trade fair.
I remind the Minister that we do not want food at any price. As we have heard this morning, another seven species are in danger in our country because of intensive farming. When will we have good, productive, sustainable farming and start importing less?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. Wight Marque celebrates the Isle of Wight’s brilliant range of food, from locally produced milk to a vast array of fruit and veg. It is a great example of how a little public money and the support of partners can really celebrate the provenance of our local food.
Farmers are facing a critical shortage of seasonal labour, and some are afraid that our food will rot in the ground this year. The Government have been asked to reverse their decision to scrap the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, and Ministers say that they are reviewing the issue, but can a decision please be made as a matter of urgency?
While we remain members of the EU, we still have free movement, and fruit farms and farmers can still source their labour from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria. We are aware that some have raised concerns about agricultural labour after we leave the EU, and we are listening carefully to their representations.
Does my hon. Friend share the view expressed by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation that leaving the EU can both help farmers increase their share of domestic products and improve animal welfare by preventing the import of goods produced under circumstances not permitted in the UK?
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have a manifesto commitment to place a stronger recognition of animal welfare issues in the design of future agriculture policy and to promote higher standards of animal welfare in international trade deals. We intend to implement those manifesto commitments.
Yesterday during a session of the Scottish Affairs Committee, we heard evidence from Gary Mitchell of National Farmers Union Scotland, and two things were made very clear: access to migrant labour for seasonal work is essential for our agriculture sector and the Government are yet to the respond to the representations made by NFU Scotland over these concerns. Will the Minister commit to looking into this and providing an urgent clarification to the agriculture industry on where they stand on migrant labour?
Seasonal Agricultural Workers
There is a lot of interest in seasonal agricultural labour at the moment. DEFRA Ministers engage regularly with ministerial colleagues at the Home Office and other Departments to discuss the issue of migrant labour in the agriculture sector after we leave the EU. We are aware that the availability of labour is a concern for some sectors of the industry. However, leaving the EU and establishing controlled migration does not mean closing off all immigration; it simply means that we will be able to identify where we have needs and put in place suitable arrangements.
Growers in my constituency are worried about fruit going unpicked not only after we leave the EU, but this year. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to press the Home Office on this issue, and not only on seasonal agricultural workers after we leave the EU, but between now and then?
As my hon. Friend may know, I spent 10 years working in the soft fruit industry; indeed, I will know many of the strawberry farmers she represents. I am also aware that the Secretary of State has taken up a kind offer from my hon. Friend to visit and meet some of the farmers there to discuss their concerns. As somebody who ran a soft fruit enterprise employing several hundred people, I can tell my hon. Friend that I do understand the challenges the industry faces.
But there is an immediate problem in that many of the fruit farmers in my constituency have already entered into contracts for migrant labour for this coming fruit-picking season. They have been concerned about some reports last week that the Government are considering restricting free movement or introducing work permits when article 50 is triggered. Can the Minister confirm whether that is happening, or give them an assurance that it will not happen and they can fulfil the contracts they have already entered into?
The point that we have been making to the industry when we have met it is that while we remain members of the EU—that is, until we leave, not until we trigger article 50—free movement remains. The feedback I am getting is that most farmers are able to source the labour they need from countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. We will give the industry plenty of notice of what arrangements we intend to put in place after we leave the EU.
Leaving the EU: Farming
At the recent National Farmers Union conference, I set out five principles that will support a prosperous future farming industry: trade, productivity, sustainability, trust and resilience. We are now in the process of a broad consultation ranging right across farmers, food producers and non-governmental organisations to hear their views as we build a policy that will achieve our twin ambitions of having a thriving farming sector and an environment that is in a better state than we found it in.
Like my right hon. Friend, I meet farmers regularly—mainly through Staffordshire and Lichfield NFU—and they are actually very positive about Brexit and see the opportunities. But I know we export about £20 billion-worth a year overseas and into Europe, so what efforts is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that we continue to have access after Brexit?
We are working very hard right across Government to make sure that we get the best possible deal on market access for our agri-food sector when we leave the EU. There are huge global opportunities for Staffordshire farmers and food producers, and later today I will visit Harper Adams University in neighbouring Shropshire and the chamber of agriculture to hear from the next generation, as well as current farmers, about how we can seize those opportunities.
Our constitutional arrangements today are very different from those in 1972. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that after our exit from the EU the agriculture rules that are currently set in Brussels will not be exclusively set by the UK Government, but will instead be set by the devolved Administrations with the closest knowledge of the local farming industries?
In the great repeal Bill we will be bringing all the acquis communautaire into UK law. We in the United Kingdom will then be in a position to look at what works best for the UK. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am working very closely with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations to make sure that we get the best possible deal that works for all parts of the United Kingdom, and I will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The complexity and bureaucracy associated with the CAP cost the industry £5 million a year and 300,000 man hours, so reducing burdens will help our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more of our great British food.
The strength of the farming sector will depend on whether it has an adequate supply of labour. Earlier the Minister of State suggested that there was not yet a problem here, but we know that workers from the European Union are already reluctant to come to the UK to work, so when is the Secretary of State going to make it clear that we are going to have a seasonal agricultural workers scheme? What is the timeline?
The hon. Lady is not correct when she says that people are reluctant to come here. In fact, the Office for National Statistics figures for last year show that there were more migrant workers coming from the EU than ever before, so that is just not true. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State has pointed out, free movement will continue until the point at which we leave the EU. We are working closely with the Home Office to assess, understand and put in place good systems to ensure that we continue to thrive in this important sector.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The three crop rule is exactly the sort of measure we should change once we have left the EU. Of course, we want farmers to manage sustainable rotations, to optimise yields and to protect soil, but we can do that without forcing them to grow a specific number of crops on a specific acreage of land.
The National Farmers Union warned last week that the Government’s lack of clarity risked stifling the farming industry. This week, it was reported that the price of agricultural land fell by 7% in the past year due to the uncertainty of Brexit. The absence of any Government planning is plunging farming into a grave state. When will the Government give clarity and a long-term commitment to the farming industry on access to the single market, access to a seasonal workforce and a new long-term agricultural policy?
The Prime Minister has made it clear that our ambition is to have an all-encompassing free trade agreement with the European Union and to retain free and fair access to the European single market. As we have already discussed, we are looking closely at the need for a workforce now and in the future, and we are looking carefully at what more we can do around the world to make a huge success of leaving the European Union.
Trees and Woodland: Carbon Target
We recognise the important role that forestry plays in the United Kingdom as a carbon sink. In 2015, forestry contributed an annual emissions reduction of 17.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to our carbon reduction targets.
The Government take tree health extremely seriously. That is why we promote biosecurity internationally, at UK borders and inland to ensure that pest and disease risks are effectively managed, so that we can continue to actively manage our woodlands and forests and contribute to the carbon reduction targets.
As well as helping to meet the Government’s carbon target, the planting of trees has a wide range of environmental benefits. Does the Minister think that the Department’s plans are ambitious enough to reap the benefits that trees and woodland undoubtedly bring?
I do think that they are sufficiently ambitious. We are absolutely confident that we will hit our target of planting 11 million new trees during the lifetime of this Parliament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will speak to his former right hon. Friend the Mayor of London to ensure that he plants the 2 million trees that he pledged to plant, before he was elected.
The Minister will be aware of the outbreak of sweet chestnut blight near Exeter. I welcome the first national survey of historical woodland, but what more can be done in the short term to prevent the importation of the devastating diseases that are spread by the international plant trade while doing nothing to discourage tree planting and woodland creation?
Leaving the EU: Food Prices
The main drivers of changes in food prices are energy costs and exchange rates, and those forces affect all countries, whether or not they are members of the EU. In 2008, there was a steep spike in food prices, which continued to rise until 2014. Since 2014, food prices have fallen by 6%. Despite the depreciation of sterling last summer, retail food prices have remained relatively stable, with an overall fall during 2016 of 0.5%.
Large numbers of people in my constituency are in work, but they are still in poverty. They are feeling the effects of increases in food prices over recent months. Given that they are so dependent on cheaper EU food products, what will the Minister do to protect them in the longer term?
As I said, the facts do not bear out what the hon. Gentleman says. Food prices have fallen by 0.5% over the past year and by 6% since 2014. We monitor the situation closely. The annual living costs and food survey closely measures the poorest households in particular and how much they spend on food, and the situation has remained remarkably stable over the past decade.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We have some preferential trade agreements in place with some developing countries, particularly to buy sugar from the Caribbean. We want to maintain and secure such arrangements so that we can support developing countries.
The Minister talks about food prices falling, but supermarkets are warning of the potential for food prices to rise significantly this year, which will have a huge effect on every household in the country. Nearly half our food is imported and prices are already starting to rise for the first time in three years owing to the weak pound and inflation. What exactly are the Government doing to help with rising prices in people’s weekly food shop?
As I said earlier, we closely monitor the amount of money that people spend on food, which has remained remarkably stable at around 16.5% for the past decade. We continue to keep the issue under review. I simply point out to Labour Members that the greatest spike in food prices took place in 2008 on Labour’s watch. Food prices have been falling since 2014.
The Minister talks about monitoring, but it was recently revealed that research to inform agricultural and environmental policy once the UK leaves the European Union has not even been commissioned by the Department. The Minister’s warm words are all very well, but the agricultural sector desperately needs long-term clarity and the Government are failing to deliver it. Will the Minister tell us how the Government can have any real understanding of the current situation without adequate research being in place?
I simply say to the hon. Lady that the Department is doing a vast amount of analysis and research to inform future policy. We received a specific parliamentary question about whether we have commissioned direct scientific research on the effects of leaving the European Union, and she is right that we have not, but we do not need to. All our environmental policies are regularly evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.
Leaving the EU: Fisheries
There is already a degree of self-management of the fishing regime by producer organisations in the fishing industry through our system of trading quotas and markets in both the leasing and exchanging of quotas among producer organisations. However, leaving the EU does create the opportunity to consider how we manage our fisheries and to look at the approach taken by other countries.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, I have consistently made it clear that leaving the EU means that we will take back control of our exclusive economic zone—the area out to 200 nautical miles or the median line—and that will allow us to look afresh at mutual access agreements and shares of the total allowable catch in shared waters.
They have in common the fact that they are policies that originate in the EU. Leaving the EU obviously gives us an opportunity to review some of those things, but we already have a derogation so that farmers who grow winter crops are able to trim their hedges a little earlier. Certain species are very vulnerable—particularly the yellowhammer, which breeds late—and we want to protect them.
I specifically discussed proposals along those lines with NFU Scotland at the beginning of this year. A consensus is emerging that there needs to be some kind of UK framework, within which we obviously want to ensure that the devolved Administrations can pursue the policies that are right for them. We will work closely with all the devolved Administrations to ensure that, after we leave the European Union, policy works for Scotland and other parts of the UK.
I do not accept what the hon. Lady says. The truth is that we have guaranteed payments up until 2020. We have ensured that the budget is still there, and we have made it clear that, well in advance of that date, we will be able to give farmers throughout the UK a very clear picture of what future support arrangements will look like.
I will update the House on the delivery of the basic payment scheme. As of today, 95.5% of eligible farmers have received their payment, which is good progress but there is still more to be done. Last week I secured agreement from the Treasury that a 75% bridging payment will be available to any farmer with an outstanding claim at the end of March. The window for 2017 applications opened yesterday.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. In response to my earlier question, the Under-Secretary mentioned our former colleague, the Mayor of London. Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to his work on tackling poor air quality? Will she say whether it is her policy to retain the existing provisions of the air quality regulations in UK law after the UK leaves the European Union?
It is absolutely the case that we will keep all regulations when we leave the EU so that regulations look the same the day after we leave as they did the day before. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are looking very carefully at the whole issue of air quality. We have spent more than £2 billion since 2010 on ultra-low emission vehicles and on trying to reduce the impact of poor air quality. There is more to be done, and we are looking closely at that.
We are determined to hold this terrible disease at bay for the sake of our entire poultry sector, and our robust actions so far have included an amended avian influenza prevention zone from 28 February, which covers all of England and requires mandatory biosecurity for all keepers and the compulsory housing or netting of poultry and captive birds in defined higher-risk areas. That is very important for the entire sector.
Further to what the Secretary of State just said, she must be aware that English poultry producers are concerned about the prospect of losing free-range status because of the postcode lottery of the bird flu restriction system. The British Free Range Egg Producers Association is particularly concerned about the inconsistent approach. What more can she say to assure egg producers throughout the UK that the right measures are being taken to sort out this whole sad issue?
Colleagues will be aware that there was a full housing order until 28 February. With extensive scientific advice, we have gleaned that those places where wild fowl congregate are high-risk areas. That has been extensively peer reviewed on the basis of scientific evidence, which is why we have published a paper to outline the rationale. This has absolutely not just come out of our own heads; in no way whatsoever are we doing anything other than protecting this vital sector.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about an issue I championed while I was responsible for this part of the portfolio. The Government have recently published proposals for improving the laws on the breeding and selling of dogs, among which are proposals that anyone breeding and selling three litters in a 12-month period will need a licence and that no puppies will be sold under the age of eight weeks.
Traditionally, councils were given grants for their flooding responsibilities through the rate support grant. I visited the centre near Jaywick and saw the excellent work that was being done by the council and by many voluntary services, as well as by our emergency service response. I am sure that councils will continue to work, to reflect on what happened, and to monitor whether their schemes continue to be appropriate.
As my hon. Friend will know, we already have in place an agri-tech strategy worth £160 million, which has supported more than 100 different projects to support science and technology transfer in food and farming. In addition, we have food information networks to try to create clusters of innovation in the food sector.
We take the marine environment very seriously, which is why we said in our manifesto that we would extend the blue belt, and that is what we have done, not only around this country’s shoreline but around those of our overseas territories. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to play a leading role through OSPAR, as well as through our role on the Council of Europe and the related Bern convention.
The BBC drama “Resistance” airs tomorrow on Radio 4 and portrays a dystopian future without effective antibiotics, and antibiotic resistance is also the subject of a Westminster Hall debate I have secured for next week. Does the Secretary of State agree that although we are world leaders in work on antibiotic resistance both in health services and in agriculture, the fact that we have recently licensed three new colistin products, which are the last line of defence, shows that there is more we can do?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the UK has taken a leading role in the work on antibiotic resistance, which we have pushed on to the agenda of the OECD, the G7 and the G20. We can adopt processes to reduce our reliance on antibiotics—for example, through the acidification of water in the pig sector. We can always do better, but some of these critical antibiotics have a role in agriculture, too.
My hon. Friend, like me and lots of other colleagues from across the House, enjoyed that lovely reception at Downing Street and the fabulous Welsh singing. I can absolutely assure him that we will keep Welsh lamb farmers at the heart of any negotiations on free trade agreements.
It was a private meeting. In fact, the agreement was that we would not talk openly about the level of discussions. I found our meeting helpful. We made some progress and got a clear way forward. Such discussions need to take place, and I look forward to more of them in the future.
Has the Secretary of State seen the very positive statement from Associated British Foods, which runs British Sugar, the iconic sugar beet and sugar factory in Newark, saying that it expects that, post-Brexit, the ability to design our own system without EU quotas will lead to up to a 50% increase in its profits and sales, which is good news for farmers and consumers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Associated British Foods is one of the great British-owned food companies. It is a world leader in sugar and it has driven competitiveness and investment in the industry. I believe that the sugar industry in this country has a great future.
Since 2010, the budget of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been cut by 57%, which means that the Department is struggling to get out plans such as the 25-year farming plan. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury to protect the budget from the 6% cut expected next week?
My Department is indeed involved in a transformation project, which will take out costs, but it will also deliver better and more focused frontline customer service. I am very optimistic about that, and we are looking very carefully at the further efficiency savings that are needed.
Order. I apologise to the House. The House is very hungry today, but, as is so often the case, demand exceeds supply, and it is not possible to satisfy the appetite of all colleagues. We must now move on to questions to the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), representing the Church Commissioners, and to the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), whom we welcome to her responsibilities as representative of the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Parish Churches: Wi-fi/Broadband
I would certainly like to welcome the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to her position and I look forward to working with her at these question sessions.
There has been a lot of interest from colleagues in this question of how to provide the internet to parts of the country that currently have poor provision. Churches play an important role in supporting community infrastructure, and the Diocese of Norwich has led the way. Since 2011, it has been the majority shareholder in WiSpire, which provides wi-fi internet signal boosters to churches across the diocese. We are in early discussions to expand that provision into the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich and Ely dioceses.
Obviously, the topography of Lancashire is challenging, so I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s case. In fact, I went to see an example of a wi-fi booster signal, and as long as there is a line of sight between a church tower and another church tower, or a high building, it is possible to provide internet coverage in remote rural areas that currently have no signal. I encourage him to speak to the Bishop of Carlisle and I will give every support in his endeavour to ensure that his constituents are not digitally divided.
Right across the country, church buildings are central to strong local communities. Will my right hon. Friend explain whether it has been possible to provide wi-fi and broadband in listed churches and chapels to help those buildings to remain sustainable well into the future?
I am grateful for that question, because there is a commonly held myth that it is not possible to amend ancient and listed buildings in these ways, but as my hon. Friend will have seen from the success in Norwich diocese, there is no fundamental barrier to putting a wi-fi booster set or a mobile phone booster on the top of a church tower or spire. That is why the Government have welcomed the partnership with the Church of England to try to reach our notspots.
Yes; my hon. Friend is right. I am sure that he would like the Church in Shrewsbury to be actively involved in this. The absolute key to this is knowing where the notspots are. I met the Minister for Digital and Culture, as I think many colleagues in the House did, who has an enormous spreadsheet that shows where the gaps are, and that is now being matched to what the Church can provide. We have offered to help to create a property asset register, so that this matching process can take place, and I hope it will benefit my hon. Friend’s constituency.
Chester cathedral already has a very strong reputation for the provision of excellent services to its visitors and its local community. Indeed, for over 1,000 years, the Church has been a patron of the arts. Churches and cathedrals provide an excellent venue for exhibitions; I am convinced that the cathedral in Chester is a very good venue for them.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Lady for the support that she has given in the past to Chester cathedral’s efforts to increase visitor numbers and therefore, hopefully, to increase worship numbers as well. Does she share my dismay, however, that Arts Council England has declined to support Chester’s bid for support for the major sculpture exhibition that it is hosting this year—the largest in the north of England? Might the Church Commissioners indicate to Arts Council England their support for the cathedral?
Cathedral attendance is rising, in no small part because of the quality of the services that are offered. People enjoy going to cathedrals for exhibitions. The Church of England fully supports Chester’s ambition to hold a similarly significant exhibition. My understanding is that the funding for this is on a rolling programme, so I really encourage the cathedral to apply again, and of course we will provide our support.
It is often new churches that are best configured for a variety of uses. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Richard Coldicott, the incumbent, and the congregation of St Mark’s, Holbrook, in my constituency, on its consecration last week as a brand-new parish church?
It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the congregation of St Mark’s on having the vision to create a new church. In fact, the Church of England is opening as many new churches, typically in new developments, as it is closing old ones. Of course a new facility like that is a wonderful venue for the arts and for exhibitions such as those that we are discussing.
Will the right hon. Lady also bear in mind not only exhibitions, but new music? Will she look at a work performed at Peterborough cathedral only a few days ago, “Even You Song”, with a wonderful new libretto by someone called Dr Lucy Sheerman?
I am very impressed to hear about that. When one looks through the list of the exhibitions that are being held in cathedrals up and down the country, one cannot fail to be impressed by the range and depth. May I commend to hon. Members an exhibition about refugees at Southwark cathedral, a mere short step from the House, should they require some respite from the labours of the House and its debates? This is a very current topic, and I commend it to the House.
Many parish churches in the borough of Kettering, particularly in rural villages, are opened up for a variety of community activities, including art exhibitions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an excellent way of getting people into churches who might otherwise never cross the threshold?
My hon. Friend is completely right. The sheer scale of these beautiful buildings creates a backdrop for the presentation of art and the display of sculpture. We have some really interesting and famous examples of sculpture in our cathedrals, including works by Gormley, and indeed Tracey Emin has a piece in Liverpool cathedral. I encourage all Members to encourage their constituents to visit their churches and cathedrals not just for worship, but for the beauty of the art presented within them.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
Official Development Assistance
The NAO audits the financial statements of the Department for International Development annually, and it issued an unqualified opinion on the Department’s accounts for 2015-16. The NAO also produces a number of reports each year on different aspects of DFID’s expenditure. It last reported specifically on official development assistance in 2015. Its January 2015 report, “Managing the Official Development Assistance target”, looked at DFID’s management of its increased budget and at the target to spend 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income on overseas aid.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware that our constituents in Lincolnshire have growing concerns about the aid budget. They will be reassured that the NAO is looking closely at it. Can he commit the NAO to looking much more robustly at many of the aid projects, which are of growing concern to our constituents?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the NAO will indeed look robustly at all aspects of DFID’s expenditure. For instance, its reports on the CDC and on St Helena both identified challenges for DFID in overseeing expenditure outside its core area of expertise. The Public Accounts Committee’s report on St Helena concluded:
“Thus far, the Department has unquestionably failed the residents of St Helena and the British taxpayer.”
Under the Government’s new aid strategy, an increasing proportion of the 0.7% is being spent by Departments other than DFID—it is estimated that the proportion will be 30% by 2019. Will the NAO also look at how that money is spent and address concerns that it is being siphoned off, undermining DFID’s core objectives?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that an increasing proportion of the aid budget will be spent by other Departments. That is clearly a challenge for audit, but one that the NAO is capable of undertaking, because DFID remains responsible for reporting to the OECD on official development assistance spending and for reporting to Parliament on the Government’s performance against the 0.7% target. I can reassure her that the NAO is scrutinising that expenditure extremely carefully.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Polling Stations: ID Requirements
The Electoral Commission has recommended that an accessible proof of identity scheme should be developed and implemented for polling stations across Great Britain. However, the commission has also recognised the potential implications for electors who do not have access to the prescribed identification documents and costed options for introducing identification requirements.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern, because some groups will be less likely than the general population to hold certain forms of photo ID. The commission estimates that approximately 3.5 million electors in Great Britain are without suitable ID and would therefore need to obtain an alternative form of identification. It is for that reason that the commission has recommended that electors in that position should be able to apply for identification free of charge, as they can in Northern Ireland.
In welcoming again the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to her new responsibilities, I hope that I can, on behalf of the whole House, very warmly thank the hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who undertook these important responsibilities for several years, and who in fact served on the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission from October 2006 onwards. He has discharged his obligations extremely competently and efficiently in the interests of the House, and we know that the hon. Lady will certainly follow in his footsteps by doing so as well.
The Electoral Commission will consider all evidence, and I will relay the hon. Gentleman’s comments to it. It is clear that recent public opinion shows that 82% believe that voting at polling stations is safe. That will be kept under review. It will be for the Government to make recommendations to the Electoral Commission about how that can be improved.
My hon. Friend correctly identified the 3.5 million people who do not have the photographic ID required. Does she agree that the Government are completely short-sighted by ruling out a voluntary voter card scheme that would assist those very people?
The Electoral Commission has been clear that an identification scheme along the lines of that in Northern Ireland would be the best option. I will relay my hon. Friend’s concerns to it, and I am happy to arrange for him to meet the Electoral Commission to make those points more clearly.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Anglican Church (South Sudan)
The Church of England is responding to the crisis in South Sudan with prayer and practical action. The Church of the Province of South Sudan has 5 million members and is spread across 43 dioceses, so there is an opportunity to provide aid right to the frontline through the Church network.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In International Development questions, I asked the Secretary of State to acknowledge the opportunity to distribute aid through the Church network. We should not forget the work of Christian Aid in South Sudan, which is providing direct unconditional grants, equivalent to $93, to families who have lost everything so that they can rebuild their lives.
Bishops’ Report on Human Sexuality
The majority of members of the General Synod voted to take note of the report of the House of Bishops, but the motion did not pass because a small majority was against it in the House of Clergy. Following that, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement committing them to find a way forward.
Was it not very significant that it was the clergy, who are in the frontline of providing pastoral care to their parishioners, who voted down the bishops’ paper? Is it not increasingly untenable for our Church, which enjoys significant privileges in this country because of its established status, to continue to discriminate against its own members simply because they happen to be gay?
There was a narrow margin in the House of Clergy vote—93 in favour of taking note to 100 against—but a majority is required in all Houses. The way forward, as outlined by the archbishops, is that the pastoral oversight group led by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rev. Christine Hardman, will now work on how to be as generous as possible to welcome all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people into the Church and to include them in the work of the pastoral oversight group.
My right hon. Friend may be aware of the case of my constituent, Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who was found not to have been discriminated against on the grounds of sexuality when the Diocese of Southwell denied him permission to officiate in the light of him having had a gay marriage, despite the fact that neighbouring diocese would allow him to officiate. Does my right hon. Friend accept that allowing each bishop discretion in how to handle these, admittedly, complex issues is creating unfairness and variances that are quite hard to justify?
It is hard to comment on the specific case. It has come before the House previously, but it is a legal process, which we normally do not comment on, although it has now reached its conclusion. My hon. Friend may not be aware that the Ecclesiastical Committee actually met and was content with changes to the law with regard to the need to protect children and the powers and discretion that bishops have. Changes have taken place and more need to happen.
But discretion is not always good in the Church, is it? Jeffrey John, the Dean of St Albans, has been barred from becoming a bishop in the Church in Wales, which I know is separate from the Church of England, because the other bishops have refused to do what they have done in every other case—accept what the members of the local diocese have wanted.
I am not responsible for the Church of Wales—[Interruption]—because I am responsible for the Church of England. However, I appreciate the point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. This is a really serious matter, and we should heed what the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the head of the Anglican communion, said about the need to have radical Christian inclusivity. The Church of England is working within the current legal and doctrinal context towards a culture change that is inclusive.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
EU Referendum: Campaign Expenditure
The Electoral Commission’s report on the administration of the EU membership referendum, which was published in September 2016, concluded that, overall, the rules on campaigning worked well. The commission has, however, made a number of recommendations based on the experiences in the referendum, which are intended to further improve transparency and the overall effectiveness of the referendum controls. These are now matters for the Government to consider, and the commission looks forward to receiving their response in due course.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for that reply. Given that lead campaigners and several of the campaign groups on both sides of the debate now face investigation regarding their spending, does she agree that that suggests there may be a need for the rules to be made simpler for participants to understand?
The commission announced last Friday that it has opened a number of assessments and investigations into the accuracy and completeness of campaigners’ spending returns. It would not be appropriate to comment at this stage on ongoing cases, but the commission will announce the outcomes when it has concluded its investigations.