House of Commons
Thursday 26 October 2017
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Fly-tipping on farmland is a serious antisocial crime that damages the environment, human health and farm businesses, so tackling it is a priority for this Government. So far, we have strengthened the ability of the Environment Agency and local authorities to seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. We have also given local authorities the power to issue fixed penalty notices. We are working with the National Farmers Union to increase reporting and to better target enforcement. I also recognise that this is a devolved issue, so my hon. Friend will be working with Natural Resources Wales.
Minister Coffey is a bit coughy this morning, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of tackling such criminality, so we are working closely with the Environment Agency to investigate further ways of doing that. We will continue not only to work with the police, but to create new powers so that we can get rid of criminals from the waste industry entirely.
Fly-tipping is a curse not only on farmland in Huddersfield, but up and down this country. It is usually associated with people who operate just above the law. They hire out skips, and then take the money, evade landfill duty, and tip the waste everywhere. We must have an Environment Agency with the powers and resources to do something about that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We do work closely with the police in making fly-tipping a focus for the Environment Agency. I also draw to the attention of the House the fact that we are continuing to do more to help councils to tackle litter more widely. As we announced yesterday, we have plans not only to double fines, but to make it easier to tackle motorists who throw litter out of cars. The Government are very focused on this, and we are working with councils to make progress.
I support the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). The trouble is that the fines are not heavy enough, which makes it easier to tip on farmland than to go to a waste disposal site. Unless we get some teeth and impose really heavy fines, we will not stop these people, who leave farmers with the huge problem of getting rid of the waste.
I recognise what my hon. Friend says. It is key that we continue to do more to work with farmers at a local level to ensure that their farms have better barriers against such access. Nevertheless, this is about targeting, getting intelligence, ensuring that we follow up people who are dumping, and using the full force of the law to deter such behaviour.
The Minister has outlined the importance of the issue and the role of the local councils. Will she indicate what incentives local councils can make available to homeowners to encourage them to use waste recycling centres, rather than harming agricultural land and farmers?
This matter is devolved in Northern Ireland. We are issuing new guidance with the Department for Communities and Local Government to try to clarify what councils should and should not be charging when people want to use the recycling centre. I know that councils want to do the right thing. Some £800 million is spent every year on tackling litter and fly-tipping, which is why we want to work with councils and the Environment Agency to make improvements.
The Warwickshire NFU convened a roundtable on this matter last month after a terrible spate of fly-tipping. It has two asks of the Minister: can we provide more briefing for magistrates so that fines are proportionate to the crime; and can we extend fixed penalty notices to the statutory duty of care for the disposal of waste on households?
Zero Waste Scotland estimates that Scotland’s deposit return scheme will save Scottish councils around £13 million a year in fly-tipping, litter-picking and kerbside recycling costs. Has there been any attempt to conduct a similar analysis in England?
We have issued a call for evidence on reward and return schemes for things such as plastic bottles. An independent committee will be looking at that. I know that the Scottish Government have asked our Department to work with them on their proposals. We are looking carefully at the report that came out a couple of weeks ago, but trying to extrapolate economic benefits on the basis of a handful of councils is not necessarily a straightforward exercise.
We are consulting on proposals to introduce a total ban on UK ivory sales, which we hope will contribute to eliminating elephant poaching. We will, however, consult on certain narrowly defined and carefully targeted exemptions.
The decline in the elephant population, fuelled by poaching for ivory, shames this generation, so I welcome the Secretary of State’s swift and robust action to address the issue. How quickly will the recommendations be implemented so that we can ensure we are doing everything possible to protect this magnificent species?
I thank my hon. Friend, as I know that she has been campaigning with young people across Wealden to ensure that there is heightened awareness of the direct link between the ivory trade and illegal poaching. We are hosting the illegal wildlife trade conference next year, and we will ensure that we work with countries, particularly in east and south-east Asia, to close down this evil trade.
I met some Angolan MPs last week who were unaware of a recent report stating that Angola’s elephant population has fallen from 200,000 to 3,400. Is not it the case that the world simply is not doing enough to protect the African elephant, as well as other animals and environmental species? We have to do more to save the planet, and the African elephant is a start.
I completely agree. We lose 20,000 of these magnificent creatures every year. It is simply not good enough for the world to wash its hands and say that this is a responsibility of only developing nations. We have to act together globally to ensure that the threat to this magnificent animal is properly met.
As my right hon. Friend examines the answers to the welcome consultation, will he disregard the scare stories being put about by certain parts of the antiques industry that say that old and much-valued artefacts will be destroyed under his proposals? That is not the intention. The intention is much more important—it is to help an iconic species that is on the verge of the risk of extinction.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. His campaigning has been inspirational, and he is right to call out the one or two isolated voices who have attempted to generate scare stories about our consultation. Significant organisations across the cultural, antiques and art market sector have welcomed the nature of the consultation, and I am grateful for their constructive approach.
Will the Secretary of State take it as a representation from me that the 1947 cut-off date is too late, and that he should also look carefully at banning the sale of antique ivory? Such a cut-off date could lead to the import of ivory that is purported to be antique, but is actually new.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is no reference to a 1947 date in the consultation, as had been mooted at one stage. Our view—I think it is also his—is that it is much easier to have a total ban for enforcement purposes, because there are unscrupulous individuals who will attempt to claim that artefacts are antiques when, in fact, they are nothing of the kind.
Beer is the UK’s third largest food and drink export with a value of nearly £600 million last year. Last week, I visited the Griffin Brewery in Chiswick, run by Fuller Smith & Turner, to launch a new British beer export strategy with the British Beer and Pub Association. Fuller’s now exports to more than 80 countries and is one example of our successes with exports. We have regular discussions with the Treasury on the beer industry’s contribution to our local economies and communities.
The Minister will be pleased to know that we have had some initial success in promoting and exporting Shropshire beer to Poland, but more needs to be done over the small breweries relief scheme to help breweries such as Battlefield Brewery in my constituency to unlock the potential for additional exports. Will he continue to press the Chancellor on this important project?
There are some great success stories in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in Shropshire. I did in fact discuss the small breweries relief scheme with the British Beer and Pub Association last week. I am aware that many microbreweries feel constrained by the current regime and have argued for changes to it. While this is obviously a matter on which the Treasury is the policy lead, I can say that we have ensured that those representations have been highlighted with the Chancellor.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for raising this issue. St Peter’s Brewery in my constituency has built up a very good export business over many years. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital post Brexit, if we are to open up new markets and create new jobs, that such obstacles are removed?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I attended an event that we hosted in our embassy in Japan just last year to promote a range of British drinks, including British beers. They are one of our great success stories. The industry aims to increase its exports by around £100 million a year over the next few years, and there are some great success stories that we should champion.
Animal Cruelty: Sentencing
I had positive discussions with the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice prior to my announcement on 30 September that the Government plan to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from the current six months to five years’ imprisonment.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Recent research from Battersea has shown that two thirds of the British public would indeed like sentencing to be increased, as the average sentence was only 3.3 months in 2015 once credit for a guilty plea was taken into account. However, will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that the courts have indicated a desire for those increased sentencing powers such that they will actually get used once they are in place?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. He has a distinguished legal career of bringing prosecutions against individuals who have been responsible for acts of animal cruelty, and we are all grateful to him for his work. It is the case that the courts have indicated that there are specific, exceptional cases of genuine sadism for which a penalty greater than that of the maximum six months is required.
I welcome this proposal, having secured a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall in the last Parliament. This issue is extremely important, particularly in relation to dog fighting, which is an appalling act of animal cruelty. During last year’s debate, it was said that the policing of such crimes and the funding for that need to be increased. What is the Minister planning to do in that regard?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Of course, sentencing decisions and, indeed, policing matters are devolved, but one thing we do at DEFRA is to work closely with the Home Office to ensure that examples of animal cruelty that need to focus the minds of police forces on more effective investigation are at the heart of our shared conversations.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have similar sentences, and it is also the case that similar sentences apply in other Commonwealth jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is a sign of our capacity to learn from other nations, both within and outside the European Union, about what a genuinely progressive approach to animal welfare might be.
We do not carry out post-mortem examinations on every badger removed in cull operations. However, we know from previous research that the prevalence rate of the disease in badgers in the high-risk area is typically around 30%. However, we do want to monitor trends as the cull is implemented, so a small sample of badgers is being collected and tested this year to explore different testing protocols that could be deployed to track the prevalence of TB in badgers culled in future years.
The basis for the roll-out of the cull was the randomised badger culling trials carried out under the previous Labour Government. Those trials showed that there would be a reduction in the disease through a badger cull. Indeed, research carried out earlier this summer by Christl Donnelly has confirmed that there is a 58% reduction in the disease in cattle in Gloucester and a 21% reduction in Somerset. That is within the range we would expect, based on the RBCTs.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think I can dine out on that for a few more days.
I hear what the Minister says, but now that the culls are coming to an end, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 33,000 badgers were caught and dispatched in the roll-out. Is he seriously telling me that we will not test a significant proportion of those badgers so that we can at least have some scientific efficacy and know that there is some sense in what the Government are trying to do, even though Labour Members totally oppose it?
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my earlier answer, he would know that I said precisely that we want to monitor trends in this disease, which is why we are starting to collect and test a sample of badgers to develop these protocols. A lot of post-mortem analysis was done during the RBCTs, and we know from that—it was not conclusive—that the typical prevalence rate of the disease in the badger population in the high-risk area is 30%.
Leaving the EU: Labour Supply
We are working with the farming and agriculture sector to assess the impact on this industry of leaving the EU. Following the decision to close the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in 2013, DEFRA set up the SAWS transition working group, which brings industry and the Government together to monitor seasonal labour. I met this group on 7 September. DEFRA is working with the Home Office to ensure that workforce requirements are considered in any future immigration system.
We regularly meet the SAWS transition group, as I said, and we work closely with Home Office officials on this. The Home Office has established a review by the Migration Advisory Committee. Indeed, its call for evidence closes this week—on 27 October. Over the past month, we have been encouraging all interested parties to contribute to that review.
There is a lot of discussion about the farming and agricultural sector but, as the Minister will know, the Department is also responsible for food and drink manufacturing, which is the largest manufacturing sector and also a very large employer. Will he assure me that that sector will not be overlooked?
I assure my hon. Friend that I regularly meet food processing companies and food manufacturers. He is right that some sectors, notably fish processing and meat processing, have become very reliant on east European labour, particularly over the past 10 years. We are ensuring that all the information provided by those sectors is fed back into the review that is being undertaken by the Home Office.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are planning for all scenarios. We have been very clear that we want a comprehensive free trade agreement with our European partners, and we want a close partnership to be put in place. However, if we want to be serious around a negotiating table, we obviously have to prepare for everything, and that is why we are also preparing for a no-deal scenario.
New Zealand has had an effective seasonal migrant workers scheme for farms for many years. Will the Government, at the very least, look at that? Will they also note that New Zealand has expanded its scheme to include the tourism sector, and especially the fishing sector? Such a scheme would prevent boats on the west coast of Scotland from being tied up due to lack of crews, especially at a time when we often see fine crews prevented from coming from the Philippines or Ghana. Due to barmy Home Office rules, the boats are tied up, at a cost to the economy.
We are indeed looking at the system in New Zealand, which is similar in many ways to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme that operated from 1945 to 2013 in this country. The Home Office had some other sector-based schemes, but the MAC concluded in 2013 that they were not being utilised and were therefore unnecessary, but as I said, there is a review led by the Home Office with the MAC looking at this question now. That is the right place to put that information.
Leaving the EU: Policy Framework
Since taking up my role, I have met representatives from the NFU, NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Farmers’ Union of Wales and the Ulster Farmers Union, all of whom help me to shape my work.
In that case, the Secretary of State should be aware that the UK does not have a single agricultural industry; we have several. The needs of farmers and crofters in my constituency will be very different from those of dairy farmers in the south-west of England, but all will have to be accommodated in the framework. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore continue to engage with both NFU Scotland and the Scottish Crofting Federation, because in this they are the experts?
I quite agree. I had the opportunity to hear from representatives of the crofting sector when I visited Scotland. I make a commitment to visit every part of the United Kingdom and to work constructively with the devolved Administrations to create a UK-wide framework that ensures that we can preserve the internal market within the UK and get the best trade deals with other countries, but at the same time be sensitive to the specific needs of, for example, Orkney’s very fine beef farmers.
Their voices are certainly not ignored, not least because they have such an excellent and articulate representative in my hon. Friend, whose dramatically increased majority at the last general election is testament to his hard work on behalf of all his constituents.
Can I press the Secretary of State to confirm whether the Government have undertaken an assessment of the impact of Brexit on the food and drink manufacturing sector, and to explain how they have consulted with businesses as part of that process?
Not only have I spoken to the farming union representatives I mentioned earlier, but I have had regular conversations with the Food and Drink Federation and others across the food and drink sector. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that food and drink is the UK’s biggest manufacturing sector. We see huge opportunities outside the European Union to export more and make the most of British produce, because we are so lucky that British food and drink is the best in the world.
I thank my hon. Friend for his campaigning on this issue. It is vital that we do all we can to ensure that our insect population, and in particular our pollinator population, is protected. They are vital to the health of our environment. We are looking closely at the science in this matter.
Leaving the EU: Scotland
I made it a priority to engage with the Scottish Government as early as possible and I spoke to the Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary, Fergus Ewing, during my first week in office. We met for follow-up talks at the Royal Highland Show on 22 June. I also met Mr Ewing and representatives of the other devolved Administrations on 25 September, and we are due to meet again in early November.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that subject. I received a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) on behalf of Scottish Conservative MPs setting out a very constructive suggestion on how to take matters forward. That is proof that having 14 Scottish Conservative Members here is a way of ensuring that the interests of Scotland’s farming and fisheries sectors are better represented than ever before in this House.
While my right hon. Friend is considering Scotland, may I remind him that many Scottish farmers are concerned about the reintroduction of lynx in the Kielder forest? Can he reassure me that my constituents and the Scottish Borders Council will be consulted before this moves forward?
May I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue? I visited his constituency in a private capacity in August to fish on the Tweed. I had the opportunity while there to hear from his constituents not only about what a fantastic job he is doing, but about their concerns about the reintroduction of lynx. I will of course ensure that we take full account of their views before any progress towards such a reintroduction takes place.
Leaving the EU: Finance
Leaving the EU is a great opportunity to design a new agriculture policy that is fit for purpose in the 21st century. As we develop plans for a new agriculture Bill, we are considering how best to deploy the financial support committed to agriculture and the farmed environment. At the heart of that policy will be a focus on delivering environmental outcomes and improving soil health. Other measures under consideration will address issues such as productivity, animal welfare and risk management.
As part of our work on innovation, we are considering grants to support investment in farms. Tax policy is obviously a matter for Treasury Ministers, but there are already annual investment allowances to support investment in farm machinery, and many farmers make use of them.
The uplands have some of the most important environmental benefits in the country, but the farmers have extremely marginal incomes. Will the Minister therefore commit to making no cuts to the support for hill farmers in the uplands?
We are doing quite a lot of analysis of sectors of the industry that could be affected by any future reform in agriculture policy. The hon. Lady is right to say that some farmers in the uplands are more financially vulnerable, and we are taking that into account. We have also been very clear that any change we implement would have a transition period to ensure that people can adjust.
Leaving the EU: Common Fisheries Policy
As the Prime Minister made clear to the House on 11 October, when we leave the European Union we will leave the common fisheries policy, and we leave the EU in March 2019. However, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will bring across current EU legislation to provide continuity on the day we leave. In the context of fisheries, that will include the body of technical conservation regulations currently set by the EU.
That is very interesting: we will not have a voice at the table but we will have to abide by all the CFP rules. Can the Minister give an assurance to our industry, which exports more than 80% of what it catches straight to the rest of Europe, that it will not face any tariffs or other barriers during or after that transition period?
We are seeking a comprehensive free trade agreement and trade would continue as usual during the transition period. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that we would not have a seat at the table. He is familiar with fisheries negotiations and knows that they are annual events, whether we are negotiating with EU member states at December Council, with EU-Norway or at coastal states meetings. We will become an independent coastal state on the day we leave the European Union in March 2019.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to listen to the views of the food sector and to ensure that it has a strong voice in the EU exit negotiations. Does the Minister share my view that the interests both of Scottish fishermen and of those in the other devolved nations must not be sacrificed during the negotiations?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I know that many Scottish Conservative MPs have worked closely with Scottish industry on the issue. The fishing industry is very important in Scotland. Roughly half of the industry is located there, and sectors such as the pelagic sector, which targets mackerel, the largest fish species that we target in this country, are of incredible economic importance. I reassure my hon. Friend that I regularly meet fishing industry leaders in Scotland to discuss their concerns.
May I take this opportunity to send our sincere condolences to the family of the crew member of the fishing vessel Solstice who sadly died at sea since the last DEFRA questions?
While the Brexit negotiations on the common fisheries policy continue, the fishing Minister will appreciate that the safety of our fishermen and women must be paramount. The Solstice is the third fishing vessel to sink involving the loss of life in the last two years where there has been a delay in launching lifeboats. With that in mind, will the Minister reassure the fishing industry that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for Transport to secure a full investigation into the Solstice, in order to rebuild confidence in the fishing community that the coastguard is able to respond quickly and effectively to incidents at sea?
I join the hon. Lady in offering sincere condolences to the family of the crew member who sadly lost his life with the loss of the Solstice in the west country. She will be aware that this issue is covered by the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, but I have had the opportunity to discuss the matter with my colleague the shipping Minister, and I know that the marine accident investigation unit will carry out an investigation in the normal way. In addition, and to respond to the points the hon. Lady has raised, he has asked the marine accident investigation unit to consider whether we have adequately learned the lessons from previous accidents—which, as she said, have some similarities—and whether there are wider trends on which we ought to reflect and change policy.
Authoritative scientific analysis is hugely important for my Department, which is why I was so pleased earlier this month when our chief scientific adviser, Professor Ian Boyd, agreed to stay on for at least an additional year. I am hugely grateful, as I know my predecessors are, for his distinguished work. We are grateful to have him.
Is it appropriate for the 2 Sisters group to be allowed to undertake any mergers and acquisitions while the Food Standards Agency is conducting its investigations and until it has reported in full, not least in case any issues of corporate governance are uncovered during the investigation?
The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. She will be aware, of course, that the Food Standards Agency is answerable to the Department of Health and questions of mergers and acquisitions are matters for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. However, these were deeply concerning allegations and the whole House will want to ensure that they are properly investigated, to ensure that the highest standards of food safety are observed in all our processing plants.
As my hon. Friend points out, this significant barrier will substantially reduce the risk of flooding for almost 15,000 homes and nearly 1,000 businesses. He is right that I have received the report; the findings are now being considered by lawyers. This legal due diligence must be completed before I can make any final decision on granting the order. In the meantime, I can assure him that the Environment Agency is making all necessary preparations to start construction as soon as possible, subject to securing funding from the Treasury, which I am confident of.
In the referendum last year, people did not vote for dangerous levels of pollution and the weakening of environmental protections. It is all very well for the Secretary of State to make worthy speeches about a green Brexit, but as it stands, the Government’s repeal Bill makes this an impossibility. Will he now admit that the omission of the “polluter pays” principle and other environmental protections are a fundamental flaw, and will he work with me and other colleagues to guarantee the strongest possible protections for our environment as we leave the EU?
The hon. Lady raises a very important issue. It is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that while there have undoubtedly been aspects of our EU membership, such as the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy, that have been harmful to the environment, there have been welcome environmental protections, which we have helped to develop while we have been in the EU. I want to work with her, as I am working with others, to ensure that people can guarantee that the protections that they value stay in place.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments. Clearly, many of our environmental protections come from Europe. Another victim of the repeal Bill that I would like to draw his attention to is the precautionary principle, which sets a benchmark to protect the environment from policy and developmental proposals that would do irreparable harm. Is his commitment to me now therefore a commitment to working cross-party to ensure that these vital environmental protections are transferred into EU law as promised, or is he happy for the EU to reclaim its reputation as the dirty man of Europe?
The hon. Lady perhaps made a slip of the tongue there, because I think she is probably worried about the UK being the dirty man—or indeed the dirty creature—of Europe. In short, the principles to which she alludes are valuable interpretive principles. We need to make sure they are consistent with the application of UK common law, but yes I would like to work with her and others.
We do want to plant more trees. We are trying different ways to accelerate the planting of trees. My right hon. Friend will also be aware of our manifesto commitment to plant 1 million urban trees. I am very hopeful that many of them will be in her delightful constituency. I am sure either I or the Secretary of State will visit in due course.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government’s recently published clean growth strategy outlined our ambition for zero affordable waste by 2050. Policies and regulations, such as the packaging and waste regulations, are designed to increase recycling and reduce the amount of packaging that ends up in the natural environment. Almost all packaging is technically recyclable, although some local authorities and waste management companies choose not to collect it for various reasons. Next year, we will be publishing a new resources and waste strategy, in which I hope to set out more.
I met the hon. Gentleman to discuss this matter. We have been engaging with the Treasury about the site, because I know there is a particular issue he wishes to be progressed. The Treasury has oversight of the Crown Estate and the tax system and will consider the business case in due course, but I can assure him that the Environment Agency will continue to work closely with the local councils. They have removed the dangerous waste that was there.
From memory, about 90% or 95% of all animals slaughtered are slaughtered in the larger slaughterhouses which have CCTV. However, about half of all slaughterhouses do not, particularly some of the smaller ones. That is why we are bringing forward legislation to make CCTV compulsory in all slaughterhouses.
Eighty per cent. of Welsh farm income is rooted in the common agricultural policy. The Welsh Government are currently responsible for the distribution of that funding. Will the Minister confirm whether they will retain that responsibility post-Brexit, and whether funding received will be based on the needs of Welsh farms, not a simple headcount?
What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that we are working with all the devolved Administrations and territorial offices to design a future policy. We want to ensure that all the devolved Administrations retain the ability to put in place the types of policies that are right for them.
Last Friday I visited Askham Bryan agricultural college in York. It says that the new exam framework does not work because assessment of, for instance, the felling of trees cannot be done in the tight window of the spring, and the harvest cannot be brought in during the spring either. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Education Secretary about broadening the scope within which assessments can take place?
The fishing communities in my constituency and in neighbouring Grimsby are looking forward to Brexit in March 2019. What support will the Department give the industry to enable it to expand its trade with other countries, and to take up the opportunities that Brexit will offer?
My hon. Friend is right: as we leave the European Union we shall have a great opportunity to look afresh at access arrangements and shares of the total allowable catch, and we are working with the fishing industry to develop that opportunity. I met some of the leading fish processors this week—obviously, they are strongly represented in my hon. Friend’s constituency—to talk about issues that are concerning them at present.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Commission has given no formal consideration to the cost of introducing electronic voting. Its responsibility is limited to any financial or staffing implications of any change in the present system, were a change to be agreed by the House. Such a change would normally follow a report by the Procedure Committee, which would, I am sure, welcome representations from the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and his hon. Friends.
While I accept that this is not primarily a matter for the Commission to decide, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that before we spend astronomical sums on refurbishing this place, the Commission should at the very least build in the capacity for electronic voting in the future, should the House at some point decide to move itself into the 20th century before the rest of the world enters the 22nd?
I have set out for the hon. Gentleman perhaps the most effective way in which he could voice his concerns, but an opportunity may well be provided shortly by a contingency Chamber, in which case it would of course be open to the House to decide to implement an electronic voting system if it considered that to be appropriate.
We do read reports about a contingency Chamber. Have any assessments been made of the differing costs of installing voting Lobbies—which I assume would have to include little toilets at the end, in which Members could hide if they accidentally made their way into the wrong Lobby—and simply installing an electronic voting system? Would the latter not be a more sensible use of public funds?
I suspect that we have not yet reached the stage of deciding whether the provision of toilets will be needed for a contingency Chamber, or, indeed, establishing whether any financial assessment has been made of the installation of electronic voting. According to figures produced in past debates, however, it appears that the cost might be up to £500,000.
In the Scottish Parliament, where there is a seat for every Member and voting takes two seconds rather than 20 minutes, electronic voting is very effective. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in this Chamber there were more than 500 votes between 2012 and 2014, which took up more than seven days? Given what is coming down the line with Brexit, does he not think that this is a perfect time to install electronic voting in the House of Commons?
I am aware that electronic voting takes place in the Scottish Parliament, and my personal view is that it is a more effective way of dealing with votes. Members who have not been here as long as I have may not remember that back in 1997 there was an attempt to reform a number of ways in which the House operated. I supported it, but it was blocked by the House.
But is it not the case that there are advantages in going into the Lobby—one can meet colleagues and do things? If we listen to the Scottish National party all together, why do we not go the whole hog? Why do we not just sit at home, watch proceedings on the Parliament channel, and vote on our iPhones?
As a Minister in the previous coalition Government and now as a Back Bencher, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that one of the advantages for Back Benchers of voting in person is that Ministers have no escape from Back Benchers who want to collar them to raise local and national issues.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
The Church has committed to being a living wage employer and for many decades has paid the same level of minimum stipend regardless of gender or geography. I can only answer for Church policy, but bishops in particular speak to relevant Ministers in the Treasury and other Departments about the impact of their policies.
Earlier this month the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a powerful article for the Financial Times on how our economic model is broken and no longer working for everyone. Does the right hon. Lady agree with him—I appreciate she has just said she cannot answer for everyone—and particularly on the need for a fairer tax system, does she believe the Government are listening?
The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently been involved in the Institute for Public Policy Research commission on economic justice, and the article the hon. Lady mentions was written off the back of that commission’s erudite report, which I commend to the House. It focuses on things that need to be fixed and improved, but the Church itself is trying to do its bit. It recognises that we need to start right at the beginning of life by teaching financial literacy to our children so they are able to avoid the perils of debt, which is a scourge on this nation.
The Church Commissioner will agree that the Church has a strong role to play in the guidance of others. Does she also agree that the glass ceiling, which she has referred to, is still in place? How can we encourage small and medium-sized businesses to play their part in bringing it down?
As a female, I am sympathetic to the point about the inequality caused by glass ceilings, which are still very much in place. This goes beyond the policy of just the Church, however, although it is trying to do its bit to ensure that its male and female employees are treated equally.
Heritage Lottery Fund
The Church continues to regret the decision by the Heritage Lottery Fund to close the grants for places of worship scheme. The Church Buildings Council is in close discussion with the HLF as to how we can try to find a way forward. The Church has received assurances from the chairman of the HLF that the amount of its funding for places of worship will, as a proportion, continue at comparable levels to the distribution in 2016.
Parishioners at St Mary the Virgin in Middleton-in-Teesdale and at St Mary’s in Barnard Castle were disappointed. Given that we are talking here about half the listed buildings in the country and that three quarters of Church of England buildings are listed, will the Church make further representations to the HLF on this important matter?
I am aware of the decision by the HLF north-east committee to reject the two applications to which the hon. Lady refers. There was a great deal of competition for those funds, but I understand that both the unsuccessful projects are being invited to a heritage grants workshop on 1 December at HLF offices to look at other ways of applying through its open programme for funds.
The Church of England is well on its way to reaching its 2020 target, when we hope to see 50% of the priesthood being women, and, indeed, we have the highest level of ordinands for 10 years, an increase of 14% since last year. There has been a particularly strong increase, of 19%, in the number of women entering training compared with 2016.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer and for the welcome news that it contained. What steps is the Church taking to ensure that the diversity of those being considered for ordination better reflects the country as a whole? While answering, will she join me in congratulating the Most Rev. John Davies, the Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, on becoming the 13th Archbishop of Wales—the first from that diocese?
I certainly welcome the new Archbishop of Wales, John Davies, to his post. I also welcome the new Bishop of Llandaff, the Right Rev. June Osborne. I would certainly say that the Church in Wales is doing its very best to progress diversity. Also, we should not overlook the need to draw more people from different ethnic backgrounds, and the Church has strategies to increase the numbers of black and ethnic minority ordinands, who currently make up only 3.5% of clergy.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that a vocation for the priesthood is fundamentally based on a call from God, and that that call never went only to white men of a certain age. Does she therefore agree that this work is about making people feel able to take up that call and not about setting a target to increase the number of calls that God makes?
Very much so; a vocation is gender blind. The 19% increase in the number of women coming forward for ordination is evidence that it is an attractive vocation to enter, and the Church strives to make training programmes more accessible to women and to people from diverse backgrounds.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Restoration and Renewal
Substantial progress has until now been hampered by the lack of a decision in principle by the two Houses on the preferred way forward. The report of the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster was published in September last year, and I am pleased that the Leaders of both Houses have indicated that they will make time for a debate before the end of this year.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, but the replacement of major systems in the Palace has been due for more than a decade. The Leader of the House is now appointing yet another Committee, delaying the repairs yet again, despite warnings that delays increase the risk of serious events such as fires. Has the Commission made any estimate of how much longer the deployment of a new body to consider costings will delay the timeline of the work?
The expectation is that once the shadow sponsor board and the delivery authority have been established, it might take them something of the order of 12 to 18 months to consider the options for decanting. That would therefore add to the timescales. I welcome the fact that we are going to have the debate by the end of this year. We really need that, because meanwhile the fabric of the building continues to deteriorate and the very high maintenance costs that we incur as a result also continue apace.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public might be somewhat puzzled at the thought of a further 12 to 18 months’ delay while options that have already been assessed are discussed yet again? When works are considered urgent for structural and safety reasons, surely we should choose the option that maximises the ability to carry out those works efficiently while minimising the cost to the public purse without any further delay.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Since the original Joint Committee report, the idea of creating a contingency Chamber and perhaps doing more works around the northern estate have changed the picture slightly. The sponsor board and the delivery authority will be established according to the timescale set out, and I hope that she and others will take advantage of the engagement programme that the Government have launched, with three separate dates on 14, 21 and 28 November, and that Members will avail themselves of the opportunity to go on the tour of the basements to see why these works are needed.
I might be wrong, but I get the impression that the Treasury would much rather spend money over a long period than over a shorter period. Does the right hon. Gentleman know whether the Treasury would prefer to spend £5 billion or £6 billion over five or six years or much more over 20 to 30 years?
As the spokesman of the House of Commons Commission, I am somewhat loth to express a Treasury view—the Treasury is better equipped to do that than I am. However, as for the risk profile associated with doing these works over, say, a 30-year period as opposed to a much shorter period of time, the risk of some catastrophic failure is clearly much higher if the works take place over 30 years while we are in situ debating in either Chamber and, indeed, our staff are here working.
The right hon. Gentleman says that we are hampered in making a decision because the two Houses have not come to a view, but that is because the Government refuse to table the motion that was agreed last year by the then Leader of the House, which says that there is
“an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore.”
It is downright irresponsible of the Government consistently to delay. The next edition of the “Oxford English Dictionary” will say for the word “procrastination”: “See the inaction of the Tory Government on the misunderstanding of the phrase ‘impending crisis’.” Get on with it, man!
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for his attempted imitation. I usually have the copyright on the phrase “Get on with it, man,” but they say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I am deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman.
When that matter was looked at by the Commission and the Lords equivalent, there was no desire to turn this place into a museum. Indeed, there was a desire to ensure that this building is able to continue to operate for staff, for Members and for visitors and to remain a significant world heritage building. [Interruption.]
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Overseas Oppression and Discrimination
This is an excellent and timely question, because tomorrow marks International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day, and the Church of England has been supporting a number of events, not least the one held in your house yesterday, Mr Speaker. There will also be a debate on this subject later today. The Church remains concerned about the increasing attacks on Christian communities around the world and continues to assist the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
I have raised with the Department for International Development on number of occasions the need to help Christians return to their ancient homeland. I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is a collaboration between the Chaldean Church, the Syrian Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church, has so far restored 1,700 properties, enabling just over 4,700 Christian families to return home.
There are already a number of events to mark the Reformation. Indeed, you can hardly fail to turn on the radio without hearing about the commemoration of this great occasion. However, in the spirit of the question, I want to share with the House something that a Minister of State said yesterday at the reception in the Speaker’s house: “It is incumbent on us all—all of us of faith and those of no faith—to speak up for the tolerance to hear each other.”
The Church’s doctrine, as set out in canon law and as explicitly recognised by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, is that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. As hon. Members will be aware, a resolution was passed over the weekend by the synod in Hereford. That motion will go to the General Synod and will be considered by its business committee for debate.
Given that many Anglican churches, including my wonderful cathedral in Exeter, already perform ceremonies to celebrate same-sex marriages, would it not be better for the Church just to get on with it and for bishops to make an announcement, rather than carrying on with what is in effect an institutionalised hypocrisy?
Obviously it is open to the right hon. Gentleman’s diocese to follow the same process that the Hereford diocese has just undertaken, but the Church is active in this area with two initiatives. A pastoral advisory group has been set up—led by the Bishop of Newcastle, Christine Hardman—to work on the development of pastoral practice within the Church’s existing teaching, and a major teaching document is being produced on marriage and sexuality.
When so many gay people are being persecuted throughout the world, particularly in Commonwealth countries, does my right hon. Friend not believe that allowing gay people to marry in churches in this country would send the right signal?
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Returning Officers
The Electoral Commission provides guidance for returning officers, and it monitors and reports on their performance. The commission targets monitoring and support on areas where it is needed, including where there is a change of returning officer or a change in the electoral services team. The commission will publish its report on the administration of the 2017 general election and the performance of returning officers in November.
A shortage of trained returning officers was identified as one of the contributing factors to 6,500 votes being missed out on the declaration for my seat and to 1,926 postal votes not being sent out. What further action can be taken to train more returning officers?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the returning officer for Plymouth commissioned an independent review, led by Dr Dave Smith. The investigation reported in September. The Electoral Commission fully supported the investigation and continues to support the city council in delivering the improvements required.
The Electoral Commission is working with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Electoral Administrators on the issue of the decreasing number of election and registration specialists.
Does the hon. Lady know whether returning officers have commented on the fact that people voted in more than one parliamentary constituency at the last general election? Do they have a view on supporting my private Member’s Bill, which would allow electors to be registered in only one parliamentary seat?
The hon. Gentleman will know that in certain circumstances it is possible for someone, including a Member of Parliament, to be lawfully registered to vote in more than one place. The Electoral Commission takes very seriously any claim that individuals voted twice. The Minister with responsibility for the constitution, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), has informed the House that police forces are investigating several allegations. The commission urges anyone who has evidence of such individuals to take those allegations to the relevant police force.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The House awards contracts to the most economically advantageous tender, in accordance with the statutory regime set out in the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. That involves the evaluation of bids using weighted objective criteria, such as whole-life costs, service levels, equality and other environmental or social aspects to ensure compliance with the principles of transparency, non-discrimination and equal treatment, meaning that tenders are assessed in conditions of effective competition.
The Big Ben refurbishment contract has been awarded to McAlpine, which is up to its neck in blacklisting. Is it not now time that we gave McAlpine a taste of its own medicine? Is it not possible for us to strip that blacklister of the contract? If not, can the House of Commons Commission take industrial relations and social responsibility into account in the awarding of future contracts?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s question. He may be aware that pre-qualification criteria contain grounds for mandatory exclusion where a potential supplier has been convicted for breaching any relevant legislation, including the Employment Relations Act 1999 (Blacklists) Regulations 2010. However, I think the critical issue is there having been a conviction for breaching that legislation. The other difficulty is that, unfortunately, a large number of major contractors in the UK were involved in blacklisting, and an approach that involved offering no work to any of those, including those who perhaps settled out of court, would make it very difficult for any work to be undertaken.
Leaving the EU: Parliamentary Vote
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on the Government’s policy of a meaningful vote in Parliament to agree the final withdrawal agreement with the European Union.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his question. We have been very clear right from the start of the process that there will be a vote in both Houses of Parliament on the final deal that we agree with the European Union. I reiterate the commitment my Minister gave at the Dispatch Box during the article 50 Bill, when he said:
“I can confirm that the Government will bring forward a motion on the final agreement, to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded. We expect and intend that this will happen before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final agreement.”
Furthermore, he said:
“we intend that the vote will cover not only the withdrawal arrangements but also the future relationship with the European Union.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 264.]
These remain our commitments.
The terms of this vote were also clear. Again, as my Minister said at the time:
“The choice will be meaningful: whether to accept that deal or to move ahead without a deal.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2017; Vol. 621, c. 275.]
Of course this vote cannot happen until there is a deal to vote upon, but we are working to reach an agreement on the final deal in good time before we leave the European Union in March 2019. Clearly, we cannot say for certain at this stage when this will be agreed, but Michel Barnier has said he hopes to get a draft deal agreed by October 2018, and that is our aim as well. So we fully expect there will be a vote in the UK Parliament on this before the vote in the European Parliament and before we leave the EU. As we have said before, this vote will be over and above the requirements of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.
We have also said many times that we want to move to talking about our future relationship as soon as possible. The EU has been clear that any future relationship and partnership cannot legally conclude until the UK becomes a third country, as the Prime Minister said in her Florence speech. As I set out in the Select Committee yesterday, our aim is to have the terms of our future relationship agreed by the time we leave in March 2019. However, we recognise that the ratification of that agreement will take time and could run into the implementation period that we are seeking. There can be no doubt: Parliament will be involved throughout this process.
What a mess! We get one thing one day and another thing the next. Yesterday, the Secretary of State was asked in the Brexit Committee, “Could the vote in our Parliament be after March 2019?” The answer he gave was, “Yes, it could be.” Later in the day the Prime Minister had a go at correcting him, and then his own spokesperson had to clarify his remarks. Today, he says that the vote will be before the deal is concluded. That is not good enough. May I remind him that the commitment he has just referred to, made at the Dispatch Box, that we would have a meaningful vote was made when the Government were on the verge of losing a vote on a Labour amendment to the article 50 Bill to give Parliament that vote? That commitment cannot now casually be dispensed with.
The text of article 50 is clear: there can be no deal until the European Parliament has approved it and voted on it. The nonsense we heard yesterday about “nanoseconds” has to be put in that proper context. It would be wholly unacceptable if time was found for the European Parliament to vote on the deal before it is concluded but time was not found in this House. Does the Secretary of State expect us to sit here watching on our screens the European Parliament proceedings while we are told that we do not have time? I do not think so. We need a cast-iron guarantee that that will not happen.
The Secretary of State has repeatedly asked us to accept his word at the Dispatch Box. Given the events of the past 24 hours, will he now accept the amendments tabled to the withdrawal Bill that would put into law a meaningful article 50 vote, so that we all know where we stand and do not have to repeat this exercise?
I am afraid the right hon. and learned Gentleman altered the quotation from yesterday slightly. What the Chairman said, and I refer to exactly what he put to me, was that “it is possible”—possible—“that Parliament might not vote on the deal until after the end of March 2019. Am I summarising correctly what you said?” I said, “in the event we don’t do the deal until then.” That is the point I was making.
I will take up the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about the European Parliament, because I have said at the Dispatch Box and we have said that it is our intent and our expectation—those were the words used; I crafted them—that we will vote on this in this House before the European Parliament does. That stands. If it goes to the timetable that Mr Barnier expects, or wants to go to, which is October 2018, it is likely that the European Parliament will vote in December or January, under the normal processes that apply to that Parliament; it has a committee stage to go through first. We will vote on that and we will have it put before the House before then. There is no doubt about that. That undertaking is absolutely cast iron.
The issue that I raised yesterday, because I take it as a responsibility always to be as forthright and open as I can with the Select Committee, was to go through what has happened in the past in European Union treaty negotiations. This time, there is an expectation by the Commission; there is an incentive on the part of the various countries to get it done as quickly as possible; and there is our expectation and intention. None of the undertakings given at the Dispatch Box have in any sense been undermined. The issue here is one of practicality and what we control. What we control, we will run to give Parliament a proper and meaningful vote at the right time.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s concern about hypothetical situations that might arise at the end of the negotiation, but is not the reality that if the negotiation leads to an agreement, it will be necessary for not only the European Parliament but ourselves to act in accordance with our constitutional principles in deciding to approve it? The only way we can do that properly is by statute in this House. In those circumstances, is not it rather fanciful to imagine that, having reached a deal with the European Union, it would hold us in some strange way to ransom because we pointed out that we needed the time to enact the necessary statute? That flies in the face of reality. It would just tone down the debate a little and introduce a bit of rationality if we understood that our European Union partners would expect us to reach our own conclusion in accordance with our own constitutional requirements.
My right hon. and learned Friend has a point. As I understand it, the reason why Mr Barnier wants to conclude the negotiations, including that element of article 50 that refers to the future arrangements, by October is to enable that ratification process to take place. In that respect, I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend.
We have a withdrawal Bill that has not only been delayed, but just has not come to the House in any of the three or four weeks in which we expected it to, and we do not know when it will. We have the former UK ambassador to the European Union telling us that the Prime Minister’s approach to the negotiations is in danger of leaving the UK “screwed”. The negotiations are being led by somebody who thinks that Czechoslovakia is one of the countries with which we are negotiating, although unlike the Cabinet, Czechoslovakia is split into only two parts and they are still on amicable speaking terms. The Government refuse to publish the truth about the impact of Brexit, saying it is confidential, despite the fact that between 2013 and 2014 they published 16 different analyses of the potential impact of a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum. The Prime Minister is having to make emergency trips to Europe to try to bail out her failing Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, for any vote to be meaningful, we must be in possession of the full facts? Will he therefore agree that Parliament will have sight of the Government’s recently produced analysis before a vote takes place, and will he confirm that the Administrations of the three devolved nations will be treated as equals, as the Government have promised, and that they will also have a timeous and meaningful vote before we leave the EU?
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s substantive question, may I just correct him? He talked about Czechoslovakia. The Minister involved was correcting somebody else; he was not asserting a belief that that was who we were negotiating with. I would prefer that to be on the record.
Yes, with the full facts, absolutely; that is why the vote has to take place once the draft deal is concluded. At that point, we will know precisely what the withdrawal deal amounts to and what the framework for the future arrangement is.
Given the way the EU has delayed and delayed, it is not entirely unreasonable for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to think it will carry on delaying. Will he impress on Monsieur Barnier, however, that it would be much more preferable to conclude a deal as early as possible, because any implementation period will be of far less value if business cannot be certain it will be available to it sooner rather than later?
The Secretary of State told the Committee yesterday that the Government’s aim was to conclude one agreement covering the divorce, the transitional arrangements and the new deep and special partnership with the EU, but he has also accepted that the last of these has to be agreed by a different process because that deal could not be finally concluded until we had left the EU. Given that it is likely to be a mixed agreement, only one Parliament objecting would mean it could not be concluded. In those circumstances, would that bring down the whole deal, and if so, is it not sensible to separate out the divorce and the transition, which would not require the consent of every Parliament of the 27, and the new deep and special partnership, which ought to be negotiated during the transition period?
As I think I said to the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee yesterday, negotiating that during the transition would put us at a negotiating disadvantage. The House was promised, in respect of the approval of the negotiations, that all three elements—the divorce, as he terms it, the transition and the long-term arrangement—would be put to the House together. That is the best way to assess this whole thing. The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said that the decision should be made on the whole facts—all the decisions, all the facts.
There is a way for the Government to put this matter completely beyond doubt and that is to accept amendment 7 to the withdrawal Bill tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). Reports have reached Government Back Benchers that the Secretary of State does not think that those Conservative Members who have signed the amendment are serious about supporting it if we need to. May I tell him that we are deadly serious? It would be better for all concerned if the Government were to adopt a concession strategy and have the withdrawal agreement secured by statute sooner rather than later.
With the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), saying one thing from the Dispatch Box on 7 February and the Secretary of State saying not one but two things in the space of 24 hours yesterday, it is clear that ministerial assurances on this matter are not enough. Does the Secretary of State not agree that after the shambles of the last 24 hours, when he had to be rebutted by his own departmental spokesman, the only way to guarantee Parliament a meaningful say on and input into these most vital negotiations is to amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill accordingly?