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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
25 January 2018
Volume 635

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Plastic Waste

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1. What steps he is taking to reduce waste from plastics. [903535]

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8. What steps he is taking to reduce waste from plastics. [903544]

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On 11 January, the Government published our 25-year environment plan, which states our ambition to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. We have already banned microbeads in personal care products, we are removing single-use plastics from Government estate offices, we are exploring a reward and return scheme, and we welcome the introduction by retailers of plastic-free aisles. We are also investigating how we can develop our producer responsibility scheme to give producers more incentives to design more resource-efficient products.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Hayling Island beach has been recognised for its clean coastline by being awarded a blue flag for the past 26 years, partly because it is plastic-free. Will the Secretary of State congratulate Havant Borough Council and local residents, and continue to support coastal communities to keep coastlines plastic-free?

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I absolutely will. The leadership shown by Havant Borough Council is equalled, of course, by the leadership shown by my hon. Friend. When I had the opportunity to visit his constituency and its coastline last year, I saw his commitment to our marine environment. It is vital that colleagues such as my hon. Friend are applauded for their determined environmental work.

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People in Chelmsford really care about their recycling. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what actions we can take to ensure that the end product can be put to meaningful use after we put things in our recycling?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. She has made determined efforts in not just this Parliament but the European Parliament to make recycling easier for all. We are exploring how we can better co-ordinate efforts at a local level to ensure that more material is recycled and, indeed, that more recyclable material is used.

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On a visit to Bywaters recycling centre in Bow yesterday, I saw the amazing work that the waste industry is doing to tackle our waste and heard about some of the challenges it faces. I was told that the Chinese ban on imports of UK waste has caused the price of recycled paper to fall from £100 a tonne to £20 a tonne, and I presume that the same can be said for plastic. That will have an impact on the viability of councils’ recycling contracts and will feed through to council tax bills. Does the Secretary of State agree that we can tackle the problem by setting long-term targets for the waste industry, such as the 65% target by 2035 that has been suggested by the EU?

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Setting appropriate targets is absolutely part of this. One of the challenges of the EU’s target is that, because weight is such an important component in how the EU measures recycling, it does not always incentivise quite the right behaviour. Even though the EU has made important strides, I am glad that our own Government have gone further by ensuring that we tackle the scourge of single-use plastics.

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The UK is in a unique position to tackle plastic waste in the world’s oceans due to the number of our overseas territories. Will the Secretary of State be speaking to those overseas territories to develop a comprehensive strategy in this area?

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Well—[Interruption.] It was a very good question. The hon. Gentleman always asks very good questions, whether in this House or elsewhere, and he also writes very good books. He makes an important point, and the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), will be meeting representatives of the overseas territories next month. He is right that there is more work to do on the network of marine protected areas around many of our overseas territories, and he is right to encourage us.

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I am sure that the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) will feel that his status not just in this House, but in the country—perhaps even in the world as a whole—will have been greatly enhanced by the generous tribute that has just been bestowed upon him by the Secretary of State.

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12. Primary school pupils at Oxley Park Academy in my constituency have launched a campaign to replace plastic straws with environmentally friendly alternatives. Will the Secretary of State commend their initiative and, if I send him the details, will he take on board their suggestions? [903549]

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I absolutely commend the pupils’ initiative. The next generation often puts some of us to shame in its commitment to ensure that we have a more sustainable approach towards the environment. There is another youngster who has been leading the charge against plastic straws: the relatively newly installed editor of London’s Evening Standard, whose “The Last Straw” campaign has been instrumental in ensuring that commercial organisations ban plastic straws. He is a relatively new entrant to my profession of journalism and I commend him on his promising start.

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The Secretary of State thinks that the young man is not doing too badly, and I am sure that the young man concerned will feel fortified by that.

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I commend the Secretary of State for the publication of the environmental strategy, which is an important and significant step, but there are still opportunities to do more. Will he tell the House why he allowed 25 years in the strategy for the elimination of non-essential plastics? If they are non-essential, surely we can do better than that.

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I have enormous respect for the right hon. Gentleman. The nature of the 25-year plan was a recommendation of the Natural Capital Committee and, as he knows, it covers a wide range of issues. The Government are bringing forward more demanding and more ambitious targets to reduce single-use plastics, but he is right to encourage the Government, and all of us, to do more.

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I wish you, Mr Speaker, and the Minister a happy Burns day. In Scotland, there is discussion about a plastic bottle return scheme. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his counterparts in the Scottish Government to ensure that a system can effectively work while preventing English bottles from being paid for by the Scottish Government, and vice versa?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her question. On the subject of Burns day, I recently had discussions with the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs at the US Department of Agriculture to see whether he could lift the ban on haggis. Although the American President has many faults, he has one virtue: he has a Scots mum. On that basis, I hope he may listen sympathetically.

On the equally important issue of the deposit return scheme, we will be working with devolved Administrations to ensure that we have a UK-wide approach wherever possible.

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The House will certainly want to be kept informed about the haggis situation, and I am sure the Secretary of State will not disappoint us in that regard.

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Mr Speaker, I am sure that you would agree that plastic pollution is one of today’s great environmental challenges. The Secretary of State has mentioned the importance of recycling a number of times, so I am concerned by reports that the Government have been opposing the new EU targets. Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government are opposing the new recycling targets?

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We are anxious to make sure that, across the EU, we have the right targets. One of the flaws with the EU system, as I acknowledged earlier, is that because of its reliance on measuring through weight, it sometimes incentivises the wrong approaches. I am confident that our own country has gone further than the European Union has requested or suggested on everything from banning microplastics to looking at taxes on single-use plastics and, indeed, introducing the charge on plastic bags. In all those areas we have shown that we have gone further and faster than the EU, and of course that is the Government’s ambition for a truly green Brexit.

Trail Hunting

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2. What assessment he has made of the extent to which trail hunting is used as a cover to conduct illegal fox hunting. [903536]

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14. What assessment he has made of the extent to which trail hunting is used as a cover to conduct illegal foxhunting. [903552]

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With my leave, the supplementary to Question 2 will be put by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar). I wish the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) well, and we hope he is in full voice again very soon.

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I also hope that the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) recovers his voice soon.

The Government have made no assessment of the effect of trail hunting. However, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police, as the police deal with complaints of illegal hunting. Decisions on the arrest and prosecution of those taking part in illegal hunting activities are matters for the police and prosecuting authorities.

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The Minister will be aware that concerns are growing that trail hunting is being used as a cover for illegal hunting. This was recently brought into focus by the invasion of a cat sanctuary—run by the well-known Celia Hammond Animal Trust—in East Sussex by a pack of hounds from the Romney Marsh hunt. What action will the Government take against those who continue to hunt illegally?

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The law in this area is clear. Between 2005 and 2015, 682 individuals were prosecuted and 423 were found guilty, so the law is clear and is being enforced. Even groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have accepted that this is a law that is being enforced.

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In the four weeks since Boxing day, at least four foxes in Cheshire have been illegally killed by trail hunts. As the Government have withdrawn their plans to scrap anti-hunting laws, is it the case that someone in government has given a secret nod and a wink to trail hunts that they can continue to hunt and kill foxes with impunity?

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No, that is not the case. The Prime Minister has made it clear that she has listened to the mood of the country and that there therefore will not be the free vote on foxhunting in this Parliament that we pledged in our manifesto. As I said earlier, foxhunting is a matter for the police and the prosecuting authorities. Anybody who believes the law has been broken should report it to the police.

Disposable Plastic Packaging

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3. What steps he is taking to discourage the use of disposable plastic packaging. [903537]

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In addition to the measures that I set out in my previous answers, our 25-year environment plan explores how we can better incentivise producers to design better products, including packaging. We are working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme charity and the industry to increase the amount of recyclable packaging on the market.

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More than 200 Members signed my letter on what the supermarkets could do to improve their recycling so that they meet the targets that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) mentioned. Which supermarkets has the Secretary of State personally spoken to in order to bring them in line with Iceland, which is apparently the leader in this area?

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That letter was excellent, if I may say so. I have talked to not only Iceland, but Marks and Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s. We had a roundtable before Christmas at which those retailers and others made a shared commitment to ensure that we reduce the demand for plastic, that fewer plastics are used, and that those plastics that we have more of are recycled or recyclable. A commitment was also made to work with local government to make it easier for all to recycle.

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Will the Secretary of State outline what steps he is taking to improve and increase the capacity of recycling facilities and infrastructure across the country?

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We are looking at how we might reform the packaging recovery note—PRN—system to ensure that the market works better to encourage more recycling and more capacity in the waste industry.

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When I was doing my family shopping at Asda in Wrexham last weekend, I noticed the appalling amount of plastic packaging on meat products, which seems to be in place for the ease of the supermarkets rather than that of their customers. Will the Secretary of State please raise the issue of packaging with the supermarkets?

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I absolutely will, but while I have no wish to undermine Asda, which is an admirable retailer, I find that when buying meat, the best thing to do is to go to one’s local butcher, buy locally and invest in the local economy.

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Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Water UK on its initiative to encourage more places on our high streets to allow people to refill their water bottles, rather than buying water in disposable plastic containers?

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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Water UK’s initiative is wholly welcome. The idea of a nationwide network of refill stations is absolutely right. The decline of public water fountains marked a deeply regrettable trend, so I am glad that they are making a comeback.

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Some 480 billion plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016. If we want to address one of the key issues, it has to be plastic bottles. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the companies to reduce the number of bottles or to have them reused—whatever the case may be?

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We have discussed with industry bodies representing a variety of manufacturers and with retailers everything that we can do to reduce such use. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The world’s conscience has been awoken to the scourge of plastic in our oceans by the crusading work of documentary makers such as David Attenborough, and also by an increasing awareness of how important it is that we tread more lightly on our planet. The leadership that the hon. Gentleman has been showing in Northern Ireland is exemplary.

Ivory Sales

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4. Whether the Government plan to have their proposed ban on ivory sales in place by the illegal wildlife trade summit in October 2018. [903538]

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The Government’s consultation closed on 29 December. We had more than 70,000 responses, so we are considering them carefully. We want to act at pace—that is why officials are preparing legislation—but we need to be careful that we give due consideration to all the responses so that we introduce appropriate legislation that will end the scourge of elephant poaching in Africa and other parts of the world.

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Wildlife crime is a threat to conservation and animal welfare at home and abroad. Wildlife and Countryside Link’s report has revealed that enforcement officers are hindered by a lack of proper recording and reporting processes. As we prepare to host the IWT summit, and considering the progress that my hon. Friend has referred to regarding the trade of ivory products, what assurances can she give me and the all-party group on endangered species, of which I am the chair, about the measures being taken by the Department to address the matter?

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The UK Government have been active in taking practical action to reduce demand and strengthen enforcement. We are investing in schemes around the world to reduce this pernicious trade. DEFRA and the Home Office continue to fund the national wildlife crime unit to tackle wildlife crime here in the UK. Actionable intelligence is key, and I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to make this a priority.

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I support the noble aim of both the Secretary of State and the Minister in this regard, but the hon. Lady will be aware of concerns among antique dealers about the ramifications for products that contain historical ivory. Can she offer any assurance to assuage their concerns that the sale of ivory that has been in antiques for generations will be allowed to continue?

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We are considering the matter carefully, but we need to have a comprehensive ban. In the consultation, we put forward a suggestion on several exemptions, and we are looking through the responses to that particularly carefully. Nevertheless, it is important that we recognise that having ivory as a valuable object just because it is ivory is something that we simply do not want in this country or around the world, which is why we are taking strong action.

Leaving the EU: Air Quality

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5. What steps he is taking to improve air quality after the UK leaves the EU. [903539]

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I am pleased to say that the Government will continue to improve air quality, supported by the new comprehensive clean air strategy that we are developing and will publish later this year. We have already put in place a £3.5 billion plan to improve air quality, with a particular focus on transport, and we have significant targets to reduce emissions of the five damaging air pollutants. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that this is a devolved matter, and the Welsh Government are actively considering how to improve air quality in Wales.

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By when does the Minister think that Volkswagen will face criminal charges in the UK for its emissions scandal?

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I am not a Transport Minister, but we all recognise that consumers—including, I expect, people in the House today—will have felt duped by the dodgy practices that took place. Transport Ministers are actively engaged with this issue.

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I represent a car-manufacturing constituency. Will the Minister acknowledge that the UK car industry has made significant contributions through its investment in low emission cars, which is a key part of the strategy to improve air quality?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have been investing in improving and cleaning up transport infrastructure. We have introduced legislation to require the deployment of far more electric charging points. I am pleased that the money we are investing is helping to clean up buses, which is key to improving air quality, particularly in urban centres.

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The Minister will recognise that there is an air quality crisis now, particularly in respect of the impact on children. Some of the problem is down to the most polluting vehicles, including heavy goods vehicles and buses. What will this joined-up Government do to make sure that we get those vehicles off our roads?

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This is why the Government are investing—we have been for several years—to clean up things like the bus vehicle fleet. We have the clean transport fund. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be keen to work with his council and Greater Manchester to work on an air quality plan, because it is important that we have local solutions that tackle the local issues.

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The Government’s air quality plans are simply inadequate, and they have been taken back to court yet again. With an estimated 40,000 premature deaths attributed to illegal air pollution every year, just how critical does the situation have to get before the Government finally act to comply with the High Court ruling? Will the Secretary of State and the Minister support Labour calls to introduce a new clean air Act to deal urgently with this matter?

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We need clean air action and that is what the Government are delivering. We are working with local councils, and I wish the hon. Lady would encourage Labour councils to get on with it. I have had to issue ministerial directions to get councils to bring forward plans, and that is a real problem. I wish that we could work collegiately on this, because what matters is improving the health of the people we represent. I am keen to do that, and I would welcome the hon. Lady’s support in working with Labour-led councils to achieve that.

Flood Insurance

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6. What progress he has made on ensuring access to affordable flood insurance for people living in high flood risk areas; and if he will make a statement. [903540]

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Before the introduction of Flood Re in 2016, only 9% of householders who had previously claimed for a flood could subsequently get insurance quotes from two or more insurers. By October 2017, availability had improved such that 100% of householders could get quotes from two or more insurers. Costs are down, and four out of five householders who have previously made a flood claim have seen price reductions of more than 50%.

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It is two years since Storm Eva and, with flood alerts along the River Ouse in York this week, residents living in leasehold accommodation or accommodation built since 2009, along with businesses, have been failed by the Government’s not putting in place appropriate insurance. What recent discussions has the Minister had about this issue?

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I direct the hon. Lady’s attention to the record £2.5 billion that we are investing in flood defences between 2015 and 2021, from which people and businesses in York will benefit, as she knows. The rules for leaseholders are quite specific. After careful parliamentary scrutiny, a certain approach was taken so that commercially required insurance was not included in Flood Re. I continue to meet the British Insurance Brokers Association. Members have raised around five cases with me, and those are the ones that I am pursuing.

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Flood Re has really helped to cover residential properties, but what about a guest house? Is that a business or a residence? Can it actually get affordable insurance? Businesses, and small businesses in particular, are finding it difficult to get affordable insurance.

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As I have said, I have taken up the issue of leasehold properties, and I have had the issue of commercial properties raised with me. Flood Re was a big and quite fundamental change in this country. In fact, every householder supports other householders for a limited period of time to help with flood resilience. It would be a massive change for businesses in one part of the country to subsidise other businesses because of their location choices. I recognise that this is not a straightforward issue, which is why we continue to work with the insurance industry to improve cover.

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Many in Cumbria who suffered flooding were affected by surface water flooding. Although the Environment Agency’s flood defences must meet a once in 100-year standard, the water companies are obliged to meet only a once in 50-year standard. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that the water companies are held to the higher standard so that homes and businesses are not put at risk of the devastation and misery caused by flooding?

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We are talking about water companies and the protection of assets. Surface water is the responsibility of local councils. We are working on a strategy, led by the Environment Agency, which has overall strategic oversight on this, and we will be doing more on surface water flooding this year.

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As we have already heard, parts of the country, including my constituency, were affected by both flood warnings and flooding again this week. The 25-year environment plan gave the Government the opportunity to think long-term about responding to flood risk. Although I appreciate that the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy will be updated in 2019, can the Minister explain why the plan itself fails to include any proposals or funding relating to reducing flood risk beyond just the next three years?

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When the Government made the decision to have a six-year plan for funding, they dramatically changed the situation for householders and businesses. The decision allowed the Environment Agency to have long-term plans instead of having a year-to-year hand-to-mouth existence. The hon. Lady should welcome the fact that we have that in place, and we will be working on future budgets at the appropriate time.

Trade Deals: Standards

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7. What steps he is taking to safeguard UK food safety and animal welfare standards in future trade deals. [903542]

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The Government are proud of the high food safety and animal welfare standards that underpin our high-quality Great British produce. We have no intention of undercutting our own reputation for quality by lowering our food and animal welfare standards in pursuit of a trade deal.

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On that basis, then, does the Minister know whether his boss, a former Education Secretary, would be content to serve our schoolchildren American chlorinated chicken?

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The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that, when we leave the European Union, the withdrawal Bill will bring across all existing EU regulations, including those on chlorinated chicken. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said many times, animal welfare is the issue here, and the issue of chlorinated chicken can sometimes mask animal welfare concerns.

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British farmers will be completely undermined if we have a flood of imports from countries with lower animal welfare standards. Will the Minister now tell the House that that is to be one of the Government’s red lines in negotiating free trade agreements?

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If the hon. Lady had listened to my earlier answer, she would have heard me say that we have no intention of undercutting our own reputation for quality by lowering our food and animal welfare standards in pursuit of a trade deal.

Plastic Waste

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9. What steps the Government are taking to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the sea. [903545]

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We are taking a series of measures to reduce the amount of plastic entering the sea. Our plastic bag charge has led to 9 billion fewer single use bags being used in England. Our microbead ban, which comes into force this month, is one of the toughest in the world, but of course we need to work internationally through forums such as the UN, the G7 and the G20.

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As the Secretary of State is aware, on 6 February I will be hosting an event in Parliament, together with Sky TV, as part of its ocean rescue campaign, inviting Members of Parliament to pledge to reduce the amount of plastic that they use in this place. Does he agree that it is important that Members take a lead and set an example on this issue, and will he join me in encouraging them to come to that event and to commit to cut the amount of plastic used here?

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It is an excellent campaign that Sky has been running, and it is lucky to have my hon. Friend playing such a prominent role, as he has been an outstanding environmental campaigner on this issue for many years. Yes, there is a commitment that we can all make. I also know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), the Chair of the Administration Committee, to see what the House can do to ensure that we reduce the amount of single use plastic on the parliamentary estate.

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We are indeed considering these matters, and I know that the Secretary of State will feel that there is a song in his heart at the revelation of that development.

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The Welsh Labour Government are the third best in the world for recycling, far exceeding their targets this year alone. I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating them on that. Can he clarify his position on recycling? He talks a good talk but does little to demonstrate action and is in danger of missing vital EU targets.

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I am happy to praise the Welsh Labour Government on this occasion—there are all sorts of things that Labour in Wales gets wrong, but on recycling I think it is only fair that we say well done. More broadly, it is really important that we all do more, and I want to thank you, Mr Speaker, for the commitment that you have shown with regard to the parliamentary estate. Of course we can do more; I can do more. The critical point is that when people are doing the right thing, as they are in Wales, we should applaud them.

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I will now go about my business with an additional glint in my eye and spring in my step, confident in the knowledge that I have at least some approval from a person as illustrious and distinguished as the right hon. Gentleman.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903553]

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The House will have heard the very sad news earlier this month that the Nancy Glen, a fishing vessel, was lost off the west coast of Scotland while fishing in Loch Fyne. Two fishermen lost their lives. The Clyde Fishermen’s Association is running an appeal to raise money to recover their bodies and support their families. We all know the inherent risk in fishing. The DEFRA Ministers, on behalf of the whole House, would like to thank all those who risk their lives every day to ensure that we can eat fresh fish. Our hearts go out to the families so sadly affected by this tragedy.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for what he has said. Can he assure constituents right across the United Kingdom that the new UK-wide frameworks that will be brought in as a result of our leaving the European Union will work for all farmers, whether arable, livestock, dairy or hill, and wherever they live in the UK, whether in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. He does an outstanding job working for his constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire, and I am looking forward to visiting his beautiful constituency next week. We must absolutely continue to work across the United Kingdom to ensure that the interests of all farmers—Scottish, Welsh or English, and arable or livestock—are respected by a new UK-wide framework.

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The 2016 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds bird crime report stated that there were 81 confirmed cases of raptor persecution, yet not one prosecution followed. Can the Minister explain why, and what is she going to do about it?

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We take this issue very seriously, which is why it is one of National Wildlife Crime Unit’s six crime priorities. It is important that we continue to get evidence so that we can have appropriate prosecutions. The Government cannot direct the police or the Crown Prosecution Service to launch those prosecutions, but we encourage everybody who cares for wildlife to bring evidence to the police.

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I call Rehman Chishti. Where is the fellow? He is not here—oh dear, oh dear. Never mind. All is well with the world; the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) is here.

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T5. Will the Minister come and see what we can do to restore the Avon water meadows? [903558]

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I was in Hampshire recently, visiting six different constituencies, and I would be delighted to return to the wonderful New Forest in due course to look at the matter.

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We remember the crew of the Nancy Glen, and the Secretary of State’s words are appreciated.

Farming expects the Secretary of State to continue his support and to maintain standards, of course, but the question for fishing, given all the tonnes he will take from the European Union, is this: where is it going, and when?

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On to the plates of people from the Western Isles to the south-west of England, who can enjoy the fantastic produce that our fishermen catch every day.

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Good dodge.

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Thank you.

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I am delighted that Doddington has been granted permission for 600,000 trees to be planted as part of our future environment plan. This is the largest planting scheme in England for a generation. Doddington is a great example of modern mixed forestry, but we need to ensure that this is not the end but the beginning. It is vital that the Forestry Commission supports those who want to plant more trees for reasons such as supporting sustainable river basins. I hope that the Secretary of State will undertake to make sure that this happens. I would be delighted if he would come and visit.

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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, the Doddington North Moor development will be hugely welcome, not just in ensuring that we have more woodland cover but in providing a valuable habitat for the red squirrel—a native species that I think we all want to see better protected. We will be working with landowners, the Forestry Commission and others to ensure that there is more forest cover in the years ahead.

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T2. The Royal Bank of Scotland’s decision to close over 60 branches will devastate rural communities, and farming communities are really worried about it. The Prime Minister has completely washed her hands of this, but will the Secretary of State at least meet RBS and make the case for rural communities? [903555]

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Access to banking and other services is vital for the future of rural communities. I commend the Press and Journal newspaper for the campaign that it has been running, which has been enthusiastically backed by my hon. Friends the Members for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson). All those fine Scottish Conservative colleagues have been leading this campaign. The Scottish Government have a responsibility to do more with regard to safeguarding the interests of Scottish farmers, and it has fallen to Scottish Conservative colleagues to be in the lead in the campaign. [Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is a most eccentric denizen of the House. There is a lot of arm-waving and gesticulation of a very rarefied character. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he now holds an illustrious position in the House, because he chairs a Select Committee. He is trying to become a senior statesperson. A little less finger-pointing would enhance his statesmanlike credentials no end.

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Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the vision for the new 50 million tree northern forest and share my delight that the first tree planting will be at the Woodland Trust’s Smithills site in Bolton West?

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Indeed. This ribbon of woodland and forest along the M62 will be welcome, and the Government are kick-starting the project with a £5.7 million grant. We will continue to work with the Woodland Trust and other community forests in making this a reality. I am particularly pleased for my hon. Friend, and I look forward to heading to Bolton to see where the first tree is planted.

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T3. There is strong cross-party and public support for increasing the penalties for animal cruelty to five- year prison sentences. Could that be done forthwith rather than waiting for the draft animal welfare Bill, which is still subject to consultation? [903556]

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I am very grateful for the hon. Lady’s support—of course, she has a distinguished record as a Home Office Minister. We will look at any proposals that come from any part of the House to try to make sure that we can expedite this legislation.

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I understand the Secretary of State’s concerns about what happens to plastic waste once it has been used, but does he agree that its use by retailers in particular gives consumers the widest possible choice and prevents food waste? It is important that any measures that we introduce do not reduce consumer choice and do not cause more of our food to be wasted.

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Although we need to reduce demand for plastic and increase recycling, plastic does have a role to play in the preservation of fresh produce and in helping us to tackle food waste, which is in itself an environmental and economic mistake.

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T6. Across Dulwich and West Norwood this winter we have once again seen a huge number of Thames Water leaks, many of them at sites where there have previously been repeated leaks. Last year, Thames Water reported operating profits of £650 million. It has a corporate structure involving offshore companies. The chair of Ofwat has highlighted the“urgent need for…a step change in the way”Thames “operates and behaves.” Will the Secretary of State tell my constituents when they can expect to see a winter without the disruption caused by an organisation that is clearly not fit for purpose? [903559]

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The hon. Lady is angry on behalf of her constituents, and I share her concern. That is why the chairman of Ofwat, Jonson Cox, has been doing such a good job in holding Thames and other water companies to account. Change is coming, but of course I want it to come faster.

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As the Secretary of State said, it is vital that we educate our young people about the dangers of plastics in the seas in particular. Will he join me in congratulating Alfie from New Waltham Academy in my constituency, who has done so much to promote this issue? When he visits the area in the not too distant future to meet the fishing and seafood community, as I know he intends to, will he perhaps visit the academy?

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I would be delighted.

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T7. In reference to air pollution, not a single area of London meets the World Health Organisation standards for the damaging type of particle known as PM2.5, and 95% of the capital exceeds the guidelines by at least 50%. The clean air action to which the Minister referred needs resourcing. When will the Government, instead of passing the buck to local and regional authorities, put some money on these fine words? [903560]

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I think the huge amount of investment in improving transport infrastructure and helping local councils has certainly done that. When it comes to PM2.5, this issue affects everybody, and that is why it is a key part of what we will be addressing in our clean air strategy. I encourage people to do the right things under the strategy—do not burn wet wood, and think about switching to smokeless coal. These are the kinds of things on which we can take immediate action now, as well as acting on the long-term issue of improving infrastructure.

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One reason why our countryside is so admired and so respected by urban dwellers is the way it is looked after and managed by our farmers. When will the Secretary of State be able to build on his Oxford speech this month, and say more about long-term support for agriculture?

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When we think of admiration and respect, it is the admiration and respect due to my right hon. Friend. He has been an outstanding Minister and a fantastic constituency Member for the Derbyshire Dales, which is one of the most beautiful parts of England. He is absolutely right that, building on the speech I gave to the Oxford farming conference, more needs to be said and done to outline the framework for farming in the future. I hope to do so at the National Farmers Union conference, when I can celebrate our farmers, who are the best in the world.

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Have it framed and put it up in the living room.

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Haggis production depends on a strong Scottish sheep farming sector. Hill farming and crofting are vital for the local economy of my constituency. The Secretary of State may say that this is a devolved matter, but come Brexit will he work as closely as possible with the Scottish Government in sharing best practice and knowledge to make sure that my constituents’ livelihood is safeguarded as far as is humanly possible?

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We are already working incredibly closely, obviously, with all the devolved Administrations, and indeed we have been doing so to discuss these very matters ever since the referendum decision.

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Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), will the Secretary of State ask those involved in building on and encouraging the work on the northern forest to look at the national forest in the midlands as an exemplar? Some 8.5 million trees have been planted there since its inception.

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Under a Labour Government.

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) makes an admirable point. I hope to visit her constituency and others to see the wonderful work that has been done. A comment was made from a sedentary position by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and I am very happy to acknowledge that leadership has been shown by Labour politicians as well. [Interruption.] Forgive me, it was the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh). Labour speaks with one voice on this matter—though not on any others. Coalfield communities have been helped on their journey towards revival by the investment in woodland cover, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough has been a hugely effective champion of that.

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I know it will be hard, but will the Secretary of State sign a pledge to give up on any gimmickry or tokenism in tackling things such as plastic pollution? He will need a lot of allies and a lot of expertise for the radical revolution that he needs. Will he be serious about this and get on with the job?

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May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the excellent work he has done on the environment, but will he reassure the farmers of the UK that it is not a case of either the environment or food production, but a partnership of them both?

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I could not have put it better myself. Our farmers are the original friends of the earth, and we will not have a healthy environment unless we also support those who are our primary food producers and the stewards of our beautiful landscapes.

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How can we be confident of the Government’s intention to be robust on air quality if we leave the EU, when they refuse to introduce a decent scrappage scheme for vehicles and persist in promoting runway 3 at Heathrow?

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Air quality is actually improving. We have made good progress and we want to do more, particularly on roadside NO2 concentrations. The hon. Lady should welcome the initiatives we have taken. Just this week, the House has approved extra powers to make sure that we get rid of or reduce the capacity of diesel generators, which will do a lot to improve air quality right across the country.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Financial Regulation

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1. To ask the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, what recent assessment the commission has made of the effectiveness of the regulation of (a) election expenses and (b) donations to political parties. [903523]

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The Electoral Commission reported on political finance regulation at the June 2017 general election in November 2017. It highlighted important areas for the Government and Parliament to improve election law and transparency in political finance. The commission’s recommendations include increasing the maximum penalty that it can impose for a breach of the rules, extending the imprint requirement for campaign materials to include online campaigning, and changing the law to allow for transparency of political donations in Northern Ireland.

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After the 2015 general election, the Tory party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats were all fined for misreporting election expenses, and the Liberal Democrats continue to play fast and loose with how they allocate expenses between local and national campaigns. Does the hon. Lady agree with the Electoral Commission that the fines are no longer suitable, and that urgent action must be taken to ensure that the penalty matches the crime?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the commission’s recommendation to increase the maximum penalty that it can impose on political parties and other campaigners for a breach of the political finance rules. There is a risk that a maximum fine of £20,000 per offence could be seen as the cost of doing business, and the commission’s view is that monetary policy should be more proportionate to the income and expenditure of larger and well-funded campaigners.

Church Commissioners

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

Marriage Registration

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2. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what assessment the Church of England has made of the potential merits of proposals in the Registration of Marriage Bill to enable a mother’s details to be recorded on marriage certificates. [903524]

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I must declare an interest because I am promoting the Bill that would enable a mother’s details to be recorded in the registration of marriages, and I will introduce it for the second time on 23 February. More importantly, the Bishop of St Albans will introduce an identical Bill in the House of Lords tomorrow. The House could not have a stronger demonstration of how much the Church of England would welcome this change.

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I congratulate the right hon. Lady on promoting the Bill. One way that women have been written out of history is by not having what work they have done in the past recorded on official documents such as a marriage certificates. I very much support what she is doing, but can anything else be done to promote the Bill and get Government support?

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We are doing our very best. On 31 December, I was encouraged to read in The Sunday Times that a Home Office spokesman had told that newspaper that the Bill had been “signed off”. I hope that might mean that the Government will give the Bill time when it comes here from the Lords, as I am sure it will. We all want this to happen. It would put an end to an anachronism, and we would all cheer that. Many mothers who have weddings in the offing would like this change to happen in time for their children’s marriages.

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In a society where marriage break-ups and relationship breakdowns happen daily, we welcome the right hon. Lady’s assertion that it is now time to include the mother’s details on the marriage certificate. Will she outline a legal timescale for that, and say when it might be completed?

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As things stand, an identical private Member’s Bill is being introduced in both Houses—that is a pincer movement to try to make this happen. This is only the fifth time that the House has attempted to get this important change to a law that dates back to 1853. If the Government were to give the Bill time in the House, that would speed up that change to the law. I hope that the statement from the Home Office on new year’s eve has some substance behind it, and that the Bill will soon be given time in the House.

House of Commons Commission

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Electronic Voting

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3. To ask the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, what estimate the Commission has made of the potential cost of introducing electronic voting in the Chamber. [903526]

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The Commission has given no formal consideration to a move to electronic voting in the House. Its responsibility in that matter is limited to the financial or staffing implications of any change to the present system, were a change to be agreed by the House.

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The voting system here is a bit crazy, Mr Speaker: last week, we spent two hours on eight votes. Most other Parliaments in the world would laugh at that—indeed, they do. Given that MPs do value meeting each other in the Lobbies, can we consider a hybrid system so that we move to something electronic when there is more than one vote? That would save those two hours.

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I have some sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but as I am sure he—now an expert in these matters—knows, this is a matter for the House. If he chose to, he could approach the Procedure Committee and ask it to look at this issue.

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We do have a sort of electronic voting now because the Clerks are using iPads—but using the iPads takes longer than using the pieces of paper of the past because it takes more time to spot the individual names.

I still support our going through the Lobbies—it is a good opportunity to meet Ministers and other colleagues—but it would be good if every vote did not take 16 minutes. Would it not be a good idea to consider some swifter form of technology for the Division Lobbies? We could use a fingerprint or thumbprint to vote.

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The hon. Gentleman has made a sensible point, which I am happy to take back in considering whether the electronic voting that he has described could speed things up.

Church Commissioners

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

Religious Vocations

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4. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what recent assessment the Church of England has made of trends in the number of its religious vocations. [903527]

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I know that my right hon. Friend has a great interest in this subject because he asked me about the training of ordinands in April last year. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that an additional 44 candidates have presented for training as ordained ministers, making a total of 544 in training. That means that we are well on our way to our target of 750 a year by 2020.

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As so many clerks retire, what will be the future age profile of my right hon. Friend’s holy orders?

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Like a lot of institutions, we face the prospect of large numbers of older clergy retiring at the same time as a result of previous pushes to increase the number of people being ordained and entering ministry. I am delighted to say, however, that the number of younger ordinands in the under-32 age group rose by nearly two fifths and now accounts for almost a third of the total.

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I was disappointed to hear recently from the head of Uber that only 5% of Uber drivers are women. What is the gender balance among the ordinands the right hon. Lady mentioned in the statement she just made?

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The hon. Gentleman has always been assiduous in asking about gender balance. I am delighted to be able to say that the intake of female ordinands has seen an increase of 19% compared with last year. Although women make up only a third of the fully ordained clergy in place at the moment, we are moving, like other professions, towards 50:50.

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In the diocese of Gloucester it would seem that as soon as we fill one vacancy, another arises. Bishop Rachel is working very hard, but the situation can be sorted only if we bring more people forward for training. What is the Church of England doing to enable that to happen?

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We celebrated the introduction of Bishop Rachel as the first female bishop following the change in the law. We now have a female bishop for Newcastle sitting in the Lords, and very recently a female bishop for London was appointed. There is clear evidence of progress, and there is a method of positive discrimination whereby dioceses eligible to be represented in the Lords are encouraged to appoint a woman so that the Lords moves towards better representation of female bishops.

Gay Conversion Therapy

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5. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what discussions the Church of England has had with the Government as a result of the General Synod’s call to ban gay conversion therapy. [903528]

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Following all meetings of the General Synod, it is standard practice for the clerk to the General Synod to inform the appropriate Department. That was done on 21 July following the vote at the Synod to ban conversion therapy. A response was received from the relevant Minister on 24 August.

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It would be helpful if we knew a little more about what that response actually said. As the right hon. Lady will know, this so-called therapy does dreadful damage to young people emotionally and psychologically; its ban is long overdue. The sponsor of the excellent motion in the General Synod has asked for a meeting with the relevant Minister, but that has been refused. I hope that the right hon. Lady will intervene on her behalf.

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I am obviously not responsible for the Government’s decision, but the General Synod voted clearly and unequivocally to ban gay conversion therapy. I can share some of the contents of the letter that the Minister wrote to me. The Government are strongly against the practice of so-called reparative or conversion therapy. They have no current plans to ban or restrict it through legislation, because existing voluntary registers already provide safeguards for the public, but I will certainly assist in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests by writing to the Minister.

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More widely, in some parishes anti-gay prejudice masquerades as theology. What further action can be taken to tackle that?

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The leadership of the Church of England could not be clearer on this point. Archbishop Justin managed to secure a commitment to stamp out homophobia throughout the Anglican communion, when all the bishops were convened here in London. It has been established unequivocally, from the top of the Church all the way down, that homophobia has no place in the Anglian communion.

Christians: Middle East

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6. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what support the Church of England is giving to Christian communities in the middle east as a result of attacks on those communities during Christmas 2017. [903530]

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8. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what support the Church of England is giving to Christian communities in the middle east as a result of attacks on those communities during Christmas 2017. [903532]

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The Church of England is in regular contact with the diocese of Jerusalem and the diocese of Egypt with North Africa and the Horn of Africa. I am pleased to report that the news from the region was comparatively positive over Christmas, especially when compared with that of only a few months ago.

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Yesterday, I had a not only interesting but humbling experience when I visited the Holocaust Survivors Centre in my constituency. Many of the people there were actually survivors of the holocaust—the Shoah. Does my right hon. Friend accept that those people are not only concerned about attacks in other countries on the basis of religion, but feel that we need to do more to help the Egyptian Government to prevent such attacks, which are, effectively, a form of genocide?

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The proximity of Holocaust Memorial Day reminds all of us that, sadly, such atrocities are ongoing in our world, and that people are persecuted for their faith. Egypt was relatively quiet over Christmas—quieter than in recent months—but it is the ancient Coptic Church in that country for which we, as fellow Christians, fear. It is a fact that Egypt has moved from 21st to 17th on the world watch list of countries about which we should be concerned, not least because of the rise of Daesh there.

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There is growing concern about the level and extent of the persecution of Christians throughout the middle east and north Africa. What representations is the Church of England making to the Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about the disproportionately low number of Christians who are identified for resettlement to western countries?

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We are in regular contact with both the Government and the UNHCR about the plight of persecuted Christians. We wanted to get to the bottom of why the percentage of Christians in refugee camps in a number of these countries is so low. In fact, the Christian diaspora is extensive, and Christians living in other countries where they can help to provide safe havens often enable their relatives to travel over. It is significant that, for example, 30% of Syrian refugees in America are Christian. Christians frequently choose to save themselves in such ways.

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I am in no doubt about the spiritual and pastoral support that the Church of England offers fellow Christians throughout the world, but will the right hon. Lady outline some of the financial or monetary contributions that are made to programmes for those most directly affected?

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Because the Anglican communion has a network of churches throughout the world, it can often provide food and resources, clothing and shelter for persecuted communities who are otherwise very hard to reach. Only yesterday, I met the Bishop of Goma, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who bravely puts his own life on the line to provide essential humanitarian assistance, at his own expense, for the Christians who suffer in his country. That is one of the strengths that the Anglican Church has to offer.

Counter-terrorism

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7. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what counter-terrorism measures are in place to protect Church of England premises; and if she will make a statement. [903531]

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Six cathedrals have received money from the programme launched in July 2016 as the places of worship security funding scheme, which became, in 2017, the vulnerable faith institutions scheme. To get funding, a place of worship has to show evidence that it is vulnerable, and cathedrals have been given up to £45,000 to assist with measures that they need to undertake.

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I thank the right hon. Lady for the interest she has shown in the counter-terrorism measures that York Minster is trying to put in place. However, the funding for its specific work and the planning regulations are inadequate. Will she work with me to try to ensure that worshippers at York Minster are safe?

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Unfortunately, I do not think it is possible retrospectively to reimburse the Minster for the measures it has taken, which I believe are in any event temporary at the moment, but may I share the good practice of the House of Commons, the parliamentary estate, Westminster Abbey and Westminster City Council, which work together to try to make these public spaces safer after the terrible events of last year? I will do everything I can to assist the hon. Lady in getting that kind of good partnership working around York.

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Given that the Church of England is responsible for some iconic sites, the attention given to this work is welcome, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me that those wishing to meet the living God will not find a palisade fence separating them from His house?

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My hon. Friend is right: as Parliament does not wish to turn itself into a fortress because that would cut against what democracy stands for, no more does the Church want so to provide security measures that it becomes a less accessible place to meet with God. That balance has to be struck.

House of Commons Commission

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Contractors: Employment Practice

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9. To ask the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, what steps the Commission is taking to ensure the highest standards of employment practice from contractors working on the Palace of Westminster renewal and maintenance projects. [R] [903533]

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The House service’s contract requirements and terms and conditions make provisions for contractors to provide adequate working conditions for employees. The provisions include health and safety, security, training, remuneration and payment of at least the London living wage to employees if working on the parliamentary estate. The working conditions provided by the contractors must be compliant with relevant legislation and ensure appropriate welfare and maintenance of stable and skilled workforces to ensure successful delivery of our contracts.

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I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer.

Companies such as McAlpine, which is up to its neck in blacklisting, have contracts on the parliamentary site. Since the best form of protection for workers is membership of a strong trade union, will the Commission consider giving named officials of the relevant trade unions security access so they can come in and check to make sure blacklisting is not taking place on these premises?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for advance notice of the supplementary question. I am afraid that the current position is that passes can be issued, for instance by Members, only for a specific purpose in supporting that Member. However, the hon. Gentleman has made a specific request and I undertake to secure a written response to it for him.

Public Accounts Commission

The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—

Leaving the EU

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10. To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, what recent assessment the National Audit Office has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on its work programme. [903534]

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I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission. The NAO work programme, determined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is regularly revised to ensure it reflects current issues. Brexit is a major task for Departments, and some Departments are more affected than others. The NAO is keeping in close touch with Departments as they take forward the implementation task.

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After we leave the EU, we are likely to be still engaged in a number of EU-wide programmes. Will the Public Accounts Commission satisfy itself that the NAO has the requisite powers to continue to investigate Government involvement in those schemes?

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The NAO has a remit to look at all UK public, taxpayers’ money and it has confirmed that it will scrutinise any financial settlement with the EU. The Comptroller and Auditor General has said his first report is due in the spring.