House of Commons
Thursday 8 March 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Food Producers
As you are aware, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in the United States on departmental business, representing UK interests. I know that he has already written to you about that, and he sends his apologies to the House.
Last week, the Government launched a consultation setting out the policy framework for agriculture after the UK leaves the European Union. This Command Paper outlined a series of proposals to help farmers invest in their farms and become more profitable, to support new entrants coming into the industry and to support collaborative working in areas such as research and development.
There was nearly a state crisis this morning: the pedal came off my bicycle at Vauxhall bridge. I managed to get here just in time.
I very much welcome the Command Paper. It talks much about having a greener and better environment for the future, but does the Minister agree that part of that agriculture paper must include the means of production—good-quality production—and our being able to increase, rather than decrease, the food that we grow in this country as we go forward with a new British agricultural policy?
I very much agree with the points that my hon. Friend makes. He and I both have a background in the farming industry, and we recognise the importance of this strategically vital industry for our country. He will know that we have a manifesto commitment to grow our agriculture industry and produce more food. Our consultation outlines a number of proposals, including improving both our productivity and research and development.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this is an issue on which the Home Office leads. We have regular discussions with Home Office colleagues on these matters and we feed in the feedback that we get from industry on this matter. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear in his speech to the National Farmers Union, we are looking closely at the idea of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme, so that we can have the labour that we need after we leave the European Union.
Most of the food produced and processed in my Cleethorpes constituency is reliant on good supplies of fish. Can the Minister give an absolute assurance that the fishing industry will not be sold out in these negotiations as it was in the 1970s?
We have consistently been clear that when we leave the European Union, we leave the common fisheries policy. Under international law—the UN convention on the law of the sea—we then become an independent coastal state, and we will manage the fisheries resources in our exclusive economic zone and manage access to our own waters.
We have been clear that we will maintain the total spending that we have on agriculture and the farmed environment until 2022. We have also been clear—our paper sets this out—that there will be a transitional period as we move from an incoherent system of area payments, which we have now, to one that is focused on the delivery of public goods. We recognise that there will need to be a gradual transition from the old system to the new.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The common agricultural policy has all sorts of inconsistencies. Having a one-size-fits-all agricultural policy for the whole European Union makes no sense at all, and as we leave the European Union and take back control of these matters, we will have the freedom to design an agricultural policy that works for our own farmers.
May I say first how relieved I am that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) made it here today to ask this important question?
When the Secretary of State looks at how best to support food producers, he should be aware that the figures of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that 64% of farmers earn less than £10,000 a year and that eight supermarkets control almost 95% of the food retail market. Recent figures also show that farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce that is sold in supermarkets. Can the Secretary of State—or the Minister today—tell me, please, what he is doing to tackle this clearly inequitable and unsustainable situation?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. If we want to move to a position in which farmers are no longer dependent on subsidies, it is important that we support farmers to come together collaboratively, to strengthen their position in the supply chain and ensure that they get a fairer price for the food that they produce. We recently outlined a series of proposals for a statutory code on dairy and a statutory approach to carcase classification for sheep, together with a range of other options.
Groceries Code Adjudicator
I have had regular dialogue with Ministers in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy regarding the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, and we recently had a call for evidence on the matter. In our response on 16 February to that call for evidence, we set out a range of measures to improve fairness in the supply chain and strengthen the position of farmers and small producers.
I am the unpaid chair of the trustees of the Fairtrade organisation Traidcraft. There were high hopes across the Chamber of a stronger Groceries Code Adjudicator to protect suppliers from unfair practices, such as last-minute cancellations of orders and unexplained deductions from invoices. Ministers started consulting, I think, 18 months ago on possible changes. The farming Command Paper last month promised fairness in the supply chain, but hopes were dashed with the announcement last month that there would be no change to the adjudicator’s remit. Why are Ministers failing to take action?
I do not accept that there was no change. As I said a little earlier, we have announced a package of measures. It includes a £10 million collaboration fund to help farmers and small producers to come together, compulsory milk contracts legislation to protect dairy farmers, compulsory sheep carcase classification, a commitment to making supply chain data easier to access to improve transparency and market integrity and a commitment to reviewing whether more grocery retailers should come under the GCA’s remit.
I hear what the Minister says, but given that the vast majority of producers and consumers are very keen for the Groceries Code Adjudicator to be strengthened, why will he not do so? The Opposition are very happy to help if he says that he is prepared to strengthen the code.
When we looked at the evidence, we found that a lot of it concerned particularly vulnerable sectors, such as dairy and some of the other livestock sectors, which often end up becoming price takers because they do not have sufficient strength to deal with large processors. It was less an issue of the supermarkets and more an issue of the processors. We have decided that a better way to take this forward is to introduce other statutory codes that target the problem, rather than trying to change the GCA’s remit.
Bottle Deposit Return Scheme
Last autumn, an independent working group was set up, as part of the litter strategy for England, to hold a call for evidence on measures to reduce littering of drinks containers and promote recycling. That included seeking evidence on the costs, benefits and impacts of deposit return schemes. I have recently received the report, and I am considering the recommendations.
We know that in this country, 15 million plastic bottles a day are not recycled. We also know that a deposit return scheme can increase recycling rates, and I hope that the Government will introduce such a scheme after this report. May I urge them to introduce a scheme that applies to all drinks containers, of all sizes and from all sale locations, rather than a scheme that applies only to on-the-go containers from kiosks and vending machines?
Part of the evidence that was submitted reflects the fact that councils offer a comprehensive recycling service at the kerbside. I am delighted to say that Rotherham has finally agreed to start collecting plastic bottles. We need to consider the approach carefully. I think that there is an appetite for a DRS, but the schemes that we have seen in other parts of Europe are very different, and we need a scheme that works for this country and achieves the outcomes that we all seek.
Like many colleagues, I have pledged to “pass on plastic”. For too many of my constituents, doing so is impossible because their streets and their lives are inundated with a flood of plastic bottles, bags, food trays and crisp packets, turning their environment into a dumping ground. Will the Minister take action urgently and stop denying local authorities such as Newcastle City Council the powers and the resources to tackle the problem? Frankly, right now on the environment, this Government are rubbish.
I think that question was a complete waste of space. The hon. Lady refers to powers. The Government have given councils the powers that they have been asking for to tackle littering and waste crime, so I think she is being rather ungenerous about the progress that is being made. Plastic has a role in safe packaging, but it has become endemic. That is why we are considering it carefully in the resources and waste strategy, which we intend to publish later this year.
We have litter-picking groups across my constituency, and we see loads of areas where plastic bottles and glass bottles are dumped. Will the Minister commit now to introducing a deposit return scheme for plastic and all other containers, so that we can avoid this plague of plastic?
Let us be clear: the people who drop litter are litter louts. I reiterate my phrase, “Don’t be a tosser!” because it does not help society to drop litter anywhere and everywhere. Let us get real about how we need to tackle that. I commend the work that Keep Britain Tidy does in encouraging litter collections. However, the hon. Lady is right: we need to sort this issue out in the first place. That is why DRS is being considered very carefully as part of our resources waste strategy.
On International Women’s Day, I would like to be a bit more consensual and ask the Minister to applaud the campaign by our female colleagues to give up plastics for Lent and the Church of England’s initiative on practical suggestions for something that we can do on every one of the 40 days. Has the Minister given up something plastic for Lent? Will she join us in writing to manufacturers for whom there is no alternative to plastic to encourage them to find a sustainable solution?
Of course a Church Commissioner would call upon God and the Church of England to inspire us. I am also one of the people who has taken the pledge to try to give up something plastic for Lent. I pledged to carry a water bottle around in my handbag—I am not going to produce a prop, Mr Speaker—and I have had to sacrifice my Marmite in the Tea Room because it is only sold in plastic sachets. We are all looking forward to the proposals from Parliament, because this does matter. The campaigns on passing on plastic and giving up plastic for Lent are partly about behavioural change among consumers. I believe that companies are starting to respond and we are starting to see changes, but the more consumers demand this, the quicker action will happen in the marketplace. I assure the House that this Government will take action.
A deposit return scheme is not just about raising recycling rates; it is also about educating and raising awareness among the public about the need to be responsible. In that vein, will the Minister join me in praising the many towns across Cornwall—Newquay, Falmouth, Penzance, Bude, and many others—that have declared their aims to become single-use plastic free? Does she agree that Cornwall is leading the way in raising awareness of this issue?
Is my hon. Friend aware that in Ashbourne over the past four days, tens of thousands of plastic bottles of water have been handed out by Severn Trent because of its failure to reconnect the water supply? At the moment, the compensation level is £30 a day, which is woefully inadequate. Will she look at the specific case surrounding Ashbourne?
As I announced to the House the other day, I have asked Ofwat to undertake a review. I have also encouraged water companies to improve the compensation that they could discretionally offer. I expect that Severn Trent is already responding to the call from my right hon. Friend.
The plastic that we see on our beaches and at our roadsides is what brings this to people’s attention, but in fact the plastic particles that we do not see should be of the greatest concern. A recent BBC report found that in 1 litre of melted Arctic sea ice there were 234 plastic particles. Surely, that should be why we treat this urgently. If the Minister is consulting on this, it should be about how we do it, not if.
This Government have taken strong action on banning microplastics from certain products. We are still waiting for the other nations, but they have committed to making sure that that happens by June as well. On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the Arctic ice, this is indeed a global matter. That is why we work hard with other nations through different forums, whether the OSPAR Commission on the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic, the G7, other agencies such as the United Nations, or of course our Commonwealth countries, which will be visiting the UK next month for the summit.
Leaving the EU: Policy Development
Our approach to future environment policy was set out in our recently published 25-year environment plan; our approach to future agriculture policy was published in our consultation last week; and our approach to trade negotiations with the EU was outlined in a speech by the Prime Minister last week. All these policies are being developed at the same time.
As the hon. Lady will be aware, through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, we are initially bringing across all existing EU legislation as it pertains to the environment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also outlined plans for a new environmental body, and we are in discussion with the devolved Administrations about their involvement and a UK framework in these matters.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who has a lot of experience in these matters and an understanding of the industry. He is absolutely right. There will be parts of the country where some farmers choose to do more by way of delivering environmental outcomes, and in other parts they may focus more on food production. Either way, we want a vibrant, profitable farming industry across our country.
In the Prime Minister’s speech last Friday, she said that there would be no compromise on environmental standards and animal welfare standards, which was welcome. What guarantees can the Minister give to Welsh and UK farm producers that they will not be disadvantaged by lower-standard food entering the UK market following post-Brexit trade deals?
Our seas and oceans are an integral part of our history, economy and way of life, and the “Blue Planet” series drew attention to how they are under threat. The UK marine strategy, which was reinforced in the 25-year environment plan, shows what we are doing to reduce harmful pressures and manage activities that have an impact on the marine environment.
Our fishermen are strong custodians of the marine environment, and fishing communities in Moray such as Buckie, Burghead and Lossiemouth—to name but a few—are looking forward to this Government taking us out of the disastrous common fisheries policy. Does the Minister agree that leaving the European Union will provide fishermen in Moray, Scotland and the UK with a sea of opportunity, part of which will be protecting the marine environment to ensure that it supports the fishing industry for many years to come?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reinforced in the Mansion House speech, we will be leaving the common fisheries policy next year when we leave the European Union, and that gives us an opportunity as an independent coastal state to manage sustainably the fisheries that we have.
The Final Straw Solent is a new community group in my constituency whose objective is to reduce plastic use and clean up our local coastlines. Will the Minister join me in congratulating that group on its work and encourage more community groups like it to continue protecting and improving our marine environment?
I commend the organisers of the Final Straw Solent. It matters that we have local action. Of course, we want to have wider action to stop people dropping their litter in the first place. On International Women’s Day, we should also look across the other side of the Solent to Dame Ellen MacArthur, who is best known for her wonderful sailing record but should also be known as a true champion for the environment. Through her foundation, she is doing a lot of work to make sure we reduce our use of plastics and improve the circular economy.
Not many people know this, but we have some of the most spectacular cold-water coral reefs in the world in these fair islands. They are a protected feature of the Canyons marine conservation zone, and the Scottish Government are also protecting coral in some of their marine protected areas. We have re-engaged with the international coral reef initiative and will seek ways to promote its importance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month.
May I beg the Minister not to be too parochial? This is a global challenge for all our lives. We have a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting coming up in London. Is it not about time that she and her boss went there to make common cause across the 52 nations to do something on a global scale that is meaningful?
There are now 53 Commonwealth nations since the Gambia rejoined last month. We are working together with other Commonwealth nations through the Commonwealth Secretariat to have an ambitious blue charter that will focus on the challenges the hon. Gentleman sets out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is right that the threats to our oceans are international, not national. It is good to take action on plastics locally, but plastics in the sea, the acidification threatening coral reefs and many other things call for international action. What leadership will this Government give at that level?
I would like to think that the UK is the international leader on these issues. As I said to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), this is an international matter: all this literally moves around the world. I have recently been to the United States and Canada, and we are working on this with Canada, which has the G7 presidency this year. We are leading the way on dealing with ocean acidification, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is very much at the top of the agenda for this Government.
At the last EFRA questions on 25 January, I said to the Secretary of State:
“the question for fishing, given all the tonnes he will take from the European Union, is this: where is it going, and when?”
The Secretary of State answered:
“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.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 396.]
I said, “Good dodge”, and he replied, “Thank you.” Today, I wonder whether we can get an answer to the question with no dodge. Given all the tonnes the UK Government tell fishermen they will take from the European Union, where is it going, and when?
The Government are, of course, still seeking a trade deal, but the hon. Gentleman should also be aware of the fact that countries such as Norway and Iceland, which are independent states, have control of their waters and grant access to them. There are annual negotiations for shared stocks, and we will continue to be part of those negotiations.
Leaving the EU: Economic Viability of Farming
Leaving the European Union provides the UK with an opportunity to improve the profitability of the agriculture sector. In our consultation document, we set out an approach to support that objective, and we are seeking the views of the industry on a range of measures to improve the competiveness of the farming sector.
Since it is International Women’s Day, may I take this opportunity to congratulate Minette Batters, who has recently become the first ever woman president of the National Farmers Union?
I join the Minister in that sentiment.
Brexit is by far the greatest threat to Scottish farming. Given that Scotland has proportionately higher rates of common agricultural policy funding than elsewhere and that the types of farming that can take place in Scotland are very specific, will the Minister commit here and now to making sure that no subsidies to Scotland are cut after Brexit?
The hon. Lady will be aware of our intention that agricultural policy and the design of individual schemes will be very much a matter for the devolved Administrations. I look forward to seeing some of the proposals and suggestions that may come from the Scottish Government. We have offered to share our proposals with them so that they can learn from some of our analysis.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Vale of Evesham asparagus obviously has a fantastic reputation across our country and, indeed, around the world. On protected food names, our intention is that the existing legislation will come across through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Third countries can already seek designations for the EU market, and the designations we already have in the UK will be protected through our domestic legislation.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) is surprisingly shy and self-effacing this morning. We are unlikely to reach Question 12, so if the hon. Gentleman wants to favour the House with his thoughts on this question, which is not dissimilar to his own, he is welcome to do so.
We recognise the importance of our small family farms, and we also recognise that some of them may face more challenges in a transition from the old system to the future one. In our paper, we set out detailed proposals on a gradual transition to give them time to prepare, and we also set out a number of measures to help to support productivity, add value and get a fairer price for their products. We would of course be more than happy to share our proposals with the Scottish Government.
I thank my hon. Friend for that invitation, and either I or another Minister would be delighted to attend the Shropshire show, which will be part of this year’s agricultural show programme. It will be an important opportunity for us to engage with the industry.
We are firmly committed to maintaining and improving our world-leading animal welfare standards. Our consultation paper sets out the options we are considering as we leave the EU, such as pilot schemes that offer payments to farmers delivering higher welfare outcomes. We are also producing improved animal welfare codes for meat chickens, laying hens, and pigs.
I thank the Minister for that answer. There are currently circumstances in which someone who has been charged with serious animal welfare offences is able to acquire new livestock, under the guise of it belonging to a partner, in the run-up to their trial. That can result in serious cases of neglect and cruelty, and there has been such a case in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that anybody charged with the most serious type of animal welfare offences should not be allowed to acquire new livestock in the run-up to their trial? Will he meet me and the leader of South Gloucestershire Council to discuss that matter?
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 gives courts the power to impose a disqualification order on anyone found guilty of causing unnecessary suffering to animals. That can disqualify someone not only from owning or keeping animals but, crucially, from having any influence over the way in which an animal is kept. If someone is suspected of breaching the terms of a disqualification order, the matter should be reported to the relevant authorities. My hon. Friend will understand that there is a difference if someone has been charged but not yet prosecuted, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.
The Minister will be aware of long-standing public health concerns about the routine overuse of antibiotics on UK farms, yet we now hear that such use is five times higher on American farms, particularly for US beef production. What conversations is he having with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that opening the markets to US beef does not happen, and that we do not have a public health crisis in this country?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We have made good progress in the UK on reducing our use of antibiotics in agriculture. There have been notable successes in the poultry industry, and the pig sector is also making improvements. In our future agricultural policy, we want to support approaches to livestock husbandry that will enable us to reduce the use of antibiotics further and, as I said earlier, we will not compromise our food and animal welfare standards in pursuit of any trade deal.
Game is an important part of our food heritage, and it is a draw on menus across the UK and served in many establishments. Exports of game meat were worth £9 million in 2016 and £7 million in 2017. We have no specific plans to promote UK game meat, but we continue to raise the profile and reputation of UK food and drink overseas through the Food is GREAT campaign.
The Minister will be aware that the game sector is worth £114 million to the industry back home. I suspect he will also be aware that the European market, in particular in France, has decreased. Is he prepared to consider introducing and promoting game in the far east, especially in China, because that market is just crying out for game for people’s plates?
I regularly take part in trade delegations with the UK Government, and a couple of years ago I attended the Anuga food conference in Cologne, where there was a producer and exporter of UK game meat. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and consider his proposals in this area.
Since the last DEFRA questions, the Department has continued to work on plans for our departure from the European Union and we have published our Command Paper on future agricultural policy. We have laid legislation to introduce mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses, taking forward our agenda to enhance animal welfare. Parliament has also recently debated and passed legislation to strengthen laws on combating litter.
Remainers and leavers agree that one of the very worst aspects of our EU membership is the common fisheries policy. Can the Minister confirm that we are leaving it on 29 March next year, that the British fishing industry can be relaunched as a result, and that he will not trade away our newly re-won sovereignty over fishing in the interests of a wider trade deal?
We have always been clear that when we leave the European Union, we leave the common fisheries policy and become an independent coastal state under international law. There are, of course, always annual negotiations—even for countries outside the EU—to agree an approach on the management of shared stocks, and we envisage that such meetings will continue. I can confirm that the UK Government’s view is that there is a trade discussion to take place. We want a free trade agreement and a fisheries discussion to take place, and we want to take back control of our waters.
Last week’s freezing temperatures caused chaos to water supplies this week. Households in London were among those hardest hit, with customers widely reporting a systemic failure by Thames Water to comply with its legal obligation to provide 10 litres of water per person for every day that a customer is disconnected. Will the Minister confirm that that was the case and, if so, when the Department was notified, as is the requirement? What actions does she intend to take against companies that fail to meet that obligation?
As I said in my recent statement to the House, I have ordered Ofwat to undertake a review of what has been happening. I have asked for a report to be made available—there might be an interim one by the end of this month—and I will be able to update the hon. Lady after that.
I hope that we can ensure that water is getting to customers who are still without connected water supply this week. Given that executives at the top nine water and sewage companies in England earned a combined total of nearly £23 million in 2017 and those companies have paid out £18.1 billion in dividends since 2006, but that Ofwat has already said that taking action on pay, dividends and tax structures is not in its current thinking, what is the Government’s plan to rebalance executive pay with investment in infrastructure and resilience and to get a grip on our water companies if Ofwat has said it does not intend to do so?
As we set out in our strategic policy statement to Ofwat, there is an expectation of the increased investment that needs to be made by the industry, and the price review is under way. Water companies will be coming out with their consultation, but when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the water industry at Water UK a few weeks ago, he read it the riot act. He has said that he will give Ofwat whatever powers it needs so that the water companies will up their game.
Absolutely. As a child I lived in Formby, so I visited Southport many times. My hon. Friend is right that plastic does not belong on the beach or in the sea. I commend the work that has been done, but he will be aware of our ongoing measures to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean and, therefore, being left on our beaches.
The hon. Lady will be aware that this issue is shared between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The former leads on folic acid and we lead on labelling issues. It is the case that there is a complexity in EU law. EU regulations now require that all products that have flour must include labelling. That creates burdensome problems for the industry, but if there is a recommendation, we will look at it sensibly. Once we leave the EU, we will have an opportunity to adopt a slightly different approach.
My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. We are part of an international convention on migratory species. Illegal trapping in Cyprus has been a long-running sore. I commend the Ministry of Defence, police and the armed forces at the sovereign base in Cyprus for working so hard to tackle this issue. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has shown that there has been a 70% fall in the amount of illegal poaching.
Customers can choose to keep paper bills. Water companies, like many other companies, tend to offer a discount if people choose to switch to electronic communication, but I am sure that customers can take this matter up directly through the Consumer Council for Water if it is proving to be a problem.
Officials have been in regular touch with the water companies, and on Tuesday, I convened a meeting of water company chief executives, Ofwat and Water UK. As I announced to the House, I have asked Ofwat to undertake a review to look into the practices that happened.
The point that we are making is that in the long term, there may be opportunities in certain sectors, particularly for food that we are unable to produce in this country, to have lower prices for certain products. However, the hon. Lady makes an important point. Generally, we have low and stable food prices in this country, and countries that are fully dependent on importing all their food tend to have higher prices and less choice.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point—as a former fruit and vegetable grower, I should perhaps declare an interest—and she is absolutely right. We believe that our future policy, in so far as it supports innovation, will be open to the horticulture sector so that it can invest in its future, and we also talk about the importance of promoting nutritious food.
The Government said in court that they considered it sufficient to take
“a pragmatic, less formal approach”
to areas of poor air quality. Portsmouth has consistently breached World Health Organisation guidelines, with 95 premature deaths each year attributed to air pollution. Does the Minister therefore consider it appropriate to take an informal approach to preventing deaths and protecting the health of my constituents?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is selectively quoting from the judgment. However, this Government take air quality very seriously. Portsmouth is expected to be compliant within the next two to three years. The Government have been using the benchmark of a charging clean air zone, which would take at least four years to come into place. The hon. Gentleman might well be shaking his head, but he needs to be working with his council on what it is doing to improve local roads and what it is working on regarding public health. I am sure that he will work alongside Councillor Donna Jones, who is making great efforts to improve air quality.
The EU Commission’s position on fisheries has been widely reported in the last 24 hours. It states that
“existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources should be maintained”.
It also seems to suggest that any future trade deal will be heavily dependent on EU fishermen maintaining the current unfair access to British waters. Agreeing to this position is clearly unacceptable to fishing communities around the UK. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government consider the EU’s position to be just as unacceptable?
Yes. I simply say to my hon. Friend that this is an EU position. It currently benefits considerably from access to UK waters. At the moment, the UK fleet accesses around 100,000 tonnes of fish in EU waters, but the EU accesses 700,000 tonnes of fish in UK waters, so it would say that, wouldn’t it? That is not a position that the UK Government share.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the very serious oil spill stretching from Pymmes brook in my constituency right down the River Lea to the Olympic Park. This has happened for the second time in two years. Is it not time for the Environment Agency, the Canal & River Trust, the local authorities and Thames Water to get together, once they have cleaned up the spill, to see what they can do to prevent such spills?
I have already replied to the right hon. Gentleman about this point through answers to written questions. The Environment Agency has traced the waste oil to a potential polluter, but I cannot give further details due to the ongoing investigation. I assure him that the Environment Agency carries out pollution prevention visits at industrial premises along that area and, of course, we are still working to clean it up.
We do care about people going hungry. We have a number of initiatives to support food banks and ensure that food is redistributed. We are also reforming and improving the benefits system to help people back into work, which is obviously the best option.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
National Audit Office: Single-use Plastics
The National Audit Office takes environmental commitments very seriously. Since 2011 it has operated an environmental management scheme certified by the International Standards Organisation, which includes setting challenging targets to reduce or eliminate waste in a number of areas. The NAO has already taken several steps to minimise the use of single-use plastics. For example, it does not use single-use plastic bottles or water cups, and encourages the use of reusable coffee cups in its staff café by offering a discount on the cost of hot drinks.
My hon. Friend is an exemplar of an assiduous Member of Parliament, and I will certainly encourage the NAO to be an exemplar as well. Let me say in passing that the NAO’s catering team has made a deal with one of its main suppliers to collect and reuse packaging from catering deliveries. Cardboard and single-use plastics have been replaced by reusable plastic crates. Isn’t that marvellous?
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Church Investors Group
The Church Investors Group manages a total fund of £17 billion, approximately £8 billion of which represents the Church Commissioners’ assets. The commissioners have discharged their stewardship responsibilities for a long time by voting on issues including executive remuneration and climate change, and, most recently, adding to the criteria gender diversity on boards, the disclosure of company pay ratios, and the payment of at least the living wage to staff.
That is one of the stewardship responsibilities, and commissioners will vote against chairs of companies if they are assessed as not having made sufficient progress in addressing climate change. I am pleased to be able to share the good news that when a resolution was filed by the Church Commissioners and the New York State Comptroller asking Exxon to report on how its business model would help to tackle climate change, 62.3% of shareholders voted in favour of it despite opposition from the board.
Wi-Fi and Broadband
The Church of England recently signed an accord with the Government to enable churches to improve broadband and mobile connectivity, particularly in rural areas. It sets out how the Church can collaborate with providers to help to achieve that.
The tower of St Peter in Drayton, for example, could really help with connectivity in an area that suffers from a lack of connectivity. Could my right hon. Friend give my constituents some guidance as to how best to find their way through the planning system, to help them make an application in relation to the church?
My hon. Friend’s constituency has seen a significant improvement in broadband coverage, which is currently at 95.5%—up from 19% in 2010. However, there are undoubtedly not spots, and I encourage her to get churches to contact Church House to find out how they can avail themselves of this new opportunity. In this accord, the Church has reached agreement with broadband providers to provide a standard contract to make that easy. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner, for this initiative on working together to get our rural and urban mobile and broadband not spots covered.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her part in securing the accord. On International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to mention Lady St Mary church in Wareham, in my constituency, which is already installing telecommunications equipment in its—or her, I should say—tower. What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage others to follow where Wareham and Dorset are leading?
My hon. Friend is doing a good job of demonstrating to the whole House the difference it can make when we, as Members of Parliament, make our constituents in not spots aware of this new agreement. If Members have churches with tall towers or spires, these can be used to bounce the broadband signal into existing not spots. The example, on International Women’s Day, of the church he refers to gives encouragement to all. I know that the Isle of Purbeck suffers from poorer coverage, and I would encourage him to get the churches in his constituency to apply too.
I hear what the right hon. Lady says, but will she include in the work that the Church is doing churches that have been closed? They are often in the most rural and isolated areas, and their status is sometimes unclear. This could be a very important way in which we could make use of these buildings.
The Church of England has put its entire assets at the disposal of the Government to help crack the problem of the not spots—that includes its churches, its schools and its land, where necessary. For example, we can beam a signal from a church spire to the brow of a hill—the land may belong to the Church—down into the next village, which does not have a signal, and thereby get coverage. Those assets are all bound up in this accord.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her responses. It is really good news that the Church of England is making its buildings available for this purpose. However, does she agree that it is equally important that historical artefacts, which can be displayed tremendously in small parishes in rural communities that have dedicated Royal British Legion facilities, could also be displayed in buildings owned by the Church of England across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
This new accord on wi-fi and mobile coverage will make the churches a hot spot, not a not spot, in communities. That may well bring in people who want to have the benefit of a good signal and, by the way, to discover the wonderful heritage and artefacts that the churches offer. I should add that although this accord has been signed with the Church of England, the Government want to offer the same opportunity to other denominations, because the aim is universal coverage.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—
Political Parties: Compliance
The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to monitor the political finance rules and take all reasonable steps to secure compliance with them. The amount of money spent on compliance measures fluctuates and tends to intensify around electoral events. The full range of this activity includes creating comprehensive guidance for parties, campaigners and candidates; engaging with parties directly; monitoring campaign activity; checking and publishing financial returns from parties; and the enforcement of the rules. In the 2017-18 financial year, the commission’s budget for its political finance and regulation directorate is £2.66 million.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that answer. Will she make the point to the Electoral Commission on our behalf that it is all very well to put these substantial extra compliance costs on to the political parties, but the commission is fully funded by the taxpayer, while political parties have to raise their own finances?
I am sure that officials from the Electoral Commission will have heard the right hon. Gentleman’s comments. The commission provides year-round advice and regularly engages with political parties, as he doubtless knows from his many meetings with the commission in his previous role as Chairman of his party. I am sure that it would welcome the opportunity to discuss any such suggestions with him again.
Following the disgraceful decision by the Government yesterday to keep secret the source of the £425,000 donation to the leave campaign via the Democratic Unionist party, meaning that the public have no idea where that money came from, what more can my hon. Friend and the Electoral Commission do to ensure that we have full transparency in our electoral and democratic system?
The commission welcomes the existing order, which will for the first time provide information about donations and loans received by parties in Northern Ireland. However, the commission also wants to see transparency in donations going back to 2014, as Parliament envisaged, and it would support the Government in laying a further order to provide for full transparency going back to 2014.
Charities and academics are warning the Government that the trials for compulsory voter ID this May could risk disenfranchising large numbers of vulnerable people. How will the Electoral Commission monitor these pilots, which are a disproportionate response to the scale of electoral fraud?
My hon. Friend makes an important point on the pilots that the UK Government are carrying out in the forthcoming elections. No one wants to see voters turned away from polling stations, but the extent to which voters in pilot areas are unable to vote on 3 May, and why that is the case, will be key elements of the commission’s statutory evaluation of the pilot schemes. I am sure that the commission will want to hear directly from anyone who finds themselves affected as a result.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Environmental Taxation Funding
The national Church institutions provide advice to churches and cathedrals on what funding is available. The Church Buildings Council is also able to advise parishes on a number of other funds that are available besides the landfill communities fund, which is the principal source, such as the new plastic bag tax fund.
Many of the churches and other religious buildings that I am aware of are relatively ignorant about the large amount of money from landfill tax that Entrust controls. If the Churches and religious institutions are engaged in broader community activities, they will qualify for such funds. Could that be made more widely known?
The fact that the hon. Gentleman has made us aware of that fact in the House, and that it will be recorded in Hansard, is extremely helpful. The landfill communities fund has spent £106 million on the restoration of places of worship since it was created, but the relatively new plastic bags tax fund is another source of funds for places of worship in our constituencies and goes beyond the 10-mile radius from a landfill site, which is a constraint on the landfill fund.
We have a large number of church buildings in Scotland, and the burden of maintaining them is onerous for the Churches that own them. Will those Churches be able to apply for similar funding north of the border?
The Church of England has many local parish-based initiatives to support the homeless. The Church also partners with organisations nationally, including Crisis. I think it will be of interest to Members to know that 3,000 people took shelter in churches last winter. That was 53% up on the year before, and I strongly suspect that that number will increase, given the severity of the winter that we have just experienced.
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me”.
We cannot wait until 2027 to see homelessness eliminated, and I would like to know how the Church of England will use its estate more to ensure that people have shelter in the coming year.
The hon. Lady reads that verse, which always challenges me. One day, when I meet my maker and he asks me, “When I was homeless, did you shelter me?” I have to be able to answer, and the best answer that I can give relates to the remarkable growing initiative within the Church for night shelters. During the recent cold snap, churches were often mentioned in the news as places where homeless people could shelter from the conditions, and I pay tribute to my former headmistress, who helped to set up a night shelter at Holy Trinity, Bishop’s Stortford. I went to see for myself how the church had been adapted, with a toilet and shower to make the accommodation suitable, and how volunteers prepared hot meals and were trained to look after the homeless people who came to take shelter.
Mental Health Services: Children and Young People
Not enough scripture is quoted in this House, but I cannot match what was just said. However, I can tell the House that the Care Quality Commission published its “Are we listening? Review of Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services” report this morning, and, yes, we are listening. It was the second piece of work commissioned by the Prime Minister in January 2017 to look at this area of services, and the findings include examples of good or innovative practice and of dedicated people—we thank every one of them—working in every part of the system and a number of areas with strong practice ensuring that patients and families are involved in planning care, but there are also concerns around the join-up between children’s services. We thank the CQC and Dr Paul Lelliott for their work.
The Government have already committed to making available an additional £1.4 billion to improve children and young people’s mental health services to deliver on the commitments in “Future in mind” and NHS England’s five year forward view for mental health, and the CQC welcomes that progress in its report. I know that the hon. Lady and others have worries about this, but spend is reaching the front line. By 2020-21, we have committed to ensuring that 70,000 more children and young people each year will have access to high-quality NHS mental healthcare when they need it. However, there is so much more to do. Claire Murdoch, the national mental health director for NHS England, said in response to the report:
“CAMHS services are now improving, but from a starting point of historic underfunding and legacy understaffing, relative to rapidly growing need”
We see those things across the service.
In December, the Department of Health, jointly with the Department for Education, published “Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision”. That Green Paper responds to a number of the problems raised by the CQC in this report, and sets out a range of proposals to strengthen how schools and specialist NHS mental health services work together and to reduce the amount of time that children and young people have to wait to access specialist help. The proposals are backed by an additional £300 million of funding. We have carried out extensive face-to-face consultation on the Green Paper proposals and have received a high volume of responses to our online consultation, and we thank everyone for that. We will respond to this CQC review, alongside the Green Paper consultation, in the summer.
The report calls for the Secretary of State to use the inter-ministerial group on mental health to guarantee greater collaboration across Departments in prioritising mental health. We agree, and that recommendation is already in hand. The IMG has already contributed to the development of the Green Paper and will continue to provide leadership on the issues that the report raises. The CQC also recommends that everyone who works, volunteers or cares for children and young people is trained in mental health awareness. We are already rolling out mental health first aid training to every secondary school and have committed to rolling out mental health awareness training to all primary schools by 2022. The Government and Ministers remain wholly committed to making mental health everyone’s business and building good mental health for our children and young people.
The report is the latest piece of recent evidence revealing systematic failures in our mental health services. It follows similar reports of the past few weeks that call into question the Government’s claims to have made mental health a priority equal to physical health. In this report, we see evidence of services actively putting up barriers to treatment, resulting in children and young people having to reach crisis point before being able to get access to the right treatment. Children are suffering because of those high eligibility thresholds. We know that 50% of mental health problems develop before the age of 14 and that 75% develop before the age of 18. Does the Minister recognise that imposing high eligibility thresholds means that children and young people are treated only when their condition becomes more serious? These high thresholds are even prompting GPs to tell children to pretend that their mental health is worse than it is. Will the Minister agree to look into referral criteria as a matter of urgency, so that children and young people get the proper treatment at the right time?
The report links these excessively high eligibility thresholds and reductions in access with funding reductions and not enough capacity for services to respond to local needs, so, whatever the Minister says, clearly not enough money is reaching the frontline. Can the Minister tell us how he plans to address that? The report, like the CQC’s recent report on rehabilitation services, raises concerns about out-of-area placements, which we know are a barrier to recovery. Will he tell the House what action is being taken to increase the number of in-patient beds available locally?
Finally, what will the Minister do to address the clear problems, highlighted in this report and others, associated with the rigid transition at age 18 from child and adolescent to adult mental health services, which is also a barrier to accessing care?
The hon. Lady rightly raises the issue of spend reaching the frontline; I said in my opening remarks that it is doing so, and she asked what evidence there was of that. Last year, there was a 20% increase in clinical commissioning group spend on children and young people’s mental health, rising from £516 million in 2015-16 to £619 million in 2016-17.
On the broader issues raised in the hon. Lady’s response, I said that we have made up to £1.4 billion available over five years to support transformation of these services, and there is the additional £300 million that I mentioned. I want to touch on waiting times, referral routes and workforce. We are the first Government to introduce waiting time standards, and that is relevant to children and young people’s mental health, too. We are meeting, or on track to meet, both targets. We will pilot a four-week waiting time for specialist children and young people’s NHS mental health services, as was outlined in the recent Green Paper. As I say, we are considering responses to that.
On referral routes, our Green Paper proposes senior designated leads and mental health support teams—a new workforce—based on the findings of the Department for Education’s schools link pilot. They aim to improve the join-up with specialist services and to result in more appropriate referrals.
The hon. Lady shakes her head; I can only tell her the facts. Health Education England’s workforce plan recognises new ways of working as a cornerstone of delivering these improvements. HEE will also work with our partners to continue the expansion of these newly created roles in mental health services, and to consider the creation of new roles, such as that of early intervention workers, who would focus on child wellbeing as part of a psychiatrist-led team.
Order. Many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind Members that there are business questions immediately after these exchanges, followed by an important statement by the Home Secretary. Thereafter, the debate on International Women’s Day is heavily subscribed, so there is a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike, and I want to move on, whether we have incorporated everybody or not, no later than 11 o’clock. Single-sentence questions are much to be preferred.
I commend the Government for promoting the Emotionally Healthy Schools project, which, in my constituency, is working well and engaging not just children who have challenges, but their families. Does the Minister agree that helping children with their mental health challenges needs to involve, wherever practical, their families, family relationships and inter-parental relationships, as recommended by the Early Intervention Foundation?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a point about families. I said that we are already rolling out mental health first aid training to every secondary school, which is of course important, and we are also committed to rolling out mental health awareness training to all primary schools by 2022, but to coin a phrase, it takes a village. This is about the state—of course, schools are part of that—but also the third sector, which has an important role to play. It is also absolutely about the love, support and Christian embrace of families.
This is a very important issue, especially given that half of mental health problems are established by the age of 14. It is therefore particularly shocking that some children are receiving assistance only after attempting suicide. Claire Murdoch, the national mental health director of NHS England, has stated:
“Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are now improving, but from a starting point of historic under-funding and legacy under-staffing”.
This report is surely an example of the latest reports in recent years demonstrating the impact of this Government’s austerity-driven agenda on public services. By comparison, in Scotland, which had the UK’s first ever dedicated mental health Minister, we have seen staffing for Scotland’s psychology and children and young people’s mental health care services at a record high, with a 79% increase since 2006. Surely as part of the Minister’s response to these findings he will wish to look at the actions being taken in Scotland and learn from them.
We always look at the actions being taken in Scotland and in all the devolved Administrations. The hon. Gentleman is right to touch on prevention, which was the first point he made. The proposals in the Green Paper are focused on providing significant support for schools to develop the work they already do on prevention and early intervention. Today’s report talks about the many good things that are going on and, as I said, some of the things we have already taken forward with the Green Paper. While we are kicking this about, let us just remember in these exchanges that this is about the health of young people in England, whom we all represent.
I am sure my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who is responsible for mental health, will be taking that up as she considers responses to the Green Paper. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) is absolutely right to raise that issue and I thank him for doing so.
With increasing numbers of university students having mental health problems, what action will the Minister take to ensure better joined-up care, with better communication between home and university GPs and student welfare services?
As a former student union president, I think that is a very good point. One key proposal in the Green Paper is about the new mental health support teams, which will be very important in that. The hon. Lady is right to say that they should work across higher education as well as the earlier forms of education.
In the next few weeks, work will begin on the construction of a new mental health residential unit for young people in Cornwall, which is long overdue and much anticipated. It is a clear sign that this Government are investing in young people’s mental health. However, we continue to have a problem with our clinical commissioning group in delivering frontline services, even though the Government are providing more money, so what steps will the Minister take to ensure that CCGs allocate the money provided to those services?
I do not know the specific example that my hon. Friend raises, but he may wish to take it up with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. I did say that there was a 20% increase in clinical commissioning spend for children and young people’s mental health between 2015-16 and 2016-17. We have all been frustrated about spend reaching the frontline, and we have made it very clear that we expect it to do so. I am pleased to see progress in the right trajectory.
These damning findings come three years after we secured £1.25 billion extra over a five-year period. We know that that money has fallen well short of what was committed to three years ago. Will the Minister absolutely commit to make good the shortfall of money getting through to children’s mental health services?
I thank our former ministerial colleague for that. We have not exactly been shy in investing in this area, both when he was a Minister in the Department and now. We have made £1.4 billion available over the five years to support the transformation of services—and the extra £300 million. He says this is a damning report, but we must remember that it is a report we commissioned. We do not hide from these things. The last time I responded to an urgent question from the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) it was on a CQC report on social care. We must not hide from these things and we do not want to bury our heads in the sand. We must recognise and build on the examples of good person-centred care that are taking place in our country at the moment, and that is why we are putting the money behind it. The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue.
I welcome the priority and funding that are coming from my hon. Friend. What is he doing to co-ordinate and support the devolved nations in this regard, such as Scotland where adolescent mental health waiting time targets were actually missed? We want to make sure that no British child is left behind, no matter what part of the UK they live in.
That is an excellent point. I will make sure that my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, is talking, as I know she is, to the devolved Administrations as she considers the responses to the Green Paper, which I am sure include responses from them.
The Care Quality Commission’s review found that children were waiting up to 18 months to receive treatment for their mental health conditions. In Lewisham, the Government are cutting the budget for child and adolescent mental health services by 5%. The Green Paper will not help children currently waiting. What will the Government do to address this?
I am sure that both sides of the House will welcome the commitment to 21,000 more personnel in mental health service provision by 2021, but can the Minister assure me that this will lead to more children accessing mental health services within the four-week target period?
We talked about testing the four-week target in the Green Paper—it was one of its key pillars—and we hope to pilot the idea to test the impact of our additional investment on reducing waiting times. We will then assess the benefits and challenges and provide information on how the waiting time standard should be adapted to avoid perverse incentives—around thresholds, for instance.
The Minister’s description of mental health provision will not be recognised by anyone providing or using services. Does he think that cutting the funding for the north west boroughs partnership year on year since 2011 has led to improved services for young people in St Helens?
As I have said, we will be considering the four-week pilot as part of the Green Paper. We want to see these mental health first-aiders in schools, and as soon as we can give my hon. Friend an exact timetable on the situation Crawley, as well as elsewhere, I am sure that my colleague the Under-Secretary will do so.
Some 75% of mental health problems start before the age of 18, but less than 10% of funding goes to young people. What can the Minister do to prioritise more funding for CAMHS?
As I have said, the overall budget is the money we have promised in the Green Paper, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Green Paper has at its heart a focus on prevention and significant support—in early years, through schools and, as the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) mentioned, through higher education—to prevent issues from snowballing in the first place.
With the understaffing of mental health services and the recent Health Select Committee report on the nursing shortage, does the Minister accept that the Government’s decision to remove nursing bursaries, which has particularly affected the number of students training to be mental health nurses, was a mistake?
No, I do not accept that it was a mistake. We need to increase the number of people coming into nursing, and we were turning away far too many who wanted to come into it. The workforce is obviously a huge challenge across the NHS, in primary care—my area—in secondary care and, of course, in mental health, which is why the Secretary of State has said we will create 21,000 new posts by 2021 to support one of the biggest expansions in mental health services in Europe.
The Minister will know from his own background that primary care does not always have the necessary expertise in mental health. How will he guarantee that every GP surgery will have the necessary capacity to deliver excellence in mental health services for our young people?
That is a good point—and one that sits at the centre of my portfolio. GPs are generalists. As the Minister for cancer, I know that there is always criticism of their specialism in that, but, by their very nature, GPs cannot be specialists in everything. That is why the mental health support teams, which are at the heart of the proposal in the Green Paper, are a key part of our strategy, and we expect them to work closely with GPs and the Royal College of General Practitioners to upskill GPs, working within the multi-disciplinary teams, to help young people when they need that help.
Tomorrow, I am meeting the chief executive of my local mental health trust because we are so desperately worried about the mental health provision for young people in York. We are not only short of staff but short of resources. It takes time to train mental health staff, so what are the Government going to do in the interim to ensure that we have staff in the service?
I hope that when the hon. Lady meets that person in her constituency tomorrow she will recognise the good work that is going on and the number of people who are going over and above to deliver the services to children and people. I should also say that one of her responsibilities as a Member of Parliament, as it is ours as Ministers, is to see to it that the sustainability and transformation partnerships in her area collaborate with all the various organisations in her constituency and that the traditional health and social care services are joined up with schools, police, probation services and mental health services, because ultimately it is one NHS.
Will the Minister listen more carefully to the voice of parents? All my experience as chair of the Westminster Commission on Autism tells me that if parents think there is something wrong with their child—whether it is a mental health challenge or autism—they want early diagnosis and treatment, and they want it at the standard that they have in Sweden.
I am very aware of the hon. Gentleman’s work on the Westminster Commission on Autism—he has a big event coming up in the next few weeks that I hope to go to. I completely agree with him, which is why it was so welcome that the CQC report highlighted Government proposals such as establishing dedicated mental health support teams in schools.
That is an excellent point. The NHS is very good at sharing best practice; the challenge comes in implementing it. The report rightly says that there are very good examples of good person-centred care throughout the country. The challenge is to make sure that is rolled out everywhere. I suppose the answer is to focus on the workforce and the investment, and to make sure that we have in place the agreed strategy to take the sector with us and do that.
Business of the House
The business for next week will include:
Monday 12 March—Remaining stages of the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 13 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his spring statement, followed by debate on motions relating to universal credit, children and young persons and social security.
Wednesday 14 March—General debate on European affairs (day 1).
Thursday 15 March—Conclusion of general debate on European affairs (day 2).
Friday 16 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 19 March will include:
Monday 19 March—Second Reading of the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [Lords], followed by debate on Welsh affairs.
Today, Parliament is flying the flag for International Women’s Day. This year is particularly special, as we mark the centenary of some women getting the right to vote. We will be celebrating women’s achievements throughout the year. I hope that all Members will host an Equalitea party in their constituencies during the summer, to celebrate democratic equality and, yes, the opportunity to have cake and eat it. We have achieved much, but there is a long way to go. Today, the Home Office has launched a consultation on our proposals for a new domestic violence Bill, which will tackle the plight of the nearly 2 million people—mainly women—living with violence.
Today, as we think about opportunities for women, I feel lucky to have not one, not two, not even three but four brilliant female apprentices in my private office and parliamentary office. I know many Members are marking National Apprenticeship Week; speaking from my own experiences, I encourage any Member, and every business, to offer the valuable experience of an apprenticeship to talented young people.
Lastly, this week sees the birthday of our own resident rock star: the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I hear that he is 21 again, although I might be confusing that with his majority. [Laughter.] I am sure he is not much older than that. I hope the whole House will join me in wishing him a very happy birthday for tomorrow.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business and also for her speech—I wonder whether that will happen every time. I am pleased that, despite telling me that statements would not be announced in the House, she has actually announced the date of the spring statement. It is an important statement, and it is business of the House. Is there any reason why the Leader of the House is announcing the business just one week and a day at a time? That seems to be a change, too.
I asked last week about the legislation on restoration and renewal—when is that likely to come to the House? There was a good turnout for the debate on the issue, and every day that goes by when we do not do something, further costs are incurred. I also asked when the Trade Bill was likely to come back to the House, and she did not answer. It seems like all the important legislation is delayed. Is this Government-lite—is this basically a no-business Government?
I do thank the Leader of the House for finding time for a debate on the statutory instruments that the Opposition have prayed against. The only one that is outstanding is on early-day motion 937, which deals with the regulations on abolishing nursing bursaries for post-graduate nursing students.
[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 136), dated 5 February 2018, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6 February, be annulled.]
There has been a 33% fall in applications for nursing degrees. That helps women returners, but perhaps the Chancellor might make a concession on bursaries in the spring statement. Immediately after that, when we debate the statutory instruments, people will see that they include cuts to free school meals; an end to childcare vouchers; an end to free childcare for all two-year-olds and families on universal credit; and universal credit regulations that will affect self-employed and disabled people. Perhaps that is what we get with a woman Prime Minister!
May I ask for some other debates? The Liaison Committee has nominated for a debate the Environmental Audit Committee’s reports on plastic bottles, published on 22 December, and on disposable coffee cups, published on 5 January. Can the Leader of the House find time for that debate, and for a debate on the announcement by the President of the United States on tariffs on our steel and aluminium?
We have a sitting Friday on 16 March. I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware that, on a previous Friday, a closure motion was moved after only two hours of debate, actually stopping the Opposition spokesperson speaking. If she looks at the Official Report, she will see that she was stopped in mid-speech. Can the Leader of the House confirm whether that will be the norm, in which case we will need to warn the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), who is second on the list, that his Bill will come up much more quickly than it would have done before?
The Leader of the House promised the list of ministerial responsibilities in March. It is now 8 March, so can we have that, please?
We have two days of debate on the UK’s exit from the European Union. Will there be further allotted days, or can the Opposition dare to dream that we will have our Opposition day? We have not had one since January.
Despite the fact that the Prime Minister’s speech to the Mansion House was 6,800 words, she gave only 2,000 words to the House. I feel robbed, Mr Speaker—I do not know about you. We will need a third allotted day as we come up to the year of triggering article 50 on 29 March and the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement on 10 April. The Prime Minister said to the House on Monday that the Government are looking at customs arrangements around the world, including on the border between the United States and Canada, but the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, who has actually visited that border, said that that
“is definitely not a solution that we can possibly entertain.”
What about the former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, who has criticised the Prime Minister’s speech? He said:
“Why is it that after 18 months since the referendum we have not got any closer with these issues? The answer is simple: because no one has got any answer about how to do it.”
If the Prime Minister’s speech were a recipe for a cake, you would not be able to bake it—even if it was a cherry Genoa cake, or a double cherry Genoa cake. If it were a road map, it would be a road map to nowhere.
I join the Leader of the House in wishing everybody a happy International Women’s Day. Mr Speaker, you have been absolutely fantastic, because you have your reference group. In 2010, before I came to this House, I watched the evidence at the Speaker’s conference on parliamentary inclusion, and I think it made a huge difference. On this International Women’s Day, I must say that women consultants in the NHS have earned on average nearly £14,000 a year less than men. The House of Commons Library briefing said that women were paying a “disproportionate” price for balancing the Government’s books—86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women. There may be a woman Prime Minister, but the Leader of the Opposition is a person of deeds. His shadow Cabinet is 50% women, whereas the Cabinet is only 26% women. The Opposition are leading the way with the representation of women; we make up 45% of the parliamentary party.
As it is International Women’s Day, may I ask the Leader of the House to make representations to the Foreign Secretary about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? If France can provide an exhibition to Iran, please will the Leader of the House urge the Foreign Secretary to make representations on the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as he could have done before Christmas? In addition, more schoolgirls have been kidnapped in Nigeria.
On the day on which the National Audit Office has published a report that talks about cuts of almost 50% to local government services, I want to thank all the public services for their hard work over this period of inclement weather. They have protected us and made sure that we are all safe.
I certainly join the hon. Lady in thanking all those who worked so hard during the period of really difficult and challenging weather, as well as those who had to bear the brunt of it when they were sitting on trains that could not move because of the weather. Everyone should be congratulated on their efforts and community spirit.
The hon. Lady raised a number of legislative issues. I am glad that she did so, because she often asks about policy issues, which are not technically a matter for business questions. She asked about legislation on restoration and renewal. As she knows, because she is on the House of Commons Commission, which I updated only last week, we will be introducing legislation on the establishment of a delivery authority and a sponsor body as soon as possible.
On the Trade Bill, we discussed last week the fact that several amendments have been tabled. The Government are considering them carefully, as it is right to do. As I have always said in this Chamber, we will always consider amendments that are tabled to try to improve legislation as we enter into the important decision to leave the European Union and take steps to prepare ourselves in the best possible way. I am glad that the hon. Lady is happy about the statutory instrument debates. We will be having them next week, as she requested last week.
The hon. Lady asked about nursing training places. She will be aware that there will be an increase of 25%—the biggest increase ever. She also raises the question of plastics and what we are doing about them. I hope that she has signed up, as I have done, to plastic-free Lent. That is an attempt to minimise the use of single-use plastics during the Lent period and an opportunity for us to highlight the importance of reducing our use of plastics. Of course, the Government’s record on that is very good, with the determination in our 25-year environment plan to be the first generation that leaves our environment in a better state than we found it in.
The hon. Lady asks about the talk coming out of the United States on tariffs on steel and aluminium. We are very concerned about that. As she will be aware, we in the UK have made social and economic factors part of the consideration for public sector procurement of steel. We have commissioned research to identify high-value opportunities for UK steel worth up to nearly £4 billion a year by 2030, and we have taken great steps since 2013 to support our steel sector with the costs of renewables and climate change policies. The hon. Lady is right to raise concerns about US policy in this area, and the Prime Minister spoke with President Trump recently and raised our deep concern about his forthcoming announcement on steel and aluminium tariffs. The Prime Minister has noted that multilateral action is the only way to resolve the problem of global overcapacity in all parties’ interests.
The hon. Lady asked again about ministerial responsibilities. I can tell her that the list will be forthcoming as soon as possible, once the positions have been confirmed and clarified with all Departments.
The hon. Lady asked about the debates on the European Union, and I think she is happy that we are having them. They are, of course, in response to the request from many right hon. and hon. Members to be able to talk in general terms about their ideas and proposals for how we should leave the European Union. We had a very important speech from the Prime Minister last week, and the EU Council, where we hope to secure an implementation period, is coming up soon. Now is a very good time for all hon. and right hon. Members to put forward their thoughts and views.
Finally, the hon. Lady asks for representations about Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe. She is absolutely right to raise that case, which we are very concerned about. She will know that the Foreign Secretary raised it with the Foreign Minister of Iran when he had the opportunity to do so, and the Foreign Office continues to do that at every opportunity.
I associate myself with the birthday wishes to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), whom I regard as an hon. Friend.
On 2 February this year, my private Member’s Bill, the Parking (Code of Practice) Bill, received its Second Reading thanks to support from the Government, the official Opposition and the Scottish National party, for which I am obliged. However, the Bill cannot proceed any further until a ways and means motion is tabled. Will the Leader of the House speak to our mutual friend the Patronage Secretary—the Chief Whip—and hopefully agree with him that it should be tabled sooner rather than later?
My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. The Government have expressed support for a number of private Members’ Bills so far this Session, and we continue to work with the Members in charge. That will include bringing forward money resolutions on a case-by-case basis in the usual way.
In offering my best birthday wishes to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) for tomorrow, perhaps I can borrow the legendary observation to me from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) and apply it to the hon. Gentleman: fortunately he is not yet at the age at which the cost of the candles exceeds the cost of the cake.
Thank you very much for that, Mr Speaker. I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week and for her very kind birthday wishes. Birthdays nowadays are more to be noted than celebrated—as are majorities of 21.
I, too, wholeheartedly welcome International Women’s Day and pay tribute to all the incredible women throughout history who have contributed so much to progress in our communities, while acknowledging that we have still so much to do to reach the truly equal society to which we should all aspire. I am sure that the whole House, like half the world, saw the incredible speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) yesterday on misogyny: a powerful, profound personal account of some of the misogynistic abuse that she has suffered just for being a young woman in politics. On International Women’s Day, will the Leader of the House at least consider making misogyny a hate crime and proactively legislating to ensuring that we could start to make this part of the history of the women’s movement in this country?
On Saturday, the Scottish National party is having a day of action against Royal Bank of Scotland branch closures—an issue that continues to upset and concern communities we represent. The Scottish Affairs Committee, which I chair, has finally secured RBS’s chief executive officer, Ross McEwan, to come before us to answer questions about this closure programme. However, the one group of people we have not heard from and who still refuse to speak to us are the majority shareholder—this Government. The Government are the stewards of the public interest in this. Will the Leader of the House therefore join me in insisting that Treasury Ministers agree to come before the Scottish Affairs Committee to answer questions about what they are doing to represent our interests?
We need a statement on the emerging constitutional crisis on Brexit. The Government now say that they will push ahead with amendments to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill without any agreement from the Scottish Government, who are still progressing their continuity Bill. The BBC says that it has a letter in which the Government say that they cannot counter the “power grab” claims. Perhaps they cannot do that because a power grab is exactly what it is.
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, I am very appalled, as I think all hon. Members are, to hear of the experiences of his colleague, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black). I sincerely apologise to her, on behalf of everybody here, for the appalling abuse she has received: it is utterly unacceptable. Of course, in my role as Leader of the House of Commons, if she wanted to come and talk to me I would be very happy to do so to see whether there is anything specific I can do for her.
As the hon. Gentleman knows and as you know, Mr Speaker, we have worked tirelessly, cross-party, to put in place our independent complaints procedure. I am not sure whether, if that were up and running today, it would have gone some way towards improving the hon. Lady’s situation. However, I certainly hope that our commitment across this House and in the other place to stamping out abuse and making our Parliament one of the best places to work and be employed in will stand us in good stead for the future.
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, about RBS, I am very aware of the grave concerns about bank closures expressed on a number of occasions by Opposition Members. He will be aware that these are commercial decisions. There are procedures to go through before a bank decides to close, such as consultation with local communities. I point out that one of his hon. Friends has an Adjournment debate on banking in Scotland next week, on 14 March, and I am sure he will want to take part in that.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman raised the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and the Scottish National party’s continuity Bill. It is the Government’s position that the EU withdrawal Bill will provide consistency across the UK to ensure that all parts of the UK are ready for our departure from the EU. We are still hopeful that we can reach agreement with the devolved Administrations on the Bill in the coming weeks.
In a recent debate in the Lords on the family test, which is perhaps better called the family impact assessment, there was good cross-party support for Lord Farmer’s private Member’s Bill promoting a more satisfactory application of the test than currently appears to be the case, from several questions I have asked of Departments recently. Will the Leader of the House facilitate the safe passage of that Bill in the other place by liaising with the Leader of the House of Lords, so that it can be brought to this House for consideration as soon as possible?
First, I would like to commend and congratulate my hon. Friend for the amazing work she does across the parties and the Houses on supporting families. I totally share her desire to see the strengthening of families of all types. In particular, I know that she shares my concern for the importance of early attachment and giving every baby the best start in life. I absolutely support her desire to see the family test carefully applied and would be delighted to meet her to discuss how I can specifically help her.
I note from the Leader of the House’s statement that the Backbench Business Committee has been given a holiday from days for Backbench Business debates. We have a number of outstanding applications waiting for time allocation, and I therefore hope that we will get some time before the Easter recess to get some of those unheard debates timetabled.
I am afraid that the chickens have come home to roost with regard to the membership of the Backbench Business Committee. Despite the fact that we had three members present on Tuesday, that is not quorate for our Committee. We require four, although we currently only have six members. We hope that the cavalry will come over the hill from the Conservative party, as there are two members missing at the moment. Will the Leader of the House look again at the quorum of the Backbench Business Committee? On a Committee of eight, a quorum of four seems excessive.
I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is Government time next week for a Welsh affairs debate. As he will recall, we were all disappointed on St David’s day when, owing to the awful weather and the need for Members to get home before the train stations closed and so on, the debate was cancelled. I was at the No. 10 reception for St David’s day and we sadly missed out on the Welsh school choir, who could not get there. That was a great shame. We were delighted to offer Government time for that debate to continue to take place, notwithstanding that it is not under the hon. Gentleman’s Committee, but in Government time. I will of course ensure that I make representations where necessary for his outstanding applications.
I have discussed with colleagues what we can do to facilitate extra Conservative Members on the Backbench Business Committee and will continue to press for that. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me on the quorum, I am happy to look at that matter seriously.
You will know, Mr Speaker, that this House only works if conventions are followed. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) mentioned a private Member’s Bill. My private Member’s Bill passed its Second Reading on 1 December, and another one about constituencies passed its Second Reading on that day. Both were unopposed. Unfortunately, more than three months later, no money resolutions have been forthcoming. There can be only one private Member’s Bill in Committee at any one time. There is none in Committee because of this. This looks to be an obstruction of the private Member’s Bill system by the Government. I am sure that that is not the case—well, I am not sure that that is not the case. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement next week, so that this can be discussed?
Earlier, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) asked a question about migratory species, and in the course of the delivery of the question from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), a number of Opposition Members noted that he has migrated from his usual seat to his new seat. I do not think any particular significance need be read into that, and I should assure the House that even if it is thought to be unusual—