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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
08 March 2018
Volume 637

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Food Producers

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1. What steps his Department is taking to support food producers after the UK leaves the EU. [904248]

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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 regarding 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.

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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?

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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.

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When will a decision be made on the reintroduction of a seasonal workers scheme, so that crops do not rot in the ground this summer?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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How will the Minister ensure that farm subsidies after Brexit will remain targeted at food production?

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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.

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The EU’s common agricultural policy has been a disaster for the British dairy industry, because it has been designed in the interests of French farmers, not British farmers. How can we put that right after Brexit?

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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.

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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?

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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

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2. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on extending the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. [904249]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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4. If he will implement a deposit return scheme for bottles. [904251]

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6. If he will implement a deposit return scheme for bottles. [904253]

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13. If he will implement a deposit return scheme for bottles. [904260]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Let us hear the details.

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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.

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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?

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As ever, my hon. Friend is passionate about this cause; I know that he has been championing it. Of course I applaud those many towns and communities in Cornwall for wanting to do the right thing.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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5. If he will develop agricultural policy and environmental standards for the period after the UK leaves the EU in parallel with trade negotiations with the EU. [904252]

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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.

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I thank the Minister for that answer, but does he agree that there should be a common framework for environmental standards across the whole United Kingdom after Brexit?

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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.

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Park keeper or food producer— whatever the future for farming is going to be, does my hon. Friend agree that it must be possible to earn a living out of farming?

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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.

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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?

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Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have always been consistently clear that we will not lower our high animal welfare standards and high food standards in this country in pursuit of a trade deal.

Marine Environment

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7. What steps the Government are taking to improve the marine environment. [904254]

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9. What steps the Government are taking to improve the marine environment. [904256]

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18. What steps the Government are taking to improve the marine environment. [904265]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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What about coral?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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8. What steps he is taking to support the economic viability of farming after the UK leaves the EU. [904255]

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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?

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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?

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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.

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I am proud that Vale of Evesham asparagus has been granted protected geographical indication status by the EU, which will help to boost its brand recognition and sales. Will PGI status still be recognised post Brexit?

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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.

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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.

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12. Thank you, Mr Speaker. One way to make small farms viable is to add value to their product. I was brought up on a small dairy farm, and my brother is now a successful cheesemaker—it is rather good cheese. Will the Minister undertake to instruct his officials to encourage small farms to go down this route and, as and when best practice is developed, will it be shared with the Scottish Government, because in my case this is, of course, a devolved matter? [904259]

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The House will be most grateful to the hon. Gentleman, as will the hon. Gentleman’s brother.

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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.

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15. Shropshire farmers are pleased with some of the mood music coming from the Government about the financial support that they will get in a post-Brexit world. Will the Minister or one of his senior officials commit to come to the Shropshire show this year and continue that dialogue with our Shropshire farmers? [904262]

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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.

Animal Welfare

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10. What steps he is taking to improve animal welfare on farms. [904257]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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 Sales

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11. What steps his Department is taking to support the sale of game in shops and restaurants. [904258]

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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.

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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?

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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.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904266]

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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.

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Remainers and leavers agree that one of the very worst aspects 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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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T5. In my constituency, plastic debris is often washed up on the town’s beach, harming the local ecosystem and damaging tourism. Does my hon. Friend agree that reducing plastic waste is essential for the regeneration of Britain’s seaside towns? [904270]

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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.

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T2. The Committee on Toxicity is reviewing the most recent research on folic acid. If it advises the Government that the maximum recommended intake should be increased or abolished, will the Minister commit to following the scientific evidence, and successful practice in other countries, by amending bread and flour regulations to require the fortification of flour with folic acid, which reduces neural tube defects? [904267]

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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.

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T6. What has the Minister done to stop our songbirds from being trapped and eaten in Cyprus? [904271]

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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.

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I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman does not represent a migratory species, and I doubt that proposition would be the subject of a Division of the House.

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T3. In the light of the Secretary of State’s warning to water companies to address public concerns on prices, is he aware of the nine water companies that are committed to the Keep Me Posted campaign to ensure that consumers have the right to choose paper bills and statements? [904268]

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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.

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T7. Earlier this week, thousands of my constituents had their water shut off by Southern Water due to poor winter preparedness. What discussions has the Department had with the water industry and Ofwat, the regulator, to ensure that this does not happen in future winters? [904272]

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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.

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T4. The Command Paper includes the line:“We will adopt a trade approach which promotes… lower prices for consumers”,which I find rather worrying. Is it not the case that food prices are already historically low? Lower prices will not do anything for British farmers. We need good-quality, affordable and healthy food, not a race to the bottom to get ever cheaper food. [904269]

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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.

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T8. Given the intention to use public money to promote public good, does my hon. Friend agree that as well as rewarding farmers for looking after the environment, we should support growers who contribute to public health by growing healthy fruit and vegetables? [904273]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Last week’s Brexit paper referred to the availability of food, but made zero reference to the scandal that one in 12 British adults had gone a whole day without it. Why do the Government not care about people going hungry?

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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.

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The Minister will be aware of the concern expressed by Northern Ireland farmers and other food producers about cross-border trade. Does the Minister agree that we need an arrangement that will accommodate everyone?

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I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. I met him and a number of others yesterday to discuss the particular challenges of the Northern Ireland border, and I can reassure him that the Government are fully apprised of that concern.

Public Accounts Commission

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

National Audit Office: Single-use Plastics

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1. To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, what steps the National Audit Office is taking to reduce the use of single-use plastics in that organisation. [904238]

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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.

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Will my hon. Friend encourage the NAO to be an exemplar for all public bodies by eliminating the use of single-use plastics?

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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?

Church Commissioners

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

Church Investors Group

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3. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what proposals the Church Commissioners have as part of the Church Investors Group for holding businesses to account on executive pay and climate change measures. [904240]

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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.

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Will the right hon. Lady set out in a little more detail the approach that the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that businesses take the issue of climate change very seriously?

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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

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4. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to make its buildings available for broadcasting (a) wi-fi and (b) broadband signal to improve connectivity in rural areas. [904241]

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5. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what plans the Church of England has to make its buildings available for broadcasting (a) wi-fi and (b) broadband signal to improve connectivity in rural areas; and if she will make a statement. [904243]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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6. To ask the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, what estimate the Electoral Commission has made of its annual spending on compliance measures for political parties. [904244]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Church Commissioners

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

Environmental Taxation Funding

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7. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps are being taken to encourage churches and other religious institutions to apply for funding from environmental taxation. [904245]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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I am not responsible for the Church in Scotland. The Church Estates Commissioner is responsible only for the Church of England, but I am perfectly prepared to make inquiries on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf with the Church of Scotland.

Homeless People

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8. To ask the right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, what steps the Church of England is taking to support homeless people. [904247]

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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.

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I quote:

“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.

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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.