Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Animal Welfare
With just two short weeks before the Christmas recess, may I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all the staff of the House, who do such a superb job, a happy and peaceful Christmas and a prosperous new year?
We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. The Government are making CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses, increasing maximum sentences for animal cruelty to five years, banning microbeads that harm marine life, and banning the ivory trade. On leaving the European Union we will go even further.
The Secretary of State has done more for animal welfare in recent months than was achieved in many years previously, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for that. Will he assure the House that as we will be leaving the EU, the customs union and the single market in 2019, we are making preparations now to ensure that, for example, the banning of live animal exports and the import of foie gras can be achieved?
My hon. Friend has been a passionate and successful campaigner for animal welfare during his entire career in the House of Commons, and he is right to say that there are now opportunities to take steps to improve the treatment of live exports—or potentially to ban them—as we leave the European Union. The steps that we take when we put animal welfare at the heart of all we do must be consistent with our broader negotiating objectives as we leave the EU.
On animal welfare standards, whether we are in the EU or outside it, will the Secretary of State consider the importance of labelling so that people know what they are buying? When a label says that a chicken has been reared outside or been stunned or not stunned, people must be able to trust that they know what has happened.
The hon. Gentleman is right: there is confusion and uncertainty in the minds of some consumers as a result of current labelling. Already, farmer-led schemes such as the Red Tractor scheme ensure that people know that animals have been kept to the highest welfare standards, but we can go further and I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman on that.
My hon. Friend makes a very acute point. It is in the nature of single market rules and the European Union that some animal husbandry practices, which we would not tolerate in this country, apply to things that we sometimes import. We must consider how we can improve animal welfare standards all round.
Will the Secretary of State set out what discussions he has had with the Welsh Government about moving forward on animal welfare once we leave the EU, regarding both that Government’s responsibilities and the responsibilities that will come back from Europe to the Secretary of State?
I commend Lesley Griffiths, the Welsh Labour Minister who is responsible for this area in the Welsh Assembly Government, for the constructive way in which she has engaged with DEFRA over the past six months. I hope to see her next week to carry forward discussions on this and other areas.
I very much welcome higher welfare standards, cameras in slaughterhouses, and tougher sentencing, but as we enhance our welfare, we will also add cost to production. We want to ensure that our consumers eat high-quality product with high welfare standards, and that we do not import inferior quality meat with lower welfare standards.
The Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee makes an excellent point—I know that the Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the impact of leaving the European Union on food standards overall. Critical to high food standards is the viability and improved productivity of our farmers who do such a wonderful job.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has passed more stringent legislation on animal cruelty than the UK mainland. What discussions has the Secretary of State’s Department had with the Northern Ireland Assembly about bringing similar measures into operation in England and Wales?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are many ways in which Northern Ireland sets higher standards than we do in the rest of the UK, and I have always taken the view that we can learn a great deal from every part of the United Kingdom, not least the cherished Province which I love so much.
Future Trade Agreements: Agriculture
Ministers and officials meet regularly to discuss the promotion of UK agriculture. Only last night I was talking to the Secretary of State for International Trade, to ensure that in the next 12 months we place the promotion of British food at the heart of our joint governmental endeavours.
As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, I recently hosted a visit of the Nigerian Agriculture Minister to the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that the UK is leading in innovation and education in agriculture, and that we have a lot to offer that country?
My hon. Friend has done an outstanding job as trade envoy to one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and there is much that we can do together to improve the transfer of technology between our two countries. Nigeria offers huge opportunities to our exporters, which I know my hon. Friend has done much to help to advance.
Surely the Secretary of State realises that the food and farming sector is terrified about the impact of leaving the European Union? Does he agree that the fact there has been no impact assessment by him or his Department on what will happen to farming in food in this country is a disgrace?
Will the Secretary of State impress on the International Trade Secretary the fact that it is not just about goods, but about services? Will he join me in congratulating the British Horse Society on its 70th anniversary year and on being invited to provide an accreditation system for riding centres in China?
My right hon. Friend, who did an outstanding job when she was Secretary of State, is absolutely right. No country in the world has a finer equestrian tradition than our own. We can build on that tradition to ensure that services are provided to international markets.
As everyone in this House will know—as a fellow Scot, the Secretary of State will know it very clearly—Scotland has some of the largest protected food names in the EU, with high-value products such as Scotch beef and Scotch salmon accounting for some £700 million in sales, yet there has been absolutely nothing from the Government on whether that will continue post Brexit. Will he give a clear indication and a clear commitment today that our participation in this vital scheme will continue or be replaced within the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has in his role been a passionate and effective advocate for Scottish industry. Yes, we want to make sure that geographical indicators and schemes that ensure high-quality foods from all parts of the United Kingdom are recognised within Europe and across the world. We want to ensure that appropriate schemes exist in the future so that we can provide recognition to our trading partners, as well as ensuring that the markets we care so much about are protected.
There are some concerns about the impact of pulse trawling on certain species of fish, in particular gadoids such as cod. Earlier this year, I asked the Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science to review the science on pulse trawling. The preliminary advice concludes that while the impact on the seabed is typically smaller than for traditional beam trawling, there are some detrimental effects on fish species such as cod. Once CEFAS has completed its work, we will decide what steps are required next.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He will be aware, I am sure, of the concerns of fishers in parts of south-east England about the impact of Dutch electric pulse fishing on the stocks that, surprise surprise, move across national boundaries and are consequently shared. At the moment, we have a voice at the table and we can influence, alongside other more conservation-minded northern European countries, policies such as that on electric pulse fishing. How will we exert the same influence if we leave the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman is right that pulse trawling is predominantly carried out by about 84 Dutch vessels, which mostly fish in UK waters to catch those species. Once we leave the European Union, we will decide the terms of access. That will give us the clarity and the ability to be able to ban certain approaches if we want to.
The European Union is currently proposing draconian measures for our recreational sea anglers. They will stop recreational fishing for half the year. These ridiculous proposals should be resisted. I seek assurances from the Minister that he will stand up for our recreational sea anglers.
The situation with bass is precarious, which is why I and the UK Government pressed for emergency measures three years ago. However, we believe it is important that the current International Council for the Exploration of the Sea advice is benchmarked to take account of measures that have already been brought in. We will be arguing for a more proportionate package this December.
Leaving the EU: Food Prices
The key drivers of food price changes are exchange rates, weather events and oil prices. These factors affect all countries in the world, whether they are members of the European Union or independent nation states. We therefore assess the impact of leaving the EU on retail food prices to be marginal.
During the EU referendum campaign, the Secretary of State claimed that food prices would fall after a vote for Brexit, yet new data from the Office for National Statistics shows that food prices last month were up by 4.2% on 12 months earlier. My constituents will be feeling the pinch of those increases this Christmas. Will the Minister confirm that an analysis of food prices has been conducted, and that it is not just in his imagination? If he has published that analysis, when will it be in the public domain?
In the 18 months leading up to the referendum food prices fell by 7%, and in the 18 months since they have risen by 4%. Changes in food prices of plus or minus 5% are fairly typical. The fact is that whether a country is inside or outside the EU, the key drivers of food prices—weather events, exchange rates and oil prices—remain the same.
What discussions has the Minister held with the Department for International Trade about assessing the current EU non-tariff barriers on the pig products that are so important not only to my constituency, but to the broader constituency area of Suffolk?
I am aware that the pig industry is very important to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The UK has a close relationship with Denmark. Danish Crown, including its subsidiary Tulip, is a major investor in the UK, and since the decision to leave the European Union it has increased its investment, with the recent acquisition of new businesses. We are having discussions, but we have a strong and vibrant pig sector.
The Minister said that Brexit would not have much impact on prices. I suggest that he speak to his former Conservative colleague Laura Sandys, the head of the Food Foundation, which has said that Brexit could mean an increase of £158 a year in what the average family spends on fruit and veg. Will he ensure that the horticultural sector, which has been much neglected by successive Governments, is given the priority that it deserves in the agriculture Bill?
The UK now has the second highest rate of food insecurity in Europe. In October, food and drink prices increased faster than at any other point over the last four years, and the latest Trussell Trust figures show a 13% increase on last year in the number of emergency food parcels issued. How will the Secretary of State and the Minister address the shameful increase in hunger and food poverty that is taking place throughout the country on this Government’s watch?
With all due respect, I do not think that that really answered my question. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union admitted that Ministers had carried out no proper assessment of the impact of Brexit on any UK economic sector. Food prices are rising. What assessment has DEFRA made of the impact of Brexit on those prices?
As I have said, we are carrying out this work, but our current assessment is that the impact is marginal. Economists sometimes make the mistake of not taking account of the fact that we have tariff rate quotas—that means that we already have a high degree of tariff-free trade—and the fact that the commodity price represents only a small part of the overall value of the shopping basket.
Veterinarians play a vital role in safeguarding UK public health, enabling trade and maintaining animal health and welfare. More than 31% of the UK veterinary workforce is supplied by veterinarians from outside the UK. We cherish and value their work, and we want to ensure that they can continue to make an important contribution.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s reply. Britain leads the world in both food hygiene and animal welfare, but that is now at risk. The British Veterinary Association reckons that 95% of the vets in our abattoirs are from the EU, and that many of them are leaving. Will the Secretary of State release the impact assessment that I am certain he will have carried out, and will he tell us what action he is taking to protect our meat industry, animal welfare and food safety from that clear and imminent threat?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He is right: more than 90% of the veterinarians in our abattoirs come from the EU27 countries, and I and my Department have been talking to representatives of the profession to ensure that those who do such a wonderful job continue to feel valued and to play the important role they do in assuring the public of the very high standards of food hygiene.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the slaughter of UK animals should take place in UK abattoirs overseen by appropriately qualified vets, and will he take steps to ensure that the evil and cruel trade of live animal exports is ended when we leave the EU?
Leaving the EU: Farming
The common agricultural policy has been a bureaucratic quagmire that has undermined British agriculture and failed our environment. Leaving the EU allows us to bring clarity and purpose to agriculture policy in the UK for the first time for 45 years. We are committed to introducing an agriculture Bill in this Session and will outline further plans next year.
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks. Many farmers in my constituency in the bounteous county of Essex supported Brexit, but some did not. What reassurances can he give them that the Government are straining their many sinews to ensure that new and emerging food markets are open to them after Brexit?
We will be working with colleagues in the Department for International Trade to open up new markets. There are opportunities, particularly in sectors such as dairy. We have also been very clear that we will maintain the agriculture budget for this Parliament—that is a manifesto commitment—and that we will have a smooth transition from the policy we have now to the new policy.
EU Convergence Uplift Funding
I met the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, on 6 November, when we discussed EU convergence uplift funding, and I most recently met the National Farmers Union of Scotland on 31 October, when that funding was one of a number of issues discussed. I look forward to seeing the Scottish Cabinet Secretary next Thursday, and also, thanks to the intercession of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), to meeting representatives of the NFU of Scotland on that day as well.
Back in September, key farming organisations, including the NFUS, wrote to the Minister on convergence uplift. I have been told that the Government have not yet responded. Why have they not responded, and will the Minister fix the scandal now by committing to give Scottish farmers the £160 million they are rightfully due?
I absolutely recognise, and indeed have explained to the hon. Gentleman’s Scottish National party colleague, that the issue of convergence uplifting is ripe for reassessment. I have discussed the issue not just with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary, but with farming union representatives, and I know it will be raised when we meet next week.
The resilience of flood defences is good. In October, the Environment Agency’s assessment showed that over 95% of the flood defence assets it maintains in the highest risk areas were at, or above, the target condition, and in Cumbria the proportion was 97.5%. We have repaired all the flood defences damaged in the winter of 2015. We know there is more to do to help communities in Keswick as well as other parts of Copeland and across Cumbria. That is why we allocated £58 million extra for flood risk management schemes.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of that particular village. I am aware that the shortlisting of options is due to be completed next month, with a target date of the end of 2019. I will be meeting her and her colleagues from Cumbria next week to discuss the details further.
Hard flood defences such as the Foss barrier and whole catchment management solutions are vital for cities such as York, but it is essential that those strategies equally protect smaller communities. Can the Minister assure me that communities south of York will not be forgotten as we progress and continue to develop flood management schemes?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The York long-term plan will use a whole catchment approach to flood risk management. It includes upper catchment management changes, which will be a key component in reducing risk to York and other communities downstream, including the ones to which he refers. I can assure him that the modelling by the Environment Agency ensures that hard flood defences in York will not impact on the communities he has mentioned.
It is two years since the devastating floods hit York, yet last week the residents of Clementhorpe learned that their barriers were going to be further delayed and that they will not have protection until at least 2019. What will the Minister do to ensure not only that that programme is speeded up, but that the residents of York are protected in the intervening period?
Since the floods of December 2015, when about 600 properties were flooded, we have invested £17 million to upgrade the Foss barrier. That includes eight high-volume pumps to provide an even greater standard of protection than before, and we have developed a five-year plan to invest £45 million in new defences that will better protect 2,000 properties.
Following Storm Desmond and Storm Eva in 2015, the Government made welcome direct payments for resilience work to residents who had been devastated by the flooding. Following the floods in Galgate last month, however, the Government told Lancaster City Council that that flooding was not severe enough to warrant the same assistance, despite 143 homes being vacated because of flood damage. Will the Minister make representations to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and urge him to allocate money to fund essential flood resilience work in flood-affected communities like Galgate, right across the country?
As I have indicated, the overall level of flood defence resilience is good, including in Lancashire. I am very concerned about the people who suffered that shock flooding the other week, and I will of course meet the affected MPs. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) is seeing me next week to discuss this very matter.
Leaving the EU: Departmental Preparation
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) put in place a major programme of work to prepare for the UK’s departure from the European Union, planning for a number of scenarios, and we in DEFRA keep the effectiveness of that work under continual review. It is led by outstanding civil servants, to whom I wish to pay tribute now.
We know that, in several areas, EU rules have prevented us from improving standards of animal welfare. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is now doing the detailed preparation so that on day one of our freedom, he will be ready to take action, including to ban the trade in the export of live animals?
By next summer, the UK chemical industry will have spent £250 million registering its chemicals. It is united in wanting to remain within the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—REACH—scheme and to avoid EU tariffs of between 4% and 6% on its goods, so why is the Secretary of State proposing to double its regulatory burden by setting up a new agency here? Why is he playing politics with our second largest manufacturing sector?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I am delighted that Phil Hogan, the outstanding Commissioner for Agriculture, has secured assent for the reauthorisation of glyphosate for five more years. It is, as my hon. Friend makes clear, a valuable tool for ensuring that we can move towards no till or min till agriculture, which in itself is an environmental gain.
My colleagues and I are working hard to try to get the Northern Ireland Executive restored, but in the absence of an Executive will the Secretary of State ensure that he has discussions with the permanent secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland to ensure that our sector and its niche markets are protected beyond March 2019?
Absolutely. I am looking forward to representatives from DAERA coming to DEFRA next Thursday for the latest in our series of talks. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his Democratic Unionist party colleagues, who ensure that my ministerial colleagues and I are kept up to the mark with the policies that need to be shaped in the interests of Northern Ireland’s farmers and fishermen, who do so much to ensure that there is healthy food on all our plates.
Food and Drink Sector: Industrial Strategy
I am delighted that the industrial strategy White Paper, which sets out plans to boost productivity and earnings across the UK, recognises the importance of the food and drink sector, which is why we have announced a new food and drink sector council as part of the strategy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will be more aware than most that, owing to the quality of the product, the seafood processing industry in my constituency is less concerned about access to markets after we leave the EU than it is about access to labour. What discussions has he had with representatives of the Scottish seafood processing industry or, indeed, the Home Office to address such concerns?
There is no better champion of the Scottish fish processing industry than my hon. Friend, and it was thanks to his work that I was able to attend a roundtable in Aberdeen a couple of months ago, at which fish processors were able to put to me their specific demands. Since then, I have talked to the Home Secretary and the Immigration Minister about precisely those issues. I must say that were it not for my hon. Friend, that argument would not be happening at the heart of Government and it would not be being heard and acted upon. He is a brilliant advocate, and the people of Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Mintlaw, Turriff and the other communities in his constituency are exceptionally lucky to have him.
The hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) has just waved at the Chair, which may be analogous to, although not quite the same as, the conventional method of bobbing, but I am going to deduce that the hon. Gentleman is interested in contributing to our proceedings.
Absolutely. We all know that Carlsberg is primarily a brewer, but if Carlsberg did MPs, my hon. Friend would be the premium brand—fizzy with a great head and always a pleasure to spend time with of an evening. He is absolutely right that we need to ensure not only that major brewers can invest in this country, but that premium artisanal brewers have their interests represented, and that is what the industrial strategy will do.
All that remains is for the Secretary of State to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his characteristic acuity, which I know is a preferred phrase of the right hon. Gentleman. No doubt it will be in evidence at the next oral questions—we very much hope so.
Leaving the EU: Environmental Law
The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that we will consult on the creation of a new national policy statement on environmental principles and on a new independent and statutory body to hold the Government and, potentially, public authorities to account on their environmental commitments.
I thank the Minister for her response. The Government have boasted that they will leave the environment in a better state than they found it in, so does the Minister agree that we need to enshrine in law not only equivalent, but even better levels of environmental protections after we leave the EU?
I agree with the hon. Lady. We are absolutely committed to that, and it has been in our manifesto for the past two years. Aspects of the environment are improving, and with our 25-year environment plan, which will be published shortly, we will continue to set out that agenda for the next generation.
Leaving the EU: Puppy Welfare
We are actively looking to see what we can do in this area. Leaving the European Union provides us with new opportunities to deal with the illegal trade in puppies.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, once the EU pet travel rules have been transferred to the UK statute book, the scheme will be reviewed as a priority, taking into account the recommendations of the Dogs Trust? As he well knows, the trust has campaigned tirelessly for a number of years to change and improve the scheme.
It is not just the Dogs Trust that has campaigned; the hon. Lady has campaigned, too. She and the Dogs Trust are right that we need to look at the law. We hope to make announcements even before we leave the European Union about how the law can be improved.
I place on record my thanks to the Dogs Trust because, of the two dogs in the Gove family home, one is a rescue dog that the trust was responsible for finding.
We discussed the vital importance of the veterinary profession during our earlier exchanges on the question from the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron). I thank the nation’s chief veterinary officer, Nigel Gibbens, for his years of service as he moves on and leaves the Department. He has done an outstanding job, and the country is grateful for his service.
The UK’s terrible air pollution is getting worse and does not respect local authority boundaries. When can we expect an air quality plan that makes a real difference, or will the Secretary of State continue to shunt responsibility to councils that have neither the resources nor the powers to address this nationwide challenge?
Air quality is actually improving. I recognise the challenges on roadside NOx, but hopefully the hon. Lady is aware of the £90,000 grant given directly to Ealing Council to help to address particulates. We are preparing a wider clean air strategy, with a consultation next year.
My hon. Friend has been a clear and consistent advocate for higher standards of animal welfare, both before and since she entered this House. It is absolutely the case that we are committed to ensuring not just that we recognise the principle of animal sentience, but that we provide appropriate and stronger protection in UK law. We will shortly be bringing forward proposals on the appropriate legislative vehicle for that protection.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area. He has also been a great champion of the Woodland Trust’s work. I met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government yesterday to discuss precisely this issue, and I hope that we can bring forward proposals when the 25-year environment plan is published next year.
Thanks to my hon. Friend’s advocacy, I have had the opportunity to visit one of the distilleries in his constituency. I hope to be able to visit many more over the next few weeks, months and years. He is a brilliant advocate for the interests of the Scotch whisky industry. There are huge opportunities as we leave the European Union. There has been a particularly dramatic increase in exports of single malts since 2000 because of the effective and principled advocacy of people like him. Whether it is Glenlivet or Aberlour, they roll around the tongue perfectly, and they both have no better advocate than my hon. Friend.
We have been considering this carefully. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement on the publication of our abstraction plan within the next month. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will enjoy reading it, and I am happy to discuss it with him later.
Cornish food and drink is some of the best in the world, whether it is our amazing dairy products, such as Rodda’s cream, which is made in the constituency of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, or Tribute beer, which is brewed by St Austell. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with the Secretary of State for International Trade about the possible new markets for Cornish food and drink once we leave the EU?
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning Rodda’s, which is obviously a world-leading food company. It has been very successful in exporting its cream to the far east and other markets. We are in regular discussions with the Department for International Trade and, as I said earlier, there are export opportunities for our great food producers.
I am tempted to quote from the American poet, whose name I temporarily forget, who made the point that “I contain multitudes”. The truth is that we want to go further than existing EU law to protect animal welfare. A better legislative vehicle is available, and we will make an announcement about that next week.
Cats Protection has highlighted the fact that when the UK signed up to the EU pet travel scheme, we had to abandon the previous requirements that cats coming into the UK needed compulsory treatment against tapeworm and ticks. When we leave the EU, may we reinstate these regulations?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Only last week we announced that we would be simplifying countryside stewardship and having four principal routes that farmers can take. I look forward to working with her to ensure that the farmers she represents have access to this money, which will ensure that her beautiful constituency receives the cash it needs for further environmental enhancement.
There was huge applause for the Government’s decision to ban the UK ivory trade, but there is now growing evidence of an increase in the trade in hippo ivory. With only 100,000 or so African hippos left, the slightest increase in demand could spell disaster for that species. May I urge Ministers to extend the proposed ban to include other ivory-bearing species such as hippo, narwhal, walrus and the like?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The scope of our proposed legislation is so far restricted to African and Asian elephants, but the consultation is still open, so I will take what he says as a submission. We are very keen to see what we can do to protect all endangered species and their habitats, and this may be one way of achieving that.
When we leave the EU, the UK will be able to set its own farm support policy. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of whether, if the EU continues farm support, the UK will have to do so, because otherwise British farming could be severely disadvantaged?
My hon. Friend is one of the most formidable and knowledgeable experts on the agri-food business in this House, and he is absolutely right to say that we need to keep pace with what is happening in other markets to ensure that we support farmers to continue the work that they do. It is thanks to his advocacy that National Farmers Union of Scotland representatives will be coming into DEFRA next Thursday, when I look forward to discussing how we can ensure that they and their colleagues get the support they deserve in the future.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Marriage Certificates: Equal Registration
I have had many recent discussions with Departments, particularly the Home Office, not least because of my Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill, which is in train. There is an identical Bill before the House of Lords that would achieve the same purpose of allowing mothers to sign marriage certificates. I am not precious about which Bill gets to the finishing line first—we just need to do it.
There is agreement among Members on both sides of the House and across Government that the situation needs to change, so will my right hon. Friend make representations to our colleagues in government about their previous commitment to use Government time to get one of the Bills passed?
Yes. Many Members on both sides of the House have sought to achieve that end. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) for promoting an identical Bill, as well as the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees)—I want to emphasise that this is a cross-party issue—who presented a previous Bill. I received a letter from the Prime Minister in April in response to one that I sent. She absolutely acknowledges the commitment made in 2014 by her predecessor to achieve this, and recognises the need for primary legislation to make sure that the details of both parents can be on the certificate.
Yes, I reassure my hon. Friend that the registers will remain in the vestry for that all-important photo. Under the proposed new system, on which the Church has consulted, vicars will download a marriage certificate, which will be signed by the couple, as is currently the case, and the vicar will complete the form by filling in the parents’ names, which explicitly gives the possibility of mothers being on the certificate in the future.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s comprehensive answer, which leaves me little more to add, other than to ask whether she and the Church of England will support my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill, which is due for Second Reading on 2 February 2018 and includes those exact requirements. Will the Church of England also agree to back equal civil partnerships, through their extension to opposite-sex partnerships, as set out by the Bill?
The Church has no fixed view on equal civil partnerships but, in general, if they are for stable, committed and long-lasting relationships, they are likely to be beneficial, especially when children are involved. Personally I support that, and for that reason I have rolled my Bill beyond the date for the consideration of my hon. Friend’s Bill to give him an opportunity to make progress.
I ask myself the very same question. There have been several attempts and undertakings, including by the previous Labour Government in 2002. I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to do everything they can to make sure that we achieve this change in the law and give fair wind to the Registration of Marriage (No. 2) Bill.
When answering that question on previous occasions, I have given examples of how churches reach out to the surrounding community so that the thought of getting married is not intimidating. It does not need to be expensive, either—getting married in church is probably the least part of what it actually costs to put on a wedding. I can point the hon. Gentleman towards our materials to encourage people to get married in church.
Given that 25% of households are single-parent households, and that 90% of those are mother-led households, does the right hon. Lady agree that the marriage certificate must take into account that large section of people who are overlooked, yet in real life watch over everything in the home?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which really came out in the Westminster Hall debate that I secured. A number of hon. Members who are themselves the children of a single parent—in most cases, the mother—were really disappointed to find out at the moment they got married that their mum, who had done everything possible to bring them up, was not, under existing law, able to sign the certificate as the parent. That is a very strong reason why the situation needs to change.
My right hon. Friend’s commitment on this issue is well known, and it is clear that both sides of the House are very supportive of what she, I and others have tried to achieve. Following her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), can she reaffirm that the Church, as it set out to me when I brought forward my private Member’s Bill, remains supportive of what we are trying to achieve?
I would like to clear up any possible misunderstanding that the Church is in any way against making this change: the reverse is true. The Church has consulted on changing the marriage registration process. It will save money through the practical reality of moving to an electronic register. The General Register Office is in favour of making the change, and there is cross-party and institutional support—let us just get it done.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
Police Force Financial Sustainability
The National Audit Office’s work programme is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General, not the Public Accounts Commission. The NAO does not audit individual police forces, but through its access to the Home Office it published the report “Financial sustainability of police forces in England and Wales” in June 2015.
I am grateful for that answer. An independent assessment of police force funding would be welcome, not just on an individual force level, but as a whole. The hon. Gentleman is right that the NAO published an effective report two years ago, but the Government have claimed since then that they have protected police funding, which has been challenged by police and crime commissioners and the UK Statistics Authority. An independent assessment would be welcome, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to make that request of the NAO.
Of course I will pass that request to the Comptroller and Auditor General. The hon. Lady is right: although police forces have successfully reduced costs since 2011, the report that I mentioned has recommended that the Home Office works with other bodies to develop better information on the health of police services and early warnings of when a force might fail. Her question is apposite.
The NAO is continually looking at how it can save money. The most recent audited financial accounts show that the NAO has reduced its net resource costs by 21% in real terms against its 2010-11 baseline. That is even while taking on a much greater role in local government at the request of Parliament.
The commission constantly urges the NAO to make greater steps to reduce its costs. The NAO has been very successful, and it saves many times its own budget in looking at every other Department to ensure that we get good value for money. My hon. Friend makes a fair point that the NAO must lead the way in reducing its own staffing costs.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Alcohol Subsidy: Parliamentary Estate
There is no direct financial subsidy on alcohol sales in the House of Commons. Alcohol is sold in House of Commons bars and some catering venues, and at banqueting and events, achieving a gross profit margin of some 69%. The profit of some £1 million a year helps to offset the total cost of catering.
Parliamentary Press Lobby: Diversity
Professor Childs recommended a target of a representative parliamentary Press Gallery—Lobby journalists—such that neither women nor men should be in receipt of less than 40% of Lobby passes by 2020. As of 6 December, 25.6% of the 246 valid Lobby passes on issue were for women. As a result of my hon. Friend’s question, I will seek the best means of publishing those figures on a regular basis.
Diversity matters in our democracy— both in this House and also up there in the Press Gallery, among those who create the lens through which our politics is viewed. I am glad that the Commission will look to publish diversity data on the journalists covering Parliament, but I encourage it to implement recommendation 4 of “The Good Parliament” review in full by publishing data not only on gender, but on other characteristics; by breaking down the data by media organisation; and by setting clear targets so that, by 2020, men and women each have no fewer than 40% of passes for the journalists’ Lobby on the estate.
My hon. Friend may be aware that currently neither the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, nor the Commission, has considered the recommendation of “The Good Parliament” report. However, following her question, I will certainly ensure that they do as soon as possible, and I will look specifically at ensuring that the extensive level of detail that she has requested is reflected in future reports.
I think that “The Good Parliament” report will come to be seen as a pivotal and seminal publication in the history of the reform and modernisation of this place. Will the right hon. Gentleman say a bit more about how its recommendations, including those relating to the Press Gallery, are being taking forward, and how the Commission is considering them in the light of other opportunities to renew and restore this place, including in the northern estate?
One of the measures of the importance that is being placed on the report is the emphasis that Mr Speaker and the House of Commons Commission are putting on it. This is clearly something that Members of Parliament are actively tracking. I am therefore confident that both the Commons Reference Group and, indeed, the Commission, will want to ensure that due priority is given to the recommendations of “The Good Parliament” report, and that they are implemented as soon as possible.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Egypt: Attacks on Religious Communities
The Church supports ecumenical agencies such as Embrace the Middle East. That, in turn, has supported four projects, including for the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services in Cairo, which supports more than 2 million Egyptians in more than 100 rural and urban communities.
What steps is the Church taking to highlight the importance of a cross-Department approach to tackling the persecution of religious minorities, especially Christians abroad, not simply because that is the right thing to do, but because it is important for our security at home?
The Church regularly facilitates opportunities for Church representatives to speak to Government Departments. Only this week we facilitated a visit by a bishop from Zimbabwe, who spoke to Foreign Office Ministers. I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the interesting speech made by the Bishop of Peterborough on 5 December, in which he talked very much about the hidden victims of persecution. I think that she will find comfort in the bishop’s speech with regard to awareness of how this plays at home.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the many displaced middle east Christians need support to ensure that they have safe environments in which to live and flourish? Hopefully, they will be able, in time, to return to their home communities. Will she join me in commending Open Doors for its global seven-year campaign, “Hope for the Middle East”?
I certainly commend Open Doors. I recommend to Members next Wednesday afternoon’s “Hope for the Middle East” event in the Terrace Pavilion, where Open Doors will be encouraging us all to support the plight of those people.
As that was probably the last question to me before the recess, may I wish everybody a happy Christmas? Let us not forget that Jesus was carried in his mother’s arms all the way to Egypt, fleeing persecution, so while we celebrate, let us also remember those who are forced to flee from persecution.
ELECTORAL COMMISSION COMMITTEE
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
EU Referendum: Electoral Commission Resources
The Electoral Commission has experience of undertaking multiple investigations and is confident that its resourcing for this year is sufficient. Nevertheless, it recognises that its workload in this area has increased. Early in 2018, the commission will be submitting its budget for the next financial year for scrutiny. It is for the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission to agree the estimate before its submission to Parliament.
I hope that the Speaker’s Committee will ensure that the Electoral Commission has all the resources it needs to do this important work. As well as investigating Russian interference, which the Electoral Commission’s chairman, John Holmes, confirmed it was doing yesterday, will my hon. Friend comment on whether the commission is examining whether there was any collusion between Vote Leave, Leave.EU, Labour Leave, BeLeave, the Democratic Unionist party and Veterans for Britain? Will she also comment on whether the role of the United States hedge fund billionaire, Robert Mercer, is being investigated?
I know that the commission has had useful and positive engagement with my right hon. Friend about these matters. Various investigations are under way, so it will not be possible to comment further, but I can assure him that once any investigations are complete, the commission will decide whether any breaches have occurred and, if so, what further action may be appropriate. The outcome of all investigations will be publicised on the Electoral Commission website in due course.