House of Commons
Thursday 20 July 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On today’s Order Paper it is noted that on 30 August 1917, Lieutenant the hon. Francis Walter Stafford McLaren, Royal Flying Corps, Member for Spalding, died of injuries sustained after his aircraft crashed during a training flight off the coast of Scotland. We remember him today.
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Brexit: Environmental and Animal Welfare Standards
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will convert the existing body of EU environmental and animal welfare law into United Kingdom law. The Government have made it clear that we intend, as a minimum, to retain our existing standards of environmental and animal welfare once we have left the EU. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and I intend us to remain world leading in the future.
In Chelmsford during the recent election, more constituents wrote to me about animal welfare issues than about all other issues put together. People care, and British farm standards on animal welfare are world leading. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that British farm standards are not undermined by cheaper, less welfare friendly products from other parts of the world after we leave the EU?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election in Chelmsford and also thank her for her dedicated work in the European Parliament on many of these issues. I, like her, received many representations from constituents about these issues, and my commitment is clear: while we want to lead the world in free trade, we also want to remain a world leader in animal welfare. There will be no compromise on our standards as we seek to ensure that we pilot a better position for British farming and British trade in the future.
15. Fine words, but our bee population requires more as the research published in the peer review journal Science demonstrated just a few weeks ago. Will the Secretary of State today pledge to end the use of neonicotinoids in the UK and tell us whether the precautionary principle adopted by the European Union will be transposed into UK law? (900600)
I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to ensure that our bee population and our pollinators are protected. I pay close attention to the science in that report, and we will ensure that our policy on neonicotinoids follows existing EU protections and is enhanced in line with the science.
Absolutely. Before we entered the European Union, we recognised in our own legislation that animals were sentient beings. I am an animal; we are all animals, and therefore I care—[Interruption.] I am predominantly herbivorous, I should add. It is an absolutely vital commitment that we have to ensure that all creation is maintained, enhanced and protected.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his place and thank him for his visit to Wakefield during the recent election. He can rest easy in the knowledge that he played some small part in my return to this place.
The UK’s participation in the EU’s registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals, or REACH, regulation system allows us to protect the environment and human health, and allows UK businesses to sell exports worth £14 billion to the EU each year. It is our second biggest export after cars. The Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into the future of chemical regulation heard that the legislation cannot be cut and pasted. There are severe concerns about market supply chain freeze and regulatory disruption. How will the Secretary of State regulate chemicals when we leave?
I do not envy the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs the task of transcribing legislation, because 80% of what it deals with is at a European level. However, is it not the case that there are important stakeholders, such as the water industry, that are quite clear that they want the whole canon of legislation to be transcribed as it is into national law?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. She was an outstanding Secretary of State in this Department, and the leadership that she continues to show in this area is outstanding, too. She is absolutely right: we want to transcribe and read across existing protections, including the precautionary principle, and then enhance them as and when appropriate.
We need to be aware that there are always forces that will lead some small farmers occasionally to want to co-operate with others—to meet capital investment requirements, for example. One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country. The future for British farming is in quality and provenance, maintaining high environmental and animal welfare standards. We have a world-leading reputation based on doing things better, and that will not be compromised while I am in this Department.
Leaving the EU: Farming
Leaving the EU presents a major opportunity for UK agriculture. We will be able to design new domestic policies that benefit British agriculture, the countryside and the environment. We have announced our intention to introduce an agriculture Bill in this parliamentary Session in order to provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU. We have pledged to work with industry to devise a new agri-environment system, to be introduced in the following Parliament.
One of the most promising opportunities after we leave the EU will be to expand the range of markets available to our farmers, but that will come with corresponding challenges. Will the Minister please explain what the Government propose to do to open the new markets that will be available to the farmers of west Oxfordshire while maintaining our high standards, which are not always observed in other parts of the world?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Since 2015, DEFRA has opened around 160 new markets to quality British foods. In the future there could be opportunities to export more British produce, particularly meat and dairy. However, as the Secretary of State has made clear, we value our high standards in food production and animal welfare, and they will not be compromised as we develop future trade agreements.
Does the Minister agree that the role played by the massive farming base in Northern Ireland—pigs, poultry, grain and dairy—must be utilised and enhanced? What discussions have taken place with the Ulster Farmers’ Union on the needs of the farming community post-2019 and vital subsidies?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. Agriculture is very important to the Northern Ireland economy—its dairy and poultry sectors are particularly strong. I have previously meet the Ulster Farmers’ Union leaders. Indeed, I met one of the dairy companies from his constituency only yesterday. This Saturday the Secretary of State is planning to meet the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
Tapadh leibh, Mr Speaker. Farming and crofting leaders in Scotland hope that agriculture will be fully controlled in Scotland post Brexit, and according to fishing leaders the Secretary of State has intimated that the Scottish Government will control fishing to 200 miles—incidentally, Na h-Eileanan an Iar is probably the only constituency to reach 200 miles of the exclusive economic zone. Therefore, can I have it on the record that the Government will indeed be back in this position and that farming and fishing for Scotland will be controlled in Scotland post Brexit?
Some of these matters are obviously already devolved. I think that everybody recognises that there also needs to be some kind of UK framework to protect the integrity of the UK single market. On leaving the EU, we will take control of our agriculture policy, and there is an opportunity to give all the devolved Administrations more control than they currently enjoy to be able to do that while protecting the integrity of the single market.
Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We believe that there should be careful risk-based assessment when it comes to regulation. We also have a great opportunity to change the culture of regulation. The reality of the common agricultural policy, as it exists now, is that there are far too many complex rules against which farmers are judged. We have an opportunity to simplify that and have a much more effective system going forward.
The National Farmers Union says that the number of seasonal farm workers coming to the UK has dropped by 17%, and a report published this week states that
“the silence from Government on the labour question is astonishing.”
Food production, processing and packaging rely heavily on migrant labour—the Office for National Statistics states that they make up 41% of the workforce. Why are the Government ignoring the industry’s warnings? Will they compensate for the loss of produce as a direct result of this complacency, and will they ensure that the food manufacturing industry continues to have access to the workforce it needs?
There is no silence from the Government on this issue—indeed, there was a debate in Westminster Hall just last week where we discussed this issue in detail. We have the seasonal agricultural workers scheme transition group, which monitors seasonal labour requirements. It met in March, it had informal discussions last week, and it will meet again later this week. In addition, the Home Office intends to commission the Migration Advisory Committee to do a piece of work on the labour needs of this country after we leave the EU.
Well, that all sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? So why does the report say we have a looming food crisis if everything is under control? It says we could actually run out of some foods after Brexit. One of the authors, Professor Tim Lang, accuses the Government of a
“serious policy failing on an unprecedented scale”
for their handling of the food security situation. The Secretary of State is notoriously dismissive of expert advice, but does he accept the findings of this report, and will he meet me and industry representatives to urgently discuss the food crisis before us?
The issue with that report is that it has not looked at the issues as closely as we have in DEFRA. We have been studying all these issues at tremendous length. The truth about food security is that it depends on increasing food production globally at a sustainable level and on open markets around the world, and those are challenges whether we are in or out of the EU. There is nothing about leaving the EU that will affect our food security.
CAP Successor Scheme: Scotland
Since being appointed as the Secretary of State, I have met the Scottish Agriculture Minister and the Scottish Environment Minister at the royal highland show. I will continue to work with all of the devolved Administrations, and indeed to consult more widely, on the design of any new system of agricultural support.
Those are nice, kind words from the Secretary of State about how he will work with the Scottish Government, but the blatant reality is that clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is one of the most naked power grabs ever seen, because it allows the Westminster Government to impose decisions in devolved matters. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, despite his rhetoric, this means that Westminster can impose a successor CAP system on the Scottish Government?
What I can confirm is that the conversation I had with the Scottish Agriculture Minister and the Scottish Environment Minister was cordial. We have committed to working constructively together, and each of the devolved Assemblies and devolved Administrations has a role to play in helping us to design the successor regime to the common agricultural policy.
The greatest agricultural event not just in Britain, but in Europe and indeed the world—the royal Welsh show—is taking place next week. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and with the 250,000 people who attend the event that, in a pre and a post-Brexit world, the best showcasing of agriculture is taking place in Builth Wells?
I can absolutely confirm that to my hon. Friend. I am looking forward to going to Builth Wells on Monday. It will be my second visit to Wales in a week; I was in Cardiff last week talking to NFU Cymru, the Farmers Union of Wales, and the Country Land and Business Association in Wales. As someone whose wife is Welsh, my affection for my hon. Friend’s constituency—and, indeed, for the royal Welsh show and for Welsh agriculture—is second to none.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] Well, I think we are all on the same page in the Conservative party and singing from the same hymn sheet.
We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and I am continually building on this. We plan reforms to pet sales and licensing, to live exports, and to welfare at slaughter, and we are considering some other animal welfare measures as well.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Like many colleagues in the House, I have received huge volumes of correspondence on this issue. Will he commit to consulting closely with environmental and animal welfare groups when establishing these new regulations?
Absolutely. May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend not just on her election to this House but on her brilliant maiden speech yesterday? Consultation with environmental and animal welfare groups has been at the heart of the approach that DEFRA has taken, and it has also been central to developing the new policy agenda that I hope to take forward.
I am very concerned about the potential impact on animal welfare in Dudley of illegally dumped waste at the Rowan Oak site in Shaw Road. Local businesses are furious about the amount of time it is taking the Environment Agency to deal with this. Will the Secretary of State look at this personally, talk to the Environment Agency, and help me to get this matter sorted out?
The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion for his constituents, never more so than in raising this case. I have already talked to the Environment Agency about the increase in the number of illegal waste sites and the damage that that does to human and, indeed, animal health and welfare. We are reviewing how we investigate and prosecute the criminals behind this activity.
I am actively reviewing this matter. As my hon. Friend knows, I am not someone who will automatically reach for stronger criminal sanctions as the only route to dealing with a problem, but there are particular cases of animal cruelty where we may well need to revisit the existing criminal sanctions in order to ensure that the very worst behaviour is dealt with using the full force of the law.
Across the country, complaints are still frequently made to the police concerning the killing and chasing of foxes and hares by hounds as part of organised hunts. What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure better enforcement of the Hunting Act 2004, which clearly represents the will of the British people?
Leaving the EU: Food Security
Food security depends on global factors including increasing global production sustainably, reducing waste, and ensuring open markets to facilitate trade around the world. With regard to the EU, we are prioritising securing the freest trade possible, including an ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement and a new customs agreement.
Does the Minister accept the definition of “food security” provided by the former Government chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington—notably, that food security is characterised as requiring a food system that is sufficient, sustainable, safe and equitable? By reference to which indicators of food security will DEFRA be judging the food security consequences of the post-Brexit food and agricultural system?
The Foresight report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers set out that this country has a high level of food security. We have open markets, and a relatively high level of self-sufficiency as well, although that is not the key factor in food security. The report actually highlighted that there were no issues on food security. As I said earlier, we do not believe that leaving the EU has any impact on food security at all.
Food security can be enhanced by supporting the export of great British foods throughout the world. It is no surprise that I love British food and drink—particularly Lancashire cheese and British beer, both produced in my constituency. Will the Minister ensure that as we approach Brexit and these trade deals, we do a lot more to ensure that many more markets around the world can enjoy the food that I enjoy here in this country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We made it clear in our manifesto that we want to open new markets and to produce more and export more great British food from this country. He cites some great examples from his own constituency. We continue to press hard to open new markets and create new opportunities.
The Secretary of State said earlier that he was not in favour of mega-farms, yet there has been a 26% increase in the history of this Government. This has an effect not only on food security, animal welfare and food standards, but on the structure of our British farms, including the future of tenant farms. What will the Minister say to tenant farmers about their security after Brexit?
I had a meeting with the Tenancy Reform Industry Group just a couple of weeks ago, where we discussed in detail the issue of tenancy law, including whether we could review the workings of existing farm business tenancies and whether we could do more to encourage models such as contract farming, share farming and franchise farming to create new opportunities for new entrants.
The Government are absolutely committed to supporting and strengthening the rural economy to allow good businesses to grow and thrive. We have invested nearly £2 billion of public funding in delivering superfast broadband. We have the universal service obligation, and we will be securing improvements to mobile connectivity in rural areas.
The best way to help the rural economy is to keep farmers in business. Will my hon. Friend will give me a modest little birthday present today, and undertake to be positive about reintroducing a deficiency payments scheme? That scheme was very popular with farmers before 1972, and the United States introduced such a scheme after 2002 that was not contrary to World Trade Organisation rules. The scheme would actually help the rural economy greatly.
We will study my hon. Friend’s comments carefully. I must admit that I was born in 1971, so I do not have any direct knowledge, but he will know of the ongoing support that the Conservative Government will continue to give farmers, and we have made a commitment to continue that stable support as we transition out of the EU.
One of the best things the Government could do to support farmers in my constituency, particularly sheep farmers, is just give them simple clarity about whether they will be paying tariffs on their exports to Europe of sheep products. That will be key to their ability to plan their investment with certainty during the next 18 months.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have set out the approach we intend to seek for a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union once we depart from it. We want to provide such clarity as soon as possible, and he will be aware that the negotiations are ongoing.
17. I note that the Minister is aware that the cost of the bureaucracy related to applying for common agricultural policy subsidies has been considerable for farmers over recent years. Will she reassure me that this cost under the new British agricultural policy, or whatever it ends up being called, will be considerably lower and that it will be easier to apply for? (900602)
I am very happy to assure my hon. Friend that our future agricultural policy will be designed in a way that reduces needless and energy-sapping bureaucracy. We expect it to be simpler than the CAP, but she will recognise that we have a duty to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent carefully and transparently. We will continue to reward farmers and landowners, who manage our precious countryside, in a way that supports the best environmental outcomes.
In the Minister’s answer to the original question, she mentioned the roll-out of rural broadband. May I appeal to the Minister by saying that the roll-out is taking far too long in many communities, including my own constituency? What more will she do to speed up the installation of superfast broadband in rural areas?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Welsh Assembly Government are working closely with local communities and BT Openreach to reach such places. I am sure he will be able to follow up on that directly, but I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Digital.
EU Markets (West Country Food Exporters)
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have a number of leading west country food manufacturers in my constituency, including Falfish and Rodda’s cream, both of which are successful exporters. In addition, we are working closely with trade organisations, such as the Food and Drink Federation, to understand the needs of the industry. We have been clear that we intend to put in place a new partnership with the EU, which will include a comprehensive free trade agreement.
The Minister will know that 80% of west country fish and 30% of our lamb is exported straight to EU markets, free—currently—of tariffs and other barriers. Those food producers will be extremely concerned by the comments today of the International Trade Secretary, who appears completely relaxed about the prospect of leaving the EU with no deal. Does the Minister agree with him, or with the Chancellor, who said that this would be a very, very bad thing?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the UK has a significant trade deficit in food and drink products with the EU, so the EU needs access to our market as well. We have a significant deficit of around £18 billion a year, and I believe it is in the EU’s interests, therefore, to secure a free trade agreement too.
I am afraid I am not going to speak about fish today, Mr Speaker, but another time I will be happy to do so.
Farmers in Somerset expect their Government to negotiate continued tariff-free cross-channel trade, and hundreds of thousands of farmers across the EU expect the same of theirs. What are Ministers doing to secure engagement now between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Europe’s national customs agencies to ensure that timely and appropriate data exchange keeps agricultural trade smooth after we leave the EU?
We have set out plans in this Session for Bills dealing with trade and customs, and those Bills will address the issues that my hon. Friend has raised. I know that colleagues right across Government are working in a great deal of detail on customs issues to secure an agreement.
The Government have committed to providing the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the Parliament. We have also announced our intention to introduce an agriculture Bill in this Session to provide stability for farmers as we leave the European Union, and of course we will continue to protect and enhance our natural environment.
The average hill farm has an annual income before CAP payments of minus £10,000, and therefore hill farming as a sector is under enormous pressure, despite the fact that it is utterly fundamental to food security, to the protection of our environment and, indeed, to the maintenance of the landscape that has just won the Lake District world heritage site status. Will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that successive Governments have used the common agricultural policy as an excuse for not providing direct, tailored support for hill farmers? Will he use this opportunity to promise me, the House and hill farmers across the country that he will introduce a hill farm allowance to protect our uplands and the hill farming industry?
A very well-crafted question, and may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his re-election in Westmorland and Lonsdale and take the opportunity to pay tribute to the dignified and principled way in which he has led his party? He is absolutely right that hill farming and upland farming matter. The proposition he puts forward is not the only way of ensuring that we can maintain the environmental and broader cultural benefits that hill farming brings, but I shall do everything possible to ensure that as we replace the common agricultural policy, the needs of hill and upland farmers are met more effectively than ever before.
I thank Members very much for supporting me in becoming the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As we reform our support systems for agriculture, and our environmental schemes in particular, we can make them less complicated—we will not have to count trees, work out whether a tree is a sapling and so on—and ensure that we can retain water and do everything that we want to do with the environment, as well as producing food. We have an ideal opportunity to do that as we bring the new British farming policy together.
I add my voice to those of everyone in the House in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing re-election as Chairman of the Select Committee. Once again, he absolutely hits the nail on the head. As we move outside the European Union, our system of agricultural support must protect farmers through the vicissitudes they face; and, critically, the environmental benefits that farmers secure for us every day must be at the heart of any new system of support.
May I wish every Member of the House an enjoyable recess and hope that they will take the opportunity to sample some of the range of great British food and drink that is available, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) pointed out, as they holiday in these islands? Over the next few days I will be visiting Northern Ireland and Wales, and I very much enjoyed my earlier visits to Scotland. Agriculture and fisheries are stronger as part of our United Kingdom, whichever part of it we are privileged to represent.
Of course, the finest food to be found anywhere includes Shetland lamb and Orkney beef, which are always best eaten in the community of their production. Anybody who wishes to join me over the summer recess in Orkney or Shetland will be very welcome. Those fine products get a lot of protection from the protected geographical status and protected designation of origin schemes, which we currently enjoy as part of the European Union. What is DEFRA doing to ensure that our food producers have protection that is at least as good after we leave?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. As someone who recently had the opportunity to sample Orkney’s fine smoked cheese at the royal highland show, may I add my praise for the produce of the beautiful islands he represents? Geographical indicators are of course a very useful tool. We want to ensure that, outside the European Union, British food, from whichever part of these islands it originates, can have its status and provenance protected at the heart of effective marketing.
T4. Considering that my right hon. Friend has managed to complete 99.2% of the common agricultural policy payments in England, what assistance and co-operation can he offer the devolved Administration in Edinburgh, who have managed only to reach 90.4%? (900607)
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It did not surprise me, though it may have surprised others, that we increased the representation of Scottish Conservatives in this House by 1,200% at the general election, not least in the north-east and Ochil and South Perthshire, where farmers are suffering as a result of the maladministration of the Scottish Government. Many of them are asking why the Scottish Government cannot learn from the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs and, instead of prating on about independence and constitutional uncertainty, learn from their partners in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State talks a great deal about gaining control of our waters after Brexit, but, as usual with this Government, so much of the detail is sadly lacking. Since 2013, three British-based vessels of the Royal Navy fishery protection squadron have not been exclusively used for fisheries enforcement. The Government’s own figures show that the number of boats boarded by the fishery protection vessels has plummeted from 1,400 to just 278 over the past six years. Will the Minister explain what, “Take back control of our waters,” actually means and why fishing enforcement has dwindled so dramatically under this Government? Will he agree to conduct an urgent review to assist the level of fisheries enforcement required now and after Brexit?
I can tell the hon. Lady exactly what taking back control means. When we leave the EU we automatically, under international law, become an independent coastal state. That means that we will have responsibility for managing our exclusive economic zone, which is 200 nautical miles or the median line. We already enforce those waters. The hon. Lady raises concerns about the number of vessels, but most of the work these days is digital. We have a control room in Newcastle that monitors the movement of every single fishing vessel in the country.
My right hon. Friend is right. There is a particular problem in Cheshire, which is why two years ago we introduced six-monthly surveillance testing. We held a consultation in December on changing the way in which we calculate compensation rates on other species, including sheep and goats. The pig industry has some concerns and we are reviewing and addressing them. It is important to recognise that we already pay compensation to people with sheep and goat farms affected by TB.
T2. Is“thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”an appropriate description to use for a fellow Cabinet member? If hard Brexiteers in our Government are falling out in that way, how on earth can the Secretary of State expect our European Union partners to take our negotiations seriously? (900605)
T6. Farmers in west Oxfordshire welcome the Government’s assurance that CAP funding will be guaranteed until 2020 and for structural schemes for the lifetime of the scheme. Could the Government give further assurance as to what assistance will be given to farmers who plan on a five-year cycle? (900609)
I have been very clear to farmers that, in moving to a new system, we recognise the importance of a gradual transition. We have been very clear that we will work with farmers and industry over the next year or so as we work out our plans. We will then put in place a gradual transition from the old system to the new.
T3. Many of my constituents in Blaydon have suffered badly from landfill sites on their doorstep. What plans does the Secretary of State have, first to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, and secondly to ensure that environmental protections are not only preserved but strengthened in the Brexit process? (900606)
I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. I am sure that she will be a worthy successor to David Anderson, the gentleman with whom I worked previously. I assure her that we are working with councils to identify the barriers to increasing recycling in their areas. One London borough recycles less than 15% of its waste whereas other areas recycle more than 60%. There are lessons that we can share, and I am actively engaged in that, including in working with the Environment Agency on the proper regulation of landfill sites.
T7. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) has drawn the House’s attention to the fantastic show in his constituency. I wish to draw hon. Members’ attention to the most spectacular summer’s day out in Worcestershire, the Hanbury show, which is held in my constituency. However, the farming communities in Inkberrow, Hanbury and the Lenches, who take part in the show with their fantastic produce, are concerned that, post-Brexit, there will be standards that affect the import and export of their products and have a negative impact on their trade. Will the Minister give us specific reassurances on that? (900611)
The Hanbury show is indeed a famous and strong agricultural show. The Secretary of State addressed the point earlier. We are clear that we prize our high standards of animal welfare and food and that they will not be compromised in any future trade agreement.
In Blaenau Gwent, we are proud of our Tudor Brewery. However, although beers can trade on their Britishness, there is no guarantee that they are produced on these shores. With calls to buy British ever louder, what are the Government doing to ensure that customers know that British brands are made in Britain?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good case and I look forward to enjoying a pint of Blaenau Gwent-brewed beer before too long. Outside the EU, we will have the capacity, should we choose to exercise it, more effectively to brand British food as British. As I said earlier, Members of all parties recognise that provenance matters for food and drink, and British is always best.
Last summer, I was pleased to meet key representatives from the charity Surfers Against Sewage. I congratulate them on their battle against plastics in our seas and marine environment, including the Solent and the River Itchen in my constituency. The summer holidays are due to begin. Will Ministers outline the work that we are doing around our coastlines, particularly the Solent and the Itchen, to ensure that they are safe for water sports and our local wildlife?
I, too, congratulate Surfers Against Sewage on not only its direct activity, but its ongoing campaigns. I was therefore pleased to meet Hugo Tagholm in the past year. Our beaches are of better quality than at any time since the industrial revolution. Last year, we introduced tougher bathing water standards, and even under those tough standards, 93.2% of England’s beaches were rated excellent or good. I visited the Itchen last month. I am aware of some of the challenges, including the pressures of abstraction, but we will do what we can to improve the ecological as well as the leisure quality of rivers and beaches.
Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), will the Secretary of State say exactly how he will ensure that products such as traditional Grimsby smoked fish, produced by the excellent Alfred Enderby’s traditional smokehouse in my constituency, retain their protected geographical indications?
As someone who grew up with the scent of smoked fish in their nostrils, because that is what my father produced, I am committed to making sure that we have the best protection. Only last week, I visited H. Foreman & Son, who now enjoy a designation as providers and producers of London cure smoked salmon. As we have just discussed, we will have the opportunity outside the EU to ensure that British food can be more effectively branded as British and best.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the thought that must sit in his head as he plans a new management system for our fisheries is that it has to be on an ecosystems basis? That will allow him to ignore the simple blandishments of so many people who claim that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to fisheries management, which was the big failing of the common fisheries policy.
My right hon. Friend is right. He was a brilliant fisheries Minister, who was responsible within the EU for ensuring that the common fisheries policy, imperfect as it is in so many ways, was reformed to deal with discards and to develop our fish stocks on a more sustainable basis. Outside the EU, as an independent coastal state, we can do even more, but he is right that conservation must be at the heart of our policy.
May I return to the issue of animal welfare? The Secretary of State will recognise that the use of antibiotics in farming is part of an animal welfare regime. However, there is massive concern that overuse of antibiotics is destroying their effectiveness, both for animals and humans. What can be done to reverse this trend?
The Veterinary Medicines Directorate and our chief vet have been working very closely with the Department of Health on plans to reduce the use of antibiotics. Great success has been achieved in sectors such as poultry, where there has been a substantial reduction of some 40% to 50% in antibiotics use. Often it is about adopting different approaches to husbandry to reduce reliance on antibiotics, but although a lot of progress has been made, there is more to do.
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
The commission has published two reports that include its assessment of the rules on campaign funding for the EU referendum. The commission has also completed investigations of issues with a small number of campaigner spending returns, none of which related to impermissible donations. It is continuing to consider issues with some campaigners’ spending returns, in line with its published enforcement policy. The commission publishes the outcome of all investigations on its website once investigations have been completed.
The commission is aware of media reports that allege that there could have been Russian involvement in the EU referendum. These cover a wide range of alleged activities that are beyond the commission’s remit. Any allegation with evidence that a registered campaigner accepted impermissible donations from Russia would be investigated in line with the commission’s enforcement policy, but I am sure that officials from the commission would be more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this matter further.
Does my hon. Friend—and she is a friend—agree that not only is illegal funding wrong, but so is electoral fraud? May I invite her to ask the commission to conduct a proper inquiry into having a national voter register, to ensure that people do not double and triple vote in general elections and other elections?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will know that the 381 electoral registers are maintained by different electoral registration offices across the country, and it is not currently possible to interrogate them collectively in order to identify duplicate entries or voting in more than one area. The commission will be happy to work with the Government to consider potential solutions to reduce this risk.
Election Expenses and Political Donations
The Electoral Commission continues to regulate the rules on UK political finance in a way that is fair and proportionate, focusing on helping parties to comply with the law. Since 2013 the commission has been calling for changes to improve enforcement and sanctioning of the political finance rules. It has recommended increasing the maximum penalty it can impose and extending its enforcement responsibilities to some candidate spending rules. The commission will publish a report in the autumn on the regulation of election expenses and donations to political parties in the 2017 general election.
There has been significant media coverage of the 2015 general election expenses issue, with the Tories being fined the maximum £70,000, and with an hon. Member reportedly having been charged. In March, the Electoral Commission chair, Sir John Holmes, said:
“There is a risk that some political parties might come to view the payment of these fines as a cost of doing business”.
Might it be worth making fine limits proportionate to the number of candidates standing for a party at an election?
The hon. Gentleman is right to make it clear that the Electoral Commission is of the view that the maximum fine of £20,000 could well be seen as the cost of doing business. The commission has called for an increase in the maximum penalty it can impose on political parties and other campaigners. It is of the view that the penalties should be more proportionate to the income and expenditure of larger and well-funded campaigners.
Emergency Proxy Voting
The commission has recommended changes to the qualifying circumstances for appointing an emergency proxy since 2011. It recommends extending the qualifying circumstances to include those who have unforeseen caring responsibilities or who have experienced the death of a close relative. In its September 2016 response to the commission’s statutory report on the 2015 general election, the UK Government confirmed that they had no plans to extend the qualifying circumstances for appointing an emergency proxy.
I thank the hon. Lady for her answer. My constituent Ruth Jones was unable to vote at the recent election following a family bereavement. She was attending her grandmother’s funeral at the time. However, had she been called away for a work emergency, she could have qualified for an emergency proxy vote. Can the hon. Lady reassure me that the Electoral Commission will continue to push for changes to enable a family bereavement to be seen as having the same impact on a voter as a work emergency?
I am sorry to hear about the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman described, and the way in which they affected his constituent. I can assure him that the Electoral Commission is still of the view that there is a gap in the emergency proxy provision, and remains concerned about the need to enhance the accessibility of the process by extending the qualifying circumstances. I am sure that the commission would welcome any support that he could offer in that regard.
Rules and procedures on proxies, emergency proxies and postal votes are good only if they are followed. What action is the Electoral Commission taking to address the shambolic handling of the general election in Plymouth, which resulted in 1,500 postal votes not being sent out, and 6,500 votes not being included in the declaration on the evening of the count?
The commission is collecting information from returning officers about their experience of the 8 June general election. I am sure that it would also welcome the views of my hon. Friend, should he wish to share them with representatives of the commission, either in writing or through a meeting, which I am sure they would be happy to attend.
Bearing in mind the questionably massive amount of proxy votes used in some constituencies in Northern Ireland, including Foyle, will the hon. Lady outline the steps being taken to stop the alleged abuse by some parties of this vital voting mechanism, which I, too, believe could be compassionately extended to grieving families?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that different arrangements relating to identity are in place in Northern Ireland. However, any concerns about possible criminal activity would be a matter for the police force, and I suggest that he encourages anyone with evidence of criminal activity to report it to the police.
Voter Registration and Boundary Commission Review
4. What discussions the Committee has had with the commission on the effect of (a) recent rises in voter registration and (b) the 2017 general election on the conclusions of the most recent Boundary Commission review. (900616)
The Electoral Commission this week published a report on electoral registration at the June 2017 UK general election. It highlights that online electoral registration resulted in a record electorate of an estimated 46.8 million people. The commission’s report argues that further modernisation is required to reduce the impact of large numbers of duplicate registration applications, and to ensure that the registration process is more joined up with other public services. The commission does not have any responsibilities in relation to the review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, which are a matter for the UK’s boundary commissions.
As my hon. Friend points out, 2.9 million new people registered to vote and became part of a record electorate in the recent general election. There was a similar spike before last year’s referendum. Surely we should now heed the Electoral Commission’s recommendation that boundary reviews take place after a major electoral event, to take those new people into account and to ensure that the 2022 election does not hark back to the outmoded situation of 2015.
The current review of parliamentary constituencies is a matter for the boundary commissions, but the Electoral Commission has previously recommended that Parliament and the Boundary Commission consider whether it would be more appropriate to base reviews on electoral data taken from the registers used for elections, rather than from the register published on 1 December.
It is perfectly reasonable for students and others to be registered in two places if they are normally resident in both. Does the hon. Lady agree that it would be sensible to check one in 100 late registrations to see whether they are double-registered and whether double voting has taken place? That would give us more scope to determine whether and how much fraud took place at the last election.
I am sure that the Electoral Commission will take heed of the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. It takes seriously any suggestion that an individual might have voted twice, but so far there is little evidence of widespread abuse in the recent general election. As he says, it is possible in certain circumstances for people—including students and MPs—to be lawfully registered to vote in more than one place. However, it is a criminal offence to cast more than one vote on their behalf in a UK parliamentary general election.
One of the most efficient organisations in recruiting young people to the electoral register is Bite the Ballot. It can register 16 to 18-year-olds for as little as 25p per elector; by comparison, the Electoral Commission’s advertising campaigns cost £80 to £90 per download. Will my hon. Friend liaise with the Electoral Commission and ask whether it will develop service level agreements with this excellent organisation?
The commission is correct to highlight the discrepancy between the 1 December assessment of our electorate, and the electorate in our most recent election. In my constituency, the difference between the 2015 and 2017 elections was 8,000, which is over 10%. Would the hon. Lady welcome an investigation by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee into how we deal with such discrepancies?
It will be for the Committee and its new members, when it is constituted, to consider the best way of examining the issues. We all want to ensure that registers are as complete as possible, that people are not missed out and that there is no reduction in the number of people registered to vote, so that the boundary commissions can consider parliamentary constituency boundaries based on the best available registers.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
First of all, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) on her appointment to her role representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission? I thought she did a very good job of answering the questions.
Seventy-five per cent. of churches collect food, 38% provide volunteers, 29% help to manage a food bank, and 21% distribute food vouchers. Churches also work in partnership with organisations such as Citizens Advice and Christians Against Poverty to tackle the underlying causes of food poverty.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that response. As she will know, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the president of Feeding Britain, and I was pleased to be able to launch its latest pilot in Bristol on Friday. I appreciate the work that churches are doing in providing food banks, and the other work that she outlined. What more can they do to lobby the Government on the underlying causes of food poverty that cause people to resort to such measures?
Christians Against Poverty is proactive in trying to tackle the underlying causes by offering free debt advice and financial education programmes, for example. The charity has just appointed Dickens Heath church in my constituency to provide those courses over a wide region, so I suggest that the hon. Lady may like to approach it about doing the same in Bristol.
The right hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that food banks in Stroud are run largely through the churches, but they are under huge pressure due to the number of volunteers they need and the amount of food that they have to collect. Will she have a word with the Government about the sanctions regime, which is one of the major causes of the increase in food bank usage?
As Members of Parliament, it is important that we address the underlying causes. I had a letter from the Trussell Trust just last month, which said that people
“may be reassured to hear that, on average people are only referred to Trussell Trust foodbanks two times in a 12-month period”,
and that the model is
“designed to help people in a crisis”.
As Members, we need to address the nature of the crises that make it necessary for people to get help.
ELECTORAL COMMISSION COMMITTEE
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Regulations (Compliance)
Prior to the general election, the commission produced detailed guidance for political parties to help them comply with their statutory reporting requirements. The commission also engaged with a number of parties to discuss our arrangements for compliance. Its advice service for parties was available and well used throughout the campaign. The commission will publish parties’ spending returns for the general election as soon as is practicably possible once the deadlines for submitting the returns has passed.
I thank my hon. Friend for her response. She should be aware that serious allegations have been made about the use of a call centre in Neath by the Conservative party during the general election campaign. I want to tell the House that I have heard from the Electoral Commission, which has stated in writing that South Wales police are formally considering the allegations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He will know that political parties that spend over £250,000 at the general election have six months to send audited spending returns to the commission, and they will need to include details of all party spending on campaigning at the election.
It is a potential offence under the Representation of the People Acts for there to be paid canvassing on behalf of the candidate, and any allegations would be a matter for the relevant police force to consider.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Rural Parish Growth
Rural parish funding is primarily the responsibility of the individual diocese, but the Church Commissioners have made available national support under the strategic development fund. To date, the fund has provided £34.6 million for 32 projects in 25 dioceses.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I talk a lot about my worries regarding the recruitment of obstetricians in Banbury, but I am equally concerned about recruitment to the rural Church. Can my right hon. Friend help me by explaining what more the Church can do to encourage the right sort of ordinands to apply, and what sort of training can we give them when they apply?
The Church is committed to doubling the number of people entering training by 2020, and it has made very good progress with the push on training ordinands. Since 2014, we have seen an increase of 14% in the numbers training for priesthood, and my hon. Friend may be interested to hear that there has been an above-average number of women—14%—and that 25% of that cohort is under the age of 32.
But would not growth in the Church of England be easier if it moved on from its cruel and outdated approach to both clergy and laity who are in same-sex relationships? Will the right hon. Lady tell the bishops that simply kicking this issue into the long grass for another three years, as the General Synod agreed last week, is just not acceptable?
It is important to see in balance the progress that has been made by the Church. At the Synod, important decisions were made, including on tackling homophobic bullying in Church of England schools—the Church is the largest provider of education in this country—and on taking steps to ban trans and conversion therapies; that was voted on in the Synod. The fact that the Church is making progress in this area is hopefully an indication of more to follow.
Rural parish growth is being handicapped by the fact that the clergy are responsible for six, eight or even more parishes. What efforts are being made to ensure that more people are recruited to the clergy, and that they are directed towards rural parishes?
As I said, the Church has set itself a target—that is the important thing—of doubling the number of people entering training by 2020, and it is making progress by increasing the numbers coming into training.
It is perhaps worth noting that the Church has changed the ways in which people can train for the priesthood. They can train by residential course, as is traditional, but they can also train on the job and through peripatetic learning, which makes it generally easier for a much wider range of people to train for the priesthood, if they feel called to do so.
On the subject of training, does my right hon. Friend not also think that training in human resources and personnel is important? She will know that the Dean of Peterborough, Charles Taylor, was sacked from that cathedral and given only 24 hours’ notice to leave the deanery. Does she think that that was not only unprofessional on the part of the chapter, but very unchristian?
Obviously, I have sympathy with anyone who loses their job, but with the greatest respect, those facts are not quite correct. On 2 October 2016, the dean announced his retirement, and he did not leave the deanery, and was not asked to leave it, until the following February, giving him six months’ residence—
I join the right hon. Lady in that. She was typically gracious in her comments about the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), whom I warmly welcome to her new responsibilities, which, as has been said, have been very effectively discharged today. I also thank the right hon. Lady, who is always courteous, fair and comprehensive in responding to inquiries. I hope that both Members can take a rest from their onerous duties—both their constituency duties, and their duties in respect of the matters about which we have heard this morning.
I begin by adding my personal apology to those who have previously spoken in this House about the tragedy of contaminated blood, and by reiterating that the Government recognise the terrible impact contaminated blood has had on many thousands of lives.
The Government recognise that previous inquiries into the events that led to thousands of people being infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C through NHS-supplied blood or blood products did not go far enough. That is why, on Tuesday 11 July 2017, the Prime Minister committed to establishing a further inquiry so that the causes of this tragedy can be fully understood.
Once established, we want the inquiry to be fully independent. Before it is established, however, there is a need to define its scope and format so that terms of reference may be set by the relevant Secretary of State. Given the tragedy’s impact on so many lives, it is vital that we get this right and that we get it right from the start. I am aware of the concerns that have been raised this week by those affected, by campaign groups and by Members of this House. Indeed, I spoke to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on Tuesday about this very issue.
I reassure the House that the Government have as yet made no final decisions on the scope and format of an inquiry, or on its leadership. I have newly taken on this policy area, and I am keen to make sure that all those affected are given an opportunity to give us their thoughts and opinions. I understand it is normal practice for public inquiries to be sponsored by the relevant Department. However, we are keen to listen to the concerns that have been raised and ensure that they are addressed, which is why we are in discussions with the Cabinet Office and colleagues across Government to ensure that this inquiry does its job, and does it well, under appropriate leadership.
That is why an early consultative meeting was scheduled for today, hosted at the Cabinet Office, and the Secretary of State and Ministers hope to understand further the important views of those affected on the shape and establishment of an inquiry. This is the first of several meetings that the Government would like to offer over the coming weeks. I strongly encourage anyone affected to give us their views. Our door is open to anyone who wants to discuss the inquiry or raise any concerns they may have.
It is important to note that, whatever arrangements are agreed for this independent inquiry, safeguards will be put in place to ensure independence—for instance, by ensuring that the secretary to the inquiry has never worked at the Department of Health or any of its agencies. I reiterate that we are absolutely committed to a thorough and transparent inquiry, and we want to establish the best format and remit. That is why we want to hear as many opinions as possible, and we will work with those affected and Members of this House to do so.
Order. I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity of what she has just said. I should emphasise that this is not an occasion for a general debate on the contaminated blood scandal. We have had that on many occasions, and I have also granted urgent questions previously to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on this matter. The issue is very specifically the locus, the responsibility and possibly, at a stretch, the scope. If Members can tailor their questions accordingly, it would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Although I welcome last week’s announcement of an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal, the vast majority of people affected by this scandal, their families, campaign groups and legal representatives, plus many cross-party parliamentarians, are, like me, dismayed to see the Department of Health leading on the establishment of this inquiry. The Department of Health, an implicated party at the heart of so much that has gone wrong over the past 45 years, must have no role in how this inquiry is established—in my view, it is akin to asking South Yorkshire police to lead an inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster. I regret that the Government have not been able to understand that putting the Department of Health in charge at this time immediately undermines their excellent decision to call a public inquiry last week. In consequence, contaminated blood campaigners boycotted a meeting organised by the Department of Health at 10 am today in protest. Another Department must surely now take over the responsibility for consulting on the remit of this inquiry.
I am pleased that the Government acknowledge the overwhelming and unanimous opposition to the Department of Health consulting on the inquiry, including from more than 250 campaigners and 10 campaign groups, the Haemophilia Society, and the law firms Collins Law and Leigh Day, which together represent 716 claimants. Nevertheless, the Minister needs to address two questions urgently. Why, on Tuesday 18 July, did the Department of Health call a meeting for 10 am today, with just two days’ notice, in central London, and at a time that is most difficult, inconvenient and expensive for people affected to attend? When I spoke to the Minister, she told me that the Government plan to update the House by September and get the inquiry up and running as soon as possible. That had not been made clear to campaigners or MPs, and I wondered why.
I still believe that the case is even more pressing for another Department to take over the work of establishing this inquiry now. That Department must then have a true and meaningful consultation with everyone affected, so that they can be fully involved and have confidence in this public inquiry.
As I mentioned, no firm view has been taken as to which Department will run the inquiry, but as the Minister with responsibility for this area the House would consider it amiss if I were not having meetings and discussions with those affected about the inquiry’s remit. When the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), made the statement to the House about the inquiry, we made it clear that we wanted to progress as soon as possible. The Secretary of State called this meeting because we want to hear directly from the victims about what they want from the inquiry. We are very much in listening mode. A decision has not yet been taken as to which Department will run the inquiry but ultimately, as a Minister, I am accountable to Parliament for what happens in the Department of Health in those areas for which I have responsibility, and I want to be leading from the front, having those discussions.
I thank the Minister for saying that no decision has yet been taken about which Department will run the inquiry. Does she agree that perception is as important as reality in this matter, and therefore will she gain from this occasion a mindfulness of the weight placed by hon. Members, on both sides of the House, on the idea that the inquiry perhaps would be perceived to be more objective if some other Department took the lead?
I say to my right hon. Friend, and I have repeated this in other discussions as well, that the Cabinet Office is very closely involved in this, and this opportunity has given me the time to make that clear to the House. The Government are listening; we want to consult as widely as possible. No decision has yet been taken, but the Cabinet Office is closely involved in all the consultation we are currently having.
It is disappointing that we are here again today, so soon after last week’s announcement. A week ago, this House united in agreement to finally facilitate justice for those tragically affected by this scandal. Yet, as we have heard, in recent days Ministers have reneged on last week’s promises and run roughshod over the affected community.
The Minister of State may shake his head, but that is how the community feel; we have spoken to them. There are three key questions that the Under-Secretary before us this morning must answer, and I hope she will be more forthcoming with much-needed answers than she was to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson).
Understandably, the community have deeply held suspicions when it comes to the Department of Health, so why are Ministers ignoring these concerns and the demands to facilitate an inquiry through another Department, such as the Ministry of Justice? This concern has been well documented in the letter to the Prime Minister by my hon. Friend, the Haemophilia Society, the 10 campaign groups and the law firms Collins Law and Leigh Day. Why does the Minister think the Government can so easily disregard all these people?
Events over the past few days have shown that last week’s promise to consult, engage and listen to the community was simply warm words. The audacious move to hold a roundtable meeting this morning with so little notice to potential attendees from throughout the UK has hindered many from being involved in the process of setting up the inquiry. Will Ministers explain why the meeting was held at such short notice? Who did they plan to invite so that the meeting was properly consultative? In the end, who was scheduled to attend following the mass boycott by many of those invited, who felt that the offer of a meeting was a slap in the face?
It is important that the inquiry is held sooner rather than later, but not at the risk of jeopardising justice. Will the Minister publicly outline, now, the timetable for the inquiry? Do the Government intend to initiate the inquiry in September? If so, why has that not been made public? Why is it that we must bring Ministers to the House again to make this clear? Does that not go against everything we were promised last week? The Minister must remember the promises made just last week and ensure that consultation is central to the whole process; otherwise, the Government will fail this community, who must have the justice they so rightly deserve.
It is in taking forward the consultation that we are delivering on the commitments made last week. We made it clear then that we wanted to get the inquiry going as soon as possible because, frankly, these people have waited long enough for answers. We have not ignored the concerns expressed by many about the role of the Department of Health in the inquiry. I repeat: no decision has yet been made and the Cabinet Office is closely involved in taking the matter forward.
As for the complaints about the short notice of the meeting organised by the Secretary of State this week, it is because we want to hear directly from the people affected as soon as possible that such a meeting was arranged before the House rises for recess. This is just the start. We want there to be good, effective dialogue because, as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and the rest of the House will appreciate, it is important that we all inspire confidence in this process. Given the cross-party support we had when the inquiry was announced, it is disappointing that we are now getting bogged down in the process.
Like others in the Chamber, I welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement last week of a public inquiry. I am encouraged by what the Minister is telling us this morning. One of my constituents who was affected has raised the issue of which Department should take the lead in the inquiry. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm what role victims, families and campaigners will play? How can they best engage with her and the Department at this stage?
We obviously want to hear from as many of the affected people as possible, and we will reflect on their representations. If they want to be very clear and blunt about the role of the Department of Health, we need to hear those representations so that we can make the best decision about who takes forward the inquiry.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for asking this urgent question and pay tribute to her for continuously pushing on this important subject to ensure that we get justice for those so tragically affected. The inquiry must get the right answers, and it must command the confidence of those affected. Will the Minister confirm when a decision will be made as to which Department will lead on the establishment of the inquiry? Does she think it is right for the Department of Health to lead it? Will she confirm that the inquiry will include the families and victims, so that it is sensitive to what they want to know? Will the Government ensure that the inquiry will have to look at all matters, including documents, patient records and things that were altered and hidden, and that the things hidden behind public interest barriers will be opened up, so that light can be shed on this matter, as was the case with Hillsborough?
To be clear, the Department of Health is the sponsoring Department for the inquiry, which will be entirely independent. It is yet to be determined who will oversee it. Clearly, having made the statement and expressed our intention to hold an inquiry, we need to consult to make sure that that inquiry reflects on and answers the hon. Gentleman’s questions. Central to that will be the need for it to be seen to be transparent, open and fully independent. Once it is established, the inquiry will be entirely removed from the Department of Health. That should be enough to inspire confidence, provided we get the consultation right so that we get the remit right.
Two of my constituents who were affected by this terrible tragedy have already contacted me with concerns about the Department of Health’s involvement in the inquiry. This is a unique situation, especially with respect to the time it has taken to bring forward the inquiry, and credit should go to the Government for announcing it. Nevertheless, it is incredibly important that justice is seen to be done, so will the Minister consult members of the all-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood with regard to who she determines are the right people to oversee the scope of the inquiry?
I welcome the Government’s decision to hold this inquiry in response to the campaign led by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). I know that the Health Minister is acting in good faith, but over many years Department of Health officials have advised there is no need for the inquiry and no problem at the heart of the issue. Will she recognise that because of that it would have much greater credibility for many of those who have campaigned on this issue if the sponsoring Department were another Department—be it the Ministry of Justice or the Cabinet Office—if all the staff did not come from the Health Department, and if one of the other Departments could be involved in the consultation, the establishment and the remit. This is no criticism of her—I know she takes this very seriously—but I advise her to hand this one over to another Department and let them run with it instead.
I understand the right hon. Lady’s point and I repeat that the Cabinet Office is closely involved with this at this stage. I think she would consider it most remiss of me were I not to take a close interest as this consultation is taken forward. I cannot say this enough: it is essential that the way in which the inquiry is established inspires confidence in the people affected, and that is what we are trying to achieve through the consultation. As I say, we want to hear from them and we are completely open-minded as to which Department takes responsibility. For now, I want to have those conversations because I want to understand their concerns with what has happened with the Department of Health. As a Minister, I need to give that challenge.
The letter from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) started by expressing gratitude to the Government for the progress made so far. That would have been welcome decades ago, but it is right to acknowledge it now. The letter included three practical points that it put perhaps slightly better than the shadow Minister. The machinery of government cannot work overnight normally and the questions and answers today will help the Government and the Prime Minister decide whether the right solution is, as has been suggested, having another Department or the Cabinet Office take on the consultation with the Department of Health helping as far as it can. The one point for the Department of Health now is whether it can guarantee the third point in the hon. Lady’s letter, which is that no records will be destroyed and that they will all be available to the inquiry.
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. Let me reiterate that we have made many documents available in public, all published, and I can give him every assurance that nothing will be destroyed. Having now taken the decision to hold an inquiry, we must get it right. I am happy to hear from hon. Members at any time if they have any specific concerns about whether they think evidence is being withheld, so that I can satisfy myself that that is not the case.
This is not a matter of challenging the Minister’s personal integrity; that is not in doubt. What is in doubt is the wisdom of the decision to have a Department that is majorly implicated in the concerns about what happened in the past involved at any point in the consultation and in taking the inquiry forward. I hope that before we go into recess an urgent statement can be rushed out advising that the Cabinet Office or the Ministry of Justice will now lead, not only on the outline of the inquiry but on the consultation. Then we can have trust from those who have been involved.
It is quite without precedent at this stage—so shortly after announcing an inquiry—for such a decision to be made. It is normal practice for the sponsoring Department to embark on the consultation, and I repeat that the Cabinet Office is closely involved from the perspective of propriety and ethics and the Department of Health is not working alone.
I warmly welcome the fact that the inquiry is now happening, and that the Government made the decision to undertake it, given the decades that have gone past since this issue first came up and the scandal occurred. Will the Minister reassure the victims that, in terms of any judicial involvement, which is almost certain in this case, the identity of the judge concerned will be selected by the Lord Chief Justice, and not by any Government Department?
Will the Secretary of State assure us that, in the responsibility of this inquiry, there are real powers, which will enable the inquiry to ensure that it has proper access to all the witnesses and documents necessary? That will be vital to developing a just settlement for all those affected and their families. Can we also have an assurance that a fair financial system will be in place to support them, because this could take some time?
We are really looking to settle that question in this consultation. One decision that needs to be taken is exactly what shape the inquiry should take. Clearly, we would normally do this through a statutory inquiry, which would have the powers to which the hon. Lady referred, but equally, Members of the House have made representations that we should have a Hillsborough-style inquiry, which, by definition, would be more fleet of foot. One reason why we are pushing forward with this consultation is to get exactly that feedback, so that we put together an inquiry that inspires confidence among those who have been campaigning for this for so long.
Far from being negative, the Government should be applauded for their very swift action—recently, not in the past. They are listening and have already committed extra compensation, sorted out the complex system that we had before, and announced an inquiry. Can the Minister give an assurance, particularly to my constituents, that the right Department will be chosen, because we do have to give them confidence that we will not all be here again discussing this? We have the chance to sort it out now.
The purpose of the consultation is to allow people to make their points about which Department should be chosen to oversee the inquiry, and then we will respond accordingly. All I can say is: please encourage people to participate in this consultation.
We need to understand exactly what the concerns are and we will only achieve that through dialogue. I can reiterate that we are here to listen to those concerns. Now that we have decided to go ahead with the inquiry, I want to make sure that we get it right.
May I put on record how pleased I am, for my constituents and their families, about the commitment to hold this inquiry? I thank the Minister for listening to me on this yesterday. Does she agree that it is only by listening to those most affected that we can finally get the answers that the victims and their families are seeking?
We can only gain from having dialogue. It is in that spirit that we want to have as many conversations with those people affected as possible. It is disappointing that this morning’s meeting was not attended, but I hope that, in the future, we will have some meaningful dialogue.
May I ask the Minister to reflect on the fact that it is not reasonable to ask campaign groups from Scotland to attend a meeting at two days’ notice? May I also point out that there is a distinct legal system in Scotland? Has there been any thought about that or any discussions with Scottish campaign groups and/or the Scottish Government?
As I have said, that was the first of what I hope will be many conversations. Arrangements were made for the campaign groups in Scotland to dial into the meeting, so that they could participate. I have already started discussions with the Scottish Government about how this inquiry will play out and affect the position in Scotland. I am pleased to say that we are having those discussions in a spirit of healthy co-operation. In particular, we are looking at how we can make use of what has already been gone through with the Penrose inquiry. We will continue to have dialogue, and we are very sensitive to those issues.
At the weekend, I saw my constituent, Sue Wathen, whose case I raised in the debate last week. She was delighted with the Government’s commitment. The one issue that she particularly wants to see considered is that of access to appropriate treatments for victims. For most victims, that is the most important issue. Will my hon. Friend feed that back?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is exactly the sort of thing we need to hear from this consultation when we are setting the scope, and clearly access to treatment is very important. I encourage him to ask his constituent to write in and make those points.
I think there is a consensus across the House, because everyone has made the point very clearly that they do not have confidence in the Department of Health running the inquiry. I expect an announcement from the Minister soon. If the Cabinet Office is appointed, it does have a track record of taking rather a long time with inquiries, so quite often that is used to kick things into the long grass. Can she assure us that it will be a speedy but thorough inquiry?
The speed at which the inquiry reports will be determined by the chairman, because it will be independent—that is the point. At the moment the Department of Health is leading on conversations, but the inquiry will be independent; it will not be run by the Department of Health.
I can give the hon. Gentleman that commitment. I have already discussed this with the Welsh Minister. It is a UK-wide inquiry and health is a devolved matter, so obviously we will need to work closely to ensure that we all respond to what the inquiry finds.
I thank the Minister for her statement and commend the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for her tenacity on this issue. Although only last December the Northern Ireland Health Minister allocated funding for contaminated blood victims to put us on a par with compensation paid on the UK mainland, it is essential that any UK investigation includes the Northern Ireland victims—I am speaking on their behalf—so that it is not done on an England-and-Wales-only basis. Can she confirm that that will be the case?
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Fox-Sky merger. Three weeks ago, I came to the House to set out my initial decisions in relation to the proposed merger between 21st Century Fox and Sky plc. Having referred the bid for a phase 1 investigation by Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority in March, the decision before me was whether or not to refer the merger to a fuller phase 2 investigation by the CMA.
I told the House then that, following Ofcom’s advice, I was minded to refer the merger to the CMA on the grounds of media plurality, and minded not to refer on the grounds of commitment to broadcasting standards. At the same time, I confirmed that I had received a set of undertakings in lieu of referral from the parties and was minded not to accept them.
I also set out the steps that I would follow for the next phase of the decision. I said that, as required by legislation, I would allow the parties to the proposed merger the opportunity to make representations on my position on media plurality. In the interests of transparency and ensuring that all the evidence had been considered, I would allow all interested parties, including the public and parliamentarians, to have their say, particularly on the question of commitment to broadcasting standards. I set last Friday as the deadline.
As the House knows very well, decisions by the Secretary of State on media mergers under the Enterprise Act 2002 are made on a quasi-judicial basis. That means that I must take my decision only on the basis of evidence that is relevant to the specified public interests. I must act independently and follow a process that is scrupulously fair and impartial. I have sought throughout this process to be as transparent and open as possible, and I have kept the House informed at every available opportunity. In keeping with that spirit, I have come to the House today to give as full an update as I possibly can before it rises for the recess.
I can confirm that I have received detailed representations from 21st Century Fox and a letter from Sky, which I will aim to publish, subject to statutory and confidentiality requirements, once I have taken my final decision. I also received a letter from Lachlan and James Murdoch on Friday last week, and a further letter from 21st Century Fox this Monday, which it has since published.
The detailed representations from 21st Century Fox raise a number of points on Ofcom’s public interest test report and the analysis underpinning Ofcom’s recommendations, contesting Ofcom’s view that the transaction raises public interest concerns that justify referral to a phase 2 investigation by the CMA. Neither of the parties has offered any further or amended undertakings in lieu of referral. I have received a substantial number of responses in relation to my referral decision.
In coming to my decision on this case, I must take account of all relevant representations made to me. As a result, my final decision on referral can be made only after I have fully considered all relevant evidence on both the plurality and the commitment to broadcasting standards grounds. Given that the consultation closed only on Friday, there has not been time to consider all the representations, and I am not in a position today to make my final decision on referral.
What I can do, however, is confirm to the House that, having carefully reviewed the parties’ representations, and in the absence of further proposed undertakings, I am currently still minded to refer on the media plurality ground and still minded not to accept the undertakings in lieu of a referral.
To be clear, as I have said, I must fully consider all relevant representations before reaching a final decision, and I will take the time I need to look at the many I have received, balancing the need for careful consideration of relevant evidence with the merger parties’ legitimate need for a prompt decision. However, I have prioritised considering the parties’ representations and the detailed points they have made to me. While some of the points they have raised may benefit from closer examination by the CMA at phase 2 in the event that the merger is referred, there was nothing in their representations that, at this stage, has led me to change my mind about the appropriateness of referral. Unless new evidence from other representations changes my mind in the coming weeks, the bid will therefore be referred to a phase 2 review on at least one ground—media plurality. I thought it would be helpful to set out my current view to the House, given the public interest in this case, and also to the parties so that they can be as clear as possible about my intentions and the likely next steps for this bid.
Bearing in mind the obligation to act promptly as part of this quasi-judicial process, I expect I will be in a position to come to a final decision on referral, including in respect of the broadcasting standard ground, in the coming weeks, and potentially during summer recess. Should this prove to be the case, and as I did previously where stages of the merger have taken place outside of the House sitting, I will write to the parties informing them of my decision, as well as to the Leaders and Speakers of both Houses, to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and to the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, whom I was pleased to see reappointed last week.
As I have said previously, I trust that making this statement to the House gives another welcome opportunity to discuss this important issue, and further cements my undertaking to ensure openness and transparency. I commend this statement to the House.
Mr Speaker, good morning to you. As this is the last day before the recess, I thank you and your staff for the welcome you have given my new colleagues who were elected in the general election.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I am grateful to her for returning to the House before the recess to update us on progress—even if there is not much progress to update us on. The last day of term is sometimes called “Take out the trash day”. Well, this appears to be “Keep the trash in the office day”. Nevertheless, this is one piece of Government indecision that we welcome. It is right that the Secretary of State has taken her quasi-judicial responsibilities seriously. She will be aware that, whatever decisions she makes, there is a strong possibility of judicial review by one side or the other. No doubt that has influenced her decision to tread carefully and slowly, and we respect her for that.
The lawyers at 21st Century Fox have already written a somewhat intimidating letter to the Secretary of State, trying to bounce her into a decision. We know that that aggression is the Murdochs’ modus operandi; we have been on the receiving end of it in this House, and we urge the Secretary of State to keep standing firm. In particular, there is absolutely no need for the Secretary of State to announce a decision during the summer recess. Parliament must have the opportunity to scrutinise any decision she makes. It is not her job to operate to 21st Century Fox’s corporate timetable; it has to abide by the parliamentary timetable. She should demonstrate to the company that she, as an elected representative of the people, is in charge, not 21st Century Fox.
Last time the Secretary of State came to this House, she said that she was minded to refer the bid to a phase 2 investigation on grounds of media plurality, as she said again this morning, but that she was not minded to refer on grounds of broadcasting standards. She then said that she had invited representations on both grounds by last Friday. It is right that a phase 2 investigation on media plurality grounds goes ahead, but the broadcasting standards investigation should go ahead too. Compelling arguments for that have been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). Does the Secretary of State agree that that is as distinguished a cross-party alliance as anyone can imagine? Does she also agree that it is absurd that Ofcom is currently refusing to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North so that he can share his concerns with it?
The truth is that the Murdochs have a history of regulatory non-compliance and of corporate governance failure, and that calls their commitment to broadcasting standards into serious question. Ofcom itself says that there are significant concerns about Fox’s approach to ensuring Fox News content compliance with the broadcasting code. We saw in the phone hacking scandal that senior employees and executives at News International failed to comply with the criminal law, with acceptable standards of journalistic conduct, and, frankly, with basic human decency. We see the ongoing sexual and racist harassment at Fox News in the United States, where very senior employees behaved appallingly over decades and nothing was done—evidence of what Ofcom calls “significant corporate failure”.
Of course, the best way to get to the bottom of this corporate failure would be to proceed with the inquiry that has already been promised and that is specifically intended to look into it—part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. Will the Secretary of State undertake today to get on and just do it? I note that, although the Conservative manifesto promised not to go ahead with Leveson 2, a recent parliamentary answer to me indicated that the Government are still considering the consultation on it. I hope that this is another of the Prime Minister’s many dropped manifesto commitments. It is not too late for the Secretary of State to do the right thing, and if she does go ahead with Leveson 2, she will have our full support.
The influence of the Murdochs on this Government is still a matter of serious concern. Only this week, in a letter to me, the First Secretary of State refused to deny that Rupert Murdoch had asked the Prime Minister to put the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) back into the Cabinet. I expected the allegation to be denied. It was not denied. We will be drawing our own conclusions from that. I have consistently—persistently—asked the Secretary of State to publish the minutes of the meeting between the Prime Minister and Rupert Murdoch in the US in 2016. Will she commit to do that now?
The Secretary of State now has the opportunity to demonstrate that we live in a democracy, not a Murdochracy. Will she now undertake to prove who is in charge by not making any decision until the House returns in September?
The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions and I will attempt to address as many as I can in the time that we have; there were a number of questions there—I am sure he would agree.
I think it is worth my repeating that I am acting in a quasi-judicial basis under the Enterprise Act. We are also reflecting, in our behaviour as a Government, the recommendations of Sir Brian Leveson in his part 1 report, where he was very clear about the way in which Government should operate in relation to media mergers. We have been cognisant of those recommendations throughout.