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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
20 July 2017
Volume 627

House of Commons

Thursday 20 July 2017

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

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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

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1. What plans he has to ensure that (a) environmental and (b) animal welfare standards are maintained after the UK leaves the EU. [900586]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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14. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, which categorises animals as sentient beings, will be part of the repeal Bill? [900599]

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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.

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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?

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Better.

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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?

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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.

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Reports this week show a massive rise in US-style mega farms, suggesting that the industrial farming seen in the US is coming to the UK. What is the Minister doing to resist that trend?

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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

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2. What assessment he has made of the opportunities available for the farming industry after the UK leaves the EU. [900587]

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4. What assessment he has made of the opportunities available for the farming industry after the UK leaves the EU. [900589]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Does the Minister agree that once we leave the European Union we can adopt a new, more effective and more tailored agricultural policy that will benefit farmers in south Gloucestershire and right across the country?

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I very much agree. One of the great opportunities that we will have after leaving the EU will be the ability to design more effective and better targeted domestic policies to support our environment and promote productive farming.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that after leaving the EU we must have a risk-based regulatory system based on sound science to ensure that UK farmers are world leaders?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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3. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on a successor scheme to the Common Agricultural Policy after the UK leaves the EU. [900588]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I hope the right hon. Gentleman’s affection will be reciprocated. We very much hope so.

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It certainly is by Mrs Gove.

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I am very glad to hear it. We are all interested to hear about the very healthy state of the Secretary of State’s marriage, which was not in doubt.

Animal Welfare

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5. What steps he is taking to improve animal welfare. [900590]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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I certainly will. Again—

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I am a little uncertain as to how the animals were impacted on by this matter, but I do not think any further adumbration on the issue is required from the hon. Gentleman; the Secretary of State seems at home, so let us hear from the fella.

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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.

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I am sure that people will be greatly reassured by what the Secretary of State has said today about animal welfare. On the back of that, will the Government commit to increase the penalties for people convicted of animal cruelty?

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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.

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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?

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The law of the land must always be enforced without fear or favour.

Leaving the EU: Food Security

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6. What assessment his Department has made of the potential effect on food security of the UK leaving the EU. [900591]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Rural Economy

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7. What steps his Department is taking to support the rural economy. [900592]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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)

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8. What recent discussions he has had with food exporters in the west country on safeguarding tariff-free access to EU markets. [900593]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Ah, how very apposite; the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) was banging on about fish. I call Mr Marcus Fysh.

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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?

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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.

Farm Subsidies

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9. What his Department’s policy is on farm subsidies after 2020; and if he will make a statement. [900594]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900604]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T5. Although the Government provide support for cattle farmers affected by TB, can the Secretary of State reassure me that goat and sheep farmers in Cheshire will get comparable compensation? [900608]

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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.

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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]

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The right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, is aware that we are working well together in government—[Laughter]—and I do not recognise the description he just gave as fitting any Member of this House.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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1. What discussions she has had with the commission on allegations of illegal funding during the EU referendum campaign. [900612]

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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.

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Can my hon. Friend confirm—or, if not, ask the Electoral Commission—whether it has received allegations of illegal financial funding from Russia to elements of the leave campaign?

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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.

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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?

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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

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2. What recent assessment the commission has made of the effectiveness of the regulation of (a) election expenses and (b) donations to political parties. [900613]

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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.

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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?

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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

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3. What assessment the commission has made of the suitability of the rules on emergency proxy vote applications for people who have suffered a family bereavement. [900614]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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I am more than happy to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion. He is a doughty campaigner on this issue, and I am sure that he will continue that work now that he is back with us in this place.

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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?

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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.

CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Fuel Poverty

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5. What steps the Church of England is taking to tackle food poverty. [900618]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating June Osborne, the Bishop of Llandaff, who was consecrated in Brecon cathedral on Saturday, becoming the second female bishop in the Church in Wales?

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I am quite sure that the Bishop of Llandaff will focus on the needs of people who may suffer from food poverty in her diocese, but I of course congratulate her on her appointment.

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Very deft.

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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?

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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)

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6. Whether the Commission is undertaking a review of political parties’ compliance with electoral regulations during the 2017 general election. [900619]

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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.

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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.

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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.

CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Rural Parish Growth

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7. What funds the Church of England makes available for rural parish growth. [900622]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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rose—

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Oh, very well.

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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?

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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—

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No, he was not. That is wrong.

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Those are the facts I have been given.

I think we should try to leave this term on a happier note, so I conclude by wishing all colleagues a very welcome recess.

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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.

Contaminated Blood

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on the responsibility for establishing an inquiry into the contaminated blood scandal.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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indicated dissent.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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I am keen to hear from all Members of the House and members of the public on how they feel the inquiry should be taken forward. That is the spirit in which we are embarking on this consultation.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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That would be the normal procedure, so yes, I can give that commitment.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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If the consultation with interest groups unanimously says that the inquiry should be held by another Department, will the Minister respect that view?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Health is a devolved matter, so can the Minister give the House a commitment that there will be maximum co-operation with all the devolved institutions across the UK?

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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.

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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?

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I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are very sensitive to the facts as they apply to Northern Ireland, and we will by all means ensure that the requisite dialogue takes place so that we can deal with it sensitively.

Fox-Sky Merger

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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.

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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?

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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.

One of the things that I am required to do under the Enterprise Act is to act without undue delay, in the interests of all parties. That is why I am here today to say that nothing I have seen so far has changed my mind, but I am going to look at all the representations that I have received, which are in the tens of thousands. Many of them are identical, I have to say, but they all need to be looked at, and I will do so in order to see what evidence they provide.

I was also clear that the Ofcom report on the commitment to broadcasting standards test was clear. It was unequivocal. There were no grounds on which I could refer. I am therefore looking at whether new, substantive evidence comes to light following my statement. I will ensure that I consider all the representations. However, in the interests of all parties, I will have to make sufficiently speedy progress in making a decision to ensure that we can deal with these matters in line with the Enterprise Act. That may mean I have to make a decision before Parliament returns, which is why I am in the Chamber today being as open and transparent as I can be. I want to ensure that I am as clear as I can be with Parliament and with colleagues about the situation.

The hon. Gentleman asked a question about the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), whose letter I had sight of this morning. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman has asked for a meeting with Ofcom to discuss its report on the fit and proper test, and I am surprised that Ofcom is not able to meet him to do so. The fit and proper test is not part of what I have to look at—the test under the Enterprise Act is different: it is about the commitment to broadcasting standards, not the fit and proper test. Ofcom has to undertake an assessment of whether a company is fit and proper on an ongoing basis. I am surprised that it is not willing to meet the right hon. Gentleman and other parliamentarians, but I am sure it will have heard my comments on that matter in the House.

All Ministers’ meetings with journalists are minuted—sorry; recorded—and the meetings that they have had are in the public domain.

I will be as open and as transparent as I possibly can be, which is why I am in the Chamber today. I had hoped it would be possible to announce a firmer decision today, but the quantity and volume of the representations received mean that that simply has not been possible.

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May I commend my right hon. Friend for not becoming a party to the socialist vendetta against the Murdoch family? When considering media plurality, will she bear in mind that there were four channels when Sky launched, but that there are now hundreds, and that the real opponent of media plurality is the bloated—taxpayer-funded—BBC, which likes to gives millions of pounds to presenters some of us have never heard of?

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I know you do not want me to stray on to the BBC, Mr Speaker, so I will not respond to that point. The report that I asked Ofcom to prepare as part of the phase 1 inquiry found firm grounds for concerns about media plurality. In the absence of further representations with evidence that might change my view, it is important to say that I am still minded to refer the merger on the grounds of media plurality. Should I make the final decision to refer the merger for a phase 2 investigation, the Competition and Markets Authority will be able to flush out the evidence on all those points.

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I want to join colleagues in wishing you, Mr Speaker, and your excellent staff in the House a very good summer recess. All SNP MPs wish you well for the summer recess. I also want to congratulate England’s women on their resounding win over Scotland last night. The 6-0 result was excellent. We put up a good fight, but unfortunately it was not enough on this occasion.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. She will be aware of my specific constituency concern, given that Sky is the largest private employer there. My constituents who work at Sky will want to know that any deal is properly scrutinised and that their jobs will be secure.

Three weeks ago, the Ofcom report stated that the public had serious concerns about the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands. We share the public’s concern about that and about the dilution of the diversification of media content. At the time, we welcomed the fact that the Secretary of State was minded to refer this to the Competition and Markets Authority on the grounds of diminishing plurality in the UK media. We still believe that that would bolster public confidence, and we very much believe it should happen.

We welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has come to the House and delivered her statement, but we are very disappointed that there has been no final decision. We understand the need to examine representations from all parties, but the fact that a decision is likely to be made during the summer recess speaks to a developing pattern. As we saw during the election, there is a developing pattern in the making of major decisions, and it is not good governance. The decision has been kicked into the long grass, and Members of this House will not get an opportunity to scrutinise it. The Committees of the House have yet to sit, and there should be an opportunity for the relevant Committees to scrutinise any decision made. Plurality and transparency within the media should be one of the Secretary of State’s key motivations, but it seems that a decision will not be subject to maximum transparency when it comes to telling the House. Given that it looks as though she is running away from scrutiny, will she commit to making a decision when the House is back from summer recess so that we can properly scrutinise the deal?

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I join the hon. Lady in congratulating England’s women. I am disappointed for her sake that the wearing of a football shirt did not produce the luck for which she hoped for Scotland’s women, but as an England woman I am delighted by the result.

The hon. Lady has a constituency interest, with Sky being the largest employer in her constituency. I, too, want to make sure that the merger is properly scrutinised and dealt with so that we have certainty for employees such as her constituents. She says that we have shied away from taking decisions with full scrutiny, but that is simply not the case. For example, I originally asked Ofcom to report to me on Sky in May, and I delayed the date of the report until after the election campaign so that I could come to the House. I had hoped to be here today making a final decision, but the sheer volume of representations—all of which I need to go through, even though a large number of them are identical campaign emails—means that I cannot make that decision today. I have to make the decision with due consideration of time, because it is important for the parties to the merger and all concerned that a decision is taken.

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It is, I think, the Secretary of State’s first appearance at the Dispatch Box since the Wimbledon final last Sunday. I am sure she will want to congratulate the great Roger Federer on his new record—the latest of many records established by the great man over the last 14 years.

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I thank the Secretary of State for the openness and transparency at the heart of the statement. Media plurality is vital, and transparency is vital. On pay within the media, would she like to remind all employers that we have equal pay laws which state that people from all backgrounds doing the same job should be paid equally?

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Of course I will join you, Mr Speaker, in congratulating Roger Federer. I was lucky enough to see him play on Friday, and I know you were there as well. I should also congratulate Lewis Hamilton. I was, unfortunately, not able to be at the Wimbledon final because I was at the grand prix, where I was able to congratulate Mr Hamilton personally on his great success. Four British grands prix in a row is a fantastic achievement. I am sure the whole House will join me in celebrating what is turning into the most incredible summer of sport for Britain and British athletes—and Roger Federer. I think he is almost an honorary Brit at this stage.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies); I think Wimbledon is one of the places that have equal pay for men and women. I want to see gender disparity removed from all employers, and I was as surprised as she was by yesterday’s annual report.

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The Culture Secretary has just shown us why she has an enviable job in Government. She is the Minister for tickets, as well as for many other things. May I wish you—and your staff, as seems to be the fashion—a happy summer, Mr Speaker?

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about plurality and the fact that she is minded to refer on plurality grounds. I welcome what she said to Ofcom about meeting me and colleagues regarding the fit and proper issue. She needs to make the decision on broadcasting standards in a timely way, but she needs to look at some detailed issues. When she invited representations, she said in her statement to the House that she wanted new evidence, or evidence on Ofcom’s approach. My argument, and that of my right hon. and hon. colleagues, is that Ofcom’s approach is flawed and that she needs to do what it did not, which is to look at the evidence—including the evidence about Fox and the News of the World—on the basis of the right legal threshold; look at the evidence about James Murdoch, which she asked it to do and it failed to do; and, indeed, look at the wider concerns about Sky News becoming like Fox News. I think that that will take a bit of time.

On those grounds, as well as those of parliamentary accountability—she has shown a desire all along to be accountable and open to Parliament on this issue—the Secretary of State can come back at the beginning of September, after having a good summer and scrutinising these issues, and tell us her decision. That is the right thing to do, and she should not, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East has said, give in to the old tricks of the Murdochs, which are to bully people into making wrong and rushed decisions.

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I should wish you a happy summer, Mr Speaker, as it appears that that is the order of the day. [Interruption.] And Roger, of course.

I have been as transparent as possible. As I said in my statement, I may make a decision over the course of the summer recess, but it may take longer. I am taking the time to consider all representations, including the right hon. Gentleman’s, those of the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) and those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is not in his place. I will look at the evidence and make a decision on that basis.

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In my right hon. Friend’s previous statement, she emphasised that it was indeed the evidence that she would look at, and she mentioned quality not quantity. She has said in today’s statement that part of the reason for the delay is the volume of communication she has received; she mentioned tens of thousands of items. What percentage of those tens of thousands of items were roughly original evidence and what was simply 38 Degrees or similar emails, which are all identical and not original?

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I am not able at this stage to give precise figures, but of the more than 10,000 responses that have already been coded and looked at, a very large number were identical. I said in my previous statement that I would look not at those who shouted loudest but at those who provided the evidence. It is a shame that I opened my inbox one morning to find 10,000 unread messages on this matter, almost all of which were identical. That gets in the way of my being able to be a constituency MP; constituents’ messages could simply get lost in those many tens of thousands. Clearly, however, I have to look at all those representations, but it is a shame that people who, in good faith, want to have their voice heard get drowned out by those who simply press a button and send an automatic message.

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Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that she will not proceed to a decision until she has received a report from the Information Commissioner that the 13 million datasets that will be handed over to Fox as a result of the takeover cannot be misused or misapplied for political purposes? She will know that that concern was raised recently by senior Members of another place.

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I am aware of those concerns. The right hon. Gentleman will know from his previous role as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, which has been replaced by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the terms of the Enterprise Act 2002 on the pieces of evidence I can look at. On the public interest test, it is very clear about what evidence I can look at.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that British broadcasting regulations mean that even a hypothetical Fox News UK would be a very different broadcaster from the US version?

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Broadcasters in the United Kingdom have to comply with the broadcasting code. There are very strict rules and regulations. They are regulated by Ofcom and the broadcasting landscape is very different from that of other countries.

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This is the second urgent question today in which the issues have been openness, transparency and trust. The importance of obtaining that public trust and buy-in to the decision that the Secretary of State is going to make means that it is absolutely essential that it comes back to Parliament. May I also remind the House that the BBC has never been investigated for phone hacking or other breaches of honesty and decency?

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Just to be clear, I have come here of my own volition—this is a statement, not an urgent question—to be as open and transparent as I can. I wanted to be able to make a decision before the House rose for the summer recess, but it simply has not been possible. I will now take time to look at the representations and ensure that we make the right decision. However, my “minded to” decision, about which I came to talk to the House three weeks ago, has not changed.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. Does she appreciate the great concern about the supposed impartiality of the media, which is fostered by independent news stations? That concern is felt by many, if not all hon. Members. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to allay those fears about impartiality in the media?

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All broadcasting, including the BBC now, is regulated by Ofcom. There is an obligation on all broadcasters to be impartial. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman alerts Ofcom to instances in which he feels that that has not been the case, and I would be happy to be copied in so that I am aware of his concerns.

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There is a great deal of disappointment that the Secretary of State has not yet committed to come back to the House to explain matters to Parliament and allow the scrutiny and transparency that she says are so important. The need for speed should not undermine the democratic process, so will she reassure us that she will not allow that to happen?

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I have been as transparent as I possibly can within the confines of the parliamentary calendar. However, the parliamentary calendar cannot be allowed to dictate what I do in my quasi-judicial role as Secretary of State. I will continue to be as open and transparent as I can and I will ensure that Parliament is fully informed of any decisions I make. I am always happy, when Parliament is sitting, to come to the Chamber and for my decisions to be scrutinised.

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I thank the Secretary of State, certainly for the first part of the statement, which was about deferring the decision to refer. If she is having problems with her emails, such as getting 10,000 from 38 Degrees, I will happily take her ticket for Wimbledon so that she can spend more time in the office.

I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The issue is very serious for us all, and certainly for the public. There is clear evidence of significant corporate failure and—dare I say it?—systemic operational problems with corporate governance. That takes much more time to tackle. Given the gravity of the matter, we cannot rely on just receiving a summer postcard notifying us of the decision. I urge the Secretary of State to wait six weeks and have the decency to announce the decision to the House.

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As I have said, commercial decisions, a quasi-judicial process and the terms of the Enterprise Act 2002 are not defined by the parliamentary calendar. If I make a decision before Parliament returns, I will go through the process, as I have done previously, of notifying the Leaders and Speakers of both Houses, the Chair of the Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the hon. Member for West Bromwich East. It may be the case that I make the decision when we return; I simply do not want hon. Members to expect one thing or the other.

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If the Secretary of State had to make the decision today, what is in her mind? Is she for it or against it?

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First, I should have welcomed the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) back to the Chamber—my apologies for not doing so. My decision so far is that I am minded to refer on the basis of media plurality. I have not moved on that, but I have not yet made a final decision.

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Although I appreciate the Secretary of State’s offer of sending me a letter during the recess if she makes a decision, I am sure that she understands that it is never the same as seeing her in person. Will she commit to making herself available to appear before the Select Committee, perhaps in September if it is formed, to discuss her handling of the matter if she has made a decision by then?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his re-election as Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Of course, I am always happy to be called by the Select Committee to give evidence.

Business of the House

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With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for the week commencing 4 September.

Monday 4 September—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 5 September—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill.

Wednesday 6 September—Motion to approve ways and means resolutions relating to the Finance Bill.

Thursday 7 September—Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (day 1).

Friday 8 September—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 11 September will include:

Monday 11 September—Conclusion of Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill (day 2).

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 September will be:

Thursday 7 September—Debate on the transparency of the BBC followed by a debate on 16-19 education funding.

I congratulate all Members from across the House who presented their private Member’s Bills yesterday. I know that many of them are on subjects that Members care deeply about, and I wish them well. I can confirm that, through the usual channels, the Opposition have been offered an Opposition day in the short September sitting, and we also plan to provide further Opposition days in October and November.

Finally, as this is the last business questions before the summer recess, may I send my best wishes to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and colleagues across the House for a productive, and also a restorative, summer break from Parliament? I also thank the hard-working staff of the House, whose efforts in supporting us are greatly appreciated by colleagues on both sides of the House.

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I am sure the whole House will join the Leader of the House in thanking the hard-working staff who look after us so well and wish them a restful time over the summer without us.

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I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I am afraid I have not been informed of any Opposition day—not even a careless whisper. Let me make it clear again: the Opposition had to call a debate on Monday because there was no discussion with the Government on our right to have those Opposition days. The Government need not have had that debate; they could have said, “Yes, have your Opposition day on Monday.”

This is a Government struggling to get a grip. Back Benchers are calling for the sacking of the “donkey Ministers”, with Tory grandees describing them as ferrets in a sack. The EU knows that the current Government are without authority, with the Prime Minister having to call for calm. Is this the image of the country that we want to present to the world?

The Conservatives do not want to debate major policy issues; they would rather discuss the leadership crisis than debate or appoint to their Select Committees. We already have our Chairs in place and have decided our membership of the Committees. The Chairs could have called a meeting this week to set out their programme, and then had a meeting in the next sitting. The public cannot even present their petitions.

In the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), he said:

“I have found a group of middle-aged men protecting their egos in a bid to take over from a lame duck Prime Minister.”—[Official Report, 17 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 628.]

The Leader of the House in her subsequent point of order confirmed that she is one of the group trying to take over, and did not even support her Prime Minister by saying that she was not a lame duck Prime Minister: still the nasty party. This obviously is a Portillo moment: not putting in the phone lines, but a run on SIM cards. I would contrast that and seven years of a Government who are not working for the many with our vision for all stages of life spelled out in 124 pages of a manifesto that is on its third reprint. [Interruption.] I have five minutes.

The electorate believed us, not the robotic tautological mantras. That is why we need an Opposition debate to clarify some myths. Let me list some. Who actually is responsible for the financial crash? Not the Labour party. [Interruption.] Listen. The United States investment bank Bear Stearns collapsed in March 2008. In September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed. The problem was cheap money, house price bubbles, financial deregulation and sub-prime mortgages—remember those?

May we also have a debate on the NHS, please? Last week, a point of order was raised suggesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) had described the NHS as a Labour institution. What she actually said was that it was a Labour-created institution. I refer hon. Members to the excellent book, “Nye: the political life of Aneurin Bevan” by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), and to chapter 10, page 133, which deals with the creation of the NHS. Let us contrast that with the book written by the Secretary of State for Health, who wants to privatise the NHS.

What about a debate on that other myth—namely, that the deficit is larger under a Labour Government? The deficit is the difference between what the Government spend and what they receive. According to House of Commons Library information based on Office for Budget Responsibility and Office for National Statistics figures, the sum of all annual deficits between 1997 and 2010 was £437 billion, or £506 billion after adjusting for inflation. However, the sum of all annual deficits between 2010 and 2017 was £690 billion, or £728 billion after adjusting for inflation.

As women seem to be in the news at the moment, I want to mention some notable women who have passed away recently and to whom we have not yet paid tribute. Simone Veil was born in France and sent to Auschwitz. She carried the camp number that was tattooed on her arm. As a result of her experiences, she was passionate about peace in Europe and became the first female president of the European Parliament and established a woman’s right to choose in France, in very difficult circumstances. Sheila Michaels promoted the use of the title “Ms”. Maryam Mirzakhani became, in 2014, the first woman under 40 ever to win the Fields Medal for mathematics. Mary Turner was a trade unionist who fought for all of us to have a better life. She started her working life as a dinner lady and became president of the GMB, president of the TUC and chair of the Labour party. She was a giant of the Labour movement. She was formidable, and I can only ever remember her smiling. She will be sadly missed.

Those women’s inspiration lives on in the six schoolgirls from the Afghan robotics team who beat the Trump ban and took silver in the first global robotics event, as well as in England’s cricket team in the world cup final and our football team in Euro 2017 this Sunday. I think that the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) played alongside some of the Scottish team. Maybe she should have been in the team! This month we also celebrate 100 years of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. And not only can we drive trains, but we are now driving the Tardis.

I want to thank everyone from the Speaker’s Office, the Speaker and all the Deputy Speakers, the Office of the Clerks, and the Doorkeepers, all of whom make our lives very easy. I also want to thank Hansard, the House of Commons Library and of course all our staff. I say to every hon. Member on both sides of the House that we had a very difficult time during the lockdown and we then went straight into the general election. I know that it has been very difficult, and I wish every Member, new and old, a peaceful and restful summer.

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I join the hon. Lady in celebrating the achievements of women, not least yourself, Madam Deputy Speaker and the shadow Leader of the House. I also welcome the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) to her position as the new shadow Deputy Leader of the House. I wish her every success and look forward to working with her. I want to add one other great lady to those on that lovely list, who I am delighted to join in celebrating. It is Jane Austen, who will feature on the new £10 note. She is one of our greatest living authors—[Laughter.] Greatest ever authors! I think many of us wish that she were still living; I absolutely share that sentiment. It is fantastic that we are at last starting to recognise this.

It has been a problem that the Opposition have sought to criticise process at a time when in fact there has just been business as usual in a new Parliament. The general election took place in June, and we have had 18 sitting days so far. Six of them were given over to the Queen’s Speech debate, whose topics for debate were selected by the Opposition. That leaves 12 sitting days, during which we have had three debates under Standing Order No. 24, 10 urgent questions, 17 Adjournment debates, 19 oral statements and 21 departmental oral questions sessions. In addition, this is our fifth—hopefully feisty—business questions session in the Chamber. I am sure that the shadow Leader of the House will look forward, as I do, to the normal Committees of the House getting up and running as soon as we get back in September.

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May I thank the Leader of the House for her efforts to get business on track as quickly as possible? Connected to that, as Select Committee memberships will finally be settled on the first day back, which is the Tuesday, may we have an assurance that the relevant motion will be tabled at the earliest possible opportunity, namely the Wednesday, so that we can have meetings in the first week back? That would enable us to get approval, possibly even for public hearings in the normal way, in the second week back, rather than having to wait until October.

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We all share my right hon. Friend’s desire to get the Select Committees up and running. He will be aware that the 1922 committee has some say in holding elections for the Conservative Committee members. We are all keen to see those elections, and I am sure that they will be held as soon as possible.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the start of the Daily Mail fortnight. We break for the long summer recess in a matter of hours, but the Select Committees are still not up and running and we still do not know the arrangements for Standing Committees. Every single piece of business has had to be taken on the Floor of the House. Regardless of what the Leader of the House said, we could have done all that—we have always done it. I have never known a Parliament so lax in putting together the normal structures and arrangements of the House, so the Leader of the House should vow and pledge that one of her priorities for when we come back in September will be to get this House back working properly.

At least we made it to the summer recess pretty much intact and with a Prime Minister in place. I do not know a group of people more in need of a summer holiday than this beleaguered Conservative party and its Government. A couple of weeks in the sun might quell their feuding desires and put a stop to the leadership contests. With their daiquiris and margaritas in hand, they might even agree to a temporary ceasefire to some of the briefings and counter-briefings across Whitehall. However, this might be the last summer bar one for the ordinary freedom of movement right across Europe. All sorts of special arrangements might be put in place for our constituents in 2019 as they try to enjoy their time on the costas and the playas but, as the repeal Bill comes forward, we see the reality of the hard Brexit as we move closer to it. We should therefore ensure that we can enjoy our summer holidays unburdened by having to worry about freedom of movement.

I wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all in the Speaker’s Office the best possible summer recess. I extend that sentiment to the Leader of the House, who has been kind and courteous to me since she became the Leader of the House, and to my friend the shadow Leader of the House. We have not done too badly as a team over the course of the past few weeks. I also extend that to staff right across the House. We have become so accustomed to being looked after so diligently and so well, and they have kept us safe. It has been one hell of a year, so I wish my colleagues all the best over the next few weeks.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We all share that desire to come back ready to go, having had a break, and with a new vigour to make the most of leaving the EU in a way that works for the entire United Kingdom. The negotiations will obviously be tough and will require us to work together to achieve success. As I have said both privately and in the Chamber, I am keen to work across the House to enable ways of improving the legislation and to ensure that we get the best possible deal for the United Kingdom.

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Thanks to the Prime Minister’s insistence that the salaries of those who earn over £150,000 working for the BBC ought to be declared, I learned today that a gentleman called Derek Thompson, who apparently plays Charlie in “Casualty”, earns up to £400,000 a year, and yet real nurses earn around £23,000 a year. There is a double—[Interruption.] I am getting to that. There is a double injustice when somebody who makes real life and death decisions on a daily basis earns a fraction of the salary of an actor playing somebody who makes such decisions. May we have a debate as soon as possible about top-slicing £1 billion from the BBC’s taxpayer licence fee revenue and giving it to the national health service and people who really deserve bigger salaries?

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My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We have had a lot of discussions about public sector pay and about people who are just about managing. It has been a difficult number of years in which this Government have been trying to deal with the deficit and the debt that we were left in 2010, and it has been a case of trying to balance giving decent pay rises to our public sector workers, who do such a good job for us, with trying to make sure that we live within our means.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about BBC pay, the pay of actors and so on, and about the Government urging transparency in pay. We were successful with boardroom pay and now with BBC salaries, and all Members will want to see more clarity around what is fair, both between women and men and between different public sector workers.

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The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation this morning delivered a major speech to a think-tank, Reform, setting out major developments in the Higher Education and Research Bill. He did that not having made an oral statement in this House, not having laid a written ministerial statement in this House and not having spent any time in his 32-minute speech yesterday on this area alluding to those developments.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you might think, I might think and many of us might think that that is a contempt and abuse of this House. It is the second year running that this Government have tried to make major statements about higher education on the last day of term, with the intention of evading scrutiny. Will the Leader of the House prevail upon the Universities Minister or another Minister to come to the House today and explain why, for example, the Government will make major changes to the teaching excellence framework, for which they are laying material today, and the Office for Students? [Interruption.] The chuntering Whip says from a sedentary position, “It is far too long”. We have had far too little from—

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Order. We do not need “chuntering” Whips. I know that the question is too long; I am sure the hon. Gentleman will now conclude.

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May we therefore make sure that the Universities Minister or some Minister actually turns up today to say something about that speech and those developments this morning?

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In the hon. Gentleman’s “speech” on the subject, he made a number of very important points. On his substantive point about a speech that the The Government’s record on universities has been exemplary, with more students going to university, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds—up by more than 40% since 2010.

The hon. Gentleman criticises the number of written statements brought forward at the end of term, so I just point out that in 2007 there were 30 written statements; in 2008, there were also 30; in 2009, there were 33; and today I believe there are 22. Of course, as he will appreciate, it is vital for many Departments that they bring forward important—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a serious question. The Leader of the House is answering it. It is simply rude to shout.

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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point that I was trying to make was that, as the hon. Gentleman and indeed all hon. Members will know, it is important that hon Members get the chance to see the last update possible before the House rises, so that they have the latest information, Department by Department.

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Early-day motion 189 on Krishna Maharaj’s federal evidentiary hearing in Florida has the support of many Members.

[That this House recalls parliamentary support over 20 years for Florida and the US reviews of the 1987 murder convictions and sentencing of British citizen Krishna Maharaj, born on 26 January 1939, including asking for the overturning of the initial death sentence, for an appeal on the grounds of innocence and defects in the investigation, of ineffective defence representation and of significant concerns in the prosecution, including critical non-disclosures and of questions about the conduct of the original judges; welcomes the recent Federal Appeal Court order for a full evidential hearing by the Federal Court in the state of Florida; notes the helpful initiative by hon. Members and Members of the House of Lords for the Amicus Brief in support of Reprieve and its director Clive Stafford Smith who are making the case for the issue of innocence to be sufficient reason for Krishna Maharaj to be released after 30 years of imprisonment; and trusts that the evidence and arguments for innocence will now be considered effectively and fairly.]

May I suggest to the Leader of the House that the Foreign Office be encouraged to work with Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve to help the Americans to decide that innocence is a sufficient ground to release Krishna Maharaj after 30 years, after they have had the hearing?

On early-day motion 207, can we have a debate on leasehold and commonhold legislative reform and sector regulation? We need to make sure that responsibility for commonhold moves from the Ministry of Justice to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, that the abuses of the leasehold sector are stamped out and that effective advice is given both to those who are doing the abuse and to those who will benefit when that abuse has ended.

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I am not completely aware of the issues that my hon. Friend raises, but he will be aware that there is a pre-recess debate this afternoon. He might want to raise those issues then.

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Dangerous driving is a blight on the roads of my Bradford South constituency. The consultation of the Ministry of Justice on strengthening the punishment for drivers who kill or seriously injure others on our roads closed on 1 February 2017. Is the Leader of the House aware of when the outcome of that consultation will be published? Will she commit to making parliamentary time available to debate that important matter?

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The hon. Lady raises a critical point about dangerous driving. She is right that many of us have experienced the awful tragedies and outcomes of dangerous driving. On her behalf, I will look into when we can expect to see a response.

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The United Nations Human Rights Council special rapporteur on Sri Lanka published a report following his recent visit to that country, in which he described progress on fulfilling resolution 30/1 as “slow” and the use of torture in Sri Lanka as “endemic”. Can we have a debate in Government time on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka in the lead-up to the next session of the UNHCR in the autumn?

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My hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this area, and I congratulate him on his new position as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group. The Minister for Asia and the Pacific, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), has registered our serious concerns about the special rapporteur’s findings with the Sri Lankan high commissioner this week, and the FCO’s annual human rights report, which is published today, sets out our full assessment of the situation. I assure my hon. Friend that we continue to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to deliver against all their UN Human Rights Council commitments.

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News has recently emerged that the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been released after 10 years’ incommunicado house detention. He appeared at a mass on 16 July, following an alleged reconciliation with the Eritrean Government. The mass was billed as a celebration of that reconciliation and as an indication of his release from detention but, according to local sources, Patriarch Antonios was surrounded by guards, did not speak at the event and has made no statement about the supposed reconciliation. That has led many human rights organisations to believe that Patriarch Antonios has not been released but, rather, that his sudden reappearance is an attempt by the Eritrean Government to alleviate international pressure. Will the Leader of the House allow for a statement on the discussions between the Government and the Eritrean Government on how Patriarch Antonios’s detention still continues?

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The hon. Gentleman, as he often does, raises an important human rights issue, which I urge him to take up at the next Foreign Office questions as a very specific issue to which those Ministers will be able to respond.

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Although I welcome the clarity we now have on phase 2b of the High Speed 2 rail project, I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree it is unacceptable that my residents, some of whom have lived in the same home for more than 40 years, are being offered just two thirds of the value of their property. Will she therefore consider a debate in Government time immediately after the summer recess to scrutinise the property compensation schemes that are now on offer?

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My hon. Friend raises the important issue of compensation for those affected. I have taken up a number of cases in my South Northamptonshire constituency, so I am very sympathetic to her. I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has said that he will take up individual cases, and I urge my hon. Friend to contact him about her specific points.

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Two women a week are murdered at the hands of their current partner or ex-partner, many of whom have had previous histories of abuse and stalking. The Home Office produced a consultation paper last December, recommending introducing new legislation, including a stalkers register. In this year’s Queen’s Speech, the issue of domestic violence was mentioned, yet we have seen no legislation about this issue nearly a year after the consultation. Is it not about time the Government found time for us to debate this issue and allowed the House to vote on it, because we face a very serious situation?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is an incredibly serious issue. He will know that tackling the horrors of domestic violence and domestic abuse is an absolute priority for the Prime Minister, and that the Queen’s Speech mentioned that we intend to introduce legislation on this issue in this Session.

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I know that the Leader of the House agrees with me that strengthening families and giving every child the best start in life are very much the business of government, given the cost of family breakdown and the impact that the early years and family relationships can have on children’s mental health and life chances. A number of Conservative colleagues will be producing a families manifesto in the first week of September, immediately after the recess, providing the Government with practical and realistic policies that could make a significant difference in this area. Could parliamentary time be found to debate this important issue in the days after the recess?

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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and I commend her on the work she is doing. She and I share a passion for ensuring that all children have the best start in life, and I would love to see her families manifesto when it is published. She will be pleased to know that all Departments are committed to making progress, including the Department of Health, which has committed an additional £1.4 billion for mental health services for children, young people and new mothers for this Parliament. That will make a huge difference to families.

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We are now too late for the implementation of the draft Value Added Tax (Refund of Tax to Museums and Galleries) (Amendment) Order 2017, which was announced as a provision in the Budget in March 2016. Glasgow Women’s Library in my constituency applied for this and was informed in September last year that it was successful, but it is still waiting for the Government to act. This measure was supposed to come into force in June. The library stands to lose tens of thousands of pounds if it cannot claim back and backdate under this provision the VAT for capital works it has carried out. Will the Leader of the House give some certainty as to when this statutory instrument will come before the House and when other galleries and museums listed under early-day motion 224—about 30 across the whole UK—will actually be able to make use of this provision?

[That this House notes that the draft Value Added Tax (Refund of Tax to Museums and Galleries) (Amendment) Order 2017 has not yet been laid before the House; understands that the draft Order was announced in the Budget on 16 March 2016, the consultation closed on 21 April 2017 and that the Order was due to come into force under the negative resolution procedure on 1 June 2017; believes that the Order will provide revenue that is vitally important to many museums, including the Athelstan Museum, Burns House Museum, Callendar House, Cumbernauld Museum, Dean Castle, Dick Institute, Elgin Museum, Glasgow Women’s Library, Kilsyth Heritage, King’s Own Royal Regiment Museum, Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery, North Lanarkshire Heritage Centre, the Pier Arts Centre, Pittencrieff House Museum, the Regimental Museum of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, Shotts Heritage Centre, Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, Stockwood Discovery Centre, Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life, the Fergusson Gallery, Wardown Park Museum, the West Highland Museum, the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, the Royal Academy of the Arts, the Royal College of Music, the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Towner Art Gallery, the University of Nottingham and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; and calls on the Government to lay the Order for the approval of Parliament prior to the Summer recess.]

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The hon. Lady is raising an important point, which clearly has significant relevance in her constituency. If she would like to write to me about it, I will be able to look into it further for her.

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Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on electoral fraud, including double voting? Understandably, all MPs have a personal interest in this, especially if their constituency is a marginal one. I realise that the Electoral Commission watches us carefully, but such a debate just might concentrate minds a little.

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This is a very important point. We have one of the oldest and proudest democracies in the world, and it is important that we continue to have rigorous electoral processes that cannot be fraudulently abused. I am sure my hon. Friend will find a way to have that debate and I encourage him to do so.

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The Leader of the House will doubtless be aware that today the Transport Secretary has issued a written statement saying that electrification of the line between Cardiff and Swansea will now not be taking place. That has huge significance—not just for my constituency, but for constituencies right across the south Wales belt. Will she find time when we come back for the brief period before the conference recess for the Transport Secretary to come to the Floor of the House to explain why this promise to the people of Wales has been broken, despite multiple promises having been made by him and the Welsh Secretary?

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Our decisions on electrification reflect how advances in technology are enabling a different approach that is less disruptive to passengers and to communities. Specifically on the Cardiff-Swansea route, although we are not proceeding with electrification at the present time, we are working to build a better and bigger railway for Wales so that passengers in Wales will see the benefits of electrification sooner, when brand new and more spacious—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) is clearly not listening. Perhaps he does not want to hear the answer, but there is a clear answer: there will be benefits for passengers in Wales as a result of brand new and more spacious bi-mode, intercity express trains, which will begin to be introduced in October 2017. These state-of-the-art trains will make journeys faster along the whole route sooner, without the need for wires and gantries and the disruption involved in erected them. So the advantages for passengers will be felt sooner, and that is as a result of changes in technology.

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My right hon. Friend will agree that the safeguarding of democracy is vital at all levels. Will she therefore please make time for a debate about the dangerous antics of Taunton Deane Borough Council and its leader, John Williams? His council is trying to force a merger that has not been properly consulted on and certainly does not have universal approval. Frankly, this is municipal rubbish! May we please have time for a debate, because this sort of carry-on cannot be tolerated? We are proud of two levels of government and we are proud of the job they do. This is being run through roughshod, so Government time should be made available to discuss this important issue.

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My hon. Friend again raises an important local constituency matter; he may well wish to seek an Adjournment debate to explore it further.

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Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), may we have an early debate about rail transport? The rail system from Rochdale is grossly inadequate—the quality and quantity is not acceptable for a town such as Rochdale. We need an early debate so that the Secretary of State for Transport can explain the Government’s strategy for not only Wales but the north of England.

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I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the Government have put billions into new road and rail projects, and we continue to do so. He and his Front-Bench colleagues may wish to choose an Opposition day opportunity to debate that matter, but I have tried to explain to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) that we are looking at what improvements technology can offer ahead of the disruption that the installation of electrification would undoubtedly cause for passengers.

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I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the problem with sleep-in shifts for careworkers and of the looming crisis for several of the companies involved because Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is demanding extremely large payments. There is no time for a debate or statement on this issue, so will she raise it with her colleagues in Government—in the Treasury and, indeed, in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—to ensure that this crisis is averted?

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My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the careworkers who do such a fantastic job looking after elderly and disabled people. He is right to raise this matter and it is certainly something the Department are looking at carefully.

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May we have a debate in Government time on UK relations with Turkey? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has failed to meet the two-month deadline for responding to the Foreign Affairs Committee report published on 25 March, and the Select Committees are not likely to be able to deal with the matter for some time, so it is incredibly important that the Government explain whether they support the mass arrests, purges and arrests of Members of Parliament currently going on in Turkey. They must not hide behind the fact that we have not yet set up the Select Committees.

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The hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to raise that issue at the next Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. With the House rising today, he may also wish to raise it at the pre-recess summer Adjournment debate this afternoon. Other than that, he can of course write to the Department and seek their specific advice.

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The staff of Parliament have quite rightly been thanked by many Members today, but I have heard a rumour that the police officers who serve us so well and are part of the parliamentary family may be moved after a five-year stint. Many right hon. and hon. Members value enormously the continuity of service that we get from the police constables, so will my right hon. Friend use her influence and make every effort to ensure that those who have served us for a long time are able to stay?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right to mention the police and how well they look after us in this place. Our thanks and gratitude extend to them. On the other hand, he will appreciate fully that how the police operate on the Palace grounds is an operational matter. Although we are involved as an interested party, it is nevertheless for the police to decide how to manage their operations.

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I have repeatedly sought clarity on rail electrification to Swansea. A succession of Transport Secretaries and Secretaries of State for Wales responded that I had only to look out of the train window to see that electrification was on its way. Today, sneaked out in a statement, came the news that my worst fears have been realised and rail electrification is not coming to Swansea. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Transport Secretary comes before the House to explain to my constituents and the people of Wales why he has misled them on this issue?

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I say very gently to the hon. Lady that there is no such thing as sneaking out a statement. It is a statement; it is designed to inform the House. Statements come out before the House rises because all Secretaries of State and Ministers are conscious of the need to keep the House informed as far as possible while it is sitting.

On the hon. Lady’s substantive point, as I have said to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) the point is that as technology changes there are ways to improve passenger services earlier for Welsh train users, so it is vital that we seize those opportunities to deliver improvements earlier in a more cost-effective way and with less disruption to passenger services.

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Many of my constituents were delighted to see the Queen’s Speech and the announcement of trade, agriculture and fisheries Bills, as were many constituents across the west country. However, the Question Times for the Departments for Transport, for Exiting the European Union and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been some of the shortest in this Parliament. Given that she is the former Environment Secretary, will the Leader of the House consider extending the time allowed for those questions during this important time as we leave the EU?

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My hon. Friend shares my passion for the success of the agricultural and fishing sectors as we leave the EU. There are huge opportunities there and he is certainly a keen advocate for them. All the timings for oral questions are kept under review and they are adjusted as demand changes, so I can assure him that that will be considered in due course.

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The Leader of the House has already heard from my colleagues about the fury there is in south Wales and Rochdale—and also in the east midlands, in Nottingham—about the Government’s reneging on promises that were made about rail electrification. Clear promises were made: it was not just, “Oh, it might happen.”

Communities were promised, rail communities were promised and MPs were promised and the Secretary of State should come to this House and explain to each and every one of us why he has gone back on that promise. I urge the Leader of the House to speak to the Secretary of State for Transport and tell him that he needs to make a statement at the earliest opportunity. We have had investment denied us; it is not good enough. The Government have broken their promises and they should stop it.

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I am slightly astonished that Opposition Members do not seem to appreciate that the decisions on electrification reflect how advances in technology are enabling a different approach that is less disruptive to passengers and communities. In particular, bi-mode train technology offers seamless transfer from diesel power to electric that is undetectable to passengers and means that we no longer need to electrify every line to achieve the same significant improvements to journeys. Opposition Members should welcome the fact that technological advances mean less disruption to passengers and that improvements can be delivered sooner in the same way as those offered by electrification.

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I was disappointed that Monday’s debate on abuse and intimidation during the recent general election did not happen as we ran out of time, not least because I wanted to raise the issue of graffiti on bridges and walls in my constituency. Will the Leader of the House update us on whether we will have another opportunity for a debate in Government time?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this matter. It was a very important debate and it was disappointing that the Opposition chose to squeeze it out earlier this week. The vile abuse that candidates suffered during the election is unacceptable and a threat to our democracy. We will look to reschedule the debate as soon as possible after the summer recess, possibly as early as September.

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On rail electrification, it is clear that the Transport Secretary has broken the word of the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who gave us an assurance that there would be electrification. Larger, heavier diesel trains will now run to Cardiff and switch on their diesel engines there, which is not environmentally friendly.

Will the Leader of the House admit to the House that the Public Accounts Committee has the solution to the problem? The project is £2 billion over budget and has been delayed by a year because the Department for Transport bought the trains before laying the track and did not anticipate that there were bridges in the way. The incompetence of the Transport Secretary has led to a slap in the face for the people of Swansea and Wales. Will the Leader of the House admit it and will she get her colleague to answer questions in this Chamber, rather than pushing out, under the cloak of darkness, stupid press releases that mislead people?

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I do not for the life of me see why the hon. Gentleman thinks that earlier improvements for passengers with less disruption can possibly be a slap in the face. The Department for Transport is acknowledging that technology is enabling it to deliver less disruption and earlier improvements for passengers.

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Growing public anger at the BBC is made worse by the fact that the public know that the BBC is funded by a highly regressive television tax. May we have an early debate not just on the accountability of the BBC but on its funding, with a view to getting rid of the television tax, which at the moment results in 10% of all cases in the magistrates courts and particularly impacts on women? Some 70% of the victims of that tax are women.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that as a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee the BBC has a responsibility to set an example for others and lead the way in promoting equality in the workplace. He might well wish to have a further debate on how the licence fee is working, and he will be aware that the recent debates on the BBC charter took up that very issue. If he wants to seek further discussion, he can do so in Westminster Hall or through an Adjournment debate.

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My 18-year-old constituent is severely diabetic and has been battling for a much-needed personal independence payment for more than two years. He has won two appeals, but the Secretary of State is challenging the decision in court. My constituent wants to live an independent life and experience university, in common with his peers. May we have an urgent debate in Government time to address the effect of this Government’s unfair practices towards those with disabilities?

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That sounds like a very sad case. All Members have cases that they take up on behalf of their constituents, and from this Dispatch Box I urge people with similar problems and challenges to talk to their MP, because we can often help in individual cases. I am sure that the hon. Lady is taking this up with the Department separately. As for the bigger picture around disability, the hon. Lady will be aware that Conservatives are absolutely committed to supporting disabled people, and spending on disability benefits will be higher in every year to 2020 than it was in 2010. We spend more than £50 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions, which is up more than £7 billion since 2010. I think we have a good track record, but I absolutely accept that there are always individual cases that we as representatives need to take up on behalf of our constituents.

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Like all hon. Members, I care passionately about the future of my local hospital. The hospital trust in Telford has spent four years deliberating over plans to invest in the future of hospital services, but, regrettably, the trust has been paralysed by indecision, bureaucratic incompetence, and a complete failure to communicate with my constituents. The proposals have descended into disarray, with local MPs, councillors, and clinicians losing confidence in the management’s ability to deliver. Can we please have an urgent debate to consider this important issue?

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I know that that matter has been of great concern to my hon. Friend, and I commend her for raising it. I believe that, recently, she met the senior responsible officers of NHS Future Fit to discuss progress and a revised timetable. I understand that the Future Fit programme board will meet on 31 July to hear the outcome of the independent review and the work relating to the women and children’s impact assessment. The Joint Committee will then meet on 10 August to consider the recommendations made by the board and the next steps, including public consultation. She is absolutely right to keep raising this matter.

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Can we have a debate on nuclear disarmament? My constituent, Brian Quail, is currently being held at HMP Low Moss, and his colleague, Angie Zelter, in HMP Cornton Vale after they took part in a peaceful protest against the nuclear weapons store at Coulport. Does the Leader of the House recognise the moral outrage against weapons of mass destruction that drives campaigners to these lengths? Can this House be given the opportunity urgently to reconsider the immoral and unjustified renewal of Trident?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in this place, we absolutely do not interfere with matters of criminal justice. If someone is involved in breaking the law, it is very important that it is the police who decide what happens to them. On the substantive point about nuclear disarmament, I do not share his view. My personal view, and the view on the Government Benches, is that a nuclear deterrent is exactly that—a deterrent. It is an ultimate insurance that protects our people, and the security of the people is the first duty of any responsible Government.

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I am sure that Members on both sides of the House are aware of this behaviour, but, over the past year, I have had to dial 999 three times in my surgery to remove people. I have had death threats—a gentleman was convicted of harassment. Only a week ago, walking down a high street, someone swore at me. What really has annoyed me, though, is what happened last Friday. I had a surgery in which three people were being disruptive. I asked them to leave. One stood face to face with me, like a prize fighter, threatening to hit me, and he called me a monkey. That sort of behaviour is not acceptable. What would have happened if a Member of Parliament had done that to a constituent? I absolutely urge the Leader of the House—I know that Members on both sides suffer from this—to ensure that we have this debate on abuse. In the general election, I was assaulted when defending a female Conservative candidate. This sort of behaviour has to end.